Shadow – 5.6

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter

Sveta tugged my arm, dragging me off the train.  The sky was dark and the lights of the city were at their deceptive stage where so few apartments and buildings were lit up that it looked like it was four in the morning, not seven in the evening.

“Come on,” she urged, tugging.

“There’s stuff to do before everything happens tomorrow,” I said.  “I really want to, but plans.”

“Change your plans.  You need to talk to the Wardens, right?”

“I was planning on doing a write-up I can bring with.  I sent an email before we got on the train, I’d have to get my computer or phone out to see if they responded already.”

“Come on.  Talk to Weld.  We’ll work something out for the rest.”

More to keep us from getting in other people’s way, I let Sveta drag me out onto the train platform.  We stood outside the train while people got on.  I had only a minute to decide if I’d do what I wanted to do, which was to go with Sveta, or if I’d do what I needed to do, which was to prepare for an imminent war that too few people seemed to be aware of.

Lots of the people were staring or glancing at Sveta, with her unusual body.  The noises that body made as she tugged at me drew as much attention as the colorful suit.

“Let me check my phone?” I asked.  “It might change what I’m doing.”

“Okay.”

The connection was slow as I waited for my email to load, the diamond shape in the center of the blank page folding into itself endlessly in the ‘loading’ loop.

I sighed a little as the train doors closed and the train went on its way.

“Don’t sigh at me, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “The train doesn’t matter.  You can fly.”

“People make fun of you on the internet if you get caught on camera while browsing your phone or laptop while flying.  I wanted to sit and chat with you about dumb, meaningless stuff-”

“Which we thoroughly did.”

“-and then spend the rest of the trip typing notes.”

“I used to admire that side of you.  It was a good thing when you were doing the physio, and when you were watching those videos of university classes.  Which were incredibly boring, I’m sorry.”

“They were the highlight of my day.”

“They were so boring.  I don’t know how you make powers boring, but they managed.  But you had the mental fortitude to push through it.”

“I enjoyed it,” I said.  “Really.”

“But I’m worried about that attitude now.  If I had real hands I’d reach up and feel your shoulders to see how tense you are.”

I relaxed my shoulders as casually and naturally as possible.

“If you’re stiffer than the girl with the prosthetic body and her metal boyfriend, you need to relax.  Spend some time with me and Weld.  We’ll talk about tomorrow.”

“I need to call Crystal first.”

“Invite her!” Sveta said.  She reached out and jostled my arm roughly.  “Bring her.  Tristan was going to come by later with some stuff for me, when he has his turn again.  He’ll have updates.  We can make it a little leadership meeting.”

She looked so happy at the notion.

“I’ll ask if she’s interested,” I conceded.

“I’ll have to figure out what we’ll eat,” Sveta said, in an almost sing-song, happy way.

My phone finally loaded.  I had messages and emails.  I ignored them and sent one to Crystal.

Me:
Sveta’s trying to drag me to dinner with her and Weld.  You want to come?

“I’m not trying to drag you,” Sveta said, as she set her chin down on my shoulder.

“You were literally dragging me.”

Best Cousin:
yes!  where?  what do I bring?

“Nothing,” Sveta said.  “We’ll have to order in.”

Me:
Blue binder from the coffee table.  It has a magazine cutout taped to front.

“That’s not nothing,” Sveta said.

Best Cousin:
I meant food u dumbass

“I like her,” Sveta said.

“People are feeling abusive today,” I said.  “Something in the air.”

I told Crystal not to bring food, then typed out the address as Sveta recited it.  I left the message typed in the box.

“Address is right.  Hit send,” Sveta said.

“We’ll compromise,” I said.  “Because I have about a hundred things I’ve been keeping in the back of my mind, and I had everything arranged in my head so tonight would be the night I pulled it together.”

“What’s the compromise?”

“I need to get organized.  If we’re not getting some stuff done for tomorrow, I’ll cut out a bit after dinner, and we’ll do it another time.”

“Deal.  I think you’ll find we’re better at balancing the cape stuff with the real stuff.  In a way, it’s all mixed up for us already.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Yeah.”

She hugged my arm.  “Send a message to Weld, too?  Let him know?”

I did.

“This way,” she said.  She walked with a bit of a bounce in her slightly ungainly step.  I wasn’t sure she would have been able to if she wasn’t holding onto me.

Stratford station and the surrounding neighborhood were an area of the megalopolis I primarily knew for its airfield.  Helicopters were in and out, and as someone who often had to fly past, I had to be mindful of the airspace.  I usually flew low or gave it a wider berth, using the highway to the north as my guide.

Now that I was in the neighborhood and moving at a walking pace, I could see it was one of the quainter areas.  It was one of the first areas to be settled, and the buildings were smaller, with more houses.  Not too dissimilar to my mom’s neighborhood.  Even the apartment buildings were three or four floors tall at the highest.  Like many of the buildings in the early settlements, they’d been built broad rather than tall.

My phone buzzed and I checked it.

I had two messages, excepting the six others I had from Kenzie.

The first was from the Wardens.  They wanted to talk at ten thirty in the evening.  Committee.  Team heads would be there.

I showed Sveta.

“Damn.  We can’t spend that long together,” she said.

“We do have things to do.”

“I know,” she said.

I sent a copy of the message with the time to the others.

The other was from Ashley:

 

Dark Damsel Ashley:
At my apartment with BoB henchmen to get my things and talk to landlord.  Moving to apartment in BoB territory.  Taking chance to send message while away from the c-voyants.

She’d sent the message to everyone.

I reported, “Ashley’s moving into Cedar Point, which I’m not sure I would have recommended, but she seems to know what she’s doing.”

“She’s doing fine,” Sveta said.

“She’s doing exceptionally, when it comes to the acting.  If that’s acting.  The way she’s letting these people see where she lives and she’s taking her stuff to Cedar Point, when it might be the site of some fighting?  Or infighting?  That’s where I might have given her other advice.”

“The way she’s unreservedly going forward might make it more believable.”

I nodded.  “She’s in Stratford, isn’t she?  We could bump into her.”

“Other direction from the station, but yeah.”

“Do you meet or anything?  It’s hard to picture you guys together without the group.”

“We’ve met a couple of times.  Um.  Mr. Armstrong came by twice, and he invited us all to lunch.”

“Weld’s foster dad, kind of.”

“Kind of.  And he looked after Ashley, once upon a time, when she was in custody, once, and making sure she had some of what she needed, when she was homeless.  He’s a big reason she’s free now, instead of being an unofficial prisoner with a protective guard, like some of the people from the Birdcage and the S-class threats.”

“Yeah.  You met for lunch?”

Sveta smiled.  “It was a bit awkward, most of the time it was two or three of the four of us talking and the rest didn’t have anything to add.  But I’m glad we did it.  There was one moment where we were talking about something, I forget what led up to it, but for most of that lunch we were all very aware of the difference between us, and Weld said something about how people stared.  Ashley said she’d trade places with me or Weld, because she would like to be monstrous, because it would simplify things and it would make it more natural to be intimidating.  Nevermind that we’d really rather not be called monsters.”

“Yeah.”

“And Weld said something about that, and Mr. Armstrong tried to clarify, but it wasn’t getting through.  I remember thinking of just how huge the gulf was between us, and then I tried to explain things too.  I said how it was different from wearing a certain dress or acting a certain way, because you can’t take it off.  You can’t get away from it.  And that makes it something different.  Any situation you don’t have control over is automatically worse.”

“What was her response?  You said it was a moment.”

“It was really, really good.  She understood and then all of us were talking for the first time that lunch.  Weld, Ashley and I were all talking about very different things, pressure, differences, and the rest of the world feeling like something that presses in on us.  But we were on the same wavelength, with Mr. Armstrong chiming in now and again to clarify or add a point.  When the group started talking about wanting to make a team, I think that was one of the things that made it something I could be really interested in, instead of something where I had to say ‘yeah, that’s cool, but what about Ashley?’.”

“I can picture that scene.  Was it what Armstrong wanted?”

“I snuck a look at him, and he looked pleased as punch.  That was the last time we all got together.  I wonder if that moment was what he was going for, and he considers his work done now that it happened.”

“It’s taken me a while to get that far with the group.  I’m not sure I’m all the way there.”

“I’ve had to deal with it too, realizing it’s not all peaches and cream.”

“Peaches and-  You mean peachy keen?”

“Either,” Sveta said.

She was giving me a cheeky look, probably because she knew I’d react.  I rolled my eyes.

“Reality is a thing,” Sveta said.  “Stuff’s going on.”

“The honeymoon period is over,” I said.

“Yeah.  It wasn’t really a honeymoon.  More like it was nice when it was an idea, but once we executed it, we had to deal with stuff.”

I nodded.

I double checked my phone, which was still in my hand, then pocketed it.

“Was there another moment?” I asked.

“I went over to her apartment once, before a session.  Not long after the lunch thing.  It’s nice, she seems to save up to buy nicer things, but there are gaps.  So she has a really, really nice black leather couch, a black glass coffee table, a nice television, and a piece of art on the wall that looks expensive… and then for the rest of the room it’s moving boxes to sit on and put stuff on.”

“I can sort of understand that.  I don’t think it’s unique to her.  When you first move out on your own, most of the time, I think you get other people’s leftover stuff, or thrift store stuff.  Everyone’s getting started over anew now.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  She shrugged awkwardly, like it was a motion she hadn’t practiced much.  “But she loved all the things she had, so much.  There was something there.  I could see the person she might have been, without powers, or the kid she was before powers.  When I was defending her to you, in the first days we were with the group, that’s what I thought of.”

“I like what she’s been doing for the group.  She’s been honest with me, but I don’t know if I’ve seen that glimmer of light.”

Maybe I had.  When Ashley had seen Presley’s responses on the train.

“I don’t know if I’d call it light.”

“I don’t either.  But… I’m imagining what you’re saying.  I’ll keep it in mind.  I’ll keep an open mind.”

“Please,” Sveta said.  “And we’re almost there.  The place might be a little messy, to warn you.”

“Crystal and I are two people crammed into an apartment with room for one person, I don’t think it’s a problem,” I said.  I withheld the part where Crystal was a bit of a pig.

The apartment building was one among many, in a building with a post office built into one corner of the ground floor.  With the small post office taking up a quarter of the ground floor, the remaining three quarters were divided into two spaces, it seemed.  The hallway was open-air, more tunnel than hall, and there were windows on both sides, looking into both the tunnel and a small, narrow yard.  I could see children’s toys in the yard.

Sveta went to the door, and fished for a key on a lanyard that she wore around her neck.

“Ground floor.  Convenient.”

“Yeah.  Weld worries sometimes that if he was on an upstairs floor, if it was wooden floors, he’d cause too much wear and tear and then plunge through.”

Sveta opened the door.  “I’m home.  I brought Victoria.”

“Hey!”  Weld stepped into the kitchen.  He wore a black t-shirt in a tougher material, jeans, and the same rugged sandals I’d seen before.  A set of headphones were hanging from his neck.

Sveta went straight to him, and he had to catch her so she wouldn’t crash into him.  She kissed him, then planted another kiss on his cheek when he turned his focus to me, smiling.

“Victoria.  It’s so great to see you.”

“Sorry to drop in, and I’m also sorry I’ll be distracted tonight.  I hope you don’t mind if I get my laptop out at some point.  We have stuff to coordinate and figure out.”

“That’s fine.  I’d love to talk shop,” he said.  “Things have been weird with my team lately.  The gears of bureaucracy grind slowly.  Just one thing.”

“One thing?”

“Don’t say sorry.  I get enough of them from her.”

“Don’t say that!” Sveta said, scandalized.

“Three unnecessary apologies before breakfast, another two after breakfast, before she’s out the front door.  At least one in a text message.”

“I’m not that bad.”

Weld smiled, then planted a kiss on the side of her head.

“Don’t try to mollify me or distract me.  Not while we have company,” Sveta said.  She pointed at me.  “She needs to unwind.  I thought we could do that and still hammer out the essentials.”

“We’ll try,” Weld said.

“Make yourself at home,” Sveta said.  “I’m going to go rinse off.  I’ve been cooped up in this body and I’m all waxy and gross inside here.  I’ll be back out in a minute.”

“Do you want me to take your body?” Weld asked.

“I’m okay.  I’ll bring a change of clothes in with me.”

Sveta broke away from him and half-crashed-into, half-hugged me.  Clearly happy, she went off to do her thing, leaving Weld and I.

“Make yourself comfortable.  I’d offer food and drink, but I’m not sure what we have.  I don’t usually partake-”

Weld paused as Sveta closed the bathroom door.

“-unless she’s inflicting an experiment on me.”

“I heard that,” Sveta said, opening the door, before shutting it again.

The apartment wasn’t what I would have called ‘messy’.  In a way, it was very different from Crystal’s place.  There was no detritus, nothing left lying around.

Drawers had flat, painted metal faces, with no handles.  Furniture was divided into things with no legs with what looked like it might have been stone framing the edges, and Sveta’s favored grappling structures, which were poles extending from floor to ceiling with various platforms and things to hold on to.  Even the walls had metal bracing at the corners, painted over so Weld wouldn’t stick to them.

“Case fifty-three living,” Weld said.

“She said it was messy.  I don’t see it.”

“Then I did a good job with my last-minute sweep and clean up,” Weld said.  “Living room?”

I let him lead me to the living room.  I put my bag down by the coffee table and sat down on the couch, which looked homemade to withstand someone who weighed a few hundred pounds sitting on it.  It was so firm I nearly bounced off of it while sitting down.  Once I set my weight down, though, it gradually eased up, hissing as it adjusted to my weight.

Leaning forward, I looked outside into the yard.  A toy plane was parked on the lawn, the kind a kid could sit in and push with their feet.

“Did Sveta tell you what’s going on?” I asked.

“Some.  I had trouble following who was who, sometimes, but I got the gist of it.”

“There’s an attack planned on the Fallen tomorrow.  One of our… not sure how to put it, or how much you know.  Our contact, they’re at risk.  There are innocents there, and I’m not sure the villains care about sparing them.”

“How can I help?” Weld asked.

I adjusted my bag at my shoulder, to indicate, and said, “I’ve got a report partially written up.  If you could glance over it, let me know what you think?  You know the Wardens and what their mindset is.”

“Sure.”

“I wanted to do some stuff with my costume later, but that might have to wait.  It’d be nice to finalize some costume things when I get back to my place, but timing is getting tighter, since it’s already… seven thirty, and we have to get halfway across the city for ten thirty.”

“My offer stands, you know,” Weld said.

“Offer?”

“To help with any of the metalwork, when you get a new costume.”

It took me a second to connect the thought.

“What the hell, Weld?  That was years ago, when I was thinking about rebranding and joining the Brockton Bay Wards.”

“It stands,” Weld said, smiling.

I paused.  “You’re sure?  I have stuff at my apartment.”

“I’m sure.”

“Thank you,” I said.  I fired off a quick series of texts to Crystal.

Me:
Have you left yet?

Best Cousin:
i’m on my way out the door. promise

Me:
If it’s not too heavy to carry, can you bring the black shopping bag with the yellow leaf on it from under that table?

“Thank you,” I said, as I finished.

“You’re worried about this,” Weld said.  “Sveta said you were tense.  It’s bad?”

“It’s the Fallen, which aren’t great, and it’s a lot of villains who are pretty desperate for relevance.  We’ve got to pitch this to the Wardens, I think we need more hands on deck, and from the murmurings I’ve heard, there aren’t many to go around.”

“There are some,” Weld said.  “Advance Guard is on standby, others are out of rotation.”

“Advance Guard is… a thing,” I said.  “We ran into them earlier.  I’m not sure they’d cooperate unless made to.”

“You might run into trouble getting anyone to cooperate.  If they aren’t occupied, they’re officially on standby.  Their instinct is going to be to be ready and available in case something bigger happens.”

“Then I’d want to frame it in a way that would justify bringing these people out of standby?”

“Yep.  Show me what you have?” he asked.

I pulled out my laptop, setting it on the coffee table, which was three planks set atop six planks, set firmly in place with metal bands around the perimeter.  I wondered if it was built to be easily remade or rebuilt if it got broken.

The planks had been painted in what I recognized as Sveta’s style.  Clear, bold outlines, almost like a paint-by-numbers picture, or a stained glass picture, but the colors that filled each space were rich, varied, and multi-textured.  Blue that became green, or shaded red, or mottled orange.

Weld sat down next to me.  I opened the document and showed him.

Three sub-factions in Cedar Point.  I’d outlined the people in brief, with them named in more detail at the appendix, pulling out old records, files, articles and more to depict them in as much detail as I could without getting too lost in the exact facts.  I’d put down their motivations, whether it was money or personal, I had notes on their adherence to the rules, real and unwritten, and I’d outlined other things about their behavior and patterns.

“The problem with some of this is it doesn’t leave the immediate impression that this is something that multiple hero groups are going to want to step into,” Weld said.  “It’s deep knowledge that someone going into the fight would love, the geeks will love it, but it’s not something that’s going to get people into the fight, if they aren’t already convinced.”

“Yeah.  It’s too dry.  I’m thinking the notes on petty crimes are distracting from the gravity of the situation.”

“Yeah.”

“Instead of an introduction to the parties involved, I could open with a presentation on the scenario, frontload it with words like war.”

“Not war,” Weld said.  “That’s going to remind people that there’s something bigger on the horizon that we need to be ready for.”

Bigger.  We had a group with a dozen capes and we had another forty or more capes from Cedar Point going on the offensive.

“Of course.  Maybe… potential loss of civilian life, fallout, and provoking a retaliative back-and-forth that extends across the city at a time when resources are already tested.  Something that you don’t want happening behind you while you’re facing a war in front of you.”

“Sounds like you have the right idea.”

“Weld?” Sveta called out.

“Be right back.”

I worked on the document while Weld joined Sveta in the washroom.  Title page written, the size of confrontation outlined, and the ramifications made clear.

I was writing it to try to convince a group of seasoned heroes and the people who managed them.  It felt convincing, because I was feeling nervous, getting into everything that was involved.

The last time I’d been in something of this scale, I’d been spit on by a mutant the size of a truck.  I’d had most of my flesh melted off and necrotized, and I’d been left vulnerable and helpless.

At that point in time, with the pain being as bad as it was, my emotions all over the map as I thought one thing and felt another, I’d been ready to die.  I hadn’t done nearly enough, but I’d fought and I was ready for it to be over.  The chance at living hadn’t been worth the risk of being healed.

Tattletale had lied to me, and had forced Amy on me.  She had some small responsibility for everything that followed.

So easy, in moments like this, for there to be a point of weakness.  Letting my guard down could do so much damage.

I left the document like it was, so there was room for more revisions before polish.  I checked my messages.

Eighteen total messages from Kenzie.  Photos of the body part of her costume in progress, some more stream-of-consciousness, she let me know when she was going to dinner, then when she came back.  Pizza, apparently.  She’d wanted to have her hands free to focus.  She also wanted to know what to bring.

Which raised a question about what our exact role would be in things as they happened.  Our priorities.

I put that aside.  It was for the group to discuss.

Tristan.  Last I’d heard, he was talking to the lawyer.

Tristan the Goat:
waiting for legal advisor nat now.
am not optimistic but got video footage from Ls as you recommended.
ugh.  if nat keeps me waiting any longer I’ll have to switch for byron.
going to svetas later btw. will update properly around then.

I sent him a message to let him know I’d be at Sveta’s place.

Tristan had been frustrated by Natalie earlier, but we’d try this, because I’d had a small amount of luck after giving her something more tangible to work with than my reports.  We’d try bouncing people off Natalie until we found one that worked.  If any one member of the group ended up being good at working with Natalie, we’d keep them in that role as legal liaison.  If Natalie couldn’t be worked with, we would find someone else.

An email from Byron, twenty minutes after that.

Byron the Blue:
rain left a voice message for me and Tristan.  sounded rushed.  he isn’t staying at his place tonight.  he might go back tomorrow but sounded weird.  specifically said he was messaging us to drop details so we would have lead if something happened to him.  ominous.

More details to come.  Will send you the voice message when I get home to computer and figure out how

Concerning.

 

A message from Presley, sent via Email and translated to a text:

Presley from the Train:
Can u ask ur friend from the train how she gets her hair so white?

It put a slight smile on my face, when everything else felt so heavy.  I made a mental note to ask.

There was also a group text discussion too long for me to search through, mostly Kenzie and Chris, where Chris was asking what forms we needed for him for tomorrow.  I scrolled down to the bottom, at which point Tristan was no longer participating.

Creepy Kid:
Blind rage would be a mistake I think.  Sudden Shock is quick…
…Or Keen Vigilance.  Slow but tough…
…and I’d be able to see and hear most of what was going on.

Heart Shaped Pupil:
Is that the one with all the eyes?

Creepy Kid:
That’s Multifaceted Interest.  You call yourself a good student?

Heart Shaped Pupil:
I am a good student.  Interest and vigilance are the same for you.

Creepy Kid:
Same range of the spectrum as Vigilance but diff’t. Is open and loose…
…You haven’t seen Vigilance. Same thing but focused more and pulled together tight…
…Think armadillo with ears like a fennec fox and bigger eyes…
…and claws because its keen

Heart Shaped Pupil:
Awww

Creepy Kid:
Very not aww. Ugh.

I added my own thought to the text conversation.

Victoria:
We want you on sidelines.  Fast would be good.  Rescue, evacuate civilians

Heart Shaped Pupil:
Vicotria!!!
Victoria!
How are you?  Excited?

Creepy Kid:
I can make that one form.  But I want to get my hands dirty too.

Hands dirty?  I paused, thinking about that.  Looking back at the conversation, I skimmed things.  Chris had contributed more than half of the conversation, going into detail, ideas, plans.

I had never seen him quite this engaged.  Was it because he was more comfortable online than in person?  Or was it because he wanted to get his hands dirty, as he put it?

Victoria:
Why?

Creepy Kid:
_This_ is why I’m doing this hero team thing…
…I missed the visit to the Warden HQ because I wasn’t at the computer…
…which was my fault. I need to be a part of this.

I didn’t reply immediately, instead sitting back, thinking about things, while Kenzie responded, sharing some of the same image she had already sent me as part of the chat.

Chris wanted to be a part of this, and the visit to the Warden HQ.  He wanted to be part of the big things?  The large events?  But he didn’t care about the rest?  Were the big events tied to big emotions?

I couldn’t understand him.

A knock on the front door got my attention.  Weld stepped out of the bathroom, towel at one of his hands, and let Crystal in.  She had the binder and the bag.  She was wearing her bodysuit with a jacket and jeans.  The ‘Laserdream’ logo on the front, an arrow with a series of lines flowing behind it at a diagonal.

“This is so damn heavy, Victoria” she said.

“If it was too heavy you should have left it,” I said.  I hurried across the living room and down the hallway to reach her, relieving her of the bag.

Greetings went around.  Sveta stepped out of the washroom, wearing her body again, with a sweatshirt and sweatpants on.  Her makeup had been washed off, and the tattoo was clearly visible on her cheekbone.  She gave Crystal a hug.

“They’re preparing for a crisis,” Weld said.

“I know,” Crystal said.  “Believe me, I know.”

We moved to the living room.  I set the black cloth shopping bag down, and fished inside.

“What’s in this bag?” Crystal asked.

I pulled out some of the costume materials.

There were four ways to go with a costume.  The first was to make it yourself.  It leaned heavily on one’s own ability, and I wasn’t sure I had the ability to keep everything trim while also giving it a unique cut.  The second way was to buy it, but that had problems, and a lot of the places and people that offered costume making services had a way of injecting their own tastes into things, so one of their clients often resembled another.  The third way was to have someone else handle that for you, working for the like of the Wards or Wardens and leaving it up to the Branding department.  Not an option for me.

The fourth was to mix and match.  I’d take a small shortcut.  I’d bought black and white versions of the same hooded top, picked for the slanted cut around the collar, shoulders, and the more sleeves.  I could cut one up and use it to apply trim to the other and know the cut would match.  Then I’d apply the additional elements that would make it a costume.

“I was going to do some sewing to keep my hands busy while I read up on things, but plans changed.”

“Cloth isn’t that heavy.  What else is that, that makes it so heavy?” Crystal asked.

“Spare stuff from dad,” I said.  I pulled out some equipment.  It was the right kind of material, all in a matte gunmetal, but the texture was all wrong.  Dad was ‘Flashbang’ and the armor panels, mask, straps, and guards were all in the style of a grooved grenade exterior.  I’d always thought it was a dumb theme when most flashbangs were smooth-exterior canisters.  “I was thinking I could maybe get you to trim it, Crystal.  Sear off the knobby bits and leave just the panel of armor.  I haven’t quite worked the process out.”

“I can do that.  What look do you want?” Weld asked.

I grabbed the binder, and began flipping through it.  Costume notes and ideas.

“There are years of geeking out in that binder, for the record,” Crystal said.

Sveta collapsed into the seat next to me, looking at the art I’d picked out for reference and ideas.

I found pages, opened the binder to retrieve them, and then closed it so I could fish for more.

“Hood, layered long sleeves I can remove as needed for weather.  Fingerless gloves with decoration.  Metal decoration at the front and edges of the hood… like this image here.  Spikes, like my old tiara, but at the shoulder, decorating edges of the hood, and at the breastplate… which would be structured on a basic level, just like this image.”

The breastplate was flat, with only a slight curve to deflect blows.  A matching, briefer plate rested against the collarbone and upper breast, the bottom part overlapping and sticking up slightly.

“A bit of a warrior angel,” Weld said, turning one picture around so it was right-side-up for him.

“Without the wings.  Yeah, maybe,” I said.

“Sweetie, no,” Crystal said.  “You’re one of the very few capes who can get away with a breastplate that shows off the assets, because you have the forcefield.  You don’t want to be pervy about it, because that’s a whole different kind of cape, but a costume should make more of what you are.”

I rolled my eyes at her.

“It would be utterly criminal if I let you do that,” she said.

I shook my head.  “If any kids end up looking up to me, or if any became heroes, I don’t want them thinking that kind of armor is okay.  It’s asking to get hurt.”

“It’s still way better than a bodysuit, and we’ve been wearing those for years,” Crystal said.

“I like the idea of armor.  I intend to get up close and personal, and my defenses won’t always be up.”

“I know that,” Crystal said.  “I can see it.  But you shouldn’t hide in your costume.  It shouldn’t bury you.  I said the same to- I’ve said it often enough before.”

She’d said the same to Amy.

I hadn’t missed the fact that Amy had worn a hood as part of her costume.

Maybe I’d go with black cloth, applying the white trim, rather than the inverse.

“I think Victoria should dress the way she wants,” Sveta said.

“So do I,” Crystal said.  “But I also think sometimes friends and family need to steer you a bit.”

“I don’t see it as hiding,” I said.  “That’s not the reasoning or logic.  I want the costume to have weight, while still being form-fitting at the torso and arms.  Layers, armor, the hood.  Breaking from the norm is important, because it makes an impact.  Most of the time, you see a cape in a hood, and you naturally glance beneath, and there’s a gimmick keeping the face beneath from being seen.  Another mask, or power-generated shadow, or something else.  They’ll just see me.  Glaring or smiling, but it could have more impact when they do.”

“No mask?” Crystal asked.

“I thought about it.  I might have one for protective reasons, for intense situations or cold weather, but… it’s not me.”

“Okay,” she said.

“Spikes,” Weld said.  “You want me to do those?  And the breastplate?”

“I don’t have a breastplate,” I said.  “Just the extra pads.”

“I can blend them into each other.  The shiny coating will be pretty thin, though.  I have stuff of my own.”

“Please,” I said.  “That’d be amazing.”

Sveta bumped her shoulder into mine.  “See?  Seee?  It was so good you came.”

“You sound more like Kenzie than yourself right now.”

“This is good.  People!  We collaborate.”

“I need more information on the spikes before I do the rough shape,” Weld said.  “You made notes on this.  Five spikes at the shoulder, uneven?”

“Rays more than spikes,” I said.  “They space out, four, and then one shorter.  Minor gap between the four and one.”

“Any reason for the short one?” Weld asked.

“Symmetry,” I said.  “It curves in, so it’s more toward the front of the shoulder, and it leads into more of the same at the breastplate decoration.”

“Hmmm.”

“No?” I asked.

“Hhm.  I’ll trust your instincts,” he said.  “I can work faster if I heat the metal up.  I’m going to go set up the forge.”

“Why barbecue when you can use lasers?” Crystal asked.  “Lasers are great.  We can collab and gossip like schoolgirls while these two work out their business.”

“My schoolgirl impression leaves a lot to be desired,” Weld said.

Crystal grinned.  “But barbecue sounds good, while we’re on the subject.  I was tempted here with food and promises of a chance to tease my cousin.”

“Ah, right.  I tend to forget, because I don’t eat much,” Weld said.

“Wait, wait, wait.  Promises of what?” I asked.

“Implied promises, at least,” she said.

“I can order in,” Sveta said.  “We can do the teasing later.”

“You guys laugh, but I can fire back just as hard.”

“I look forward to it,” Crystal said.

They headed over to the door that led out into the backyard and the brick patio, collecting a few of the components, and paused at the door.

A kid, about five or six, was at the glass door.  His mouth was pressed to the glass and he was exhaling, so his cheeks puffed out and the inside of his mouth was in plain view.

“He’s one of the kids from next door,” Sveta said.  “We don’t use the backyard much, since Weld tears it up and I have a harder time walking on grass.  Sometimes they say hi.”

“Open sesame!” Weld called out.

The kid hurried to obey.  He milled around Weld and Crystal as they got themselves organized outside.  Crystal set up a forcefield to keep the kid at bay while starting to heat up the metal.  The kid seemed fascinated by the field.

Sveta and I remained on the couch, watching Weld, Crystal, and the kid through the glass.

“It’s nice, having the kids around,” Sveta said.  “Annoying sometimes, but mostly nice.”

“Yeah.  Do you do much with them?”

“We babysit.  I have art in my room that I got from them.  I gave them some back.  I think it’s important.  Reaching out, having that human connection, having people have good experiences with us.”

“Absolutely,” I said.

“Five spikes, one shorter and set apart.  Is it a hand?” Sveta asked.  Her voice was quiet.  For me alone.  “A dangerous hand?”

“Yeah, a bit,” I said.  “A bit of the sun, glory, crown of the statue of liberty motif.  But the hands are- yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because sooner or later, people are going to find out about the w- about my forcefield.  It might be a certain power interaction, it might be dust in the air or rain streaming down it.  Maybe a person looks through a tinker lens and sees it.  I’ll make my uneasy peace with it first.  I want to own that side of myself, at least a little, before that happens.”

“What were you about to call it, before you stopped yourself?”

I hesitated.  “The wretch.”

“Is it?  A wretch?  It’s strong, isn’t it?  I was thinking about it, and how you carried Kenzie’s box.  You used straps.”

“More about where it comes from than what it is,” I said.

“Mine is anxiety and instinct,” Sveta said.  “If you ever want, I can tell you some things that Mrs. Yamada taught me.  But try to figure out what it’s doing first, then figure out how to work around it.”

“Thanks,” I said.  Looking for a bit of an escape or out, I reached out for the binder, and shifted its position on the table.

“Owning it sounds like a good start.  That’s the last I’ll say until you ask.  Now, tell me, do you have anything in here to help inspire my costume?”

“I have so much in here for your costume,” I said, smiling at least in part due to my relief that that conversation was over.

Sveta and Weld’s place had been tidy before, but it was something else by the time the next knock on the door came.  Costume pieces, straps, cut cloth, paper bowls of clearly recycled paper with inauthentic Chinese food within, metal, costume notes, and two laptops.

Weld had put his music on.  He had an eclectic taste, and the current song was, as close as I could place it, rock with one of the two vocalists using throat singing.

Tristan entered, carrying his bag over one shoulder.  Natalie followed him in.

“Who’s this?” Crystal asked me.

“Natalie, the paralegal, and Tristan, the teammate.”

“I like Tristan’s choice in colors,” Crystal said.

I didn’t get a chance to respond, because Tristan and Natalie joined us in the living room.

“Crystal.  We didn’t meet,” Tristan said.  “I was watching on camera while you visited Cedar Point.”

“I love the hair,” Crystal said.  “I like the color, too.  I have a soft spot for boys who are brave enough to dye their hair.  If only you were a bit older.”

“I’m flattered,” Tristan said.  “Those aren’t the boys I tend to go after, myself, but my dating life isn’t very… alive, either.”

“Ah, is that so?” Crystal asked.  “Here, come sit.  I think there’s a clear space somewhere here.”

“Costume stuff, apparently.  And we’ve got the munchkins on the screen,” Tristan observed.  He bent down and waved for the camera that was built into the corner of the laptop.  A tiny Kenzie waved back.  Chris existed only in text.

“And this is Natalie,” I introduced Natalie.  I wasn’t wholly sure why she was here, but Tristan had wanted to invite her, and I wasn’t about to object if he was trying another way to get her more onboard.  “Mom recommended her.  Natalie, this is Crystal, my cousin.”

“Pleasure,” Crystal said, half-standing to extend a hand.

Natalie shook it and gave Crystal a tight smile back.  Crystal gave me a momentary glance as she sat back down.

“I’m sorry we’re such a mess right now,” Sveta said.  “The apartment is usually nicer.”

“I totally understand,” Natalie said.  “Don’t worry.”

“Food,” Weld said.  “Help yourself, please.  Sveta doesn’t eat much and it’ll go to waste otherwise.  I think we kept track of the ones I ate from and put them away.”

“Why does it matter?” Tristan asked.

“I don’t have much sense of smell or taste.  We’ve been exploring, and we’re getting further afield, trying things that are not so good for flesh and blood.”

“We started with capsaicin and citric acid concentrate,” Sveta said.

“Among other things,” Weld said.

“We’ll find something,” Sveta said.

“Hoping so.  If it tastes funny, don’t keep eating it,” Weld said.  “I think we removed all of the dishes I tried.”

“I’ll pass, thank you,” Natalie said.

Tristan sat down on the floor next to Crystal, grabbing a spare bowl, before portioning out contents.

“Any more word from our absentee?” I asked.

“Nothing except a string of seemingly random words left in case he disappears for good.  It’s cryptic enough it would take some trying to find him, which I think is what he intends.”

“It might be a good thing,” Crystal said.  “If they’re after him.”

“Tactically?  Yes.  But he’s a friend.  He told me almost everything,” Tristan said.  “Not this.”

I looked at the screen of the computer.  Rapping my fingers against the edge of the laptop twice, I said, “C says it’s unusual for our missing member to use something that cryptic.  He’s not wrong.”

“There’s a lot of unusual happening with him lately, I don’t know what conclusions to draw from that,” Tristan said.  “He gives himself a hard time because he doesn’t realize that he has a lot of inner strength and a lot of general talents the rest of us don’t have.  I think he’s capable enough to come out of this intact, barring the worst case scenarios.”

“I worry about the people around him, too,” I said.

“I do too,” Sveta said.  She held out her arm while Weld checked the fit of a different arm encasement.  His finger drawn to a point, he raked it along the metal to mark a part that needed fixing.

“We’ll figure this out,” Tristan said.

“How did the talk go?” I asked, looking between Tristan and Natalie.

“Natalie and I covered the events of the day,” Tristan said.  “Byron is loaning me time so I can do more.  He’ll help some tomorrow too.  He’s not up for the hero thing, but this is serious enough that he’s on board.  We’re a little more divided on tomorrow.”

“Thank you, Byron,” I said.  “As for tomorrow, Natalie, maybe you could take a look at the proposal for the Wardens?”

I turned my laptop around for her.  She took a seat on the ground to read it, no longer standing and hovering around like she didn’t know what to do with herself.

On the screen of Sveta’s laptop, Kenzie was elbow-deep in electronics, unable to type.  No recent messages from Chris.

Just about everyone had their costumes ready.  Kenzie was going to equip Chris with some projectors.

“Two major groups of capes,” I said.  “The Fallen aren’t to be messed with.  They were a minor nuisance for years, with some bad stuff going on in the background, with kidnappings, murders, mutilations of minorities, case fifty-threes included, and a lot of low-level terrorist or attention-grabbing stunts.  The group we’re focusing on now, I believe, are the Mathers.  Each of the major branches took an Endbringer as a theme, and the Mathers took the Simurgh.”

“The kidnappings were their thing,” Weld said.  “Back in Bet, they would go after isolated capes, ages sixteen to twenty-five.  These capes would be married into the family.  Thirteen incidents over seven years.  Three of the kidnapping victims stayed.  Three died.  The rest escaped, were released, or were freed by PRT intervention.  The PRT tried to go after them, but they moved frequently and they had anti-thinker measures in place.”

“It stands to reason they still have them,” I said.  Because Rain had been hiding among them.

“Stands to reason,” Tristan said.  “Looksee, that means you keep cameras off of the Fallen, unless we give the all clear.  We don’t know if it goes through cameras, and your cameras are weird enough it might be more dangerous.”

Kenzie took her hands off of her work to type.  Protests, it seemed.

“We’ll present our situation to the Wardens and we’ll do what we can to get them on board.  Whether we get them or not, we’ll have some priorities, small scale and big,  and they’ll be what we default to if we’re caught in the moment.”

“May I?” Tristan asked, scooting over and shifting the laptop so it was at a middle ground where both he and Natalie could read it.  Natalie gave him an annoyed look.  “You wrote them down.  Good.”

I leaned forward.  “This attack on the Fallen?  It’s villains looking for validation and a chance to show their stuff, and a lot of natural and justified hate for the Fallen.  They’re an acceptable target, and the Hollow Point group wants to show they’re a force unto themselves.  Part of the group will be going after our teammate, unfortunately, and we can’t control that directly.  But he’s not the focus of the larger group.”

“We’ll trust him, that he knows what he’s doing, if he’s hiding,” Tristan said.

“We have to, your buddy Chris says,” Crystal said.

“I was gracefully avoiding mentioning that, Chris,” Tristan said.

I went on, “Depending on how the scenario unfolds, we may need to evacuate bystanders.  The Hollow Point group is attacking the compound.  They arrived in cars, they had low-tier members out gassing up the cars for a trip, so we can assume they’ll drive and they’ll arrive at the compound, taking action from there.  They’ll probably split up, with teams that know each other sticking together.”

“Factions within the group,” Sveta said.  “Already some infighting.”

“Yep.    I emailed people my last draft of the document.  It covers the groups to expect.  Read it tonight or early tomorrow.  In a big engagement, we can’t just throw ourselves into the skirmish and hope things will resolve themselves,” I said.  “Tristan is more comfortable managing the group in the heat of the fight, I think.  I can give a bird’s eye view, and I’ll communicate what I can.  If I can’t solve an emerging problem myself, I’ll try to give direction to those who can.”

“Are the younger members of the group participating?” Natalie asked.

“Not directly,” I said.  “We talked about it.  We’ll do the same as we did in Cedar Point yesterday.  Looksee as toolbox, if she participates it’ll be as a projection, and we’ll keep her removed from the Fallen.  She focuses more on the Hollow Point group.  C runs interference.”

“Text from Looksee,” Crystal reported.  “She says her mom can drop her off with her projector.  That’s an adorable image, a cape being dropped off by a parent.”

“Not so adorable,” Tristan said.

“She wants to know if you can carry her projector in.”

“You’re the one carrying it,” Tristan said, to me.

“Not in,” I said.  “We’ll bring it and keep it near our retreat, so we have a point to fall back to.”

“Alright.  What does Looksee think?”

“She says that’s fine,” Crystal said.

“The focus in big engagements is to identify the points we can change, and act on them,” I said.  “Rescue and civilians will be a continuous one.”

Natalie moved the laptop, turning it toward Tristan.

“You’re done?” I asked.

“I read it.  I didn’t get into the list of capes, but I read about the ones in charge.”

“And?”

“I think the justifications for getting involved are sound.  That depends on what the Wardens say, mind you.  If they don’t agree, I don’t agree either.  It does seem to me, however, that it seems like the kind of thing where heroes are very badly needed.  I hope you get their help.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“I don’t think the younger members of the group should be involved.”

“Looksee will be more or less remote,” Tristan said.  “Creepy kid will be venturing in only when we give the a-ok.”

“As… Sudden Shock and Deep Reflection?”

“I guess,” Tristan said.

“If the Youth Guard were active, they’d say no,” Natalie said.

“Can you mute the laptop so they don’t hear?” Tristan asked.

Crystal covered the microphone on the laptop with her hand.

“Natalie,” Tristan said.  “If they Youth Guard were active, they’d say no, and the kids would get involved anyway.  That was a thing that happened in my experience.”

“Oh man, my brother and I gave everyone headaches,” Crystal said.  “Our grades dropped and our parents were told we had to give up the costumes for a few months until we pulled them back up.  Our parents, the Youth Guard, even the PRT was asked to keep an eye out for us.  We were scoundrels.”

“Right?” Tristan asked.

Crystal took her hand away from the microphone.  Both Chris and Kenzie were protesting at length about being deafened for that segment of conversation, with lines of chat appearing so fast they were hard to read.  Kenzie seemed to mostly enjoy joining her voice to Chris’.

“I’ve given my advice.”

“They’re members of the team,” Sveta said.  “We’ll keep them safe.”

Natalie pursed her lips but didn’t say anything.

“Let’s talk about major objectives,” I said.  “On the small scale, we help the civilians.  Pulling away from that, there are a few worst case scenarios here.”

“Major objectives,” I said.  “Containment, control, resolution.”

It was late, and the light from the windows were dark.  The administration in charge of the Wardens were sitting at the tables in front of us, to our left, and to our right.  Chevalier and Valkyrie were present, sitting directly in front of me.  Legend’s seat was empty.  I saw the name plate for Chief Armstrong, white haired with a very pronounced chin and a crooked nose.  He looked more like a mad scientist or a quirky grandfather than a major figure in the cape scene.

Some of them had laptops or tablets.  Chevalier was one of them.  He’d taken off his gold and silver helmet and wore a cloth mask beneath.  Not his serious armor set.  Valkyrie was in full costume, helmet on, and had no technology.  She did have a a specter standing just behind her right shoulder.  A man with a hazy silhouette.

I wore my costume.  The white decorative  trim on the black fabric was missing, and I planned more ornamentation for my gloves, but the rest was intact.  Spires of gold like my old tiara stood up at my shoulders, the middle-center of my breastplate, and decorated the armor around my legs and on my gloves.  The decoration at my forehead was a weight that kept my hood down, and my hair draped out over my right shoulder.  A protective mask hung from my belt, the curved surface resting around the curve of my thigh.  I’d don it if there was danger, and if I didn’t need to speak.

The costume had a weight to it.  It felt almost right.

“Talk to me about containment,” Chevalier said.

“The worst case scenarios here are that this becomes a problem for the city,” I said.  “If the Fallen lose but aren’t wiped out, precedent suggests they’ll hit back harder.  We could expect guerilla tactics throughout the city, terror attacks, and a hit against Cedar Point in particular.”

“The area that has been colloquially named Hollow Point,” a woman said.

“Yes, ma’am,” Capricorn answered.

“We’ll be operating from the perimeter, because getting into the thick of the situation would be beyond our abilities.  Part of our aim will be to keep Fallen from splintering away to regroup and lash out.  We’ll have a tinker trap waiting on the main road out of the area, and we’ll have eyes on the logging roads.”

“Does this perimeter extend to containing the villains of Hollow Point?” a man in a suit asked.  “If they rush in… does this tinker trap trap them there?”

I looked to my left, where Capricorn stood in his armor, then to my right, where Sveta was.  She’d donned some decorative additions.  As I wore spikes that echoed the wretch’s hands, Sveta wore armor that curved and curled away.

Kenzie was workshopping and had an earlier bedtime.  Chris had wanted to come, but we hadn’t been able to get him in costume, and having him around and uncostumed wasn’t a good look when we wanted to present our best face.

He’d been a little upset.

“We debated that,” Capricorn ventured.  “Our instinct is that Cedar Point’s villains would get desperate, if they were trapped on hostile territory.  That would risk civilian well being.  The trap is a soft deterrent more than anything else.  We think we’d let them go rather than try to force it, but we decided we’d leave it up to you, should the Wardens decide to get involved.”

“Then we will get back to you with our thoughts, should we decide to get involved,” the man said.  Tristan ducked his head in acknowledgement.

“Control,” Chevalier said.

“The document we sent you outlines a few priority targets to watch out for.  In the old days, their wiki pages would have had warnings.  Our focus is more on Cedar Point than on the Fallen, because we have an incomplete picture of the latter.  These people are more likely to hurt civilians, and they’re likely to escalate the situation.  If we can target them and remove them from the picture, we will.  We have a contact keeping an eye on them already.”

“We could supply what we have on this group of the Fallen,” Chevalier said.  “Whether or not we get involved, I think we lose very little by rounding out your knowledge there.”

He checked with others, and got nods of affirmation.

I felt my heart skip a beat.  Whether they agreed or not, they weren’t saying no.  They weren’t telling us to go away and mind our own business.

“Thank you,” I said, once I found the words.

Capricorn spoke up, “Our goal with control is to keep an eye out for anything that would make the situation that much worse.  If we take out or hamper these problem elements, the situation is free to wind down.  If we don’t, there’s a risk it perpetuates, and that’s something we want to avoid.”

“Resolution, then,” Chevalier said.

I was so glad I’d outlined things as Weld suggested, with clear objectives and scenario outlined in the first few pages.  Chevalier was really using them as guideposts, picking up whenever nobody else was talking, keeping the meeting running smoothly.

“What resolution do you want?”

“We want a resolution,” I said.  “If this ends and the Fallen aren’t wiped out, they’ll hit back.  The city suffers.  If it ends and they are wiped out, Cedar Point is going to become something more pronounced.  We’ll want to be mindful of who is in play, and who might take charge of that.”

“As things come closer to a conclusion, we may take a role,” Capricorn said.  “If we’re strong enough, and if we have the resources, we could clean up those who are left.”

“That’s a stretch,” Sveta said.  She hadn’t said much, but I had the impression she was intimidated by the room.  “We focus on civilians first.  We’d need a lot of firepower before we can think about handling that kind of clean-up.”

“We’re not in a position to give you a lot of firepower,” Chevalier said, emphasizing ‘lot’.  “Valkyrie cannot engage that group of Fallen, and I’m tied up elsewhere with diplomatic roles.  Many other Wardens and subordinate teams are busy.  Advance Guard is on standby.  We’ll ask them to assist you.”

I don’t want them, I thought.

“We have junior Wardens, as well.  They’ll assist.  We’ll let them know tonight and they’ll be at your disposal tomorrow.”

Them, I wanted.  It meant Weld.  It meant potential others, who I knew and very much respected.

“Thank you,” Tristan said, my voice and Sveta’s only a bit behind his.

“You’re right about this.  We knew something was stirring, but we didn’t have the impression it was this bad.  I’ve been keeping updated on the Fallen, I can’t promise it’s accurate, but you should know the families interact.  There may be one or more of the Crowley sub-branches present.  They also associate with various biker gangs, the various racist factions, and other religious villain groups and ideologues.  Be prepared for any of them.”

“Yes sir,” Tristan said.

“In case of emergency, if you find you’re in over your head, leave.  Retreat, wash your hands of it.  Your lives come first.”

Sveta and I nodded, as Tristan said, “Yes sir,” again.

“I think those are my thoughts,” Chevalier said.  “Any further comments?  Anyone?”

Some heads shook.  Others were silent.

He fixed his eyes on us.  “Any final thoughts, concerns?  Anything not in this document we should know, or anything you’ve learned since writing it?”

There were a few somethings in the document we hadn’t mentioned or outlined in full.

We’d mentioned Rain, though not by name, as only a contact in the Fallen, who might or might not have been compromised.  I’d detailed how we had someone, Ashley, acting on our behalf in Cedar Point, and how we might have Rain in the Fallen camp when we took action.  It would give us more control over the situation, if we had that information and those levers to pull.

We could have said more about Rain, and we hadn’t.  Rescuing him was a mission statement.

We hadn’t said one word about the therapy group, or our individual issues and crises.

Much as I’d wondered if I should mention my time in the hospital during job interviews or when applying to teams, I’d been left the question of it here, standing before the committee.

I could be honest, say something, and they almost certainly wouldn’t let us do this.  I could have mentioned my background when applying to teams, and I would have had even worse luck joining them.

Or I could stay silent.

“No,” Sveta said.  Her voice was soft in what someone else might have mistaken for timidity.  I knew she was nervous, but I didn’t think it was timidity.  She was thinking the same thing I was.

“No sir,” Tristan said, with confidence.

“No,” I said, adding my lie to theirs.

Previous Chapter                                                                                        Next Chapter