Snag’s power hurt, and it hurt in a way that had nothing to do with shedding blood or breaking bones. Emotion. My body still reacted, my heart rate picking up, breathing choked, adrenaline churning, hormones shifting. My thoughts were scattered, thrusting me into a state where I could either only reel or I could grope for a position in familiar ground.
I didn’t want familiar.
Reeling meant trying not to think, letting it wash over me and through me, and not letting my thoughts go where the feelings pointed. It meant I still had a metal gauntlet on my face and a metal arm pulled against my throat, and I was handling the situation with instinct. Fight or flight.
No. I only barely stopped myself. I’d kill him if I fought.
I pushed out with my aura, hard. The flip side of my observation moments ago was true. I was supposed to be resistant to hits to my emotions because I could deliver those hits myself. Snag would be resistant to my aura for similar reasons.
He still let go, arms slipping back through the wall. I had a moment where I thought about grabbing one of his wrists as it passed me, and I hesitated a moment too long.
I backed away, staggering until I bumped into the window next to the broken one. My chest hurt as if I’d had my heart ripped out, and thoughts of Dean flickered through my head. It was a continuation of my thoughts from earlier, one sample in a long, long series of thoughts I hadn’t let myself finish over the past few months and years that the surge of emotion was now filling in and pushing to the surface.
It was loss, if I had to put a name to it. Nothing to do with the man on the roof.
It was me in the hospital, with Auntie Sarah and Crystal, not knowing what to say because Uncle Neil and Eric had just died. Crystal had been hurt too, and the place had been so busy and crowded that we’d gathered in the small curtained enclosure where her hospital bed was. My mom had been gone, trying to get news on my dad’s situation, and my sister-
It was going from that, the horrible feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, to hearing the curtain move. I’d known it wasn’t my mom – she’d left only a minute ago. It was as if someone had taken a want, desire, even a need equal to what I’d experienced in my childhood and early teens, when I’d wanted to be a hero, when I’d written letters to Santa and wished it during every birthday candle extinguishing and for every shooting star I’d seen from when I was four to when I was fourteen, if someone had gathered all of that feeling and compressed it into a single, concentrated moment of wanting it to be Dean coming into the enclosure to give me a hug. And then not getting what I wanted.
The PRT staff member had come in to let me know Gallant had wanted to see me while there was still time. Dean had.
Heart ripped out of my chest, just like that, just like this feeling here. Losses, losses, fucking losses. That ambiguous fucking word they’d used when they’d delivered the mass report. Not deaths, not the ‘downs’ that were injured just enough they were out of the fight, just losses because they’d needed to be brief with the list of names so long. Dean’s name had been on that list.
Where? It had taken me three tries to get the word out. They’d told me where, but I hadn’t traveled a straight line to get there. I’d zig-zagged, from doctor to nurse to PRT staff. I’d asked people who had no cause or reason to know, tried describing her. Asking, asking. Pleading.
Where was she? Had they seen her? Where was the last place anyone saw her? I need-
Where? I shook my head, trying to rattle my brain and get centered in the present. Where was Snag? He’d disappeared into the next room. I stepped forward, feeling unwieldy, and thrust my hand at the door, taking it off of the hinges, damaging the door’s frame. Empty room. Nowhere to be found.
My hand shook from the emotion, extended out in front of me. I clenched it into a fist.
She’d been nowhere to be found too.
I’d arrived alone, no help to offer. Too late to say anything or hear anything from him. I’d choked on my words when it came to saying something to his parents. There’d been this feeling like I couldn’t react the way I’d wanted and needed to, because his parents were there and they were somehow maintaining their composure. Upset, yes, but they were wealthy and dignified enough they would do their crying in private. They had weathered their losses years before and it had been the same then, according to Dean. Now it was on Dean’s behalf.
What options did that leave me? Break down into hysterical sobbing and act like I was hurting more than his own family was? It might have been dismissed as the drama of a teenager and I hadn’t wanted that to be the final note on Dean and me, in their eyes, in the eyes of bystanders.
Like I imagined anyone in a relationship did, I’d wondered if we were in love, and then I’d known we were in love, and I’d grown close enough to him to wonder if he was a soulmate, dismissed the term just as easily as it had come up because it was silly and it didn’t matter either way, did it? I’d received my answer on the question as I’d felt a part of me die during those long minutes of me trying and failing to say something to his family.
From that to home. Southwest end of the city, our house mostly untouched by the attack. To dad being ‘impaired’, mom’s word, and mom being business as usual, emphasis on business, because that was how she dealt.
To… a family member acting like they’d been replaced by a fucking pod person from another planet, gradually realizing that replacement had been a long time ago, and it was only now in context and crisis that I’d seen the alien-ness clearly, in the then-present and in retrospect.
Painful, in its own way, to have nobody to turn to. The hurt had been there like a block of ice, melting too slowly when I hadn’t had any warmth to reach out for, not any less cold as the water pooled. Not any less for the time that passed. Just… more ambient.
This was like that. Snag’s emotional effect was temporary. The pain ebbed out, made my fingers feel numb and tingly, made it hard to breathe, and made me feel more physically weak and less coordinated than I should have been.
I stumbled a few steps, and reached out to touch the wall for support as I resumed moving, entering the room Snag had been in when he’d punched his arms through the wall. It was reminiscent of a hotel room, but rustic enough it could have been a bed and breakfast. Two small beds, a bedside table, a desk, and a flatscreen television sitting on a dresser.
He had a mover classification, I was pretty sure. He’d used a trick to jump after the bus. I made sure to look up, to avoid any ambush in case he jumped at me from the space between the top of the door and the ceiling.
The room was empty.
“Snag?” I asked.
My emotions were jumping around as I bucked the worst of the effect. I wanted to have him to talk to, to pull me out of the mire of past feelings and into the present. It made for a wild, disturbed kind of familiarity, almost a longing, as distorted emotions tried to find reconciliation with my head. It ended up parsing him as if he was an old friend I was trying to reconnect with. The same kind of weird emotional fixations that made Stockholm syndrome a thing. Cult leaders and abusers used it.
When you had nothing, you groped for anything, even if it was the person who’d brought you to that point.
I’d reached out back then, too. I’d turned to the Wards, because my mom had been the only person doing anything to keep New Wave in motion, the team had been falling apart, and I’d needed something. Because the tests and briefings made me feel closer to Dean, reminded me of the study sessions. Because the first time I saw her after the Endbringer attack, Vista had hugged me, because Dean, and it meant something to me that there was someone else properly upset for him.
“Guys,” I said, loud enough to be heard in the next room.
“Victoria? Are you okay?” the voice was muffled.
I opened my mouth to respond. My failure to form words reminded me of talking to Dean’s parents again.
I stopped myself, trying to focus and put myself in the present. I took a deep breath that shook a little on the way in and the way out.
“Step back from the wall,” I said.
“Don’t,” was the immediate response. “Don’t touch the bomb.”
“I’m not touching the bomb,” I said. “Get away from the door and the wall to the right of the door.”
Snag had felt secure enough to stick his arms through the wall and not jar the bomb too badly.
I’d take his cue.
I put my arm through the wall, felt my forcefield go down. I heard the exclamations. Once I was sure I was good to move, I dragged it to one side, tearing a hole, felt one of the studs, moved it to the other side, and felt another. About two feet of clearance between the studs.
I saw the faces on the other side. Worried. Angry.
The window shattered. Snag reached through, seizing me by the throat. He swung by one arm outside the building, dragging his other arm through the windows and slats, shattering them with explosive force, as he drove me toward the wall opposite the hole I’d just made.
I still had my forcefield up. He hadn’t grabbed me that hard. Flight and forcefield together helped to stop me in my tracks. Floorboards shattered under me, and a window beside me broke as the force was transferred out.
Seizing his arm, I swung it like a bat, hurling him into the room. I maintained my grip on him as I did it.
He touched the ground with one foot, then changed trajectory. Dust fell from the ceiling as he landed on it, upside-down, his arm still extended my way.
I felt the machinery hum with activity, and tore the hand away, pushing it away from my throat and face. The emotion effect grazed me, minor, but I hadn’t recovered from the last hit.
A small kind of loss, this. The hit didn’t do what the first had, rounding out a memory. It did buzz through other memories. Ones that were more minor, that I’d never put to rest.
Being in the bus stop with my mom. Weird, because it had once been a happy memory. She’d been stitching up a cut on my forehead while I suppressed my forcefield. The rain had been pouring, streaking the graffiti-covered walls of the bus stop. A moment for just my mom and me. She’d paused midway through the first aid to tell me that she was proud of me. We’d got the guy we were after. Then we had talked about how I’d have to change my hair for a short while to hide the stitches. One of my first times officially out in costume.
It was a memory I kept going back to. One I’d brought up several times in the hospital. Bittersweet somehow, and it had become more bitter and less sweet over time.
It bothered me, brought me down just a bit, because it was something unresolved that had weighed on me, because I was already down a ways.
“Stop,” I said. I didn’t sound like myself.
His hands freed, he reached back to his boot with one gauntlet.
He threw a trio of fat shurikens at me. My forcefield blocked them, saw them bounce off, one landing on the bed, two falling to the floor beside me.
I kicked the bed to bring the more solid bedframe to where I could grab it, and rammed the end of the bed at the corner where he was. The shurikens detonated behind me, and on the bed in front of me. Something that wasn’t fire or anything of the sort. Something jumped between them, like electricity but not. Where it touched me, my heart jumped, my mind stumbled, and feelings welled.
All of the doubts, fears, and hesitations inside me magnified, multiplied. It paralyzed me for the moment.
This, at least, was something I’d been trying to get a handle on. Here, my resistance applied.
He’d dropped down to the ground before the bed struck him, landing on both feet, arms spread out, hands planted on the ground. He sprung back using his mover power, landing with one hand and one boot near the ceiling and another hand and boot beneath and on the window as he clung to the wall.
With the damage I’d done to the bed already by using it as a weapon, the swipe I used to get it out of my way destroyed it, only the mattress surviving. I still had to pick my way past a slat.
He seemed surprised that I was already moving. After pausing momentarily in shock, he used the moment of me navigating the wreckage of the bed to spring off to the right, down the hallway.
I passed through the doorway, pursuing, and my head turned against my will. I heard glass break, saw Snag vault through the window he’d broken.
He was nimble, for a guy that big, but it seemed his mover power was responsible for most of it, his mechanical arms only helping with the legwork. He was strong in many respects for what I was gathering was a multi-trigger. Robust tinkerings, what felt like a full-fledged emotion affecting ability, a decent mover power.
My attention was more on the other two further down the hallway. Blindside, I assumed, and a hint of the pink and grey coloring to the carpet that might have been Nursery.
Blindside’s bat tinked against a solid surface as they loitered there.
“Damn it, Snag,” Blindside muttered. “Running off and leaving us with this?”
“He’s a character,” Nursery said.
“You’re a character,” Blindside said.
I could hear wet slurping sounds and I couldn’t see what was making them because Blindside was standing close to Nursery.
“Stop this,” I said. “It doesn’t end anyplace good.”
I didn’t hear the response, because Snag reached up through the floorboards, seized my leg, and hauled me halfway through the floor. I might have gone further, but I braced myself with flight and forcefield.
It left me kneeling with one leg, the other stuck straight out and down through the floor, my hands on the ground in front of me.
I heard Blindside’s running approach.
Bat in hand, probably. I pushed out with my aura, hoping to give them a reason to think twice, buy myself a second.
Lurching to my feet, I brought Snag’s arm up above the ground. I reached down to grab his hand, and then kicked nearer to the elbow.
The mechanical arm broke off. With a bat of my own, I shifted my grip to the wrist rather than the now-limp hand, and held my weapon out, waving the broken end of the arm in Blindside’s general direction.
No blood. I’d broken it off far enough down. That was good.
I was breathing hard, my heart was racing, and old wounds felt fresh again, but I was finding some equilibrium again. I-
The arm I was holding self-destructed, or the emotional battery within it did. It stayed in one piece and it dashed me to pieces.
Again, the ripped-out heart feeling. Again, the heavy sense of despair. Deeper-seated now, because I hadn’t recovered entirely from either of the other two hits, the big one and the graze.
I saw double, more than double.
Months and years of seeing double. One eye on the computer screen beside me, watching the time, looking for chat notifications. One eye on the television. One eye on the door.
Twenty past two. Fifteen minutes late. I counted the minutes. Twenty one past two.
Twenty two past two. The sound from the television was almost abrasive, made to be attention-getting.
I wanted to say something, protest, and I didn’t have a voice. The computer was in arm’s reach, but it was a herculean effort to get a message out.
The door opening and the wrong person being on the other side. Just like with Dean. It wasn’t the staff member who came on weekdays at two-oh-five when I had visitors. It was someone else, with a face I knew, a name I didn’t, and a gentle voice that was telling me that another patient was throwing a tantrum and the facility was on lockdown, they had contacted my visitors.
My visitors, my family, had decided that because they didn’t know how long the lockdown would be, they would come another day. It was a long trip.
I reached for the laptop, started to type out my message for the text-to-speech speaker, using keys that were oversized and spaced out, with screwholes in the middle of each key for knobs and joysticks to be screwed in for when other patients had their turn. It was supposed to double as physical therapy for me, coordinating myself, making the effort to reach and reposition.
The staff member had apologized, then turned to go notify other patients, closing the door behind her. I’d tried to vocalize and of course I’d failed. It was too long and byzantine a way from lung to mouth.
The message had been left unfinished on my screen, only a few words of what I’d wanted to say. Even completed, the statement wouldn’t have meant anything to the staff member, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. All I’d wanted to express was that my family had missed the last two visiting days as well.
My eye had found the clock on the laptop, noted the ‘F’. Friday.
One eye on the clock, watching the minutes. One eye on the television. One eye on the F, counting the days to Monday. One eye for the email icon on the computer screen, waiting for the apology email that would come. When it did, I would check the time, comparing it to other apology emails, to try and figure out if they were getting further apart, less. To see if they would stop entirely, a prelude to the visits ceasing altogether, because it was easier to forget me than to do otherwise.
Something inside of me had broken at that. I’d known it would cost me privileges. Maybe even visits. I’d known it would hamper or hurt other patients and staff across the hospital. Ones who didn’t deserve it.
But I had nothing else.
I’d pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.
I pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.
Things had been happening while I was elsewhere. The building shook. The villains were gone.
He was with others. I barely recognized them. The heroes in particular took me a second. The kid who looked a little bit flamboyant, hair gelled back, wearing what was almost a crop top, a beast’s upper face with fangs pointing down at his chest, the lower jaw and fangs on the belt, with diagonal slashes worked into either side of both parts of the icon, painted on his abs in a faint color that might have been missed in dimmer light. Tempera with more of the white paint on her, a bit of blood. Fume Hood was using one hand to press a bandage to her shoulder. Crystalclear was missing more than a few chunks from his head. One of his eyes was exposed now, peering from between one chunk that grew from the bridge of his nose and one that grew from his temple, very blue.
They looked frightened of me.
That was what my aura did, really. Another of those contextual emotional things, like the Stockholm syndrome. Awe and admiration if they liked me, fear if they didn’t.
Just fear, here.
Not my voice this time. Jasper’s.
I trembled as I made myself get back to my feet. I wiped my cheeks where they were wet. My hair was a mess from being thrown around. I used numb fingers to pry at it, undoing the tie.
“Christ,” Mar said.
For the first time, Jasper didn’t shut him up.
The building shook. Daylight reached parts of the indoors it wasn’t supposed to. This would be their plan B. Property damage indeed. Lord of Loss was tearing off the roof.
“We need to go,” Tempera said.
I nodded. I looked back for the hole I’d made. I saw the teenagers in uniform in the trashed room. They’d opened the hole the rest of the way and filed out. Now they stood as far away from me as the room’s boundaries allowed.
They would have seen me throw the bed.
“Yeah,” I said. My voice sounded hollow.
The partial uniform I wore, still without the vest that I’d left outside, dusty blood-spotted, it didn’t fit me anymore. I felt choked by it, because I knew I’d just lost my job.
I led the way down the stairs. I stumbled in one place where a trace of Nursery’s effect made the stair a different shape, carpeted when it shouldn’t have been. Flight helped keep me from sprawling.
“You’re Glory Girl,” Landon said.
I’m not, I thought.
“People said you died when the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Brockton Bay back in twenty-eleven.”
“Landon,” Jasper said. One word.
The people who had been gathered inside were evacuating. Kingdom Come wasn’t making it easy, either. As they reached a safe distance, near where people had been protesting, they were gathering in offset rows, so we would have to move diagonally or zig-zag through their ranks to get past them. A fence.
It was hard to tell what the villains were doing when Blindside was part of the group and they were already distant, but I could turn my head and see a bit of them out of the corner of one eye. They were backing up, moving away without actually fleeing the scene. Nursery was creating her effect.
The kids I’d brought with me were backing away, putting themselves a distance away from us.
I looked up for the branches overhead and I didn’t see them.
“Watch out for Lord of Loss,” Tempera said, following my line of sight.
Where was he?
“He’s up there,” Crystalclear said. “He’s changing. Centaur?”
“That’s his combat form,” I said. I still didn’t sound like myself. “One of them. It’s mobile.”
“I’ll keep the others busy,” Longscratch said. He swiped one of the weapons he held, the buckler with the three swords mounted on the back, and three deep furrows appeared on the ground, stretching out beneath the feet of the crowd.
“Wait,” Tempera said.
Longscratch flickered, appearing momentarily at two of the points on the far side of the crowd where the furrows ended, before finalizing at the third.
“Help him,” she told Crystalclear, touching his shoulder, leaving white fingerprints. “Fume Hood, stay close. They’re still targeting you.”
Tempera moved her hand, and deposited what looked like fifty gallons of the white paint with black edges on the street. We spread out as it appeared. She moved her fingers, and it spread out.
“Tempe!” Crystalclear shouted. He extended one hand out to the side, pointing.
The paint moved, a tidal wave, leaving a streak where it went.
I chased it.
Lord of Loss leaped from the rooftop. Ten feet tall, a centaur in vague shape only. His lower body looked more rhino-like, though the legs were longer, and he was plated in those same straps that looked like twists of smoke frozen in place, or wispy bands of metal that peeled away from him at the end. He carried a heavy shield on one side, cut in a way that let its bottom left edge rest against the shoulder of his foreleg when he held it tilted forward, and he carried a heavy lance in the other hand.
His face was a helmet, the slits for the eyes and lower face were closed up, so the face was only a series of ridges where bands met and poked out, Y-shaped. His hair was a mane of bands left to flow like smoke.
He landed in the streak of Tempera’s paint, and he lost traction, falling to one side.
The paint rose up and over him, then solidified. He shattered it, lurched to his feet. The paint liquified and rose up and over his legs, and he shattered it again.
Was it more easily than he’d shattered it the first time?
Actions he repeated were supposed to be stronger.
To give Tempera a hand, I threw myself forward at Lord of Loss. Flight, forcefield up. He twisted around and raised the shield, blocking me. I still hit him hard enough to cost him footing. Paint covered him, hardened.
He broke the paint, swung his lance around, hitting me with the broad side.
Forcefield down, impact dampened but not entirely broken. I hit the ground and it hurt.
He broke through the paint yet again, found his feet, hit me again, this time while my feet were planted on the ground. My forcefield came back up just in time to be broken again.
Yeah, that hit had been harder.
Fume Hood shot him, hit him in the face. The paint crawled up to his upper body and joints, hardened there, trying to limit his movement, and he broke it again.
He laughed. Then he hit me again. I deflected the hit, swatting at his lance with one hand.
He was advancing, pressing closer to Fume Hood, and as much as I retreated, as much as I was sure Fume Hood was backing up, he had longer legs.
When he hit me yet again, pavement cracked beneath me, around my feet, the forcefield pushing the impact out and around me. I almost lost my step backing away, with the cracked ground.
Each hit stronger than the last by a significant margin.
This was the point I was supposed to throw my hands up and surrender, or get out of the way. If he decided to hit me more frequently, or if he lurched forward and kicked me with one of those feet of his after swatting me with his lance-
Crystalclear had turned around, was using his blasts on Lord of Loss now.
Loss, losses, losses, losses.
I threw myself forward, flying, seizing him by one leg, twisting, trying to knock him over.
I got him off balance, and then he hit me. Only a moment of me holding onto him kept me from getting smacked into the ground with no forcefield. I fell to the ground and scrambled out of the way of his legs.
I waited until my forcefield was back, then threw myself at him, bowling him over. I tore at strips, peeling away at him.
In the background, Kingdom Come had abandoned his control over the crowd. They woke as if from a deep sleep, and they seemed surprised by what was happening around them. They fled. Away from the brutes fighting, away from the chaos and the damaged building.
He elbowed me. It took him long enough to rise to his feet again that I was able to get in front of him again.
I could do this.
I needed to do this.
It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted. I barely registered the sound. A crack, coinciding with the noise of the crowd. Lord of Loss went still.
My back had been turned, so I hadn’t been in a position to see it.
One bullet, from somewhere nearby. Fume Hood on the ground, Tempera beside her.
It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted.
I’d frozen. A lot of people had.
“Go to her,” Lord of Loss said. “Help. I’ll let you go if you let us go.”
Numb, I nodded.
“Let people know it wasn’t us. This wasn’t our plan,” he said, behind me.
I flew as much as I walked, and dropped to my knees at Fume Hood’s side. I put my forcefield up, tried to position myself where I could be a wall for her.
“Put your hands here,” Tempera told me.
I did, pressing down on the stomach wound. Blood pooled out, covering the backs of my hands.
The crowd had gone still. There was a murmuring, and people were drawing closer to watch and to see.
Reminiscent of Vikare.
In the background, Longscratch and Crystalclear had already apprehended the suspect. A protester that had been in a building nearby. Hunting rifle. The villains were leaving.
“Not-” Fume Hood grunted.
“Not?” I asked.
“Not a good day,” she muttered, through gasps.
“No,” I agreed. Very much agreed.
Landon had come closer, and was helping by getting the first aid kit out. Tempera took the components.
“Not a good day for any of us,” Tempera said, giving the crowd a glance.