The van bobbed with the added weight as I set Kenzie’s projector-recorder box down. As I moved back, I nearly tripped over Kenzie, who had climbed into the van right behind me.
“I’ve got the straps, I’ll tie it down,” she said. “Thank you for doing the heavy lifting. It really helps.”
“Sure,” I said. I squeezed past her and climbed down from the back of the van. “For the future, if I’m using my strength, you probably want to keep more of a distance. I wouldn’t want to bump into you with my power up.”
With Tristan having laid out his plan, the meeting was done, Tristan’s creations had been dismantled, the rocky walls and barriers broken down and placed with other rocks, and I had my laptop with my gathered notes in my bag.
Kenzie’s dad was standing by the door to the van. The others were gathered on the sidewalk in front of the library.
“Are you going to be okay going home alone?” Tristan asked Rain.
“If you’d asked me earlier, I’d have said yes. I’m less sure now,” Rain said.
“Sorry,” I said.
“No need to be.”
“I want you to know what you’re up against. I didn’t do it to scare you, exactly.”
“Knowing what I’m up against and being scared go hand-in-hand,” Rain said. “Right now I’m telling myself we don’t think Tattletale is free enough to be tracking me down right now, and the others are injured or preoccupied. I’m probably safe to get home like this, right?”
“I’d think so,” Sveta said. “I’d offer to come with you, but it’s a bit of a long trip.”
“Yeah,” Rain said. “I wouldn’t want you to go to that trouble, either way.”
“Have you given any thought to moving?” Tristan asked.
Rain shrugged. “Every day. Being where I am is tolerable for now, I think. The commute to the city is a pain, but if I imagine they’re hiring a dozen mercenaries and a few others, then it could be a bigger pain for them.”
“Hey Flays-Alive-Man, for this job, we’re going to need you and your ten superpowered friends to catch a train and spend three and a half hours traveling to the middle of nowhere, and then you have to find our target,” Chris said.
“God,” Rain said. “Don’t fire up my imagination with names like that.”
“I do want to focus more on your situation,” I said. “We’ve talked about the team and what the group is doing, but your situation is pressing. We can’t keep assuming they’re preoccupied.”
“I know,” Rain said.
“We should figure something out, cover any surprises in the short-term while plotting out something workable in the long-term,” I said.
“I agree. You can send them the wrong signals, but they could try tripping you up too,” Tristan said.
“I know, really,” Rain said. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like he was about to say something, then said, “Yeah.”
“I could come with and fly back, or fly over the train and keep an eye out for trouble,” I said.
I could see Rain’s reaction, the kneejerk resistance.
“Oh! I have cameras,” Kenzie said, “And you could use them to communicate. They’re not too obvious.”
“I could carry a camera,” Rain said. “Just so long as I could turn it off when I need to.”
“Why would you need to turn it off?” Kenzie asked.
“Because I have to go to the bathroom sometimes.”
“Why would anyone use a camera to watch someone go to the bathroom?” Kenzie asked. “No, wait, I don’t want to know. I’ve learned my lesson about those sorts of questions. But you can trust me, that’s not what I’m about.”
“I’m glad. I still want an off switch.”
Kenzie rummaged in the back of the van and pulled out a bag. She handed over something looked like a smoke detector in brushed black metal, with a lens in the center. “Here. A camera. You can press down on the lens in the middle and it will alert me. I’ll set it up so it lets the others know too, but I can pick up sound and visuals and pass it on to the others if you need it. This is the battery pack. You can pull it out and the camera won’t work.”
“Seems simple enough.”
“Whatever you do,” Kenzie said, reaching out to touch Rain’s forearm. “Do not put the battery pack in backward, when you re-insert it.”
Rain looked down at the camera he held with a little bit of trepidation.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because then it won’t work,” Kenzie said.
“You said it in an ominous voice,” Chris said.
“It’ll help Rain to remember not to put it in backward. Duh.”
“It’s not going to misfire or blow up?” I asked.
“Why do you keep asking that? No. It’s a camera. There is a very small chance of it blowing up, and if it does then it’s going to be a very small explosion. Unless you’re very unlucky and a lot of the things that could make it blow up all happen at once.”
“I guess I trust your tech more than I trust the people who are after me to leave me alone,” Rain said. He held up the camera. “I’ll hold onto this, then. Thanks.”
“Cool,” Kenzie said. “You’re welcome.”
“You’re not going to be looking through it and checking in on me at random, right?”
“Not if you don’t want me to,” Kenzie said.
“I don’t want you to,” Rain said. “No offense. It’s just that the less you know, the less likely it is that one of the people after me decides to come after one of you to try to get info.”
“Okay,” Kenzie said. “Not a problem.”
It’s a bit of a problem, I thought. But not like you’re imagining.
Kenzie looked back toward her dad. “And I should go. You know how to get in contact if you have questions. Do you want a ride? Does anyone?”
“No thanks,” Rain said.
Kenzie double and triple checked with the rest of us, then looked over at her dad, who was waiting with barely any change in expression. “I’m going to head out then. Bye guys.”
“Bye,” Sveta said.
“Talk to you again soon,” I said.
Kenzie climbed into the passenger seat. Her dad glanced over the group, briefly making eye contact with me, before taking a seat behind the wheel. She stuck her hand out the window to give us a bit of a wave as her dad pulled away.
“Most uncomfortable car ride,” Rain said, watching them go.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Julien Martin, giving me a ride earlier. Kenzie sent me a text letting me know he was on his way to pick me up. I would have said no if she’d asked beforehand. He turned up, let me into the car, then the entire way here, didn’t say a single word. I didn’t say a thing either.”
“Am I missing context?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Rain said.
“It’s context for Kenzie to share,” Sveta said, her voice firm.
“Yeah,” Rain said, again.
“Fair,” I said, even though I wasn’t sure it was. Not a hundred percent. There was a point where I couldn’t do everything I needed to do if people were keeping secrets. I didn’t want to press any buttons or tread on anything sensitive, and there were a lot of buttons and a lot of sensitive points.
“We’ll get you up to speed soon,” Sveta said. “But we have to be fair.”
“Out of curiosity, Sveta, how much wear and tear did your body take out there? Or is it bad of me to ask?” Tristan asked.
“It’s not bad at all,” Sveta said.
The conversation turned to armor and costumes. I listened with one ear, but my thoughts were on Sveta’s defense of Kenzie’s background, and how careful Tristan was in asking about Sveta’s body.
There was something I’d noticed with the group, and it was something I’d fallen prey to myself. When the group was talking, it was almost always in a guarded way. Even Chris did it to a small degree. Ashley too. Conversations were meted out with care, not necessarily so each person was protecting themselves, but so they protected each other. We often slipped back into talking like we were in therapy.
There were cases where individuals protected themselves and cases where individuals were also protected by others. Kenzie had a role as the baby of the team, in a way. There were things she didn’t disclose and things she was intentionally or unintentionally coy about, despite her overly open personality. That was compounded by how others were ready to step up for her and defend her. That was the security they’d given her.
I glanced over my shoulder at Ashley, who was hanging back, finishing the second of the bottles of water she’d brought back with her after going to the library. Ashley was very similar to Kenzie in that department. Unguarded in terms of how open she was about many things, but she had things she didn’t talk about, and she benefited heavily from the group’s defense of her.
It was the contract between them, the language they used and their habits, it carried over from the group. It was going to change over time, I was sure, especially if their therapy with Mrs. Yamada ran its course. I wasn’t sure if that meant the dialogue would become natural, if the contract would be betrayed in small ways, or both.
I was, as much as they’d asked for my help, the interloper. They protected each other from me, even if it meant Sveta was protecting someone as troubled as Ashley from someone she saw as a friend. I suspected it ran deeper than her wanting to see Ashley’s humanity win out over the monster.
Getting the information on powers and on the most important things like Ashley’s situation was easily doable, because it was need-to-know. Where I ran into a stumbling block was that their view on need-to-know and my view differed.
I worried they had too light a view of things. The ones who didn’t were among the more guarded, and they were being guarded too.
It all knotted together. Was I supposed to be patient and wait for the information to come out? Would it come out only as each crisis reared its head? Or did I push and risk doing damage?
I could push lightly. I waited for Tristan to stop talking about his armor, and the tools he used to fix the scuffs.
I wasn’t the only one waiting for a break in the conversation. “I should probably go or I’m going to miss my train.”
“My offer stands,” I said. “An eye in the sky, if you think you’ll need it.”
“No,” Rain said. “I’d rather-”
He stopped at that.
“What?” Tristan asked.
Rain went on, “It’s my experience that when you’re in trouble, people are usually pretty good about offering help and support. People are good like that. I’ve seen it with family members that had babies, and people who lost loved ones. Everyone turns up and offers their support, they bring food, they say they’ll be there. And they are, at first.”
“You think we’ll get bored of this and not help you later?” Tristan asked.
“Not bored,” Rain said. “Shit happens. Everyone has their issues, things come up, and then they lose sight of the promises made to new parents, the bereaved, or whoever else.”
“I think that’s pretty unfair,” Tristan said.
“It’s reality,” Rain said. He looked at me, “It’s nice of you to offer, Victoria, but I’d rather have you come and keep an eye on things when I feel like I’m actually in danger, instead of coming now, realizing what a huge pain in the ass it is to fly that far out of your way, and then feeling reluctant when it counts.”
I thought about reassuring him, pointing out that I’d traveled from the Bridgeport span to the portal in New Haven to Brockton Bay, several times a week, to get notes, check on the wreckage of the house and visit Crystal’s family. I didn’t.
“Gotcha,” I said. I’d pushed, I wasn’t going to push harder now that the boundary had been raised.
“You’re still blind, Chris?” Sveta asked.
“Yep. It’s starting to come back, though. Thirty minutes to an hour, I think.”
“Do you want someone to stay with you?” Sveta asked.
“No. Hell no. Then I’d feel obligated to make conversation and shit,” Chris said. “It’s a sunny day, there’s a breeze, the weather is perfect. I’m going to sit outside and wait and then I’ll make my way back to the institution.”
“They won’t be bothered if you’re late for dinner?” I asked.
“So long as I’m there by lights out, they don’t care. They’ve got twenty staff and over a thousand kids in the building with dead or missing parents. I eat or I feed myself, I mostly do the chores I’m assigned, I’m there when I’m supposed to be. There’s lots of others who demand more attention than I do.”
“It sounds like the children at your institution are pretty vulnerable,” Sveta said. “Nobody paying attention to what they’re doing with their days. Any of you could be pressed into work or preyed on or you could end up disappearing, and nobody would know.”
“Not me,” Chris said. “They’d regret it if they tried with me. With triggers being a thing, they might regret it whoever they try it with.”
I was put in mind of my mom. “It doesn’t mean the damage isn’t done before powers come into the picture.”
“Yeah, well, I dunno,” Chris said. “I’m going to relax and wait until my vision comes back. If it takes too long or if I run into trouble, I’ve got another change I was wanting to make today. Keen Vigilance. Perception focused. It’ll give me a fresh set of eyes.”
“Okay,” I said.
The others got themselves sorted out. Rain, Sveta, and Tristan started their walk to the train station. Chris retreated toward the library.
Ashley remained by the sidewalk, drinking her water. She’d been dead quiet.
“You good?” I asked her.
“I was dead for years. I’ve been operated on, feeling every last movement of the scalpel, several times. This is nothing, so yeah, I’m good.”
She put a curious inflection on the word.
It was eerie to think of Bonesaw’s involvement in things. Her handling of Ashley here, how the Slaughterhouse Nine had got Blasto which had led to Fume Hood’s downward spiral. It made me think of Crawler, and it made me think of what had happened to my home town.
To my home, my living room shattered with monsters left lying in places where childhood memories were supposed to be. Monsters that had once been people, a few of them genuinely good and decent.
To my family. To the person who had once been closest to me.
“Right. Good to hear,” I said.
“We’re similar, I think,” she said.
I paused. I’d been taking a second to think about how I would gracefully exit. Now I was left to process what she’d said, and figure out how to gracefully answer that.
“Should I take that as a compliment?” I asked.
“Take it however you like. Them? They’ve experienced hurt. They’ve known horror. Maybe not so much for Kenzie, but she experienced enough hurt that it balances out.”
“I probably shouldn’t be hearing this,” I said.
“They haven’t seen the worst of it. They haven’t seen rock bottom and then had someone or something reach up from below and drag them deeper. The Slaughterhouse Nine were that for me. I got the impression from how you talked about Tattletale that she was that for you.”
No, I thought. Only in small part.
“My first take on you was that you knew enough to be useful. Then you talked about Tattletale, and your reaction to someone who has the information, who’s careful, and who has resources? You’re afraid.”
“I’m concerned,” I said.
“I respect it, that fear.”
“Concern,” I said. “If it was just fear for myself, that would be one thing. But I’m concerned about the others here.”
“It’s a very concerning world, isn’t it?” she asked. “There’s a lot to be concerned about. You and I, we have our eyes open about that, even if we’re taking it in very different directions.”
“Are we?” I asked. “Aren’t you giving this hero thing an honest shot?”
“I am. It’s not going to work out, but I’ll be here until the end.”
“You sound pretty sure about the fact that it’s going to go south.”
She tipped back her water bottle, finishing it off, and without even lowering the bottle from her mouth, used her power. Shorter than her prior uses, abrupt. It made its usual cacophony of noise, my ears ringing faintly in its wake, and it pushed her hair up and back, so it took a second to fall back into place.
She caught her balance, taking a second before she stood straight again. Then she looked at me with eyes that had no pupils, no irises, only the white, and only the dark makeup to draw out the eyelashes. Slowly, her pupils faded back in.
All to dispose of a water bottle, apparently, or to make a point.
“I’m not even the most fucked up person on this team, Victoria,” she said. “I might not even be in the top two. Our therapist knows, and that’s why she was concerned enough to reach out to you. They, the really fucked up ones, they probably know. But I know it too, which makes me pretty certain.”
“Yet you’re still here,” I said.
“So are you.”
“I’m cursed with an impulse to help people,” I said.
“It’s an epidemic,” she said.
“Guess so,” I said. I used my flight, my feet rising an inch or two off the ground. “I think I’m going to take off.”
She gave me a small salute, her expression dispassionate.
I didn’t want to give the impression I was running, so I asked, “See you in a couple of days, then?”
I flew skyward, at the speed and angle that made even my stomach do that overly light flip-flop at the distance between myself and solid earth. I came to a stop when I couldn’t see the library anymore.
I didn’t fly home. I had too many thoughts in my head, and after seeing the others, seeing personalities and outbursts from Tristan’s comments for Byron to Ashley’s more dire threats, the powers, the secrets that were being kept or barely suppressed…
I remained in the air, the ground a blur beneath me, the clouds not all that far above me. The city was painted in its golds, its concrete and pavement with yellow paint, its grassy patches, its fields of wheat and corn.
Just me up here, the wind in my ears.
I believed Ashley. It wasn’t that she was honest, she wasn’t. She bluffed and she bluffed often. I suspected the bluffs were because she’d been telling me the truth when she’d remarked on the common thread between us: we’d seen some of the worst the world had to offer and we had reason to be afraid.
I believed her when she said there were people on the team who she saw as more ‘messed up’ than herself. I had my suspicions about who.
Something was up with Chris. Mentally and emotionally he was compromised. Physically, compromised. Socially, in terms of where he fit into the world, again, he was compromised. He’d almost revealed the least of himself of anyone present.
Rain was another issue.
The team supported and insulated its members, they protected one another from the interlopers and the outside stresses. There were times and places that could be good, but I could just as easily see things go in a direction where outsiders weren’t sufficiently protected from the group, while the group carried on like this.
My job, in a way.
I’d keep an eye on all of them, of course. Kenzie could be a danger, and I could see even Sveta going to a bad place, however much I liked her. Tristan was strong, and he spent half of his life locked away in a lightless, motionless prison, only a window that looked out through his brother’s eyes and listened through his brother’s ears. It would be so easy for him to go off the deep end. Ashley was unpredictable and dangerous, pure and simple.
Chris I could only keep an eye on. Rain-
I didn’t fly back to Crystal’s.
I flew to the train station, and I held a position where I couldn’t make out the people, but I could make out the train.
I was paranoid, and too many things today had prodded at my paranoia. There were many I was helpless to do much about, but I could act on these suspicions.
A train came, traveling west-to-east. I knew Sveta and Tristan would be boarding it. Had I been on foot, it was the one I would have caught.
When the other train came, traveling the opposite direction, I followed it. I had a pit in my stomach, doing it, but I had a gut feeling that this was part of why Jessica had reached out to me, and why she had been relieved that I was keeping an eye on things.
Yes, they knew things about each other. But they kept secrets. There were evasions, walls that were thrown up.
I just didn’t understand what Rain was doing. To have a hit out on his head and reject an escort, holding firm to that rejection even after having the danger driven home?
“What’s going on, Rain?” I asked. Where I was, suspended in the sky, wind rushing past me, there was nobody to hear.
I was prepared to follow him to Greenwich. It was a lengthy trip, and it left me to think about grabbing dinner, possibly on the trip back. I tempted myself with thoughts of a burger or a good souvlaki roll. Something warm, as I thought on it. This high up, there was no heat radiating up off the ground or nearby surfaces, less sunlight bouncing around with light energy dissipating and becoming heat, and the steady wind flowed past me to swipe the warmth that my body put out. As stakeouts went, this was liable to be cold, and I’d have to figure out something for bathroom breaks.
As self-imposed missions went, it wasn’t just hard for me to justify doing this, it was a pretty rough experience. The mind-numbing dullness of a sit-and-watch stakeout combined with the hypnotic nature of a long-distance drive. Drivers, at least, had to watch the road and be mindful of other drivers. I had nothing to help keep my thoughts centered.
From Stratford to Bridgeport. I had my binoculars out, and I watched for trouble, studying the people boarding the train.
The train carried on its way, traveling from the Bridgeport neighborhood to Fairfield span, past the community center that had been attacked at Norfair, and then onward to Norwalk station. Kenzie’s neighborhood.
There were stops where only a pair of people left, stops where only a few got on, and Norwalk, unfortunately, was one of the major stations. I couldn’t track everyone that boarded.
My thoughts were preoccupied, thinking about what I was doing, my doubts, my frustration that I couldn’t effectively watch out for trouble while doing this the way I was doing it. It was too easy for someone with powers to board the train and go after Rain while uncostumed. Was it likely? No. But I wanted to justify what I was doing.
There was a chance, though, that when Rain got off the train, he would be followed by fellow passengers until he was in a place where he could be attacked. I could watch out for that.
I could watch out for any unexpected stops, and I could keep an eye out for the old staples of railway robberies and ambushes – trains moved slowest when they went around corners, so I could keep an eye out for ambushes and unexpected boardings that took place in those locations.
With my thoughts caught up in things as they were, I nearly missed it.
The train was old-fashioned in look, cars linked by couplings, and passengers could move between cars, with the space between each car being open to the air. Periodically passengers would step out to smoke or get fresh air. Most were parents with kids.
At the caboose, a figure had stepped out onto the back. Rain.
He climbed over the railing and jumped, while the train was going well over a hundred miles an hour.
Hands out to his side, his bag in one hand, other empty, his feet touched the slope, and he stopped. No momentum, nothing to suggest he’d been on a speeding train a matter of seconds ago. The fact he stood on a slope didn’t seem to matter, as he didn’t slide, slip, or fall.
He looked around, but he didn’t look up, and I wasn’t sure he would have seen me if he had. He jogged down the slope, and walked across a field. Past the field was mostly wilderness and dirt road.
Rain walked for ten minutes to get where he was going. Erin had parked under a modest little bridge in a town with one gas station.
I didn’t feel good, watching them interact. I felt guilty for spying, even though his actions proved he was being dishonest. I watched Rain make conversation with his friend. Minutes, where he did most of the talking, pacing some, while Erin leaned against the side of the vehicle.
He must have asked something, because Erin shifted position, reaching through the window. A second later, she drew her hand out. She had a handgun.
It didn’t mean anything. This was justifiable, given his situation. Lying about where he lived and where he was going was justifiable. Even his friend carrying a gun made sense, when he was being hunted.
His story about how they met and where she came from… I wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel like I knew the whole of it.
If they’d traveled again, I might have watched to see where they went. If they’d gone to one of the smaller equivalents of Hollow Point, it might have told me something. If they met certain people, it might have proven out my suspicion.
They went to get ice cream in the dinky one gas-station town, and I couldn’t conscience staying to watch.
I flew home.
I let myself into Crystal’s apartment through the sliding balcony door.
“…ave site?” a male voice.
“Whenever I’m traveling in that direction,” Crystal said.
“That’s good to hear. I keep meaning to travel out that way, but…”
“It’s a universe away. I can go with you sometime, if you want.”
“That might be nice.”
I shut the balcony door. I could have closed it silently, but I didn’t.
Crystal, standing at one corner of the living room, had the door open, but she stood in between the door and doorframe in such a way that her body filled the gap. She twisted around to look at me, and I saw a forcefield start to be painted out.
“It’s okay,” I said.
The forcefield winked out.
“You sure?” she asked.
She opened the door wider. My dad was in the hallway, wearing a sleeveless top with a hood, in a very light fabric, and yoga pants of similar light weight. A gym bag sat on the floor by his feet.
“You’ve been flying,” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s good,” he said. “That’s really positive.”
“I guess,” I said. “How are you?”
“I’m noticing how empty my apartment feels, a lot. That’s not me trying to guilt you. It’s me realizing where I’ve wound up and wondering how I got myself here.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Do you want to invite him in?” Crystal asked. “I can fuck off if you need me to. Or you can take over door duty?”
“I wouldn’t ask you to fuck off in your own place. Are you getting tired of standing guard?” I asked.
“We can invite him in.”
My dad entered the apartment. “Sorry to drop in.”
“Is that what this is?”
“I worry, when you drop all communication. I thought I would at least ask Crystal if you were okay.”
“I see,” I said. I walked around behind the couch, putting it between myself and him, and leaned forward on the back of it.
He took a seat on the armrest of the armchair, one foot on the ground. “I want you to know that what happened at your mom’s house, I’m sorry about that. It wasn’t right.”
“I appreciate that. I… I wish I could tell you that I was sorry for how I reacted there. But I don’t know if I can.”
“I wouldn’t ask you to,” he said. “I think any and all of us should be understanding when it comes to old wounds.”
Old wounds, I thought.
Were they that old? Didn’t ‘old’ presume they’d healed over or that things had been addressed or mended somehow?
“I guess,” I said. “What mom did, I was pretty vocal about why I was upset about it. Did Crystal explain why I was bothered by what you did?”
“She deflected my question when I asked.”
“If you noticed it was a deflection,” Crystal said, “I need to work on my patter more.”
“Just a bit more,” my dad said, smiling slightly.
“Sorry to interrupt,” she said.
“It’s okay,” I said. I paused. “You realize, dad, the reason I felt betrayed wasn’t that I thought you were in on it or anything, right? I felt betrayed because you let yourself believe mom’s words more than you believed everything you saw in years of living with me, after visiting me in the asylum, after seeing how I function and how I don’t function.”
“I’m not going to try to defend myself,” he said. “You’re absolutely right. I let myself be stupid. I have a way of doing that when I’m around your mom.”
“I just don’t understand how you wouldn’t just stop and realize it doesn’t make sense. When you know about the nightmares and the fact I hadn’t flown in months, and the fact I don’t even want to talk about her, you’ll believe I’d be willing to meet her face to face and have a meal?”
“It’s not that clear cut. Your mother is a clever woman, to the point she can outsmart herself. She has good instincts when it comes to getting people on her side, too. I’ve been missing home, the past few years, and seeing the woman I still love being warm for the first time in…”
He trailed off.
“Since twenty-eleven,” I said.
“Yeah,” my dad said. “With food I’ve been aching for for just as long already cooking, the kitchen and barbecue rich with that smell. Things, like I said, that make me stupid.”
“What food was it?” I asked.
“Laser seared kebabs,” Crystal said.
I bit my lip. Family recipe. With my lip still between my teeth, I said, “Okay.”
“I’m not making excuses,” my dad said. “I should have clued in. When Amy turned up and I knew you were coming, it wasn’t framed like a reconciliation. It was framed as you knowing everyone was coming and you would have things to get off your chest. Carol said she would referee and I knew it would go poorly if it was just her, so I offered to help. While I was offering I wasn’t stopping to think.”
“Was a part of it you just wanting things to be normal again? The four person nuclear family back together?”
“Yes,” he said. “I’m not about to lie here. I- yeah. Yes.”
It hurt, hearing that. Knowing my dad and where he wanted to be were that far away from where I was and where I wanted to be.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I let my guard down when I should have had it up to protect you. I wanted you to hear that apology, and I wanted to make sure you were alright.”
“Crystal and I are looking after each other,” I said.
“Absolutely,” Crystal said.
“That’s great,” my dad said.
I rubbed my arm, wrist to shoulder. “I’m giving some limited direction to a team of heroes right now. It’s messy.”
“Any team is bound to be. It’s good that you’re doing that.”
“Messier than most,” I said. I paused. “Top one percent of messy.”
“Ah, I see,” my dad said. He rubbed his chin. It was late enough in the day that the stubble he usually had on his chin was more of a shadow. “The Dallon-Pelham family never does anything the easy way, does it?”
“No we don’t,” I said.
“Can I help?” he asked. “Advice, support? I don’t have a lot of money, but…”
“I’ve got the team outlined on my laptop. Six people, either under eighteen or in the vicinity of eighteen. One complicated case, age-wise. Um, this doesn’t leave this room, right?”
Nods from both Crystal and my dad.
“They’ll probably go covert. Gather and sell info. I think I can pitch that to the big teams and get the initial funding. I might be able to get costumes through them as well.”
“They have the infrastructure set up for costumes,” my dad said. “They’ve got most current members outfitted, and I’ve heard rumor of them branching out to supply other teams and heroes. I would be very surprised if they said it wasn’t doable.”
“Perfect,” I said. That helped if and when it came to negotiating. I held up my hand. “Funding, costumes, target… target is hard to pin down. A lot of low-level threats out there, banding together.”
“If you’re keeping an eye out for the criminal populations that aren’t joining larger groups, the places you want to keep an eye on are the Cabin, the Tea-Shop, the Pitstop, the Rail, and the Greens. Those last three places are pretty seedy and traditional villain bars. The others are villain bars without the bar part.”
“What about the ones who are hooked into bigger groups?” I asked.
“That gets more complicated, and it’s less about the places to watch and more about the names to keep an ear out for,” my dad said. “Marquis, Goddess, Lord of Loss, Mama Mathers, the Crowley brothers, Deader and Goner, Barrow.”
I knew the names and I knew where they were situated. No big surprises there. I nodded to myself. Marquis. So casually mentioned.
“How messy is it?” my dad asked, his voice softer.
“They’re young, some of them are kids, and I’m not positive they’re all going to survive the next two weeks,” I said. “And that’s not even- there’s enough other mess I could almost forget about that danger hanging over their heads.”
“You’ve taken them under your wing?”
“Yep. I’m going to at least point them in the right direction, I hope. I might be the wrong person for the job, but someone has to do it, right?”
“Wow,” my dad said, barely audible.
He shook his head. “It’s hard to articulate.”
“I’m trying to play this slow, keep it calm. I know a lot and I’ve been down some of these roads. I’m hopeful I can at least keep things from getting out of control.”
“That may be a tall order,” Crystal said.
“Maybe,” I said. “If they absolutely insist on getting out there and mixing things up, I’ll point them in the direction of the asshole villains who are ramping up their activity and taking things over. The nascent Tattletales and Marquises. Kneecap them or their plans before they can get too big.”
“You really are your mother’s daughter,” my dad said.
My eyebrows went about as high up as they could as I turned my full attention toward him.
“What you said before, and what you said just now. Those words could have come from her mouth in a different time and place.”
“This isn’t winning points with me,” I said.
“I’m not here to win points,” he said. “I want to make sure you’re safe, sane, and healthy.”
I noticed the implication of what he was saying. That taking this course might not be one of those three things.
“What should I be doing different?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t think any of it is wrong, but I haven’t always been the best judge in the moment. I’d say CYA.”
“On what front?” I asked.
“Do you have counsel on call?”
“I wasn’t aware we even had a legal system yet.”
“We don’t, but it’s coming soon.”
Counsel on call. It was common for new teams of heroes to have a lawyer available, who they could call and outline the situation to before they took action. Covering their asses, making sure the arrests could stick, that there was a voice with the authority and knowledge to talk to the police and courts if and when the heroes’ actions were questioned in more depth.
It wasn’t a bad idea. It hobbled things, slowed them down, it was a bit of a headache… but having a lawyer as a hoop to jump through could restrain some of the more impulsive parts of the team. I’d have to run it by them, but it made sense.
“I could ask around,” my dad offered. “But if you really wanted a good perspective on who you could talk to, there are better people to ask.”
“You mean mom,” I said.
My dad nodded.
“Yeah,” I said. I clenched my fist and relaxed it. “I’ll talk to her.”
“You really want this.”
I thought of the team when it had been operating together, playing off one another, being good at what they did. I thought of Tattletale and her version of my hometown and how much I really wanted her and people like her to lose every reason they had to be smug and confident.
I wanted to bring those two ideas together into a concrete reality, and I wanted it badly enough I was willing to go have a conversation with my mom when I was really fucking pissed at her.
If it meant wrangling this team that was going to do what they were doing whether I was involved or not, I’d do that.
“I feel like whatever I say, you’re going to say I’m just like mom again, and then I’m going to be mad at you,” I said.
“Can’t have that,” my dad said.
“Putting all of that stuff aside,” I said. “If I walked away, if I left it alone, I’m scared of what would happen to people who didn’t deserve it. I can’t do that. I don’t know if that’s the Carol in me talking, but it’s the truth.”
My dad nodded to himself. “That’s not your mom talking, I’m pretty sure. Similar, but… not your mom.”
He didn’t even need to say it. The moment I’d seen the look on his face as he’d opened his mouth, I’d realized who I’d been echoing.