I watched over the group.
We were getting settled in. Tables were moved, whiteboards arranged, and chairs put together. It was starting to look more like a hideout. Sveta was doing her name in a fancy script on her board, Kenzie was doing homework, and I had plugged my laptop in, with my notes up, but it wasn’t my focus in the moment.
Byron had taken his turn. Two hours and fifteen minutes after we’d parted ways, Tristan was back at the hideout. He’d taken off his black jacket and folded it over the back of a chair, and was doing some of the setup stuff, while wearing a red t-shirt, jeans, and chukka boots. He was athletic, and I remembered Byron hadn’t given me that impression when I’d seen him.
“Hey Tristan,” I said.
He’d moved over to his whiteboard, and stepped back and away to look my way.
“Hey, what do you think?” he asked. He extended a hand, indicating his work: he had sketched out a rough floor plan of the room. The area was an open-concept apartment, a bathroom closed off, the rest of it without walls, which gave us our room to maneuver, and it looked like Tristan was trying to figure out where the other things we needed might go. A list of bullet points said ‘cot’, ‘mini fridge’, and ‘team sign’.
I frowned a bit as I saw that last one.
“Team sign?” I asked.
“Sure. I figured it would be good for morale. We could have Sveta paint it and put it up on the wall. Something nice to remind ourselves that we’re a team.”
“I could paint something,” Sveta said, looking away from her work. “I’m kind of anxious to have a name, and we’d have to decide that first.”
“That could be neat,” I said. “My take on reading that was that you wanted to hang the sign outside.”
Tristan smiled. “Something nice and big, colorful, with a by-line saying something about how we’re a covert team of heroes.”
“I wasn’t sure,” I said.
“Believe it or not, I’m not a dumb guy,” he said. “Stubborn, maybe-”
“Definitely,” Kenzie called out, sitting at her desk. She was leaning over her homework.
“Most definitely,” Sveta said.
“Fine. But I’m not dumb. I’m thinking about the things we need to get in terms of things we can fold up or pack away, since we may be moving a lot. We can fold up the cot, I can carry a mini fridge, these tables have legs that can fold up to the underside, and for the sign, I was picturing getting three separate canvases and having us put them up there so it connects or lines up.”
“Could work,” I said.
“Three part name?” Sveta asked.
“No idea,” Tristan said. “Sorry, Vic, you were going to say something?”
“I was going to ask if you train, or if the extra strength is from the powers. Biokinesis or whichever.”
“I train,” Tristan said. “I was just thinking of setting up a punching bag or something, actually.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I usually end up with restless energy to burn. I lift, I run on the treadmill, and I had a class I took with Reach, but obviously it’s been a while. Works with my enhanced strength.”
“So it does help, then.”
“You look like you do something,” Tristan said.
“I do,” I said. “Or I did. I don’t have access to my dad’s equipment or the stuff I had while helping out with the Patrol Block.”
“Does it help? Powerwise?”
I shook my head. “Forcefield derived strength. I’m strong enough to tear apart an engine block with my hands. That wouldn’t change if I didn’t get off the couch and weighed three hundred pounds or if I was a bodybuilder.”
“Why bother if you can tear apart engine blocks?” Tristan asked.
“Why do I walk when I could fly? I’d atrophy, for one thing, and I can’t always use my strength. I don’t have the control to do something more delicate. I- I honestly don’t trust my power, a lot of the time.”
Sveta came to stand beside me, to get a look at Tristan’s idea of a finished floor plan and join the conversation.
“…There’s a middle ground, and I’d like to be able to function in it,” I finished.
“It’s kind of where I’m at,” Sveta said. “Except I’m not trying to find a middle ground between one hundred miles an hour and a standstill. I’m using this body to bring myself to a point five percent of the way between zero and a thousand miles an hour.”
“Vroom,” Kenzie said, without turning to look at us.
She’d been just a little subdued.
“And it doesn’t change, then. It is what it is?” Tristan asked. “For both of you, I guess?”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “Or- I don’t know, but I’m strong enough. I’m not going to go try to figure out what I can do to make these things stronger.”
As Tristan glanced at me, I made a rectangle with my fingers. “It’s complicated. It fluctuates. I could name some terms and things that apply there, but I don’t want to bore you.”
“I’ve been bored enough times. I know a lot of the terms. Sechen ranges?”
“That’s one of them. Powers often get stronger with certain influencing factors. You read up on that?”
“We did a ton of testing with Reach, and we saw a lot of parahuman science people while we were trying to figure out a solution. They think it’s a straight multiplier. I have one point three to one point six times the strength and overall fitness.”
“Handy,” I said. “And Byron?”
“A bit of resistance to temperature extremes. He gets a higher percent, he’d probably remember his specific numbers better than I do, but unless it’s winter or we’re dealing with a heat wave, it doesn’t apply as often.”
“On the note of Byron… the second part to my question is, how does the exercise thing work for Byron? Because exercise is monotonous enough when you’re getting something out of it.”
“He commented on that a while ago, actually. We negotiated something. He made a short list of movies, and I watch his movies while I work out. Similar thing with the trips here and back. I sometimes give him extra time, especially if I have something to think about, which is most times these days.”
“That sounds pretty good.”
“Wasn’t always good,” Tristan said. “Moonsong had some things right, back at the Wardens’ place. I wasn’t always good at being fair. It went the other way, Byron-”
Tristan stopped there.
“I won’t finish that thought. Byron is Byron, and I’m me, and I’ve got to own my shit without comparing. I wasn’t always good at being fair,” Tristan said. “I’m good at a lot of things. I can kick ass and look pretty great while doing it, I’m tenacious, I tend to finish what I set my mind to. But fair is hard.”
“It is,” I said.
“It’s hard enough figuring out how to be fair to ourselves,” Sveta said.
“Too true,” I said. I glanced over at Kenzie.
“Punching bag?” Tristan asked. He pointed at the corner, next to Chris’ whiteboard. “I don’t need to do anything special for you guys?”
“Regular punching bag for me,” I said. “I’ll use it. It’s going to be a chore to move if we change locations, though.”
“Noted,” Tristan said. “Maybe we should all get one pain-in-the-ass contribution to the hideout and this can be mine.”
“I’ve already got mine,” Kenzie said, from the other end of the room. She kicked her box and the images projected on the wall changed.
“Bag’s good,” I said, as I started walking over. “No objection.”
I approached Kenzie. The image was projected onto the wall in front of her, moving between the two cameras. An addition had been made, and as each person walked down the street, stylized crosshairs tracked their faces. Most had logos and names. A lot of them were just things in the vein of ‘[New31]’ with the number changing, not names.
One of the cameras moved. It focused in on a scene where two people wearing aprons were smoking by the back stairs of a restaurant. The little space between four buildings didn’t really qualify as an alley, as it looked like back doors and fire escapes were the only way to get down to the area. An enclave, maybe. The camera moved until it tracked a person in costume. The guy’s mask looked like it covered all but a third of his face, the bottom right of his jaw and the top left of his forehead exposed, with ceramic shards framing each ‘hole’. Curved metal bars reminiscent of piping extended around to the back of his head, holding the mask in place.
The camera seemed to recognize the mask, and labeled him as ‘[Kitchen Sink]’. We’d seen him before, but the label thing was new.
Off to the side, as part of a sidebar with data and labels, there were a series of countdown timers.
HT & Team: 8:21
Ashley Train to Station: 0:45
Average Ash Walk Time: 4:10
When I stood behind Kenzie’s chair, I saw that even with a dozen workbooks and pieces of homework strewn in front of her, she wasn’t doing her schoolwork. She had a projected image in front of her, drawn out in three dimensions, with the same image drawn on a paper in front of her in marker. The lines of the three dimensional image looked similar to a marker’s. With gestures and prods of a pen, Kenzie adjusted the particulars.
“What do you think?” she asked. She used her hands, gesturing, and made it bigger. Turning around in her chair, bringing the drawn object with her, she moved her hands and superimposed the image over her head.
A mask, or a helmet. Eyeless, in a way, with a flat pane extending from the eyes, over her nose, down to a pointed chin. Three round lenses were placed along the line of her eyebrows, one round lens was on each cheekbone, and she had two spherical attachments, much like the buns she tended to wear her hair in. Probably intended to fit over the buns.
“I like it better than the one you wore for the training exercise,” I said. “It does make me think of a spider, with all of the eyes.”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“I don’t think you make me think ‘spider’ at all. It’s a bit too inhuman. What if… can I draw? I don’t want to ruin your drawing.”
“Go ahead. Use my pen. Squint one eye when you want it to draw.”
The countdown timers marked Ashley’s departure from the train. The ‘walk time’ timer was highlighted and started counting down.
I tried my hand at drawing little triangles at the side of each of the round lenses. A tiny triangle to represent eyelashes.
“Oh, cute!” Kenzie said. “Can you draw a second, smaller one? And leave off the eyelashes on the cheekbones, because I’m doing something different there, and-”
“Here,” I said. I passed her the pen.
She began to change things, keeping all but two of the eyelashes I’d drawn.
Someone labeled ‘[Joe]’ walked down the street, a bag slung over his shoulder. He entered the same bar I’d encountered Moose outside of. The one where Snag and Love Lost had gone inside.
I looked at some of the other names.
“Fifi?” I asked.
“Huh?” Kenzie asked. She looked up, and I pointed at a blonde girl with hair that looked like she’d just about destroyed it with bleaching. Frizzed out to the point I doubted she could get a comb through it. She’d resorted to using a headband and hair tie to try to get it in order. The headband and hair tie didn’t match her outfit.
“Oh. She looked like a Fifi. I named some of the ones I see a lot.”
“She does look vaguely poodle-ish, and Fifi seems like a poodle name to me.”
“Exactly,” Kenzie said, with satisfaction. She returned to writing down something that looked like code and formula, periodically poking her pen at her projected image of her mask.
I looked at ‘Fifi’. “Poor her. When I was a little younger than you are now, I tried dying my hair to be like my cousin, and it went badly. I was so inconsolable.”
“What happened after?” Kenzie asked.
“My mom hired a professional to get me back to normal, and it was mostly fixed. We bought some products to keep my hair from ending up like that after. I can’t imagine the professional or the products were cheap, and we were pretty tight on cash back then. She knew it was important to me.”
My heart hurt a little, thinking of that.
“That’s the way it should be,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah,” I said.
She turned my way, putting on the projected helmet so it was superimposed over her head. When she took her hands away and moved her head, the helmet moved with her head.
Now, though, the eyes of the mask widened and closed, as camera-like shutters closed around the edges. The eyelashes moved up and down a little, and shutters moved in lopsided ways, with only some of the shutters closing. Coming down from the top, curved forward, angry. Coming in from the bottom.
“Are you changing your expression?”
“Yes! It worked. Awesome. Okay, and let’s try this.”
Her eyelashes moved, until one was pointing straight up, one was pointing straight down. The eyes all briefly turned white.
“I think that worked. White eyes and… targeting mode?”
“Not targeting mode. I could build something like the flash gun into it. I can strike a pose and do the eye thing, like they’re crosshairs, and flash. There’d probably only be room for one shot. Okay, colors-”
She tapped her pen on her desk. The mask changed from shades of gray to pink and sky blue. I winced, and she immediately changed to the next. Seafoam green and black. Through each change, the circles at her cheekbones remained a slightly different shade, more muted.
“Something less garish, maybe?” I asked. “That one looks a little villainous. Cute, but villainous.”
She tapped her pen a few times, then made a mark on the paper.
Lemon-lime and dark gray, with green-gray circles for the cheekbones.
“Ooh, I know a thing. I can do a thing.”
She turned, and she started scribbling. She seemed energized.
But as she turned, the image at one of her cheekbones broke up, becoming transparent, like a few squares had been cut out of the image. It flickered as I moved my head to view it at another angle.
“You’ve got a distortion,” I said. I pointed.
“Silly me,” she said.
The entire helmet disappeared.
“Something similar happened when your picture was taken at the Warden’s HQ,” I said.
“You’re wearing a projection?”
“Not really,” she said. She scribbled. “I’m wearing tech, and it conflicts with stuff so it can be hard to coordinate. I wouldn’t call it wearing.”
“Wearing makes me think full-body, or covering my head and I mean, I had that costume thing for the training, and that didn’t last that long. How could or would I wear something else and have it last all day or whatever? I mean, I wish I could.”
“I wish I could,” I said. I didn’t want to press or be harsh, but I didn’t want to let this lie either. I went easy, instead. “I’m slightly concerned if you’re using projections like that.”
“I’m not that devious,” Kenzie said. “I wouldn’t bring something and pretend to have a short battery life so I can hide that I have a longer battery life for something else I’m secretly using. That’s not what I do and that’s not how I am.”
“I know,” I said. “I don’t get the impression you’re devious or that you’d go to those lengths.”
Kenzie looked up at the clock.
Average Ash Walk Time: -1:13
“She’ll turn up,” I said.
“I know. I just want her here before Houndstooth calls,” Kenzie said. “One second.”
She kicked the cube. It went dark, and the camera image dropped away.
“Victoria!” Tristan called me from the far end of the room.
“Can we use your computer?”
Tristan and Sveta gathered together at my computer, Tristan’s hands at the keyboard.
“The tech you’re wearing. The distortions. I want to make sure you’re taking care of yourself. That you don’t have dark circles under your eyes, or bruises, or anything like that.”
She turned her head to look at me over her shoulder and smiled. “It’s off. I turned my tech off to synchronize everything across all fields. This is me.”
She showed me her phone, where the progress bar was filling up.
“Gotcha,” I said.
“I know Houndstooth said stuff. I think he said it in a caring way because he’s one of the best guys out there. True blue hero, like Weld. Like you.”
I was reminded of how I’d handled Presley on the train. I’d recognized how she’d needed me to be more than human, because she idolized me, she’d seen me as something to reach for.
I wondered if Kenzie wanted me to be the same thing.
“I don’t know if I am. I’m pretty angry about things. I’m… really concerned about a lot of things. Negative emotions drive an awful lot of what I do.”
The lock on the door clicked. Ashley let herself in, then locked it behind her. She smiled at Kenzie and me, then gave the other two a small salute.
Kenzie had visibly brightened at Ashley’s appearance.
“The things you do are good,” Kenzie said. “At least as far as I’ve seen and researched.”
She researched me.
“And I think that’s what counts,” Kenzie said.
“If Houndstooth sat you down to tell you about me and he didn’t say I’m bad at nuance, he screwed up,” Kenzie said. “And he doesn’t screw up.”
The projector box lit up, and the video image popped back up. Kenzie’s phone changed from the progress bar, and her helmet reappeared, floating just over the paper where it had been drawn.
“Roughly one minute until Houndstooth!” Kenzie reported.
“Got it,” Tristan said.
Ashley approached, standing by Kenzie’s chair, and laid a hand on Kenzie’s left shoulder.
“You good?” I asked.
“Working hands. No pain. We’re still working with this cretin?”
“Cretin?” Kenzie asked.
“Houndstooth,” Ashley said. “He didn’t impress me.”
“Okay, wow. Let me start by saying you impress me,” Kenzie said, looking up at Ashley. “I love those videos you’re in, and I loved seeing you train. You’re awesome. And you’re totally, one hundred percent wrong, this once. Because Houndstooth is awesome and impressive too.”
“Houndstooth’s concerns seemed to come from a well-intentioned, good place,” I said, interjecting. Kenzie’s head whipped around to look at me over her other shoulder. I added, “And despite that, he seemed to come to some extreme conclusions. There’s nuance, between where you’re coming from and where you end up. Like we were just talking about.”
“When I called him a cretin I was being gentle. He’s a disgusting, disappointing, subnormal excuse for a hero, cape, or human being.”
“I will fight you over this,” Kenzie said.
“I will go to war with you. Houndstooth was one of the coolest people to me at one of my uncoolest times.”
Tristan and Sveta had noticed things were a little hairy and were approaching at a jog. I interjected, saying, “We might want to drop this. Let the topic lie.”
“No,” Kenzie said. “Not if she’s going to say anything more like what she just said.”
“He talked about you like you were nothing more than a problem.”
“I am a problem!” Kenzie said, raising her voice.
“Easy,” I said. Tristan and Sveta joined us.
“I’m a problem,” Kenzie said, quieter. “I was.”
“You’re more than the problem,” Ashley said. “That waste of space didn’t-”
“Do you want to go to war?” Kenzie asked, rising out of her seat. “I can build an army of camera drones. I have advantage in the air. I have battlefield awareness. And I’ll fight you on this until you explode me all over the place or you say you’re wrong about him. Don’t say bad things about him. Not when he’s someone that counts. Not when you’re someone that counts. Okay?”
Sveta reached out and pushed Kenzie back down into her seat. Tristan was closer to Ashley, facing her, ready to get between the two.
“Kenzie,” Sveta said. “Ashley’s coming from a good place here.”
“I know that,” Kenzie said. “I also know that Houndstooth is.”
“You’re better than he makes you out to be. You can’t put so much faith in the words of someone who so clearly knows so little,” Ashley said.
Kenzie shook her head, smiling like she couldn’t believe the conversation she was a part of.
“He’s weak, and he’s a loser. He’s the lowest of the low.”
The phone trilled with a rising series of beeps. The projected image on the screen showed the person calling: Houndstooth.
Kenzie leaped forward, swatting aside Sveta’s hand and dodging mine. She grabbed the front of Ashley’s top, and hauled it down, making Ashley bend down.
Ashley’s hand moved, and Tristan grabbed her wrist, stopping it from going wherever it was going to go. He grabbed Kenzie with the other hand, ready to pull her away if need be.
“Woah,” Tristan said.
I moved closer, putting my hands on Kenzie’s shoulders, freeing Tristan to focus more on Ashley.
So small. Her shoulders were narrow.
Kenzie raised her free hand, and pressed it against Ashley’s mouth, so her fingers were on either side of Ashley’s nose. Had her fingers been longer, the tips and nails might have been near Ashley’s eyes.
“Don’t say anything,” Kenzie said.
The phone trilled its beeps again.
“Please don’t say anything. Please.”
There was a pause, silence.
The phone spat out its series of beeps.
“Please let this go okay,” Kenzie said. “That will do more than anything.”
The silence hung. The phone could only ring so many times.
Kenzie started to smile, and the smile faltered. “Please? I’ll do anything.”
Ashley straightened, pulling away from Kenzie’s hands. She turned away, folding her arms.
The rest of us relaxed. Kenzie, too, turned away, stepping away from my hands. She grabbed the phone off the table and tossed it to Tristan.
The phone was mid-ring when Tristan answered.
“Sorry about the delay. Capricorn here. Four of the six members of the team are here, and our coach is here too,” Tristan said. He backed up a few steps, until Ashley was in front of him, facing him. “I think we’re going to put you on speakerphone if that’s okay.”
Ashley nodded once.
“Great,” Tristan said. A response for both Houndstooth and Ashley, it seemed.
Kenzie hit a key.
“Hello again,” Houndstooth said. “I’ve got my team here, and we’re north of Cedar Point. We’re getting sorted out, costumes already on, but there’s other stuff to do. Minions to summon, ammo to load. I’m really hoping that none of it is needed.”
“Same here,” Tristan said. “We’ve been keeping an eye on things and I think it’s pretty quiet right now.”
I raised my hand a bit to signal I was going to speak, then stepped forward a bit. “Victoria here. I think there are three villains-”
Kenzie’s hand went up, four fingers extended.
“Four villains out and about around the city. A few left on a road trip earlier in the afternoon. There are also a couple you’ll want to be aware of.”
“Anything you can give us is great.”
Kenzie hit a key. The camera moved to Kitchen Sink, with his ceramic mask.
“Kitchen Sink. He’s the closest to you, big, minor brute aspect, but his thing is he acts as a blaster. Long and sustained series of junk being thrown at high velocities. Everything but the kitchen sink, as the saying goes.”
“That’s so bad a schtick it’s great,” a voice on the line said. One of Houndstooth’s subordinates, feminine-sounding.
“He’s in the company of Hookline. Minor mover, has a hundred-foot long cable he telekinetically controls. It can’t be broken or damaged, short of some very select powers, and it will shake off or slip free of a lot of things that would snag or impede another weapon. Frost, hands that try to grab it. So don’t try. It moves faster and acts like a whip, so be super careful if a fight happens. There’s a hook on the end, and he’s most dangerous if you’re at or just inside that hundred foot limit of his range where the hook is flying around. Which brings me to my next point.”
“They’re willing to hurt people?” Houndstooth asked.
“Kitchen Sink and Hookline are. They’re part of one clique in Cedar Point that’s more violent than the others. Aggressive, violent, even borderline bloody. They might be acting as enforcers for others.”
“Breaking kneecaps,” Tristan said.
“Got it,” Houndstooth said.
“Hookline and Sink,” the feminine voice said. “Oh my god.”
“Moose seems to be going around between groups, passing on messages or checking on things. Strong brute, something to do with shockwaves. He hits hard, he moves a lot faster than you’d expect from someone that big, and he has decent combat sense. I wish we could give you more information on him, but all I know is from a brief scrap with him.”
“You said the other two might pick a fight. What about this guy?”
“Low odds the other two pick a fight without checking with the leadership, but if someone was to pick a fight, it’d be people from their group. Moose would sooner negotiate or look to talk than fight, and he’d only really fight if he thought he needed to or if he was certain he could win. I think your worry is going to be having something in mind to tell Moose that passes the sniff test.”
“We’re curious what’s going on, the Hill is a mess, and we’re wondering if these are greener pastures than Greenwich.”
Tristan said, “If others are going to show interest, we want to drop a hint. Something that makes them wonder. You could mention sponsorship and a reshuffling of jurisdictions.”
“There’s talk of war,” Sveta interjected. “I know someone who’s having to spend time away, and they’re bringing people in from other teams to fill holes.”
“I heard about that,” Houndstooth said.
“You could use that. It happened with villain communities in the past. A void appears, villains rush to fill it, there’s upheaval, and then things settle.”
She looked at me as she said that last bit.
I’d said something like that at the group therapy meeting, hadn’t I?
“If Moose challenges us, I’ll say something like that.”
“There’s also a woman that’s collecting protection money right now. Bluestocking. From the brainiac clique.”
“These guys are so lame, I love it,” Houndstooth’s subordinate said.
“There’s something to keep in mind,” I said. “These guys congregated here. If something happens, and I don’t know if Moose would let it unless you forced the issue, then you’ll have a lot more in your hair. They’re banding together and as lame as any individual might be, they’re finding a lot of people who match up with them. Thematically or in style.”
“We’re seeing that more in general,” Houndstooth said. “Lots of capes condensed into a relatively tight geographic area.”
“You’re going to see it in effect here. Two clairvoyants are keeping an eye on the area. One of them is a clairaudient, so they’ll have an ear on the area too. I could go into detail, but I think it’s better and easier to just say that once you enter Cedar Point they’re going to be fully aware of everything you say or do. Be careful what you say, and be aware we can’t communicate with you unless it’s an emergency.”
“That also means no mockery or jokes,” Houndstooth said, his voice quieter, like he didn’t have his mouth near the phone. “And as far as we’re concerned, your team doesn’t exist.”
“It would mean a ton if you could be especially careful about that,” Tristan said.
“We’ll be careful,” Houndstooth said. “I trust my guys. Give us a couple of minutes, and we’ll move through, make our faces known. I want to plan what we do if we run into the guys you talked about.”
“Call us again when it’s time,” Tristan said.
“Will do. I like this a lot, good briefing, great intelligence. This is great stuff, guys.”
The call ended.
Tristan huffed out a breath, glancing at Ashley.
“Great stuff, and he likes it,” Kenzie said, quiet. Her legs kicked, just barely scuffing the plastic rim that the wheels of the computer chair stuck down from. “Now I get to see Houndstooth on camera. Wooo.”
Her voice was so quiet it might have sounded unenthusiastic, but the speed her legs kicked at doubled with that last utterance.
“We should get people out there in case things go bad and we need to extract,” Tristan said.
“I can fly out,” I said.
“I’ll go,” Sveta said.
“I can be there in ten minutes if I need to be, maybe as few as five,” Tristan said. “I’ll hold down the fort here until then. Ashley- I’d rather keep you in reserve. If everything falls to pieces, we’ll bring you in to great effect.”
She nodded, and then she walked away, approaching the empty whiteboard that was supposed to be hers. Some of her things were in a bag at the base of the board.
Sveta and I stepped out, and I used my flight to lift up off the fire escape.
“I’m worried about them,” Sveta said. “And I wish there was a flagpole or tree close by I could grab.”
“I can help a bit with that last part,” I said. I rose up and away, then extended a hand.
She shot her hand and arm at me, and I caught it. She pulled herself my way, not at her fastest, but fast enough I felt my heart jump in my chest.
I flew back and away, as she hauled herself in, and matched her general direction. It made for a tiny bit more slack.
She let go of me, and she pulled herself to a tree. From there, she moved to a roof.
Like a frog’s tongue, snapping out, seizing something. But the frog went to the fly, rather than the other way around. To the branch, to the railing, to the fence, then to the chimney.
She was faster than me for short distances, and only a bit slower for the sustained movement. We didn’t have far to go, so she did pretty well at getting ahead of me. Only the escape from the fire escape had slowed her down.
“Hold up,” I called out, as she started to move northward. “Here’s good.”
We parked ourselves near where I’d been the day prior, on a rooftop with the water separating us and Cedar Point.
“I’m glad it’s you and me,” she said.
I bumped her shoulder with mine.
The phone rang. I pulled it from my pocket, connected my earbuds, and put one bud in my ear, one in Sveta’s.
“One camera on H.T., one in Moose’s general vicinity,” Kenzie announced. “The valiant H.T. is leading his team in. Five of them.”
I touched the button on the screen to mute my end of the conversation, so we’d only hear, not say anything.
“We tried to get ahold of Rain and we couldn’t. I’m worried,” Sveta said. “I know he’s impossible to get ahold of when he’s with his family, they’re off the grid but I don’t know.”
The phone flicked between a view of Houndstooth and the villains.
“Today’s the third time Chris chose the optimism-indulgence route in five days, I think.”
“What do you mean? He’s not balancing it out?”
“I asked what he was doing to balance it out and he said I should mind my own business.”
I could see the thread of what Sveta was getting at.
“You’re worried about things as a whole.”
“Aren’t you?” she asked.
Except maybe worry was the wrong word. It implied hand-wringing. Sweating, nervousness.
It wasn’t that I was afraid or that it was worse than worry, either. I was becoming far more aware of the problems, for things as a whole.
“What the mother-loving hell?” Moose’s voice came through the earbuds. It sounded weird, captured by cameras at a great distance, sent to Kenzie, sent to us, passed through the earbuds. He’d just received the news. The video on the phone showed him sending people away on errands. Fetching others.
“We have movement,” Tristan said. “They’re getting organized.”
We watched. I carried on with my conversation with Sveta. “Ashley has had a couple of serious episodes that I’ve seen now. Many lesser episodes, too.”
“There’s a big part of me that was waiting for the other shoes to drop and that part of me feels… not worse, now that those shoes have dropped,” I said.
“I don’t feel not worse.”
“I can see flashes and hints of what you’re trying to bring out in Ashley,” I admitted. “She’s not someone I would have spent time with, in another context. I don’t know how to handle things when she casually mentions her capacity to murder people, as if it’s a way to win an argument.”
“The threats are usually empty,” Sveta said. “That’s a plus.”
“I want to figure this out,” I said. “I want to help. It’s like Kenzie is a distillation of every vulnerable person I’ve ever tried to help, and Ashley is a distillation of every really fascinating branding exercise where you take a random villain and try to paint them as a hero and even bring out the hero inside them. Tristan and Byron are this really fascinating problem with powers and I’m a power geek and I really wonder if there’s a solution. ”
“How do you parse Rain?” Sveta asked quiet.
“I mean-” I stopped. “I’m doing exactly what Ashley got so angry at Houndstooth for doing. I’m reducing people down to conveniently sized problems. I get that, you know? They aren’t just that. Kenzie is really complex and intelligent, she’s clearly been through a lot, and I one hundred percent believe Houndstooth when he says she’s good hearted. The fact that she clearly adores Ashley and she fought her that hard on things to stand up for someone else she holds close to her heart? That’s amazing. I could say similar things about Ashley, Tristan, Byron.”
Sveta nodded. “And me?”
“I’m so caught up in everything I…” I tried to find the words, and felt a pang. I tried to make sense of that feeling as I said, “I find myself missing you, even though you’re there.”
“I know. We should have talked like this sooner.”
“You’re doing amazing and my biggest fear with you is that I’m going to be an obstruction, not a help.”
“No, I can’t ever see that.”
“I worry. I don’t want to tamper with something that’s working.”
“I need help. I’m anxious, and there are things I need. Not from a teammate, but-”
“From a friend?” I asked.
She nodded, something in her rattling slightly with the movement.
“As one part of that, then, I really want to take you shopping, that needs addressing, because this-”
I touched her top. She was wearing a beige top with a blue anchor on the front. The top was in two pieces, knotted above the shoulder, with smaller bits knotted along her sides.
“This is cute, but I really want to see more sides of you.”
“I want you to take me shopping too,” she said.
I reached for her hand, and I gave it a waggle.
“I’m thinking about Rain a lot,” Sveta said.
“He has me worried. Not just because of the hit out on his head. But because he’s not telling the truth about everything. The lies make sense, it seems to make sense to hide things when in his situation. But I’m not getting to see that good side of him either. So for now, I want to help him. But my motivations are somewhat selfish. My hometown got wiped out by a seemingly insurmountable, inevitable, unstoppable force. We lost. I- I don’t think I ever fully came back from those losses.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“And now we have Rain being targeted by a seemingly insurmountable, inevitable, unstoppable force. I’m being selfish, but I want to help him and get a win this time around.”
“I don’t think that’s selfish.”
“My entire hero career before the hospital and the years leading up to that career were a fantasy or exercise in me having powers and being a hero, and I’m not sure I was ever heroic about it. I just see that past me as wholly motivated in selfishness, ego, pride, and a drive to be celebrated.”
“I don’t think it’s selfish,” Sveta said. “You’re not that. You’re here, doing this. You’re helping.”
“The ends justify the… possible justifications?” I asked. “I just had this conversation with Kenzie. I’m not sure it’s a good thing if I’m having it again.”
“It’s where your head and heart are at.”
I shrugged, looking at the video feed.
Moose and Prancer were meeting up. Prancer had two friends with him. On the other feed, the heroes were walking through the neighborhood. Talking to shop owners and residents. Sink and Hookline watched from the sidelines, Houndstooth’s subordinates hanging back and watching them in turn.
“Where are you at?” I asked.
“Weld has been telling me things about what’s going on elsewhere. Things he shouldn’t be telling me, but I think a lot of it is the kind of thing like a husband with a certain position might tell his wife, sometimes, even when those things are confidential.”
“Wife?” I asked. I raised an eyebrow.
“Shut up,” Sveta said, lifting her chin a bit, looking mock-affronted. “Not another word about that.”
“You’re the one who said the word.”
“Anyway,” Sveta said. “I can’t repeat those things, but I worry more than I used to. I get anxious. There’s a part of everyone else in the group in me, and when they struggle it feels like I’m struggling.”
“I can sort of relate to that.”
“I need people and I scare them away. Tristan told me what Houndstooth said. None of it’s too surprising. There are people who know a dangerous amount about me and I think they’d hurt me if they had a chance. I’m a killer. I’m constantly at war with another side of myself. I’m perpetually off balance and I don’t know if I’ll ever have that balance.”
“That kinship might be why you’re able to connect to the others.”
“Don’t say it. Don’t sound like Weld.”
“It’s true,” I said. “You’re the team’s mom.”
“Oh no,” Sveta said. “That’s so much worse than what I thought you were going to say. I thought you were going to call me the team’s heart, like Weld does. I can’t be a mother. No!”
I was about to respond, but Sveta reached up with a hand. Her prosthetic finger tapped the side of the phone.
Moose and Prancer. They’d wrangled three others. I didn’t recognize any of the three. Bluestocking was way off to the side, just barely in earshot. Almost half of Houndstooth’s group had turned around and were keeping an eye on Hookline and Kitchen Sink.
“What brings you here?” Prancer asked.
“Passing through,” Houndstooth said.
“To where? This is a peninsula. It’s why Hollow Point is a point.”
Houndstooth shrugged, radiating smug, a lack of concern.
“The Kings of the Hill. You’re a long way away from where you normally hang out.”
“Changing times. Some other people might be looking to take over the Hill.”
“That doesn’t explain why you’re here,” Prancer said.
“Maybe they want to be Kings of the Point,” Moose said.
“There’s nothing to be gained here,” Prancer said. “It’ll take you twice as long and five times as many fights to get half as far.”
Houndstooth laughed. One or two members of his group were almost simultaneous in laughing as well, but Houndstooth was louder, more confident, and probably the focus of the camera’s microphone, to boot.
The villains shifted their footing. There were no laughs. They didn’t seem impressed.
Houndstooth explained. “You’re aware you just described an uphill battle to a group called Kings of the Hill?”
“Then you should know all the better,” Prancer said. The force of the response was hampered a bit by the fact that Houndstooth’s group was chuckling again.
Points to Houndstooth, he was doing pretty well here. This wasn’t the first time I’d seen him interact with someone and not really have the presence or power to stand up to the people he was facing down.
“What a theme. The hunting hound, nipping at the fleeing deer’s heels,” Houndstooth said.
“If you’re going to nip, I’m going to gore,” Prancer said. “You’re not going to come out ahead in this.”
“Yeah?” Houndstooth asked. “Would you like to have a little skirmish right here? Your eight to our five. Or are you going to let us pass through?”
“You can’t pass through,” Prancer said, exasperated. “Its a peninsula. You can turn around and go back the way you came, though.”
Houndstooth chuckled. He put a hand on a teammate’s shoulder, and turned the guy around. The five members of his group turned to go.
“Faster response,” I said. I touched the button on the phone to unmute myself. “I’d like to keep a camera on Prancer’s group. I want to see their response.”
“That’s the plan,” Tristan’s voice came through.
A few seconds passed, as Houndstooth’s team headed back the way they’d come.
“I’m not a mom,” Sveta said.
“Okay,” I said.
There was conversation on the phone.
“I don’t want them in here,” Hookline said. “Fuck that.”
“We don’t know what they’re doing,” Prancer said. “It’s fine. Go easy.”
“They made a mockery of us.”
“They made a mockery of themselves,” Prancer said.
“I think you’re the only one that’s dwelling on the peninsula thing,” Velvet said.
“We’re fine,” Prancer said.
“Were they related to the blonde, Victoria?” Moose asked. “Pretty much the first thing I said to her was that she’d end up outnumbered and having to skedaddle. Someone hears that, they might call friends.”
“They’re still outnumbered,” Velvet pointed out.
Prancer replied, “I don’t know, Moose, but yes, we will always have the numbers advantage. For now I’m content to wait and see what happens. If they move in, we have the resources to answer them. Bluestocking? Can you tell Bitter Pill I want to talk to her about her team? I want to keep a closer eye on things.”
“I can,” the woman with glasses said. The one that had been collecting protection money.
“We’ll be fine,” Prancer said.
“What I’m wondering,” Kitchen Sink said, “Could this have to do with the truck of-”
“Shut up this very second,” Prancer said.
There was silence.
“No,” Prancer said, “I doubt it does, and you shouldn’t talk business unless we’re inside with the Speedrunners or Caveat helping to ensure things are private.”
“You’re doing a lot of talking,” Sink said. “But I’m thinking you’re not doing a lot of doing. Those guys walked in and walked out. They might come back and they’ll be a headache. Speaking as someone who’s been collecting rent-”
“If you want to talk business, you do it inside,” Prancer said.
“-it’s going to impact that,” Sink said. “We have to explain. You have to explain, really, because I’m saying fuck this conversation.”
He punched Hookline lightly in the shoulder, gestured. The pair of them turned to walk away.
“Cracks and clues,” Tristan’s voice could be heard over the phone.
“And two of the locals following Houndstooth’s group,” Kenzie reported. “They’re aiming to catch up.”
I took off. I paused in the air, hand out.
Sveta sent out her hand. With the wind currents above the water, the hand moved off-course. I flew over to catch it in the same moment she flexed her tendrils and sent the hand to where I’d been.
We coordinated, I caught her hand before it dropped into the water, and she pulled herself to me. She had a silly smile on her face when she drew close.
“We’ll work on that,” I said.
I flew over the water. When we reached the first tall building, I dropped Sveta, before changing course again.
She went low to the ground, pulling herself straight to the street level. I flew high, to the point where Birdbrain shouldn’t have a high enough perspective to see me, much like with Kenzie’s high-flying cameras.
I retrieved my phone. “Do we act?”
“Act,” Tristan said.
I drew closer.
Hookline’s hook was out, and Kitchen Sink had a machete in one hand and a gallon tank of probably-kerosene in the other. He kept the large red plastic can, tossed away the machete, tossed away the textbook, tossed away the manhole cover-
I was guessing, hoping they wanted to count coup, injure and disappear.
It didn’t seem terribly bright. I didn’t want to let them count coup or do worse. We’d made a pledge to Houndstooth’s group.
Sveta’s hands appeared out of nowhere, grabbing Hookline by the ankles. He fell hard on the initial tug, and was then dragged beneath a parked car.
The hook moved, lashing out. It caught on the corner of a building, Hookline’s attempt to haul himself free.
My focus in the moment was on Kitchen Sink.
I landed so I was a foot behind him, pushing out with my aura.
“Run,” I said.
He turned, wheeling around with hand drawn back, a rather large, full bottle of alcohol gripped by the neck-
I smashed my forehead into his nose. When he didn’t immediately go down, I did it again. I didn’t give him a chance to recover from there. My forcefield was down throughout the process, as I stayed within a foot of him, my aura buzzing with the range pulled closer to me, active and focused on him.
I could fly, so I didn’t need footing. I used it when I had it, to give a little more oomph when I punched him in the stomach, but at the times I would have needed to pause to get my feet in the right places under me, flight drove me forward. Punch, knee to his stomach, a shove against his shoulder, as he drew the connected arm back to swing with the bottle or use his power to throw it point-blank.
He realized he couldn’t draw either weapon back, and dropped the plastic jug, jabbing at me instead. He hit me in the ribs, and it hurt.
I hit him in the nose, and I was willing to bet it hurt more.
He realized what was happening, and compensated with an exaggerated step back, anticipating he’d be pushed away, the foot would arrest that movement.
I brought my hand close to his face as I flew up, and he shielded it.
He was trying not to fall down, but with his feet planted far apart-
I flew down, my foot striking on his thigh, close to the pelvis. It forced him into awkward almost-splits.
My hand on the back of his head, I pushed his face down toward the road. He didn’t try to stop the movement with his arms out, instead folding his around his face, to shield it.
The impact was hard, elbows striking the road, and from the sound he made, his nose hit the arms that were around his face, and that hurt enough.
Sveta had moved across the street. She stayed low, and her hand snaked out, snatching for Hookline’s ankles, trying to once again drag him beneath the vehicle, forcing him to clamber or squeeze out.
As I landed on a car roof, intentionally making a sound, he glanced back at me. His face was bound in ripcord or something like it, with a gap for his eyes. It pulled his teeth back so they stood out, perpetually bared.
At least he brushed.
The distraction meant Sveta could get a hold on him. He stabbed an engine block with the hook, to try to arrest his movement, hands on the chain.
I walked over to the hook, and slapped it free. By all rights, I should have destroyed it, but his thing was that he made his weapon invincible, untouchable.
He tried to catch me with it, but Sveta had him and the hook didn’t reach out as fast as Sveta pulled him beneath a dusty construction vehicle.
I collected a mailbox and a pallet of construction material, and set to blocking off his exits, so he would be stuck beneath the truck until someone got him out.
There were others approaching already.
The fastest of them arrived. Moose. Love Lost. A mismatched pair.
Sveta put out her hand, not extending her arm, and I caught it, clasping her wrist as she clasped mine.
Braindead and Birdbrain had no doubt clued in the local villains. They would also let people know what Hookline and Sink had been intent on doing.
Others sounded like they were just around the corner.
I glanced at Love Lost. The woman who wanted to kill Rain. Who wanted to torture him to death.
Rage. Anger. Hate.
There was so much I didn’t know about that scenario, but I could see that the sentiment was very much real.
Her claw went to her mask. I had just about no interest in seeing what she could do. I flew skyward and out of reach, bringing Sveta with me.
Hopefully, for just a little bit longer, we would leave them wondering who we were.