Pitch – 6.8

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“Snuff?” Tattletale asked.  She glanced back at the hooded brute.  “Can you take Chicken Little for a walk?”

“Can do,” the man in the hood said.

“Chicken Little?” I asked.

“That’s a good name,” Looksee said.  “The sky is falling, the sky is falling!”

I could hear Chris sigh.

“I make it fall,” the boy with the birds said.  His voice was small and far away.  On a rooftop to our left, birds took off, flying through the light rain.

“Perfect,” Looksee said, giving him a thumbs up.

Chris sighed again.

The birds swooped down to settle at the foot of one of the blocky, concrete office buildings.

“Bye,” Chicken Little said.

“Bye,” Looksee said.

The birds took off, flying over and ahead of the kid.

The fact that everyone was waiting for the hooded executioner to lead the kid villain away gave me a chance to observe and think- he wasn’t good at projecting his voice.  His frame was more similar to Kenzie, but he slouched some like Chris did.  Chris, though, had a natural volume, possibly because of subtle changer effects.  I felt an urge to coach him, and correct something that seemed so obvious, which might have been why I was fixated on it.

It was disconcerting to picture my giving him some tips, having him standing up straighter, having him put his hands in his back pockets as an example of how far back his shoulders should be, and having him speak.  My mom had done it with me, once upon a time.

Rain pattered down beyond the lip of shelter that extended out over our portion of the plaza.  The sound of pained breathing wheezed in and out in the background.

“Chicken Little,” I said, again.

“I was pushing for Hitchcock,” Tattletale said.  “Cardinal was good too, but taken.”

“I was pushing for Unkindness,” Imp added.  “It went over everyone’s heads.”

“Then it’s not a good cape name,” I said.  “It’s going over my head.”

“High bar,” Imp retorted.

“I was a pretty good student, actually,” I said.

“Were you, though?  I was a terrible student and I got it.”

“An unkindness of ravens,” Ashley said.  Her voice came from Looksee’s camera, rather than from the projection.

“Thank you!” Imp said.

“It’s not very good,” Ashley said.

“Ugh!”

“He controls a swarm of birds?” I asked.  I arched an eyebrow.

“It reminded me of a friend, believe it or not.  He needed a mentor, and it seemed natural.”

“Naturally,” I said.

“Trying to do right by him,” Tattletale said, “Letting him pick his own name, which you should never let a pre-teen do-”

“Ahem,” Looksee said.

“Damn straight,” Chris said.

“-Teaching him what he needs to know to get by as a cape in this crazy world of ours, and, you know, not making him stand there while you parade around a projection of a horribly maimed teenager.  The little things.”

“I’m his age and I put that projection together, you know,” Looksee said.  “I had to look really closely at the images I was rendering.  This is good work!”

“You appear to have mentors who are fine with exposing you to that kind of thing, Looksee,” Tattletale’s reply was as smooth as anything.

“Maybe I’m a badass,” Looksee said.  “I took out Mama Mathers.”

“Speaking of,” Tattletale said, perking up and looking past Looksee to Capricorn.  “She’s dead?  No.  Contained?”

“She’s contained with physical constraints and some power stuff,” Capricorn said.

“Partially phased into another reality,” Rain clarified.  “I talked to the heroes.  She’s kept an eye on the Crowley clan for years, twenty-four seven.  She might not sleep.”

“Tranquilizers don’t work, she’ll fake it,” Tattletale said.  “You figured that out.  Good.  Phasing her out should break the connection as long as it lasts, if it can be maintained.  It might even force her to reset all the connections.”

“That was the line of thinking,” I said.

Rain spoke up, taking advantage of the fact he’d had an opening in the conversation again, “I’d really like to hear how you can know how she works, know how she keeps people under her thumb, and then sign off on hurting the innocents caught in the mix.  Doing this to me.”

“I’d like to hear that too, Tattletale,” Foil said.

“Please,” Parian said.

“Please,” I said, echoing Parian’s word, but in my brightest, nicest tone of voice.  I smiled at Tattletale.

Tattletale fixed me with her best ‘are you serious’ look.

“You said you’d help Cradle, but you didn’t want to know what happened to the kid,” I said.  “We thought you needed to see the consequences of your actions.”

“That is pretty ripe, coming from the princess of damage and her troupe of walking disaster areas,” Tattletale said.  “I have looked you guys up, read files, you know.”

“Deflecting?” Tristan asked.

“A bit, yeah.  But I think it’s important for context, because you guys don’t get to act high and mighty here.  The Fallen kid locked people inside a mall and let them die from trampling, fire and smoke.  The junior half of Team Reach crashed and burned after you got up to your antics, Capricorn.  Damsel of Distress had an invite to the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

“So did I,” Rachel said.

“Shh,” Tattletale said.

“Are you saying you’d do the same for any of us?” I asked.

“I’m saying you guys are really not the ones who should be throwing stones here.  I know how you got together, even if I don’t have all the individual details.  The institution that looks after Creepy Kid barely sees him and they’re scared enough of him when he’s there to let him do what he wants.  There’s a story there.”

Something to look into, then.

Tattletale went on, “Garotte, honey, you had my team’s back at the Cauldron HQ.  I don’t want to sling mud at you, but anyone who knows you knows you’re dangerous and you’ve hurt a lot of people.”

“Anyone who knows her wouldn’t fault her for it,” I said.  “I can fault you for knowing full well what you were setting in motion.”

Sveta spoke, “I have never, not once, wanted anyone to die,” Sveta said, her voice firm, even tight.

“You and I both know that’s a lie,” Tattletale said.

“Death happened,” Sveta said.  She was glowering.  “If I’d had the choice, I would have spared even her.  My body was wounded, I was as freaked out as I’ve ever been, and someone needed to die.  I’ve made peace with the fact that I was able to make that someone be her.”

“Convenient,” Tattletale’s word was barely audible.

Honey,” Sveta replied, and the word was only venom.  “Don’t say you don’t want to sling mud at me and then go for the jugular.  We’re not stupid.  If you’re going to be vicious with someone who has saved the lives of several people here, don’t coat it in that ‘honey’.”

“Throwing everything you’ve got at the wall and seeing what sticks, Tattletale?” I asked.  “Desperate.”

“I’m tired,” Tattletale said.

“You skipped me, by the way,” Looksee said.

“I skipped you because you’re prepubescent and I’m not that big of a bitch.”

“I can take it.  I don’t want special treatment.”

“I’m tired, Victoria,” Tattletale said.  “I’ve spent two years trying to do my part to keep the world standing upright.  Parian, Foil, Imp, Rachel, you guys know the kind of thing I’ve been doing.”

“Ignoring me is bitchier than whatever you were going to say,” Looksee said.

“What if I told you there was nothing?” Tattletale asked, exasperated.

“I’d say you were being condescending, which is super bitchy.”

“Kiddo, you fucking raised the bar by not only blazing an accelerant-soaked trail of destruction through your cape life, but your civilian life too.  You did more damage casually than some do intentionally.  There’s a reason I ignored your calls.  You proved me right when you bricked my good phone with the incessant attempts to get my attention.”

“Can confirm,” Imp remarked.  “Tats went mute mid-mission while she scrambled to get a new phone.  She was pissed.  It was great.”

Looksee paused, digesting that, then answered Tattletale at a lower volume than before. “I automated it, so you know.”

“I figured.  Point stands.”

“It’ll unbrick if you reply to one of the messages.  That was the point, if you read any of the warnings or the last message sent.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “Where was I?”

“You’re tired, so you took a shortcut by striking a deal with a guy who was really good with blades and the guy who really wanted me cut up,” Rain said.

I glanced at the Undersiders.  They weren’t moving much.  Foil was bending down so Parian could whisper something in her ear.  Both of them were fixing their eyes on Tattletale, even while Parian whispered.

“Not a shortcut,” Tattletale said.

“He knew where to place the blades for maximum effect, drawing it out,” Rain said.  His fingers touched one of the wounds.  “That’s why they hired him, you know.”

“It wasn’t a shortcut, and it was never intended that they’d go through with it,” Tattletale said.  “So please, off the high horses, stop crawling up my ass, and I’ll explain.”

“That you made a mistake,” I said.

“Oh my god,” she said.  “If they didn’t hire me, they would have hired someone else.  The benefit of them hiring me?  I had every intention of steering them away.  I offered Cradle something he wanted more than revenge, last minute, after I’d proven I could deliver what he wanted.  Well, it wasn’t last minute.  Last thirty seconds, because I had to take thirty to put my card in a new phone to repopen communication after someone bricked my good phone.”

Tattletale frowned at Looksee as she said that last part.

“A mistake, then,” I said.  “You were tired and you made a mistake, is what you’re saying.”

“Someone else got to Cradle in the meantime, I think.  If we had this conversation in five days, I could give you a definitive answer.  For now, best I can do for explanations?  I figured it out and someone steered him onto a more determined course.  I didn’t make a mistake, and no, grab bags aren’t some inexplicable thing for me.  I wasn’t shooting blind, thank you very much.”

“Are you saying that because you’re for real or because you’re trying to cover your weaknesses?”

“Gee, Victoria,” Tattletale said.  “I could hardly be blamed if it was me covering my ass.  The last time I gave you a hint about the strengths and weaknesses of my power, you went full offensive with this bit of theatrics.  But no.  March was and is an isolated, special case.”

“In so many ways,” Foil murmured.

“Theatrics are one of the best part of being a cape,” I said.

“One of them,” Capricorn said.

“Okay,” she said.  “But you’re wrong that I’m covering my ass.  No, sorry.”

I was right that Rain had her agitated though.

“What was the plan?” Rain asked.

“Had all gone as intended, you would have walked away.  A lot depended on whether your three fellow grab-bags were there together, or which one or two were there, but there was no way I could make the offer earlier.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“How do you think that would go, Victoria?  Hey, guys, I’ll give you this thing if you promise not to go after this member of the Fallen you have really good justification for hating.  For no reason, I promise, I’m totally not on his side.  Come on.  They do have some humanity.  For Snag, a few choice words at the moment he was about to pull the metaphorical trigger, as that tiny part of him screamed that it didn’t want to do it?  Would’ve worked.”

“Love Lost?” Rain asked.

“Angrier.  Hurting more.  You would have needed to bleed first, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as bad.  It’s why I told Cradle that if he and Operator went after you, she shouldn’t be there.  She would have been too hard to hold back, and what I told him was that she would have snapped and killed you in a very unsatisfyingly quick way.  I could have steered her away with the right words, right timing, but I didn’t want to gamble it.  Cradle is pragmatic.  He got it.  She wasn’t invited along.”

“And Cradle?  He was there and you couldn’t stop him.”

“Like I said, I needed to prove I could deliver, to maintain the professional relationship, but I didn’t have to deliver if I could make a better offer.  I think someone beat me to it, offering him something.”

“Who?  What were they offering?  What were you?”

“I don’t know who or what.  They exist in hypothetical.  As for me, I was offering a way out.”

“A way out,” Rain said.  “Of the- the rotation.”

“There’s a cape by the name of Goddess.  Also the Blue Empress, Blue Lady, the Woman in Blue.  Once situated on Earth Shin, she was brought here for the fight against Scion by a strange, unnamed player who has since been classified as a threat on par with any Endbringer.  Or with Goddess, as it happens.  Unfortunately, this anonymous figure didn’t put her back.”

“A strange, unnamed player?” I asked.

“So it happens,” Tattletale said, with a grin.  “With only a select group of top Wardens and major players really tracking what really happened.  But we were talking the woman in blue.  She got powers and was relocated to Earth Shin before she could… grow to full potential.  Relocated by a certain secretive agency.”

“Cauldron,” Sveta said.

“Yep.  She proceeded to take over earth Shin, with all other parahumans acting as her lieutenants.  All other parahumans on that world, mind.  No exceptions.  Which the organization deemed fine, because they got to keep her in their back pocket, even while they couldn’t control her.  She is, or was, a grab-bag, she found a way to pull free of her cluster, and she came out of it with a set of powers that would each be world-class on their own.”

“What happened to the others?” Rain asked.

“Dead?” I guessed.

“Alive.  Four of them, anyhow.  A fifth killed themselves because they couldn’t fill the void where the power and feeling powerful once were.  None of them were left with more than whispers of power after.  But they had their lives and their particular dynamic was stopped in its tracks.  Not all clusters have a schtick, but they did, like the mall group does, and Goddess taking all the power brought an end to it.”

“You were going to tell Cradle how to do it,” Rain said.  “How to get all the power and leave the rest of us with nothing.”

“Can you fault me?  He’s the most level headed, and out of the rest of the group, one was an raging asshole, my second choice of the bunch by the way, one can’t take her mask off because if she does she can’t help but scream, and the last member of the group kept the door locked while a mall full of people were trampled, burned, and-or suffocated.”

“He would have gotten all the power for himself?” I asked.

“The last time this worked, the parahuman was way more than the sum of the individual parts.  I’ve tried to sell Foil on it, but she isn’t too keen.”

“I don’t want to tamper,” Foil said.

“I don’t either,” Parian said.

“She’s happy, see?  Cradle, though?  He was one hundred percent the type to go for it, all signs pointed to yes, and he said no.”

“Because he’s a cluster cape,” Chris said.  “You had a bad read.”

Prodding her.

No.  Because then I would have had a capital-N-slash-capital-A, underlined, for my thinker read on him.”

Prodding her and it worked.

“There’s an issue with this,” Capricorn said.

“A few, actually,” Sveta said.

“The one that springs to mind is that you wanted to repeat the process that, the last time it worked, saw a whole Earth being taken over?” Capricorn asked.

“He would have owed me one,” Tattletale said.  “I don’t think he would have been as strong.  Four powersets baseline.”

“I think the last thing the world needs is more over-the-top parahumans,” I said.

“I think you’re situated on in your own little peninsula,  with your own little team, while I’m the one who has spent the last two years trying to help the peace stay peaceful.  Like I said, there are a lot of people trying to keep things upright, but they aren’t communicating, they can’t, and the guys on the far side of everything are pushing really frigging hard to keep things from toppling, and something’s going to give.  Over here?  We can’t push back.  We don’t have muscle.”

“That’s why you want Cradle?” Rain asked.  “To be your muscle?”

“No.  That’s my last ditch move, believe me.  For now, there’s another player who’s pushing on things.  Someone we tried really frigging hard to kick down an metaphorical elevator shaft, as it happens.”

“Ha,” Imp said.  “That asshole.”

“We broke his legs and we scared him away, and he’s good at hiding.  He likes tinkers and he’s interested in complex powers.  If I could have a tinker I can trust with the right emotion power for the task at hand?”

“Cradle,” Capricorn said.

“I’d need to have a conversation with him.  A long one, so I can figure out what went wrong back there.  If he wasn’t too compromised and my idea of giving him all the powers was tempting for him, he’d go run this errand for me, spend about a year in a completely different Earth with no access to your Fallen boy there.  I’d figure out what to do with him by the conclusion of it.”

“If he was compromised?” Ashley asked.

“Cross that bridge when I come to it,” Tattletale said.

Ashley made a gun with the fingers and thumb of her good hand.  A glitch manifested at a fingertip as she ‘fired’ it.  The projected image flickered violently, presumably where her power was kicking in, the effect tracing around her hand as she lowered it, joined by a plume of more artifacting and glitches at the damaged spot of her arm.  The sound was muted, and the camera whined.  A dog barked.

“My dogs don’t like that sound,” Rachel said.  “Stop.”

Looksee thumped the camera.

“Assuming you’re suggesting I kill him, it’s not out of the question,” Tattletale said.  “I’m not as shy as you lot pretend to be.  I can’t push that hard on things as a whole.  I don’t have the muscle some of the major players do, and that’s just reality.  I can try to open channels and hamstring the ones who aren’t helping.  I need Cradle.  Give me him, I can help you guys with the Fallen.”

We exchanged glances.

“I’m not happy you were keeping this secret,” Foil said.

“I’ve offered to rope you guys in.  You’re making and distributing clothes and doing your mercenary thing,” Tattletale said.  “If you only join for the big stuff, it gets hard to get you up to speed, especially if I don’t want to tip off someone like Cradle.  If you insist this is my thing and that you want no part in it, don’t get so upset if I do it in a very Tattletale way.”

“She’s lonely,” Imp said.

“I’m irritated,” Tattletale said.  “I’m tired.  We’ve got the lady in blue trying to get up to full strength again, a guy who wears fucking sweaters is pulling at the threads that are holding everything together while maintaining and expanding the institution side of the old Cauldron.  A handful of others are running the ideological end of Cauldron.  Both of those groups are strong in their own way and yet they aren’t doing a tenth what Cauldron used to do in forestalling disasters and containing the most… unproductive capes and cape-related messes.”

“They’re rebuilding Cauldron?” Sveta asked, horrified.

“The day the Cauldron cracked, they were there moving in with what would be hundreds of employees.  You were there at one point.  You had to have seen the empty offices and rooms.  Every last one of those offices have people now.  Are they doing things on the level of what they did to you guys?  No.  But only because they lack the opportunity.”

“Oh my god,” Sveta said.

“And again, there used to be an awful lot of really fucked up parahumans, powers and power-related things that would have top tier capes moving in to relocate or destroy, before those things were even a problem.  Those guys aren’t doing that clean-up anymore!  I’ve taken some of that on my plate, in the course of my regular business.  There’s a war starting sometime this week, a Machine Army that’s literally on the horizon if you can see between worlds, warlords, broken triggers, and yeah, the Fallen are a mess unto themselves.”

“They have reach,” I said.  “They’re hooking people in.”

“I know they’re a thing.  They’re a relatively manageable thing.  Let’s not forget that, you know, if every single last one of these manageable and less manageable problems I’ve mentioned were magically handled, this city would not be in an especially good place.  Okay?  That’s what I’m doing.  Could I have handled this particular thing better?  Probably.  But I’m not the bad guy.”

“Sounds major,” I said.

Tattletale shrugged.  She shifted position where she sat on the table, crossing her legs.  She grabbed her ankles with her hands.

“Thank you for doing what you’ve been doing,” I said.

“It’s nice to get that from someone,” she said.

“But I can’t help but notice that through all of this, explaining yourself, you haven’t actually apologized for your part in it.”

Rain was very still, to the point that I wasn’t sure if he’d glitched out and frozen again, with the camera needing more percussive maintenance.

But his hair moved.  The breathing continued.

Tattletale replied, “Whatever I say, you find fault in it.  Forget words.  Look at my actions here.”

Capricorn answered her.  “Your action is that you’re giving us help, but it’s help in exchange for this person you need, someone you’ve shown you can’t keep on top of.  That person wants my friend dead.  If the tables were turned, would you consider that gracious?”

“Tattletale,” Sveta said, adding her voice to his.  “You have to know those Fallen are going to hurt people.  You can’t want that.  When everything went to shit and the world ended, there was an implicit trust.  Can we take a step back toward that?  Give us this.  Then we’ll talk, we’ll bring others into the discussion.”

“Spies and moles.  Some with thinker or changer powers,” Tattletale said.  “Have to limit who we bring into the discussion.  Look at what happened back outside New Haven.  I’m deeming you guys, like, sixty percent safe, which I normally wouldn’t work with, but if I don’t deal with you then I might lose these guys.”

She jerked her thumb at the Undersiders.

“If you think you’re getting rid of me for good, you’re deluded,” Imp said.  “Though I have to say I was pretty disappointed at the start there.”

“Have I redeemed myself in your eyes?” Tattletale asked, sarcastic.

“You’re okayish,” Imp said.

“I’m so glad.”

Tattletale answered Imp, but I could see that her attention was on Foil and Parian.

Rachel could apparently be assumed to be fine with things.

I could see the pair mulling things over.  As they whispered, Tattletale’s focus still pointed in their direction, it became harder to say that she wasn’t waiting for a verdict from them.

“Can we trust her?” Capricorn asked.  He’d drawn closer to me, and now spoke in my ear.  Sveta was already situated near enough to me to hear the question.

I couldn’t give an immediate answer.

Looksee approached us.  She brought the camera, which struggled to keep the projections stable as it bobbed, but it seemed to serve to allow Rain and Ashley to join our conversation.  Chris was the last to catch up with us.

“I trust her,” Looksee said.  “I asked her to dish dirt on me and she did.”

“That’s the worst way of telling,” Chris said.

“Being treated crummy is way better than being ignored,” Looksee said.

“That’s not right,” Ashley said.  “Don’t ever let someone who should care about you treat you badly.”

“Yeah?  Okay.  Then don’t talk to me right now.  I’m mad at you.  I’m mad at mostly everyone but especially you.”

“Especially me?”

“Especially you.”

“Fair.”

“Everyone’s input is important here,” Capricorn said.  “But Rain, you were the one who was hurt.  Victoria, you know Tattletale best out of all of us.”

“We need to help those people,” Sveta said.

“I know,” Capricorn said.  “But I think if Rain feels conflicted about releasing Cradle, even with this new information-”

“Which may or may not be true,” Chris interrupted.

“It’s understandable, isn’t it?” Capricorn asked.

“Conflicted is understandable,” Sveta said.  “I had to face down the person who changed me in a life-altering way.  I know you’re connected to them.  You can’t get away from them.  I see it’s similar in a way and I understand.  I really do.”

“It’s a question of what you’d regret, I think,” I said.

“Meaning you think Rain should release Cradle to buy Tattletale’s help,” Chris said.

“I don’t think that at all,” I said.  “I think… you can help the most people possible, and you can still end up with horrible regrets and serious consequences.”

“She got to you.”

It took me a second to connect to who had spoken.  Sveta.

She was partially focused on Tattletale.  Imp, Rachel, Parian and Foil were talking in an animated way, with some henchmen on the very periphery.  Tattletale hadn’t budged from her seat, her attention focused on nothing in particular.

“Tattletale,” I finished the thought.  “Maybe she did.”

“You trust her?” Capricorn asked, again.

“No,” I said.  “But I think I believe her.”

“Fuck,” Rain said.

All heads turned to face his projection, except Looksee, who looked at the camera instead.

“If it comes down to regretting deaths five years from now or saving lives and maybe not living through the next five years, I guess I’ll save the lives,” Rain said.

“You’re sure?” Capricorn asked.

“No.  But I spent my whole life as a believer.  I’ll believe this is the right thing.”

“Come on,” Capricorn said.

As a group, we walked over to the Undersiders’ huddle.  Tattletale rotated herself on her seat atop the concrete slab table with a push of her hand, to stay facing us.

The Undersiders broke away from their cluster to face us as we drew nearer.  One of the dogs growled, and Rachel shushed it.

“Tattletale,” Parian said.  “We think you should make amends here.”

Tattletale’s eyes roved over our group.  She fixed them on Rain.

She knew.  She knew what we came to say.  That Rain had come to the conclusion he had.

“Amends,” she said.  “I’ll point you at the Fallen.  You don’t have to give me Cradle.  If I really need him, I’ll discuss it with you and get permission first.”

Boston.  New Boston, but all attempts to make that stick had failed, in a stark contrast to how Brockton Bay had been so ready to rechristen itself as New Brockton.

Boston wasn’t a city, really.  It was more of an Über-neighborhood, one set of tiles in the vast, disappearing-into-the-horizon expanse of city that was the megalopolis.  It wasn’t really Boston, either.  Attempts had been made to make Boston resemble its former self, but materials were different, everything was new, and the golden patina remained.

Fenway Station.  A transportation hub, surrounded by quickly thrown-together homes that attempted to stay hidden or camouflaged among the brownstone and brick fixtures with gold-tinted windows.

The Boston neighorhoods had heroes of their own.  Independents, and small teams separate from the Wardens.  With Tattletale making the calls, we had their help.  There were others, but Tattletale felt they were a risk, with a chance of moles and troublemakers, and I believed her.

Everyone was finding a location.  Looksee had one working camera doing sweeps, and the laptop beside her showed the figures.  Some were highlighted in red.  Strange body shapes, statures, or more muscle than the usual.  When they clustered, we could know that the people on one floor or one set of floors of a building were likely capes.

People from the Clans were out on the street.  Not many bikers.  There would be Fallen too.

I sat on the edge of a roof, and Looksee sat with her back to the lip of the roof beside me, her laptop placed where the both of us could see it.  Sveta sat beside me, and shifted position to rest her head on my shoulder.  Like old times.

“Capricorn?” Looksee asked.

A pause.

“Red pickup, rust at left wheel.  A bit ahead of you.  It has guns in the back,” she said.

Another pause.

“Sounds good,” she said.

“How’re you managing your end of things?” Sveta asked.

“It’s pretty easy,” Looksee said, without turning around.  “Facial recognition, tagging everyone that’s a possible problem.”

The cooperation of everyone we needed to cooperate.  We had a secured perimeter, there were civilians inside that perimeter, but if we timed our attack just right, then there was a good chance we could evacuate them out.  Sveta and I were in the wings.  Capricorn could bar the path to bystanders.

The team was missing Rain, who was still recuperating.  Ashley was waiting for proper transportation to a secure facility.

This was, in a way, a microcosm of the conflict we’d just weathered.  We were tired, hurting, and pushing forward purely on the energy that came from this being something we really wanted to do.

Sveta, Kenzie, Tristan, Byron, myself.  We wanted to be heroes.  I liked to think we were heroes.

Chris- he was out there, at one of the distant corners of the perimeter, being Chris and keeping an eye on things.  He’d told us that he could change twice a day, but he’d also implied it wouldn’t be a problem if trouble headed his way, that he’d be okay.

Hard to tell, sometimes, when parahumans could be so foolhardy.

Chris wanted- not to be a hero.  He seemed to want something out of being a hero.

Rain and Ashley- I was pretty sure they needed to be heroes, but it wasn’t a need in the same way I needed to be a hero or I wasn’t living up to some fundamental part of myself.  They needed to be heroes in the sense that someone who was freezing to death needed to start fires.

Rain had taken a giant step forward in that regard, and Ashley had fallen back.

I knew what I needed to do.  I’d keep tabs on them.  I’d go to dinner with Kenzie and ensure that she knew that if the team did in fact fall apart, it didn’t mean the relationships were gone.  I’d check on Chris’ situation, because what Tattletale had said concerned me.  I’d follow up on Tristan.  I’d continue to visit Sveta at her place, and see Weld.  I would check in on on Ashley and Rain, whatever path they had ahead of them.  If that meant making sure they had visitors in jail, then I’d handle that.

“They want the go-ahead to attack,” Looksee said.

I had a bird’s eye view of everything.  I surveyed the situation, checked the laptop.

“They want it soon.  People are getting into cars in the parking garage.  Some of those cars have guns.”

I gave her a thumbs up.

“Attacking,” she reported.

Cars pulled out of the parking garage.  They skidded through puddles, and the puddles solidified.  The first truck lost the rubber from three of its wheels, skidding forward on the rims and one corner of the front end.  The one behind it stopped abruptly, with the vehicles behind it crashing into it, in a three-car pileup.

I saw the colors as capes descended on the scene.  As more left the bottom floor of the building on foot, and yet others climbed out by way of the fire escape, it quickly became an all-out brawl.

It was weird to be removed from it, to not be leaping in.  I was reminded of how I’d felt when I’d been on the patrol block.  I’d handled the research, tutored the kids, gave presentations on key things about parahumans, and I’d handled the routine errands like taking water out to tent cities and out past the portals.

A part of me had wanted to leap into things, and that part of me had stopped because it had known that leaping in had meant using the wretch, and I hadn’t been ready to do that.

I’d gone from stark nightmare to vague, new reality and I’d struggled hard in the transition.  I’d thought I was getting better, settling for the vague reality, no longer fighting it.  Staying still and going easy had meant letting myself heal, hadn’t it?

Then the attack on the community center.  The reality check.  Then finding out that this world didn’t really have a place in it for me, if I really wanted to be me.

Then the therapy team.

Even that had felt indistinct somehow.  When I’d introduced the topic of being heroes, hadn’t I talked about the kinds of hero?  The ways money came in- we’d started to do that, but indistinctly.  Heroes were ideological, or they were about money.  They could be heroes for a cause or specific mission.

Indistinct because we’d been a mix of heroes at heart, heroes to serve ends, and those who needed to be heroes, but who, at the time, weren’t.

Looksee was struggling with saying goodbye to people.  I was telling myself I could keep the people, but I struggled with saying goodbye to the idea.

“Fire,” Sveta said.

The jackasses were spreading out, and I saw the orange tint of flame, the black of smoke.  They were setting fire to the trash that had been set out, to a dumpster, and to the contents of one ruined truck bed.

I heard Capricorn’s voice through my earphone, even though the earphone wasn’t plugged into my ear.

“He says he’s got it.”

I adjusted my earbud to bring the attached microphone closer to my mouth.  “Careful of any explosives in the truck bed.”

Got it,” I heard his reply.

“Group leaving the corner of the building,” Looksee said.  “It might be major capes, using the big fight for a distraction.”

Sveta lifted her head from my shoulder.

“Who’s on it?” I asked.

“Nobody.  There’s a perimeter that should catch them, they’ll get there in a few minutes.”

“And nobody stopping them from hurting anyone on the way?” Sveta asked.

“No, I guess not.”

I lifted off, floating away from the edge of the roof.

“Keep the camera close,” I said, putting my earphone in, before adjusting the flap at the base of my hood to hide the cord.  “We delay them until others come.  Looksee?  Point those others our way.”

“On it.”

Best to include her.  Things breaking apart would hit her hardest.  It was just so hard to do without actually having her in the field.

Sveta grabbed something and hurled herself off the rooftop.

I could see the bright colors, as I drew closer.  The exposed skin of arms sticking out of sleeveless shirts was heavily and brightly tattooed.

Jackasses, maybe.  It was almost motley.  I saw two of them ran with their hands tucked in their jackets.  Holding something out of sight.

And among them, someone who wasn’t a twenty-something in bright color.  A guy, long-limbed with long bleached hair with dark roots and a goatee, jogging and moving with languid ease that belied something else at play.  He wore black.

Sveta grabbed onto the light pole near me and pulled herself to it.  I floated next to her.

“Grab the tall one?” I asked.  “If there’s trouble from others, I deflect.  If it’s trouble from him, I hit him hard enough he stops doing it.”

She nodded.

Her hand grabbed at the guy’s arm as I got to the group.  I went straight for the jackass with his hand in his jacket, knocking him into the ground with enough force that if he wasn’t unconscious, he was broken enough to not be a threat.

The other one whipped out a gun.  His eyes widened as he saw me flying, and then he turned, pointing the gun down the street.  There were people.  Distant, but people.

I caught his arm and shoved it down as he pulled the trigger.  I leveraged the wretch, used the strength, and snapped the bones of his arm.

The tall guy- Sveta had grabbed him, but now the other four jackasses were splitting into ghostly images- each was distorted, and each pulled away from the source jackass with an acrobatic leap or flip.  They were massing on Sveta’s arm and glove, weighing it down.

She pulled and she drew the guy in, but it was slow and sluggish.

Instead, I grabbed the guy from behind, hauling him backward.  She let go of him, and with her hand free of that grip, it began to pull and slip back through the group.

The duplicates.  This was one of the Crowley leaders.

His eyes were wide and showing too much white as he turned my way.

His own faded duplicates swarmed me, hands and faces and the press of the physical.  They came at me hard and fast, like they were propelled away from him by some motive force.  When they made contact, they weren’t strong.

But I felt myself losing even though the strength wasn’t all that.

Where they overlapped.

I met them with the Wretch, pushing them off and away with some violence.  I struck at the overlapping portions, where one swing could hit multiple.

He’d broken free of my grip in the midst of the storm he had created.  Now he backed away.  He moved his hands, and all around me, mailboxes, light posts, trash and individual pieces of a nearby car broke away, becoming a storm of shadowy projectiles.

Were it one projectile, I could have dodged.  Were it a handful of meaningful ones, it would have been easier.  As it was, it was a hundred inconsequential projectiles, and where they converged or overlapped, they were solid or more solid.

I was forced to fly at an odd course, up, back and away, so I wouldn’t fly into any of the incoming images.  The stream changed course, everything flying toward my new location.  I moved from point to point, to make getting a bead on me as hard as possible.

And between me and him, it was a veritable wall of flying images, concrete and glass peeling away from the sidewalk and nearby windows like paper from a stack that never ended.  Only these papers crashed and shattered on impact.

“You think you’ve won,” the Crowley leader said.

Sveta was free of the jackasses, as she clung to the wall.  She’d grabbed a gun from their midst and held it on one hand.  She seemed to have found herself in a bind in the process.  The gun couldn’t be dropped without delivering it to the same people she’d taken it from, couldn’t be thrown away because it was a gun, and she didn’t have the dexterity to put it in a pocket where it might stay for good.  At the same time, while her hand held the weapon, she was limited in mobility.

I put my hands out.

She launched the gun.

“You haven’t won,” the Crowley brother said.

I smacked the gun with the Wretch hard enough to shatter it.

“We haven’t lost,” I said.  “The Fallen aren’t going to have a lot going for them when most of you are in custody.  Today was a pretty bad day for assholes.”

“You think we’re broken, bitch?”

Sveta reached out, seizing him by the neck.

He created shadow-selves, and they pulled away from his body in a way that broke her grip.  The initial momentum still yanked him back and off his feet.  He climbed to a standing position, shadow-selves appearing in crouching positions, forming people for him to lean on as he climbed up to his feet.

I’d known Eric to do the same kind of thing.  Crystal’s brother had been good with forcefields.

This guy was more of a forcefield creator than a duplicator, if I thought about it.  The forcefields were just very detailed simulacra of whatever he was spawning them from, and there was utility in how they emerged and flew out.

It was easier to fly and flow between them.  Thinking about it all like that, I could fight him.  A shift in mindset.

He still concentrated a lot of them near him.  That was the barrier.

I could also wait for the reinforcements.

I wouldn’t.  I’d take him with one hand.

The fire’s handled, but they have friends in the neighborhood,” Capricorn said, over comms.

“Noted,” I murmured.

The jackasses were spreading out.  Several made a run for it.  Sveta snatched at them, holding and pulling long enough to break their stride and keep them from getting way.

The Crowley brother saw, and he smirked, showing teeth so white they had to be fake.

“If this comes down to a fight, you’re leaving on a stretcher,” I said.  “I’m all out of patience.”

“Can you fight?” he asked.

I hit the ground hard enough to crack it.  I’d pay the neighborhood back for that.  But the impact was enough to upset his footing, and as his frame of reference changed, so did the angle and flow of the phantom images.   He tipped back, and there was a clearance of a few feet off the ground in front of him where the images weren’t.

I dove, flying, and slid through that clearance.  It was a maneuver that put me within a few feet of him.  I reached out, striking with my good arm, and I felt the impact.  No strength, but a smash to the nose.

A phantom’s nose.  He’d projected one out from his face as I’d swung.

I followed up, hitting, kicking, and then doing the same thing but with the wretch, for the extra force and the ability to tear right past them.  I could see him press back, until his jackasses were right behind him.  Sveta yanked on the jackasses, hauling them away, and the Crowley brother tipped backward onto his back.

“Stretcher or surrender?” I asked, amping up the aura in a subtle way.  Too big of a push could scare, but it also was a thing.  Something people could push back against.

I could use it here to play it subtle, drive the moment home.

“Fine then,” he said.  He smiled, and he dismissed the images.  The transparent detritus, trash, objects and figures faded out.

I remained tense.  What was the catch?

“Bro,” one Jackass said.

“We’ll surrender if you give us a seat to enjoy the show,” he said.

I didn’t respond, only glancing at Sveta.

She was as lost as I was.

“I’m not that faithful a man, that’s not a secret,” he said, still smiling with those too-white teeth amid the wiry goatee.  “But I do believe this is going to be a hell of a thing, tonight.”

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