Orange motes began dancing around the trucks and railing that were serving to slow Prancer’s group down. The people who hadn’t been pushed very far back actually backed away from the motes.
Glowing particles from one parahuman could be harmless or negligible, they could be concentrated points of energy that cut through flesh like a hot knife through butter, or they could be concentrated points of energy that un-concentrated into sizable explosions, given an excuse.
I made a loop of the area, getting a better look at Beast of Burden’s violent capes that were on the right side of the street -their right, my left- and with a gap separating them, the other capes, with the thinkers and Prancer. I gave a wide berth to the particles, to help sell the idea they might be dangerous, and then landed beside Capricorn.
“Yeah,” I said. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t set it off unless they get close.”
“That’s the plan. Mayday,” Tristan said. “Good to meet you. Are you caught up on things?”
“Spright filled me in. This is your jurisdiction?”
I answered, “We’re babysitting it while other teams tour it. They liaise with us. That you didn’t says something went wrong. People are messing with us, Cedar Point, or both.”
“We can discuss that later,” Mayday said. “My team, Teri, Signal, Prong. Who’s out?”
“I know you might need me, but my focus is gone,” the diagram woman said.
“Go,” he said. The word was barely out of his mouth when she went out like smoke dissipating into air. The smoke held the colors that had been her, initially covering the black of her costume’s fabric, the dark blue armor panels, the lighter blue ‘magic circle’ images on those panels, and her apparently near-black skin and hair. The smoke included the interior colors too, however. White for bone and fat, and lots of pinks and reds.
Within a second and a half, she was gone.
“Prong, Signal Fire, we decide who to evac next depending on situation.”
Five Advance Guard remained, with the five of us. We were outnumbered almost three to one by the collected villains of Cedar Point.
Spright, Mayday, Signal Fire, Prong, and one other. It was a woman with a short dress as part of her costume, leggings beneath, and long sleeves with the panels helping to form the bones of ‘wings’. The panels at the front of her mask swept along the sides of her head to form a wing pattern.
I was going to guess she was ‘Flapper’. A hard name to tie into the aesthetic of the Advance Guard.
Two mobile capes, and three that were waiting to be teleported out. I was betting Mayday would be last. Once their group was small enough, I was betting they would make a break for it. We’d want to be able to go too.
Capricorn’s orange motes were rising up and filling the area between buildings.
Past the curtain, I could hear Ashley’s power.
“Hey!” Prancer called out. “Civilian property. They pay us, we leave their stuff alone.”
Ashley said something I didn’t hear. Nailbiter sniggered.
Natalie was going to get upset with us again.
The standoff couldn’t last. We were walking backward, putting distance between ourselves and the group, while the orange motes collected and filled the space.
“Hi Signal,” Looksee said. “We didn’t interact for very long, but-”
“Optic,” Signal Fire said.
“Yeah,” she said. “Except I changed my name. Trying one on for a fit, but a teammate was making fun of me for it. You actually remember me? I thought you wouldn’t, maybe, because you had so many trainees-”
“I remember,” he said.
“Okay,” she said. “It’s so nostalgic. It’s been a while, Mayday-”
“Not the time,” Mayday said.
“Oh. Okay,” she said. “Okay. Shutting up now.”
“You know the kid?” Flapper asked.
“She was one of my Wards, once,” he said. “The less said, the better.”
“Wait,” Spright said. “Is she the one you mentioned?”
“The less said, the better,” Mayday said, in a tone that left no room for doubt.
“Geez,” Spright said. “From the stuff I heard, I thought she’d look way different. Older.”
“Let’s leave it,” Mayday said. “I shouldn’t have said anything in the first place.”
“Nice to know that people are talking about me,” Looksee said, with a touch of sarcasm. “We talked to Houndstooth, by the way.”
“It might be worth talking to him,” I said. “He can round out what Spright said. His team passed through.”
“I’ll do that. He’s a good one,” Mayday said. There was a pause. “We’ve met and talked a few times.”
“Avenguard too?” Looksee asked.
“No comment,” Mayday said.
“I’m missing context,” Flapper said.
“Why don’t we focus on current events?” Sveta asked.
“Please,” Mayday said.
“Spright, keep an eye on the ones to the left. Flapper, right. Intercept and obstruct for Signal and me to tag.”
Rain raised a hand, pointing. To our left, on the other side of the barricade, a hand and arm of thin parts was reaching up, tips embedding into the side of the building and piercing through.
Nailbiter was climbing the building face, to get up and over the orange motes.
I flew toward her at the same time Spright started running in that direction.
Off on the other side of the street, Velvet sent a trash can sailing through the orange sparks. Metal rings held wooden slats in place, prettifying the exterior of a half-filled plastic bin. Trash emptied out as it turned over, and it passed harmlessly through the orange points of light and the trails they’d left.
That was for others to handle. I wasn’t looking at the time it happened, but at the corner of my vision, I saw the trash can change direction in the air. Sveta, possibly.
Nailbiter found her position on the wall, toes extended and digging in, and pulled one hand away to point it at Spright and me.
It was hard to tell how fast it was coming at me, because the individual fingers were so thin and their extension so fluid. I tried to judge it, flew to one side, and was struck regardless.
Before I could get hit again, I changed direction, letting myself fall down, away. I’d had to deal with guns before. If I couldn’t see the fingers and teeth stabbing for me, I would treat them as I might treat bullets. She was mobile, strong, and as far as I was concerned, she had powerful shotguns for fingers and teeth.
I landed hard on the ground, rolled, and let her dismiss me, changing her focus to Spright, who was flying up toward her, his arms extended, with fingers drawn out, long and thin.
I waited until they clashed, fingers striking one another like ten rapiers striking ten more, and then I flew, pushing off the ground for that miniscule extra boost.
Spright extended his arms, flying down while keeping his hands in place, his arms long and high above him. I could see the points of Nailbiter’s teeth pass above him, saw her turn her head toward me-
With her being extended across so much of the wall, I had room to maneuver while still pressing the attack. I went low instead, seized her ankle with the wretch manifesting around me, and hauled her back and away from the wall.
It wasn’t an easy or immediate process to dislodge her. In another circumstance, I might not have been able to budge her. In this circumstance, gravity helped a bit. She couldn’t do a lot to keep herself from having those long needle-fingers pulled out of the wall, except to extend them further.
Sidepiece hurled something at me, and it exploded against the wall, a foot from my head. I glanced at her, saw her tear one of her exaggerated ribs out from beneath a cutoff t-shirt with so much cut off from the bottom it was indecent, above a stomach that looked like a zombie’s, with flesh bloody, raw and open where literal pounds of flesh had been torn away. The spine and area around it were intact, as was the navel and stomach on the opposite side, but the sides were completely gone.
She flung it at me. I let go of Nailbiter, flew down, and hit the ground with an impact, my aura flared out. I didn’t stop for half a second before immediately taking off again.
“Don’t fucking hit me, ‘piece!” Nailbiter screeched the words behind me, but the manner of speaking was even worse, as her teeth were retracting.
Again, I used my aura as I touched wall, not as heavy an impact, but I hit the edge of a window frame, and it made glass rattle. Aura out, harder than before.
I zig-zagged, ground to wall, wall to a point high overhead, point above to ground again. I made each point of contact with a surface something they had to pay attention to, putting them off guard, making Sidepiece have to turn around.
I took off again, flying toward her, aura at full blast.
Straight line, impact, straight line, impact, the pattern was ingrained. I flew toward her, the impact a damn promise I’d made, and then changed course in the air, veering away from Sidepiece, aura stopping abruptly.
She threw a rib, but it was a throw she’d been planning to throw at me while I charged at her. It went far afield, sailing in the direction of Capricorn, Mayday, and the rest of the group, and hit the road.
She didn’t have time to get another pound of flesh ready to hurl at me.
Nailbiter was getting herself situated after the adjustments she’d made to try to cling to the building, one of her hands out, fending off Spright. She saw me coming, but too late. I hooked my arm around her middle, her long torso in the crook of my elbow, and I pulled her away from the wall, successfully this time.
Once I’d pulled her away, she was flailing, searching for something to hold onto. I didn’t give her the opportunity to get a grip or find an angle to get me. I checked the coast was clear and tossed her down.
“Capricorn!” I called out.
“Okay,” I heard him say, a distance away.
Nailbiter landed across the truck, surrounded by orange motes. The motes solidified, turning into the ridged white stone with orange-yellow veins running through it.
Nailbiter was stuck, part of her torso, her butt, and one arm caught in Capricorn’s stone. The wall covered a considerable height, reaching up to the second story of the neighboring buildings, with some isolated spikes reaching up to the third.
I landed on the wall, and Spright landed right beside me. He reached out with one extended hand, flexing it.
“I love the changer forms I get to steal,” he said. “They last for so much longer than other stuff, and I get more of the offensive side of it than I do with other stuff. This is great. Thank you, Nailbiter.”
“Fuck yourself!” she screamed, voice distorted. She reached back with her one free hand. Both Spright and I leaned back and used the top edge of the wall for cover as the extended fingers stabbed upward, thin.
“Do that again, and I’ll return the favor,” Spright said.
“Stay put, Nailbiter,” I said. I looked at Spright. “You should go. I can do more against them like this, and if you wait too long you won’t be able to catch up with the others.”
“No objection,” Spright said. He somersaulted backward off of the wall.
Our group was running, now. The only reason they hadn’t run earlier was that the bottleneck had been too important, too essential to keep the villains from coming at them as a mob. Now there was a wall dividing the two groups.
I had the bird’s eye view as I stood on top of the wall. Damsel began shooting at the wall, putting holes in it, while Moose stepped back, assessing the situation.
I flew down to the wall, close enough to Nailbiter that I was pretty sure Moose wouldn’t come tearing through the wall and trample me.
My back to the wall, hands out and pressed to the uneven surface, I waited until I felt the vibrations of Moose’s running footsteps. It was hardly necessary, because Nailbiter kicked with her legs and screeched something at him, loud enough that Advance Guard and the therapy team could be aware of what was happening.
I pushed out with my aura, hard, extending it through the wall.
The thudding footsteps stopped.
On the other side, I heard Moose’s voice, then a laugh.
Gave him pause, at least.
He didn’t charge the wall, but he did punch one gauntleted fist through it. A moment later, another fist came through. He grabbed the intervening bit of stone and hauled on it, pulling out a chunk.
I backed away, facing the wall and Nailbiter’s rear end.
Moose peered through the hole.
“We meet again,” he said.
“Sorry about the face,” I said.
He moved his metal mask a bit to one side, showing me the three grooves that ran from the corner of his jaw to his cheekbone.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
“I got a compliment from a girl, she thought it was gnarly,” he said. “It’s not all bad.”
“Stop fucking flirting and get us through, Moose!” someone called out, on the other side of the wall. Velvet, I was guessing.
“My mom would cry if she saw it, though,” Moose said. He lurched forward, shouldering his way through the hole he’d made, leaving a Moose-shaped hole behind him.
On the other side, I could see Prancer’s entire group backed away as segments of the stone came crashing down behind Moose. More time, more delay for our side.
Delay that would be needed, it seemed. Moose was fast on his feet, more than super strength and good form might have suggested- each footstep seemed to produce a focused blast where his feet landed, a geyser of dust behind the ball of each foot, blasting out to five feet behind him. There was Prancer in his breaker state.
Just behind Prancer, Velvet drove a truck through the hole Moose had made, the side view mirror on one side scraping off on the wall’s edge. Capes were in the vehicle and perched on top.
They’d been smugglers, suppliers, and getaway drivers, in another life. It made sense they could move when they needed to. Normally it meant them getting away, but here it applied to the chase.
I couldn’t catch Prancer, and I wasn’t going to throw myself headlong at a truck filled with what had to be a half dozen people with powers.
I could have gone for Moose, but I didn’t want to make his mom cry any more than she might, and he was moving fast enough and hard enough I wasn’t sure I could stop him without causing reams of property damage.
Better to go back to the others. They’d rounded a corner, and were heading northward, toward the main highway and the train tracks. I flew direct to them, putting myself ahead of Prancer and his entourage.
I flew alongside the others. Looksee was keeping up, inexplicably, and it was Rain who was lagging. Capricorn had one hand at his shoulder.
Mayday, just to Capricorn’s right, wasn’t the fastest either. Prong was gone, and Mayday and Signal Fire were the only ones left in Advance Guard who didn’t have mover abilities.
Spright had the benefit of both Flapper’s power and the lingering effect of Nailbiter’s transformation. That put him well ahead of the rest.
That seemed to be his thing. Always staying ahead, always with just a bit of an edge in mobility.
“They’re coming. Moose and Prancer are charging in. Velvet has a car,” I reported.
“Got it,” Capricorn said.
I saw the orange lines moving across the road. I could see the pattern and the logic. Rush jobs, but they snapped into being as Rain and Mayday passed over them. Rows of spiky growth across the road.
“I could use my power, but I’d rather keep it under wraps,” Rain said.
“Do,” Tristan said. “Have your gun ready.”
The villains rounded the corner behind us, and they started catching up. Moose saw the spikes and bent low while running, tearing his hands through them, scattering whole chunks of them in passing, not even slowing in stride.
Moose broke more of the spike strips. Prancer ran up one of the horn-ridden poles while it was still moving through the air, the butt end slamming against the ground as he put his feet on the ridged spikes. He planted a foot on the end as the pole tilted toward the ground, pointing in our general direction, and leaped, hard.
I pushed out with my aura, hard, and flew to intercept, forcefield down.
He was quick, and determined enough the aura didn’t give him much pause. I drove an elbow in his direction, normal human strength, and his fingers found the crook of that elbow. He leveraged that into half-pulling, then half-kicking himself over my arm and shoulder. Lighter than he looked, and he’d used me as a stepping stone, closing the distance further.
Sveta’s hand caught him before he could grab Rain from behind. She pulled herself to him and possibly by dint of him being as light as he was, him to her. They met halfway, and crashed in a heap. The breaker form dissipated.
Sveta was quick enough to recover that I didn’t even reach her side before she was up, reaching out. Her feet skidded on the road for the first moments as she hauled herself away from the defeated Prancer, Moose almost on her.
“Stop them!” Prancer called out to Moose.
The big guy had only slowed slightly, to check on his friend, and now he picked up speed. Behind him, Velvet was driving her truck through gaps that were narrower than the spacing between the truck’s tires. She veered to one side, then the other, and possibly augmented by her power, drove the truck tilted on one side, only the rightmost wheels making contact with the ground to pass through the gaps Moose had made. The guy on the roof of the truck was a good two hundred feet away, but I could still see the whites of his eyes as he held on for dear life.
The group carried on making a break for it. As Advance Guard left, we’d have to figure out what to do with our team. I wasn’t sure if their teleporter would be able to evacuate us in the same way.
Ahead of the group, Anxiety Chris was at the corner of the street, clutching at his face with all of his legs. He screamed as he saw us coming.
Spright picked up the pace, flying in his direction with a combination of my flight and Flapper’s, his arms with extended fingers buoying him forward, like bat wings without the webbing between. He touched ground, running, making a beeline straight for the guy.
I wanted to call out a warning, but I wasn’t sure if it was right to. I’d have been outing Chris’ role in our group.
His power affects the mind.
“Don’t!” Sveta called out.
“We don’t know what it is!” I added.
Spright ignored us both. Again.
Screaming without pausing for breath, Chris traveled the ‘S’-shaped route, trying to take evasive action, and Spright remained on his… not heels.
“Give!” Spright called out, as he drew closer, until he could almost touch Chris.
They remained like that for a brief while, Chris trying to escape, Spright chasing. The screaming continued.
Spright’s pace slowed, and he let Chris run away. Spright glanced back at everyone else, assessed the situation, and then took flight, putting himself closer to Flapper.
“We’re close!” Capricorn called out.
So he had a destination in mind. Good.
The van had stopped to collect Prancer, but it was catching up. Moose continued to bear on us.
I’d have to intercept him if he got too close, I knew.
I could still imagine the scene of his face erupting in blood as the wretch clawed it.
Further ahead, I could see what Capricorn had done while he was waiting around. A wall of his stone barred the street. There were gaps wide enough for people to pass through. Three gaps, and the group was more than three people. Some members of the group turned around, ready to help and run interference while others slipped through the doors in single-file.
At the side window, Etna climbed out, reaching, and hurled globs of molten glass.
I intercepted the first, forcefield going up at the last second as I swatted it aside, aiming it in Moose’s general direction.
“Incoming!” I called out, because I couldn’t intercept the second.
The group looked back and saw the incoming white-hot orb. People moved out of the way. Looksee didn’t. The glob hit her across the head, which struck the wall behind her hard.
The camera with the projection device mounted on it clattered on its way to hit the road, the final landing muted as it landed glass-side down.
“Aauuughhh!” Looksee cried out, in a not-very-convincing agonized scream. “I’m dying, I’m dead! Auughh!”
“Looksee,” I heard Rain say.
Moose came to a halt, standing by the southeastern corner of a small apartment building, while we stood at the northeastern corner. The truck skidded to a stop. People had stopped in their tracks. Some eyes were on Etna.
“Mayday, I loved you, you were awesome. Signal Fire, you were a great teacher. Team, you’re the best, I love you with all my heart! Remember me, avenge me!”
“Looksee, they know it’s a projection,” Rain said.
“Shit on me, did not want this today,” Mayday said.
It didn’t seem like Looksee had heard, from her tone.
“I know, duh,” the camera said, the ‘oh’ sound at the end of the word stuttering slightly. She laughed, enthusiastic. “I’m just having fun.”
The villains were still back there. They were unloading from the truck. Some expressions were sober, others were dangerous.
“You’re willing to go this far?” I called out. “Shooting a kid?”
“I thought you’d catch it,” Etna said, her voice small both because she was far away, and because of disappointment in herself, it seemed. She was more Prancer’s camp, if I remembered right, despite the dangerous power that might otherwise have put her in Beast’s.
“If she’d been real,” I said. “This would have been a fuck-up of the highest order.”
“If she’d been real,” Beast of Burden said, making the truck bounce as he climbed out of the back, “She still would have been causing trouble on our turf. It wouldn’t have been undeserved.”
“No,” Prancer said.
“Yes,” Beast of Burden said.
“No,” Prancer said. “That’s not how we’re playing this.”
“It’s not how you’re playing this,” the man replied. He was shorter than Moose, he wasn’t especially greater in size, but the massive horns of his helmet were as wide across as Moose’s musclebound Brute shoulders, and his armor had to have added three hundred pounds of weight to a two hundred pound frame. “If they don’t want you and if you’re willing to play for keeps, Etna, I’ll take you.”
“No thanks,” Etna said.
“We’re in this together,” Moose said. “Let’s not ruin that.”
“No,” Beast of Burden said. “No we’re not.”
Disjoint had been the one on the roof. He went to Beast’s side. Nailbiter had stayed behind, for obvious reasons, Damsel hadn’t been invited onto the truck, and Sidepiece hadn’t made it on.
Snag was present, he’d been in the back of the truck too, but we’d heard his stance on the cliques and groupings. His glowering mask looked especially ominous in the moment, as he stared us down. He couldn’t have known his cluster-mate was part of this group, staring at him at the same time.
Either way, he wasn’t part of Beast’s clique. Love Lost might have gravitated in that direction, but she hadn’t come.
Still, the two members of Beast’s clique were standing apart, and Beast was breaking away.
“Do this again, and I’ll kill one of you,” Beast said. “You come to fight or take a stand, be prepared for a fight.”
“Stupid,” Prancer said.
Beast of Burden shaking his head was dramatic, with the horns on his helmet swinging. “Necessary. You can wrap this mess up yourself. Put a fucking bow on it for all I care, deer man.”
He turned to walk away, shaking his head. A nervous Disjoint followed.
Prancer looked between Beast of Burden and those of us who hadn’t ducked through the Capricorn’s wall.
Rain bent down and picked up Looksee’s camera, shaking it slightly, as if that would dislodge the cooling black glass that caked part of it.
“Cameras,” Prancer said.
Prancer raised a hand to his head, found hair that was sticking up after his tumble of a fall, and pressed it down, running fingers through it to try to set it in place. “How long?”
“Long enough,” I said. “We know you’re bleeding people of cash, when they don’t have enough. You’re using this place to run drugs to the rest of the city, and you’re- you were giving safe haven to crooks like Nailbiter. Who took a teenager away from her parents earlier today.”
“If you take me out, someone like Beast is going to take my place.”
“If I leave you where you are, that’s going to happen too. Someone stronger and meaner will take you out, and they’ll be very hard to dislodge because of what you’ve already set in place.”
“This isn’t you, Prancer,” Sveta said. She was perched on Capricorn’s wall.
“It isn’t, you’re right,” he said.
“Stop. Disband,” I said.
“No,” Prancer said. “This role isn’t me. I have a lot I need to learn, but I’ll change until I fit the role. I think most of these guys will work with me to do it. We need this.”
Velvet put her hand on his shoulder.
“Your people are organizing to mount a war right under your nose,” I said. “Against acceptable targets, yes, but if you think today was a bad day? You’re underestimating just how bad it’s going to get when the Fallen come after you, and the damage they’ll do to everyone and everything between them and you.”
“Not under my nose,” Prancer said. He looked back at Snag. “We’ll manage.”
“You need to keep your mouth shut about that,” Snag growled.
“No. You need to loop the Wardens in. Get the full picture, get help. If you fight them, you need to win, unequivocally.”
“It’s handled,” Snag said. “And if you don’t keep your mouth shut, you’ll be sabotaging it.”
“These are people the PRT couldn’t stamp out,” I said.
“It’s handled,” Prancer said, echoing Snag. “This isn’t about the PRT, or about heroes and villains.”
“What’s it about, then?” Sveta asked. I had to look past Rain to see her. He was remaining silent.
“It’s about monsters,” Prancer said, pacing slowly. “Speaking of. Garotte?”
“That’s not my name,” Sveta said.
“Circe says hi,” Prancer said.
I could see Sveta’s expression change.
“Yeah,” Prancer said. “If you’d only arrived a few hours later. Whatever. We have resources. This is about standing on our own two feet. If we do this raid right, no matter how you interfere, no matter what Beast does, breaking off with his people, Cedar Point is going to be a thing.”
“You do this wrong, and a whole lot of people are going to wish they were dead,” I said.
Prancer continued pacing for a few seconds, then stopped.
“That’s fine,” he said.
“If you’re willing to involve those people in this, we might have to stop playing nice,” I said.
Prancer sniffed out a small laugh. “Alright then. Moose?”
Moose turned his head to Prancer, then to us.
“Sorry,” he said, smacking the knuckles of his gauntlet into his palm. Without any more preamble or prelude, he charged us.
Rain backed toward the door, the loose sleeve of his costume covering his one hand, while he held the glass-caked camera. He withdrew the flash gun, pointing it at the enemy group.
I turned my head, covering my eyes with my arm. The gun wasn’t even aimed at me, my eyes were shut, and my arm was in the way, and the darkness of my vision still turned pink, shaded slightly by bones between me and the group.
Rain emptied the gun, firing again and again. From the changes in the flash’s angles, he was moving while firing.
Moose crashed into the wall, rather than into any of us.
The flashing had stopped, and I flew skyward. I deemed myself safe to look, and saw as the others ducked through the openings in the very thick wall, Tristan sealing the apertures behind them. Moose sat on the ground, and the rest looked bewildered.
I shook my head and flew to the others.
We were all gathered. Advance Guard’s group was assembled in entirety, including the supporting members of the group. I warily watched as a healer cape did his work. Flickering images overlapped as he pressed his hand down on ReSound’s shoulder.
Nothing like Amy. It still bothered me. True healing powers were something comprehensive and powerful, to cover the bases necessary for all the various sicknesses and maladies, while also wreaking meaningful change. Powers themselves didn’t lend themselves to healing, as a general rule, either. Not unless they were selfish.
Even the strongest self-healers I’d met had been pretty fucked up. Crawler had been one.
Rescue was present, the teleporter who pulled people away. Mapwright was a straggler, a woman with a limp. She went to Mayday’s side, and they clasped hands. The place where their hands met glowed a soft pink, and then Mayday’s eyes glowed pink behind his mask.
“Who’s that a block to the north?” he asked.
“Civilians. Kids eating popsicles,” Mapwright said.
“Then we’re clear to talk,” Mayday said. He pulled off his helmet. He did the thing a lot of capes with helmets did, wearing a basic mask beneath. He was thirty-five or so, had warm black skin, with a very long face and sharp chin, arching eyebrows, a thin mustache at his upper lip, and a line of beard from the middle of his lip to his chin. His head was shaved.
His face didn’t really match the impression he gave with his helmet on, with the broader, triangular face panels. That was part of the point, I supposed.
“This was a clusterfuck,” I said. “We ended up showing ourselves, you pointed out our surveillance, you disturbed the peace, and the entire situation got more chaotic.”
“Easy,” Capricorn said.
“She’s not wrong,” Rain said.
“I know,” Capricorn said. “But… easy. I don’t want to be enemies with Advance Guard.”
“No,” Mayday said. “The sentiment is mutual.”
“I agree. It’s not the kind of thing we need these days. But I’m upset,” I said. “We just had to play a lot of our cards that I really would have rather kept up our sleeve. I’d love to know why.”
“Spright said he explained.”
“But he couldn’t tell us who gave you the okay.”
“We had messages. Cedar Point was asking for help, Civilians asked us. It’s not a shock. We’re prominent,” Mayday said.
“Can you forward those to us? Help us trace them?” I asked. “I think it’s more likely a mastermind in the background pulled this.”
“Believe it or not, we’re prominent,” Shortcut said. “It’s a hell of a lot more likely people thought they needed help and called us than this conspiracy idea of yours.”
“Did you talk to Foresight?” I asked, ignoring Shortcut.
“We did,” Mayday said. “The leadership is wrapped up in a war-”
“Thought so,” Sveta said, voice soft.
“-and we communicated with one of their lieutenants.”
“Communicated how?” I asked.
“Oh my god,” Shortcut said, his head rolling back.
“Email,” Mayday said. “One phone call.”
“Can you verify those exchanges for us?” I asked. “I know someone who saw two attempts to hack their email.”
“Some people in the Wardens had the same,” Mayday said. “Legal.”
“Same people,” I said. “It’s not out of the question someone managed to spoof something at you, threw out bait.”
“That we bit?” Spright asked.
“We’ll look into it and let you know,” Mayday said. “We’ll figure this out.”
Looksee wiggled, sitting on the curb. “I’m psyched to be working together again.”
“We’re not working together, Optics,” Mayday said.
“Looksee,” she replied, quiet.
“Looksee,” he said. He paused, then said. “No.”
“You need to explain this to me,” Flapper said. “Because as far as I can tell, you’re being uncharacteristically shitty to a kid, and you’re good with kids.”
“He’s not being shitty,” Looksee said. “He’s nice. No need to get into it.”
“I think there’s kind of a need to get into it,” Flapper said. “Please. This is going to bother me.”
“This is the kid,” Spright said. “Cost him his promotion.”
“Not directly,” Mayday said. “Flapper, if you’d just take my word for things and leave this, I’d appreciate it.”
“I would if it was the only thing that went sideways today,” she said. “I’ve seen teammates compromised, acting strange. Some were because of drugs, others were Strangered. Two things in the same day? Just… explain?”
Mayday folded his arms. “She went from institutions to being a PRT focus in Baltimore. Not a concern, not an asset… something between. She went from there to training camps, moving her around so she couldn’t get too attached to anyone. San Diego included. Signal Fire?”
Signal Fire explained, “Coworker of mine was investigated. Looksee left her computer open and kids messed with it, changing her online profiles. They found photos, they took the computer to people in charge.”
“So embarrassing,” Looksee said. I went to stand next to her, and put my hand on her shoulder.
Sveta sat down next to her. Looksee leaned into her.
“Kid in a swimsuit, hanging out with an instructor at a hotel pool, all smiles, the two of them hanging out, pictures of them shopping, eating out of a food truck, being in places he shouldn’t have been near. They looked close. Questions were raised, answered pretty quickly, because of kid’s prior history, but it still had to be investigated. It wasn’t wholly impossible he was skipping patrols and hanging out with the kid instead.”
“Doctored photos,” Mayday said. “Kid was lonely, thought photos of her and the instructor she liked most would be nice to have. BFF close, in the pictures, which looks weird when the guy is fifteen years older than her.”
“I know that now,” Looksee said, quiet.
“Then she goes to the parahuman Asylum, and from the Asylum to Baltimore, with Youth Guard getting involved. Baltimore. We have an inner city, we have gangs, we have some troubled kids in our Wards. Had. I hate to outright say it, Looksee, because I do think you’re a good kid-”
“Everyone says so, but I did bad stuff,” she said.
“Uninformed stuff,” he said, gently. “But bad, yeah. It was more trouble to deal with her than to wrangle all the other Wards combined. I get out of the toilet stall in the men’s room and this kid is sitting on the counter by the sink, waiting, has been for twenty minutes, dead silent for the first time in her life, because she wants to talk to me. There aren’t cameras in the bathrooms. It’s a blind spot. How does that look?”
“Sorry,” Looksee said.
“She works herself to the bone, it looks bad for the department. She intentionally misses the bus or fakes hours so she can spend more time with us, so we have to have people drive her home or pick her up. Which also looks bad, because it’s time spent alone or in proximity to a kid who isn’t just vulnerable, but throws herself headlong at people who prey on the vulnerable. Kidnappers, people who would work a tinker to the bone, people who want to hurt the PRT.”
“Threw, not throws,” Looksee said. “Okay, maybe throws a bit, but only a little.”
“It was a hundred things like that. It was everything that could have made the Youth Guard crawl up our ass to light warning fires. We could have hired two new capes from elsewhere if it wasn’t for the fines and administration costs.”
“She’s doing way better,” Capricorn said.
“She’s a great kid. Talented as hell,” Capricorn said.
“I’ve talked to Houndstooth, Avenguard, and Spotter. I think you’ll find we’re mostly on the same page,” Mayday said. “We don’t disagree, necessarily, but…”
Looksee nodded very quickly. I gave her shoulder a rub.
“Except I don’t know if I’m as nice as they are,” Mayday said, not finishing the thought he’d left to trail off. “I took over the department because that kid sank my predecessor. The question mark hovering over the bathroom thing was part of what cost me one golden opportunity to get up to the Protectorate core team, during the final year, when we were dealing with the new Endbringer situation. She ruined a lot of careers, teachers, heroes, social workers, and I can’t be fair to her because I’m pretty fucking bitter about it.”
“You could try,” I said.
“I could. I won’t. Advance Guard is walking away. Consider it a blessing, if you want. We don’t usually back off. But we’ll do it here,” he said, glancing at Looksee. “We’ll give you Cedar Point to look after, I’ll ask about what you said, look into the possible hack and validity of the emails. Spright- you get stuff in their office?”
“I went where Mapwright showed me,” Spright said. “But we didn’t get that far. These guys wanted me to go straight to you. We spent most of our time figuring it out.”
Mayday said, “That’s not your usual, Spright. You’re more of a scoundrel than that.”
“Pretty girl- pretty girls tell me to get moving, give me a convincing reason?” Spright asked. He offered an amused chuckle, looking at Sveta and me. “I might listen properly for once.”
“You’ve never listened to me,” Flapper said, archly.
“Or me,” Mapwright said.
ReSound didn’t say anything, but she cleared her throat.
Spright chuckled nervously.
Mayday raised a finger, while Spright’s head was turned toward Flapper. Beside Spright, Signal Fire reached out to seize his arm.
Mayday walked up to him, seizing his other arm. With his free hand, Mayday patted Spright down.
He reached beneath a flat armor panel, and withdrew a notebook with a rubber band around it.
He tossed it to Capricorn.
“Amends,” Mayday said. His expression was solemn. “Good luck.”
They went on their way.
I paged through the notebook. It was a ledger, devoid of numbers. Transactions as barter, with a great deal of shorthand.
We knew what the truck was, now. With all of the preparations for war, a truckload of guns had made a disappearance. Prancer knew where it was.
He was a proper arms dealer, now. It wasn’t an insignificant number of guns.
We had notes on the other work he was doing. Drugs. Robbery for hire, moving things between the illicit, villain-run camps on corner worlds. There were plans for other things. In the future, he seemed to have two days where he and his people would be moving humans. It wasn’t clear why or for what purpose, but they were to be delivered from one corner world to another.
Once they realized the notebook was gone, they would change their plans.
Kenzie was all smiles, so excited from the excursion and her involvement in it that the issue with Mayday seemed to breeze past her. Still, we were leaving her mostly alone, with Sveta keeping her company. I could remember her blowing up over her bag.
Some of Kenzie’s attention was on Ashley. Damsel was still in Cedar Point, giving us a window into what Beast of Burden was doing. For the time being, he was having beers with his clique. They were to remain in Cedar Point, but they’d have their own corner of things. They would leave Prancer alone if they were left alone, but I doubted things would remain that way. One group or the other would grow.
For the time being, Beast and Damsel’s group told war stories. Nailbiter, agitated, had left a bit ago. We’d tracked her on the camera as she met up with Colt and a young guy. The three of them went for a walk along the waterline, Nailbiter asking about ’employees’, the young guy answering, while Colt remained silent unless spoken to.
I finished reading through the notebook and handed it to Rain, who was working on his arms. The mask and sleeves were set aside, Kenzie’s work, not his.
His expression was grim.
“How are you dealing?” I asked.
“It was my day,” he said. “And I couldn’t even use my power without stirring up more trouble than it was worth.”
“We need to talk about things,” I said.
“Tomorrow,” he said. “Not today. Please? Today’s been rough.”
I nodded. I pushed the notebook in his direction.
Chris had the corner, his back to us, and he was hunched over a video game. Oblivious to the rest of the world, drawn into his shell.
Tristan and I were the ones without a place to be. I met his eyes, and I walked out to the fire escape.
He joined me.
I stood by the railing at the little balcony-landing outside the door. Tristan sat on the top stair.
“You were trying to keep Kenzie from being alone in the building,” I said. “And from being alone with Erin and Rain.”
“Keeping Sveta and I together.”
“No manipulation or strategy there. You two fit.”
“Do I need to worry?” I asked.
“That’s a loaded question,” he said.
“Can I trust you?”
He didn’t answer me.
“Or is it that you don’t trust them?” I asked.
“It’s a really fucked up thing, if I consider myself one of the more trustworthy members of the group,” he said. He turned around to look up at me. “Rain- he’s in a bad place.”
“In more than one way,” I said.
“I didn’t want to ask him, but… what Fallen family is he from? The last time I ran into Fallen, they were Crowleys, but… it’s not just Crowleys left, in Gimel, and the Crowleys would be bad enough.”
“I don’t think he’s living with the Crowleys,” Tristan said. “But he won’t tell me.”
“Okay,” I said.
If we were people who’d been powerless once, set out to help the powerless, that might mean Rain and Erin were people who were very high on our list of people to help. He’d brought her for a reason. Had he expected her to communicate with us? Or was her presence meant to communicate something?
“One last question,” I said.
“Go for it,” Tristan said.
“The hand signal earlier today,” I said. I mimed it, hand not with palm facing forward at Tristan, but at an angle, so palm would be facing his feet instead, were he standing up.
“Hm? I thought that was obvious.”
I shook my head.
“Stop,” Tristan said, palm out, facing forward. He pointed forward with three fingers, “Go.”
He made the gesture. “Go slow. Ease up. I figured it was intuitive.”
I chuckled under my breath.
“Not at all,” I said.
“You were wanting to juggle the group,” I said.
“Feeling my way through it,” he said. “This is new to me. I’m worried I’m going to fuck it up. Rain’s my friend. I care about them all. Even Chris, God help me.”
I hesitated before speaking.
“Is it- is it okay that I’m here?” I asked. “I’m not making things worse by being here?”
“No. I don’t think you are,” he said. “We need the help.”
“Okay,” I said. “Good. It would be pretty hard for me to walk away at this point, if you said no.”
“Yeah. Probably,” he said.
We sat for a bit. There wasn’t much more conversation. I was tired, after waking up early, and the adrenaline was long gone, leaving me weary to the bone, even though I hadn’t exerted myself that much on a physical level.
When Tristan stood and stretched, I took that as an unspoken cue. We went back inside.
It would have been tidy and neat for more to happen before we packed up for the day, but it seemed everyone involved was licking wounds or replenishing their batteries in their individual ways. I could hear Ashley’s voice, volume lowered on the camera, as she ranted about something, and Beast of Burden chimed in with monosyllables. Prancer looked after his territory, cleaning up the rubble from the walls, talking to people, trying to get sorted.
Love Lost and Snag emerged from their apartment building, and Love Lost’s leg was fixed. They stood outside for a while, Snag talking periodically, making comments.
It was right when we were getting packed up to go, Kenzie had dinner with her parents and Rain had to take Erin back to the camp, that things started moving again in Cedar Point.
A camper van pulled up and parked in the middle of the street, near where the bottleneck had been. The people that emerged were Case Fifty-threes.
Sveta went tense.
“Do you know them?” Kenzie asked.
“Circe,” Sveta said. “Whippersnap. Bristle. He must have researched me or asked Tattletale about me, and then reached out to them after. They were teammates, once. They know me.”
“You talked about them in group,” Tristan said.
Other cars were pulling up. I looked at the clock. It was six in the evening. This was a pre-arranged meeting time.
This time, the cars were sleek. Six black cars, one large truck.
The drivers remained in their seats, and the occupants of the vehicles exited out the backs.
“These are ones you should know,” Tristan said. To me.
I recognized Tattletale, from the lead car. She had a kid with a bird on his shoulder with her. She smiled.
I saw Snuff, and I saw other assorted henchmen. Soldiers, like Coil had once used.
In one of the cars further back, Imp climbed out. Eerie to see her older, now. There was a crew of kids with her, all wearing masks.
Parian. She had been a rogue. Turned to the dark side. Flechette. For the briefest period of time, she had been a teammate. She went by Foil now, I was pretty sure.
The truck? Rachel Lindt. Hellhound. Bitch. She had a bevy of dogs.
The Undersiders chatted like long-lost friends. Tattletale was exempt, standing back, smiling.
There were others I didn’t recognize. They’d gathered capes. Henchmen, teammates, connections. Big and small.
Cars were still pulling up and parking as I watched Tattletale approach Prancer to shake his hand. Her Undersiders were at her back. I could see Nursery in the background. I spotted someone who might have been Kingdom Come.
I then saw her put her gloved hand in Snag’s large mechanical one, shaking it. She smiled like it was a joke she got that nobody else did.
“They’re meeting about the attack,” Sveta said.
“Or they’re making it tonight,” Tristan said. He put his bag down.
“Shh,” Kenzie said.
The pair were walking away from the greater group. With all of the cars parking, even in the growing gloom, the car headlights illuminated the area. Tattletale and Snag stepped toward shadow, where they were out of earshot of most others.
“You located him?”
“I’ve known where he was for a very long time,” Tattletale answered Snag.
Love Lost was approaching. Snag turned his head to see.
The two communicated briefly, a word from Snag, Love Lost tapping the backs of her hands together twice, the metal there clinking.
As they had that exchange, Tattletale looked around idly, her eyes turning skyward.
Her eyes locked on the camera, looking directly at us.
“Love Lost says-”
“Yes. He’ll wait for the crowd to thin out before deploying. And you-”
“We’ll deliver,” she said. “You’ll get your fourth, I get each of you for three years.”
“That’s fine,” Snag said.
“Just don’t tell me whatever you end up doing to him, and we’re golden,” she said.