Black – 13.7

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I flew, Chicken Little remanded back to the care of Tattletale with the shortest possible explanation.  If she was so smart, she could figure me out.

In the first minute of flight, I’d told Rain to enforce the communications blackout for anything short of ambulances needing to be called.  That had been ten minutes ago.  I wasn’t even sure if I trusted ambulances, or Rain’s call.

Then… silence.  Music seemed like a distraction, so I got the rush of wind past the Wretch instead.  I got the replays of conversations from earlier, with Big Picture and Ratcatcher included.  I felt like I’d betrayed Sveta in a way by trying to give Big Picture the benefit of a doubt, and I felt like I’d betrayed myself because I hadn’t succeeded in finding any ground I could stand on where I could make sense of his actions.  I prided myself on being a scholar, but people couldn’t be studied without becoming comfortable with a lot of gray areas, definitions, and unknowns, and I wasn’t that good at that.

What was my saying?  Do what was right, do what was legal, do what I could do without regrets?  ‘Right’ was where it went out the window because it felt wrong.  It was disturbing, being in that studio, but not in a way where I could say rights, as in human rights, had been explicitly and intentionally violated.  Fine, then default to law.  Was it legal?  It walked a line because ‘law’ included a right for victims to stand up to wrongdoers, and Case Fifty-Threes couldn’t.  The courts had never been the kindest to parahumans.  They couldn’t sue and they couldn’t step in or ask for rights or for their art not to be displayed when he took art he’d told them was for himself only or for a select audience and made it part of a gallery showing.  He seemed to revel in that space between art and pornography, a space where it was also technically legal but pretty damn questionable beyond the technical.

Putting me smack dab in the ‘regret’ column.

On that same topic, I regretted not being just a little more protected against the cold.  My mind was on the coat I’d picked up and put down while at the Wardens’ ‘bunker’.  Cold got to me even though I had the Wretch up, a creeping loss of warmth inside me as the environment eroded at my stores of energy.

I was cold and there was nothing I could do.

My friend was hurting and there was nothing I could do.

In the distance, I could see the shape of the Dauntless Titan.  ‘Kronos’.  Where portals riddled the city, taller than some buildings, slices of another sky against our sky, the titan was pure white, unmoving, with only a periodic distortion around it.  The Simurgh came and went, and when she came, the light seemed just a little darker in the area around her roosting point.

He existed in Shin, and Shin was concerned.  He existed in Bet.  He existed in Earth N, in the corner world ‘Q’, and other scattered realities.  We had every reason to believe he existed in every variant of our world, standing there, ignoring every stimulus, including one of the most evil creatures I knew of.

On a rooftop below me, I saw people burning something in an improvised stove.  I flew close, passing through the smoke and warm air, and saw it was construction material.

Lineups around a block, mid-afternoon.  In the summer and fall it had been to buy the latest line of clothes or tech, when options were so few and far between.  We’d peaked over the fall where a bunch of new options landed, and then… this.  A paradigm shift that came with the colder weather.  I was willing to bet the line was for food.  To stock up and prepare.

There were streets where people shuffled forward on foot, the sidewalks so clogged that people were forced to go the speed of the slowest person.  Some people walked in the road.

We weren’t at the hard part yet, but the bite of last winter had been bad enough that people had learned to conserve, prepare, and wait.

But this was going to be different, I was pretty sure.  Last winter had been something we’d collectively endured, with the mindset that we could get through the difficult patches, and if we could make it through then things would be okay.  This winter, the titan loomed on the horizon and the portals shattered the sky.  This winter, we had someone to blame.  Mayor Jeanne Wynn.  Citrine.  I was sure she was trying, and I was sure it wouldn’t be quite enough to satisfy.

Blame was a hell of a thing.

Fuck, I wished I could fly faster, to get to Sveta and Weld in a workable span of time.

Fuck, was I cold.

Fuck this character assassination bullshit, fuck the people who had done it.

I could find my way across the city by the flavor of the buildings.  How densely they were packed together, the style of them.  I had a sense of which materials had come from where, with a lot of the prefab building segments having come from Cheit, a lot of crude materials from Shin, and outright raw materials from Earth N, with processing and industry set up within arm’s reach of the destinations for the end-products they made.

I saw my destination, at a point where the neighborhoods ceased to be places I’d flown over fifty times and became familiar.  I felt the same hollow feeling from earlier, recognizing the stores, restaurants, and the peninsula that was Hollow Point, just over the water from our headquarters.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, but what I saw felt off.  Rain on the ground, leaning against Tristan and Byron’s car.  Tristan out of costume on the fire escape stairs, and Ashley standing in the doorway.

I floated close, because Victoria catch-up was an interruption that stood to make it harder to grasp the immediate situation and its demands.

“Please leave,” Sveta said.  Her voice was tense, breaking slightly.  “Give us a bit.”

“You’re not getting anywhere.  It’s my headquarters too.  Take a break and wait for Victoria or make a decision.”

“Victoria can’t do anything about this,” Sveta said.

“Then who do I call?”

“Nobody.”

“Jessica?”

“Ashley, Swansong, I- I said nobody.  Jessica’s not even doing therapy anymore.  She’s not caught up.  It would be too much to ask.”

“Then who?”

“You’re not listening to me!  You can’t fix this.  This isn’t the sort of thing you fix,” Sveta said.  Her voice broke at the end of the statement.

“Isn’t that a decision on its own?” Weld said, distant, barely audible.

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Sveta said.  “I’m saying it’s not her business.  That’s all.”

“My headquarters, m-” Ashley said.

“You’ve said that,” Sveta said, bitter, annoyed.

“-My friend,” Ashley said.  She took advantage of the pause that followed.  “My, hm, cousin?”

“Cousin?” Sveta asked.  It was like the statement had shaken her from her train of thought.

“We’re all Armstrong’s, in our way.  Should I call him?”

Armstrong.  The PRT director who had de-facto adopted Weld, who had supported Ashley from a distance when she was Damsel of Distress, living in a small town.  Who had accepted Sveta with open arms and, I wasn’t even sure Sveta knew, provided a good chunk of the cash for Sveta’s now-destroyed prosthetic body.

“I didn’t even think about Armstrong,” Sveta said.  I could hear the pain in her voice.  “Can you just leave, Ashley?  Please?  Tristan, I’m guessing you’re in earshot.  Can you-”

I flew in, touching Ashley’s shoulder.  She backed out of the way of the door.

Inside, it was cold, the door had been open for at least a few minutes.

Sveta’s cheeks had been marred, both by tears that weren’t clear but were shot-through with black, and because makeup that had been used to give her a more normal skin tone had been wiped away.  Her tattoo on her cheek was plainly visible.

The headquarters space was a good forty feet across.  We’d picked it for its spaciousness.  A good thirty feet separated Sveta, who stood at the end nearest Chris’s old corner, near the washroom and the tiny kitchen counter.  Weld stood near Kenzie’s console at the ‘head’ of the apartment.

I started forward, saw Sveta move in reaction, and hesitated.  I could see her telling me to leave, or telling me not to approach.  The former would fit with what she’d said to Ashley.  The latter would suggest she didn’t trust herself.

But there was no resistance, no defensiveness.  Without a word spoken, despite the fact she no longer had her unsteady prosthetic body, she teetered slightly my way.  I closed the distance and I hugged her.  She hugged me back tightly enough that nails that had been sculpted into her Precipice-made hands bit into my back.

I didn’t want this to be one-sided, and I didn’t have either side, yet.  Only Rain’s statement.  I wasn’t sure I’d trust anything coming through the phone or any technological medium, anyway.

I turned, and Sveta moved with me.  I looked at Weld, and saw how unhappy he was.

“You okay?” I asked.

“No,” he said.

“Why are they out there and you guys in here?”

“Weld came, we talked, things- we fought.  We were going to leave but we ended up fighting more.  People were staring,” Sveta said.  “We came back.”

And the others left, to give privacy, except for Ashley, who got impatient or didn’t want to let things continue?

“What happened?” I asked.

“Everything was fine,” Weld told me, his voice low.  “As fine as it gets.  Sveta was showing off how she can use a phone.  Which is great.  She saw pictures of me with a teammate.”

“A woman,” Sveta said.

“A teammate,” Weld said.

“Can I?” I asked.  I stopped myself.  “I’m not just asking if I can see.  I’m asking- can I mediate?  Can I help?”

“We said things,” Sveta said, every inch of her face indicating hurt.  “Things we’ve been holding in for a long time, maybe.  I don’t think you can help that.”

Weld averted his gaze when I looked at him.

He hadn’t waited the full six weeks.

“Can I see the pictures?” I asked.

Weld drew his phone from his pocket.  He tossed it.  I had to break the hug with Sveta to be sure I caught it.

The images were still up.  Weld with a girl with black hair, and a skintight suit that… well, there were suits that looked like they were were painted on and it looked like the woman had pointed to one of those and said ‘tighter’.  Every muscle and rib stood out with the black gloss of the costume.  Something hybridizing fins with blades ran along strategic points, tapering down, so cameltoe and nips weren’t quite as obvious, and served to make her look fairly dangerous.

One selfie of her and Weld, with slivers of two other capes on either side to suggest they were sitting on a bench on a plane, helicopter, or truck.  Her head was tilted to rest on Weld’s shoulder, and the selfie was supposed to be focused on the fin-blade at her arm, which was absorbed by Weld.  The caption was a simple ‘stuck to him’.  I used ‘supposed to be’ to refer to the focus, because she had an easy, infectious smile that suggested nothing untoward.

That was just going by smile, though.

“You have to scroll.  Nighttime photos,” Sveta said.  Her voice was as empty as I’d felt earlier, after reading the diary.

I scrolled.  Past photos of this twenty-something woman gardening, more gardening, a faintly unhinged photo of her showing off a cut on her face, post-fight.  Her hanging out with capes.  Her unmasked face was kept out of photos.  Nothing betrayed her secret identity or location.

Then the nighttime photos.  Twenty, twenty five pictures of her at what I took to be a wind-down from a Wardens operation, a bunch of capes, Patrol officers and military-types drinking and lounging in an apartment where one wall and part of the ceiling were glass, giving it an open-air feel.  A good eighteen of those pictures, she was within arm’s reach of Weld.  In four of them she was touching him.  For balance, possibly.  Together, but never quite in a way that suggested they were together.  They could have been friends, but if I’d seen it I wouldn’t have assumed they were friends.

I tapped the photo.  I saw the name above her face.  Slician.  I’d heard of her, but hadn’t ever seen the face to put it to the name.

“Is there context?” I asked.

Weld didn’t volunteer an answer.

“Not exactly,” Sveta said.  “I asked about her, and you know, I may be dumb-”

“You really aren’t,” Weld said, before I could.

“I’m- I don’t know how to put it, then,” Sveta said, quiet.  “Because I feel so fucking ignorant.  I feel like I never get it.  I lost a childhood of memories, and then I spent the next few years killing anyone I might have interacted with, I- I spent the years after that in a hospital, and the time after that with a team that it turned out I never really knew or understood.  When was I supposed to ever learn all of these things that everyone else seems to get?  You know?”

“You do okay,” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But I do know my boyfriend.  I do know when something’s wrong.  I’d like to think I’m good at knowing when he needs space or when he needs someone to talk to.”

“You are,” Weld said.  He looked pained.  “Better than Armstrong, better than any teammate, friend, or girlfriend I’ve had.”

Sveta continued, not to Weld but to me, like she was making an appeal, “I try to look after him.  I try to nag him if he needs nagging, usually if he’s not trying hard enough to push his boundaries and starts falling into a rut.”

I looked at Weld, saw him nodding to himself.

“I know when he’s lying or hiding something,” Sveta finished.

Weld’s nods to himself stopped.  His eyes remained fixed on the floor.

“Did you cheat?” I asked, my voice hard enough that he looked up.

“No,” Sveta said.  “He didn’t.  But he toed the line.  And I knew there was a reason he seemed happier lately.  I asked and he was honest.  He’s always been honest with me.  Not always upfront, but…”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

What did you say, Weld?

I couldn’t ask, because I could see the consequence of that statement.  Fresh hurt on Sveta’s face.  I could see the agitation of her tendrils beneath her wig, and her hand went up to hold it steady.  Her dress stirred, moving like there was a wind, when the door had shut minutes ago.

“Was there something I was supposed to do differently?” Sveta asked.  “Was I unfair?  Did I ask too much?  I’m sorry, if I got it wrong.”

“No,” Weld said.

“I thought we got along.  We have common interests, common goals.  You have your hobbies and I have mine, we- I wasn’t oppressive?  I- didn’t get too in your face or ask too much?”

“No,” Weld said.  “You keep asking that.  We’re going in circles.”

“Because,” Sveta said.  She stopped.  Her hand was at my arm and she squeezed.  “Because if it was that, then it’s something I’m working on, that I can fix.  My sessions with Rain’s power- I’m getting better.  I’m more independent than I’ve ever been.”

“It’s great,” Weld said, glum, not making eye contact again.

“Can you give me more than a few words at a time?  Can you yell at me again?”

“I didn’t yell.”

“Be angry, then.  Hit me with more stuff about me trying to push cooking on you or conflicts of interest between your team and Breakthrough, or… anything?

“Those things don’t matter.  They’re bullshit I threw back at you because you were shouting at me and people were looking.”

The fight that had extended outside.

“I don’t want them to be bullshit.  Because… Victoria, you took University classes at the hospital.  There was this term, in this one language class.  It’s not what’s said, it’s…”

I could see where this was going.  I couldn’t see a way of stopping it.  Or there was a way, but using it now would be taking a side, and that would irrevocably harm my relationship with Sveta, and it wouldn’t help anything.

“Textual silence,” the words left my lips.

“Textual silence.  A journalist writes an article and brings up five bullet points, but it’s a seven bullet point issue.  They left those things out for a reason.  That tells a story of its own.  Did I get that right?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Ignorant old me can get something right,” Sveta said, bitter.

“You’re not-” I started.

She pulled her arm away from my hand.  I stopped talking.

“We’ve ruled everything else out.  It’s because of my body,” she said.

“No,” Weld said.

Tears that were more black than clear now ran down her cheeks.  She wiped at them.

“He’s better at lying than he was years ago,” Sveta said, to me.  Her voice was the kind of hollow that was bubble-fragile, the kind of too-steady normal found on the cusp of being unable to speak at all.  “It’s… really shitty.”

Her voice tremored at the ‘shitty’.

“Hey,” I said.  “Let’s stop here, take a break.  There’s other factors in play.”

She didn’t stop.  “We’re freaks of nature, orphans, amnesiacs, we lost everything and the difference between us is he’s really good looking, he gets to pass, he gets people like Slician.  He gets to kiss actresses on television, and fans crushing on him.  I don’t- I don’t get anything.”

I reached out for Sveta’s arm, and tugged her into a hug.  Her body twisted so she could latch onto me, without the usual stumble or shuffle of feet.  She hugged me tight.

My arms wrapped around cloth and that cloth wrapped around tendrils that were trying and failing to hold the shape of a human torso.

“You’re getting so much better-” Weld started.

I felt Sveta tense, and I pulled a hand away to motion for him to stop.

There wasn’t any salvaging this.

“He gets Armstrong,” Sveta said, more to me now.  “The apartment is more his than mine.  I don’t know where I’m supposed to go tonight.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do about that.”

“We’ll figure something out.  You can stay with Ashley and me.”

“The Case Fifty-Threes hate us, you know.  Actual want-us-to-die hate,” Sveta whispered.  “I don’t get that.  I don’t have that community.  But Weld… he was famous once, he’s popular.  More of them hate me than him.  How is that fair?”

“It’s not,” I told her, “But you’re not alone, okay?  We’ve got your back, here.  Hug.  Come on.”

She started to accept, then stopped.  “I’m out of tears and I’m crying bile.  It’s stinging my eyes.  If I get it on your clothes it’ll stink.”

“Don’t care,” I said.  “Come on.”

Her face hit my shoulder, forehead hitting the bone.

“You said there were other factors in play,” Weld said.  “Your team said there was something fishy going on.  Communications blackout.”

“There is.  Um.  Shit,” I said.  I didn’t want to let Sveta go, but I didn’t want to see Weld leave without the situation being resolved.  Especially with what Tattletale was theorizing about dual-pronged attacks.  “There’s a possibility this was planned, to mess with you.”

“Planned?” Sveta asked, not raising her head from my shoulder.

“There was something on my computer,” I said.  “It looked like it was written by me, but it wasn’t me.  Dragon saw it, she passed it on to Jessica Yamada.”

“What kind of something?” Weld asked.

“Very subtle, but enough to break Jessica’s trust in me, and to break the team’s trust in me.  Tattletale and I found other possible leads.  The fact we were looking might be why this happened, because they wanted to throw us off the scent.  But I’d have to know more to know.”

“I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you’re talking about.  I got a friend invite from Slician,” Sveta said.  “I already turned off my phone’s access to the network.  It was there, waiting, I just don’t see my phone enough to catch it.  I only just got hands that can press buttons on screen without a stylus.”

“The way these guys operate, it’s possible the invite was fake, but in a way that has plausible deniability, where even Slician thinks she could have done it by mistake, or when drunk.  It’s possible the images were altered.”

“Altered?” Weld asked.

“I can talk to you about this after,” I told him.  Sveta felt barely under control under my hands.

“No,” Sveta said.  “Altered?”

“Shrinking the distance, props.  Taking people out of the picture, or altering the people in the background.  Stuff that stands up to scrutiny.”

“I don’t remember her putting her head on my shoulder, but-”

Sveta flinched.

On a level, I could see why that simple little thing in particular hurt.  Because Sveta, prosthetic body or no, control or no, had always had a claim to that.  Even after leaving the hospital, she’d had her head and his shoulder to lean on.

“-but I don’t- I don’t know.  I don’t feel much, so I don’t want to rule anything out.  Half of me wants to say you’re paranoid.  Half of me hopes…”

He didn’t finish the sentence, faltering.

Sveta turned.  “Hopes what?  Does this change anything?  The- that you want to leave me because I’m a monster?”

“That’s not it,” Weld said.

“Then what is?” Sveta asked.  “Tell me you’ve changed and tell me how and okay, that’s going to break my heart, but okay.  I can get over that.  Tell me I did something wrong, something unfixable.  I can get over that.  Tell me I depended too much on you and you see me as a little sister more than a girlfriend.  That you don’t see yourself ever getting over that and seeing me as a girlfriend again?  I can… I can accept that.”

I looked away, blinking tears of my own out of my eyes.

The implication in Sveta’s statements was that these options were good because she could come to terms with them, the flip side being… she couldn’t accept or come to terms with the reality.

“If we know something else is at play, we can avoid playing into their hands, we step back, act like things are normal,” Weld said.

“We don’t know if this is something else,” Sveta said.  “And apparently we’ve been acting like things are normal for a month, because you haven’t been hanging out with Slician for no reason.  What you want, Weld, is to not be the bad guy.  And it’s great you get these mystery villains to blame, but… it doesn’t change the reality.”

“It changes the context.”

“No it doesn’t,” Sveta said.  “Not the context that matters.  You don’t want to be the bad guy, but the only way you get that is if everyone agrees it’s fine to dump your girlfriend because she’s a monster, because she’s disabled-”

“I don’t want to dump you.”

“What do you want!?” Sveta asked, raising her voice.

“Stop,” I said.  “I’m interrupting.  I’m being intrusive and butting in because this doesn’t look like it’s going to end or stop otherwise.”

They stopped.  Sveta didn’t breathe, but with my hand on her back I could feel the pulse of fluids through the organs behind her head, near where her shoulders were.

Weld was statue still, only his face betrayed any emotion.

“Okay?” I asked, trying to gather my thoughts.

“I’m okay with it,” Sveta said, jumping right back into it.  “Fuck it.  I’m the freak, you’re the guy with a heart of literal gold, Weld.  You’re not the bad guy, Weld, you’ve been so good to me.  I’m the one with the problems and I heaped them onto your plate.  You want absolution?  You got it.  You tried and it’s okay.  I’ve got my own shit to deal with and I need to get that done on my own.  So you don’t need to tell me it’s not a breakup and we’re somehow going to stay together, because I know when you’re lying.  I know you that well.”

“You’re not a freak, and that’s not it,” Weld said.

I hated to interrupt again, but I doubted there was anything to be gained from letting this continue, besides bitterness.

“Master-stranger protocols,” I said.

They stopped, looking at me.

“It’s not a set of magic words,” Sveta said.  “You can’t just say them and expect us to just comply.”

“That’s kind of what they are.  I argued for them before, on the phone with Rain.  I’m pushing them now.  We’re not getting anywhere, and I don’t like how this started or why it’s happening.  Protocols.”

Sveta shook her head, but she didn’t speak again.

“Okay,” Weld said.  “What next?”

“Do you have work?”

“Yeah.  Later this afternoon, until ten, might go as long as midnight.”

“Go work.  Talk to the bosses, let them know.  It’s their call.  They should communicate to other teams, verify the rules are in place.  If this is a thing then it’s a thing that’s going to hit other people.  Go.  We’ll go to your apartment, get Sveta’s things, and be gone before you’re back.  I’ll do what I can to look into this thing when I’m free, but I’ll prioritize Sveta for right now.  Yes?”

I looked at Sveta.

She nodded.

I looked at Weld.

He hesitated, then nodded.

“You focus on the threat at hand,” I told Weld.  “Think about who to tell, and be aware that if they are onto us, things are going to get messy.  This is where we see how strong our teams and their human resources are.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Time matters.  Don’t trust digital communication.  They’re playing a subtle game.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “But I’m not entirely sure you haven’t lost it.”

“That’s the subtlety of it,” I said.  “And speaking of subtlety, I’m kind of trying to politely nudge you here to, uh, make your exit.  Let us deal.”

“Got it,” he said.  “Thanks.”

He headed to the door, floorboards creaking beneath him.

“Sorry,” Sveta said, to his back.

“Me too.”

The fire escape creaked precariously as he stepped onto it.

“You have a guest,” he said.

Then he was gone.

“Why did I say sorry?” Sveta asked.  “So stupid.  I didn’t want to say sorry.  I went that entire conversation and two arguments without saying sorry, because I didn’t want to apologize.  I didn’t do anything I wanted to apologize for.”

“It’s okay.  Brain misfires happen.”

“It was my one goal.  The one thing I knew I could hang on to and I just threw it away.  And then he says ‘me too’?  What the hell does he think I should apologize for?”

Her tendrils ruffled beneath her dress.  Some spilled out to grasp at sections of the floor.  I avoided moving, ready to use my forcefield if I had to, but I didn’t want to step away from her side.

“I think I need a control session with Rain,” she said.

“I think a session with Rain right now would be a terrible idea.  Not when you’re off balance.  I’d veto.”

“You can’t veto,” she told me, and her eye contact was damn close to being a glare.

“Can and will.  As a friend.”

She was still ready, riling for a fight, upset and with no place to vent it.  It was reaching the tendrils, but those tendrils weren’t reaching anything or anyone.

The anger faltered, and I saw the hurt creep across her face, the black moisture in her eyes, that she blinked into tears that ran down her cheeks as soon as they appeared.

“It burns,” she said.  “I’m going to go wash my face.  Then I’ll go to the apartment.”

“I’ll come.”

“No,” she said.  “No.  You’ve got to figure this out, and I… if I can’t use Rain for more control then I want to go to my place, my room, and lock the door, and just… lose all control.  Alone.”

“You sure?”

“No,” she said.  “Yes.  But I’ve got to figure out how I’m going forward and I can’t keep leaning on people.  I’ve got to pull my own weight.”

“After a day as shitty as this one, there isn’t a rational, sane soul out there who would blame you for turning to friends or wanting company.”

“Then I guess I’m not rational or sane,” she replied.  She forced a smile, “Kidding.  Half kidding.  And washing my face.”

“Okay,” I said.

I walked over to the window to see who the ‘guest’ was.  Tattletale, who had stepped out of the car, while Snuff remained in the driver’s seat.  No tiny Chicken Little head peering out the window in the backseat, and no birdcage.

The bathroom door shut.

“Um, hi.”

“You were listening?”

“Ashley was trying to listen at the door and you were here, so I thought it might be okay.  Nobody told me not to listen.”

“Communications blackout, Kenz,” I said, turning toward the computer.  “You were told to turn everything off and step away.  This stuff is messy.”

“It’s my own private line and channel.  And I checked everything once I heard why.  I think they can’t get in.”

I sighed.

“The diary isn’t real?” Kenzie asked.

I stared out the window, watching the group and Weld talk to Tattletale.  She pointed at me mid-sentence.

I digested the ramifications of Kenzie’s question.  Fucking what?  When?  How bad was this?

Was it possible to be offended she read my diary when the diary wasn’t real?

“No, Kenzie.  It’s not real.”

“Oh.”

“Did you read it?”

“Uh huh.”

“When?”

“A few weeks back.  I was making sure I had everything I needed for the move, I backed up everyone’s stuff in case some tinker thing I didn’t pay enough attention to or let fall between my desk and the wall went kablooie and took everyone’s computers out with it.  I realized I had it when I did a search for something and it popped up, read a bit before realizing.”

“You read ‘a bit’?”

“I read most of it.  I got lonely while with my new team, even though I’m only technically not a member of Breakthrough anymore.  I missed you guys, I wondered what I missed so I read more.  It’s really not real?”

“No, Kenz.  I didn’t type a word of it.”

“Okay.  That’s too bad.”

“Why- Kenzie, why is it bad?”

“Because… I didn’t feel so lonely while I could read it, and… that’s all fake.  I feel really weird about that.”

“That’s not how I think, Kenzie.  It’s not- definitely not how I think about you.  I care about more than what you can do with your tinkering.”

“I kind of thought that’s how adults think and do things.  Not fun, but it made a lot of sense, after I thought about it for a while.”

Oh fuck.  Fucking shit.  How ingrained was this in her now?

“No,” I told her.  “How long have you been reading this and thinking about this?”

“A couple of weeks.”

“Fuck, Kenz.  No.  That’s not me, and it’s not okay to think that way.  To treat people as chess pieces.”

“Okay, but, if it was you, it’d be okay.  You had my back when it counted and you have it now.  You could do or say whatever and I’d be okay with it, I think.  Unless you actually went and hurt Ashley or anyone else.  Then we’d have to talk seriously about it.”

Talk about it.  Something told me she was entirely serious, that she would be open to being convinced.  No, no, no.  How the hell was I supposed to deprogram her when she wasn’t even around half the time?

“Did you listen in when I talked to Chicken Little earlier?”

“He asked me not to,” she said.  “So I didn’t.  Also, Sveta’s getting out of the bathroom now.  Take care of her, give her a hug and lots of love for me, okay?”

She didn’t wait for a response.  Effectively a hangup.  The computers and monitors went dark, the light on the speaker going out.

What the hell?

The handle clicked, and Sveta stepped out of the washroom, face and hair wet, streaks of tears and ruined makeup gone.  She’d toweled herself dry and applied fresh makeup, covering her scar, but it wasn’t an elaborate, full-face, nor was it the coloring that made her more flesh tone than actual white.

Weld was leaving.  The others were talking.

“Feel any better?” I asked.

“My eyes don’t sting.  My face is clean.  I feel less of a mess.  And… not at all.”

I nodded.

“It physically hurts,” she said.  “But I don’t want to complain or angst.”

“You’re allowed,” I said.

“And I’m choosing not to use that allowance, so there,” she said.  Her voice a little harder and a little more accented than it was on an ordinary day, but otherwise normal-ish.

She was trying so damn hard, and I had no idea how to help her with it.

“Tattletale,” Sveta said, joining me at the window.  Her voice was level, her composure intact.  “How is she, after being carved up and being back in one piece?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “If it’s messing her up any, I don’t think I’ve noticed much.”

“No problems with the mission?  It’s going okay?  You’re going to find these people who apparently went after Weld and my relationship?”

“It’s going… not great.  Turning up leads, but this has been ugly so far.  Very plausible deniability.  One of the people we interviewed was a photographer, you should know.”

“Should I?”

“It’d come across like a betrayal, I think, if I didn’t mention it.  L.J.M.”

Sveta made a face.

Past the window, in the parking lot, Tattletale was standing by her vehicle.  She beckoned.  She wanted me down there.

“Thank you for telling me,” Sveta said, her expression hard.

“He was about as creepy as you’d imagine.”

“I know.  I’ve seen videos and read interviews.  You really should go if she’s asking for you.  Don’t let me hold you back.”

I didn’t want to leave her.  “Come outside?”

She nodded.

I opened the door to let us outside, and flew down rather than take the stairs.  Sveta hopped over the railing, and landed on a morass of tendrils, which were ninety-nine percent covered by her long dress.

We walked past the others.  Tristan gave Sveta a reassuring pat on the shoulder.  Rain ducked his head.

“Resolved?” Ashley asked.

“Yes.”

“Good.  Anything you need,” Ashley said.

“Thank you.”

“She needs a place, at least for a short while.”

“Then she takes my bedroom,” Ashley said.  “I’ll take the couch.”

“Just like that,” Sveta said.

“The two of us were half-adopted by Armstrong.  Basically family.”

“Okay,” was all Sveta had to say.  “I, um, I’m going to see what Tattletale’s saying.”

“Yeah,” Ashley said.

Tristan was quiet throughout, which was odd because on a lot of levels he was closest to Sveta.  They were a similar wavelength, but they’d found kinship through mutual like of Weld.  At the moment, that was iffy.

I could see a point in coming weeks where he helped her on a deeper level, because he could help her process and work her way through details.  He’d even be good at it, with unusually good background in the subject due to the attention he’d paid Weld.

And Rain would help her with her hands and in a peripheral way.  They talked sometimes during the control practice under the umbrella of Rain’s power.

All of that was secondary.  Tattletale was chewing on what looked like a tiny plastic trident from a late lunch, leaning against her ride.

“Be nice,” I said.

“Sucks,” Tattletale told Sveta.

“That’s reaching for ‘nice’,” I told her.

“It does suck,” Sveta said.  “And if you want to test the limits of my newfound control over my body, I think you’re on the right track, reminding me.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Always glad to help with testing or being a convenient target for bitterness,” Tattletale said, glancing my way at the end of the statement.  “Antares, you disappeared on me, and you turned off your phone.  You told me something cryptic in a hurry, like a riddle I was supposed to solve.  I went down the wrong rabbit hole, tried to find your cousin before I realized.”

“My cousin.”

“Someone important, with the word choice, I thought it was family.  Doesn’t matter.  What matter is this is a distraction.  I need to know if I can keep you in the loop or if I should carry on investigating this on my own.”

“After you just said you went down the wrong rabbit hole, I’m not filled with confidence,” Sveta said.

“Down girl.  Down,” Tattletale told her.

“You might have to handle the next parts on your own,” I answered.  “I spent most of that last meeting stewing in how sketchy that guy was, and I wasn’t much use.  Besides, I’ve got to look after a friend.”

“No you don’t,” Sveta said.

“At least to see you home safe.”

“You don’t,” Sveta said.

Tattletale jumped in, saying, “She says you don’t, and I wouldn’t mind a little firepower.  I want to ask people questions but they aren’t entirely friendly people.”

“Who?”

“People who are pulling strings behind the scenes.  Little Midas, maybe the mayor, people in that vein, who play games and who haven’t been getting directly involved.  This is where my years of playing the dastardly mastermind comes in useful.  I know these guys.”

“Why are you wanting to talk to them?”

“Because Big Picture had connections and one of the things those connections wanted was for him to get into Foresight.  I think that’s the double prong.  If it isn’t, talking to those connections of his will show us the second prong.  But talking to them requires having more than Snuff at my back, and anyone else I’d trust is busy watching the kids.”

I thought of Kenzie.  That aborted conversation.

“You go,” Sveta said.

I shook my head.  “No, that’s-”

“You go, and I’ll come with,” Sveta said.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Tattletale took her sweet frigging time in catching up to us.  There was enough time for a concerned citizen to start talking on their phone while looking warily at Chicken Little and the hooded ex-killer Snuff who had been chasing -following- after him, time for me to talk to them while Snuff kept an eye on Ratcatcher, a defusing of the situation with Chicken’s help, and then time for us to get slightly bored.

With a light whistle to get Chicken’s attention, she motioned to the hawks.  “Release one to show goodwill?”

Chicken Little didn’t.  He hung back, on the opposite side of the alley as Ratcatcher, with Snuff standing beside him, one hand at his shoulder.  Ratcatcher had retreated into the building she’d been planning to escape into, mainly for warmth, and I stood at the doorway, keeping it just ajar enough I could keep an eye on her.

Not that she was going anywhere, with Chicken Little holding her pets.

“I’m not sure I can,” Chicken Little said.

Ratcatcher didn’t make a sound, but the bent nose of her mask flicked around in an alarmed way, her head craning to see Chicken Little through the cracked-open doorway.

“Why can’t you?” Tattletale asked.

“Because when you said I had to be nonlethal, that’s something I’ve never done before.  It’s like I plant these flags and the birds go to the flag to do whatever it says on the flag.  Attack, wait, watch out, patrol…”

“Yes… and?”

“And I don’t have a ‘catch but don’t kill’ flag so I just stuck down an ‘attack’ and ‘wait’ flag in the same place and they’re kind of stuck between the two and getting stressed out.  But it worked for them grabbing but not killing.  I can’t really tell one to do one thing and the other to do another, and if I put down more flags they can’t follow because of contradicting orders then they’ll either snap and eat the rats or they’ll both go quiet and let the rats go.”

I put up a hand to ease Ratcatcher.

“Let them both go then,” Ratcatcher said.  “I’ll cooperate.”

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’ll figure this out.”

“They’re my friendth.  I trained them to use the litter boxth, and they bring me thnackth if I’m in bed and I don’t want to get up.  Ratthputin is my betht helper and Templeton is a cuddler.”

“Maybe-” Chicken Little started.

“Don’t cave,” Tattletale warned him.

“Maybe he wasn’t going to cave,” I said.  “If he has a suggestion let him think it through.  It’s his power.”

“I was going to cave,” Chicken said.

Tattletale extended a hand, as if to say ‘see?’.

Well fine, then.

“I’d rather not hurt people’s pets, and I did this because you were rushing me and telling me I had to do it now, I had to learn to think on the fly, and so I did, but now I’m doubting myself.”

“Don’t,” Tattletale said.  “You’re better than you think.”

Ratcatcher wrung her hands while Tattletale talked to her protege.  Her head turned, as if she was considering an escape route, then turned my way, looking me up and down.  As if she was considering an attack.

Fuck.

“Snuff?” I asked.  “Can you watch Ratcatcher?  I’ll help.”

Snuff left Chicken behind to take hold of the door.  I backed away, into the alley, then flew up to where the two hawks roosted on a length of pipe.

This felt weird to do.  I put my hands out, and I gingerly held the rat and the bird’s talon all together.

Feet like a fistful of knives, was that what Chicken Little had said?  Beaks like a sharp, fast moving knife.

With the other hand, I held the rat but not the talon.

“I’ve secured one of the rats.  Try releasing?” I asked.

“You’re sure?”

“I think so.”

I felt the animals move beneath my hands.  With one hand, I ensured a hawk didn’t let go or lose the rat.  With the other, I pulled a rat away.  I suspected they were as clean as any pet, but Ratcatcher was just far enough off the beaten path that I wasn’t ruling out fleas or other hygiene questions.  I was glad for the gloves I wore.

“And secure.  Back to what you were doing before.”

“Okay.  Done.”

I backed off.  One of the two roosting hawks had a rat pinned and gripped in talons.  I carried the other down to Ratcatcher.

“Thank you,” Ratcatcher said.  She lifted the rat up to her shoulder and adjusted her shirt collar so it served as a partial blanket.

Tattletale approached, and we entered the side door of the building, stepping into the hallway and letting the door close behind us.  Snuff and Chicken Little were left to wait outside.

“Where are we?” Tattletale asked.

“Rude messages were sent to the boss while she was drunk.  She doesn’t know if she sent them but it fits her prior behavior.  The messages came from her phone.  We hit a wall.”

“Phone and not computer?  Smart phone?”

Ratcatcher reached down to her pyjama legs, hiked them up, and then pulled checkered knee-high socks down.  The socks were pulled up around a phone, holding it snug to her calf.

“Why not use your pockets?” I asked.

“Running with thomething heavy in my pocketth is a good way to have my pantth fall down.  More comfortable for lying around.”

The phone was the kind that served as a hybrid between a flip-phone and a smartphone, oval and hinged at the top, with up to three ‘windows’ fanning out from the hinge.  Low resolution, and not much depth of color, which marked it as maybe ten years old.  The panes were scratched and the hinge had what looked like a splinter of a shell from a sunflower seed stuck in it.

“Counts as a computer.  Can I look?” Tattletale asked.

Ratcatcher touched the rat that clung to her neck and hid in her tangled hair without looking at it, then nodded, snapping the phone closed, opening it, pressing her thumb to the middle pane, and then handing it over.

“The messages line up to a time you got drunk?” I asked.

“Not thure, but wath it after five?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “I found the first one.  Six p.m..”

“Then yeth.  I wait until five to drink.  They thay you’re thuppothed to wait until later in the day to drink.  That way you’re not an alcoholic.”

“What time do you get up?” I asked.

“Three or four?” Ratcatcher asked, like she was unsure and wanted my verification.

“In the afternoon?” I asked.

“Yep,” she said, with enough affirm in the affirmative that it felt like she was very satisfied the question when she’d asked me the time had some resolution.  “Thleep when I’m tired, eat when I’m hungry, walk when I’m rethtleth.  Annoy people when lonely.  If I’m hired I work the hours I work, thober.”

“Usually sober,” Tattletale murmured.

Ratcatcher considered, then shrugged and nodded.

Tattletale didn’t look up from the phone.  “Were you especially lonely a few weeks ago?  We’re trying to figure out if this was you or something bigger.”

“I have company,” Ratcatcher said, touching the rat at her neck again.

“I’m hearing that as a yes, you were lonely.”

Ratcatcher considered, then nodded again.  The body language was subtly different from the answer about whether she’d been sober.  Less carefree.

“And did you have a prior working history with Countenance?” Tattletale asked.

“This ithn’t fun,” Ratcatcher commented.

“Sorry,” I said.

She shrugged.  The rat stirred, moving around behind her neck to the other shoulder.  “No.  No hithtory.  I had a little bit of a cruth.  You know when you’re in a bad plathe and any boy with a nice voice and cute butt is nice to you, you get hopeth up?”

Not so much, I thought.

“And these messages, you thought about this sort of thing?” Tattletale asked.

“Doeth it matter?”

“We’re not sure you sent them,” I told her.  “People are going around messing with people.  Maybe something more insidious.”

Ratcatcher tilted her head to one side.  The rat perked up, reaching up to her ear.

“Nothing in the data,” Tattletale murmured.  “No weirdness in injections, outgoing data.  No patterns in the static, basically.  This stuff lines up with things you’ve thought before?  Or did it feel off?”

Ratcatcher motioned, and Tattletale handed her back the phone.  Ratcatcher slumped against the wall beside me, putting her rat in fairly close proximity to me.  She held it up so I could see too.

“Yeth, yeth, maybe, yeth, yeth…”

“Clarify?” Tatteltale asked.

Ratcatcher was busy scrolling.

“Uhh,” I said, “Go back?  Okay, so, opening prelude… rats mate more than once a minute, so even if he finishes quickly, he’d have a good thing going.”

“Pickup line,” Ratcatcher said.  “Yeth, thoundth like me.  There’th more.”

“Rat climaxes last five minutes-”

“-pretty thure it’th not true but thoundth good-”

“-which he might find fun, but if he doesn’t want to, ahem, take a rat to bed and attempt the physiologically impossible, he can take a girl instead.”

“Me.  Thatht the pickup line.  Thee?  I rate mythelf an honest three out of five and thay I’ll do thith, becauthe even a bad one ith pretty good, and then no thtringth attached-”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it, I see.”

“And thith part, we’ll thkip thith part, if that’th okay?  Personal.”

“Sure,” I said.  I cupped a hand to block my view of the phone while she scrolled.

“It still reads like you?” Tattletale asked.

“Yeth.  I don’t remember, but I thought about it a lot.  Even wrote thome but never thent them.  Until that night.  He rethpondth here,” she said.

I read it.  This is inappropriate, Ratcatcher.  Drink some water and rest.  We’ll talk about this tomorrow.

Pretty reasonable for a response to unsolicited texts in this vein at five in the morning.

“I apparently thent thome more, thith… leth me.”

Less her?

I read the texts, flinched, and looked away, which meant I was looking at Tattletale, who smirked.

“I thought you liked mice and rats,” I said.

“I do!  I wouldn’t do thomething like that, if you’ll reread it-”

“No thank you.”

“Thome guyth like thith thtuff.  I offer an alternative.  Rather than put a rat, thereth a potthibility of uthing a thnake inthtead.  Theemth more practical, you can hold on to the end of the tail.”

“Thank you for the mental image,” I said, averting my gaze from everything, while I tried to avert my ears from everything at the same time.

“Leth me.  Thnaketh are awful, they’re horrifying and they eat rodentth, but I don’t think I’d do that.  And I don’t think I’d keep texthting him unleth I was very, very drunk.”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “Good.”

“What do you think?” I asked her.

“I think I’m sixty percent certain this is weird.”

Only sixty percent?  I thought, raising an eyebrow.

“…In terms of the weirdness we’re investigating.  If it is weirdness we’re investigating and this isn’t a regular incident, then it’s a fifty percent chance that Ratcatcher here sent the first messages, and they sent everything after he responded to tell her to quit it.”

Ratcatcher reacted to that, head pulling back a bit.

“Otherwise, they fabricated it all.”

“You think that thomeone else thent thethe methageth?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.  “There’s a very good chance that someone else sent these.  Tell me what happened after.”

“I went, they thaid to clean out my locker.  They were nithe about it.  Very polite but very careful.”

“Careful?” I asked.

“By the bookth.  Procedureth in plathe.”

“Has this sort of thing happened to you before?” I asked.

Ratcatcher shrugged, shook her head.   The shake was forceful enough that the bent portion of her mask flipped over to be bent the other way.  “But I’ve been in trouble before.  I get how it goeth.”

“But they’ve had trouble before,” Tattletale said.  “Countenance has.  There’s a history there and this attack was built to attack that weak point.”

“You sound pretty definitive at this point.  No percentages?”

Tattletale shook her head.  “I’m pretty darn sure.”

I looked over at Ratcatcher.  I tapped her phone at the hinge.  “This wasn’t you.”

“Hm,” She made a sound.  Her nose dropped.  “I’m not thure that maketh me feel better.”

“I get it,” I said.  “It’s invasive.  Violating.”

“No,” she said.  “I don’t care about that.  That’th the game we play.”

“It shouldn’t be,” I said.  “I prefer the good old days, when cape against cape fights wouldn’t dig any deeper than the surface level.  Costume against costume, no wounds that went beyond cuts, scrapes and bruises, unless they upped the ante first.”

“That’s stupid,” Tattletale said.  “Nothing’s surface level.  Our powers are intertwined with us, and we’re bringing all of our shit to the table when we go toe to toe with someone.  Pit your powers against their powers, and you’re digging into your own shit while they’re doing the same, going back to what used to be the worst day of your life, you’re flinging that shit.  To win your fights you need to know your enemy, but to do that you can’t stop at the surface.”

“We used to be able to.”

“We used to keep up a charade.”

“And while we were doing that no kids were getting chopped up into wriggling pieces!”

That seemed to give Tattletale pause.

“Point,” she said.

“Thank you.”

“But I think your take is a romantic, fragile one.  We can’t go back there.”

“Believe me, I’m coming to terms with that.  All I’m saying is I miss those days, and I’m going to respect anyone who holds themselves to those standards.  Holding back while doing what needs to be done.”

“I was never good at that,” Tattletale said.  “Surface level.  It’s a good way of putting it, but the tool I was handed is a backhoe.”

Her entire tone had changed, and… if I tracked backward in the conversation, it felt like it had turned around when I’d dropped the ‘wriggling pieces’ line.  Like she respected me more because I’d turned to using a backhoe.

I wasn’t sure I liked that.  That the only way to deal with her was to be an utter bitch.  Where did that take me in the long run?

“Thpeaking of romantic thuff,” Ratcatcher said.  She held up her phone, now all folded up.  “Thtarting with rat factth and ending with putting thnakes up boy’th pooperth-”

“Yeah,” I said.  “No.  No.  You need a friend to give you advice on crafting a better approach.”

“I had advithe from Rathtputin, Templeton, Duthty Rothe and Turnaround.”

“Your rats?”

“Rat, rat, mouse, and booze,” Tattletale clarified.  Ratcatcher nodded vigorously.

“But you guyth thtarted arguing and the thing ith, I don’t care about that thtuff.  I don’t do thecreth.  What thuckth ith that I’ve alwayth thtayed thurfathe level, like you thaid, and that’th why until today, I didn’t think anybody hated me that much.”

Always playing nice, and then someone turns around and delivers a low blow.

I couldn’t say the situation lined up perfectly with my own experiences… or maybe it was better to say that I couldn’t say it lined up perfectly with me, but I felt like we’d -collectively, pre-Gold Morning- tried, and we’d been dealt a low blow.

Part of that dealing had come from someone with a backhoe.

“Sorry,” I said.  “Hopefully our investigation will do something to clear your name.”

Ratcatcher shrugged.

“We should go,” Tattletale said.  “I’m thinking about things and I’m worried.”

I nodded.

“I’m free to go?” Ratcatcher asked.

“Be good, okay?” I told her.  “Whatever you were running from us for-”

“Petty theft,” Tattletale said.  “Grand theft.  Vandalism.  Criminal mischief.  Bit of a backslide since the regular thinker work dried up.”

“…Don’t do that,” I said, a little exasperated, staring past the holes in the paper mask at the eyes behind, wet, large, and guileless.

“Doeth it matter?  I wath being good and it didn’t help.  I had a good thing going and they came for me, attacking my not-tho-thterling reputation.”

“It matters,” I said.  “If not for yourself, do it for your pets.  They need someone to look after them.”

Ratcatcher shrugged.

Tattletale opened the door, and Ratcatcher rocked back, at the cold air.  Tattletale whistled and motioned.

Ratcatcher bent down to scoop up the rat that came bouncing along the floor, running up to her.  It shivered, possibly from shock as much as cold.

Tattletale let the door shut.  She leaned against the frame, arms in her coat pockets.

As Ratcatcher cupped her pet in her hands, I offered, “Do you want a hand?  Your place is next door.  But it’s cold, so I could fly you home, or-”

She was already shaking her head.  She turned away, walking down the hallway into the dimly lit recesses of the building.

“There’s an underground passage connecting buildings,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Okay.”

“It’s better she’s gone.  I can fill you in.  We shouldn’t waste too much time, because I do think she sent initial messages and she was being watched closely enough that the moment she passed out or put her phone down, they were ready to pick up.  Which confirms that they’re watching you closely.  Us.  We.”

“Right,” I said.

“This was a multi-pronged attack, on Ratcatcher’s part, and I think yours would be too.”

“Pronged?”

“Ratcatcher isn’t the key target here,” Tattletale said.

I looked in the direction Ratcatcher went.  I wanted to go grab her by the arm, tell her.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “We’re better off if we keep this contained.  It shapes what they do next, and the less messy this is, the easier it is to get a sense of who we’re fighting.  I’ll be able to get a sense of them by how long it takes them to respond, how they move, where from.”

I felt uneasy at that, and it took me a second to articulate why.

“If you’re willing to keep her in the dark about particulars, are you doing the same thing to me?”

“As long as you stay more or less in my sight and avoid lying to me or giving me misinformation, I don’t need to.  But if we don’t resolve this soon, we’re going to have to part ways, because you have things to look after and so do I… and from that point I’m going to bullshit you.”

I frowned.

“Best you’re going to get, hon.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Ratcatcher was vulnerable and on the fringes, she made a certain kind of target.  But Countenance was the real focus, and he, I’m thinking, has a history of, how should I put it-”

“Rooftop liaisons?” I asked.

“No.  Hooking up with coworkers.  Maybe subordinates, maybe with messy end results, because any parahuman to parahuman interaction gets messy.”

“Some do,” I clarified.  “Some.  Maybe even most.”

“They all end in tears,” Tattletale said.  “And these moves our enemy is making are aimed at pushing things to rushed conclusions on that front.  They chip off anything that’s easy to chip at, and then they drive the chisel deep into the core elements.  Countenance is stable, trusted, and acts as the heart of his team.  This creates a seed of doubt.”

“And after this?”

“Sometime in the future, his past history with coworkers comes out.  A girl that he’s dating breaks away, another teammate, Effervescent, feels slighted.  She’s not the kind of person who would cheat on someone but she’ll be hurt she wasn’t even considered or flirted with.  It’s a schism that disrupts the team.”

And on our end, it’s Jessica?  Someone close to the Wardens?

“The fact we’re being watched means I want to keep a better eye on Chicken,” Tattletale said.  “Any questions you want to ask that you can’t ask in front of him?  Please tell me I don’t need to tell you what’s on and off the table.”

“I’m pretty sure I get it,” I said.  “We protect people besides Chicken, you know.”

“Yes,” Tattletale said, and I had a hard time identifying if she was being sincere.  “We’ll take steps.”

She pushed the door open.  We stepped out into the alley, where Chicken Little, Snuff, about twenty pigeons and crows and two hawks were perched on every available surface.

“Got what we needed.  That went exactly as planned, thank you, Chicken Little.”

Chicken Little hopped off his perch on a stack of construction materials and hurried to catch up as Tattletale headed straight for the neck of the alley.

So my guess was right.  She’d plotted that far ahead.  She’d looked to the future, but I didn’t have the sense now that she was focused on it now.  Her head turned periodically, and her eyes scanned windows and rooftops.

“What’s next?” Chicken Little asked.

“Big Picture,” Tattletale said.  “And while we’re on our way there, we’re shifting to a special kind of yellow alert.  I need you to reach out to your team.  They’re to contact the Undersiders, order an immediate blackout, phones off except for direct lines, no media, no radio, no internet, limit use of cameras, assume all systems are compromised and all outside information is untrustworthy.  Imp passes the message on to the Heartbroken, then goes to your headquarters and protects your team.  Foil and Parian pass it on to our intermediate contacts.  If they’re up for it, they should guard your headquarters too.  Once the message is sent, they blackout too.  That includes Lookout.”

Chicken Little looked my way.

I nodded.

“Why?” Chicken Little asked.

“It’s a vector of attack.  People can use those things to hurt any of us,” I told him.

“Okay.”

“Antares, do I need to state-”

“I’m calling Breakthrough,” I said.  I had my phone out already, and I started dialing as I finished the sentence.

We walked down the street, and with the flock of birds overhead, we were drawing some attention.  Whatever.  Past a certain point, I wasn’t sure it mattered.  Our enemies didn’t seem like they fit into that territory where they were confident enough to pull this off but so incapable of tracking us that the birds made the difference.

If this was Chicken Little’s normal pattern, then it was better if he acted normal.

The phone rang three times before it picked up.

“Sveta here.”

“Hey.  I’m with Tattletale, and something’s come up.  Any weirdness today?”

“Weirdness?  No.  Tristan’s coordinating with other big teams, Rain and I are in the middle of one of my control sessions.  Ashley’s bored so she went for a walk to buy some books.”

In the background, Chicken Little was talking on the phone.  He echoed my question about weirdness.

“Tattletale’s recommending a communications blackout.  In-person only,” I said.

“Master-stranger?” Sveta asked.

You go, Sveta.  You’ve been studying, woo!  “Yes, and you get big points for that one.  Avoid any electronic media or communications.  Keep an eye out for trouble.  Don’t trust anything that’s not face to face.”

“Should Tristan end his call?”

“As soon as is polite.”

“I’ll write him something,” Sveta said.  “I can write him things, I know this situation is serious, but I’m psyched.”

She sounded happy.

“Me too,” I said.  I was so glad she seemed happy and that just made me more worried.

“Fill us in soon,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  We hope to have answers before dinnertime?” I made it a question, looking at Tattletale.  She nodded.  “Before dinner.  For now, just be safe.”

“What about Kenzie?”

“Chicken Little is calling her now.”

“Got it.”

I hung up.  Tattletale was studying me.

“What?”

She shook her head.

“Do you think the responses on the other end were faked?” I asked.

“I don’t think anything yet,” she said.  She glanced around.  “Nobody’s spying on us by usual means.  I’m wondering if it’s a machine.”

“A machine?”

Snuff reached the car first.  He pulled the door open for Tattletale, then for Chicken Little.  Me last.

“It feels like these gears turn slowly.  Inevitably.  If I was a person and I was putting together something this big and this dramatic, and if I was keeping an eye on the key players, I’d be taking action now, trying to ensure I was maintaining control.  I feel like a machine would be slower to process and adapt.  More sure of itself, maybe.”

Snuff pulled us out of the parking spot, as we were still belting in.

“Yes, uh huh, yep,” Chicken Little said.  He hung his head forward, as if he had no strength in his neck.  “Yep.  Got it.  Can I talk to Darlene?  You can make the calls.”

He paused.

“Hi,” he said.  “Look after her?  Keep her busy?  Maybe if she works in the workshop?”

Another pause.

“Thanks.  You’re the best.  Bye.”

He paused, then brought the phone down and found the button to hang up.

“Problem with Lookout?” I asked.

“Not a big thing,” he said.  “Was worried she’d freak out without the ability to stay in contact with everyone, so Darlene’s going to keep her company and keep her busy.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  “I know she has a few things she’s working on.”

“When I said I wanted to talk before, it’s kind of this.  Um.  If that’s okay?”

“Sure,” I said.

He reached up to his mask and undid clasps.  He lowered the round mask to his lap.  His face had bent bars molded to run along his face to his cheekbone and forehead, with parts jutting out where it connected to the mask.  He looked just a bit older than I’d been imagining him, his forehead creased in worry.  He folded his hands over his mask, and I shifted position to better face him, both of my hands at one of my knees.

Tattletale glanced back at the back seat of the car, noting the unmasking, but didn’t say anything.

“She’s a little… um, much,” Chicken Little said.

“She can be,” I said.

“And I say that when I hang out with the Heartbroken and a lot of them are much.  Different kinds.”

“Yep,” I said.

“It’s like… when I’m on the phone, there’s never a chance to hang up.  So I have to interrupt and hang up, and then I feel like the bad guy.  Or I ask for Darlene and I worry I’m being a manipulative bad guy.”

“She doesn’t see you as the bad guy, if that helps.”

“I know.  I mean, I know but I don’t feel, you know?”

“I feel you.  Yeah, absolutely.”

“And if I want to spend a while doing my own thing then she’s there, looking over my shoulder or sending me a message or saying hi.  And I like her but-”

“You resent her at the same time?”

“No,” Chicken Little said.  “But I see where I might be starting to or I might, soon, when the fun of everything being new with our team wears off.  And I don’t want to be that person who pushes her away too hard.  I don’t want to be that kind of person.”

“Most people don’t think about who they want to be except in the broadest strokes until they’re a bit older,” I said.  A teenager, but let’s not drive home how young you really are.  “Before that, it’s… big goals like wanting to be a superhero, or wanting to be an athlete.”

“I’ve had people bugging me about who I want to be and how I want to act since years ago, when I got my power,” Chicken Little said.  He rolled his eyes in an overdramatic way, before coming to a stop, looking at the back of Tattletale’s seat.

“Bugging you.  I’m glad my hard work is appreciated,” Tattletale said.  She was wearing sunglasses that lined up pretty well with the eyeholes of her mask.

“It is!  But it was a lot.  And can I talk to Antares like this?”

“Sure, sure,” Tattletale said.  She reached up and put earbuds in.  “Let’s not pretend you didn’t want me to hear that.”

“You too, Snuff?” I asked.

Chicken Little waited until Tattletale settled, listening to whatever it was she listened to.  Snuff had his headphones on, now, worn over his hood.  It made me nervous that I wasn’t sure how easily our driver could see or hear what was going on, but… better.

“I’ve been working with Darlene and Candy,” Chicken Little admitted.  “We take turns if she’s overwhelming us.  But Candy went to Aunt Rachel’s and it’s the two of us, and I dunno.  Is that manipulative?  Because I don’t want to be the manipulative kind of person either.”

“Does it come from a good place?” I asked.  “Or a hostile, bad place?”

“Good, I think?  But like, if she comes up to me and stands next to me then I feel like… no, stand a little further away?  And that’s not so good a place.”

“You’re wanting more space.”

“I feel greedy because I want a lot.  I’m a Master, right, you know how that works?”

“Yes,” I said, very seriously.  “I know that.”

“And we get our powers mostly from being alone or cut off or losing people.  And I lost everyone… and then I was taken in by Skitter way back in the day, and I barely remember those days, and I grew up with orphans, and we were total birds of a feather, you know?  That’s what we joked, after I had my trigger.”

“Makes sense.”

“And they left, and I got powers.  And after that, I was messed up, and Gold Morning messed me up more, with everyone moving in different directions, and Regent died before that, and he was fun, Skitter died during Gold Morning, even though she was kinda important to everyone, and Aunt Rachel is living way out in the middle of nowhere again, and… I was messed up.”

“All of us were, but I get what you mean.  Hit where it hurts?”

He nodded.  His forehead creased.  It reminded me a bit of Natalie.  “I kind of found my way to getting less messed up, and I grew up fast.  I’m a lot more mature than other boys my age.  It’s why I can mostly manage the Heartbroken.  That and experience.”

You’re not grown up all the way yet.

“Yeah.  You’re uniquely equipped,” I told him.  “You grew up with having them around.”

“Kind of.  But the thing is, I got advice and we decided figuring myself out meant figuring out how to be okay on my own.  Because if I couldn’t do that, then I’d always worry that I’d lose people and I’d be messed up again.”

“And you don’t feel like you can be okay on your own anymore?”

“It got backwards, and I feel like I can’t be alone to find my okay anymore.  And that’s not to say it isn’t nice to have them around and hang out, but it’s like it… there’s never the middle ground of okay in the middle.  Not with them, and especially not with Lookout.”

“It could be that you don’t find that tranquil sort of okay when you’re with people.  Sometimes I need to go do my thing and read or sort through files, or research, to find my okay.  Sometimes I can do that with people around, especially Tress or Swansong, sometimes I do it alone.”

“Tress or Swansong, but not Lookout?”

“No.  I adore Lookout, I respect her, but… it’s a rare moment.”

“What do I do?  Because she sends me like two hundred messages a day and she sends me messages last thing at night and first thing when she wakes up, and I feel like I could spend every minute of every day with her and she’d want more, and Darlene has told me she feels the same way, and-”

“I’ll talk to her.”

Chicken Little stopped.

“I’ll try.”

He deflated, apparently in relief.

The car passed through a tunnel.  Everything inside the vehicle went dark.  When we emerged, Chicken Little was putting his mask back on.

Somehow, I thought.  I have no idea how I’ll do this.

“She’s really cool,” he said.

“Yeah.  She really is.”

“She’s really stylish, in a very different way from the Heartbroken, and really fun, and when she gets excited about something I get excited too.”

“I’m really glad she’s connected with you guys.”

“I am too, but I feel like if things keep going like this, after she connected, I’m going to be the one to unconnect.  Or Darlene is, and I keep hearing about Darlene’s bad side but I’ve never seen it.  Or Candy is, and I feel like Candy would treat the problem like she treats a lot of things, like she’d use her power and try to fix it in one big obvious move that doesn’t really work.”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

He nodded.

“She does this thing, you know, where she doesn’t smile when she’s happy.”

“Yeah,” I said, quiet.

“I had to tell Darlene that.  And Darlene went from giving her hugs when she smiled because she wanted to share that happiness to giving her hugs when she smiled because she needed a hug.”

“Perfect,” I said.

“Except we’re not sure what to do, now, so she’s been hugging her less and I’ve been thinking about taking a day off… and I was glad to be on a mission like this to get away, if I’m being super honest.”

“Yeah.”

“I know all the Heartbroken have rules and weirdness about how they behave, but I can either figure them out or I can deal.  But Kenz-Lookout is maybe the worst possible thing for my rules and weirdness, despite the fact I really like her a ton.”

I put a hand out, rubbing his shoulder.  “I’ll do what I can.”

“She talks about you guys a lot.  She misses you.  You, Ashley, and Chris.”

I nodded.

Tattletale cleared her throat.  Forewarning for the fact she was pulling an earbud out.  “We’re close.”

“Okay,” Chicken Little said.  “Thank you.”

There was a pause, as Tattletale put her earbud back in, then to me, he repeated, “Thank you.”

“Sure thing, C.L., thanks for being cool to my friend.”

The street didn’t have any parking, which delayed us.  The spot we did find was in an alley, without much room to maneuver.

While Chicken Little squeezed himself and his hawks out of the spot, Tattletale approached me, showing me her phone.

Messages with the address, and a follow up.  After a back and forth to hammer out the particulars of the meeting, the response from Countenance was that Big Picture was inviting us to his office, apparently, and he wouldn’t be wearing his mask or gear.

Downside: we had a very limited time when he was free and willing to talk.  If we wanted to talk to him later, we had to do it when he had free time around seven o’clock.  Which was past Tattletale’s self-imposed deadline.

Despite the fact the building was tall, the ride on the rickety low-cost, fast-install elevator with the chain running through a column in the center was a short one.  Up to the third floor, out of eight.

Big Picture’s studio was one without walls, barring the single closet and the entrance to the bathroom, which was disproportionately large and, as I passed it, riddled with bars, hangers, and clothes for both men and women.

Doubling as a change room, it seemed.

Big Picture was a photographer, and in his civilian guise, he was a tall, broad shouldered guy in a nice teal dress shirt, black slacks, and shined shoes.  His beard stubble was intentional and trimmed, and his gaze penetrating.

Walls and floor were poured concrete, and the livability of the space, which doubled as his apartment, was limited to a third of the bathroom, a counter with some kitchen appliances and a single oven burner, and a bed that jutted out from the wall above the desk, supported by two concrete pillars.  Each of the windows had three curtains, to allow varying levels of light.

That wasn’t really what caught my eye, so much.  There were high-quality pictures on every surface, and the expansive, expensive apartment had lots of surfaces.  All were large-scale, high resolution portraits, most of them full-body, some nude in the tasteful sense.  One of the pictures was Brio’s, the very same stylized image that would have been hung on the wall of Foresight’s headquarters.  This would be the guy who had taken those pictures for them to hang in their headquarters.

Roughly a quarter of the pictures were civilians or capes out of costume, a quarter were capes in costume, like Brio’s, and a full half of the people on the walls were case-fifty-threes.

“I know her,” Chicken Little said, pointing.

Chantilly.  The young Case Fifty-Three with skin cut like lace, forming a fabric around her, the intricately cut holes in her skin revealing raw flesh beneath.  She had been part of Faultline’s crew.

And I know of him, I thought, looking at Big Picture.

“I don’t have long, but if there’s information I can give, I’m happy to help,” he said.  He extended a hand to shake, and Tattletale shook it.  Chicken Little reached out to shake as well.  “I’m fine if you want to skip pleasantries and cut right to the chase.  You can call me L.J.”

I pretended not to notice the handshakes, and turned to look at the artwork, standing with my hands clasped behind my back, doing my best to deflect as innocently as I could without picking a fight or having to shake his hand.  Skipping pleasantries, in a way.

My eye found the ‘L.J.M.’ embossed in the corner of each.

Big Picture was the guy who’d admitted to Foresight that he’d done what he was accused of, so the character assassination angle seemed like it had flopped or… had gone by a route even more subtle than mine or Ratcatcher’s.

“You were going to be recruited by Foresight,” Tattletale said.

“I was.”

“What happened?”

“I was hired to help bring in Orchard.  I posed as a would-be customer.”

The name drew my attention, turned my head.

“You know them?” he asked.

“Yes,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “They’ve come up in passing.”

“I don’t,” Chicken Little said, raising a hand.  Tattletale put a hand on his shoulder, and he lowered the hand.

“They made an art of turning people into… people of another kind of aesthetic.  Foresight and other teams are handling the remainder of the Orchard business,” he said.

“You posed as a customer, and… something went wrong?” Tattletale asked.

“I posed too well,” Big Picture said.  “Because of my work as a civilian and rogue, internet circles I traveled in, I knew the language, I knew names, I knew the kinds of people they associate with or the kinds of people who would associate with them.  It raised questions.  I brushed it off as having to do with my power.”

“But it wasn’t,” I said.  “You do associate with those people.  The kind of people who really, really like Case Fifty-Threes.”

I was being polite because Chicken Little was in the room.

I very much appreciate the beauty of Case Fifty-Threes, and other people with altered forms,” he said.  “Unique shapes, appearances, traces of memories or accents from worlds we may never discover.  But I want to stress that I think you’re putting me in the same category as people like Orchard’s customers, and that is not me.”

“But?” Tattletale asked.

No, not ‘but’, I thought.  That was not the follow-up I would have used.

“But I’d researched Orchard on my own, for reasons having nothing to do with wanting to take away another individual’s choice.  Because there was a period where I wanted to be one of them.”

He indicated with one hand, at where a print was mounted on the wall, of Gully, one of the west-coast Wards, if I was remembering right.  Hunched back, overbite, and muscles that seemed to weigh her down until she could barely stand.  In the art, she peered through dreadlocks with an eye that was framed to be bright and striking.

An old picture.  Sveta had remarked that Gully wasn’t around anymore.

“But you didn’t,” Tattletale said.

“I couldn’t come to terms with the risks.”

“They brainwashed people.  You were worried they’d brainwash you while you were at their mercy.”

“More or less,” he said, meeting Tattletale’s gaze with a level stare.

Fuck, this guy creeped me out.

“Foresight found out?”  Tattletale asked.

“They were tipped off.  They asked, and I was honest.  There was a brief misunderstanding where I was taken as a photographer of an… adult sort.  But that was never a focus.”

Sveta thinks you are, I thought.  And so do I.  I’ve seen pictures.

The only pictures that showed any excessive amount of skin were adults, both normal people and Case Fifty Threes, but I could see the darkness in Gully’s eye, and I could see the defensiveness in the lace-girl Chantilly’s picture.  Arms folded, body turned partially away, neck rigid and chin set.  It wasn’t a smiling picture.  Not a lot of them were.  There were a lot of dark, grainy backgrounds.

Gentle Giant was an adult, and the picture had him stand with his back to the camera, and by the look of it, he wasn’t standing tall, but bent forward, head ducked down slightly, his eye glancing over his shoulder in a wary or uncomfortable way.  Mottled, mossy skin, with bare back, buttocks, and the backs of his thighs.

Or was I seeing those things only because Sveta hated him so much that I felt obligated to?  Because the pictures, when they’d first come up on the scene and started popping up wherever Case Fifty-Threes were involved, were ones that Sveta had dissected while hanging out in the hospital room with me?

That Sveta had seen the feedback from people in her small, insular community, that they’d been paid handsomely for the photos, many of them desperately in need of that money, that the photographer hadn’t done anything wrong that they could put their finger on, and they’d still walked away uncomfortable and unhappy, then been unhappier still when the pictures started circulating in certain circles, and in some select cases, outraged when one picture in particular had taken off and saw the photographer indulging in his fifteen minutes of fame and his weeks of gallery showings.  There had been campaigns and outreach to other Case Fifty-Threes to warn them off.  But the money drew them in.

The discomfort and outrage had even extended to the way the tame, clothed images like Gully’s had been used.  Chantilly’s image being on the wall suggested he’d carried on after getting set up again, because it looked too recent to be pre-Gold-Morning.

I was trying to be fair, to extend a benefit of a doubt.  And I was groping beyond the point that there was a logical, empathetic, human rationale for what he did.  I was reaching more into the territory that pegged him as stupid, incapable of understanding that he’d wronged people, because the wrong could be the sort that was hard to grasp.

When in doubt, assume circumstances beyond their control, assume context.  When that failed, assume ignorance.  And even there, seeing how he’d done well, how he didn’t seem stupid or incapable, I couldn’t apply that label.  When that failed… I wasn’t sure.

He was exploitative.  The fact he wasn’t acknowledging the truly scummy side of Orchard was bothering me more.  Brainwashing?  The victims hadn’t been willing.

“Who tipped them off, and how?” Tattletale asked.

“I assumed it came from within, from internal background checks,” Big Picture said.  “It didn’t?”

“No.  I don’t think so.  You might have enemies,” Tattletale said.

“Oh, I definitely do.  It’s a very dramatic world, art,” he said.  He smiled, eyes crinkling a bit.

“If we go back to Foresight and ask, are you okay with them sharing?”  I asked.

“I’m not bothered.  I’m upfront about my art and where I come from.  We parted amicably, as I saw it.”

“Great,” I said.  My eyes scanned the pictures.  Even the innocent ones with warm smiles -mostly civilians or capes out of costume- left me feeling uncomfortable in my own skin.  I turned to Tattletale.  “We should go.”

“Is there a rush?” she asked, with a tenor or vibe that made me feel like she was jabbing at my jugular because I’d exposed too much throat.  Putting me on the spot.

I turned to Chicken Little, “Want to go wait outside?”

“Sure,” he said.

“Dirty move,” Tattletale said.  But she didn’t stop Chicken.

Chicken Little paused before leaving.  “Thank you for inviting us in.  They’re really good pictures.”

“Thank you,” Big Picture said.

“They’re dark, though.”

“They can be,” Big Picture said, turning to look at Gully’s picture, her head, face, and dreads seeming to emerge from the picture, out of darkness and into light.

“Do you want that darkness, along with wanting to be them?” Tattletale asked.

I was spared the continuation of the conversation by the ringing of my phone.  I put a hand on Chicken Little’s shoulder to guide him to the door of the studio as I put the phone to my ear.

Rain.

“What happened to the communication blackout?” I asked.

“Emergency,” he said.  “Weld came by to check in, I don’t even know what’s going on, but Tristan’s trying to handle it and he’s not having any luck, and now all hell is breaking loose.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.5

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“Warm up the car,” Tattletale said, over the phone.  “Plug in the booster seat and cage.”

“Booster seat?” I asked.  “Who?”

“You want to ride with?” she asked, more like she was replying with light annoyance or incredulity than she was offering.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Half-size cage, slot it into the middle.  Thanks,” she said over the phone.  She hung up, and rather than answer my initial question, she walked across the junior team’s headquarters and knocked on the frame to the office.

Kenzie was lying on Chicken Little’s desk, legs bent at the knees so they hung over the front and side of the desk, her head not that far from Chicken Little, while she held a projected panel up.  Chicken Little sat in his chair, chicken in his lap, and Darlene sat on the desk next to him, one foot resting on the edge of his chair.  All three twisted their heads around to look at Tattletale.

“We want to rent Chicken,” Tattletale said.  “With the supporting team in a supporting, stay-at-home role.”

“You’re taking him?” Darlene asked.

“It’s good, it’s a job,” Kenzie said, without lifting her head up off the table.

“Okay,” Chicken Little said.  “Let me get ready.”

“Don’t say yes yet,” Kenzie said.  “Parameters?  Guidelines?  What’s the job, how long?  How intensive?  How dangerous?  What tools should we expect to employ, and what does it cost us to employ them?  Then what do we get paid, based on all of that?”

Good questions, I thought.  The sort I’d told her to be ready to answer.

Tattletale rolled her eyes, clearly annoyed.  The end of the roll saw her eyes looking at me, for some reason.

“Okay, what she said,” Chicken Little told Tattletale.

“The job is to accompany us.  Might use your birds.  Strict fact-finding mission,” Tattletale told him.  “Talk to your team to get answers once or twice.  Low intensity.  Darlene can take a fifteen minute bathroom break to fuss over herself if she wants, it’s that mild a job.”

“That’s- don’t go and say that,” Darlene said.

“One of us on desk duty to go and get the other if we need it, if we’re not using microphones?” Kenzie asked.  Her legs kicked where they dangled over the edge of the desk.

“Yes.  Low danger,” Tattletale said.  “I hope it’s low danger.  Tools?  Bring two raptors.”

“And the Haast Eagle?” Chicken Little asked.

“That you called Chicken Large, told all the other kids about, and expected I wouldn’t hear about?  Too big, too dramatic for what we’re doing.”

“I’ll have him fly with, give him a chance to stretch his wings, if that’s okay,” Chicken Little said, getting a short nod in response.  “Okay.  That’s good.”

“For pay, let’s say… seven hundred.”

“Too low,” Darlene said.  “For a day’s work-”

“Day’s half over.”

“Tying up all three of us-”

“To a small degree.  We don’t really need you two, so you can decorate, play that singing game you’re too embarrassed to play when anyone else is around-”

Darlene huffed, annoyed.

“-or sit in his chair and spin in circles until he’s back if you want.  You’re not that tied up.”

“Don’t sit in my chair,” Chicken Little told Darlene.  “We can get you a good spinning chair if you want.”

“I wouldn’t- I don’t,” Darlene said, huffing more, and looking a little sullen.  “Even if I would, we’re going to be linked up and my spinning around could distract him.  One thousand.”

“Whatever,” Tattletale said.  “Seven hundred, but that includes a thirty percent discount because we’ll take a route to stop and get Roadkill.”

“Yes!”  Chicken Little exclaimed.

“What’s roadkill?” Darlene and Kenzie asked, almost simultaneous.

“Roadkill BBQ, it’s a restaurant.  It’s so good, I’ve been wanting to bring some to you guys.  It’s so worth the discount we’d be giving,” Chicken Little said.  “I’ve asked Tattletale and Imp once a day for weeks because I loved it and I want you guys to try it too.”

“That’s sweet,” Kenzie said.  There was no smile on her face, as she laid across the top of the desk, hands folded across her stomach, her head turning now and then to look at whoever was speaking, eyes large.  At the same time, though, her legs kicked more than they had been, heels banging slightly against the heavy wood of the desk.  She looked up at Darlene.  “Thinking about us.  What a good guy.”

“It’s really good,” Chicken Little said.  “One of my favorite meals I’ve ever had and my favorite since after Gold Morning.”

“It’s manipulative of Tattletale, trying to get us to lose out on three hundred dollars,” Darlene was a little quieter, like her resistance was crumbling.  “Just to get some dinner?”

“Say yes.  Please.” Chicken Little said.  “Roadkill is worth three hundred dollars.”

“For three hundred dollars we could pay someone to go pick some up and bring it here,” Darlene said.  “And still have some left over.”

“Hey,” I said.  “Kudos, Dar.  Good thinking.”

Darlene smiled.

Tattletale gave me another eye roll.

“Don’t roll your eyes at me.  We want to train them to negotiate well.  It’s part of guiding them.”

Darlene added, more for Chicken Little and Kenzie’s benefit than mine, “I grew up with more brothers and sisters than I could really keep track of and we had to negotiate and fight over everything.  Sometimes with powered older siblings or with our moms, too.”

“It’s good.  Thinking outside of the box instead of getting zoomed-in on the back-and-forth,” I said.

She smiled more.  Kenzie reached up and over her own head to give Darlene a pat on the back.

Tattletale looked a little exasperated, her expression and tone like she was considering me one of the children to be managed instead of a partner in this.  “If you want me to pay a thousand-”

Us to pay a thousand,” I said.  Partners.

“Obviously,” Tattletale said.  “We’re going to want to get our money’s worth.  But if you want to relax a little, then you can have a dinner date-”

Darlene’s eyes narrowed, the others seemed unfazed.

“-with your friends, and we’ll relax our expectations accordingly.”

“Yes?” Chicken Little asked.  He poked Darlene in the side of the stomach.  “Please?”

Darlene looked down at Kenzie, who nodded her head in an exaggerated way.

“…Okay,” Darlene said.  “But make it seven fifty, and we’ll knock fifty bucks off to give you your seven hundred if Antares bullies Tattletale some more.  Find an excuse to give her a noogie or a wet willie or something.  Take her down a peg because she’s getting annoying and rude.”

A little resentful of the jabs and teasing Tattletale had fit into the debate, apparently.  Darlene had gone from heated and annoyed to sullen to pushing back against Tattletale on the price point, and now, having said that, seemed much more at ease.  Very quick to adjust on an emotional front.

“Deal, I’ll see what I can do,” I said.  Because anything that reinforced a healthy pushback against Tattletale was a good thing.

Tattletale suppressed a sigh, and gestured.  “Come on, then.  Up and at ’em, Chicken.”

“Earbuds,” Kenzie said, handing off some devices to Chicken Little.  “Sound should be better, but we’ll see.”

“I’ll call Imp and get the sign-off,” Darlene said.

“I’m here,” Tattletale said.

“You’re hiring us,” Darlene said.  “Rules are that if Undersiders hire us then we ask Breakthrough if the job’s okay, and if Breakthrough hires us then we ask Undersiders if it sounds good.  And if it’s not either of you guys then we can ask anyone, or we ask both groups if it’s serious.”

“Good rules,” I said.

Darlene nodded.  “But since you’re both hiring us then we should ask someone who isn’t involved.”

“I like that,” I said.

“Shaving years off my life,” Tattletale muttered.

“Good,” Darlene muttered back, as she brought her phone to her ear.

“Be nice to Tattletale,” Chicken Little said.

“Okay,” Darlene said, before turning her head slightly, eyes narrowing at Tattletale.

Tattletale did an exaggerated eye-narrowing of her own.

Chicken Little was out of his seat, handing off his chicken to Darlene.  He already wore his mask, which was the dinner-plate round mask with round black lenses for eyes and a little cone on the lower face for the beak, a ‘cockscomb’ extension at the top that arced back and over the top of his forehead to join his fauxhawk.  He had his red and white coat with the tailfeather ‘tails’ at the back and the pinion cut around the sleeves.  He kicked off chicken-styled slippers and slid his feet into sneakers with blades worked into the exterior design, three over the toe and spurs at the back, in a ‘talon’ design.

Once the shoes were laced up, he put his hand through a stylized falconer’s glove, opened a cage, and had two hawks perch on his arm.  Between the large glove and the weight of the birds, it looked like his skinny arm had trouble holding them up.

He turned to look at Darlene, who was talking on the phone, no longer sitting on the desk, but walking away from the desk so as not to be overheard.

She gave the thumbs up.

Chicken Little hit switches, and his office went dark, shutters whirring as they closed it off from the remainder of the office.

“Because noise,” Kenzie explained for me, as she ducked under the shutter.  “The squawking and chirping gets kind of crazy sometimes.”

“You good?” I asked her.

She nodded.  “Very.”

She had a stray lock of kinky hair that had pulled free of the pin.  I used a finger to poke it back into place.  “We’ll see if we can time the Roadkill thing so I can bring some to Swansong, and you can have a long-distance dinner together.”

“Please.  And short-distance dinner sometime this week?  Can I come over sometime?”

“If your guardians at the institution say okay,” I said.

She stepped forward, giving me a sudden, very unexpected hug.  Her forehead hit my breastplate with the enthusiasm of the movement, and both Darlene and Chicken Little’s heads snapped over to look at us in that moment.

I put my arms down, forearm and hands across her shoulderblades.  I murmured, “I thought you had rules.”

“I’m getting sloppy,” she said.  “It’s bad, I know.”

“Okay,” I said, not sure what to make of that.  “Careful.”

She nodded, hugged me tighter for a second, then broke the hug, bouncing over to Darlene’s side.

Tattletale, Chicken Little and I made our way downstairs, and into the parking garage that was attached to the building.  Snuff was standing by the car, which was running, engine idling.

The hawks went into a cage that was apparently built across the middle section of the backseat, dividing the two sides.  Tattletale took the passenger seat, and Snuff got behind the wheel.  I ended up sitting behind him, because of how the door of the cage opened behind Tattletale’s and where the booster seat was fit into the car.

“What are we fact-finding?” Chicken Little asked, as he strapped in.

“Turn off your earbud?” I asked.  “I don’t want to loop in Lookout just yet.  For her protection.”

Chicken Little hesitated, then turned it off.

“Thanks,” I said.  “And Snuff?”

“We can trust him,” Tattletale said.

“You didn’t use him when we had the thing three weeks ago.”

“She used me,” Snuff said.

“I used him,” Tattletale said.  “I had questions, then I verified, and I put him on duty looking after some secondary interests and projects, because I wasn’t as sure I could trust the mercenaries I put on those projects.  Sometimes you need a good ally to keep the tent from falling down while you hammer in the stakes.”

“My things are off, my team isn’t listening.  What’s going on?” Chicken Little asked.

“A group of people are trying to be sneaky,” Tattletale said.  “Framing others, planting really convincing evidence.  Possibly for a bigger play further down the line.  Possibly to sow discord or create divisions within groups.  It would be like if someone pretended to be you and sent nasty messages to the Heartbroken, so you’d never get invited to Aunt Rachel’s again, or if they were planting evidence on your computers now so they could mess up your team and allll the other teams a year from now.”

“Okay,” Chicken Little said.

The discourse was interesting from a certain angle.  That it felt like Tattletale talked down to Chicken Little, except she had a tone like she was talking down to anyone, normally.  Just… more here.

I felt like I approached Kenzie as more of an adult and expected her to keep up, and she was sharp enough to do that, with only occasional steering.  Based on what she’d told me and shown me, she’d been clever even before triggering.  It wasn’t a tinker thing.

Tatteltale continued, “We know of one case.  My power tells me we should expect others.  Our first stop’s going to be Foresight.  Who they targeted, why, and how is going to tell us a lot.”

“You think it’s inevitable they targeted Foresight?” I asked.

“Eighty percent sure they would.  If it’s about controlling information, then they’re obvious.  If it’s about power and going after bigger teams, then Foresight’s a good target there too.  If they didn’t target Foresight, then it’s probably a focus on smaller teams, which suggests subversion.

“I have a good working relationship with Anelace,” I said.  “We could ask him and see what he’s willing to share or hint at, without us spelling anything out just yet.”

“This is all secret?” Chicken Little asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “The more people know about it, the higher the chance that the people who’re responsible react or use emergency measures.  Right now we just want a sense of what we’re dealing with.”

“Okay,” he said.  “So you haven’t told Precipice and the others?”

“No,” I said.  Thinking about my team and what would unfold if the character assassination went any further than it already had was a dark thought, tempered by how Chicken Little had phrased the question.  “Thinking about Precipice?”

“He’s cool.  We talked at the hospital when we all visited Lookout.”

I smiled.  “He doubts himself a lot, you know?  He’s had a rough go of it.”

“All of us have,” Chicken Little said.  He leaned back, resting one arm on the top of the cage with the eerily still and quiet hawks in it.  “But some of us, like the younger Heartbroken and Lookout and I, we had stuff happen so long ago that we don’t remember it, you know?”

“Is that what Lookout said?”

“I kinda just figured.”

I nodded.  I wouldn’t out her or correct him, especially with a strange mercenary and manipulative thinker in the driver’s and passenger’s seat, respectively.

“We don’t remember it all but a lot of the time it messes us up.  Feelings get mixed up, swapped around, or we have something quirky.  For me, it’s dreams.  For some of the heartbroken, it’s like wires get crossed.”

“Good way of putting it,” I said.  “And there’s the scope of the agent-parahuman relationship, right?”

“I don’t know about that.”

“The way it was explained to me in courses I took, the earlier you get your power, the less defenses you have.  You don’t know how to work with it or make it do exactly what it wants, so… the power has more room to make you change or adapt instead.”

“That makes a lot of sense,” Chicken Little said.  “And it’s like if a chicken grows up in a coop that’s too small, it ends up deformed.  Or if a tree grows into a fence and it gets warped and there’s metal in the wood.  We have something big occupying this space-”

He tapped his forehead.

“-and grow around that thing.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Yeah, I like those analogies.  Perfect.”

“Did Precipice have powers for a long time?”

“No,” I said.  “Last year.”

“I have more experience than him,” Chicken Little said.  “That’s funny.”

I smiled.

“He made knives for fun he said,” Chicken Little said.  “And even hand-made bear traps from scrap, once.  Like Biter and Bite-size have for their masks, but weaponized.  That was before he was a tinker.”

“I think he spent a long while without T.V. or internet.  Not even that many books to read.  So he kept his hands busy.”

“Given the situation, he could have done worse,” Tattletale added, in what probably passed for a compliment, coming from her.

“Situation?” Chicken Little asked.

“That’s for him to share if he wants,” I said.  “You might already know parts of it-”

“He does,” Tattletale said.

“-but maybe I’ll send him with Lookout for one of the drop-offs, and you guys can catch up.”

Chicken Little nodded, enthusiastic.

The chatter continued as Snuff pulled onto the highway, picking up speed.

Foresight.

Foresight had good aesthetic running through it.  Cursive-style loops and sweeping lines in white ran across glossy black panes that decorated the walls, those scripts gathering together for specific signs, symbols, and images.  The places where those decorative panes weren’t set up were naturally eye-catching through their absence.

Brio’s portrait had been hung in one of those absent places.  It wasn’t the only hung portrait.

There were areas where plants were on shelves, the vegetation draping down, but the tinted lighting made the green plants look nearly black.  With the way they hung and crawled against the wall, the black was against a backdrop of white, above panels with more tangled cursive, or against light panels inset into the wall.  A dose of nature, but focused on exaggerating the abnormal.

The ‘visitors’ area was surrounded by a gallery of images of each of the team’s heroes.  Each image was larger than life, floor to ceiling, each figure made even larger by the fact that a given image only captured a portion of them, at least half of their body residing outside of the frame.  A picture of Effervescent, a pale image against a pitch black background, hair falling around her shoulders, the colorful nature of her costume desaturated in a way that fit with the hallway’s scheme while still hinting that she had the most colorful costume on the team.

After Effervescent on the left side was a picture of Anelace, a black-costumed figure against a stark white background, the white of the mask with the black cursive scrawling of the dagger on the eyepatch standing out, given the composition.  Then a picture of Crystalclear, crystals and skin white and light against a black background, respectively.

So it alternated, on both sides of the hall.

Anelace and Countenance stepped into view, the two of them talking well before they were in my earshot.

Anelace put out his hand to shake.  I shook it.  Effervescent didn’t offer me anything, and I didn’t push.  Honestly, as bad as things might’ve gone, I was pretty content with being set up against these two.  Anelace and I had gotten along for a while now, he was an attractive guy, going by his fitness, and he’d made some attempts at inviting me on dates, including one at a crime scene.

Effervescent was one of the thinkers who had rejected me when I’d applied to join Foresight, after the community center, before Jessica’s therapy group.

“Checking out the competition?” Anelace asked.

“I don’t see us as competing,” I told him.  “We’re all on the same side.”

“Including the Undersiders?” Effervescent asked.

“They’re parked outside,” Anelace clarified.  The remark got a look from Effervescent.  She might have wanted to try to trap me in a lie or omission.

“We’re pursuing a joint project,” I said.  “Or I am.  I needed someone with her particular skills.”

“Thinker skills?” Anelace asked.

“We have thinker skills,” Effervescent said.  “You could have come to us.”

“There’s another joint project where we’re collaborating,” I said.  “Lookout got hurt a few too many times in too short a timeframe.  We decided it was best to get her out of that situation before any institutional crackdown.  During the whole Cradlemarch mess, we ran into the Undersiders and she got along with a few of the kids in Undersider orbit.  Lookout is pursuing a team with them.  It puts Undersiders and Breakthrough in irregular contact.”

Effervescent folded her arms, tilting her head slightly as she looked at Anelace.

“If it works, it works,” Anelace told me.

“The kid’s hers?” Effervescent asked.

“Chicken Little.  One of Lookout’s teammates.  We hired them to keep it fair and we’re using it as an opportunity to train them, teach them what to look for.  A simple, minor mission.”

“I still have a hard time getting a read on you,” Effervescent said.  “But there’s more to this, isn’t there?”

“There’s always more to a situation,” Anelace said.  “When you get information, you get three-quarters of the information at best.  When you dig again, you get three-quarters of what’s left, but things shuffle, change, and adapt in the meantime.  A problem bloats, a person develops in response to whatever you’re adjusting…”

“And I’m not interested in high-level back-and-forth over the philosophy of information gathering,” Effervescent said.  For a colorful personality, she was kind of pissy.  “Is there something more to it, Antares?”

“Yes,” I said.  I paused.  “I can’t really get into it.  I want to look into some stuff, and I want to ask for you to give me the benefit of a doubt here, because I can’t explain it all.  I’ve gone toe to toe with some of the tough contenders these past couple of months.  I’m hoping that counts for something.”

They exchanged a look.  Anelace had his arms folded, and I saw his fingers lift away from his arm, two extended.

“I’d have to ask Count,” Effervescent said.  “What do I tell him, ‘lace?”

“What can you tell us?” Anelace asked me.

“You have options,” I answered.  “I can tell you nothing, it’s the least complicated option.  I investigate, and at some point, ideally tonight, I get an answer and I fill you in with all the rest of the teams.”

“What’s the drawback?” Effervescent asked.

“That it’s not a safe option,” I told.  “It’s the least complicated.  The safe option is that I lie to you.  What I tell you lets you know what to watch out for, but it doesn’t get into the problematic stuff.”

“And if you tell us?”

“Option three is I tell one of you, and they join me for the next short while, while we dig through this.”

“We’re tied up,” Anelace said.  “Stuff to do, can’t take a sabbatical.”

“What are the consequences if you tell us outright?” Effervescent asked.

“I haven’t gotten into this with my own team, and I know them.  I don’t know most of Foresight.  I need to diagnose the problem before I can diagnose the consequences, but I can tell you it’d be bad.”

Effervescent nodded.  She looked at Anelace again.

“I like option two,” he said.  “The lie.  It tells us the most and I think safety is the best priority.”

“Going by her judgment.”

“Yeah,” Anelace said.  “What’s your read?”

“Seems genuine, as far as I can tell.  I say go ahead.”

“Not running it by the boss?” I asked.

“Countenance is busy, and he trusts us.  Trusts me,” Effervescent said.  “And as far as ‘lace goes, he trusts me to keep tabs on and find ‘lace if he goes missing.”

I raised an eyebrow at Anelace, which I could only do because I wasn’t wearing my mask.

“I had a thing a little while ago, when the team was new,” Anelace said.  “We were supposed to be paired up for jobs.  I dodged Effy.  Effy caught me with, ah, the reason for the dodging.”

“A rooftop liaison with a villain or villainess?” I asked.  “You don’t have to answer.”

“A villainess would have been easier than the liaison ended up being.”

“That’s actually true,” ‘Effy’ said.

“And I feel bad.”

“Half true.”

Anelace laughed a bit.  “Good enough.  You want to tell us your convenient lie here in the front hall of our HQ, or step away somewhere?”

“Outside?  Tattletale can chime in, fill in the blanks.”

I saw them exchange looks.

“Believe me,” I said.  “I know.  Every doubt, every suspicion.  I get it.  I know one hundred percent.  But I think including her helps all of us.”

“Alright,” ‘Effy’ said.  “Yeah?”

“Yeah,” Anelace said.

We made our way outside.  Anelace held the door for Effervescent and me.

“Fuck me,” Effervescent said.  “That’s a big-ass bird.”

Tattletale was outside the car, leaning against the side.  Chicken Little was sitting on the trunk, while his eagle was perched in a tree above him, devouring one of the twenty crows that occupied other branches.  His hawks were out of the middle-seat birdcage and rested on his shoulder and glove, respectively.

Snuff was a good fifty feet away, his hood pulled up to show a jaw with no chisel to it, covered in stubble.  He was smoking with enough intensity that a cloud surrounded him.

“I recognize him.  Snuff,” Anelace observed, as we got closer to Tattletale.

“Is it a problem?” Tattletale asked.

“He was a murderer for hire.”

“He was.  Pre-amnesty,” Tattletale said.  “You didn’t answer my question.  Is it a problem?”

“No,” Anelace said.  “You let him hang around with a kid?”

“I hang around with who I want to hang out with,” Chicken Little said.  “Right big guy?”

The giant eagle made a sound that made me think it wasn’t doing so hot.  Loud, but the furthest thing from fierce.

“We’ll work on that,” Chicken Little said.  “Eagles have the worst screeches.  What about you two?”

The hawks screeched, the one on his arm flapping its wings without taking off.  Several of us winced at the sound.

“Bothering the neighbors,” Effervescent said.  She indicated the street.  Lots with businesses ran into lots with houses with no rhyme or reason.  I was put in mind of the eclectic mix of dentists, doctors, pharmacies, convenience stores, clothing stores and houses one could find in a typical Chinese-American part of town, but this was just regular town.

“Oh, sorry.  I can see why you’d be worried,” Chicken Little said.

“I’m not worried.  I’m saying literally they’re bothered.  I’m aware.”

Chicken Little ducked his head down a little.  “I thought it was cool.”

“It was,” Effervescent said.  “But cool has a time and place.”

“As I see it, if you’re trying for ‘cool’ you’re doing it wrong,” Anelace said.

Chicken Little huffed, sitting up straighter, looking like he was going to start an argument.  Tattletale reached out, and the hawk on Chicken Little’s glove flapped violently, turning its beak her way.

“Huh?  What?  Did you want something?”

“To get your attention.  Let us talk business, listen and learn, alright?”

Chicken Little huffed again, but he nodded.

“Clandestine business you apparently can’t tell us straight,” Anelace said, to Tattletale.

“Essentially,” she said.  She turned my way as she said it.

“We’re going to tell them a lie that serves as an analogy,” I told Tattletale.

“Your call,” she said.

“Consider this a, uh, poaching job,” I said.  “One group trying to steal members from another.  A group of people are out there looking for easy targets.  My feeling, and I’m not sure if Tattletale agrees, is that this was something aimed at new members of the team and at fringe members.”

“They’re breaking up teams and looking to recruit them once they’re gone?” Anelace asked.  After a pause, where he saw my expression, he added, “In this hypothetical or somewhat relatable situation.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Has the recruiting already happened?” Effervescent asked.  “Do we look at people who’ve left for cryptic reasons and joined some specific team, or-”

“No,” I said.  “We’re not there yet.”

“And you’re prying,” Tattletale said.  “I think we’re using this rough outline of the situation to avoid spelling it out exactly.  Which would make it bad form if you pried.”

“Okay,” Effervescent said.  “You don’t want us prying why, exactly?”

“Because there’s a lot of potential misinformation flying around, and if someone else starts following up or trying to cover their asses, we lose the ability to follow the trail,” Tattletale said.

“That too,” I said.  “It’s where we need your trust.”

“No recruiting happening yet, but some splintering of teams or targeting of vulnerable people,” Effervescent said.

Tattletale rolled her head back.  “You’re prying.  You stopped for all of five seconds and you’re prying again. As a professional pryer, I’m in actual pain here.”

“You tell me not to pry and then you tempt me with a line like that,” ‘Effy’ said.

“Do you have anyone?” I asked, aiming to interrupt.  “Do you know anyone who fits this bill?  It could be recent, could be just starting.  New or fringe member, is my guess, but someone where there were recent revelations or some initial grumblings, or anything weird that has you or your group distancing yourself from them.”

Anelace and Effervescent exchanged looks.

“Who?” Tattletale asked.

“It’s not that cut and dry,” Anelace said.

“That’s why we’re digging into it,” Tattletale said.

“It’s why I brought Tattletale in.  She can figure out what isn’t that cut and dry,” I said.

“Who?” Tattletale asked, in the next breath.

“Two of ours,” Anelace said.  “Kind of ours.  We were looking at recruiting, with the shift in the amount of work we’re doing and the ground we’re having to cover.  We have a lot of thinkers and we got to know some others through duties like watching the portal or sitting in on diplomatic meetings.”

Right.  Crystalclear had mentioned doing those duties.  Keeping an eye on people coming in through the portals, keeping an eye out for stowaways, for trouble, for criminals.  Many of the Thinkers had worked in groups to make sure they covered enough bases.  Weeding out problems before they entered the city and disappeared into the maze of lost people trying to figure out what their identity on this new world looked like.

“And you recruited two of them?” I asked.

“Ratcatcher and Big Picture,” Anelace said.  “We didn’t get to the recruitment part.  We had a branding department working with Ratcatcher to see if we couldn’t Foresight-up her costume, get the right design while keeping her look.  Big Picture was starting to look into it, Countenance invited him on some patrols, and he went with.  Getting a feel for things.”

“And it went sour,” Tattletale said.  She looked more lively and interested than I’d seen her in… maybe ever.

“Yeah.  Sour’s a way to put it,” Anelace said.

“Don’t get carried away,” Effervescent said.  “Because I really don’t think this is a setup.”

“You don’t?” I asked.

“They confessed,” she said.  “Big Picture confessed, one hundred percent, no objection, was fine with leaving.  No fuzz, my read on it was clear.”

“And Ratcatcher was fuzzy,” Tattletale said.  “Because…”

Anelace answered, “Because it’s Ratcatcher.  I don’t know if you’ve met her, but when she’s quiet she’s like a toddler with a fork in their hand, inching toward a light socket.”

“She’s going to hurt herself?” Chicken Little asked, speaking up for the first time in a bit.

“Exactly,” Anelace said.

“Or burn the house down,” Effervescent said.

“Oh.  Wow,” Chicken Little said.

“When she’s not quiet she’s… fuck, I’m usually good with words,” Anelace snapped his fingers a few times.

“A fire hose on full blast with nobody to man it,” Effervescent said.

“Yeah, okay.”

“Messy, all over the place, unpredictable, supposedly useful in a crisis, but-”

“If you have to explain it it’s not a good analogy,” Anelace said.

“I’m pretty happy with it,” Effervescent said.  “Even if I want to explain it.”

“Can you explain the situations?  What happened with them?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Anelace said.  “Big-”

“No,” Effervescent interrupted.

There was an awkward pause.

“Doesn’t feel right,” Effervescent said.  “Even if we think there might be a reason to look into it more, it’s dishing drama and that’s the sort of thing that’s between them and our team.”

Anelace nodded.

Effervescent added, “But you can talk to them and ask them.  If they say the same thing, let them know we say it’s fine.  You’re… independently investigating, in case something bigger is going on.”

“Can you point us in their direction?” I asked.

“I’ll text you,” Anelace said.  “Unless you want to meet up on a rooftop somewhere, Antares?  A little more ‘cape’ than hanging around on a street.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Slim maybe, if I’m being honest.  But I appreciate the trust.”

“Sure,” he said.

“We appreciate you not talking about this to anyone that wasn’t standing here at this meeting,” Tattletale said.

“Hint taken,” Anelace said.

Tattletale whistled to get Snuff’s attention.  The guy whipped up what looked like a miniature black hole, sucking up all the smoke and, by the looks of it, vacuuming up a lot of the other particulate, mess, and the light dusting of snow from his hood and the coarse, thick black sweater he wore.

“Talk to you later,” Anelace said.

“Yeah,” I replied.

Snuff started up the car, and we pulled away from the street with the Foresight headquarters.

“You’re aware of what the rooftop meeting means, right?” Tattletale asked.

“I’m aware,” I said, trying to not give Tattletale a tell as she watched me in the rear-view mirror.  There were a lot of complicated feelings surrounding that.  Anelace wasn’t my type in some ways, but I ran the risk of having a type so narrow that only one deceased person fit the bill, and there were a few more obstacles in between me, him, and that eventuality.

For now, I was content to shift into neutral and coast through this as casually and shallowly as possible.  It was flattering, Anelace had a nice build, with a tight-fitting suit to showcase it, he was a hero, and as awful as he was with timing he had some decency to him.  So long as I didn’t dwell, I could just enjoy the vague idea, try to adj-

“Wait, what’s this?” Chicken Little asked, interrupting my thoughts.  “Secret meanings?”

“He wants to take Antares out on a date,” Tattletale said, taking me from the shallow-casual dip into the pool of romantic notions and pushing my head beneath the waters.  “It’s like saying ‘do you want to come in for coffee’?  It’s not about the coffee.”

“This is, for the record, very awkward,” I said.

“Blame the guy who propositioned you with a bunch of colleagues, an old nemeses, and a kid hanging around.”

“No, no,” I said.  “I’m happy blaming you, Tattletale.”

“Of course you are.”

“And it can mean just meeting to hang out and catch up.”

“That’s true, and that fact is the only reason I didn’t drag my fingernails down my cheeks from the cringeyness of it,” Tattletale said.  “But I know and you know what he wants.”

I floundered mentally while Tattletale pushed my metaphorical self into the deepest corner of the pool.  At least she hadn’t called me Glory Hole.

“Tattletale knows stuff,” Chicken Little said.

“Unfortunately,” Tattletale said.  “Not a mental picture I wanted.”

“Unfortunately.  Agreed, yeah,” I echoed Tattletale.  “Can we change the subject?”

My phone booped.  A message from Anelace.  The same stylized image that was on the wall of Foresight was his avatar in phonespace.  He had the address.

“Twenty-second and Blockgreen.  It’s not far.”

“Heard,” Snuff said.  “Twenty-second and Blockgreen.”

“Um,” Chicken Little said.  “I know we changed the subject…”

He trailed off, not continuing.

“It’s fine,” I said, regretting it as I said it.

“You can do better,” he said.  “Anelace said something like how you can’t be cool if you’re trying to be cool and that seems like a douchey thing to say.”

Snuff sniggered in the front seat.

“How do you be cool if you don’t start out cool?  It’s like it’s the privilege of the cool-by-default and nobody else is allowed to try for coolness.”

“I think you’re good, Chicken,” I said.  “The Heartbroken and Lookout think you’re cool.”

“Actually, I wanted to talk about Lookout, because I’m a little unsure about some stuff.”

“We can do that.”

“But before that, I wanted to say that Anelace guy talks about being cool but I was sitting there thinking his costume and his team’s costumes are trying way too hard to be edgy.”

“Amen,” Snuff muttered.

See?” Chicken Little said, with an almost plaintive edge to his voice, as though he was pleading for people to get it at the same time nobody in the vehicle was disagreeing with him.

“Edgy, as Swansong would put it, is something you live up to.”

“Of course she’d say that,” Tattletale muttered.

“Then he should buy you flowers or chocolate and not embarrass you in front of people, so he can live up to it,” Chicken Little said.

“And we’re here,” Snuff said.  “Which is a shame, because I was enjoying this.”

“I’m glad someone’s having fun,” I told him.

Out of the car.  I showed Tattletale the phone, and looked around for the building number.  By the time I turned around, she was pointing at it.

“Get your birds,” Tattletale told Chicken Little.  “If and when we use them, they should be used nonlethally.”

“They’re hawks.  And an eagle-”

“Don’t use the eagle.  That will kill.”

“So will the hawks!  They’re awesome killing machines!  They have feet like fistfuls of knives!”

“And this is practice and training,” Tattletale said.  “Nonlethal.  Hang back with Snuff.  If I whistle, cross the street, come to me, obey.”

“But-”

“I’m the customer, right?”

“Half the customer,” Chicken Little said.  He turned to me, and even though I couldn’t see his face, I could tell he was hopeful.

Like the divorced parent thing again.  When one parent said no…

“What she says.”

His shoulders drooped.

Tattletale and I crossed the street, which was busy enough she had to time her crossing to slip between traffic.  I ended up flying over.

We reached the front door.  I wondered if we were breaching some rule of secret identities.  Then I saw that the glass panel by the buzzer had slips of stained, coarse, post-Gold Morning paper where each resident had handwritten their own names.  Everything was laid out in neat print except for one, which just said ‘Rats’.

The building didn’t look nice, which made me wonder just how the other residents felt about it.

I hit the buzzer.

Cars whizzed this way and that down the street.  One had a bad muffler, and roared.  Too many lacked the tires, I was sure, to handle the light coating of ice, snow, and moisture on the road.

Tattletale whistled.

“What?” I asked.  When I looked, she was leaning against the railing.

“She’s ducking out the back window.  You should really hurry,” Tattletale told me.  “You might be able to fly, but she knows the hiding places.”

Chicken Little and Snuff were hurrying across the road.

“And you’re-”

“Waiting,” Tattletale said.  She made a face.  “She’s faster than me, what am I going to do?”

I took off.  Up and around the building, dodging a frozen clothesline someone hadn’t bothered or cared enough to bring in.

I saw Ratcatcher, and she saw me.

She was quick, faster than I would have been on foot, and wore a sweatshirt, pyjama bottoms, boots, and her mask with its crooked nose.  Her hair was a mess, to the point I was pretty sure she’d been in bed when I’d buzzed in, despite the fact it had to be one or two in the afternoon now.

She leaped to another building and caught the fire escape, and then she leaped down, catching hold of an air conditioner.  Bare handed, freezing cold metal.  She let go with one hand and caught a rat that was tracing her own route, following her.  She placed it on her messy hair and then reasserted her grip on the air conditioner.

She leaped from air conditioner to window, landing on the frame.  I shifted direction, and in the time it took me to reach her, she opened the window and slipped inside.  The window shut behind her.

I stopped short of entering, because there were enough people in the hallway and I didn’t trust myself to not hurt anyone by barreling through.  I watched her route and flew around.

At the next window, I saw her round a corner.  I traced her route again, watching through a bedroom window as she let herself into an unlocked apartment, looked through a kitchen window to see her head into the next room.

Back out into the hallway.  I opened the window and entered.

She was quick enough that I almost missed what happened while I hauled the window open.  Only the fact the hatch in the wall was held open for a second to let one of her pet rats follow her in let me know.  It clanged shut.  I flew to it, and I opened it.

By the smell, it was the building’s chute to the dumpster.

I flew back out the window, tapping it firmly with my foot so it would close, and flew around.

She’d put some distance between us.  She’d exited the chute and the dumpster at the bottom of it, and I saw her entering a building.

Two hawks swooped down, snatching up the rats that followed behind her.

There was a pause, with her holding the door open, the door blocking my view.  Then the crooked nose of her mask extended out and up, as she tracked the disappearance of her pets.

I landed.

About two seconds later, while I approached with arms up to show I wasn’t a threat, the thought connected.

Tattletale had invited Chicken Little for a reason.  This reason.  She’d guessed Ratcatcher was one of the fringe candidates, and she’d brought the bird master to go after the rats.

Non-lethally, she’d stressed.

She was going to be so insufferably pleased with herself, that it all came together like it did.

Ratcatcher didn’t look down, her eyes on the sky.  At the corner of the building, Chicken Little was jogging, Snuff huffing as he followed.

“We can bring them back,” I said.  “They’re unharmed.  Or they should be.”

She didn’t look away.

“All we want to know is what happened with you and Foresight.”

“You’re not going to arretht me for the other thtuff?”

I shook my head.  Then I paused.  “What other stuff?  Should we?”

She shrugged.

Whatever.

“We just care about the failed recruitment for now.  What happened, that you didn’t get recruited by Foresight?” I asked.

“It thtarted with me getting pith drunk,” she said.  “Thent thome textth to my new both.”

“Texts?”

“The thorta textth you don’t want your grandmama to thee.”

“Do you remember sending these texts?” I asked her.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.4

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

I hadn’t wanted my mother to get hurt, being careless with my power and with not trusting her about it, but I’d been willing on a level to leave the door open for it to happen, and that willingness went hand in hand with my relief about Amy being on Earth Shin now.  The realization had taken me some time, the process of rationalization comparatively quick to begin.  Life was genuinely easier if I let the slate be wiped -or perhaps struck- clean.

I had even related that philosophy to Kenzie.  To her parents.  Another slate that had been struck relatively clean.  After they’d dropped the tidbits they had on Hard Boil, and after the two hundred messes that had followed in succession from that, Kenzie had eventually found her equilibrium.  Her being in a kind of limbo right now with her disconnected and distant institutionalized care wasn’t the worst thing in the world, much like how people could use sensory deprivation tanks to center themselves.  Kenzie struggled because she hyper-connected, and a disconnected civilian life meant she wouldn’t hyper-connect or get distracted.

She’d even forged a family in a way that didn’t take away from her ordinary life.  Regular ‘meals’ with Ashley.  A small circle of peers her age that she could connect to, that honed her and refined her.  People like Aiden who I was happy to take on a general, arms-length coaching role for.

It was important to strike a balance with powers, to find a niche where their use could be casual, not overbearing, not solely a thing where we went out at night three times a week to be reckless and violent with them.  It was important to have the casual little acceptances of power in our lives.  For Kenzie, leaving the door open for her to tinker regularly was good for her on that casual acceptance level, and really good for the rest of us on a strategic level.

This was an equilibrium I had effectively trained my whole life to manage.  The absorption of one aspect of identity into the whole.  I’d had to learn that.

Ashley wasn’t.  Ashley was new ground, something I was having to figure out on the fly.  Damsel had been… not struck from the slate, because I’d only come up with that terminology recently, but I’d left the door open for her to go.  I likened Ashley to a cat, as much as she might be annoyed with the comparison, and a cat couldn’t be approached without caution.  Go straight for the vulnerable belly or throat and the claws came out.  Metaphorical, in Ashley’s case.

No, for her, every step was about strategy and positioning.  Dropping the right hints, as she was imprisoned, the right compliments, getting the invitation to watch her place, moving in, then getting her and Rain out of jail.  She’d invited me to stay and she wouldn’t ask me to leave if there wasn’t a graceful way to do it.  It wasn’t hard, once she was figured out, to block off her options by making certain actions out to be undignified.  Minimize the damage and maximize the gains.

Once I was close, positioning became that much easier.  She was just as hungry for someone close as Kenzie was, but the difference was that Ashley had spent years on her own.  I talked about leaving doors open, and hers had nearly closed.

This was good, as things stood.  Being close to her meant I could impart lessons about morality, encourage heroism.  Her being close to me, to us, meant we had a constant, omnipresent reminder that violence was a consideration and an option.

The natural blending of civilian and cape identities had to account for violence, for conflict, and for a careful pruning of external forces and influences.  Ashley was very good at pruning, and very easy to prune now that I was close enough.

That was without getting into the various degrees of non-platonic subtext.

On the topic of the non-platonic, I had cheated earlier when I’d commented about Byron to Rain.  Byron had talked vaguely about Moonsong over the last few weeks, and I’d seen this coming.  I’d considered the value of encouraging the relationship and working to reinforce it solely because a ‘political marriage’ between Breakthrough and the Shepherds could be useful, to use a way overblown term for what their relationship would be, but I’d seen the way Byron had looked at me on that day in group therapy and my vision for the team saw a Capricorn that had both halves working in harmony.  Getting to the point where that happened required drawing Byron out of his shell, and I could do that so long as we had a bond or connection.  They were two opposites in that.  Byron needed to feel like his civilian self wasn’t being ignored or left without options.  Tristan needed to feel like his goals as a cape weren’t being stifled.

Once that was done, well, there was a running theme through all of this.  With any cape, the civilian side naturally degraded.  We were parahuman, not human, and once Byron and Tristan reached the point they were okay, motivated, and roughly on the same page, that natural degradation would leave only those portions of each brother that worked well together.  I’d wanted to be a coach and sometimes being a coach meant tearing down, then building back up.

Rain wasn’t someone I’d had to tear down.  Life and past experience had done that.  He’d needed pushes.  A regular nudge.  In many places, his natural hesitation and the gravity that pulled at him were at the point where doing nothing was as good as pushing him away.  With his low self confidence, a simple reprimand or jab could do a lot to shape the direction he was going.  In a way, the things that guided the others all applied to Rain.  Maneuvering to get him out of jail and keeping him close enough, keeping an eye on his relationships, managing a balance of civilian and cape with the assumption the former will crumble… and as with Sveta, knowing that he saw himself as a monster, with a deeply regrettable past and a potentially, maybe inevitably regrettable future.

Sveta’s impending breakup.  Rain’s doomed cluster.  It was a question of managing the damage.

I closed my laptop.

Even Weld breaking up with Sveta was in the fucking diary.

Detailed, deep thoughts in intermittent diary entries, stored in a folder on my computer.  The times the entries were made, at a glance, seemed to line up with times I’d been free and active online.

Nothing so actionable that it would be grounds to arrest me.  But enough to hurt the team, if they were to read it.  I had a thought, on finishing it, and the irony was that the thought had come from a line in group therapy back at the hospital.  We judged our own actions based on our intentions, and we judged the actions of others on their actions.

Except this ‘diary’ fucked me at both ends.

Where my actions were damning, the diary portrayed my intentions as questionable, poor, or outright bad.  Where my intentions were ambiguous, or even when it came to ideas I’d alluded to or mentioned, they were connected to actions.  Desperate, rushed decisions I’d made in reality were rationalized out afterward or hinted at or led into beforehand.

It was self-involved and mission-focused, with passing mention of the others’ injuries, those mentions so fleeting that it suggested I didn’t care, or I cared for the wrong reasons.

And I couldn’t find any holes.  A paralysis had crept over my upper chest as I realized I couldn’t find dates that didn’t line up, any actions I had an alibi for.

I couldn’t blame Dragon for looking over my computer.  I’d told her to take everything.  On a level, having already dealt with Kenzie, I had expected the sweep.  I hadn’t expected a trap to be laid.

I couldn’t blame Jessica for doubting me.  Reading this, I was starting to doubt my own reality.  Because it was close.  There were thoughts in there that mirrored thoughts I’d actually had, and lines in there that paralleled things I’d said in reality, if they weren’t those exact same things.

My hands remained on the laptop, even after it was closed, while a sick feeling crept over me.  There wasn’t a way to deal with this that didn’t dig me in deeper.  My outburst and the use of my aura on Jessica hadn’t helped, but I wasn’t upset I’d done it, because I was pretty sure she wouldn’t have told me what I needed to know without it.

But I’d forced her hand and if she was going to take any action, it was going to happen soon.  If this was a trap or a master effect, then I’d forced the enemy’s hand.  If there was anything intended to follow up on this, then it might happen soon.

Why?  How?

I didn’t know.

We were at our HQ, and Kenzie was sorting through the things she’d left here.  Technically she was renting the space from us.  Less technically, she was moving regularly between here, her new workshop with her team, and her ‘home’ workshop, which was a space in the building where she lived with the orphans and institutionalized kids, provided by the staff.

I’d asked them to provide the space, because staff members had clued in that Kenzie had powers and there was a danger that the kids at the facility would too.  By the diary, I’d done it for reasons of strategy and cape-centric bias.

To Jessica, every conversation and friendly debate I’d had with her over things like cape names and what a healthy life for a parahuman looked like had to have taken on a darker tone, after all of this.  The diary struck close to the real, but with a consistent tone throughout that had to be anathema to someone like Jessica, who wanted to heal, find a more human balance, and who had trusted me to help.

Tristan was taking a break from lifting stuff and carting it around for Kenzie to take to her other workshop, making lunch with Rain.  He was talking cooking, while Sveta hovered, quite literally, clinging to the nearby door and looming over, looking over their heads.

“This… or this?” Kenzie asked.  Her outfit changed.  An update of her costume, a little more fashion-focused.  It looked like she was hitting the randomize button, for textures and color schemes.

“The second one,” Ashley said.

“Then…” Kenzie tapped on her phone.  “This… or this?”

From a vaguely Vista-ish costume with a skirt built into it over textured leggings to a costume with more of a bodysuit look, overalls over a skintight top.

Ashley’s going to pick the first, because it’s got a skirt.

“The first one.”

“Then… this or this?”

The first outfit had an abbreviated jacket, the skirt, and textured leggings, the second was more of a combination bodysuit and dress, skintight up until the fabric formed the dress at the lower body, the shoulders built up with techy paraphernalia.

“The second one.”

“The first one looks really good,” I said.  I felt so disheartened that the words felt hollow.

“Ooh, mixed opinions.  Those are good.”

“If you let Ashley have too much of a say, then you’re going to end up with an all black costume,” I said.

“Maybe,” Ashley said.  “Some white or red details are good.”

“Ashley’s my favorite person, so I don’t mind if that happens,” Kenzie said.  “You’re maybe my second or third favorite person, Victoria, so your opinion counts for a lot too.  And I want to do good things but I’m working sometimes with villains, we’re being discriminatory with what we do, so something a little darker is okay, I think.”

“Black is striking in bright light, and if you’re out in the light you want to make that statement.  At night and in night missions, black will keep you from being seen.”

I rolled my eyes a bit.

“Ooh, I should take notes.  I packed up the stuff that would take them for me…”

I couldn’t show her or ask her to take a hand in it, even if she was uniquely qualified to track down where it came from.  Because Dragon was also qualified, Dragon was qualified in everything.  The apparent Bluestocking of tinkers.

The danger wasn’t that Kenzie’s feelings would be hurt.  They would, but that wasn’t the danger as I saw it.

The danger here was that this diary was close enough to home to be seductive.  That she was impressionable and some of the worst thinking in the diary would stick if she were to read it.

Was there a good chance of it?  I didn’t know.  Was it possible to tell her not to read it?  Yes.  But I worried.

I worried on so many levels.

“Boys, Sveta, tiebreak me!  This… or this?”

“I am not the person to ask,” Rain said.

“Please?  Gut feeling.”

“I like the first one,” Sveta said.

The one I’d liked.  Solidarity.

It all felt so empty, so fragile.  The usual fondness wasn’t there.  What the hell?

“I like the first one too,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” Byron said, a moment later.  “Yeah.  How are you coming up with all of these?”

“I fed my computer a ton of high fashion and costume stuff and put it in a blender, and now I’m extrapolating with human-guided machine learning.  It takes its best guesses about what’s working along six different protocols and each time I keep one and discard another it adjusts its guesses and narrows in on something workable.”

“You realize that in another time or climate, you could make a bit of money using that?” Tristan asked.

“Really?” Kenzie asked, eyes wide.  She turned to me to confirm.

It meant a lot that she turned to me, except that only rubbed in that horrible, trapped feeling.

“Yeah.  Really,” I told her.

“Man, for all the pain in the butt parts of this power, there’s some upsides.”

“Versatility, problem solving, marketability, monetization, but those things make you a desirable and high-priority target.”

“Oh yeah.  People showing up at my house to kidnap me or kill me.”

“Yeah.”

“Be careful,” Sveta said.

“I will,” Kenzie said.  “That smells amazing, by the way.  Is it going to be done in time?  They’re almost here.”

“You can take yours now,” Tristan said.  He had the sandwiches grilling in a frying pan, melts inside toasted bread.  “Careful, it’s hot.”

Kenzie collected a sandwich with her eyehook, the prehensile tail with the camera and claw on the end.

“Victoria?” he asked.  “You’re going with her?”

I grabbed a sandwich, testing first before picking it up.  “Gotta ask Tattletale about something, and it’d be good to check out what they’re up to.”

“I have so, so, so much to show you.  You can vet Chicken’s costume and Candy’s costume, and I’ve been working on Hookup’s costume, which I know Ashley will really like-”

“Hold up,” I said.

“-Because it’s a dress, and it’s really pretty, and it goes with her mask, which Imp ordered.”

“Reel it back there,” I said.  “Go back.”

“Which part?  Because once a word leaves my mouth I mostly forget what I was saying.”

“Hookup?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t recommend it.”

“But-” Kenzie turned around.  It was Ashley she turned to for verification this time.

“Nah,” Ashley said.

“But… ugh.  All the names like Kindred and Liaison and Network and Cosanguine are taken.”

“Not hookup,” I said.  “Connotations.  There’s a reason it isn’t taken.”

“Except I think she or her brothers and sisters liked the connotations.”

“It’s bad for the team,” I said.

“Ugghh.  Why is this stuff so hard?  Okay.  They’re finding the street.  We should make sure everything’s down there and ready to be loaded in.  Tristan, can you lift it, or are you busy?”

“Take over?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t-” Rain started.  “Oh, you were asking Sveta.”

“I’ve got it,” Sveta said.

“Don’t add anything.  You always add a lot,” Tristan said.

With sandwich in one hand and my laptop packed into my backpack, I helped carry one bag of random components.  Tristan didn’t put on his jacket, just boots, as he stepped outside, carrying the heavier things.

Kenzie nearly fell down the fire escape stairs in her enthusiasm to wave at the vehicle that was making its way into the parking lot adjacent to our building.

Darlene hopped out, crossing to where Kenzie was, doing the same thing Chastity had done with Cassie, with the kiss on each cheek.  Kenzie was better at rolling with it than Rachel’s henchman had been.

I didn’t get quite why they were suddenly chattering at high speed from the moment they were reunited when they were connected with Darlene’s body-interlinking power and Kenzie’s cameras and microphones for good portions of the day.  Kenzie had fixed her microphones first thing as we’d returned from the Wardens HQ.

“Not Hookup?” Darlene asked, her expression and tone somewhere between tragedy and disappointment.

“No,” I said.

The driver was a mercenary, burly with a shaggy beard, with a cold stare.  Black outfit with black gloves, a gun at his hip.  He didn’t look much like someone I could have a conversation with for the drive.  I debated my policy of riding along with team members whenever possible.

“Tattletale says she’ll be at our base for a bit when you get there.  Whatever you need to talk about,” Darlene said.

“Thank you.  I did get a message from her.”

Darlene nodded.  “I can’t believe I can’t use Hookup.”

“You can,” I said.  “But it’s a bad idea.”

“Uugh,” Kenzie said.  Darlene mimicked the sound, then tackle-hugged Kenzie before the two of them climbed back into the back of the vehicle.

They were getting along in a way that would have been next to impossible if either one of them were unpowered or from different backgrounds.  I felt like this was a good thing, pending sufficient supervision, but I could also see how it lined up almost perfectly with the mentality in the diary.  By taking this course of action, was I reinforcing the diary, giving Dragon and Jessica more fuel to doubt me?

I settled in the passenger seat, with a nod from the driver.

The pair in the backseat talked nonstop, with seventy-five percent of the talking being Kenzie’s.

Was my input on the name wrong?  Was my condoning Tattletale’s part in this fucked up?

Our driver didn’t try to make conversation.  I finished my sandwich, being careful with crumbs, then set my head against the window, staring out at the city beyond, and I got lost in my thoughts.

As we entered the yet-unnamed junior team’s headquarters, a chair slowly swiveled one-hundred-and-eighty degrees.  Chicken Little sat in it, stroking the pet in his lap.  That pet clucked, right on cue.  “Welcome back.”

The maneuver prompted an overflow of excitement and praise from the two girls, who charged into the room.

“Stop!  You’re going to scare my birds!” he protested, as the girls chattered at him.  I had the impression he was the one who was a little overwhelmed at the response, rather than the sedate white chicken he was holding.

All around his ‘office’ were cages with birds, some dangling, others set against the wall.  They looked to be categorized roughly by size, scale, and type.  No doubt so the big birds wouldn’t eat the little ones.

As the trio each raised their yet-immature voices to higher volumes, each to be overheard by the other two, Tattletale rolled her head back, hands to her temples.  She was sitting in a cozy chair off to one side.  The headquarters had one central room, with the exit to the south, a space that seemed to be half-lounge, half Candy’s to the west, where Tattletale was, Aiden’s office to the north, and Lookout’s workshop and space to the east.

I walked over to Lookout’s workshop, and dropped off the bag and box I’d brought in.  I rubbed at my arm as I walked away from it.

The energy level of the ten and eleven year olds was dialed up to ten, easily.

“I’m going to get a headache, and I haven’t even overdone it with my power yet,” Tattletale said.  “Hey, midgets!  Volume down.”

They started talking at normal volume, but at the same general velocity, even overlapping one another.

Tattletale was set up with her laptop in front of her.  She watched me, wary, as I approached.  The lounge half of the space had a few nice chairs, a short table, and a collection of snacks, some of which were the same ones we had back at the Breakthrough headquarters.

There was an adjoining room, connected to both Aiden’s office and Candy’s section of the lounge, that looked like it might be a barracks or medical corner, but I might have been overthinking it.  A few beds and some decorations and things that made me think they were Darlene’s.

Tattletale closed her laptop and set it aside, leaning back as she looked up at me.

“Kenzie,” I said.

The chatter stopped.  I turned my head and saw the four kids looking my way.  A projection of Candy stood by the desk.

“Don’t listen in?”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.

Tattletale’s penetrating stare was a weight.  Even opening my mouth to speak and say it was hard.  Fuck all of this.

“Help,” I said.  Non-sequitur.  She wouldn’t know what I meant.  “I need help.”

I was going to operate on the assumption that someone as busy as Tattletale couldn’t do something as comprehensive as what I’d read over at the hideout.  I was operating on the assumption she wasn’t that subtle.

“Why should I?” she asked.

“Favors, payment, information.  Whatever it takes.”

“I could tell you I’m busy.  Schedule’s full.  Undersiders are trying to get back onto the map, but those of us who are left and sticking around are mostly background players.  The status we earn is through deeds, not show, which means I have to deed.”

I couldn’t say I was exceptionally surprised.

“I’d promise to help promote the Undersiders, involve you more in big decisions, but I know it’s pretty shitty to promise visibility.  Too many junior heroes get lured onto teams with promises of exposure and next to no pay.”

“I’m not a hero,” Tattletale said.  “But yeah, I don’t think we get much if we sell our services to you.  You already know what we’re capable of, and you draw a pretty hard moral line in the sand-”

“Not so hard lately,” I told her.

“Fine.  But you draw a line.  There are very specific circumstances where you’re talking to other teams and you’ll say ‘I have an idea, my fellow white-hats!  We’ll call the Undersiders!'”

“You came,” I observed.

“Imp has been hassling me to take on more duties with the junior team, and when you called she was happy for the excuse.  She says we need to talk ground rules for the Chicken Tenders.”

Please tell me we aren’t calling them that.”

Tattletale smiled, her mouth turning up at the corners.  “Come up with a better name.”

“There isn’t an iota of curiosity in there?” I asked.  “This is a puzzle only you can unravel.”

“I’ve got enough of those.”

Less fun than pulling teeth.

“If this gets out, or if it’s a long-term play, the end result is going to be bad.  It affects Lookout, among others, and that affects your kids.”

“I’m getting the gist of it.  But maybe that’s a good thing,” Tattletale said.  “Because I worry about your kid in that room more than I worry about any of the Heartbroken.  I’d be happier if she wasn’t here.  If things are that fragile, it could be better if we rip off that overly attached bandage now.”

“I’ve given your kids a benefit of a doubt.”

“Good!  They kind of deserve one.  When I say Lookout scares me, that’s not me taking a side or being wary because she’s unfamiliar.  That’s me saying she’s kinda messed up, and as neat as it would be to have access to her stuff, I don’t think it’s worth the risk.”

I put my hand on the back of the armchair she was sitting on, and I tilted it back a bit as I leaned in closer.  “Don’t.”

“It’s the truth,” Tattletale said, sitting back with her feet no longer touching the ground.  If I let go of the armchair, it would crash to the floor.

“You’re talking about her that way in her place.  Her territory, when she’s a few rooms away.  That’s shitty.  You’ve got to be a better person than that.”

Tattletale brought her feet up even higher, than reached up to chop at my arm where my scar was.  As I let go, she swung her feet down and her center of gravity forward, so the armchair would thunk to a proper sitting position instead of falling back.

“Huh?” Darlene asked, peering around the corner.  “What was that?”

“Antares is bullying me,” Tattletale said.

Darlene stared, looking at each of us in turn, studying posture and context.

“Keep at it,” Darlene said.  “She needs someone to remind her to act nice once in a while.”

“Traitor,” Tattletale said.

“Darlene, Darlene, Darleeeeene,” Kenzie’s voice piped.

“Volume!” Tattletale called out.

“Look, look.  Are you looking?  Bam!”

Darlene, still leaning around the corner, turned to look, and reacted so strongly that she nearly lost her position on the wall and fell over.  Aiden and projection-Candy were laughing, and Darlene joined in, almost scrambling to her feet in rejoining the group in the other room, around the corner.

I walked over a few steps, to get a view of what they were doing.

Candy’s projection was in ‘costume’, but it was possibly the most horrific thing I’d ever seen.  Vertical, horizontal, and diagonal stripes, dots, and clashing color combinations every step of the way.  But even if it had been wiped clear of pattern, the 80’s shoulders, tucked-in top that produced a belly, and puffy pants tucked into high socks were bad.

“It’s what we’d get if we took all the opposite options from my ‘this one or that one’ machine learnings,” Kenzie said, looking far too pleased with herself, eyes glinting.

I mock-shielded my eyes, then retreated back around the corner, to Tattletale.

“I’m nice,” Tattletale said, even though the comment seemed to be a response to Darlene, who was long gone.  “But you know as well as anyone, Vic, that trying to help everyone leads to an inevitable disaster.  You need rules about who you help, how, and when.”

She’s not talking about me.  She’s talking about Amy.

“Yeah.  You’re a super nice person.”

She shrugged.  “I’m here.  I’m backing them up.  I’m arranging the protection and ferrying them to the people and the places they need to be, and that includes ensuring your kid has the materials for her workshop.  But if you’re telling me I have to fight to keep this little girl that actually kind of scares me around?  Maybe I’m not that interested.”

“If you want to talk about helping people, and the who, why, and when, I want to point out that I helped you.  That scar you just hit?  I got it while helping Sveta to get you away from Cradle.”

“We’re going there?”

“You said,” I told her.  “Quid pro quo.  You bring up my shit, I can bring up that.”

She arched an eyebrow, still wearing that smirk that she had to know annoyed me.

It was… interesting that Tattletale had apologized by that roundabout way, but that she’d prodded at my wounds like she had, in this past conversation.  Was there something else in play?  A degree of insecurity?  Or, with my discussion regarding Colt so fresh in my mind, I might even consider an element of it to be the wiring of her particular brain.

She didn’t apologize or hold back from poking at weak points because she couldn’t.  In which case… this was wholly, entirely fair to do, on my part.  She’d told me.

“I said that at a time I was in pain, delirious.”

I didn’t back down.  “Any currency I earned there?  I want to spend it.  On this.”

“You even resorted to physical violence.  You really want this.  Some financial payment, some favors, and you can play that card,” she said.  “You get five minutes of my time.”

“That wasn’t physical violence.  Intimidation, maybe.”

But I didn’t waste the time she’d offered me.  I got my laptop out of my bag, handing it over.  She powered it on.

“The password is-”

She had it typed before I got that far in the sentence.

“You don’t have internet.  I can see why you needed my help.  That’s a horrific situation to be in.”

“I took out the networking card before I did anything,” I said.  “I moved it to a folder on the desktop.”

“A… diary.  How cute.”

“Read it.”

“This is how you want me to spend the time?  Stroke your ego?  Am I supposed to start empathizing with you?”

“Read,” I said.

“The brute side of you really comes out when you’re stressed.  Where do I start?”

“Wherever.”

“Huh.  Okay, important dates…”

She’d allotted me five minutes.

When ten minutes had passed, I got tired of standing around, and went to check in on the others.  The hollow feeling hadn’t left me.  I still felt betrayed, and weirdly violated even though it wasn’t my diary being used to judge me.

“Are you leaving?” Kenzie asked.  “I didn’t get to show you anything.”

“Not leaving yet.  Waiting for Tattletale to read.  I might be a little distracted until she’s done.  After?”

“After’s good.  Aren’t these birds cool?”

Every single bird in Aiden’s ‘office’ stared me down, silent.  Not a chirp or tweet.

“Really cool.  Intimidating.”

“Aren’t they!?” Kenzie asked, delighted.

“Can I grab one of your snacks from the other room?”

“Yes,” Kenzie said, looking at the others.  “Yes?  That’s okay?  We’re okay with that?”

I got confirmation.

“There was hot chocolate.  Want me to make you guys something?  It would be microwave hot chocolate, but you-”

I didn’t even need to finish the sentence.

Hot chocolate and snacks.  Tattletale made some annoyed sounds with every beep of the microwave, but didn’t otherwise comment.

It made the kids happy, as they all sat around Aiden’s desk, enjoying what looked to be the best aspects of being kid capes with their own hideout.  With how nervous I was, the joy wasn’t contagious, but it did make the day less bad.

Tattletale had promised me five minutes and she gave me twenty before she finally closed the laptop, setting it aside, resting atop her own.

I waited another minute to give her room to think before my patience ran out.

“Do I need to explain why I’m concerned?” I asked.

“You wrote a diary before?”

“Very little, while I was in the hospital.”

“But that’s not yours.”

I shook my head.

I did my best not to show just how relieved I was to hear those words, after doubting my own sanity.

“Who did they send it to?”

“Dragon found it, when I was sending her case files.  She passed it on to someone important to our group.”

“Weird.”

“More than weird,” I told her, quiet.

“No need for money, no need for favors.  I wanted cred for the Undersiders, and this will do.”

“This?”

“It runs deeper, Victoria.  I know you think very highly of yourself, but this isn’t about you.  Not exactly.  Either they chose people they thought would make good targets, they chose randomly, or, they had a methodology like targeting the newest person to join each team.”

“‘They’, you say.”

“They.  This isn’t just you, and it took a team.  If we’re tackling this, we should start at the fringes.  Small groups and groups with very new or tenuous memberships.  I don’t know if Dragon found it by an accident that’s lucky for you, or if she found it by design, but… it’s interesting and concerning either way.  I’m halfway to wondering if one of the other Undersider contingents has something like this planted on their systems.”

“Yeah.  I was wondering about the rest of my team, but I don’t know what that would look like, or how I would look.”

“Come on,” she said.  She got to her feet and stretched.  “We.  Us.  Investigate.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.3

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“I can explain it all, if you’re interested.”

I looked in the direction the group had gone.  I had enough bound up emotions that I wasn’t sure I trusted myself.  Vista, at least, had found her way to my side.  Backup of a sort.

“Yeah,” I said.  “An explanation would be really good right now.”

“Okay.  You’re a fucky sort of monster, Antares, alright?”

I blinked a few times in rapid succession.  Brought from wonderings and distractions to harsh reality in a second.

“You can’t just say something like that,” Vista said.

“I’ll explain.  You can be any one kind of fucky monster in my example, right?  There are monsters you want to fuck up, there are monsters you want to fuck with, there are monsters you want to fuck, because of course, and there are monsters you want to cockblock.”

“First of all,” Vista said.  “Yes, yes, what, and maybe.  Second of all, you suck at explanations, Solarstare.”

“I’m great at explanations,” Solarstare said.  “To start with, you have to get your audience’s attention, no matter how distracted they clearly are.”

“You did a pretty good job of that,” I said.

“You also fucked up your credibility pretty hard,” Vista said.

“Then you earn it back,” Solarstare said.  She did a good job of living up to her name, unblinking, her eyes pools of luminescent liquid that streamed continually from notches in the center of the lower eyelids.  The helmet she wore hugged her cheekbones and cheeks, channeling the liquid along the mask’s line and down to the bodysuit she wore with its inlaid ornamentation.  The design of the suit collected the liquid into a glowing emblem at her front.  It made her very intense.  Three narrow triangles of glowing luminescence marked the perimeter of each eye, like cartoon eyelashes, one above, one at a diagonal at the outer edge, and one pointing out from the corner of her eye to her temples.

“Look, whatever course I’d want to take when I deal with hypothetical fucky monster Antares, there’re a few things I want, right?  I want protection, and I want to get there before anyone else, or else I’m dealing with sloppy seconds, and sloppy gets people killed while seconds just… disappoints everyone.”

“Whether you’re fucking up, fucking with, fucking, or-”

“Or cockblocking,” Solarstare said.

I actively resisted looking in the direction of the conference room where the group had gone with Jessica.

“What monsters are you fucking, Solarstare, and do I need to worry?” Vista asked.

“I’m being optimistic, but I think we want to fuck half of them,” Solarstare said.

“So what you’re saying is I need to worry.”

“Half of them are good guys or people who will work with good guys,” Solarstare said.

“Maybe, uh, start with our working definition of monster?”

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “Because that’s not the monsters I know.”

Solarstare’s eyes widened as she smiled, because she was clearly engaged.  Liquid flowed out in greater quantity, to the point it overwhelmed what the channels in the helmet could take, and some found its way to the furrow beside the nostril, and onto her upper lip and lips.  She wiped at it, leaving a faintly glowing smear.  “Good, bad, or ugly, you’ve got the ones who’ve settled in.  They’ve found a rut and they’ve settled into it so hard that they’ve started to twist up.  Like someone who jacks off five times a day, same hand, same habit, and their arm-”

“Okayyy,” Vista said.

“Or jills off.  Equal opportunity metaphor.”

“That’s not what I was taking issue with.  You’re going to make our guest here think we’re all huffing construction insulation or something out here.  You said you’d explain what the Bunker is but you just launched into one big fucking metaphor.”

Everything’s a fucking metaphor.”

“Okayyyy.  I’m definitely seeing you in a new light, Solar.  Kind of.  Sort of.  I saw how you were when we were all stationed at High Hill Bravo-”

Solarstare shushed Vista, who tried to bring up names, which just made Solarstare shush her more noisily.  A good five or ten seconds were spent as they made noises at each other.

It was good to see Vista so animated.  It put a smile on my face despite-

I glanced in the direction of the conference room.  I could see the vague shapes of the group, identify one as Kenzie, because it was up out of its chair, moving around, gesticulating wildly.

The smile fell from my face.

“Look,” Solarstare said, reaching out to touch me, then pulling that hand away to wipe at another dribble that escaped because she’d moved forward as quickly as she had.  “You only ever lift one way, lift a lot, neglect certain things, you get warped and you don’t hold up as well.  Whatever kind of cape you are-”

I rattled a few off, to contribute, and because I wanted to be distracted, “Hero, mercenary, villain, corporate, sponsored, brand, clandestine, ideologue, scumbag-”

“Any kind, yeah,” Solarstare said, smiling.  “You get too into this, you lose your ordinary life by accident or by a hundred small steps, and it all becomes distorted.  Without enough other things going on, you don’t have the ability to keep everything straight, so you end up becoming something fucky.  Something that gets fucked up, fucked with, fucked, or frustrated.”

I blinked a few times.

Vista gave me a long look.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Or all of the above.”

“And this is getting a little heavy,” Vista said.

“It is heavy,” Solarstare said.  “The Bunker needs to be sturdy because it’s all so heavy.  We’ve got two portals right now.  City center and city east.  By next week we’ll have four.  A week after that we’ll have seven, they think.  Six of those will be places in the city we can instantly mobilize to.  Wham, bam, fuck you ma’am.  Seventh portal will be our proper prison world we should only be able to get to through the Bunker.  Which means if you want to get in or break someone out, you have to go through the Bunker, which we’re loading to the brim with security.”

I nodded.  “Which is protection for safe fucking up, fucking with, fucking-”

“Which I still have questions about, Solar,” Vista cut in.

“-and frustrating.”

“Cockblocking,” Solarstare said.

“She had a teammate called Clockblocker,” I said, throwing a thumb in Vista’s way.

Solarstare laughed.  It looked almost like her back teeth glowed, like the fluids from her eyes leeched into the back of her mouth by some channel or osmosis.

“My teammate for a very short time too.  I like ‘frustrated’ better.  Plus it alliterates.”

“Got it,” Solarstare said.  “Yeah.  Getting there first means no sloppy seconds, and doing it safely means we don’t get fucked.”

“Good explanation,” I said.  I knew most of it, not the numbers for portals, or the timeline, but most of it.  Maybe the definition of ‘monster’ was something that took me back to uncomfortable memories, and that negative matched or outweighed the gain of the little tidbits I’d picked up, but it served to distract, and she’d clearly been intending to do that.

“Which is my chance to ask, um, what monsters have you been fucking?” Vista asked.  “Do I need to worry, Solar?”

“Come on, Vista, it’s an analogy, take five seconds to look past the big bad swear word.”

“If you can use one word for five hundred different situations or contexts, you need to give us a bit more to go on.”

“To fuck them is to deal with them, interact, back and forth.  Sometimes you gotta suck ’em off to keep em happy and sometimes you gotta demand your quid-pro-quo.  Favor for a favor.  And sometimes it’s down to a hate-fuck, which-”

“Okayyy,” Vista said.  “You’re embarrassing me in front of my friend now.”

“Don’t act like you’re a prude, Vista.  Do I need to talk about what you got up to at High Hill Bravo?”

“I didn’t get up to a damn thing,” Vista said, flushing slightly, “and my friend’s visiting, I only have so long before I’m called to work, and I might not get another chance to talk to her for a bit, depending on how I’m deployed.”

“Maybe she’d like to hear stories,” Solarstare teased.  She raised her eyebrows my way.

“I want to talk to her about secret ID stuff, civilian stuff,” Vista said.

“Are you-”

“I’m pulling that card,” Vista said.

Solarstare winked at me, and in the time we’d had our conversation, it was the first time she’d blinked or even closed an eye.  The wink came with a flash and a sudden surge of brightly glowing liquid.  She sauntered, rather than just walk off.

Vista was still a little pink in the wake of Solarstare’s departure.

“She’s fun,” I said.

“You know what the sad thing is?” Vista asked, quiet.  “She is.  But she used to be this really quiet, reserved girl who always read books while everyone else hung out.  She was arrogant, looked down on people, acting like she was thirty and not eighteen.  She snitched a few times, when some capes were drinking, and even the supervisors were like… fuck off, Solarstare.  Let them be.  You know?”

“What happened?”

“She got punted into a wall during a fight.  TBI.”

Traumatic brain injury.

“The entire time they were taking her to the hospital, she was screaming, flailing, using her powers, fighting every step of the way.  Swelling inside the skull went down and she was normal-ish, except she’d lost the ability to read, speak, listen to music, or understand even slightly abstract pictures.  Over the past six months she’s been working her way back to normal.”

“But she’s different?”

“Completely different personality.  Less filters, but also more open, more empathetic, more outgoing.  And she kind of needs to be watched to make sure she doesn’t go overboard with drinking or sex or anything else.  So that’s, uh, part of why she’s the way she is.”

“I wonder how much of it has to do with the near death experience.  A bit of a wake-up-call about what she nearly missed out on.”

“I don’t know,” Vista said.  “It’s scary though.  Bam, personality change.”

I nodded.

“You guys really seem to be living the life.  Crystal’s been in Warden-orbit for a bit now, but she didn’t mention the drinking and sex and… a lot going on at this High Hill Bravo?”

“Ugh, I was worried Solar would give that impression.”

I raised my eyebrows, then remembered that my mask covered my upper face.  I took it off and laid it on the table beside me.  We were in the ‘branding’ corner of the bunker.  Jessica and my team were in the opposite corner, having a private conversation or group session.

Leaving me to wonder, to stew, and admittedly, to hurt.

“It kind of is a…” Vista started.  “I don’t even know the term.  Co-ed summer camp, frat house, sorority, high school, mission deployment.  A lot of people aged sixteen to twenty-five with not enough supervision, just thrown in together with bunk beds and sleeping bags, in sometimes really lonely circumstances.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Gravitate together?”

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “Connect.”

“Did you…?” I asked.  Got a shrug in response.  “And here I thought you didn’t have any luck in all the time I was gone.”

“So I had a boyfriend in high school.  Tyler.  He asked out Missy Byron and we dated for like, seven weeks.  He wasn’t the cutest or the best or the most well-rounded individual, but he was kind and he was a gentleman, so I figured ‘good enough’.  Is that shitty to say?”

“I dunno,” I said.

“Sometimes high school boys are like men, but brand new or the rougher edges aren’t quite sanded off, but they’re still men, you know?  Young men.  And sometimes they’re… half formed.  And Tyler was half-formed.  Needing a few more pieces before he was a complete person.  But he was a first kiss and a chance to make a lot of stupid mistakes where I was selfish or dramatic or needed to figure out how to talk to people.”

“Sure,” I said.  It was a pretty different experience from my own.  I was ninety-five percent sure that when Vista thought of a ‘young man’ she was thinking of Gallant.

“And we messed around but we didn’t mess around.  Then somewhere along the line we mutually ghosted one another, I guess.  And from there I had a Wards summer camp thing, and it was kind of like High Hill Bravo except we kind of had to be way more careful about it.  We knew we were only there for three weeks, and we wasted a week before I had the courage to approach him, so there wasn’t any time for being polite.  Got a lot of things out of the way.”

“I get you.”

“And after that, Gold Morning and mourning… there are people who find comfort in other people’s arms and I’m not one of those people.”

I nodded, vigorously.

“And then High Hill Bravo.  Kind of.  But that was kind of because there’s nothing to do except ‘hurry up and wait’, it was so far from home, and all the other stuff I talked about.  But never someone I was into.  Just kind of reminding myself I’m not… broken, I guess?  After losing everything.”

“Not broken,” I said.  I nodded, then nodded more vigorously.  “Yeah.  Yeah.”

“You?” she asked.  “I kind of know the answer, but I don’t want to just talk about me.”

“Me?  And boys?  Gallant.”

“Would you, given a chance?”

I drew in a deep breath.

“Yeah.  But I don’t know what that chance would look like.  Would I want a fling, no stakes, yet somehow also have allll of the baggage I bring into it?  I don’t know how that works.  A serious relationship?”

“You asked that one more like you were asking me instead of asking a rhetorical question.”

“I don’t know what it would look like.  I’ve got enough going on.  It’d be so unfair in so many ways.  I mean, baggage aside, I feel like most relationships would pale compared to Dean.”

She nodded.  “Don’t blame you.  It always comes back to him with us, huh?”

I thought of Dean, imagined him here.  What would he say?

I nodded.  “It’s why we got to talking in the first place, kind of.  Um.  There was something he told me once, privately.  And it feels weird to just talk about it now, like I’m somehow betraying his confidence…”

“You don’t have to.”

“No, it’s just…” I trailed off.  Just what?  “…He told me once that every single person he cared about in his life let him down.  His mom took things he told her in confidence about a friend and used those things against that friend’s mom for some advantage in her social circle or some bullshit.  His dad just casually said that if he wanted to move out of Brockton Bay and pursue a bigger cape life outside of the city instead of taking a hand in the family business, he’d be essentially disowned.  Teachers, aunts, uncles, people he counted on, they all let him down.”

“Except you?” Vista asked.

I made a bit of a face.  “He told me that during a fight.  Accusing me of being the most recent one.  But venting a lot of stuff he needed to vent.  I made it up to him, fixed what I’d been doing wrong, and he later told me I was the only person who didn’t let him down, so… I think I did okay.”

“Good,” Vista said, in a serious, profound way, not like there was an ‘or else’, but like it really was ‘good’.

“Except I let him die,” I said.

“No, Victoria,” Vista said.  “No, no, no.”

I frowned.

“No.”

“I’m kind of getting what he meant, you know?  Feeling let down.  Like I can’t get close to anyone I’m supposed to rely on without it turning out to be a trap or vulnerability.  My mom, my dad…”

I glanced at the conference room.

Jessica had been here to attend to regular work, to do the psych profile on Colt, and for whatever other roles she had with the Wardens.  And we’d chanced on each other.  Now the team got to talk to her, and-

Vista drew closer and gave me a one-armed hug.

“What can I do?” she asked.

I wanted to have an answer, because I suspected Vista was being genuine.  She had that stripe of heroism in her that I really respected.  There were people who needed to be dragged into goodness, who were good except for, or who were good because.  And that except for could be a vice or a bad thing they’d once done.  The because could be a justification, a motivation.  People who were heroes except they’d killed a person, who were heroes except for the fact they did drugs. Who were heroes because it was the fastest, safest way to make money.  Many risked falling from the path, getting dragged down, or finding themselves in water so muddy that ‘heroism’ wasn’t much more than a label.  And then there were the genuine heroes, who could go through hell, be given any temptation, and they would always gravitate toward a baseline of doing what was lawful, right, and moral.

I wasn’t about to lay claim to being genuine, but I was pretty sure Vista could.  And part and parcel of that was that if I asked her for something as a friend and colleague, then she would go out of her way to do it.  Even while hurt and mending.

As Vista broke the hug, I turned my back to the conference room, leaning against a table piled with rolled up concept sketches.  The nice thing about these offworld installations was that they often had an amazing view.  This place, as gray as it was, was up there.  What had come up here as a rough equivalent to tall grass had matted, grown in dense,  and curled into itself until it looked like lichen.  The snowfall hadn’t really done anything to wipe it out or flatten, it, only gave it a look like it had been doused in powdered sugar.

“Any biokinetics or bio tinkers in the prison right now?” I asked.

Vista turned my way.  I could see her eyes and eyebrows vaguely through the textured glass of her visor.  Eyebrows up, the eye closest to me wide.

“No,” she said.  “Why?”

I shook my head.

“Doesn’t seem like something you’d ask.”

This wasn’t easy.

“For Sveta.  Just… considering options.”

“Sorry,” she said.  “That’s…”

“Not an easy thing to bring up,” I said.

“Yeah, that.”

“I want a good outcome for her.”

“Even though she’s kind of playing a role in cutting you out, right now?  Not to poke at the wound, but…”

You really suck at changing topics and distracting, I thought.  But I’d raised the line of conversation and of course she’d have questions.

“If she came out of that conference room, and they said they wanted me off the team, and that she was a major voice arguing for it, I’d still want good things for her.”

“They’re not going to do that, Vicky.”

“I’m just saying, worst case scenario-”

“I don’t think that scenario’s happening.”

“Let me finish?” I asked.  I poked her.

“Fine.”

“I love her like family.  She’s been there for me, and no matter what happens I want to do right by her.  Part of that is keeping an eye out for answers.”

“She’s doing so well, though,” Vista said.

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’d like to do something.”

Vista nodded.  Looking down at the table in front of her, she turned a piece of art around and smoothed out the paper where the edges rolled in.

“Orchard,” she said.

“What’s that?”

“They’ve been active for a long time.  They were in Boston.  Not big, but they’ve earned enough to buy their way out of trouble.  Good lawyers, staying off the radar, moving around a lot.  And they manipulate biology.  They’re about as scummy as they get, Victoria.”

“Okay,” I said.  “They sound vaguely familiar.  I’ll look them up, see if I have any notes.”

“You do.  You gave the Wardens access to all your files, and we pulled those files for the mission where they’re bringing them in later this week.  Or they hope to.  If you really want to do this, then I can ask for our people to keep them in custody.”

“It’s worth asking, at least.  I’ll see what strings I can pull, if they can really do anything.”

I glanced over my shoulder at the conference room.  I could make out Sveta’s silhouette, because the blinds reached the floor and Sveta was wearing a dress that hid the tendrils that reached down to the floor.

“You’re really spooked about this.  I get it if you’re left out and I know how much that hurts, really, but that’s not it is it?”

Spooked?  Scared?

Yeah.

I chewed on my lip rather than say anything.  I nodded.

“I don’t really get it, but I’m sorry,” Vista said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I’m also really sorry for whoever gets this costume,” Vista said.  She slid paper across the table.  I looked down, and I laughed.  It looked like something the Super Magic Dream Parade would wear.  Taffeta puff sleeves, puffy collar, and puffy shorts.  The drawing had the person’s hair in a small afro as well.  There were some variations playing off of different color schemes and design touches for different example powers.  There was a male and female variant, as well.  If it were one image I would have called it an exercise or a bit of artistic exploration, but this looked like a complete workup.

“How?  Why?  Do I need to worry about the people I’m working with?” Vista asked, her expression somewhere between horror and amusement.

“Probably.  But I think having something like this would be strategic,” I said.  “Hold this over someone’s head, get them to behave.  Or set their expectations really low, first.”

“I’m going to feel so bad if I run into the person who got this costume, knowing I laughed,” Vista said.

“They’ll need all the support they can get.”

“Oh man,” Vista said.  “Are there any other treasures in here?”

There weren’t, but looking through the art provided enough idle amusement.  I was careful to put everything back where we found it.

“They’re leaving the room,” Vista observed.

I didn’t look.

“You know, before you go talk to any of them, I want to say they’re pretty decent overall, I think.  And I know and I trust Jessica.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Agreed and agreed.  Which is I guess why I’m so bothered.  I’m putting my finger on it now.  That thing I was saying before, you know, Gallant saying everyone had let him down?”

“Yeah.  And you being stupid and blaming yourself over that.”

“I let him down, that one last time.  I don’t know how easily I can let go of that.  And what gets me here is… maybe it’s not just him?  What if I’ve let everyone down?”

“You haven’t.”

“Haven’t I?  Because all those guys got hurt.  I let my mom down when I W- when I was careless.  I let my dad down by how I acted in the aftermath of it.  I let Sveta down by letting her lose her body and it was- it was really good for her to have it.”

“You’re being too hard on yourself.”

“What if I’m not being hard enough on myself, and she tears into me, and-”

“You can’t know, Vicky, unless you go talk to her.”

Sveta broke away from the group.  It was her who beckoned me.

Jessica waited by the conference room door.

“You’re a good person, she’s a good person.  I think your team is mostly good people, but I don’t know them that well.  Trust.”

“Thank you, Vista, for keeping me company.”

“Thanks for letting me vent.  Come talk to me after, if you want.”

“Sure.  I’ll let you know how it goes.  Do me a favor and don’t mention Orchard to Sveta?”

“Sure.  I figured I shouldn’t.”

I picked up my eyeless mask, put my hand on her shoulder, then made my way across the floor.  Construction workers and Warden staff were abundant enough I had to weave through, which made just getting to the conference room hard enough.

Sveta passed me, bumping shoulders with me, and headed over in Vista’s direction.  Weld, it seemed, was preoccupied elsewhere.

“Hi,” Jessica said.  She retreated into the room.

“Hi.”

I shut the door behind me.

Jessica was more tan than the last time I’d seen her.  She might have had more lines in her face.  She wore a sweater with a folded collar and slacks, with suede boots that matched the sweater.  A lot of attention had gone into her appearance, as if she’d broken from her rhythm to such a degree that she’d overcompensated on coming back, even three weeks later.

“I think I’m caught up on events,” she said.  “I had to ask them to take turns so one voice wouldn’t dominate the room.”

I nodded.

“You’ve worked hard,” she said.  “I can’t necessarily agree with the direction of that work, but I think we’ve always had our disagreement over the balance of priorities.  The balance of civilian against powers, with each of us pushing for one or the other.”

Why did you block my phone?

“I dunno,” I said.  “I don’t think I push for powers that hard.  I just think… a lot of the time, the happiest, healthiest cape day-to-days are the ones where they blend together seamlessly.  Sous-vide with a laser sear.  The little, casual acceptances of power into life.”

Don’t ramble.

“You pushed hard here, didn’t you?” Jessica asked.

“Here?”

“With the group.  Nevermind.  I’m getting ahead of myself,” Jessica said.

Where are you going that that’s getting ahead of yourself?

“Sure,” I said.

“I exchanged words with Dr. Darnall.  He says you haven’t been going to physio.”

Is this caring about me or is it accusatory?  Is it your next step in getting to the real subject of this conversation?

“I did.  I went.  I got the exercises and the game plan and I’ve been keeping up with it.  Every morning.”

“Regimes need to change.  Things need to be monitored, Victoria.”

Doesn’t answer my question about whether this is caring or accusatory.

“They were.  And they are.  I’ve seen family and teammates get hurt, I read up on what to do when Patrol members got injured when I was in the Patrol.”

“That’s no substitute for medical attention, Victoria.”

It’s not, but I’d like it if it counted for more when I did pick up certain skills or knowledgeOr when I put in effort.

“It’s enough.  I know what to watch out for, the differences between kinds of pain.  I just…”

She didn’t cut in or fill the silence that followed.

“…Kind of hate hospitals,” I said.  The bitterness of the sentiment and the bitterness of the feelings I was holding back made it a paradoxically weaker statement overall, like my voice had almost broken as I admitted it.

“If that’s how you’re taking care of yourself, walking that risky line where you’re half-blind and taking on enough responsibility that you’re running the risk of hurting yourself, are you really taking care of the others?”

What? This was the first thing she’d said that really hurt, that felt like it wasn’t possible to fit into the mold of a normal conversation with Jessica Yamada.

Why do I feel like there’s nothing that I could say that would change the tone of this conversationLike my points aren’t being directly addressed?

“I’m damn well trying,” I said.  “You asked me for help.  You seemed okay with the coaching thing.  You put me in close proximity to a dangerous biology-altering threat of global proportions without cluing me in.”

“He wasn’t a threat, Victoria.  He needed more sessions but he was on his road to normalcy, striking his balance, learning the necessary skills.”

“He’s not the cataclysmic threat I was told to watch out for then?”

“He’s-” she started.

She stopped.

Don’t.

She wasn’t good at being evasive, or at thinking on the back foot.

Don’t shut me out.  I don’t fucking deserve this.

“You’re not going to tell me.”

“Victoria…”

I waited.  I didn’t respond, as much as there were fifty things I wanted to say.  I let the silence hang, as she’d done to me many times before.

“No,” she said.

Fine.  I’d say the first of those fifty things.  “You want to accuse me of not caring for them?  I sacrificed to help those guys.  I gave up a literal pound of flesh, at least-!”

I pushed up my sleeve to show the scars I’d been through physio to rehabilitate.  The scarred notch in my tricep.

“-For them!  Because people wanted to kill them, because people wanted to kidnap or co-opt them, because they’d been taken to pieces.  I gave my all, and your complaint is I’m not doing a perfect job of it?  I’m paying too much attention to the cape side of things?  That’s not a fight you win, when agents are involved.  You don’t get wins, you find a working balance where you minimize the damage and you maximize the gains!”

“That’s not what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is pushing and diving into this reality to the point you end up in the hospital isn’t self-care.  And-”

“And pushing them and letting them get hurt isn’t caring?”

Hesitation.  “That’s not what I’m getting at.”

“You’re getting at something,” I said.  “Except you’re not.  You’ve frozen me out, you blocked my number, my emails bounce back, you have a meeting with my group without me, and when I finally get to talk to you, you’re not listening.  You’re ready with a follow-up, like- like you’re strategizing your way through the conversation, picking and choosing what you’re able to get away with saying, and you’re so focused on that that you don’t hear me.”

“It’s not strategizing.  I’m trying to be diplomatic.”

“Same thing,” I said.  “What was diplomatic about blocking my number?  Leaving me out of that catch-up meeting?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

I hit the table.

“Don’t bully me, Victoria.  Don’t throw your power around.”

“I hit a table.  No forcefield strength, or there wouldn’t be a table anymore.”

“Don’t bully me, with physical violence or with your power, or I walk out of this room.  Same rule as the hospital.  At this stage, it would permanently affect our relationship.”

“At this stage, doing nothing would permanently affect our relationship,” I said.

“There are two possible realities here, Victoria.  Two,” she said.  She was trying to be stern, but she wasn’t good at it.  She didn’t maintain eye contact.  The hand she raised to gesture with, two fingers extended, wasn’t rock steady.

“What realities?”

“I shouldn’t even be telling you this.  But the possibilities are that you’re in the right here, something’s wrong on my end, and I need you to be patient and trust me while I work my way through it.  The meeting with Breakthrough was me trying to gracefully do that without hurting anyone.”

“And the other?”

“That right this moment, you know full well why I’m wary.  And I need to talk to Breakthrough to figure out what’s going on.”

“You think I’m up to something.”

“I have ample evidence to suggest you’re up to something,” Jessica said.  And with that, she did meet my eyes with some conviction.

“If I was, would I have cooperated this far?  Would I have let you talk to them without trying to worm my way in?”

“It’s a point in your favor that you didn’t,” Jessica said.  “But it’s far from a guarantee.  I have to protect my patients.”

I walked along the table in the center of the room.

I saw how, as I moved left, Jessica moved a fraction to her right.  Keeping more of the table between us.

“Evidence?” I asked.

She shook her head.  “I can’t tell you.”

“Why not?  I’m accused of something horrible, apparently, but I can’t see what it is?  Is it a witness?”

“I can’t tell you.”

“It’s been three weeks, this is apparently enough to change your opinion of me entirely.  If it’s that effective or that cut and dry, what’s going to change if you show me or if you wait another…”

I floundered.  Jessica was silent.

“Week?  Another three weeks?  Two months?  Is this going to change, or…”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“Can you give me a foothold here?  Some person I can talk to that’s neutral, or some timeframe?  So I don’t have this hanging over my head forever?”

“I’m not looking to interfere in anything yet.  I’m not going to break up your team by fiat or by leveraging the Wardens.  I won’t use those things to make you leave them.  I just want to look into this.”

“Possibly indefinitely.  And that ‘yet’ might become a ‘now’?  When?  When someone else gets hurt?  I’m thinking back to what you said earlier in the conversation, me being reckless?  Can you give me something?”

“I can’t-”

I used my aura.  I kept it within the room.  A pulse, a thrum.

She remained where she was, stock still, head bent.

Then she turned toward the door.  She took two steps, gave me a sideways glance, and stopped.

I was ten feet from the door, and she didn’t want to get that close to me.

“Step away from the door, please,” she said.

I took a step back and away, my expression stern, angry.

“When you traded files with Dragon, she had a bot sweep your computer.  An automatic thing she does.  She found your diary-”

“Jessica.”

“-Let me finish,” she said, and her voice was tense.  “She found the diary, with her bot flagging certain lines to bring to her attention.  She thought portions were concerning.  Nothing criminal, but suggestive of a certain attitude toward Breakthrough that’s exploitative and unhealthy.  The entries go back to before our first meeting in the Patrol headquarters in Stratford.  I was told the minute I asked after your collective welfare.”

“No,” I said.

“It sounds like you, Victoria.  It reads like you.  It has details that fit you, that I strongly doubt others would know.  It refers to your forcefield as ‘the Wretch’.  It refers to details about your parents and family, your sister included.  So far, by our checks, the calendar of events line up.  I haven’t brought it up with the team, out of concern of outright devastating them, and on the off chance you are innocent, then I would ask you to keep Kenzie out of it.  Reading that would disturb her.”

“What the hell is it?” I asked.

She didn’t answer my question.  Again, just moving on to what she felt like she could and couldn’t say, finding the determination to say the things that were hardest to say.  She went on, “…I did prod and ask questions as much as I could.  My doubts were not eased.  I have not found any holes in the story.”

“I have one.  I wouldn’t write about my sister, I don’t even think about my sister if I can help it,” I said.  The thoughts of Amy and this feeling of betrayal weren’t making it easy to think straight.

“I told you what you wanted to know, would you please step to the other end of the room?”

That- she’d told me because she still felt threatened?  She was bartering?

I stumbled back to the point of the room that was furthest from her.

She was watching me, studying every expression and movement.

I saw worry crease her forehead, drawing her eyebrows together.  Or doubt.

What could I even say?

She stopped at the door, while it was still closed.

“As you have have surmised, Chris was my biggest concern,” she said.

I nodded.

“Right now you are.  If this is a clever setup, then I hope you understand.”

Again, I nodded.

“Whether you’re acting right now or you return home to read what was supposedly planted on your computer, you’ll know either way.  Yes, Sveta is a lingering concern of mine.”

I nodded, too choked up to speak, too bewildered by this to even consider the ramifications of that.

She paused at the door, visibly composed herself, and then stepped out of the conference room.

It took me a hell of a lot longer to compose myself.  I leaned over the end of the table, hands resting on it for balance.  I considered all of the avenues, and found too many dead ends.

I didn’t even have a diary.  I hated diaries.  But saying that wouldn’t have proved a damn thing.

I gathered myself together, fixed my hair and adjusted my costume.

I rejoined the team.  Sveta was talking to Vista.

Watch Sveta?

“All good?” Tristan asked.

“Sure,” I said.

“Why’d she keep you out of our meeting?” Rain asked.

I didn’t have a ready answer.

“Family stuff,” I said in the end, lamely.  Not even a good answer to the question.  Then, to change the topic, I asked Kenzie, “Who’s picking you up later?”

“Imp,” Kenzie said.

“Any chance you could make it Tattletale instead?  Or I could tag along for the longer trip, and see Tattletale wherever she’s set up.  We could talk costumes.”

“I can ask!  Probably.  She does want to talk to you about drop-offs, pickups, team sharing, and boundaries and…”

Kenzie went on, but I was still reeling in my way.

But a conversation with Tattletale was a good starting point.  If someone was playing a subtle game to fuck with us and attack us at our core -which was really the only interpretation of this that made any sense at all- then this wouldn’t end here and it was possible there was more subtle work going on in the background.

In scenarios like that, the target stumbling onto the spider’s web was the time for the spider to pounce.

Tattletale would be either my biggest ally or a prime suspect.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.2

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Our witness didn’t accompany us upstairs.

The building was narrow, joined to its neighbors, elegant but very freshly hewn, with interior brickwork that hadn’t yet had time to accumulate grime, floorboards that had been cut and lacquered less than two years ago, with no wear and tear to scratch or test that lacquer.  Above all, it was a relatively narrow, small space for a superhero headquarters.  Five stories tall, but it felt like it was half a floor wide.

Much of our group had gathered at the landing in the stairwell, halfway between floors.  Breakthrough minus our human element, Vista, and Weld.  Golem had gone on ahead to open the door.  Projected lines and rectangles were visible from the stairwell.

“Oh, Victoria, you should know most of the rest of my team is here,” Kenzie said, and her head turned so fast that the blur of altered facial features and details didn’t keep up.  “Chicken Little is here.  Candy’s gone, but Candy’s on another project with Chastity and Amias.”

“Is it really a ‘project’ if she’s having a puppy day with her Aunt Rachel?” Vista asked.

“Shhhh!” Kenzie shushed her.

“It sounds top priority to me,” Tristan said.  “We should all have puppy days.”

“Shhhh, stop.  I’m trying to be professional here!”

“Professional,” I said.  “Okay, you’re networked in?”

“I’ve been networked in by touch,” Kenzie said, responding very quickly and with a renewed effort, like she’d taken half of a breath and jumped straight to an explanation in her eagerness to play along.  “We decided it’s important that if any of us are alone we should be connected to the others.  Tinkers get kidnapped, especially valuable ones, and this is like a ‘find your lost phone’ thing, right?”

“Find your lost Lookout,” Tristan commented, smiling.

“Exactly,” Kenzie said, and I had the impression she was ignoring his amusement.  “But I just switched on cameras and audio too.  Cameras are working well but the audio’s not great.  Ugh.  Oh!  Chicken Little just waved hi.  I think he waved because the audio’s bad.”

“Hi Chicken,” Rain said, raising a hand.

“I figured I should let you know, you know, professionally.  Like when you want to let the other person in a phone call know they’re on speakerphone.”

“Got it,” Weld said.  “We’ll watch what we say and do.”

The headquarters wasn’t up and running, and part of the reason was that it needed facilities.  We made our way up the second set of stairs to the second floor.  Golem faced down a hallway of white lines and see-through floating two-dimensional squares, reached out, and touched a floating square, turning it ninety degrees.

As we stepped out of the hallway, a bunch of lines extended down the hallway, to targeting reticules that appeared around our heads and faces.  I saw a flash of the characters for ‘Antares’, not written out and floating in space, but constructed out of rectangles and slashes that were arranged down the length of the hallway so that they only lined up to form words from my specific perspective.

“Aughh, distractions,” Golem said.  He moved a floating panel.

The entire hallway flashed red, and every square and line received an outline of a larger, bolder red.

“Oops,” Vista said.  “Don’t panic.”

“Shut up,” Golem said.

“Nothing like a threat of dimensional collapse to wake you up in the morning,” Vista added.

“What?  The only dimensional collapse I’m at risk of is from you.”

“There’s a chance of one, I have to admit,” Kenzie said.  “But there are so many zeroes after the decimal point that I think we’re safe.  The chance of being struck by lightning and bitten by a shark and having a vending machine fall on you all at once is probably higher.”

“This is really distracting,” Golem said.

“I should take notes,” Kenzie muttered.  She made a writing motion with her hand, paused, then started writing in the air.  “Seeing people use my tech is a good thing to study.”

I noticed that her pupils were red.

“Red eyes?” I asked.

“I commented on that,” Ashley said.

“Yep,” Kenzie said, absently.  “Yeah.  We were thinking about a costume look, and red lenses and eyes were a part of it.”

“If not black, then monochrome,” Ashley said.  “And if not monochrome, red works.”

“I like red,” Tristan said.  “My costume, my power…”

“Green here,” Vista said.  “Red is associated with too many bad memories.  Green is like, ‘life here’.”

Sveta stuck out her arm.  Vista smiled, reaching out to move the arm to get a better look.

“For the recod, red is stressing me out,” Golem said.  He touched lines, moving them into a row.  “We can’t have a twelve-character password, with numbers, letters, and symbols?”

“Three dimensional space has so many more permutations, which makes it really hard to hack, even with your usual hacky tinker device,” Kenzie said.  “And I really wanted a hallway with lasers that you could duck and weave through.”

“You can laser-dance through this mess?” Weld asked.

“You have to be able to,” Vista said.  “If you screw up right at the end, then you have to get out of there before the space collapses in around you.”

“Stop saying that,” Golem said.  “I know you’re messing with my head to get me to screw up in front of everyone.”

“Theoretically you can laser-dance it,” Kenzie said, and her eyes glinted as she looked up at Weld, a mischievous look without a smile.  She lowered her voice to a whisper, “It looks possible, if you have the right powers.  But it’s not really.  You get to the end and you end up standing in just the right place for the security apparatus to gun you down.  Think you’re clever?  Bam, shrapnel to the knees.”

“You can’t tell people that,” I said.  “That’s the kind of thing that gets spread around.”

“But it’s fun,” Kenzie said.

“Not fun,” Golem muttered.  “Stressful.”

Golem advanced down the hallway, moving things with a bit more confidence as he got going.

He reached the end.  The lines fell away.  Ordinary hallway.  A portal ripped its way open at the end.

Kenzie moved her hands, bringing up a fresh panel, and shut down the portal.  We walked down the hallway.

“Vista makes fun, but she keeps scraping by,” Weld said.  “She tried to cheat too, last night.  Used her power.  Immediate fail-state.  We had people come from upstairs and downstairs, weapons ready.”

“Perfect,” Kenzie said.  “Drills and testing the security is useful, especially if it’s people we trust who are poking and prodding at the limits.  My investment is protected.”

Her ‘investment’ was a cube that stood taller than she did, nestled in a side room in the second floor, perched so it rested precariously on a corner.  It was onyx, with irregular panels of chrome metal that looked mirror-reflective, with edges that looked like they’d been torn rather than cut.

I hung out in the hallway with others while she did her routine maintenance, watching through the door.

Sveta settled in next to me.  I bumped her shoulder with mine, and saw her smile, though she didn’t look my way.

“We need something like this for our headquarters,” Tristan said.  “Something that makes it so that if someone tricky turns up, they’re faced with something so daunting the people who work there hate it, they pack up and go away.”

“If you’re paying I can try it,” Kenzie said.  “But I’ve got a lot on my plate.  At least it’d be easier the second time.  Less time needed to figure stuff out.”

“Not lasers,” Ashley said.

“Wrought iron spike portcullises and pendulum blades?” I asked.  “Can you make a dart trap sufficiently elegant?”

“Portcullises and pendulum blades would be tacky.  You’re better than that, Antares,” Ashley said.  “Pick one or the other, and yes, you can make a dart trap elegant.  You need to have a particular shape, so it looks attractive even when half of it is buried in the wall.”

“I’m curious.  What kind of shape?” Tristan asked.  He created a orange mote that floated just past her fingertip, and moved it as she moved her finger.

I looked around, to check they weren’t doing the equivalent of playing with a lighter around smoke detectors and sprinkler systems.  But the security system was disabled.

The hallway of projected images was a password that was unique to each individual, requiring a set arrangement of elements every few feet.  The apparatus was sensitive to dimensional fluctuations and energy levels, and using the wrong powers in the vicinity either triggered an alert or, if the intrusion was imminent enough, opened a tear between worlds beneath the cube, so it would drop through into another world.

“Dragon poked at this?” Kenzie asked.

“Defiant did,” Golem said.

“Okay.  Leaving him some notes.  And one of our, uh, what did we agree we’d call them…?”

Kenzie trailed off.

“Finish your sentences,” Ashley said.  “If you don’t focus you’ll spend more and more time zoning out.”

“Um.  Supervising agents!  Yes.  She says the payment came through, so, um, I’m releasing the last few locks.  Full access.  If they want to copy it then they can, though I think they know enough to do it anyway, they’re at least being polite.”

“I’ll let people know,” Golem said.

“Thank you.  We’re good.  Everything works.  One panel slightly misaligned where they took it off and put it back on, which is why we have the flaring at the edges and the noisiness of the portals,” Kenzie said, still fixated on what she was doing.  “I left them some notes about that.”

“All of this from a camera tinker,” Weld remarked.

“I’m a dual-field tinker.  I was almost starting fresh after we finished up the whole thing and I got started with my new team, after a week of disasters ruined most of my tech.  I had some startup money, and I thought I’d make something that people really want.  And what we all really want is security and access.  Two weeks of hard work, scans of multiple portal technologies and keys we got from the bad guys, scans of portals and some other related stuff, and we have a cube that opens up paths between worlds.”

“We’re happy to have it,” Weld said.

She said it like it was her idea, but Breakthrough had had some input, and we’d supplied the bulk of the cash for materials to get her started.  I only thought about it because Tattletale had hinted that her role had been more important somehow, saying she supplied the protection and transportation while Kenzie went to get her scans, but … I wasn’t going to play that game.  Like two sets of parents bickering over who paid for what for a wedding.

Just… enjoy the damn wedding.  Or in our case, our ominous black cube that tore open holes between realities.

By making something sought-after that served as a solution to a half-dozen major problems at once, she’d been able to multiply her start-up cash.

“Where are we going?” Kenzie asked.  “Do I check on the paired cube?”

“Proper HQ,” Tristan said.  “Yeah.”

“Does anyone else want to try the hallway?” Kenzie asked.

“Me,” Rain said, surprising me a bit.

“Got it, good, go for it.  Back to the stairs, try not stopping or slowing down if you can.  It’s okay if you fail.”

The hallway lit up again.

Rain strode down the hallway, hands moving, touching things without perfect confidence, then moving them more firmly once he figured out how to grasp or push them.

He made it to the end, when the thing immediately jumped to red oulines around the white projections, black around the red, and then the lights in the hallway shutting off.

“Oooooh,” Vista said.  “What did you do?”

“I didn’t do anything!” Rain protested, in the dark.  “I did that right!”

“You wrote down your password,” Kenzie said.  She was briefly illuminated as lines and squares appeared around her.  The lights came back on and the portal opened, less rough at the edges and not as violent a sound.  There was daylight on the other side.

“I saved it as something I could pull up with my mask in an emergency,” he said.

“And if the cube can look at your mask’s memory and see the image files you have on there, then so can people who want to break in.  They’d have to be your exact height and frame, with the same fingerprints inside any gloves you’re wearing, if you’re wearing any, and the same retina scan, and-”

“It would have to be me,” Rain interrupted.

“Yeah.  The idea is they’d have to be you and they’d have to know what you know when it comes to the password and they’d have to meet some of the other context checks, which is complicated and messy to get into, but you know, don’t shake up your schedule too much on any day you’re paying a routine visit, or send messages to people you don’t normally talk to, or-”

“I get it,” Rain said.

“I’m changing your password.  Hang back and wait until everyone’s passed through, it’ll flash the images in front of you.  Everyone else, masks and helmets on, or flip your projections on.”

As she talked, red dots appeared around her face.  I would have thought Capricorn was using his power, except his dots were more orange-red, and these motes of light expanded into discs, while white and black crept around Kenzie’s face and head to form the helmet’s design.  She didn’t have her hair in buns, but the helmet projection seemed to assume she did, and covered up the lower ends of kinky hair that was parted and set in place with a combination of hairband and hairclip.  Her costume gradually covered her body too.  There were places the clothes extended beyond the projection, and those places were blurry, like bad artifacting from video compression, but it worked for the most part.

Sveta had a mask that curled at the edges, tendril-like.  Not much of a change, and kind of pointless, but we’d decided to focus a bit more on formality.  She’d liked designing it with me.  Rain had his old costume at least for today, with a slightly updated tech-style mask that encapsulated more of the sides of his head, a serrated kind of edge around the perimeter, almost like it was damaged, but in a sculpted way that wouldn’t look cheap.

Tristan’s armor was recently repaired and updated.  The changes were minor, with a focus more on the application of layered washes.  A dark wash had filled in the grooves and made the designs in the armor pop more, while a red wash gave the armor more of a tint.  It was the kind of thing that was easy to miss.

We passed through.

The building we were exiting was small and somewhat narrow, and as of right now it was largely understaffed.  This was the real headquarters.  A building still under construction that would be impressive when finished, despite the fact it wasn’t being made to impress in the same way the old Wardens headquarters had been.

The real impressiveness came from the two Dragon craft that were set in close proximity to the building, one on a hill off to our right, and another-

I floated a bit as I turned one-hundred-and-eighty degrees around.  It loomed over the portal, weapons bristling.

“Welcome to the bunker,” Weld said.

There were times when security or fortification suggested confidence, strength, or power.  That you had money to spend on the extra security.  That you were unassailable, untouchable.  I suspected it was the atmosphere the Wardens wanted to cultivate, by the time they were done.  I could even understand the logic, that a fault in security at the earliest juncture could be the flaw that they paid for later down the line.

But I didn’t feel like this was confidence.  I didn’t feel like that the logic drove this more than the feelings did.

The grass was dusted white, and the sky was gray, and the building was poured concrete, making for a fairly grim picture, prefab walls and the spikes of metal that the walls were being fit to, holes in the walls matched to the spikes and then lowered down, where they would click into place.  The expansive lower floor was already mostly done, with clear glass walls giving us a view of the interior and everything else was being built around it while people worked.  Yellow slashes of paint on the ground delineated construction zones where it was dangerous to be, and people navigated them.  For how much there was going on, it was fairly quiet.  Only the hum of idling engines, and the creaks of cranes, the periodic crunch as two pieces of building fit together.

Inside, there were a few scattered members of the four big hero teams amid Wardens and a fair few regular people who were covering jobs ranging from construction to doing paperwork while standing beside desks without chairs.

Kenzie saw Dragon and started sprinting forward.

“Lookout,” I said.

She stopped.

“Stay in sight.”

She looked between me and Swansong, and Swansong nodded.

“You don’t trust them?”

I would have made a face at how undiplomatic it was to ask that question when we had Wardens in our little group here.  I remained stoic.  “I think I’ll worry about you in any new situation.”

She groaned.  With the excited run forward and now this, she wasn’t really holding that firmly to the professionalism thing.

“Technically you’re contracted out, and we’re partnering with your team.  Part of our end of the deal is to guard you.”

“Got it,” she said.  “I know you have things to do.  Will someone be my escort?”

Sveta and Tristan agreed at the same time.

We decided to go over as a group, since it was more or less in the right direction.  Delaying the task at hand.  While we walked, Sveta and Tristan agreed they’d watch Kenzie together.  Sveta no doubt wanted to because it meant spending more time around Weld, and Tristan… Tristan was harder to say, but he seemed to fit in well amid this general level of hectic energy, hustle, bustle, and cape aesthetic.  I could imagine him working at a place like this for a full day, ongoing construction included, and not being any worse off.

There was a command center in one corner, with Dragon and Defiant standing by a wall of monitors.  Multiple consoles and desks were arranged in a haphazard quarter-circle around that wall of monitors.  Each person with a task.

Lookout went straight there, accompanied by Capricorn and Sveta.  Weld and Golem followed them.

Rain slowed in his pace as we passed the corner where stuff was piled up but still not organized for a branding or costume maintenance department, one I suspected would be relegated to an upper floor.  There were concept sketches, color swatches, textile swatches, and framed pictures of collected images I wouldn’t have been surprised to see at a tattoo shop- but they weren’t for tattoos.  Or at least I hoped nobody was tattooing on their costumes.

“Foresight did promise us help with updating costuming.  We never got a chance because we were so busy,” I told him.

Rain turned my way.

“For your mask, I sort of like that.  Second frame of images, middle top.  It’s hard to pull off in a lot of costumes, but if you’re doing the glowing mask symbol…”

He held up his phone.  I looked over his shoulder as he took a picture of it, confirming he had the right image.

“Isn’t that too busy?” Rain asked.

“What?” I asked him.

“With the circuit board look?” Rain asked.

“No.  Instead of.  The circuit board look is…” I tried to find a way to be diplomatic and struggled.

“Puerile,” Swansong said.

“Huh,” Rain said.  “I’ve been kicked in the ribs and it didn’t get to me as much as hearing that one word.  I don’t even know what that means, exactly.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s puerile,” I said.  “It’s… it’s like stripes.  You can make it work, but it’s most often going to be something you work with or build on.  Less what you want for a mask unless you want to play it up.”

“Huh.  This is going way over my head.  But it’s sure great to know I’ve had a stupid costume all this while.”

“Not stupid,” I said.

“Basic,” Vista volunteered.

Rain turned around, looking around until he spotted Capricorn, Lookout, and Sveta.  “I think, uh, I’m going to go over that way.  Leave you guys to it.”

“You’re fine,” I said.  “A lot of costumes are miserable.  You’re better than average.”

“I like how you weigh that.  There’s a lot of suck out there, so the average is lower than I’d think?”

“You’re better than average,” I stressed.  “And we can do better still.”

“Sure,” he said.  He held up the phone, the image there.  “This?  What color?”

“Silver.  And if you can do eyeholes or the general shape of eyes, that’d be great.”

The image was of a fissure or crack, like what one might see spiderwebbing across concrete.

He fiddled with his phone and the image.

“You don’t have to do it now,” I said.

“I have three people I respect telling me I’m not cutting it, and we have this talk coming… I’m going to be self conscious now.”

“Walk,” Swansong said, taking hold of his shoulder.  “Let’s go.  We’ll give you a look that matches what you have inside.”

“Why do I feel like I’m being insulted?” Rain asked.

“You’re not,” Swansong said.  “You’ve showed muster.  The mask may be puerile, but masks can be changed, but what can’t be changed is you’ll always know you had something sterner inside you when it counted.  Humiliation may be the worst thing-”

“This is the worst thing now?” Rain asked, looking to Vista, as if for help.  “Humiliation?”

“Even small humiliations,” Swansong amended.

“Okay, well, great.  I’ll walk.”

“Walk and change what you want to change,” Ashley said.  “Fiddle with your phone, upload to your mask, do what you’re going to do.  I’ll steer you.  I’ve done it enough times while walking with Lookout.  Not that I need to do it with her anymore.”

“No?” I asked.

“New mask features, when she’s wearing her mask.  She can watch what she’s working on while another set of lenses watch the road, another set watch behind her.  There’s no need for a guiding hand.”

Our path took us down the side of the hill the Dragon craft was perched on.  Its head followed us as we walked, which was ominous.

“How long until this kicks off?” I asked.

Ashley tossed a stone decorative dart into the air, catching it, then threw again, as we worked our way down the path and around the hill.  Her other hand remained on Rain’s shoulder, holding him steady as he set foot on a rocky spot.  He kept half of an eye on his phone.

The building had been built and set up a little faster than the ground floor of the ‘bunker’.  It was built with two hallways, each lined with cells that looked to be glass or plexiglass with steel framing and wire mesh laid into the transparent material.  There was room for maybe twenty prisoners, but walls had been folded back and things stowed to the side in compact form.  It meant the four prisoners on the side we could see had cells with no adjoining cells.  They were perpetually watched from two or three sides by capes and officers.

These would be people being held for processing or questioning.  To a degree, the restraints and watching wasn’t as necessary as they might otherwise be.  There were a lot of capes present on this world, and the only way out was both guarded and required the right means of getting the portal open.

Through the clear exterior wall at the front of the building, with only slight blurring because of the wiring, I could see Love Lost.  She was bound with arms in a modified black straightjacket with ‘Villain’ down the right arm and at the left thigh where the skirt of it hung down, a hoop of a collar very loose around her neck, to the point there were a good three inches separating it from contact at any point.  A simpler, stainless steel version of the molded mask that had covered her face, with no decoration except for a blinking light right around where the right corner of her mouth would be, and a hole where the left corner would be.  A plastic table sat to her right, with a few things on it, one of which was a plastic shake bottle with a straw built into it.

She leaned forward to find the straw and maneuvered her head to slide the straw into the hole in her mask.  Whatever she was drinking, it looked thick, and creamy-green.

Gundeck and Solarstare were sitting where they could monitor her.

“Did you talk to them last night?” I asked.

“No,” Rain said.  “No.  My night, and then we were all there.  Cradle, Love Lost, and Colt.  I tried to talk and nobody was really up for it.  Cradle didn’t move from where he woke up.  Love Lost paced and ignored me.  Colt made small talk but only if I pushed for it.  If I didn’t push there was silence, and I didn’t push.  The tokens dropped and nobody really bothered with them.”

“Has it been like this every night?”

“No.  There were times I talked more with Colt.  There was a time where she didn’t even seem to get it, like none of this mattered or she didn’t realize how much trouble she was in.  She talked to me until Love Lost got annoyed with her.  Then she seemed to clue in, about a week ago, did this silence thing.  When she talked to me again, it was to ask me to talk to her parents and see if they’d go to her trial.”

“I thought I saw them,” I remarked.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “They went.  But what can they really do except go?  And Colt got a bad outcome yesterday and… I don’t know how things will be today.”

“And Love Lost?”

“Doesn’t talk.  But there was a time a bit ago when she looked at me.”

“Looked?” Vista asked.

“Looked.  Head to toe, like she finally saw me and not some nebulous enemy.”

“Want to give it a shot?” I asked.

“No,” he said.  He pointed.  “But first…”

He hit a button on his phone.

The mask he wore changed, replacing the inlaid image of the circuit with a fissure with a silver glow shining through from beneath.  His eyes were small and narrow.

“Bigger eyes,” I advised.  “Without eyelashes or anything else, just showing what you’d normally see with eyelids in the way, it looks too narrow.”

“Sinister,” Vista said.

“And not in the good way,” Swansong advised.

“You guys are harsh,” he said.

“Here,” Vista said.  She manipulated the dimensions of the eyes, glancing at Swansong and I as she adjusted, looking for input.

Swansong wanted more of a slant, but I opted for something more open and friendly.

Rain took a photo of his own face, then adjusted the settings.

From where we’d stood, we hadn’t had a good view.  Our target cell was a little further back.

Colt was in the other hallway, one of three junior prisoners, and she had been separated from Love Lost by a hard, opaque wall that divided the building in half.  She had a similar collar, as well as bracelets that were actually fit to her wrists.  No straightjacket, no mask, just a faded sweatshirt and sweatpants, both printed with ‘Villain’.

I only recognized one of the heroes.  Stonewall, with a fellow hero keeping him company.  Stonewall had stone armor, which he wore even while sitting and eating.  It was stylish and looked heavy as fuck.  The kind of protection that didn’t make him look insecure.  The kid had a skintight two-tone costume with a stylized leaf emblem on the front, and a jacket that didn’t match, that suggested he wasn’t suited up for the colder weather.  I hoped the Wardens would look after him.

“You should run along, Reed,” Stonewall said.  “Good talk.”

“I guess, and yeah, good talk.  Thank you, sir.”

“There’s no telling what’s going to be classified,” Stonewall said.

“Yeah,” was the response.

Rain walked over to the cell, and Colt rose to her feet to stand across from him.

Stonewall got up, chair creaking, and walked down the hallway a little ways.  He gave Vista a pat on the shoulder as he passed her.

“Was that Reed the Second?” I asked, before he was out of earshot.

“Third,” Stonewall said.  “I don’t think it’s a lucky name to take, but they hear he was one of the first Wards and they feel an attachment to the name.”

I nodded.

Stonewall walked on, footsteps heavy enough to make the building’s floor shake.  A pen on a desk spun slightly on its fulcrum point.

Rain drew in a deep breath and sighed.

“Yeah, invisible walls,” Colt said.  “I go from one cell to another.  You won, you’re free.”

“I- no,” Rain said.  “I don’t feel that free.”

“Enjoy it,” Colt said.  “It’s better.”

A bit of a non sequitur, like she wasn’t listening to anyone but herself.

“I need to do more.  Not to make up for what I did- I don’t think I could, but… there’s an obligation,” Rain said.

“I don’t think she has the slightest clue what you mean,” Swansong said, quiet.

“Hi Damsel.”

“Swansong now.”

“Pretty,” Colt said.  “I liked you, you know.  I thought you were cool.  You had good stories, and you were someone I kind of wanted to be like.”

“Thank you.  I liked you too.”

Rather than interject, I remained quiet.  I was very curious if the use of ‘past tense’ had anything to do with perceived betrayals or upsets.

Colt shrugged, glancing at Rain.  “I do get it, you know.  Obligations suck.”

“You’re proving my point, if that’s how you sum it up,” Swansong said.

“Maybe give me a chance to get through to her?” Rain asked.

“You’ve had twenty-one nights,” Swansong said.

“Less of those nights than you’d think.”

“You’re a little scary, you know,” Colt said, to Swansong.  “Unpredictable, but I was happy to stay in the background and listen in.”

“Thank you,” Ashley said.

Colt seemed satisfied with that exchange.  She looked at Rain.  “I lost my court case.  Guilty.  Sentence T.B.D.”

Was she drugged?  In shock?

“I was there.  Back row, with some of my teammates,” Rain said.

“They stuck us here, Cradle was here too, for a little while, but they wrapped up his court stuff faster.  They had him in a blindfold and a straightjacket, I think like they did with Love Lost.”

“Mask for the lower face, no blindfold,” Rain said.

“Why are we here?” Colt asked.  “Why here specifically?  The view is nicer than any prison… I can see the outdoors, the wind.  They treat me okay, but… I’m really confused.”

“Your lawyer should have explained it,” I said.  I hoped I wasn’t intruding.

“He did.  Three times.  But the first time I didn’t realize it was important, the second time there was a lot of stuff going on and he sounded exasperated.  The third time I had just heard the ‘guilty’ from the jurors, there was commotion, people were shouting, and then I got pulled away.  Even if it was quiet, I’m not sure I would have got it.  They showed the photos in the morning and it was all these body parts and all this blood.  They read this testimony and I could barely hear anything for most of the rest of the day… I felt so sick with stress and I could only hear the sound of my own heartbeat and blood in my ears.”

“They’re keeping you here while they decide what to do with you,” Rain said.  “You could go to a jail, if they find room, or we could look into alternative options.  If you want to get a good result, now would be a really good time to tell them something useful.”

“Anything about Love Lost or her henchpeople we didn’t catch.  Anything about a greater plan,” I said.

Colt shrugged.  She looked lost, miserable, and lost, in that order.

“Alternatives,” she said, nearly at the point of being inaudible, like she was just catching up.

“What?” Rain asked.

“Alternative options?  If I’m not useful and there’s no room in prison, what happens?  Is it like… a firing squad?  You wouldn’t actually.”

“No,” Rain said.  “Sending you away.”

“My parents wanted to send me away.  Either I helped the family business or I went away to a strict school.  They have some of those now.  And I talked to my cousin who got sent there, that’s where my parents got the idea from, and she said there aren’t any regulations, so they beat you, withhold food, make you run laps.  Cold water for showers only.”

“They were trying to scare you,” Swansong said.  “I’ve told you this.”

“I thought about it.  I’m not sure.  My cousin talked about menstrual products, said the girls were never given enough.  But they weren’t allowed to use too much toilet paper either.  That doesn’t seem like the kind of thing you think of right away, but it makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“If anything, it might have been a real shortage,” I said.  “If she attended over winter.”

“None of this really feels real?” Colt said, very quickly, her voice keyed up  in an odd way, like she was trying to wake someone up.  “What happened yesterday with court doesn’t even feel like it was yesterday.  And the only answers I get from people are vague.”

She sounded half the age she was.

“Did the people here drug you?” Rain asked, going straight to the same possibility I’d guessed at.

Colt shook her head.  “I’m being sent away, and I don’t even know what that means.”

I cleared my throat, to let others know I was about to launch into an explanation.  “We send you through a portal.  We give you everything you need to survive, and the ability to use your powers.  At scheduled times, we check on you.  But those times may get more spaced out, if you settle in, if you’re healthy and safe.  That’s if they decide on that.  If we decide on it.  Then when your sentence is done, we pick you up again, assess you, figure out if you’re able or ready to rejoin society.  Hopefully by then we have the tools to handle it.”

“I think you’d still be in the dream room,” Rain said.  “I’d see you every night, and if you had an emergency, I could send help.”

“I’m getting kind of panicky,” Colt said.  “What can I do?”

“Talk,” Swansong said.

“I don’t have anything to say.  They didn’t fill me in.  They offered to let me go and I think now maybe they meant it, because I didn’t know all that much that was useful, and I wouldn’t talk.”

“Can you think back to what they said?  Did Nailbiter have a location she liked vacationing in or visiting?  Did anyone talk about family?”

Colt shook her head.  “I can’t go home?”

She didn’t even seem to get it.  Was the disconnect because of something more abstract?  Her power?

“You collaborated in chopping people up,” Swansong said.  “In chopping me up.  You broke a cardinal rule and spilled your guts to the arresting officers and capes, they used that in the trial.”

“Anything about the Kronos titan?”

“No.  I think that was a surprise.  But I wasn’t really paying attention when it came up.  Its hard to picture it as a real thing instead of some joke or story.  Did he kill many people?”

“He hasn’t budged,” Rain said.  “But the Simurgh is on a corner world right now and she flew to him.  She’s staying on his shoulder, in that world.”

“He’s a living portal,” I said.  “Except instead of passing things through doors into other versions of Earth or into distant places, it’s just… Dauntless energy coming through the portal, feeding into him.  We had to clear a good long distance around him because apparently portals act to broadcast, scramble, or act as a lens when it comes to power signals.  Possibly including hers.”

“You played a part in making a hell of a mess,” Vista said.  “Some friends and acquaintances of ours got killed and hurt.”

“Let me help then,” Colt said, and when she stared into my visor there was a clarity that hadn’t been there before, like she had focused on me for the first time.  Kind of like Rain had explained Love Lost doing, but without a year of being ignored or seen as a monster as lead-up.

Seeing someone as a monster.  I made note of that stray thought.  It was easier to relate to him if I put things in those terms.

“Information is the only help you can give.”

“Can I fight?  Because I don’t know anything.  I can- can I do volunteer service?  Join the heroes?”

“The Navigators were chopped up by people you helped and supported,” I said.  “They flew under the radar as a hero group before, but when we all heard what happened and realized there wasn’t a single bad thing we could say about the Navigators, that they’d only ever done good, that made it that much worse.  People are resentful.”

“I could join you?  You could give me a chance.”

I didn’t move.  I waited, while Rain remained very still.

Rain shook his head a small fraction, but he didn’t say anything.

“No,” I said, so he didn’t have to.  He had to see her every night, and if he was the one to refuse her, then her anger might find root and fester over nightly recurrences.

“But Damsel of Distress likes me, and I know you guys have committed crimes.”

“It’s Swansong, not Damsel,” Swansong said.

“Punishments pending,” Rain said.

“Pend mine!  I don’t know how to… I don’t know, build a house with a pile of wooden slats, or cook, or hunt or fish.  I’ll die.

“We’re more resilient than you think,” Swansong said.

“What if- I can talk to the doctors I talked to earlier?  They asked questions about my health, and questions about depression and anxiety, and… what if I give different answers?  They couldn’t send me away then.”

“I don’t think that’s going to work,” I said.  “You can’t change the answers you already gave.”

“But-”

There was clarity in her fear, because somehow things were finally setting in.  Her responses were a little bit quicker, more like she was actually listening to what others said.

“The judge gave sentencing guidelines,” I said.  “Three and a half years.  There’s a very real chance we don’t take the extreme measures, but it’s up to the capes to decide, because it’s the capes that are dealing with parahuman containment right now.  If we don’t send you out to this other world for three and a half years, we put you in juvenile prison for three and a half years, and you wear a kit like you’re wearing right now to keep you from turning Breaker.”

“I don’t want to go to prison either.”

Rain slammed a hand against the glass barrier.  Colt jumped like she’d been the one hit.  The other two prisoners in the hallway jeered.

“Careful,” Stonewall said, his voice carrying.

Colt stared at Rain, who stared at her, his fist still resting against the glass.  The glass was uncracked, but his mask had the stylized one running across it, through the one eye and up to the top corner.

“Let it go, Rain,” I said.

He pulled away, turned his back.

“I never really gave you a hard time about it,” Colt said.

He didn’t look at her.

“What you did.  I could’ve hated you like they did, but I didn’t.  I tried to be civil, I listened when you talked, mostly.  I know I did some bad stuff, but so did you.  If you get punishment pending, and you get to try to show you’re decent in the meantime, then why can’t I?  Because it’s fucking personal?”

She almost sounded like the girl I’d first seen over Kenzie’s surveillance video, yelling at her mom, siding with Nailbiter, running away to go join the villains.

“I have remorse,” Rain said, half-turning.  “I’ve tried to recognize what I did.  To show that with my actions every step of the way.”

“How long did it fucking take you to get there?  Because I’m not getting the chance.”

Rain turned away, and walked away.

About two steps.  He stopped.

“Are you trying?” Swansong asked.

“Was he, after three weeks?  Because I heard Cradle talk about some of it, when he was talking about the info he got on your team, and about Precipice specifically.  It didn’t sound like it.”

Rain clenched a fist in front of him, then put it in his other hand, cracking the knuckles audibly through his gloves.  He was stiff.

“Your choice,” Swansong said, as she walked up to Rain, their arms touching, her chin high.  She was quiet as she said it.  “Do you want to help her?”

“I thought we could be allies at first,” Rain said.  “But now I think I despise her.  She acts like we’re the same, but… she didn’t grow up like I did.  She had a life I would’ve loved to have.  I didn’t get a choice in how to think until it was almost too late, and I made the wrong choice, not to help those people.  She-”

“-didn’t take enough opportunities to think for herself, maybe,” I said.  “And this is how she ended up.”

Again, he cracked knuckles.

“I’m not advising you either way.”

“Not in the slightest?” he asked.

“I feel like helping her, because she’s vulnerable and lost  but that’s not- not a good basis to act on.  I don’t think she’d be easy to deal with.  I do think if we give her any kind of pass or help, we could have her as a pest or problem to deal with a month from now.  Given past history, keep that in mind.  You know her best.”

“I feel like I don’t know her at all.”

“You have more data points than us,” I said.

“Data points,” Swansong muttered.  “Geek.”

I elbowed her.

“How?” Rain asked, turning to look at Swansong.  “To help her?”

“Colt,” Swansong said, raising her voice to be heard, as we’d walked a short distance away.  “You have odd dreams.  Stranger than any of the others.”

“Yeah,” Colt said.  “Every time it’s my night, it’s a different slant of everyone else’s dreams, depending on my mood or how I push it.  Like Cradle pushes it.  Except I’m a bit better than him at it.”

“That’s a bargaining chip,” Swansong said, and she said it to Rain, but Colt immediately moved to the corner of her cell that was closest to us.  “You can sell or barter that knowledge.”

“Capes and dreams have unusual relationships,” I said.  “It’s worth looking into.”

“That’s because… dreams are something they don’t get,” Colt said.  “They don’t have enough data or reference points for them.  It’s why when they move on, they’ll want a lot of information about dreams and dreaming.  It’s why things slip through the cracks in dreams, or get weird, or are spaces where they can manipulate things more.”

“You study this?” I asked.

“I… get it,” Colt said.

Because Breakers and reality warpers were often closest to their agents, maybe.  Because this particular cluster was built around dreams and dreaming.  And because dreams brought things even closer still.

“Lookout mentioned Chicken Little seeing something in his dreams,” Swansong said.  She shrugged with one shoulder.

It wasn’t much to go on, but we were dealing with monolithic forces hidden away in inaccessible locations.  They gave us power and they ruined us.  And whatever structure was there or wasn’t there, whatever organization was missing in how they balanced against one another, that power and that ruin was being doled out in disastrous proportions.  In broken triggers and in Dauntlesses.

With what Colt was saying, it was possible there was an area where the barrier between power and person wasn’t just thin, but was something we could get past, and that area was the unconscious dream.  That was our door to the machinery we wanted to operate, fix, or even dismantle.

“Let’s go,” Rain said.

“Hey!” Colt shouted.

“Quiet,” Stonewall boomed.

“We’ll be in touch,” Rain told Colt, without turning around.

Still angry.

Vista caught up with us, after a few exchanged words with Stonewall.  Space warped to give her something of a catch-up.

“Hey Vic,” Vista said.  “You know powers, right?  You studied this stuff to death.”

“Some,” I said.  “Thinking about dreams?”

She shook her head.  “No.  Thinking about… altered mental states.  Is it possible that she’s not all there because of her power?”

I sighed.  “Crossed my mind.  Happens a lot with Breakers.”

“You could mention it, to help her.”

“Another possibility,” I said.  “But she said she had doctors check her over.  So the question is… was one of those doctors someone who was qualified to evaluate her mentally?  And if so, were they qualified to know about parahumans and all the messes they can bring to the table?”

There wasn’t an immediate answer to my question.

There was a pretty clear one, though.

Capricorn, Kenzie, and Sveta were gathered together.

Jessica Yamada.  Their therapist.

Swansong and Rain approached her.  I hung back.

The others had received emails, telling them she was safe and she would touch base shortly.  I hadn’t.  My number had, as I’d discovered the night I heard she was back, been blocked.  I’d been able to call her with Juliette’s number but not my own.

Dr. Darnall said he knew what the reason was, but had declined to share.  He’d told me to be patient.

I gave them their space, feeling hurt and a little bewildered.  I headed over to the corner with the concept art and the fashion, the various pieces in progress, to distract myself, at the very least.

The winter was going to get colder, and a double layer wouldn’t be enough.

The group was spaced out.  Some closer to Jessica than others.  Swansong hung back, and by her body language, stiff and regal, I knew she was anxious.

Sveta was as happy as I’d seen her in a few weeks.

I couldn’t intrude.

There was a stylized coat, heavy, with some built in protection- not a lot, but in dense material and slats of metal running between layers.  Not a cape, but long enough it could look like one.  I tried it on as much as I could without putting it over the spikes at my shoulder.  I’d have to move those.

Did I want it for what it gave me, or for what it kept away?

“-Victoria-”

Sveta’s voice.  Which was followed by Jessica’s.

“Victoria.”

I saw her meet my eyes- or she looked at my mask, which didn’t have eyes.

“I’m going to talk to the group,” Jessica said.  “Do you mind waiting?”

Which was telling me not me without telling me it directly.

She at least looked apologetic.

“Can we talk after?” I asked.

I didn’t miss the hesitation on her part.

I did something wrong.  I failed her.  She wants to see the damage before she talks to me.

“After,” she said.  “Alright.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Black – 13.1

For those who didn’t scroll down, you may wish to revisit Heavens 12.x.  There’s more content after the ‘Previous chapter —- Next Chapter’ part.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

My preliminary stretches wrapped up with a plank.  It was hard not to flip that mental switch that would see me floating, because it was so automatic and so easy to do, especially when my feet weren’t so flat on the ground.

I made it thirty seconds, which was abysmal, but I could already feel the stabs of pain, and this wasn’t supposed to be the part where I tested my limits.  It was supposed to be where I prepared myself to test my limits.

This wasn’t even the hard part, and I was already sweating.  Not from effort, but the way my body responded to the sudden pain.  I toweled off, careful of my headphone cords.  The music that didn’t match my patient progress and slow, measured stretches was some ‘Goodbye Rock’ that Weld had picked up while touring worlds with Sveta.

I sat on the edge of my bed, and I worked my way through the stretches.  Fingers laced together, the fingers of my left hand feeling where the skin at my right hand had a faintly different texture where it had been burned.  I stretched my arms out, leaning forward until my abdomen muscles were as tight as they could be.  I gently extended the stretch right, because that was easier, and I felt the knot of the bullet wound in my left arm.  I extended the stretch even more gingerly to the left, until I could feel the stabbing pain again.  I pushed through it, paying very careful attention to the pain and the shape it took.  This was where the acid centipedes had sliced into me, and a tearing pain was worse than a ‘nervous system doesn’t know what to report’ kind of pain.

Five repetitions of that, straight forward, right, then left.  Then I stopped.  I wrapped the towel around my bare shoulders for warmth while I took notes in the notebook I’d laid on the other corner of the bed.

The notes accounted for one minute of rest.

I had another centipede gouge in my leg, and a scar on the bottom of the foot on that same leg.  I shifted to squats, five reps of regular squats, testing what my leg could handle, then five reps of one-legged squats, leaning forward so I rested in a tiptoe position.  Again, I had to remind myself not to fly to assist myself.

Notes while resting.  Wrist flexes and arm rotations that involved shoulder and bicep movements.

More notes.  My physiotherapist didn’t care about them, but filling out the book was something of a satisfaction thing.  Like filing, or collecting all of my now gasoline-scented case files.

As nice as the apartment was, the cold had a way of leaking in.  It had a way of leaking in everywhere.  I was sweating from head to toe now, more from hitting limits set by the old injuries than from the limits of muscles, and it made me clammy.  With my less injured arm, I toweled off again, more roughly than necessary for the sake of warming up and trying to jar my system from the ‘cold sweat’ response.

I picked up my weighted bar, cane-length, my hands at either end.  I worked through the motions for that, bar from chest to straight out in front of me, down to my thighs, curled up to chest, then back out to straight out in front of me.  I felt the stabs of pain at specific points during each movement, with the curl-ups in particular making my arm twitch like I’d been jabbed with an electric prod, but I was used enough to this to know it wasn’t a tearing, unhealthy sort of pain.

Three weeks of this.  Three weeks of the physio, at the health building once a week and at home another thirteen times a week.  Things were improving in some areas, but in cases like that curl-up arm jitter, I wasn’t getting that much stronger.  Sometimes injuries happened where the physio wasn’t so much about getting better or getting over the injury, and it was more about keeping it from getting worse.

If I lived that long, I would potentially be doing exercises like these until I was old.  For the rest of my life, when I got sick, I’d potentially backslide, and lose that five percent of progress I’d made over months of work.  When the weather was bad, I’d feel the pangs and the tightness in the scars.

I penned in notes.  Usual pain, fifteen sets.

After the bar was what I’d penned in as ‘fucking dips’.  The second most colorful name I’d used for the exercises.

I put my hands on the bedframe, my back to the bed, feet out in front with my weight resting on the backs of my heels.  It made my leg hurt, and holding my weight up made everything, even the bullet wound, hurt.

Again, not about strength, but what my injured muscles allowed me to do.

I was in the middle of the toughest part of lowering my butt toward the floor when my bedroom door opened.  My hand slipped, my arm jarred, and I used my flight to catch myself before I crashed to the floor.

Ashley was talking to me.  I only heard the melancholy rock music, and the notes of her voice.  She was angry or annoyed.  The two sounded very similar.

I took my time standing, grabbing my towel and holding it to my front, because I was only wearing a sports bra and pyjama pants.  I took my time removing my headphones.

Her hair was damp, and she wore a black silk bathrobe.

“…What?” I asked her.

“Towels.”

“What about the towels?”

“Are you using the black towels?”

“Yes,” I said.  “You had the white, your sister had the black, and she’s gone now, so I started using the black.”

“It fundamentally stands to reason I’d default to black.”

“Does it?” I asked.  I debated if I wanted to argue the point.  “I’ll use white from now on, then.”

“Good,” she said.  She paused.  “You’re sweating.  More nightmares?”

“Physio routine.”

“Ah,” she said.  She moved her hands, and the way she moved them was reminiscent of my wrist flexes.  “We have about an hour before we go.  Do you want tea?”

“Showering after this, then tea would be great.  I’ll make breakfast.”

“If you’ll eat bacon, egg, and scones, I’m already working on it.  I’ll keep it warm and put the kettle on when I hear you shut off the water.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Excellent.”

She stalked over- there wasn’t really a better way to put it with how motivated the movements were, and took the black towel I was holding.  I let her, and she stalked her way back out of the room.

I rolled my eyes, returning to the damned dips.

Ashley returned, throwing a white towel so it landed on my bed.

“Thank you,” I said, grimacing as pain shot through my arm.

“Thank you for seeing reason,” she said.

After dips were leg lifts, lying on the bed with legs and feet out off the edge, touching floor, then extending straight up until I couldn’t anymore, then bringing knees to chest.  Rinse, repeat.  I did something similar with sideways leg-lifts, and then the pike pushups, which were worse than the dips.

I felt shaky and shitty enough at the end of it all that I wasn’t even sure I’d have the appetite to eat.  I showered, used Ashley’s charcoal shampoo because mine was running out, and dried off, white towel.

I didn’t use a bathrobe, but instead stepped into my room and got dressed right away.  A loose-fitting light gray sweater, dark blue jeans, and black leather boots.

I carefully packed my costume in a bag to minimize wrinkles, breastplate and recently redone decorations sliding into a sheath, with buckles and straps to keep it tidy and relatively inconspicuous.  I slung it over my left shoulder, and headed to the kitchen.  Swansong was at the table, a laptop sitting across from her, and she was tapping a cup of tea to the webcam.

A toast, it seemed.  Kenzie was on the other end, doing something similar with her own cup.  They were eating breakfast together.

The bacon and eggs were very simple, the scone was the bakery-made sort that Ashley liked to buy frozen and reheat in the oven, and she’d buttered it for me.  The plate sat on a wire rack amid other blueberry scones, over an oven burner she’d set to ‘low’.

A little too warm to touch.  I put my sleeves over my hands to move the plate to the table.

Ninety-nine percent of the conversation was Kenzie talking about her new team, that she was updating her costume, Amias went to her school and she’d talked to him, and Aiden might, might, might be attending since the Undersiders weren’t in New Brockton anymore and he had to go somewhere and, and and…

“Don’t let Chicken Little name the team,” I said.

“He’s got good taste, Victoria!” Lookout protested.  I couldn’t see her.

“He thinks you’re neat,” Ashley said.   “Proof enough.”

“Aww, but it’s not just me.  He likes a lot of us.  Especially Rain, he really looks up to Rain-”

I met Ashley’s eyes, and she met mine at that same moment.

“I saw that!  The ‘knowing mom’ look.  I’m disappointed in you.  Rain is badass!”

“He is badass,” I conceded.

Which led to Kenzie going off on another ramble, just happy to talk to Ashley.  Ashley nursed her tea, elbows on the table, both hands around the cup, smiling slightly at the screen.

“-and my costume leggings, I was thinking something fancier, I have a hundred questions for you guys about what I should do, I- let me check.  Two hundred and three questions, whoops.  I was thinking something patterned, and I wanted to add more decoration.  Something skintight, but more over it, and more room to carry stuff, and, oh!  I can project some of my favorite ideas and show you, but I have to set that up, and we’re meeting in-”

“Eat,” Ashley said.  “No skipping sleeping, eating, or hygiene to work on your things.”

“But-”

“Eat.”

There was something of a merciful silence on the other end.  I saw Ashley put her cup down, flexing her wrist while her eyebrows drew slightly together.

“Problem?”

She twisted her wrist and pulled her hand free.  The socket was black with oil and simultaneously red with blood, a rod sticking out of her arm.  “Bad connection.  Feels numb.”

“Have Rain look at it.”

“He’s with Erin this morning,” she said.  “Then we’re busy.”

“After?”

“Maybe.”

“Oh!” Kenzie piped up.  “Victoria!  I did the mask thing you wanted!  You’ll have to remind me, and we can see how it looks.”

What I’d had was purely utilitarian.  I was due an update.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I hope it wasn’t any trouble.”

“Nope.  Took ten minutes.  And another twenty because I looked up the images you gave me to reference and I made a few variations so you could try them all on and see what you liked best, in case you didn’t like the first one.  But you’ll have to pay me, since I’m not officially on Breakthrough anymore.”

“Will do,” I said.

“And for me coming today.”

“Of course,” I said.

We were drawing a stipend from the local government now, through Citrine’s husband.  The money we were using to commission Lookout for her ‘low, low price’ was the same money we were giving every member of the team.

The chatter continued for another ten minutes.  I cleaned up from the cooking, and then got everything together while Ashley extricated herself from the video call.

“Got your gear?” I asked.

“By the door,” she said, as she stepped into her boots.

Hauling my bag up onto the shoulder of my good arm, I got the front door.  Swansong followed me, wearing a black leather messenger bag with her costume particulars packed inside.

We headed to our rendezvous.  And to the grim business that would follow.

The destination was the new Wardens Office.  Natalie and Kenzie were at the foot of the stairs as we walked up, Kenzie talking to Erin and Rain.  Further away, Moonsong and Byron were perched on a bench, sitting on the back of the bench with their feet on the snow-covered seat.

Kenzie saw us coming, and ran up to Ashley.  Kenzie wore an electric blue peacoat, navy blue pleated skirt, gray leggings, and navy blue boots.  The pin in her hair was more abstract than I’d seen her wear before, something between a slanted eye and a fish, with a comma shaped pupil or fin in the center..  The clothes looked new, and something in the look told me she was trying to change her look.

Which, as with many things Kenzie, left me simultaneously hopeful and worried.

I left them to it.  I passed Natalie, murmuring my hello, and I approached Rain and Erin.  Rain wore a heavy jacket and ripped up jeans that he’d rolled up at the bottoms to keep from treading on with his heavier boots.  Erin had an overelaborate shawl-coat that wrapped around and draped over her more than it seemed to be zipped up.  It left some openings and gaps in coverage, which was probably why she wore the heavier sweater with it.  They were very different in style, rustic and hypermodern.

“We arrived early,” Rain said.  “And By was here already, talking to her.  We didn’t want to interrupt.”

“There’s a lot to talk about,” Erin said.

I studied Moonsong’s civilian self.  Pretty, with a beauty mark by her eye, lined up enough with where her eyelashes ended that it looked like it had been drawn or tattooed on.  Wavy black hair, earmuffs, and a nice coat with a velvety look, a straight black skirt to the knees below it, and higher boots.  Classy aesthetic.

Byron seemed like someone with a good sense, things matched, everything fit nicely, his jacket was a simple woolen one that came down to the belt, jeans slim, and while he wasn’t athletic in build like Tristan, he was trim enough that he cut a fine line.  But good sense aside, he wasn’t the kind of guy who paid attention to fashion.  I didn’t imagine he looked at magazines, researched, or visited different stores.  He probably had one or two stores he liked and picked a suitable, muted color, Victoria-couldn’t-find-much-fault-in-it kind of wardrobe from the selection there.

He was resting a hand on Moonsong’s shoulder, and he took her hand.  She let him, but when he let go of it to shift how he sat on the backrest of the bench, she didn’t reach out.  There wasn’t any point that I saw where she touched him.  No hand on his leg, no leaning toward him so their arms touched.  And she looked down.

“Poor Byron,” I thought, accidentally saying the thought aloud.

“What?” Rain asked.  “Why poor Byron?”

“She’s breaking up with him,” Erin said.

“They’re not together,” he protested, voice insistent but hushed so it wouldn’t carry.  “They haven’t been together for years.  And how do you even know?”

“The way I understand it, from how they’ve acted in the past, and from what I’ve heard,” I said.  “They’re not together, but for a while now there’s been… an enduring connection.  The two of them waiting for each other.  That’s what’s ending.”

“Yes,” Erin said.  “Exactly.”

“That,” I told Rain, “Is a goodbye.  Carefully negotiated, because they expect to run into each other a lot, they want to make sure there are no hard feelings.”

“No resentments,” Erin said.  “Everything on the table.”

“You’re sure?”

“Yes, Rain,” I said.  “Pretty sure.”

“I was standing here satisfied because one of the two guys that’ve been most decent to me over the last little while was getting to finally spend some time with the girl he liked, and it’s been this awful thing all along?”

“Yes,” Erin said.

“No,” I said, almost at the same time.  “I don’t think it’s awful.”

“He likes her a lot,” Rain said.

“Obviously it would be great if they could make it work,” I said.

“Ideally without her being shitty to Tristan,” Rain said.  “But it was what I was hoping for.”

“You’re not wrong.”  I leaned against the railing by the front steps of the temporary headquarters.  “At least this way they get some closure.  Not getting closure sucks.”

“Just watch,” Rain said.  “He’ll finish up, come join us, and it won’t be a break-up.”

I raised my eyebrows, but I didn’t say anything.

Erin dusted off some of the snow that had accumulated on her.  “I won’t get to find out.  You’ll have to fill me in, Rain.”

“You’re going?”

“I should,” she said.  To me, she said, “Had breakfast with Rain, ran some errands, and was keeping him company until everyone arrived.  But I’ve got a thing with Lachlan.”

“How is he?”

“He’s not doing so well.  He’s going through treatments to deprogram.  It’s scary how easily some of these things can hit you, there’s no enduring it through willpower, there’s no taking cover, there’s no delay or chance to fight back.  Just… there it is.  Your mind is changed forever.  And then fixing that takes years, if it’s even fixable.”

“Easy there,” Rain said.

“Easy?  Oh.  The Goddess thing, I didn’t even think.  I’m sorry.”

“It’s not even that,” I said.  “Something else.”

“I really put my foot in my mouth, then,” Erin replied, cringing.

“Nah,” I said.  Hands in my coat pockets, I glanced back at Kenzie, Natalie and Ashley.  Kenzie had her leg out, phone in hand, and every few seconds the pattern and colors on her tights would change.  Natalie said something I couldn’t hear, commenting on the projected stocking design, apparently, and both Ashley and Kenzie began aggressively disagreeing with her.  I cleared my throat, returning my focus to Erin.  “Reality is, we thought there was no way around what was done to my head and my feelings.  And we thought I’d be like that for the rest of my life.  But things did get patched up in the end.  I’m a little worse for wear, but I’m me again.”

“So don’t lose hope?” Rain asked, or stated.

I shrugged, looking at Erin.  “There are options.”

“Good to know,” she said.  “That cheers me up.  I really like Lachlan.  He’s sweet.  He doesn’t deserve this.”

“He really doesn’t,” Rain said.

“Movie night, tomorrow or the day after,” Erin told Rain.

“Perfect.  Great, yes,” he said.

“Good luck doing whatever you’re doing,” she said.  “Bye Vic.”

“Bye.”

I watched Rain watch Erin go.

“Hating Lachlan a bit right now?”

“It’s supposedly not romantic,” he said.  “And I can’t hate him.  He was good to me when very few people were.  Brainwashed, though.  That makes it count a little less.  But… he’s a really good guy and Erin was supposed to marry him after I turned her down.  They lined it up, and it never happened.  But now his family and the therapists are trying to get him out of that brainwashed mode, and Erin’s someone he listens to, because she’s kind of but not really his fiancee.”

“Yeah.”

“Besides.  Forget Lachlan, Erin’s still dealing with a lot.  Testimony from some of the Fallen came out through the courts, they were pretty open about stuff they pulled.  Manipulation, covering up crimes within the compound, some of the stuff they were up to were things that I would have thought even more extreme people like my aunt and uncle wouldn’t be happy with.  Her parents are…”

He trailed off, floundering.

“Taking it hard?”

“No,” Rain said, quiet.  “Not taking it at all.  Refusing to listen, shrugging it off.  Saying there’s a greater meaning.  Doesn’t feel like the right time, even if I had the balls to say anything on the perfect opportunity.”

“Seems to me like she’s spending all her time taking care of others.  Managing her parents, helping Lachlan-”

“Helping me,” Rain said.  “Great.  Now I feel guilty.”

“But she gets the movie nights, right?”

“That’s for me too.  Catching me up on everything I missed by being the little boy who was raised off the grid.  The classics according to Erin.”

I considered for a moment.

“Which?”

“Uhh, Sixteen Candles, Oil and Vinegar, Not So Sweet Seventeen, The Lovecats, Metropolitan Girl, Ring Finger, uh, the live action Peanuts with the actress from Sixteen Candles as the red haired girl, ummm…”

“I’m sensing a trend.  I’m pretty sure that the movie selection is partially for her own benefit.”

“I hope so,” Rain said.

“Those seem like comfort films to me,” I said.  “The kind of thing you watch over and over again.”

He nodded.

“We should get you up to date on films of other genres, sometime.”

“I’m up for anything.  I want to get caught up in everything, and get to where I know movies well enough I can recommend something Erin will like, or… just have a conversation without feeling like I’m a step behind.  I’m tired of always being the one who needs help.”

“We’ll see what we can do.  If you want to help, I know Ashley needs you to look at her hand.  Don’t let her forget or pretend she’s fine.”

“Oh, for sure,” he said, distracted because he was glancing Ashley’s way and simultaneously paying attention to Byron and Moonsong getting up off the bench.

The pair hugged, and I saw Rain make a little fist, as if hopeful.

No, Rain, I thought.  No.

The pair approached, and as they did, Byron flipped his hood up.  He became Tristan, and the distinction between details like jacket, jeans, and frame were subtle enough that only someone looking head-on at their face and the hair beneath that jacket hood would notice.

“Thanks for coming,” Moonsong addressed our group.  Her smile looked a mite forced, and she looked very much like someone who had had a long, hard conversation with someone else.  “Did you let them know you’re all here?”

“Do we have Sveta?” I asked.

“She’s inside,” Rain answered.  “I don’t know if she saw you show up and told people, but she’d probably say hi if she did, right?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ll let them know,” Moonsong said.  She paused.  “Thanks for your patience, Tristan.”

“Yeah.  No problem.”

She headed up the stairs.  Tristan turned to Rain, eyebrows going up.

“Damn it,” Rain said.

“Yeah.”

“Sorry By,” Rain added.

“She’s pretty shaken up by what happened to her and her team,” Tristan said.  “Re-evaluating.  I won’t say anything more.  Byron signaled he wanted to think for a bit.”

“But she’ll be here today?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

Sveta stepped out of the doors, though step was the wrong word.  I was used to her moving with a bit of a stumble, rarely smooth or fluid, her mechanical body a constant balancing act, where every correction to reassert balance was a half-second to a second later than it might otherwise be.  Not here.  When she moved, it was more fluid than walking, with no bob of the head, only a natural flow forward.   She wore her long gray patchwork coat, and a layered dress that just barely traced the ground.  Her hands were ones that had been made by Rain, painted, and her hair was as styled as I’d seen it, with two thin braids looped around to the back of her head.

She beckoned for everyone to go inside.

I elbowed Rain, as everyone started forward.

“What?” he asked

“That’s you.  You were being down on yourself, about how you always need help but never give it.  But that’s the product of your and her efforts.”

“Yeah, maybe.  More her than me,” he said.

“Punch him in the arm, will you, Tristan?” I asked.

I didn’t wait to see if he obeyed.  I quickened my pace in heading over in Sveta’s direction.  I floated and flew the last few steps, and gave her a hug.

“You look better rested than yesterday,” she said.

“A bit.  I think Ashley felt bad for me, she made me breakfast.”

“Jealous.  Weld tries, but I hate asking things of him, especially lately, when I don’t even have my body.”

Beneath her dress and coat, her body was unrestrained, not bound within a doll-like shell, and not bound by rings or loops.  She was keeping it under control enough that the tendrils didn’t reach out, snap, or strike at the inside of the coat.

“You’re comfortable like this?  Around people?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “No, I’m terrified.  But that doesn’t have anything to do with ‘like this’.  I could have a normal flesh and blood body, two arms, two legs, and be my old self again, and I’d be terrified every other minute that I’d accidentally kill someone.”

“I get that.”

“I know you do,” she said.  She leaped forward and gave me a peck on the cheek.  “I’m okay.  Weirdly calm.  Focused.”

“Are you keeping a journal?  Like I suggested?”

“Yeah.  You should see it though,” she said.  “I have actual handwriting by the end.”

I reached to the back of her head, and leaned forward, gently bringing my forehead to rest against hers.  Like we’d done at the Asylum.  The only comfortable way of establishing contact with two people who weren’t freely able to move, one of whom was primarily made up of a face.

“I’m really happy I have that, at least,” she said.  “I have arms, courtesy of Rain.  They’re… not as good.”

“I know,” I said.

“But I have arms.  And they feel like mine.  And he’s trying to figure out how to emulate the skin that Ashley has over her hands.”

“That’s amazing.”

“Isn’t it?”

She smiled.  “Come on.  I feel better about this job than the last one.”

I made a face, but nodded.  I followed her through the doors.

Inside, Moonsong talked to Anelace and Signal Fire.  Behind them, Weld, Golem, and Vista were standing on the other side of a desk.  Members of a Patrol I didn’t know stood by.

The floors were maple, lacquered, the walls stone and wood.  the building was narrow, joined to the buildings on either side.  Six paces cleared the width of the lobby, and maybe twelve covered the length.  There were desks and booths for employees, rich wood and pretty, computers dark and phones silent, the employees absent.  A stairwell at the back led to the upper floors, where business and meetings would be conducted, and a large semicircular window above that stairwell illuminated ninety-five percent of the space.

Three parahumans were bound, on their knees.  A fourth was sedated.

I’d read the files.  I’d seen the mugshot photos.  They’d been given their masks back, and I was left to determine who was who by what they wore.

Two men, two women.

The larger and older of the men would be Drillbit.  There were heroes who aspired to climb the ranks and achieve notoriety, and Drillbit was the inverse of that.  Reputation didn’t matter and was something to be avoided and discouraged.  He was street level and fought to stay street level, moving around to strike out and take down villains of the lowest rung.  Somewhere along the line, he had developed a substance abuse problem.  He’d targeted dealers to get a supply.

There was a woman who looked like she’d received plastic surgery enough times that things hadn’t held up.  Her nose was too sharp and wasn’t straight anymore, her skin sagged by one eye.  It was painful to see.  That had all been pre-trigger.  Her eyes locked on each of us in turn, pausing on me.  She went by Sightly in the files.

Another woman was Copse.  Woodlands huntress aesthetic, with an emphasis on fur and leather.  She’d been a right hand woman for a powerful and obscenely wealthy animal parts trafficker and collector of trophies of endangered species once.

Happyland was the unconscious one.  Young, by the looks of it, dressed in bright colors.

“We extricated the last of his victims?”

“Yes, we were careful.  Called in a few thinkers and a breaker that could go in and out of that pocket,” Anelace said.  “Hi Antares.”

“Hi ‘lace,” I said.

Happyland could push people into a pocket dimension where he was effectively god.  Each person was allocated a small twelve-by-twelve-by-twelve foot square space, but whatever he desired, short of expanding the space, could appear or happen.

Kenzie was talking to a tinker.  Ashley, standing by, raised a finger.  Rain and Capricorn were still making their way in, filling each other in on their respective girl troubles, apparently.

“How are you holding up, little V?” I asked.

“Marveling at how well Sveta’s doing.  I have a few other things to say, but they’re not for gentlemanly company.”

“Oh?” I asked.  “Now I’m curious.”

“Too bad,” she said, grumping.  Her heavy black eyeliner was visible through the green visor she wore, which let me see her eyes narrow.  “Salacious details when we next hang out.”

“That’s doable,” I said.  “But I hate unanswered questions.”

“Boys,” Vista said.  “Weld, Golem, Anelace, Signal, cover your ears.”

“I’m going to walk away,” Signal Fire said.

Weld, Golem, and Anelace did oblige.  Vista stepped closer, so it was her, me, and Sveta talking.

“The batshit bunny stabbed me, right?  I telescope her sword, so it barely punches past my breastplate, she doesn’t realize.  But it does punch through.  I concentrate the point that’s supposed to explode into a smaller area and pull it away from me- screws up my breastplate.  But that part that did stab me… can’t do anything about that.”

“I know this already,” I said.

“Filling in Sveta.”

“Thank you,” Sveta said.  “Don’t feel you have to.”

“It’s fine.  I’ve had three weeks of hospital visits and bandage changes, I’m grumpy, and grumping it out is cathartic, you’re giving me an excuse.  So anyway, I did get stabbed, and with the angle, it scratches my tit.  And that scratch blows up.  Blew up pretty good, too.”

Sveta winced.

“It’s taken three weeks to mend, I got a good look today, and it’s another scar, and it’s going to be way worse than the scar I have on my other tit, from when Hookwolf pushed me away with a chainsaw hand.   Fuck.  Oh!  I hope I’m not being insensitive-”

“No,” Sveta said, making a face.  “No, that sounds ow.”

“For the record, it’s really, really jarring to hear you refer to your tits,” I said.  “That tiny, small part of me still thinks about you as Vista the youngest Ward.”

“Fuck that.  I earned my war wound, I get to bitch about it.  I survived this long, I earned my right to swear and talk about tits and dicks, and how I just want to get my hands beneath one cute, unattainable guy’s heavy armor before I lose it.”

“Who?  Golem?” Sveta asked, glancing to the side.  Golem still had his hands to his ears.

“Once, kind of,” Vista said  “But he’s been with his girlfriend since before he joined the Wardens.  It’s a trend Victoria pointed out.  Gallant, Golem, there was an old teammate who didn’t stick around.  Your teammate, I met them…”

“Byron?” Sveta asked.

“Byron?” Vista asked.

“Capricorn,” I said.

“Is he the-” Vista made a gesture, inarticulate and random, distorting the air around her finger.

“I have no idea what that means,” I said.  “But if you’re thinking of what I think you’re thinking of, you’re thinking of Tristan.”

“Then Byron is…”

“He has a girlfriend,” Sveta said.  “But it’s a Romeo, Juliette thing, except situational, so they’re-”

“They’re not,” I cut in.

“What?” Sveta asked.

“Outside, just now,” I murmured.  “They just broke off that undefined, waiting-for-each-other thing, I think.  But we’re being mean to Weld and Anelace.”

“What’s he like?” Vista asked, while I motioned that Weld, Golem, and Anelace could put their hands down.

“Quiet,” Sveta said.  “Thoughtful.  He needs more people in his corner.  Taking the high road, a lot of the time, it means you don’t have a corner.”

“And recently broken up,” I commented, under my breath.

Vista groaned.

“I overheard you talking high roads and no corner, and you’re reminding me of arguments I’ve had with Ava,” Golem commented.

“Don’t, no,” Vista pleaded.  Her hand went to her breastplate.  “You and her are so good together.  Don’t spoil this.”

“We’re really good together,” Golem said, smiling.  “Don’t worry.  Arguments happen.”

Signal fire cleared his throat.

Impatient.  He was from Advance Guard, and Advance Guard seemed to hold to this pattern of wanting to go.  He was also, if I remembered right, one of Lookout’s trainers when she’d had a summer of Ward training camps.  There had been issues.

We had business to conduct.

Everyone was here; for all our differences, and the schism between the two groups of heroes, we were able to cooperate like this.

We’d started out wanting at least one witness, but it had felt weird, and there hadn’t been enough to it.

By their files, I knew their deeds.

Drillbit had harmed himself enough with his addictions that he could no longer be trusted.  The loop had repeated too many times.  He wouldn’t get better and didn’t want to get better, and he would either engage in a cape fight while inebriated or drive inebriated on his way to or from a cape fight, and he couldn’t drive while brimming with enough chemicals to kill another man.  He would get arrested, even cooperate sometimes, get pulled into jail, enter withdrawals, and break out, sometimes letting other prisoners free.

Without a place like the offworld prison Goddess’s attack had torn up, there was nowhere and no way to keep him.  He was the one I felt worst about here.

Sightly’s power scarred people for life to make herself beautiful on a temporary basis.  At her peak, she danced through combats, all grace and poise.  At her valleys, when she was at her lowest point and more than a week without a victim, she manifested attack mutations.  Raw strength, claws, and teeth in hidden places.  Her track record of victims was almost enough on its own.  Her recalcitrance when it came to getting help or seeking alternatives sealed the deal.

Copse’s master had no last-of-the-endangered-species to collect on this world, now that she was set up again.  There were no rare animals, and so she had taken to sending Copse after people.  Two of the three victims had had rare conditions, vitiligo and keratinous horns, and both had featured in a modeling shoot that portrayed the beauty in those conditions.  The third had been a Case Fifty-three.

Copse’s master had collected them and kept them naked and contained in an open-to-the-sky garden prison, surrounded on four sides by manor, with windows looking in, so the master could always watch, treating them like zoo animals.

In the process of investigating and solving that whole situation, Foresight had found out that Copse’s master had ordered Copse to kidnap a son for her to ‘adopt’, five years ago.

The old woman had killed herself when the law caught up to her.  Copse had been brought in.  She was processed, taken before the courts for preliminary hearings, and given bond, which she paid.  Less than twenty-four hours after release, she had been reaching out, pitching her resume, so to speak.  Clear intent to recommit.  Bond revoked, and… here she was.

And Happyland… simple enough.  In our world he was a nobody, but he was a nobody who could snatch people up and disappear with them.  They’d go to a pocket world of his where he had absolute power, and if and when they died, he left the bodies there, in a cell he never visited.

“We just going to do it in the lobby?  I thought the box was upstairs,” Signal Fire said.

“It is,” Lookout said.  “We can operate it by remote.”

“It’s weird to do it in the lobby,” Signal Fire said.

“Nobody around,” Ashley said.

“That’s just it.  No judge, no magistrate, no court appointee.  We have her, and I don’t even know who she is-”

He indicated Natalie.

“I’m nobody,” Natalie said.  “I don’t matter here.”

Signal Fire looked dissatisfied.

“Right,” he finally said.

There was a tense silence.  Gagged and bound, guns to their backs, the four prisoners knelt on the hardwood floor.

“Then… any objections?” Moonsong asked.

I’d already considered.

“Drillbit,” I said.  “Doesn’t feel right.”

“He’s had five last chances,” Anelace said.  “I get the feeling, but… what do we do?”

Signal Fire reached down, and he undid Drillbit’s gag.

“Death sentence?” Drillbit asked, his voice tight.  He worked his mouth where it was sore from the gag.

“We’re sending you away.  A world with nobody.  You’ll be at least ten miles from the next person… but you should know anyone else that’s there… they were sent there because they were a problem.”

He looked so miserable, as he digested that.  Face lined with hardship.

“It’s winter,’ he said.

“You go with a kit.  Tent, food for a month, heating stove, supplies, tools.”

“You can make a promise,” Anelace said.  “Convince us.”

“Can I?” Drillbit asked.  “I can’t even convince myself.”

Silence followed.

“Or if you want to articulate it better, Antares,” Anelace said.

I wasn’t sure what to say.  I couldn’t even articulate just why this didn’t feel like it was the right move.

But I couldn’t think of an alternative move.

“Send me,” Drillbit said.  “Don’t send any strong medications with me.  It might be the only way I live out the rest of my life.  I’ve hurt too many people.”

Kenzie nudged me, as a back-and-forth followed.

She had my new mask.

“You don’t have to stay,” I whispered to her.  In case she was distracting herself from proceedings.

She shook her head.

I took my mask, and I tried it on.  It covered my upper face, nose, cheekbones, eyes, brow.  The projection clicked as it set into place.  Lookout provided the hand-mirror.

“Antares?” Anelace asked.  “Rule is, if any one of us objects to a prisoner being removed, we rescind it.  And we have a pretty diverse set of people here.  If this feels wrong, it feels wrong.  But we need a decision.”

It was black, and faint lines and spires of gold traced a pattern across it.  They would be faint beneath the shadow of my hood.  The part over my lower face was some limited protection, but projected to be see-through.  More projection was devoted to the image that covered the rather large eyeholes, that maximized peripheral vision.

They said justice was blind, but…

“Okay,” I said. “No objection.”

I saw Drillbit nod.  He wasn’t gagged anymore, but there was no sound from him.  No protest.  If anything, he looked more at ease.

Not so, for the others.  The two women grunted protests.  Happyland slept, unaware.

No more objections.

Rain had the controller, and Rain was the one to hit the button, with Kenzie pulling his arm down to check settings before nodding.

The portal opened.  A narrow, distorted doorway, in the lobby of the Wardens’ temporary headquarters.

“Happyland.  Drug given, he should wake up in five with a hangover,” Anelace said.  “Sent to spot H, for future reference.”

“Noted,” Signal Fire said, writing it down on a pad of paper that he’d laid on the unoccupied secretary’s desk.

Happyland was rolled through, and the portal closed.  A moment later, it opened again.

“Copse.  We are placing a tool in your hands.  It should take you a few minutes to free yourself of your bindings.”

Copse fought every inch of the way.  She ended up dropping her tool, and so the others kicked it through, where it disappeared into the grass.

“It’s three feet to your left,” the Patrol officer said.

Copse screamed through her gag.

The portal closed.

Sveta nodded, seemingly satisfied with it.  Copse had kidnapped a Case-Fifty-Three.  Let her master dehumanize him.

“Sent to spot I.  Coordinates are in the logbooks.”

“Noted.”

The next portal ripped open.

“Sightly.  Are you going to cooperate?  If you lose this tool, your life over there gets a hundred times harder.”

Sightly didn’t scream or fight.  Officers seized her by the armpits.  Her head hung, and tears streaked down.

“I’m putting the tool into your hand.  Cut the wrist-bindings that way.”

She nodded.  She was helped through, and turned around to stare at us with one eye slanted by the skin that didn’t sit right around it.

The portal ripped its way closed.

“Site J.”

“Noted.”

Drillbit lurched to his feet without help.  His head hung like Sightly’s had.  He didn’t cry.  His gag was off, and he didn’t speak.

When the portal appeared, he walked through it.  Someone had to stop him from going too far, passing him the tool because he’d been so quick to leave.  The officer stood on the far side of the portal with Drillbit, by the little four-foot cube of packed up supplies we’d already deposited there.

Drillbit didn’t look back or do anything except nod to himself, tool clasped in his hand, as the portal roared shut.

“Site K.”

“Wrote it in.”

“Patrol vans will leave as if they’re carrying the prisoners.  Standard evasion, cover, shuffling the seashells approach.  If there’s an attack, surrender immediately.  This batch should be fine, I don’t think they had many friends.”

“Yessir.”

I exhaled, a heavy feeling in my stomach.

We’d chattered and chatted and talked drama and war wounds earlier, and now… now nothing.

Well, not quite.  Kenzie was naturally the first to break silence, nudging me.

“You like it?”

It took me a second to process what she meant.  I touched the mask and nodded.  It worked.

“We should talk about pickup plans.  Imp and Tattletale might be dropping me off sometimes- will that be okay?  They want to coordinate.”

She was so casual.  Her face was disguised, but it wasn’t smiling.  Did she even get it?  This?

“Okay,” I said.  “I guess I’ve got that to look forward to.”

“We’ll talk about it after,” Swansong said.  “Natalie will help broker any deals.  Let’s go outside.”

Everyone filed out.  Sveta went to Weld, Capricorn and Rain paired up.  Moonsong hung back with Anelace.  The Wardens murmured to one another.

It felt better, everyone being involved, making sure everyone agreed.  The first few goes had been more rushed.  A through G.

Natalie gave me a pat on the arm as she passed by.

“You okay with this?” I asked her.  “Legally?”

“Legality doesn’t come anywhere near this,” she said.  “It is what it is.”

“Is it?” I asked, quiet.

“A last resort, I think.”

“You didn’t have to come, you know.  I think if… if I’d had a real choice, if I hadn’t helped set this in motion, I wouldn’t have.  It would be easier.”

Almost everyone had filed out of the space, going upstairs or leaving by the front doors.  Those that hadn’t that weren’t Natalie or me were by the doors.

“Would be,” Natalie agreed.  “But I thought it was important that they have a witness.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Heavens – 12.x

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

When the television cut out and the lights flickered, Presley could see a momentary set of images on the screen, a face in silhouette, that silhouette serving as its own frame for another image and silhouette, leading the eye to a place before it all went dark and terminated early.  The sound was a single syllable, as loud as the television would allow.

She was about to rise from her seat at her computer when the icon in the upper right corner drew her attention.

No internet.

“Aww, shit!”

She heard the creak of footsteps.

“Shit,” she muttered.  “What was that?”

The knock at the door served as both knock and simultaneous push on door.  Her mom leaned into the room.

“The internet’s out,” Presley complained.

“The internet’s out all the time, Pres.”

She clicked the icon.  It didn’t try for more than a second before returning the ‘fail’ result.

“It’s really out.”

“They’ll fix it.  They’ve been good about it.  Maybe you can focus on better things.”

“Soccer’s only twice a week, and we can’t practice outside.”

“What about afternoon classes?” her mom asked, archly.  “Cleaning up?”

A finger moved around the room.  The house was the kind that had come in pieces that all slotted together.  Presley was offended that her mother pointed at the cards she’d slotted into the seams where the upper half of her bedroom fit into the lower half.  The top row was soccer cards, the lower row was superhero cards, and there was a very small section in the narrow space between wall and window on another wall of the room where she had hero league soccer cards.  Nobody was interested in trading them, and everyone knew it was about as real as wrestling, but they were cheap and she could always grab a few packs if she had change left over.

Presley rolled her eyes as her mom’s finger pointed at the different messes, pointing at some twice.

“Go to sleep early,” her mom said, more gently.  “Do you need a ride to the arena tomorrow?”

“I’d check what the weather is like if there was internet or a weather channel,” Presley said.  She saw the face her mom made, and she smiled.

“Let me know.  For now, go to sleep,” Her mother said.  She intruded into the room, approached Presley’s desk, and there wasn’t anything Presley could say about it, because the rule was that computer time was parents-could-enter-the-room-time.  Her mother laid a hand on top her head, stroking hair that had been made a bit crispy by the bleach, and gave her a kiss goodnight, between two fingers on hair.

“Night mom.”

Her mom pointed at the screen.  There was a row of soccer cards displayed, with players standing behind them, stats displayed along the bottom.  It was a good booster, too, but the ‘no connection’ sign was glaring red, and the way the soccer game worked, a purchase that failed partway through was a loss, to prevent scrubbing.

“I’m not spending any of my money on it.  They give you five packs for free and I buy more with the currency I get from trading up.”

“Okay, okay.  Be careful.”

“And I don’t really care about that-” even if it was a good pack, “-the team had something big going on, I think.  I wanted to ask if they were okay.”

She pointed, to make it clear which team she meant.  She had three printed out pictures above and below the hero league cards, each picture in a clear plastic jacket like the cards were in hard laminate sleeves, less to protect them, and more because the cheap printer paper had gotten wavy after the ink soaked into it, and the sleeve helped keep it flat.  Antares and Swansong, Swansong decked out in costume with eyes smoking, and a picture of their headquarters, which was just as messy as her room, if not more, and had a glowing sci-fi computer terminal at the far end, with lots of floating screens and stuff, which was really cool.

“Don’t bother ‘the team‘,” her mom said, with the kind of emphasis that suggested she was trying to be clever or make a point.  She turned off the monitor, which made Presley wince.  At least she hadn’t turned off the computer, which would have definitely cost her the value of the pack.  “Sleep.”

Presley nodded, sliding chair over to the window to adjust the curtains.  She stopped where she was, looking out.  Her voice had a less-sure note to it when she said, “Mom?”

Rather than close, the curtains were opened wider, her mother stepping up to the window.

A glowing figure on the horizon.  Taller than any mountain, not glowing, but so white that it looked like a cut-out from reality, head extending up like a wedge, lower body extending down the same way, creating a very narrow hourglass shape, but with a narrow torso in the center, with arms, what looked like a lightning bolt or a spear, and what might have been a round shield.

With it, there was a horrible feeling in her middle.  It was like when the Endbringers came; all her life, the years had been punctuated by these big, shadowy monsters that came and changed the tone of the day and the week after, in what she’d once heard a bad comedian call the opposite of holidays.  It had always come with a bad feeling mixed with a bad relief that it had been so far away.  The kind of relief that made you feel bad.

Except she didn’t feel that relief now, and she didn’t feel any less bad.

“What do we do?”

“I’m going to talk to your father.  Stay here.”

Presley nodded.

“No,” her mom said, before she’d finished walking out of the room.  “Not here.  Not by the window.  Just in case, stay away.”

Presley took a step to one side, so the window was further away.  She could have stepped toward the bed, and settled in there, but hiding under the covers felt like such a kid thing to do, and she wasn’t really a kid anymore.

And being where she was, she could see the photos of the team.  ‘Something big’, they’d said.  This had to be what they were doing.

And, being where she was, she could turn on the monitor, maneuver the trackball to the internet icon, and see it was back.  There was some connection, but it was yellow, marked low priority.  That was pretty usual for when big emergencies happened.

She typed out a response, leaning over to glance out the window at the figure.  It wasn’t moving.

The delay after her message was sent ate at her.

Then the reply, from Antares.

‘We’re waiting and seeing.’

It didn’t ease her worries, exactly, but if Antares was replying, then things couldn’t be that bad.

She confirmed the pack opening, closed the game, and then called out, “Mom, Dad!  They replied!”

Lookout moved her ‘hands’, and through the link that Darlene provided, Candy could feel the motions in hand and attached finger, and moved appropriately.

“C, apostrophe, one one, two, four, eight, sixteen, one one…”

“I think you’re making this up,” Candy said, her hand moving to hit the keys.  When she wasn’t sure she waited for the word that told her what she was supposed to be hitting.

“I am making this up,” Lookout said.  “I make stuff up and make that stuff work.  That’s what tinkering is.”

“What are you even doing?”

“Flying a broken camera.  It needs coordinates.  See?”

“That looks like a screen that’s half black, half blue, and covered in gibberish.”

“Ground, air, and data.  Calling it a camera is like calling a Swiss Army knife a knife, which it is, you use it for the knife a lot, but I want to know everything I’m missing out on.  I switch modes and-”

“Clear picture,” Candy said.  She looked over her shoulder at where Chicken Little was sleeping in the bed across from Lookout’s.  He’d been medicated so he could actually sleep.  They were keeping the mask on, but there were bandages now.

Darlene had settled into the chair by his bed.  It was the comfortable, puffy sort of chair, and her feet were up on the seat with her.  Two blankets were gathered up and around her legs and her lap, piled up to almost chin height, and another was on the top of the chair, pulled down a bit so it covered her head and shoulders.

She wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t accepting medication, on excuse of needing to help Lookout, and she wasn’t taking her eyes off of Chicken Little.

“Blink, Dar.”

Darlene closed her eyes, then opened them.

“Focus,” Lookout said.  “Look, clear picture.”

“Sec,” Candy dismissed her.

“Ughhhhh.  This is important!  The mayor showed up!  And she has people, and-”

“Shhh!” a nurse said, from the hallway.  There were two capes from Victoria’s mom’s team by the door, standing guard.

Candy focused instead on Darlene, counting the seconds.  Twenty, twenty one, twenty two-

“Blink more than the one time, Darlene,” Candy said.

Darlene pulled a hand out from under the covers, and gave Candy the finger.

“Surly,” Candy muttered.

“She’s hurting,” Lookout said, quiet, giving Candy a smile and an elbow to the arm.  “It sucks.”

“She’s been hurt before,” Candy said.  “Nathan pushed her down these concrete stairs that went from the street to the water, and she had to use her power to make him feel it, but he was mad, so he wouldn’t.  She had to tough it out longer than him before he cracked.”

“But other people are hurt.  Her favorite person.”

“She’s seen me get hurt, and I was her favorite person once.”

“You still are, Can-can,” Darlene muttered.  “One of ’em.  When you’re not being a pest.”

“You can hear me from over there?”

“It’s quiet,” Darlene said.

Candy settled in, lying over the covers while Lookout was beside her, lying on them, laptop in front of her, the screen swiveled one way, while the keyboard was swiveled in Candy’s direction.  Darlene had done a lot of the work to help jury-rig the setup, before Lookout got frustrated that she was too distracted.

Too distracted and tired.

Candy had taken over, and now, on the topic of being frustrated, Lookout was trying to drum her fingers with fingers that weren’t there, and Candy could feel it through the link Dar had established.  She was antsy.

“How are you doing?” Candy asked.  “Your hands hurt.”

“We can stop if you want to,” Lookout said.

Candy was feeling that hurt through the link, but she could grit her teeth and deal with fake pain.  Lookout had taken some medication, but every time she tried to move her fingers, her hands hurt, and Candy felt it.

“No, this is important, right?”

Lookout nodded, before whispering, “Thank you.  It’s important enough I’m doing it even though it hurts to do.  Can we- Can we do my thing again, now that you’re done talking to Darlene?  I’m missing stuff.”

“Okay,” Candy said.  Help in, gripe out.  When people were hurt, it was important to help those closer to the problem and the hurt, and any complaints were saved for those further from it than she was.  It was a rule that Samuel’s mom had imparted on them before her violent end.

There was an inverse of that rule, but it had to do with hurting people related to the source and keeping evidence in.  Not so applicable here.  Only if Aunt Rachel failed and Candy got a chance to go after the people who did it.

Slumping down, she adjusted the laptop, which prompted Lookout to adjust the screen.

“E, I, one, five… can you hold down the right arrow key until I say stop?”

Candy obeyed.

This time, Candy was more careful to be quiet.  “I can’t tell if you and Dar are going to be best friends or if you’re going to kill-”

“Stop.”

“-each other,” Candy finished.

“Go back one.  What do you mean?”

The screen showed a bunch of squares and lines, identifying faces, then framing each face.  The camera was pointed one way but somehow depicted the face from another angle.  Lips were covered by another, bolder square, and then weird arrangements of letters and symbols appeared.  Each was like a dial of letters on a lock that might read A-A-A-A, with the lock-cracker changing each letter in turn.

In this case, the lipreading technology spat out words that included a ‘DINAH’ and ‘CONTESSA’.  Names and a royal title.

Seemingly disinterested in anything that wasn’t a mention from her friends, Lookout had Candy use the trackball to switch over to another camera shot, focusing on a grid of security camera images.  The prior image was visible at the very edges of the screen, with a dotted line feeding into a bubble that read ‘logs’.

“What do you mean?” Lookout asked, again.

How was Lookout this energetic at this hour, this hurt?  Candy had been in the one big fight with Nursery and Lord of Loss and all the people with guns, and she was exhausted.  She’d forgotten what she was even going to say, but now Lookout was staring at her with large eyes.  In the gloom of the room, the whites of the eyes were contrasted with black skin, the orbs capturing the movements of lines and windows from the computer screen.

“I mean you know she likes Chicken.  If you get in the way, she will literally tear-”

Stupid choice of ways to put it.  She was tired.

“Tear me to pieces.  Mm hmm.”

“Because she likes him a lot.”

“Yeah.  I’ve liked people that much.”

“And you like him,” Candy said.

“I do.  And I like her, and I like you, and I like my team-”

“You know what I mean.”

Lookout stared at her screen.

Candy elbowed her.

“I’m being good,” Lookout said, quiet.  “And I won’t get in the way.”

‘I’m being good’ was the kind of thing that made far too much sense to Candy.  She’d heard similar things from a lot of her siblings and ‘cousins’, which was their term for the sisters and brothers by another mother.  She’d even heard the line about being good from some of their quirkier and more messed up unpowered siblings.

It was a simple thing to say that said a lot.

Candy moved her mental evaluation on whether Darlene would find herself strangling Lookout or being best friends with her one bit toward ‘best friends’.

“What happens if he decides he likes you?”

“I always thought maybe he liked boys, like one of the Capricorn brothers or like my d- like some people I knew did.  Do.  He was a big fan of Rain.  Both with and without the fake face.”

“No,” Candy said.

“No?  But-”

“No.  I’m an expert on these things.  Most of us are.  He just thinks Rain’s badass.  He likes girls.  Or he will when he figures out what he’s doing.”

“Oh, ‘kay,” Lookout said, quiet.  “Rain is badass.  He’s one of my favorite people.”

“Is everyone one of your favorite people?”

“Haaa.  Not the jerks who did this to my hands.  But Rain yes, and my team yes, and Swansong very yes.  And Victoria very yes, and you guys very yes.”

“You’re the kind of girl in school has five friends who are all her best friends, huh?”

“Nah,” Lookout said.  “I never had school friends.  Hey, is it weird that I’m relieved Chicken likes girls?”

Candy moved her mental evaluation of the strangle vs. friendship thing two bits toward ‘strangle’.

“Because Darlene?” she asked, hopefully.

“I guess?  Kind of?”

Not a definitive yes.  Another three bits toward ‘strangle’.

She’d have to be careful.

“The portal’s open,” Lookout said.  Her leg jiggled beneath the covers.  “Hey, the portal’s open.  That’s a thing!  Move, type!”

“Shhh!” a nurse made a noise from the hallway.

“Tyyyype,” Lookout hissed through her teeth, waggling her hands.  “Trackball.”

The screen was filling up with more white numbers against an orange-tinted security camera image.  Nobody was coming through, despite the fact the portal was open.

“We have weird readings.  Powers on the other side, filtered because some powers don’t work through or around portals.”

The camera changed.  The mayor’s group was entering the station.  Snuff was with them.  Tattletale probably had a reason for why he was there and not here.

Tense minutes passed.

Then the message came over the phone.

“It’s Antares, type type type type,” Lookout urged.

“Shhh!” the nurse in the hallway said.  She approached until the capes at the door stopped her.  “Or I will ask to have your things taken away.”

Candy was focused enough on the typing and hitting the right keys that she didn’t process the words until the exchange was done, and by then, Lookout was having her type in more coordinates.

“Move that slider to the red,” Lookout said.

“Red?” Candy asked.  As she did, the sub-screen with the data and a few wacky star shaped symbols changed to be white text on a textured red background.  “Why?”

“Because it’s cool,” Lookout whispered.  “And because the whip was red, and this is the whip.  And…”

She touched a fingerless hand to the screen, smudging it.  Below the smudge, a reel of numbers and characters was flying by too fast to read.

“This is it.  Phone.  Text messages.  We need to let Antares know.”

Candy obeyed.

“And this next part is long but important.  Okay?  Work with me?”

“If it helps,” Candy said.

“It’ll help.  It should.  I really hope it does…”

“Shh,” was the urging from the cape at the door.  The two were Goalpost and Fireaxe.  Fireaxe couldn’t even use his power in the hospital without setting off alarms, which was dumb.  It was Goalpost who was shushing instead of the nurses now.

“Type, type type type-”

Candy typed.

It took fifteen minutes.  The code made her head spin, and she was providing Lookout the hands to write it.  The boxes of dense code were arranged like spokes on a gear, and Lookout kept having her use the trackball to rotate that gear around, to add something to one block or fill in another block.

“Okay,” Lookout paused.  “Hit the print button.”

“Print?”

“Had to be something.”

Candy hit the button.

Red light crackled and flared at Lookout’s hand, and she removed the bandages that were already being pushed away and strained by the emerging growth.

“Yes!”

“Shush!” a nurse barked, looking in.  But then she stopped.

It was all growing back, the wound seeming to travel to the extremities, with Lookout gritting her teeth in a weird smile as it happened.

Darlene sat up, moving the blankets that covered her.  Her leg was growing back now.

“We did it.  They did it,” Lookout said, bouncing.  Her most intact hand gripped the most injured one until the last of the regrowth finished.

Then, like it was finally okay to do, she let out a long sigh with a superphysical shudder of relief that shook her entire body.

Darlene stood, wobbly at first.  She approached Chicken Little, and she moved his mask, gingerly.  Then she burst into tears.  Good tears.

The nurses rushed into the room, to examine their patients, and edged a teary-eyed Darlene out of the way.

If looks could kill, a hard glare through wet eyes, over wet cheeks.

“Be good, Darlene.”

Darlene gave her a look that could kill.

“They’re helping him.”

Darlene relaxed, and with that relaxation, broke down again.  She rushed to Lookout’s bedside, and she hugged her friend.

“We have more work to do?”  Candy asked.  After such a hollow, hurt feeling sitting in her upper chest for so long tonight, she felt buoyant.

“No.  That’s everyone, and I don’t think that weapon will work again, not without a lot of rejiggering.  Hopefully that protects everyone.”

Everyone.

Candy had an ominous feeling, but was too tired to put it to words.

“Flor,” Darlene put it to word before Candy was done.

Candy scrambled out of the bed so fast she almost knocked the laptop to the ground.  Darlene followed.

Flor was in the hospital room two doors down, but getting there wasn’t easy.  There weren’t any shouts, no noises of alarm, just… a lot of the capes from Antares’ mom’s team, two security officers, and several nurses.

“Let me through.  Let me through!” Candy shouted.  “You guys don’t-”

Flor was out of bed, wearing a hospital gown, her hair ruffled up at the back because she’d had it on a pillow.  A nurse was on her knees beside her.

“Don’t,” Candy said.

Flor didn’t budge, studying the room.

“It’s been a lousy night that’s only now getting better.  Don’t make it suck again.  They’ll shoot you.”

Flor looked around.

“I’ll play your friggin’ fashion princess video game with you,” Candy said.  She indicated Darlene.  “We’ll take turns playing it with you.”

“Hey,” Darlene said.  “Jerk.  Don’t volunteer me.”

But Flor backed down.  The nurse scrambled away.

“I thought we said to cuff her to her bed,” Candy said.

“You also said not to touch her.  It didn’t seem like she was going anywhere,” one of the heroes said, watching as Flor crawled back into her bed.

“She obviously did.”

Useless heroes.

Darlene was already pulling on her arm, dragging her out of the room.

They returned to the room.  The hustle and bustle surrounding Chicken Little had died down, but some nurses were on either side of the bed.  It was Candy’s turn to drag Darlene over to where Lookout was tapping away on her phone.

“Talking to the team?” Darlene asked.  “Tell them thank you.”

“Talking to the team lawyer, Natalie,” Lookout said.  “She says she’s suspicious I won’t be able to stay with my team.  I’ve been hospitalized twice in a really short span of time.”

“Makes sense,” Darlene said.

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  She smiled at Darlene.  “Makes sense.  I’ll figure something out.”

The smile was jarring, but Candy didn’t know what to say.

Darlene climbed up into the hospital bed beside Lookout, her attention largely on Chicken Little, who was still drugged asleep, and Lookout’s attention was on the screen, on her team.  Candy sat at the end of the bed, being careful not to block Dar’s view, because tonight wasn’t a night for teasing.  She adjusted the blanket at the foot of the bed to cover herself.  The hospital was chilly, and cold air wafted in, seemingly through the single-pane windows.

Darlene was letting exhaustion overtake her.  Her head rested on Lookout’s shoulder, and Lookout gave her a pat on the leg.

“We could make our own team,” Candy said.  “You two, me, Chicken.”

“But-” Lookout said.  “I’d be betraying people.  Swansong-”

“Then we contract out,” Candy added.  “Exclusively to one team.  Maybe two.  Cheat the system.”

“Maybe,” Lookout said, the smile dropping from her face.  “Could work.”

Outside the window, Chicken Large screeched.

Narwhal watched as Undersider and Breakthrough climbed out of their vehicles.  Government vehicles, by the color of the plates.  Rides provided by the illustrious mayor of the unnamed city.

It had been hours now.  The sun would rise in another few hours.  Were it a warmer month, it would already be rising.

The figure that had once been Dauntless loomed above them.  Dormant, quiet, alone.

As alone as any of them were.

Narwhal’s costume was layered, crystals grown large and each gap covered by another crystal, enough times that her entire figure had changed.  Crystals were her boots, so her feet weren’t resting against snowy ground, and they framed her chin, nose, eye sockets, and ears, while providing the structure that held up her horn.  A lot of that was to keep the cold off.  Temperature didn’t conduct through forcefield, so it kept her insulated.  Here and there, she adjusted, exposing neck, collarbone, and shoulder above the crystalline suit.

Her heart was pounding, breathing was hard, and getting past it seemed impossible.  She kept her shoulders back and square, her feet securely beneath her, and hands at her sides.  People looked to her, and if she let the facade crack, then it would affect them.

She had never been good at giant slaying.  She could hold her own against the Endbringers and the other enemies of similar scale, throw up defenses, launch her forcefields for offense, but it wasn’t the environment where she felt like she did the most good.

And she’d been stuck here, facing down the attack from March, and she hadn’t done enough good here.  It was more frustrating that the higher-ups and paper pushers would blame her, because a power like March’s didn’t translate to paperwork.

It meant expressing that Defiant and Dragon could have three ships in the air, and a squadron of parahumans and soldiers could be in just the right spot at just the right time to make them dangerously able to flank if the ships tried to fly past.  Move around, open fire, the routes were blocked or there were other obstructions.  People who would get caught in the collateral damage.

Not permanently, there was always a way, but by the time that way was sought and found, March was on the offensive.  And it was always easier to attack than defend.

The paper-pushers wouldn’t get it.  They’d talk about budgets and hint at budget cuts, and blame would be shifted, and it would be a repeat of prior engagements against Jack Slash all over again.

But they had the boy who had beaten Jack Slash in the Wardens.  Jack Slash had had an unknown factor giving him an edge.  His power gave him the upper hand against any parahuman, and his ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ made it next to impossible for civilians to get to him.

March’s coterie didn’t cover a weakness so much as it augmented her strengths.

It was possible that made it more fragile, but Narwhal wouldn’t get the chance.  Her strength was in wading into confrontations and walking out the other side with her enemy broken.  Warlords, gangs, armies.  But her eternal tragedy was that she was often the only one both capable and willing to step up and be a leader, negotiating the balance between leadership and dealing with the people behind desks and benches.

The Undersiders and Breakthrough parted.  Truce between them now done.  Hero and villain, each had a side to go to.  The mayor’s henchpeople, Harbingers, went their own way.  Neither hero nor villain.

Well, most.

Weld had arrived.  He was the kind of young man she would’ve drafted to any of her teams, at any point.  Driven, conscientious, kind, and just wounded enough that there was something to look after, where she could have him under her wing without feeling like his talents weren’t being wasted leading a team elsewhere.

Antares led Weld to one of the last vehicles in the convoy.  He opened the door, and was embraced by what Narwhal took to be his girlfriend.

That was a mess.  Narwhal had seen him making eyes at one of the other girls in the Wardens.  Slician.  She’d noticed and she’d approached him, and he’d turned her down.  It wouldn’t have been easy.

This?  That?  It couldn’t be good.  It was too far from human, and Weld was more in touch with humanity than a lot of humans were.

If he’d asked Narwhal for advice, she would have told him she liked Slician for him more than she liked this girl.  That he had his own healing and growing to do, and it seemed to her that he was putting it on hold.  It was maybe better that he hadn’t asked her.

It was even possible that he knew her well enough to know what the advice she would give would be.  If that were true, then when and if he needed help making the hard decision, he would ask her.

Cracks, Narwhal thought.  Her fingers touched a damaged forcefield she hadn’t yet dismissed, tracing the fissures and missing pieces.  We all have them.  If we have to slay this giant, we’ll have to find his.

Cracks in the individual, yes.  That was a thing.  Weld had his.  Narwhal knew she certainly had her own.

But between too.  Between Weld and his current girlfriend.

Breakthrough and the Undersiders had closed the gap, at least a little.  But some fissures remained.  Foil didn’t join Breakthrough, and she didn’t rejoin the Undersiders.  Her focus was on the giant.

Narwhal approached, dismissing the damaged shield.

“How is your girlfriend?” Narwhal asked, to open the conversation and let Foil know she was there.

“Parian?  I’m surprised you were keeping enough track of me to know.  She’s fine now.  She has to be careful when eating or drinking, but she’ll mend.”

“You should go to her.  We don’t think this situation will change anytime soon.”

Foil nodded, but she didn’t budge.

“I can listen, if you need to talk,” Narwhal said.

“I don’t know what I’d say.  Every time I’m faced with this stuff, I find myself less able to deal with it, get images out of my head.  It takes longer to ease down.”

“Yes.  When the feeling of your heart pounding and your adrenaline surging becomes normal, and the moments of rest or tranquility are the thing that you have to go looking for.”

“Not exactly that.  Feeling freaked out.  I saw the woman I love get hurt in a really grisly way.  Because of March, in a roundabout way.  And I’m worried that if I go see her, I won’t be able to stop seeing her get hurt.  Does that make sense?”

“It makes sense.  But you can’t avoid seeing her forever, Foil.  Lily.”

Foil looked surprised at the mention of her name.

Narwhal gave her a sympathetic look.  “We thought about recruiting you.  We looked you up.  It was determined it would be too antagonistic with a mid-tier power.”

“Tattletale?” Foil asked.  She sounded angry.

“We can talk about options after if you want.  Don’t hold it against Tattletale.  Please don’t hold it against us.  I’m distracting you from what you were talking about.  You’re avoiding Parian?”

“I’m avoiding the reminder.  It’s like… there’s all this stuff in the past.  Bloody, messy, grisly.  So much death.  Parian’s helping her family and I’m helping her help them.  Family’s important to her, and we’re getting them the last few surgeries they really need.  But that’s bloody, messy, grisly too.”

“Do you feel like you have to?”

“Do I- what?  I’d do it anyway.”

“But does it feel obligatory?” Narwhal asked.  “They come as part and parcel with your partner.  Does it feel like you have to, to keep her beside you?”

“But I would anyway.”

“Yes, because you’re heroic by nature.  But it being something you must do makes it feel like a trap.  A nuisance becomes a torture when you’re trapped.”

Foil shrugged.

Maybe the wrong approach.

Foil ventured, “All that stuff in the past, all that stuff going on in the background when we’re home, in the present, and then I find myself worrying… what if March comes again?  What if I have to watch my girlfriend drag a baby out of her windpipe, or if someone does to her what happened to her family, or…”

Foil lifted her arms, then let them fall.

“You can’t control the future,” Narwhal said.

“I can, though.  I can control what comes back home.  I’m thinking about retiring, at least in the short-term.  Just to get away from the grisly, messy stuff.  Messy relationships and team dynamics.”

“That would be an awful shame,” Narwhal said.  “You’re a good cape.”

“Thank you for saying so.”

“You should go home and take care of your girlfriend.  Sleep, rest.  This… this is scary, what happened tonight, the deaths and the damage, it’s horrific.  But a good night’s sleep with someone you love will put a surprising amount of distance between that and how you feel about it.”

“Do you have that?  Good nights of sleep, someone to hold?”

“No,” Narwhal said.  She extended Foil an apologetic expression.  “No.  When I was in similar straits to where you are now, I chose not to go home.  Then there was nobody to go home to.  I got my power trying to protect someone and… I didn’t have anyone to protect anymore.  I stopped being able to have quiet days.  I don’t sleep without thinking about what I should be doing.  I felt much like you seem to feel now, and I went on one more mission, because carrying on was easier than bringing it home.”

“It’s not like that.  That’s not what I’m talking about.”

Narwhal nodded.  “I know.  We’re different people.”

“But maybe if you’d gone home, then you would have found yourself unable to stop dreading the mess that comes tomorrow, and you would have found it all disintegrating.”

“Who knows?” Narwhal asked.

“I might stay for a while, just to be safe.  Offer my assistance if anyone needs it.”

“I could order you.”

“You’re not my boss,” Foil said.

“But I could order you.  I bet you’d listen.”

“I want to go after her,” Foil said.  “Tell me you have leads.”

Narwhal was quiet.

“Please.  I want her gone, so Parian doesn’t have to worry about her.  So I can know that tomorrow will be…”

“Easier?”

Foil looked up at the Dauntless Titan.  There were names being bandied around for it.

“Marchless,” Foil said.  “But you were hinting that I would be making a mistake if I went on one more mission, even when I’m not, exactly?  I haven’t been active lately.  It’s been months.  I feel like you’re painting me as an alcoholic when I’ve had a drink every six months and done fine.  But if I take this one next drink, it’s somehow going to destroy me.”

“I’m painting you as an alcoholic because you just had a drink and you’re telling me you’re not fine.  And you want to take another, now.”

“What would you do different, if you could go back?”

Narwhal took a deep breath.  Slices of forcefield rubbed against one another.

“Sorry,” Foil said, “If that’s a personal question.”

“I wouldn’t go alone.”

Foil nodded, her arms folded.

Before the girl could open her mouth, Narwhal said, “I’ll phone you what we have.”

Foil was already moving, driven, “Thank you.  I’ll go before the trail gets any colder, then.  Thank you.  Rachel!  Hey!  I need your hound, will you…”

Not what I meant by not going alone, Narwhal thought.

“Foil,” she said, her voice stern.

Foil stopped.

“You could die.”

“I know.  But I couldn’t live with it if she does something anything like this again, and I could have stopped it.  Either I stop or… I stop her.”

“Who did we lose?”  Swansong asked.

“Tempera,” Antares answered.  “Withdrawal is hurt.  Finale is beside herself.”

“How’s your mother?” Swansong asked.

The question was loaded.  Swansong and Antares’ mother had been at one another’s throats.

Antares didn’t immediately respond.

“You don’t have to say.  I’ll find out some other way.”

“She’s going to Earth Shin,” Antares finally answered.

“Ah.  I’m sorry.”

Antares shook her head.  “It’ll either go well or it won’t.  I have no idea what to say, whatever happens.  But Amy knows enough to explain things to my parents, fill in the blanks.”

“Mm,” Swansong made a sound.

Antares turned her head skyward, hands up near her head, as if she were making a plea to the heavens.  Except the heavens were largely occupied by the massive titan that loomed in the upper end of what had been New Brockton Bay, straddling the portal there.  “I’m just telling myself that Lookout is happy, healthy, and with friends.  The other kids are fine.  Capricorn is intact.  Precipice’s cluster members are in custody, he doesn’t have to worry about that.  You’re intact again.  We’re okay.”

“Sveta has Weld,” Swansong said, pointing.

Antares nodded without smiling.

“We made a good impact,” Swansong said.

“We made an impact.  The Harbingers counted the injured and the dead.  Thirty individuals bound for hospitals.  Twelve are dead.  Four of those are our fault.”

Our fault.  Not counting me?

“Play imbecile games, win imbecile prizes,” Swansong said.

“I threw Etna and her stupid costume into a hill, and I didn’t see her recover.  I didn’t overdo it, but… she could be one of the three that are possibly me?”

“I liked her costume,” Swansong said.

Really.

Swansong extended a finger toward Antares.  “Don’t question my tastes.  Flaming sorceress raiment over a long coat is perfectly acceptable costuming.”

“It’s so overwrought.”

“It’s wrought, and whether it’s overwrought or underwrought is a question of the person who wears it.  She didn’t live up to it.  Yes?”

“We’ll compromise by agreeing on that,” Antares said.

Swansong nodded, smiling.

“Harbinger Two told me that one of the dead is definitely me.  I think the reason I’m thinking of Etna, the big question mark, and trying to put her face onto one of those bodies is that I don’t even know what the face of the guy I took down looks like.”

“Imagine a smashed pumpkin filled with hamburger patty,” Swansong said.

“Not funny.”

“No.  But it’s reality.”

“It’s what I did to my mother.”

“Not the face.  That was intact.”

“Uuuugh,” Antares groaned.

“She’s alive.  She’ll live.  That’s better than some outcomes,” Swansong said.  “That the violence happened at your hands is something you learn to live with.”

“Do I want to, though?”

“Lookout’s content, Capricorn’s intact, Precipice doesn’t have to worry about his cluster for now, possibly ever, depending on how you want to resolve that…”

Antares sighed.

“Sveta gets to end the day hugging her boyfriend.  I’m intact.  The Navigators are healed and being cared for.  Hopefully we’ve broken the back of this… stupidity that overtook the villains of the city.”

“Not stupidity.”

“Mania?”

“Pushback.  I don’t know.  This… thing, that was Dauntless.  It’s like a giant nail stuck in the middle of things.  It’s frozen the entire situation.  We’re all so caught up waiting for the other shoe to drop that we’re back to where we were a year ago.”

“I’m happier than I was a year ago,” Swansong said.  “So is Lookout.  She’s not with her parents anymore.  So is Precipice, I think.”

“Sveta?”

“Work on that.  Focus on that.”

“Trying.”

“Good.  Perfect.”

“And,” Damsel said, deciding to approach before this became any more saccharine, “You don’t need to worry about me anymore.”

“What?” Swansong asked.

“I’m going.  I have the money, I have what I need.  I’ll send my people to get my things in a few days.”

“You don’t have people,” Swansong said.

That irritated.  Damsel bit back a reply, because appearance was too important here, with potential enemies and allies watching.  Swansong didn’t have people either.  Not in the proper, respectable way.  She was so ruined by this whole dynamic that she would have said she was an equal or partner.  A member of a team.  But she was following orders and being subordinate to someone who had been the ‘coach’ just a little while ago.

“I will.  Besides, it’s not like I can stay.”

“You could if you wanted,” Swansong said.

“I cut you.  You won’t be able to rest easy with the knowledge that I could do it again while you sleep.  You know I would.”

“I know who we are,” Swansong said.

“And if you think you’re safe sleeping under the same roof as her,” Damsel told Antares, “Think again.  Keep your distance from her if you know what’s good for you.  Because if you don’t splatter her against the wall, until there’s more of her on the wall than on the ground, then she’ll do it to you.”

“Enough,” Swansong said.

“Enough?  Don’t you mean stop?” Damsel asked, archly.  Her tone became vicious.  “Remember?  ‘Stop?  You stop.’  Wasn’t that what you said to him, before you put a hole in his chest?  I did have that dream, you know.  And I say dream, not nightmare.  That registered.  Not any of the soft friendship, not looking after lonely little girls, nor scruffy teenage boys.  That moment meant more than all of this put together, and you’re trying to pretend it didn’t.”

“You’re embarrassing us,” Swansong said.

“There is no us!” Damsel raised her voice.  “Because I’d be disgusted to be grouped with you at this point.  You want to talk about overwrought?  You don’t live up to your own damned standards.”

“Hey,” Narwhal said.  A forcefield appeared between Damsel and the pair.  The material like a crudely cut piece of crystal or thick glass with the edges chipped to a razor edge, bearing a rainbow sheen.  She stared into it and through it, and the reflection was distorted.  if it wasn’t for the fact that the face she saw was standing alone, she could have thought she were looking through at her wretched sister.

She scoffed and turned her back on the scene.

Lights beyond the window flickered on.  A soft alarm began playing.

May had to crawl out from beneath the covers and over Tori to get to the computer by the bed.

“Oh my god,” she murmured.

“If we hadn’t been interrupted, I could be the one saying that,” Tori groused.  “What is it?  You sound delighted.”

“We have company,” May said.  She stood from the bed and she stretched, working every muscle in her body.  “And eight minutes before that company finds me.”

“That company being who?”

“Foil and a dog.  They’re sniffing around.”

“I’ll contact the others,” Tori said.

May moved her phone.  She switched to a map icon, showing the location of everyone in the area.  “They’re up.  Take it?  Confirm.  They should start moving.  They’ll be here in six, six and a half, seven, and nine minutes.”

“Then wait it out.”

“No,” May said.  “No need.  I have this.  Dress me.”

“Hmm?” Tori asked.

“Like a squire, dressing her knight for battle,” May said.  She bent down to kiss Tori.  “Come on.”

“Dressing her knight to go romance someone else.”

“I’m a romantic, every interaction I have with someone has a flair of romance to it.  You might as well ask water not to make what it touches wet.”

Tori muttered, “This interruption and the way you’re acting is making me dry up faster than the Sahara.”

“Don’t crab at me, baby.  Come.  Help.”

May kissed Tori passionately enough that Tori allowed herself to believe in the feelings behind the act.  Reluctantly, she sat up, swung her legs down by the side of the bed, and picked up the articles of clothing that lay in a heap.

Undergarments, a semi-elastic sleeve of mesh backed by silk that extended from armpit to the bottom of the hips, then the long-sleeved top and leggings she had to roll up.  May’s entire body was muscular, lean.

No.  With the costume going on, she was approaching the threshold of becoming March, rather than May.

With this stupid vendetta-slash-obsession, she was well past that threshold.  This was when she ceased being Tori’s May and became Foil’s March.

She was bitter, but she tried not to let it show.  When March was going to battle, the wrong words and sentiments could put the wrong ideas into her head.  There was that slim risk that a moment’s doubt at the wrong time could lead to a critical and terminal error.

Paralyzing.

But she’d known what she was getting into with May.  She’d been forewarned and reminded time and time again.  It was stupid to have any illusions.

With leggings and long sleeved top on, it could have been a rather plain skintight costume.  The pants and jacket were next.

March, probably conscious of time, picked up her own belt.

Mask.  Hat.  March took the hat before it was placed on her head, performed a motion where it flipped in the air, and settled onto her head.  Her hair was messy, and she had morning breath -more than morning breath-, but there was only so much time, and March was mindful of time.

Tori threw on a bathrobe so she would be covered, if not necessarily decent.  On a level, being indecent felt like it was important, as if she could remind Foil of where things stood.  She put on her coat but left the front undone, and stepped into her boots, following a few paces behind March, who exited.  She reached out to tow the door to her hand instead of letting it close.

March spun on her heel, shooting her a wink, using her rapier to blow a kiss.

“No,” Tori said, impulsive, hating herself for saying it.  “Take this seriously.”

“I take nothing seriously.”

“Not even me?” Tori asked.

“That’s different.”

“Then prove it,” Tori said, still hating herself.  “You say she doesn’t matter?”

“Not in the short term.  But a lot of things that don’t matter are still worth messing with.”

“Prove it,” Tori said.  “Kill her.”

“But-”

“Or I’m walking away.”

“That’s silly.”

Tori remained silent.

“We’ll get to see how Ixnay’s doing,” March said.  she flourished her blade.  “Alright.”

Tori watched as March ventured down the street.  The dog ran out from a nearby alleyway, stopping in the middle of the road.  Foil followed it.  As rumpled as March was, her hair in some disarray, Foil was crisp, hair straight.  She didn’t look like someone who had been up all night.

No, not until she moved.  Tori saw and delighted in the faintest sway, as the girl turned and dismissed the hound, bidding it to step to one side.

March had slept like a baby until the early dawn hours, and they’d languished in bed.  As messy as she was, she was sharp mentally.

“You found me,” March said.

“There were sightings.  The hound got me the rest of the way.”

“Perfect,” March said.

Foil drew her weapon.

March was the first to move.  A dash forward, weapon thrusting.  Foil’s weapon shimmered before it met March’s.  A small, localized explosion marked the conflict between the two powers, each nullifying the other.

There was no attack, defense, pause here.  March maintained the attack, one parry becoming a thrust in the next instant, every step of her foot an attempt to slip past Foil’s guard.  She leaned back as the blade passed within a half-inch of her throat.

“Close,” March said.  “Closer than I in-”

Foil stabbed, and March was forced to stop talking while she dodged the onslaught that followed.  She found an opportunity to take two quick steps back, then returned.  Instead of an attack that was parried or avoided, it was attack met by attack.  Two rapiers, and for what looked like five consecutive thrusts, the tip of each rapier met the tip of the other.

Foil threw nails, augmented with her power, and March avoided them.  March struck at the ground, sending power-infused dirt in Foil’s direction, and it detonated in the air.  Foil turned away from it.

“One of my arms is pretty torn up.  I’m doing pretty well considering-”

“Stop talking,” Foil barked the words.  “I don’t want to hear your voice.”

March laughed.

“Don’t fucking laugh!”

Foil advanced, harder this time.  March spun with every step, each spin seeing the blade catch at the ground as it passed her left or right and met Foil’s blade every time she faced Foil.  Once, it seemed, while her back was to the woman.  Foil sidestepped the dirt that exploded with scintillating colors, pressing the attack.

Tori’s hand moved.  If she tugged Foil…

Foil threw more nails.  March struck three of them out of the air.  The fourth found its way to Tori’s middle finger, embedding it to the doorframe.  Her knees buckled with the pain.

“Poor form!” March said, jovial.

She didn’t care.

Then Tori didn’t either.  She used her power.  A tug, to pull Foil off balance.

March’s swing was already underway.  Foil hastily parried it, then fell, because she was off balance.

March hung back, waiting for Foil to get back to her feet.  She glanced back at Tori, head tilted.

“I’m not going to end it there, but I am going to allow it.  It’s fair play.  You involve her, she involves you.  Speaking of…” March said.  Her sword flicked to one side.

Wind stirred a bit of snow around them.

Foil glowered, hand gripping her weapon’s handle.

“You did something clever.  Did you assassinate my Megacluster?” March asked, voice light.  She laughed.  “No.  I don’t think you could have.  But you have a friend.”

“I hate that laugh.”

“You’re going to hear it again, you know.  I adore this.  This is what it’s all about, my dear.  We lead lives that are nasty in the best way, brutish in the bloodiest way, and short in my case, because I’m just a little bit vertically challenged.  Then we’re together forever.”

“You’ve said something like that before.”

“You know this, Foil,” March said.  “Deep down inside.  You feel hate because it’s a close emotion to love.  But we are connected.  We’re inexorably intertwined, in power, in mind, and maybe, hopefully, in body.  You know that we’re going to end up together in the same way that you know how to put power into that metal rapier of yours, or you know how to move to utilize your enhanced accuracy.”

“Delusion,” Foil said.

“Reality!  More real than any of this! I’ve seen it, how do you think I know cluster triggers as well as I do?  I’ve seen the network, the landscape, and how it all fits together.  I’ve seen the spots that are reserved for us.  Homer’s already there.  When all’s said and done, that’s where we go.  To spend a few aeons talking and intertwining until we dissolve into a greater consciousness.”

Foil stopped, her rapier dropping a fraction.

Tori sank lower, head down.  Her heart plummeted.

“It’s glorious.”

“That sounds like a nightmare.”

“You’ll see,” March said.  “There’s nothing you can do to change it.  It’s inevitable.  You, me, Homer, together for a long enough time it might as well be forever.”

More snow blew.  Foil threw a nail.  March deflected it.

“Come on, don’t be childish,” March chided.

“If that’s true, then I can’t kill you,” Foil said.  “I’ll have to trap you somewhere else, in another state.”

“Even Gray Boy’s famous bubbles will only last ten thousand years or so,” March said.  “I asked when we were working on the ways to break the time effects.  That’s like delaying  an eighty year marriage by two days.”

Foil’s neck was rigid, hand clenching her weapon.

“Then…” Foil said, and she was clearly floundering.  “Then I have to destroy you.”

“That-”

“You, March.  Your identity, every inch of you that wants to talk, your personality, your understanding of english, every other language you could speak.  You.”

March swished her sword a few times.

Foil’s head shook with the intensity of what she was saying and feeling.    There was no swish to her sword.

“I’d rather become the kind of monster who can do that or who can hire people who do that than I’d go to this hell you describe.”

March looked over her shoulder at Tori.

“Guess you get what you wanted, Tor’.”

Foil lunged.  Before Tori could do anything, the pair were out of sight.

Tori focused on her hand.  She tried to drag her finger along the nail to the end, but the spike threaded through the bone.  The bone reached the flared head of the nail, and it stopped.

She pulled, one half of her hand at the tip of the finger, the other half on the other end of the finger, split between the two sides of the nail.  She hauled, screaming.  Wood creaked but didn’t release the nail, and her flesh squeezed between the head of the nail and the bone until it separated out in every direction.  The bone threatened to break, by the sheer pain of it.

“Whoops.”

Tori felt the pain at her throat, then the flood of blood washing down her front and onto her lap.  Her one hand wasn’t enough to staunch the entire flow, and immediately, her thoughts began to go dark and fuzzy, like all of the buoyancy and light had just dropped out of her brain, leaving it dark and heavy.

She’d experienced this before, with the cluster.  Bianca had done it to her.  So had their ‘red priest’.  It didn’t surprise her in the least that this was how she met her end.  She almost, not quite, but almost found her peace with the realization.

She saw a glimpse of an arm.

“Marrrrr-” was her gurgling scream.

“Tori!” was the response.  “Dang it!”

Tori saw the arm in shadows.  Her second thoughts and resentments fell away like the blood from her slit throat.  She did love May.  She would-

She reached out, and she used her power.  Only a pulse, whatever her power drew on physiologically, it needed oxygen and blood supply in the brain and she didn’t have enough.

But it caused a delay.  The figure had just revealed herself, holding a bloody knife, a girl in a gray demon mask.  Imp.

March stuck her rapier through Imp’s ribcage.  Heart-on.

Foil’s headlong rush tried to capitalize on the distraction.  Without turning around, March stuck the now-gleaming rapier beneath her armpit and backward.  The explosion marked the conflict of the powers, and helped to push Foil’s rapier far enough away that she could put the weapon through Foil’s chest as well.

“Come on, Tori.  Let’s get you looked after,” March said, as the pair fell to the ground behind her.  “I suppose I’m going to have to kill their friends, because they’ll be out for revenge.”

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tori’s fuzzed senses heard March’s voice.  “That’s not supposed to… be there.”

She forced herself to focus.

March, backing up.  Two figures advancing.  March tripped.

“It’s not the timing of my reinforcements that you fudged,” March said, as she rose to her feet.  She stumbled a little on the retreat.  “It’s the-”

Foil stabbed.  March deflected.  There was another thrust, and March met this one with a riposte.  Her thrust extended toward Foil’s chest, and Foil met the tip with her hand.

From Tori’s side-on perspective, she could see how it worked.  Harder to see head-on or from the wielder’s perspective.  The blade grew shorter as it traveled.  There was resistance as it met flesh, but the wound was relatively shallow.  The blade didn’t extend out the back of the hand as Foil closed her hand around the guard.

Just as it hadn’t extended through the backs -or hearts- of the pair March had just stabbed.

“It’s the space,” March said.

There was no dodging or pulling away.  She pushed power into the tip.  Setting the timer.

The wound at the center of Foil’s left hand detonated, but the weapon had been compressed, the explosion was smaller, localized.  Chunks of meat went flying, but Foil seemed to consider it worth the price.  She returned the favor by stabbing March.

Tori let her head hang.

Foil spat.

“Spitting on her.  Wowwww.”

“Deserves it.”

“Sure, not going to say no.  But woww.  Can we go get me my arm back?”

“Yeah.  Let’s.  And let’s get me a new left hand while we’re at it.”

Tori looked up, and saw the two walking away.  The girl in the demon mask had her arm raised, waving off to someone distant.  They whistled for the dog, and it padded by.

Tori thought of what May had said, about what awaited her, and allowed herself to recognize that Bianca would be there.  As would the others.

The thought gripped her as the darkness carried her away.   The warped length of a dropped rapier and the distortion of the ground around her reverted to normal, leaving only snow and blood to alter the ground.

Heavens – 12.none

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

“I want to meet her.”

“Yeah,” his voice came out as a croak.  It was hard to know what to say in a moment like this.

“My daughter.  My sweet, sweet girl.  I want to say my goodbye.  I want to hold her.”

“You are holding her, Kel.”

“You know what I mean.  Please know what I mean.”

“I don’t.”

The space was dark, and with everything having shuffled around, mud flowing into the open window to add to the claustrophobia, the pressure mounted.  The van that had been their house, their transportation, and the storage for everything the two of them owned was now their coffin.  There was barely any light, and at times it didn’t feel like there was enough air; his head would buzz with a headache and he felt like he could nod off into a miserable sleep he would never wake from.

He could feel the breeze through the damaged window, almost ice cold when the rest of him was hot and prickly with sweat.  Kelly, trapped where she lay in a position lower in the van than he was, didn’t seem to get that breeze.

“Shawn.  I can’t take her with me.  You can’t make me.”

“How would I make you?”

“Don’t make me spell it out,” the words were a plea.

He wasn’t used to her being the rock or being the one with the plan, but she was the one who had kept it together after… after whatever had happened.  He found himself walking himself through the known, to get to this thing that Kelly seemed to think he should know.  He’d been emancipated from his parents at sixteen.  She’d simply run away.  They’d found each other.

It hadn’t been easy.  They had their individual neuroses and traumas to get over before they meshed properly.  Kelly heard voices.  She didn’t see things, she just heard the voices, and she didn’t hate the voices.  That didn’t mean they were always the best thing for her, but she didn’t hate them.  She’d always talked about how people with schizophrenia in other areas of the world tended to hear happy voices, or supportive voices.  She blamed culture and she blamed society for the fact that people in ‘the West’ heard negative or paranoia-inducing voices.  She wanted to reject that society.  Most of all, she wanted to reject the medicines, the institutions, and her parents making every decision for her, when her parents were something she couldn’t talk about without going to a dark place.

Figuring out whether he should trust her on that had been a task, and a long series of compromises.  He’d been sixteen when he met her and admittedly not the best when it came to judgment calls.  The last few months had seen her spiral out, then rein herself in.  He’d gotten her to talk regularly with someone who knew better than he did, got her to agree to try medications if she had another bad patch.

But given circumstances, he’d felt it was his duty to give her what she needed, and she wanted to get away from society, focus on the simpler things.

They’d paid their money at the campsite, took up their spot on a rise in the woods, he had his licenses in order to fish and the go-ahead to hunt rabbit and only rabbit.  He’d signed on the dotted line on the sheet that said he would take out everything he brought in.  No trash.

Twice a week, for the last three weeks, he’d taken her into town.  While she had appointments, at hospital and with the head doctor, he bought groceries, bought the little odds and ends, and then went to the library to while away the remaining time.

For the first time in his life, he’d smiled because the days made him happy.  He’d been able to breathe in deeply and take in raw oxygen, close his eyes and feel the sun against the lids, and he’d felt at peace.  Better yet, he’d seen Kelly at peace.  Not perfect, but as good as he’d ever seen her.

A very long and light rain had closed out the summer.  Not what he’d thought of as ‘natural disaster’ rain.  They’d been laughing at how everything was wet, sorting out the van, when the mud had come down, rolling the van, swamping and mostly burying them.

Burying them alive.

It had been Kelly who had talked him down when he’d broken down, after the van’s horn stopped working.  Because he’d exhausted the battery, or, from his rudimentary car knowledge, corrosion under the van’s hood.  He’d known he wasn’t rationing it out enough, but he’d panicked.  Because Kel needed help.  Kelly had kept him sane, helped him to relax, and hadn’t once blamed him for overusing the horn.

Rationally, he knew the campground had records that put him and Kelly on the hillside.  It was a question of time.  He’d heard helicopters.

His chair squeaked and grated as he twisted around, his hand extended, reaching for her hand.

She didn’t take it.  Instead, she pressed something into his palm, reached up, and closed his fingers around it.

“Whatever happens, no matter how this turns out, you absolutely cannot let my parents have her.  They don’t see her, they don’t talk to her, they do not touch her.”

In the gloom, his hands traced the outline of the thing he had been given.  He was careful, because he already knew the shape of the handle.

“Promise me,” she said.  “Promise me, promise me, promise me.”

“I promise,” he said, even though he was still wrapping his head around what she wanted.  Or he understood, like he understood the knife, but there was always that doubt in his mind when it came to Kelly.

Once in a long while, she would go off on a tangent, and he would be so tired that he believed her without question, only to find himself having to catch up, second guess, and realize she wasn’t making sense.  Then he would tell her, tell her to eat and sleep, and she’d usually listen.  Or she’d talk at him for another few hours, while he tried to steer the conversation.  The lines of reality could be that much blurrier for her when she was tired, and the tricky part was that they’d been joined at the hip for the past two years, which meant he was often tired when she was tired.  It was easy to get drawn in.

And he was tired now, he was running on empty too.

Was this the thing to do?  Was there another way?  Could they wait?  Was Kelly even that hurt?

“I know I’m not the coolest, I’m not smart, I didn’t finish high school,” she said.  “If you want to lie to her about who I was, I understand.  Do-”

“No,” he said.  He would have teared up, if he weren’t dehydrated.  The mud had dried up enough to become dirt, around them.  “No, what?  No.  You’re the best person.”

“I’m really not.”

“You’re the first decent person I met in my life,” he said.  “You’re the first person who put a real smile on my face.  The first person who opened minds of people instead of closing them.  You never had a mean word to say about anyone-”

“I did.”

“Anyone who didn’t deserve it.”

“You can’t let my parents-”

“I won’t,” he said, firm.  “And she’ll know you if I have to talk about you ever day.”

“No.  I don’t want to be a weight, like-”

She kept going back to that.  The weight she hadn’t been able to leave behind.  She’d blamed her parents for the unusually early onset to her schizophrenia, hinting at stress causing it, but he’d talked to the therapist, and there wasn’t any evidence that stress was linked to age of onset.

More concerning, there might have been a delirious edge to the fact she kept going back to that place.  It spooked him.

So he talked, talked over her, even, because he found himself in a place where if he didn’t keep going or working his way forward, he would stop and find himself paralyzed.  Because he could talk of warmer things, and all of the good things he liked about Kelly, and hopefully lift her up and keep her away from that kind of thinking.

His entire life, his parents had told him that they loved him, and not once had they shown it.  His grandparents, his aunts, his uncles, they said the same.  Teachers said he had potential, urged him onward, but even the most supportive of those relationships hadn’t seemed to mean anything.  He’d written an email to a favorite teacher from the library, thanking her for her support and letting her know he was happy now.  He’d signed with his name.  The reply had been a telling ‘who is this?’

His parents had been fine as parents, but they hadn’t felt like family.  He could imagine sending his parents a status update and getting a reply like he had from his teacher.

That might be the delirium talking.

“I want to see her,” Kel said, insistent enough to cut through his rambling.  “Don’t worry about hurting me.  I can’t feel anything.  I haven’t been able to feel a lot for a while now.”

He wasn’t positive she was telling the truth, but he set to work, using the knife.

“Eyes forward,” she said.  “Focus on what comes next.”

He’d had moments where he’d faced down a crisis and he’d been calm.  A past landlord who had pushed his way into the apartment.  Dealing with hostile and drunk campers who seemed convinced this was their spot.  Leaving the van and the tent they’d hooked up at the rear as an extension to the van only to find himself ten feet away from what might have been a pair of coyotes.  Moments he’d faced down danger with composure and came away from it feeling like a man.

He didn’t feel like that here.  Panic set in, and Kelly’s voice didn’t help like it had after the horn had given out.  The situation was too messy, there were too many question marks.

In the midst of it all, he ceased feeling like himself.  He was an outside observer, somehow cataloguing every detail and not registering or keeping a one.  Time blurred and the act seemed endless.

And somewhere in the midst of all of that, he found himself being swept up by a current.  Lost in the midst of a greater flow of connections that threatened to distract him.  He wanted to focus on this, on the future, like she’d said, and this rush of sensations and images threatened to pull him away from it.

He flew among planets, but he really only wanted to be in this planet, in this van, in this mud, with Kelly.

In the midst of it, he felt it give way.  There was almost a sentiment to it, a sigh, a frustrated concession.

Power crackled along the knife, and it glowed faintly, illuminating the work he was doing.  It was just hot enough to cauterize the open cut.

Kelly, silent, touched his face.

The child was silent as he pulled it free.  Eleven weeks early.  With the edge of panic, he almost shook it, to make it start crying.  A bad sign for the kind of parent he’d end up being, he thought.  A good thing that Kelly took the child into her arms.  He’d been warned by the prenatal nurse that it could feel like mothers had a nine month headstart into being a parent.  He felt that now.  He was glad for that warning, because he very much felt like Kelly was more ready for this.

The child didn’t cry as much as he’d anticipated, and its initial whimpers and complaints were easily shushed.  He let Kelly have every moment, his focus purely on managing the wound he’d created.

She whispered to herself, like she tended to do when she was hearing the voices, but he liked to imagine she was introducing those voices to their child.  A deeper connection.

“What do we name her?” Kelly asked.  He wasn’t sure at first that she was talking to him, but the illumination from the glowing knife he’d stabbed into the back of one of the van’s seats gave him a view of her eyes.

“We could name her after you.”

No,” Kelly said, firm.

There was some back and forth.

In the midst of it, her coherence faltering, Kelly passed the child to him, her arms almost too weak to manage the meager weight.  He was just in time to catch it.

“You have her?” she asked.

‘Her’ had a penis, it seemed.  He found himself caught in a dilemma.

“I have her,” he said.  Kel had wanted a girl so badly.  Had she not noticed?  Or was she already that out of it?

“You’ll take good care of her.  You took good care of me.”

He wasn’t sure, but he nodded.  The glowing knife let them see each other.  He was barely concerned with it.  It was secondary, unimportant.

“The name,” she said.

He couldn’t give the child a girl’s name, and he couldn’t bring himself to provide a name he would later change.  That would betray Kel.

“Addison,” he said.  Gender neutral.  And maybe if Kelly had been gifted like he’d been gifted, in this tomb of theirs, and she’d seen something in Addison, then the name should work then too.

“Good,” Kelly agreed.

The child missed Kelly’s warmth, and it might have wanted more of the meal it had been given.  It might have disliked that cool waft of air that came in from the gaps in the mud above the broken window.  He did what he could to bundle it up, and tucked it into his shirt, head poking out of his collar, the tiny body laying along the crook of his arm and armpit, head cresting near his chin.

But Addison cried, and another of the prenatal nurse’s warnings was made evident, because he’d been told the pitch of a baby’s cry had been keyed by evolution to strike at the heartstrings and drill into the mind.  He’d been told it was okay to put the baby down, to walk into the next room, even step out of the house, because the crying could be overwhelming.

He was overwhelmed, he couldn’t walk into a next room.  His heartstrings were strained to their limits as they were.

He felt the weight of Addison on his arm, and he focused his mind forward, focusing on what he needed to do next.  He and the baby waited for their rescue.

Their world was illuminated by the glowing knife he laid in the hollow above the glove compartment.  He could already feel more power building up inside him, and he instinctively knew that when time came, he’d be able to put more power into something.  For now, it was an insignificant thing.

“Dauntless.”

He turned away from the window.  The sun was setting, and the forcefields over the floating headquarters gave it some interesting hues, bringing out the subtler colors.  Inside, everything was white and black, faintly tinted by those same hues outside.  Battery and Challenger were approaching.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

“Things are good,” Battery said.  She smiled.  “Listen, Armsmaster and Miss Militia got the latest calendar.  We’re the only ones on patrol tonight, so we get first pickings.  I’m really really hoping you  take one of these.  Can you guess which?”

The calendar.  The ‘schedule’ was more focused on the week, and that was for Armsmaster to write up and for the Director to sign off on or amend, much like how Armsmaster would get his say about hires and personnel changes in the Protectorate and Wards, but it was ultimately down to the Director.

The calendar wasn’t the schedule.  The calendar was a list of events coming over the next month, though sometimes there was notice of something coming months later.  Armsmaster would usually pull in Miss Militia and Triumph to help make the top-level decisions.  Already, some roles were penned in.  Triumph and Gallant were down for the video game thing.  Probably because they were the only ones who hadn’t sat in yet.  Velocity’s name filled in the blank beside an event at a conference with Maine state law enforcement.  No reason given for that.  A long way to travel, maybe.

There were a lot of shorthand codes and notes by each entry.  One person was to give presentations at every school in the city.  The shorthand indicated they needed to write up a draft of what they would present and get it cleared.  There was a lot of work, which was probably why it was indicated with a (B) – or pay bonus.

The Director wanted to step things up with Crisis Points.  Checking in with victims and the vulnerable.  There was room for two names there.  Accelerated schedule.  More work, no bonus indicated.

There was work with local law enforcement, giving them the run-down on the powers and the gangs, a refresher on what to do in a given circumstance, as well as policies for different classifications, and then a stint of increased coordination after that, riding along.  The job included babysitting Wards.  It was a diversion from normal work, marked with the (DFP) code, and that meant taking it on would mean reduced patrols for the duration.  If someone was recuperating from an injury or scare, the bosses would usually pen them in for something like that.

Morning tv and radio.  Everyone knew that was a trap, but the people at the very top of the PRT wanted to push high-visibility and approachability, and it was important a lot of people start the occasional days hearing from the heroes.  It was too easy for the capes to all be denizens of the night.

Standing representative at an event opening.  Mayor Craig had pledged to reopen the ferry as a campaign promise.  Those were always a bore, and if the promise fell through, it’d look bad for the heroes.  It was purely a political move, winning points with the mayor that could later be cashed in.  The line would remain blank until someone needed punishment detail.  That someone would probably be Assault.

And someone, it seemed, would be getting a vacation.  A trip to Toronto, where a TV show was being filmed.  Just about every television drama had its token ‘cape’ episode, if capes weren’t a casual background element.  A recognition that powers were a thing, for a single episode or three-episode story arc.  Even the mention that a Protectorate cape or Ward would play a part would provoke interest in the midseason.

He paged through the papers that were part of the bundle.  There were more details on the show.  ‘Flip’, a relationship show with a science fiction premise.  Facial prosthetics and partial mask.  The role was supposed to be as part of an elite force.  Always positive, or the PRT wouldn’t sign off on it.  Two members of the elite force would be a couple, no doubt because even a whisper of a relationship between capes in real life would stir fans and supporters into a frothing tizzy.

“You want me to take the TV show?” he guessed.  Battery had a natural aversion to anything ‘couply’.

“Please,” Battery said.

“I’m not good in front of cameras,” Challenger said.  She had a red bodysuit with epaulettes that had fine chains dangling from them and other decoration, and with her headgear off, strikingly different facial features, with a very sharp, pronounced chin, lines that joined nose to jaw if she had any expression that wasn’t neutral, and very sharply drawn, black eyebrows over green eyes.  Her hair was damp and while it was normally straight, when damp it took on a slight curl as though it had been finely braided.

There were capes who didn’t wear full masks, and who used makeup, wigs, or altered their hair to change their costumed identities.  There were also ones like Challenger, who were ‘normal’ in costume and who went to more extreme measures out of costume.  Her headgear, which was in her hand, was a chin-strap, ear-cover, and a diagonal blindfold that covered one of her eyes.  She’d lost her sight in the eye after an incident in a past city.

She walked a finer line with identity, given the lack of a full-face helmet or cover, and with her features being the kind that someone would take notice of, he could understand her not wanting the scrutiny that came with the television camera.

“Why not you?” he asked Battery.  “Why do you want me to take this?”

“If I go Assault will want to go too.  Miss Militia warned me it was possible and they would jump at the chance.”

“Ahh.”

He wasn’t sure what to say to that.  There were a lot of times, he found, that he couldn’t seem to find the right words.  He knew Assault and Battery were dating, they’d formally told the people in charge, but didn’t seem to him like it was a good thing.  Already, she was playing defensive, making excuses, and pulling strings to avoid the bad, instead of seeking the good.

“Please?”

“I’ll have to talk to my wife.  If I can take Addison to see Toronto, then I might,” he said.  “It pays?”

“It pays a lot.  It’s in the last few pages.”

He flipped through.  Sixty-five thousand an episode, two episodes.  To be filmed across nine days.  Reduced taxes paid on said income, because PRT work was technically government work.

He didn’t need the money for himself.  That wasn’t an aspiration.  He had been happy living in a van with a girl he loved, who loved him back, running into town twice a week for groceries and catching his own meat.  Addison’s education fund was at its limit.  Anything more would be excess.

Jennifer would probably like more things for the house, but Jennifer was constantly on the lookout for the next move up, and now that they lived in the Towers, the nicest area in Brockton Bay, she was hinting at possible moves to other cities.

He had the charity he’d set up out of respect for Kel, but if he did a few episodes of television, Jennifer would wonder where the money ended up.  It would put him in the position of lying or justifying the charity again.

But he really did want to help those guys out.

Battery shifted her weight.  He glanced up at her, and he was struck by a thought, that he’d judged her and Assault by a measure he wasn’t applying to himself and Jennifer.

The problem was, Jennifer was really, really good for Addison.

“I’ll think about it.  I’ll give you an answer before tomorrow morning.  If it’s a yes, you can forge my signature on there and pretend it was always there.”

“Thank you,” Battery said.

“I can’t promise yes.”

“Thank you, though,” she said.  “You’re not due to patrol yet, right?”

“Not yet,” he said.  He glanced out the window.  The sunset had changed dramatically over the course of the conversation and reading.  “But if you cover the last bit of my schedule, it’ll give me more time to convince my wife.”

“I can do that,” Battery said.  “Do you want a Ward?”

“Sure,” he said, smiling.

At best, they were some terrific kids.  At worst, they were good training for dealing with teenagers with issues, in case Addison ended up struggling.

They made their way down to the platform, where the bikes were all arranged in a row.  Aegis, Gallant, and Kid Win were there, eating sandwiches from the vendor who was set up in one corner, to serve staff.

“No Vista?” he asked them.  “I thought she was coming tonight.”

“She’s missing it because her grades slipped, and she’s really mad about it,” Gallant said.  “Are you coming?”

“Yeah.  Stretch my legs some, enjoy the nice weather.”

“Crack some skulls,” Challenger said, as she fit her headgear into place.

No,” Battery said.  “We avoid trouble while we’ve got the Wards riding along.  Or we set a good example.”

Challenger rolled her eye, looking at Aegis, who matched the expression.  Good example indeed.  She gave Kid Win a push on the shoulder, and he looked uneasy in smile and posture both.

“Are you biking?” Kid Win asked.

“Yeah,” Dauntless replied.

“You can’t fly yet?”

Dauntless tested his power, feeling out for the boots and activating them.  He lifted himself up into the air, but it was shaky, too brief before the power burned out.  It would enhance his leaps and bounds, but not flying, not yet.  He’d wanted firepower first.  There were a few people around the city who were pretty scary.  The nazis.  Lung and Lung’s flunky Oni Lee.

“That’s too bad,” Gallant said.

“Soon,” Dauntless said.

“We were talking about who would ride with who,” Gallant said.  “Can I ride with you?  Kid Win with Battery?”

“I seem to be left out,” Challenger groused.

“You get me,” Aegis pointed out.

“You fly, and you’ll fly off if given the choice,” Challenger replied.  She opened a locked case in the wall, and lifted down her axe.  A weapon as tall as she was.  She held it with one hand and grabbed her rifle, which was similarly proportioned.  Each weapon was mounted on one side of her bike, which had been repainted.

“No vehicle tech yet?” Dauntless asked Kid Win.

He got a shake of the head in response.

“Battery goes five miles an hour over the speed limit, max,” Gallant murmured.  “Challenger rides like a maniac.  Kid Win was scared to ride with her, and I was preparing myself to be nice, but… I’m glad I don’t have to.”

“Got it,” Dauntless said.  “I could mention it to people, if you wanted.”

“Maybe,” Gallant said, in the young-teenager way that signaled a ‘yes’.

They divided up the city.  Dauntless climbed onto the bike, Gallant climbed on behind.  Kid Win got on behind Battery, and Challenger revved her bike’s engines.

As Battery input the details for the people managing the floating HQ’s forcefields, Dauntless leaned to one side to look at Gallant over one shoulder.  “I need to call home.  If you could turn a deaf ear to that?”

“I’ll put my music on, tap my knee when you’re done.”

The forcefield bubble flickered off.  The hue of the sky changed, and that wasn’t just his own perception.  With light reflecting off of the bubble, it tinted the clouds above in rainbow hues.  The dropping of the bubble was something people across the city would notice.  In a way, it signaled that evildoers and criminals should beware.

Challenger roared off, speeding toward the platform’s edge, even before the forcefield path over the water had been fully laid out.  Headed to the Boardwalk and the Docks.  She popped a wheelie, even.

Battery was next.  She sometimes liked to go full speed while they had the clear, straight path over the water, then ride more conservatively in the city, but with Kid Win on board, she was more moderate.

Dauntless took off.  His path was curved, the start of it extending off the south edge of the platform, the curve sweeping out over the bay itself, the final length of the forcefield path pointing west.  He was headed downtown.

The curve wasn’t perfectly flat, with a slight dip to his right and a rise to his left, and he’d always liked that.  That he tilted at an angle to meet the curve squarely.  He exaggerated the effect for Gallant’s benefit, until they were almost horizontal, and put his boot out.  It glowed, providing some propulsion, and helped stabilize them.

Gallant whooped.

Jennifer picked up while Gallant was still making noise.

“Early patrol tonight, Battery’s covering the later shift.  I’ll be coming home early.  I’ll see Addison before he goes to bed.”

“He’ll like that.  Should I keep dinner warm?”

“Please.”

There was a brief exchange to follow.  He had a sinking feeling as it concluded.  That thought that had passed through his mind as he’d talked to Battery wasn’t leaving him.

He’d loved more than a few people over the course of his life.  Addison.  Kelly, Jennifer, some other women over the years.  In a way, he loved his team and the Wards.  He was fond of some of the people from the charity, and he loved that they’d been receptive to his wavelength and what he wanted to do.  Kel’s way wasn’t the right way, but it had been a way forward.  With the money and resources he’d put in, the charity helped ensure more teenagers with mental health problems or other crises had a way forward.

But when it came to receiving and feeling love, though he had a growing number of fans and supporters in the community, and he’d married a beautiful woman who had beamed on their wedding day, it rarely registered.  It only felt like ‘real’ love with Addison, and back in the days with Kelly.

He and Gallant sped forward, a mostly invisible bridge between them and the roiling water.  The wind whipped by, and the engine of the bike vibrated beneath them, powerful, special issue.

With his thumb, he flipped through settings on the bike.  Cheating a little.

He reached the end of the glowing forcefield, and entered the city proper, still going faster than he should.  The bike’s onboard computers were hooked into the traffic network.  People at red lights were treated to flashing signs in the corners, to warn them that the light wasn’t about to turn green.

The coast was clear to sail through the first few intersections.  The city worked with him, the flow of traffic was his flow.

To better stabilize with his nascent flight, he put more power into his boots.  The power crackled and danced around his feet before solidifying, pressing further in until there was something almost crystalline about the configuration.  He could see the facets, the power, and he could see the shape of what it was doing.  He couldn’t decide the end results, but the results made sense, given what the object was and what he was doing with it.

It meant a little something, this headway.

“Done digesting?” Shawn asked.  He was as nervous talking to his son as he was on any first date or first day of the job.  As nervous as he’d been when stepping up to participate in his first costumed fight, against Blackball.

A thirteen year old Addison sat at the kitchen counter, his laptop beside him.  The boxes from their recent move were still unpacked.

“I’ll start with the obvious… it’s not a desk job?” Addison asked.

“No,” Shawn said.  “Sometimes, a lot of the time, but no.”

Addison was thoughtful, prone to his own ruminations.  He was almost a carbon copy of Kelly, dark in style but always well meaning, with a lot going on beneath that mop of black hair that hung too far into his eyes.  The girls in his class were ‘bananas’ crazy about him, to use phrasing he’d heard from one of Addison’s female friends.  A fact which seemed to fluster his son twice as much as it pleased him.

Shawn had learned Addison liked to have time to process things, or he got easily frustrated.  He’d provided the information, the full information about who his dad was, with helmet set on the kitchen counter as some evidence, then let Addison have the space to work his way through it.  He’d done the same with punishments, letting Addison think about what he’d done wrong before they talked about it.  He’d done it when Shawn’s dad had died.  He’d really fucking wished Jennifer had done it when dropping the news about the divorce, but there was nothing he could do about that.

The issue was, the approach had a way of moving things to the far other extreme of the spectrum of reactions.  Addison seemed disconcertingly calm about it all.

“Okay,” Addison said.  “I understand why you lied.”

“For the record,” Shawn said, “I didn’t lie.  When I told you I had paperwork, I was telling the truth.  When I said I’d be late, I wasn’t mentioning I was busy wearing a costume.”

Addison nodded.

“I felt it was important not to lie to your face.”

“Okay,” Addison said.  “Thanks, I guess.  I understand why you did it.”

“Okay,” Shawn responded.  He felt very aware of the pause.  “Any questions?”

“When you said I should be careful about if I inherit mom’s whole…” Addison gestured at his head.

“That wasn’t mom’s whole thing,” Shawn said.  “It was one part of your mom, that wasn’t in the top three defining qualities about her, just so you know.  She was luckier than some, but even if she wasn’t, it wouldn’t be her in whole.”

“Bad word, sorry,” Addison said.  He seemed to ruminate for a second before asking, “It wasn’t code for superhero stuff?”

“No.  But you might get powers, because I have them.”

“Wow,” Addison said, voice dry.  “Whichever parent I get something from, it’s going to be interesting.  Fuck.”

“Could be neither.”

“Could be both.”

“Could,” Shawn said, feeling that nervousness again.

“I looked you up.  Dauntless.”

“And?”

“And there was this interview question.  It’s on video-”

Addison turned the laptop ninety degrees.  Shawn approached his son, one hand touching his back, and leaned down to better see.  It meant a hell of a lot that Addison didn’t shy away or react to the proximity or the touch.

One of the school events.

I heard that you get powers from being awesome,” a girl on the screen said, the camera struggling to find her, focusing in only as she finished saying ‘awesome’.  “Can you tell us what you did?

The question evoked a lot of defensive squabbling, some students protesting that you couldn’t ask that sort of thing.  Even some teachers were ready to protect his identity.

I can’t tell you the exact details, but I saved a life,” the Dauntless on screen said.  “One that meant everything to me.

Addison glanced from screen to his dad.

“I did.  It’s not the exact truth, but I did save a life.  Yours.  It was… much too panicked to be something I’m proud of, but I saved you, and I’m proud of that.”

“You’re not going to explain it any more?”

“When you’re a bit older.”

His son gave him a look.  As far as Addison was concerned, he was old enough for everything now.  But the response was a calm, “Okay.”

“Why?”

“I was just wondering… who you are, I guess.”

The words hurt.

“Who Dauntless is,” Addison clarified.  Maybe he’d seen the hurt.

“He’s me.  Trying to do my best.”

“Why tell me now?”

“Because you’re about the right age to possibly get powers.  And because Jennifer’s moving away, I don’t have someone helping cover my tracks, and you’re too damn smart.  I can’t hide it, and I’d rather tell you than get caught.”

Addison nodded.

Addison’s hand gripped the fabric at the back of Shawn’s shirt, and a moment later, the boy was standing, hugging him.

He hugged back, fierce.

“I’m going to worry,” Addison said.

“That’s allowed.  I’m sorry you have to.”

“I saw some other stuff.  Fights.”

“Yeah.  I’m backed by some good people, and I’m good at it.  But yeah.”

“Call me?  Every time you’re back and safe?  Keep me updated?”

Not the usual thirteen year old.  He was a  sensitive soul, and one that was feeling hurt and bewildered by the divorce.  This timing hadn’t been the best.

“I promise.”

“Oh, about covering tracks and hiding it…” Addison said.  He broke the hug and picked up the helmet, feeling its weight in his hands.  “I invited Mo over to help me unpack.  She’s coming in… twenty minutes.”

“Mo.  I like Mo,” Shawn said.   She was Addison’s friend who had remarked about how crazy the girls in the class were over him.  She was very much on Addison’s wavelength, with the friendship clicking so easily and quickly they seemed to just belong together, but she hadn’t indicated any interest as of yet.  Shawn found himself secretly rooting for the two, but he didn’t want to force things.

“You say that a lot.”

“If she wants to help, we should ensure she’s rewarded for her efforts.”

“She’s not going to work.  She’ll keep me company and read my comics while I do the unpacking.”

“Tell her that if she helps some and helps the two of us move some furniture around, she can decide what we order for dinner.”

Addison rolled his eyes.

“No?”

“She likes Greek.”

“Alright.  Greek.  I’ll look up some places.”

“There’s a place downtown.  Zervas.  We ate there a week ago.  It’s awesome.”

Shawn gave his son a kiss on the top of the head.    “Got it.”

“We’re going to a movie later.  I don’t suppose you’d give me some money?”

“For the two of you?”  Yes!

“There’ll be five of us.”

“If you and Mo get some real unpacking done and help move furniture, I’ll pay for the two of you.  I’ll give you all a ride if-”

Addison was making a face at that last sentence.

“-Okay.  No ride.  But let me know what the plan is before you leave.”

“Can everyone hang here before we head to the movie?”  Addison asked.  “How much can I milk you feeling guilty?”

“That much.  Go clean up a bit before she comes,” he said.  He didn’t mention that he wasn’t motivated by the guilt.  Addison was sharp but he wasn’t right about everything.  Those scary days would come in a few years, Shawn guessed.

“It’s so crazy that you’re a superhero,” Addison said.  “I’m going to tell everyone.”

“Don’t,” Shawn said, stern, fully aware Addison was joking.  “Not even Mo.  Not before talking to me about it first.”

That got him a nod.  The helmet was handed back to him, and Addison picked up his laptop before heading to his room.

The helmet did have some heft to it, Shawn found.  He bounced it in his hands, feeling that weight.  Concentrating, he tapped into that reserve of power he felt inside himself, and crystallized that power into the helmet’s capabilities.  Sensory, protective, and some general shielding capabilities.

“Your kid is pretty great,” he told Kelly, looking down at the helmet, which now glowed white hot, the energy arcing along its length and width.

He’d heard the air raid sirens and was out of bed and dressed before the phone call came in.  He pulled on his Dauntless boots, checked his power.

The phone rang, and he answered mid-ring.

“Where and how bad?”

“Here,” Miss Militia answered.  “Leviathan, he thinks.  Sent you the location as I made the call.”

“I’ll be there.”

“I need to contact the others.  Good luck, Shawn.”

He hadn’t wanted to hear that.  ‘Good luck’.

“You too, Hannah,” he told her.

She hung up.

Addison was out of bed, pulling a shirt on.  He looked in through the bedroom doorway, clearly alarmed and trying to hide it.

“Get ready.  Boots, jacket.”

“What is it?”

“Leviathan,” Shawn said.

“Oh,” Addison breathed the word.  “He’s attacking Boston or something?”

“Brockton Bay,” Shawn said.  He wouldn’t start lying now.  “Get ready.”

“But you-”

“The best thing you can do for me is to get ready, as soon as possible.  I want you somewhere safe.  Then I can focus.”

“You’re going to fight?”

Shawn opened his mouth to say something.  Addison seemed to shake himself out of it, and didn’t even wait for the answer to the question.  He was gone, feet tromping as he ran down the hall.

The rest of his ‘Dauntless’ gear went into a gym bag.

He pulled on a jacket, flipping up the hood well in advance of stepping outside.  He lifted the gym bag, and had to put straps over his shoulder because of the weight of it.

Addi was waiting in the hallway as he emerged.  Shoes on, coat on, ready to go.

“Come on.”

“You could back out.  You get stronger every day.  If you skipped the one-”

“Addison, no.”

He guided Addison toward the door.  Outside the front window of the house, he could see other people had emerged from their homes.  Some wore nightclothes and were looking around for guidance.  Others were dressed and were hurrying in the directions they were supposed to go, for the nearest shelter.

“If you skipped this, wouldn’t you get so much stronger for the next one?”

“I could skip that one for the fight that comes after,” he answered.  “And the one that comes after that.  We don’t know if my power has a limit, but it’s possible it does, and the time I supposedly buy ends up being for nothing.  This is my city, Addison.  A city with you in it.  With Jennifer.  With your friends, your teachers the places you love.  There’s never going to be a place that I’ll step up to defend faster or with more conviction than our city.”

“Okay,” Addison said.  He didn’t sound like it was okay.

Fourteen, now, and still soft-spoken.  Still not fond of sudden twists or things being sprung on him.

Nobody is, here.

“Get dressed and hurry to the shelter, Mr. Combe!” Shawn raised his voice, calling out across the street.

The elderly Mr. Combe turned around, hurrying inside.

In another circumstance, Shawn would have helped the man.  In this circumstance, he tried to tell himself, he was still helping by going to the front lines.

Robin lived a couple of blocks away, and had made a beeline for him right away.  The Pelhams lived in the neighborhood too.  Not a neighborhood of Jennifer’s level of taste but a nice area.  Robin was staying human, jogging over at a normal speed, one hand in pocket, the other with phone pressed to ear.  He had a grim look on his face.

Neil and Eric were nearby, both in costume already.  Shawn idly wondered if they slept in the things, or if they hadn’t slept at all last night, and had been on their way back from patrol.  The bombings had only calmed down a short while ago, and they had been immediately followed up by the attacks by Empire Eighty-Eight, with Purity’s rampage.

Eric raised a hand to wave a ‘hi’ to Addison.  Addison raised a hand in response.

Because of the periodic barbecue and because they both went to the same cape-safe therapist, the two had found each other in the same circles.  Enough to know names and talk about movies or shows.

A light rain already pattered down around them.

“Hey,” Robin said, as he caught up.  He laid a hand on Dauntless’s shoulder.  “Hi Addison.”

“Hi.”

“You good to go?”

Shawn nodded.  “As soon as I’ve taken care of Addison.”

“That’s fine.  It’s not far.  We’re heading over now.”

“Even Eric?” Addison asked.

“Yeah,” Robin said.  “Even Eric.”

There weren’t any parting words.  No urging to come, no commentary on the possibility he could take his son and simply make a break for it, to get as far away as possible.

They all had to.

Shawn led his son along with the crowd, toward the archives building.  Government owned, and that always made setting up the shelter easier.  The stairs were packed with people, with police managing the flow of people in past the circular, bank-vault-like door.

“Jean!” Shawn called out.  A neighbor.

Jean jogged over.

“Look after him?” he asked her.

“I don’t need looking after.”

“Are you sure?” Jean asked.

“I have to-” Shawn started.  He couldn’t finish the sentence.

“Mr. Combe needs help,” Addison said.

“If I can’t get him to this shelter or if it hits capacity in the meantime, I’ll go to the one at the library.  Please.”

Jean nodded.

He dropped to his knees, the heavy gym bag making some noise as it landed.  He was aware he was getting his knees and things wet.  He pulled Addison into a hug that was probably too tight.

A dumb thing to do, as he buried his face into his son’s neck.  He couldn’t bring himself to let go.

“Call me, as soon as-”

He nodded.

It was Addison who pulled away, turning his back immediately to go to Jean, who he only casually knew, hugging her with one arm.  He was just tall enough to put his head against her shoulder.

Jean turned and gave Shawn a somber nod.

She probably knew.  The times he’d called her over to watch things because of an emergency call, especially when the bombings had been happening.

He watched Addison go for longer than he should have.  Had he left sooner, he wouldn’t have seen Addison rub at his eyes.

He hefted his bag, turning his back to the scene.  He didn’t wait until he was fully in the clear before using his boots to lift himself off the ground.  He flew up to a rooftop, and let the bag fall.  Piece by piece, he strapped on his armor.  Some of it had only received a few crystallizations of power.  But the spear, in multiple pieces that he screwed together, the shield, which was small at the outset, and his helmet were all things he’d focused on over the years.

He left spare clothes and the gym bag behind.  It didn’t matter.

The cloud of heaviest rain was advancing steadily toward the bay.  Armsmaster had been right.  The guy was an asshole who’d had it in for him from the start, but he didn’t screw up when it came to things like this.

Clockblocker and Browbeat were on the scene, standing outside the building and waiting for everyone to arrive.  They stared out over dark water.

There was a crack, a boom, and Strider came in with a group, the teleportation contractor the PRT had been using recently.

Strapping Lad, Young Buck, Chronicler and Exalt were in that group.  Eidolon was head and shoulders above them all, and rose even higher as he took flight.

Surveying the threat and the city, taking note of Dauntless and a few of the other fliers who were doing similar things.  Lady Photon was up here.

Eidolon dropped out of the sky, landing in a clear spot by the building entrance.  The people in the way parted to let him through.

They’ve wondered out loud if I would become like you, Dauntless thought.  How many years?  I never asked for it, but it’s not impossible.

The image of his son wiping away tears stayed with him.  Addison had tried to hide it for just this reason, he guessed.  To avoid distracting.

They had been rescued a little while after Addison had been born, and Kel had gone to the hospital.  He couldn’t claim to understand the thought processes that had driven her to refuse visitation, or the piece of legalese that had been mailed to his parents, because she didn’t know where else to contact him.  Forfeiting her parental rights.

Panic, maybe.  Maybe self-doubt.  She had never believed in herself enough, and he’d wondered in retrospect if her calm in that buried van had been because she no longer had to worry about herself and her role in it all.

He desperately, desperately wished she’d stayed, but she’d needed to do what was good for her, and he needed to do what was good for Addison.

So he’d signed, and he’d done his best.  He’d avoided saying an unkind word about her to their son, and he’d organized the charity to do what he could to avoid a similar heartbreak from happening again.

Jennifer had told him he put too much on his son’s shoulders.

He had the day’s power to allocate.  A fractional bonus to one of his items.  The kind of thing that likely wouldn’t make a difference, but felt important.

Weapon?  To better hurt the thing?

Helmet, to better understand it, think faster in a pinch?

Boots?  To move out of the way?

Breastplate, something he’d neglected.  Potentially to turn something lethal into something he could survive.  He was struck by the thought of dying in muck, partially paralyzed, and he thought of Kel.

He infused the breastplate, channeling the power in there, hand over heart.

He’s every bit like you.  Every good part.

He stared at the approaching storm, then dropped down to the ground, pulsing boots on and off to lower himself.

I do this for him.

Boots, was the thought, as the tail snaked around him.  The Leviathan had him, and he’d been just a little too slow to get out of the way.

If he’d infused the boots, then maybe.

He was flung, with a force he knew would kill him.  He used his boots to try to slow the movement.

He didn’t die.  Things around him flickered, then dissipated.  No rain, no dust, no debris.  The crowd of people around the space was a blur, viewed through a screen that was beaded with an uneven layer of water.   The crowd mutated, drew close, disappeared, each of those things happening in eyeblinks.

No, was his thought, and things around him moved in the time it took him to form that thought.

The tail end of that single word was coupled with the dawning realization he had power available.  Not one day, not ten, not fifteen, not thirty or sixty or ninety-

No! was the follow-up thought.  His hand couldn’t meet anything before he had another ninety or more days pass.  Instead, he pushed power from head to helm.

He didn’t get to choose what happened.  But what happened made sense.

His thoughts slowed, and though his body was trapped in time, moving with glacial slowness, those ninety days of accumulated power were spent in the helm, giving him control over the speed of his own thinking.

Which put him in the circumstance of being trapped, unable to do anything but think.

Initially, he fought.  He had some residual power, like change left over after he’d spent the bulk on his helmet, and that power was spent on boots, on weapon.  As if he could force himself free with enough power from the boots or enough offensive power from his spear.  His Arclance, as the PRT had dubbed it.

Now he was aware of the days moving past him at normal speeds.  The world beyond was mottled, pollen and dust and construction materials settled on the surface of the globe.

He had twenty-four hours without sleeping to break it up, to decide on each allocation of power.

Helmet.  In hopes of reversing this trap he’d found with his mind moving at normal speed while his body remained frozen, or of finding a better way out.

Another day followed, where he felt like he looked back on every decision he’d made in his life, prayed to every deity he could think of, and he realized it was possible Alabaster was in much the same circumstance.  At set intervals, Alabaster reverted states, going back to the one he was in when he had entered this time-slowing bubble.

It was possible Alabaster was in the same circumstance he was, and had been from the start.

Helmet again.

Another twenty-four hours.  It had only been what felt like a day, and already, the events that played and replayed in his mind became distorted.  He couldn’t help going back to them, at the same time.  He felt like his ego was disintegrating in this space where nothing could happen.  He watched the world beyond the bubble, silhouettes moving throughout a rebuilding Boardwalk, and tried to divine particulars or hints about the outcome, who might have survived.

There was a festival to close out the evening.  The music was muffled, as if from a house next door, but it did a lot to stave off the low points and the circular thinking.

The sun rose, and he had another choice.  Helmet, because anything else would offer only the smallest benefit, and he knew he had a long way to go.

On the third day, he almost managed to convince himself that some individual parts of his past were fictional, figments of his imagination.  Almost.

Noon came around, and a group of young students passed through the area.  Some came to see him.  A teacher or someone followed them, and one of them read off the placquard.  He hadn’t been aware there was a third person in here.

Again, there was a festival.  He could have wept, he was so grateful for the stimulation.  It lasted until what had to be one or two in the morning.

People slept.  He found himself remaining where he was, doubting everything.

Sunrise came.  With it, he had more power to give.  Again, he chose the helmet.

His perception of the world beyond the bubble clarified.

And so it went.  Helmet.  Helmet.  Helmet.  For twenty-three days.

By the twenty-third, he was capable of seeing and hearing everything that went on in the buildings nearby.  Businesses.  He watched people like he would watch bad television.

Every visit was a panacea for the soul.  He learned the faces of the repeat visitors and he learned the whys.  Some came from out of state.  It meant something, in this place where meaning was lost to a black, insensate void.

He constructed elaborate storylines in his head, of his own devising.  Ones where he and Kelly had tried to raise Addison together and it had been hard but Addison had turned out much the same, because it was hard to improve Addison.  Anything else would have broken his own suspension of disbelief.

One storyline a day, to answer a question, or to explore a theory.

He lost count of the days, but he estimated where he’d been and he counted from that estimate forward.  With the helmet giving him the ability to construct better thoughts and see much of the city around him, forward and backward, he built up his ideas and theorized, he unraveled what had happened and to whom, and tallied up a mental list of people to investigate.  He picked a person he knew and didn’t know the outcome for, and he searched everyone nearby to try to decipher what had become of them.

Whole days were lost to despair that ate at him and left him unable to think straight for more days afterward.

He focused on the boots, and on the other things.  He balanced certain lines of thinking with certain applications, to see if it felt different.

Hundreds of days in, so fast he thought he’d reverted to that accelerated time, the city crumbled.  A flash of light, and the buildings fell, giving him a view of the water, of water frothing and foaming as waterside properties tipped into it.

For nine days after that, people tried to pick up the pieces.

On the tenth day, they mostly disappeared, leaving only stragglers.  With every passing moment, he scoured and scanned those stragglers, used every awareness at his disposal to try to decipher, investigate, and see if they knew anyone or had seen anyone.  Had one said Addison, for any reason at all, it might have stoked some hope.

By the thirtieth day after the city fell, the people who had remained were gone.  Many were dead, unable to survive or sick.  Others left for places where food would be more plentiful.

He pushed and tried to push his awareness through the distorted portal in the belly of the city, and no matter the investment, he couldn’t.

There was only the water, now.  Watching the weeds growing into the cracks, tracking the wildlife, and the steady resurgence of those species best able to survive.

He mourned the world, and he vowed that if this was it, if this was the end perpetrated at the hands of their best hero, then he would retain some ability to explain what had happened if somehow something else were to come and pay a visit.  A deity, an alien, a person from the past or from the future.

He was the most powerful person on their Earth, as far as he could tell, and possibly the most helpless.  Easy, when he was one of the only ones left.

The bubble popped.  His body was freed and his body was utterly trapped.  He’d infused power into every article of clothing he owned, sometimes years worth of power, and that power had come due.  Every time he had passed on power to his helmet, it had shifted imperceptibly.  To become something mythic, something to be proud of.

Now, however, it all came due at once.

His helmet was a crown, extending up and above him like a skyscraper, impossibly tall.  He might have snapped into pieces, but other articles worked their way into it.

He’d called it a crystallization, once, and now the crystal crept over him.

There had been ten thousand times he’d snapped while in that bubble.  Ten thousand times he’d broken from reality, broken from memory, from hope, from everything.

And in those moments, he’d glimpsed something greater.  For longer, and longer, each time.  Each effort a vain attempt by his collaborator, his agent, to forge a connection and reach out.

But that wasn’t how this worked.  He didn’t get to have connections.  That hadn’t been the unspoken bargain he’d apparently struck.  He didn’t get the tools to better cut and cauterize wounds and save his son’s mother for nothing.

But it had tried, and as with the helmet and the rest of that crystallized effort, he felt it come due.   Connections.  Enough connections to the nazi to pull him apart and draw the composite pieces into the crystallization.  All were broken connections, reaching out to other broken things to find the most tenuous purchase, but if the crystal was machinery and the agent the power source, then the connection let him have a hand on the wheel.

It was enough to keep himself up, once he’d grown enough that it was ungainly.

The connection came, and the connection stayed.

He saw enough.

“You’re going to have to explain,” Victoria said, whispering.  “Because if you can make any sense at all out of this…”

She hovered over a ledge, and that ledge overlooked the distant sight.  A figure so tall his heads were in the clouds.  The growth that extended up from the ‘head’ was fractal, geometric, crystal, but with veins instead of straight lines.

That growing extended to the legs, starting at the feet and working its way up.  A skirt, a dress, a lower body that was a mountain.  Limbs and body, all in the rough silhouette of a giant, a titan writ in a strike of white lightning that didn’t budge, flicker, readily change shape, nor stop.

“We mentioned it was a structural issue,” Harbinger Two said.

“Where to start?” Harbinger Three asked.  “I’d start by outlining that you have an array.  One connects to two connects to three-”

“No numbers,” Swansong growled.

“No numbers,” Victoria agreed.

Harbinger Three sighed.  “Then you have an alphabet.  A connects to B connects to C.  And you tend to end with X, Y, Z.  Sometimes there’s a wrinkle in the works.  And A connects to L, G, E, B, R and-”

“No numbers!” Swansong said.

“It’s a word,” Harbinger Three said, at the same time Harbinger Two said, “Not a number,” and Harbinger Five said, “It isn’t!”

“Carry on,” Victoria said.  Swansong audibly harrumphed.

“Connects back around to A,” Harbinger Three said.  “And it connects to P, P again, L, and E.  But the underlying structure is gone.  ‘A’ flounders, trying to find a connection to anything.  And in the process, it finds a connection to P, O-”

“Enough,” Victoria said.  “I appreciate the explanation, but I’m too tired to have people spell things out for me.  Abbreviate?”

“Like a localized, misspelled apocalypse,” Harbinger Five said.  “You get things meant for endings at the beginning, like Z, and that connects to E, which connects to everything, and a few steps later… nothing.  Houses of cards that shouldn’t stack up that do, and cards that should that don’t.  But they will, by process of natural selection, form their own wills.  As we see here.”

“He thinks?” Capricorn asked.  His armor was in tatters.

“We think he’s been thinking this whole time,” the Harbinger said.

“Fuck,” Capricorn said.  He blurred.  He shifted, tattered red plate armor to tattered blue scalemail.

“Fuck,”Capricorn said again.  “Nobody deserves that.”

“And now we get to see what that all added up to,” Harbinger Two said.

“No numbers,” Swansong said.  “No math terms.  ‘Added up’.”

“Wholly accidental,” the Harbinger said, before turning to wink at one of his brothers.

There was no humor on any other faces.

The dauntless titan stood in the ruins of Brockton Bay, mostly unmoving.  He or it was there in Earth Gimel, and he was there in Earth Bet at the same time.  He was in an equivalent location in Earth Cheit, in Earth N, and every earth they were aware of, as well as many they weren’t.

He reached out, his range unfiltered now by a bubble of compressed time.  He deciphered everything he’d tallied up as answers he needed to seek out.

He found what he was looking for, and he reached out.  Not gently enough.  His efforts at speaking were blunt, and destroyed more machines than he could easily count, in many worlds.

Better not to move.  To wait.

It took nearly eight hours.  But Dauntless’s son came.  The boy drove in a truck, and he reached the perimeter that capes and other forces had gathered as a just-in-case measure.

They let Addison through, along with Addison’s wife.  Not Mo, which disappointed Dauntless, but a pretty young lady with a child in her stomach.

He couldn’t speak, and he couldn’t trust himself to move, so he listened.  Addison had found his mother, and the two had cobbled together an uneasy relationship.  There was that.  He’d had holidays with that neighbor Jean, who’d taken up a role and who had taken it on herself to look after Addison well past the point anyone sane would do so, and he’d periodically visited with Jennifer, his stepmom, who took on the role of the aunt and manager of Shawn’s estate.

Dauntless’s son was okay, and that was what was important.

After a couple of hours, they decided to leave.

Satisfied?, it thought, to that kernel of Dauntless.

He was.  A terrible weight and an even more terrible pain had been lifted, somehow, by that relatively brief visit.

It remained where it was, waiting.  It waited and watched even as the forces arrayed around it readied for an assault, panicked, then retreated.

Up here, the air was so thin that Dauntless’s thoughts buzzed.

Buried in crystal, he was almost claustrophobic, his thoughts running away from him.

But he didn’t let them.

He could only remain where he was.

The reason for the panic and the imminent assault hadn’t been him, but another guest.  She settled on one arm, comparatively tiny, a weight on one arm and on one shoulder.  Feathered wings draped his arm.

And she cried, and the cries were pitched to pull at the heartstrings and to tug at the mind.  He couldn’t step into another room or walk away to leave those cries behind to find a chance to breathe.

And he was tired, in that way that would have made it so easy to believe anything anyone told him.  He dwelt on that weight on his arm, his power illuminating every world around him, some occupied, many not.  There was no more power inside him to give.  For now, he could only wait, endure as he’d endured for four years.  He had his son and all the people he’d come to love, who’d loved him and visited him in his bubble, and that was the most significant thing.

Previous Chapter                                                                                       Next Chapter

Heavens – 12.9

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

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

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

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

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

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

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

-through breaker bubbles.  Like Brandish’s.

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

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

I could try.

“-bubble!”

I winced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Carol!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Carol, change!”

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

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

“Why not?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Who needs help!?” Moose shouted.

“Carol- the woman-”

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

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

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

He looked relieved to have a job.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” was the response.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Heads up!” Rain barked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Back out, Rain!” I shouted.

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

“You’re not thinking straight!”

He seemed to get that.  He turned to run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To get ahead of Cradle and what he had planned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s scary,” Sveta said.

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

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

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

Because the maze was shifting.

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

“The maze is shifting!” I hollered down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It only bought a few seconds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She knew how my power worked?

My eyes narrowed.

“Fuckers,” I said.

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

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

“The type?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No second guesses,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remained silent, let the silence hang.

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

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

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

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

Reading us?  Hanging back and drinking it all in?

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

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

I knew mine was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck.  Fuck fuck fuck.

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

I saw Foil, but no Cassie.

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

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

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

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

“It can be disabled?”

“Yes or no?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“I don’t get a say?” Rain asked.

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

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

“It’s not about that,” I said.

“Fucking feels like it.  Fuck!”

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

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

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

I had allies out there too, but the calculus…

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

“Yes,” I heard.

I opened my eyes.  Rain had answered.

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

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

“I’m going to remove them.”

“Do it.”

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

“Throw them.  Into there.”

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

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

Cradle looked at me, and I raised my hands.

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t respond.

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

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

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

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

He wins?

Fuck that.

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

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

I gave the signal, hand chopping down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More lines barred my way.

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

Fucking tinkers, Tattletale had said.

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

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

The crackle of electricity was reaching a fever pitch now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She dropped to her knees, staring at the remains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you sure?

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

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

“This fucking hurts!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I flew after him.

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

More like portals than anything else.

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

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

But we weren’t alone.

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

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

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

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

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

“You need me.”

“No we don’t,” Citrine said.

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

Citrine didn’t respond.

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

Antares:
Lookout?

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

Fast typing for someone with injured hands.

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

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

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

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

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

Lookout:
Pshoo. Duh

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

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

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

The signal from Cradle to undo the effect.

It was the fix.

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

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter