Beacon – 8.1

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A gloomy morning was punctuated by the worst blackout the Megalopolis had suffered yet, making plans more difficult.

The city was dark, and we were well into autumn, with temperatures dipping low enough that frost dusted farms, fields, and grass.  The sunlight that managed to reach through the clouds and touch the ground melted the frost, which then remained melted, but it was a slow, inconsistent process that would take until ten or eleven o’clock to finish its work of changing things from a dull white-frosted green to a damp, vibrant green.

The world kept spinning, like a stubborn top, the seasons changed, and I was left to consider the logistics of costumes and updating them for the coming winter.  Ninety percent of the group’s activities had taken place in the span between Norwalk to the west and Bridgeport to the east, and I could already tell that this area was a far cry from the more moderate, terrain-sheltered weather of the city I’d grown up in.

The wind didn’t help matters.

It was light out, but we apparently needed power, because the blackout meant that I got a text with a change of location for the meeting.

I had the ability to do a bit of a reconnaissance sweep before dropping in, because I knew that the others would be driving, and it would take time for everyone to adapt, especially with the condition of traffic across the Gimel Megalopolis.

No major crime, even with the blackout.  Some people were scouting abandoned buildings, looking over their shoulders to see that nobody was watching them.  My landing near them was enough to send them running.

Mischief, likely with some intention of breaking in, but not anything I could definitively act on.

I could see the crowd of costumed individuals well before I landed.

It was interesting that the location chosen was ‘parkland’.  A slice of wilderness from a foreign reality, tamed only in that the thickest of the underbrush had been cleared away.  In a clearing, opened up on three sides by logging, a creek emptied into a fat pond.  A rock stabbed out of the pond, of a rough size and shape to serve as a podium.

This general area reminded me of our skirmish outside of the library, in our first testing of what the team was capable of.

My initial thought was that the destination had changed because the other place had no power, and that this place would, but… obviously wrong, given that there wasn’t any power out in a patch of park.

Other heroes had gathered already.  Narwhal and Weld stood out, as part of the remnants of free and available capes from the Wardens.  Cinereal was about as somber and intimidating in a breaker shroud of gray ash as Narwhal was scintillating and bright.

Auzure was here.  I knew Spell, Dido, and Lark.  Black, blue and gold.  Uncomfortable to see them, but they didn’t seem to pay me much mind.

The Shepherds had Moonsong, who was paying a lot of attention to Capricorn.  She wasn’t in charge, though, thankfully.  Whorl had the reins for now, and he was decent enough.

Advance Guard had turned up.  If the Shepherds occupied the nine o’clock spot on the dial, then Advance Guard situated themselves at two o’clock.  Their numbers had been cut down by their part in the unfortunate conclusion to the Fallen raid, and the help they had provided after.  They were still numerous.

Foresight hadn’t grown beyond its relatively narrow roster, but they hadn’t shrunk or been folded into another team, either.  We’d continued to trade information with them up until the last moment, when we’d switched our focus wholly to Cedar Point and the raid.

There were other players.  Some were individual.  Others were small teams with their own core identities, or offshoots from the other big teams.  I saw one or two friendly or friendly-ish faces.  Tempera.  Fume Hood.  Houndstooth as a ‘friendly’ face from the Kings of the Hill.

I raised a hand in a wave as I approached.  Tempera raised a white-painted hand in return.  Fume Hood smiled beneath her hood.  Houndstooth gave me nothing.

I would talk to Fume Hood and Tempera after, given a chance.

Capricorn was present in blue armor.  Tress had a freshly painted body.  Cryptid was camouflaged, and from the way Lookout was talking, she was having a dialogue with him.

There weren’t a ton of clear non-capes around, but our group had two in its orbit.  I recognized Natalie, who was embroiled in a discussion with her friend, a guy with a bushy beard.

With the weather being what it was, the water being close enough that wind could blow over it and chill everyone present, and the light weight of costumes in general, a lot of people looked like they were struggling to stay warm.

Natalie’s friend wore flannel, and Natalie wore an overly puffy coat that I was guessing would do a lot to keep her warm in this chilly weather.

“Hey!” Lookout greeted me, as I got closer.

I put my hand out, and she jumped up a little in the process of giving me a high-five.  With everything else going on since the dinner at her place, it was good to check in outside of the bounds of one on one meetings and phone conversations.

Our lives were in upheaval.  Capricorn’s life was overturned on two hour shifts.  Chris’ body and schedule were mixed up by form changes, but the chaos he wrestled was one he wrestled mostly alone, in a way that only made sense to him.  Sveta’s boyfriend was away and the loss was felt.

Rain and Ashley?  Relocated as a part of incarceration.

That left me -I’d just moved out of a desire to burn restless energy- and Kenzie, who had just turned her parents in a few days ago.

“Hey, so rude,” Sveta said.

I put my hand out.  She gave me a prosthetic high-five.

“You realize the other teams are going to see this and think we are the absolute lamest, right?” Cryptid asked.

Maximum sass Lookout retorted, “You are dragging the rest of us down when it comes to the averaged numbers.”

“Oooh,” he said.  “Just so you know, if you sound like a math dork when you’re giving your comeback, you fail.  I’m sorry.”

“If you get a mouthful of comeback after you burp because you chug so much-”

“Nooo,” I interrupted.

“I’m going to be glad I didn’t commit to the team thing, and I’ll let my brother deal with this,” Byron said.  “Zero guilt.”

Byron became Tristan.  From blue scale armor to red plate and chain.

There was a moment’s pause as he looked around.

“Fist bumps are better than high fives,” Capricorn said.  “I’m pretty sure someone out there has enhanced hearing and got to hear Lookout say that.”

“There’s more where it came from,” Lookout said.  “I went to the training camps for Wards.  That’s like, ten percent kids acting like it’s prison and crying in a corner being homesick, twenty percent kids with stars in their eyes being amazed by everything, and seventy percent kids trying to establish a pecking order and murdering each other with words.”

“You were, what, nine?” Cryptid asked.  “I can’t imagine you establishing any pecking order.”

“I didn’t say I was one of those seventy percent.”

“Oh, stars in your eyes, of course.  You have that all the time.”

“Ha ha,” Lookout retorted, working her shoulders so one stuck forward with one ha, switching orientation for the next.  “You got it wrong again, Cryptid.  Heart shaped pupils, not starry ones.  Like my online handle.”

“That doesn’t mean what you want it to mean,” he said.  “But I’m not going to try to explain it if Capricorn’s scared of eavesdroppers.”

“I’m not scared,” Capricorn said.

“You’re concerned,” I said.  “Let’s change the topic.”

Lookout jumped in, “What we were talking about before- Those seventy percent kids were mostly the problem cases who the higher-ups thought needed boot camp to straighten them out.  Most became problem cases who could kick ass, instead.”

“Ah yeah,” I said.  “I’ve met one or two of them.”

“When you were a temporary Ward?  Oh, wait, I can take notes, look up that team and work out who.”

“Boundaries,” I said.

“Boundaries, right.  No prob.”

I wished I could see her face.  The helmet she wore covered it.  I had a sense of how she comported and conveyed herself now, and… she gave away very little like this.

There was an energy to her, a combativeness that I wasn’t sure was there all the time.  Trick was, I wasn’t sure if she was more inclined to drop retorts or seize the initiative in conversation because she was unhappy, because she wanted more control, or if she was freer to do it because she wasn’t spending so much energy on defending herself against her parents on a day to day basis.

I glanced back at Natalie and her colleague.

Ashley was the only person besides Jessica and maybe me that ‘got’ Kenzie.  She’d signed off on my proposed course of action.  We’d turned the Martins in, leveraging Natalie, my mom through Natalie, my old Patrol contacts and the nebulous phrasing of ‘the complicating factor of a parahuman in the mix’ to get people to not sweep things under the rug.

The Martins had their initial tribunal meeting.  It helped that they were on a different track and a different field of focus than the groups that were working their way through a backlog of Fallen arrests.

Kenzie was still at home, her parents were locked up, and people from the system were staying with her at her house.  I was being kept out of the loop on purpose, until they could make sure that everything was square.

“By the way, just so you know, because boundaries, I’m recording stuff for our missing team members.”

“Might have to edit that recording,” Capricorn said.

“Keeping secrets?” Lookout asked.

“Just… depending on what you pick up,” Capricorn said.  “We don’t want to get on anyone’s bad side because you recorded them and word of it got to the wrong people.”

“Oh, sure.  Recaps, maybe?”

“Maybe.  Let me glance over it before you send.”

“Okay.”

“That’s a good policy,” Sveta said.  “Back at the hospital, if we wanted to vlog or upload gaming videos, we had to run it by the people in charge, first.  It took forever, because they didn’t want to watch through everything.”

“They wanted to make sure no vulnerable kids were being groomed and that there weren’t any shitstorms from kids using their vlogs to claim they were being held prisoner in a parahuman hospital,” I said.

“Yeah, that,” Sveta said.  “Probably a good thing for guardians to do.”

“Aww, are you my guardians?”

“Yes,” Cryptid said.  “Now go clean your room, and scrub the toilet.  Using a toothbrush.”

“Ha.  My room’s always clean, and if I use a toothbrush on any toilets, it’ll be yours.  Except you’d probably become Happy Disgust and enjoy it.”

“That’s not the convention, you dolt.  I try to make it sound good.  It’d be Wallowing Filth or something.”

“Oh God,” Capricorn said.  He shook his head.  “This team.”

“I’ll stop,” Lookout said.

“If anyone can overhear, I think they’ve made up their mind already,” Capricorn said.

A few of the stragglers were arriving, now.  The last-minute change of location had screwed some people up.  Most fleshed out other groups.  A few solo individuals stood off to one side.

I spotted Longscratch.  He didn’t join Tempera and Fume Hood.

I spotted my mom and dad.  They were together, part of the same ramshackle group I’d seen my mom with when they’d been dealing with the student protesters.

An odd, uncomfortable feeling, seeing that.

Dad had updated his costume a little, too.

The key players of our big meeting here were the last to arrive.  The trees swayed as the wind changed, and the soft roar of engines preceded the display.

A Dragon-craft, sleek and powerful, loaded to bear with weapons.  It descended slowly with engines working against gravity, emitting a blue shimmer into the air that diffused into the area, tinting the craft’s surroundings.

It landed in the water, and the head rested on the stone.  The occupants emerged.

Yeah, that was something.  Wow.  After getting taken out of the picture like I had, I’d missed so much of what had gone on in Brockton Bay, during the latter part of the Slaughterhouse Nine attacking, the villain takeover and the heroes’ attempt to establish the peace.  I’d missed this.

Defiant.  Armsmaster.

An awful lot of the bad that had flowed from that point in time had been due to a lack of leadership on the heroes’ side.  Miss Militia had stepped up, but Armsmaster had ‘retired’ after flipping out at the hospital.  My sister had filled me in on details.  We’d been left short on good guys when we’d really needed them.

Things were never going to be okay after an Endbringer attack.  I knew that.  I’d known it to the core of my being when I’d attended Eric and Uncle Neil’s funerals, my dad unable to stand for segments because he hadn’t had the faculties.  I’d known it when I’d lost Dean.

But something had gone fundamentally wrong, even beyond that.  Between the Endbringer first arriving and the Slaughterhouse Nine, things had gone from a bad situation to something almost unsalvageable.

I wanted to know what.  I wanted to know more about the role he played in it or the perspective he had on it.

Because we were in a place very close to that.

“Can we ambush them, knock them out, and then see about kidnapping the Speedrunner guys, just so I can have two forevers to look at her stuff?” Lookout asked.

“Either one of them would kick our asses,” Sveta said.

“I’m joking,” Lookout said.

“Maybe if we ask nicely,” I said.

People were drawing closer to the vantage point.  Dragon was greeting Narwhal, leaning in close enough to say something in her ear.  Narwhal smiled.

Defiant, meanwhile, looked pretty grim.  When he got a nod from Dragon, he tapped his spear-butt against the rock, hard enough to be audible from the far end of the clearing.  All conversation stopped.

“Thank you for coming,” he said.  “As of right now, the city is under a steady, surreptitious attack.  Several arrests were made and now that we have some information, we want to make sure everyone knows the pertinent details.”

“If you want transcripts of the talks with the captives, you can message me at my Parahumans Online account,” Dragon said.  “I’ll send you what I can.”

“The attackers are Earth Cheit,” Defiant said.  “The divergence point for Earth Cheit was six hundred years ago.  There was a change in the royal line and a push for an ‘age of enlightenment’ stance, denigrating and even criminalizing some aspects of religion.  The backlash was severe and sharp.  An inclusive, aggressive faction emerged in answer to it, and that faction would eventually absorb and conquer others.”

“The world has a population well beyond that of the Earth Bet we knew,” Dragon said.  “It also has sub-sects which are violent and willing to die for their cause.  These people have been steadily infiltrating and occupying.  Now they’re escalating their attacks.  You’ve all heard of the attack on the refugee site.”

Defiant shifted his grip on his spear.  “They go for what vulnerabilities they see, and we have a lot.  We’re stretched thin and it’s easier to destroy than it is to protect.  If you’re willing to face this threat, expand your patrols, keep track of power lines, phone lines, railroad tracks, and key buildings.  Hospitals, portals, schools, community centers, political offices and team headquarters are all possible targets for strikes.”

“If you aren’t willing to face down these people, or if you’re a group of minors,” Dragon said, “Allow others to cover this ground in your territory.  We cannot allow them footholds.”

“Share information,” Defiant said.  “Team rivalries, pride, rankings, and even financial competition should be set aside.  If you’re willing, and if it would make the difference, we will subsidize you in the meantime.  If you need or want mediators, referees, or brokers for trade, we will provide them.”

“It’s a state of emergency?” Mayday asked.

“It is,” Defiant said.  “Thinkers, strangers, some changers and some tinkers may be invaluable, given the shape this conflict is taking.”

“Yes,” Lookout’s voice was barely audible.

“The man behind the worst of this is named Teacher,” Dragon said.  “He grants thinker abilities or tinker powers.  The tinker powers he grants may be something he’s using to create his own temporary portals.  It’s not as simple as guarding the portals that already stand.”

“Are we considering working with villain groups?” a cape standing near Fume Hood and Tempera asked.

“We have to be careful,” Defiant said.  “Several are working with other groups and powers, including Cheit.  Cheit formed loose ties with the Fallen, who are…”

“Antitheotical?” Dragon suggested.

“Antitheotical to Cheit’s own belief system.  But Cheit’s doctrine is one that accepts any sub-sect or branch religion that is willing to agree to a set of fundamental truths.  The Fallen, with some strained interpretations, fall in line with that.”

“Is that where they went?” Mayday asked.

“Some,” Defiant said.

“The new self-described Thomais branch and remnants from the attack on the compound made a break for the wilderness.  End of Days phases things into desolate alternate worlds- we think they gathered supplies and used a tech-augmented version of his power to escape into another world.  They’re migrating to a settlement that isn’t part of the Megalopolis and they’ll emerge there.  If we get information, we will reach out to interested parties.”

“Right now we’re trying to shore up what’s missing now that the Wardens are- I don’t want to say dead.  We have no reason to believe they’re dead,” Defiant said.

“Out of the picture,” Dragon’s voice was soft.

There weren’t many people here who hadn’t felt some loss when the Wardens’ HQ had disappeared.  Teams had called it a base of operations, worked with staff, or lost team members.

“Yes,” Dragon said.  “We’re available.  We’ve already reached out to some of you, and we’ll reach out to others soon- our focus is split and we do have to concern ourselves with things beyond the city.”

There was a kind of attitude shift across the crowd.  On a level, I could get it.  That things were sinking in.   On another level, I felt like we were already seeing it, and that it shouldn’t be a surprise- even to the point that I was really kind of pissed that people were only just now getting it.

“This is about survival,” Dragon said.  “We’re in this together.  That’s the gist of it.  Talk to us if you need more information.  We will coordinate as we develop tools and gather information that helps with this problem.”

That marked the end of the speech.

Discussions started around us.

“The war’s finally reached us,” Sveta said.

Natalie and her friend drew closer.  I had my arms folded as best as I could with my sling on.

“This is for real,” Natalie said.  “They’re talking about this like there’s a very real possibility we might lose.”

“We might,” Capricorn said, putting a hand on her shoulder.  He’d put an emphasis on ‘might’, but it didn’t feel like enough emphasis to change the meaning of his statement.

He was usually better about wording and presentation.

Leaving it up to me to try to rally the troops.  “We’re tenacious.  We made it this far.”

“Says the girl from Brockton-survived-Leviathan-Bay,” Cryptid said.

“Crypt,” Sveta said.  “Show a little tact.  That wasn’t a good period of time.”

Weld was making his way to us, but he was getting questions from every group he passed, and he wasn’t able to disengage or dismiss as fast as they came.

This was really it, wasn’t it?  The good guys didn’t have much more than these groups that had been called here, and there was a lot of ground to cover.  If we left a flank undefended, then it was possible it would get blown up or dismantled.

That was without getting into the other flaws and issues.

“Scapegoat turned coat.  The Speedrunners did the same,” I observed.

“Thomais branch now, apparently,” Capricorn said.  “We should talk to Rain.”

“In person,” Lookout said.

“I don’t think that’s possible,” Sveta said.

“It would be good if it was,” I said.  “We need to figure something out over there.”

We need to figure out a lot of things.

“They might see a group visit as being a breakout attempt,” Chris said.  “It sounds like a very sketchy, incomplete way of imprisoning people, they won’t want to add anything new or uncontrolled to the mix.”

I nodded, my arms still folded.

My mom was off at the other end of the clearing, looking at me.

“I’m going to go to Weld, so he doesn’t have to work so hard to get to us,” Sveta said.

“I’ll come,” Capricorn volunteered.

It left me with Lookout, Cryptid, Natalie and her friend.

I looked at the friend.  He was red haired, with a red beard, and very blue eyes, and hooked his thumbs into his belt in a way that I wanted to describe as forced-casual.

“I’m Victoria.  Antares if you want to use something fancier,” I introduced myself.

“Tony.  I got the rundown on the group from a distance,” he said.  He shook my hand.  “I’m keeping an eye on things at Lookout’s house on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, making a dinner, breakfast.  Usually there are two of us there at a time.”

“Because I really need that much supervision,” Lookout said.

“We supervise each other, too,” Tony said.

“They thought we should send someone here for this meeting to supervise and ensure we know what’s going on,” Natalie said.  “Tony’s a friend of a friend of mine that’s in family law.”

“We saw each other a few times when we did the big friend group get-togethers.  You know the kind, where you say hi to a bunch of people that are three degrees of separation away from you, but you don’t ever really talk to them,” Tony said.

“I know the kind,” I said, smiling.

“We’re talking now,” Natalie said.

“Everything’s okay on the home front?” I asked.  I looked at Lookout.

“Okay enough,” Lookout said.  “Quiet.”

“We’ll figure out something more long-term later,” Tony said.  “For now, quiet isn’t the worst thing.”

“No power all last night,” Lookout said.  “It’s terrible.  No TV, no movies, no computer, can’t run half my tech.”

“Build a generator,” Cryptid said.

“I’d have to box it up, and I’d have to make it big if I wanted to get energy from nothing, and it takes resources, and it takes time.  And oh, duh, I can’t build in the dark, so I’d need a generator to build a generator.  See my problem?  Ugh.

“Ugh,” Cryptid echoed her.  “Try harder.”

“Go easy, Cryptid,” I said.  “Why don’t you go for a walk?”

“Whatever,” he said.  The camouflage that cloaked him slipped around his body as he moved, adapting to the surroundings within a few feet of him with each step or so.

“Come on,” I told Lookout.  “You two okay on your own?”

“Capes are neat,” Natalie said, in a way that made me think she was being sarcastic.  “We’ll crowd-watch.  Right?”

“Yeah,” Tony said.

“What are we doing?” Lookout asked.

“Checking in,” I said.

There were too many things I needed to know, wanted to ask.  Some were past, some present, some future.

And Lookout needed some distractions, because as far as I could tell, her home life was less mired in the bad, but there was also a distinct lack of good in it.  I could imagine it was lonely.

As I took her hands, my eye fell on my mom, who was talking to my dad.

Even when things weren’t great, or when there was a measure of resentment or hurt feeling, there was sometimes hope.  There was a lingering fondness.

I flew, lifting Lookout over the crowd, past Weld, Sveta, and Capricorn, who were together, Weld with one arm around Sveta’s back, helping to keep her upright as they tried to talk to five people at once.

We landed on the far side.  There was a crowd here too.  It was more the team leaders like Mayday and Houndstooth who were lingering here.

We lingered, waiting.  Lookout craned her head around, looking at the Dragon mech.

“She combined my tech with that hack Brim’s stuff for the eyes, I think,” Lookout said.  “I know I signed off on other PRT tinkers using my stuff, but it kind of sucks that she didn’t use just my stuff on its own.”

“If you get a chance, you could ask her why.”

“I don’t think I could.  She’s so amazing and important, and I’d sound so petty.”

She was interested, her attention occupied, but I had no idea on whether she was okay.  I wasn’t sure the home situation was good like this, as temporary as it was, but did she ever have a good home situation?

I could have asked her how she was, but I wasn’t sure I could trust the response.  She would sooner tell me she was fine when she wasn’t than be upfront and risk scaring me off.

Maybe… a roundabout route?

“If Swansong was here right now, what would she tell you?”

I saw her head tilt.

“Don’t overthink it.  It doesn’t matter what I feel or know.  How does she respond?  Generally speaking, not about Dragon.  But about anything today.”

“You keep telling me stuff and changing what I’m supposed to think about.”

“Just… don’t think.  Off the top of your head.”

“She’d be like, imbecile.  Go kick ass.  Be proud of yourself.  I dunno.”

“Doesn’t sound quite right.”

“I’m not the Swansong whisperer,” Lookout said.  “But I know she treats me pretty nice and she doesn’t think much about other people being important.  They’ll all be… subservent?”

“Subservient,” I said.

“They’ll scrape and bow before her in the end.  So she’d say even Dragon shouldn’t be a big deal.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “I’m focused more on you than on her, though.  What would you regret?  Saying something and being shut down, or saying something and maybe getting a neat bit of info?”

Lookout shrugged.  “I get turned down a lot, I guess.”

“I didn’t mean to frame it that way, but…”

“But…” she picked up where I’d trailed off.  “Can’t hurt too badly.”

Mayday kept giving us more and more wary looks, until he gave Defiant a handshake and left.  A bit nervous – it hadn’t been my intention to bring Lookout uncomfortably close to him.

My intention was more along the lines of opening a dialogue with the closest thing we had to heroes at the top.  The new Triumvirate were all either busy or they’d been taken when Mrs. Yamada had.  There wasn’t any clear indication.

Defiant turned his attention to us.

“Victoria.”

“Defiant.  Thank you for coordinating people.”

“Thank you for the information you sent us.  We’re still sorting through it and verifying.”

The stuff from beyond the G-N portal.  In drafting it, Capricorn, Sveta and I had included the details about the jail, as well as how they’d been acquired.

“Your mother and father are over there,” he said.  “You’re not with them?”

I shook my head.  “Not right now.”

“It’s complicated,” Dragon said, like she knew.  When I gave her a curious look, she said, “Your parents are working for us, until the Wardens are established again.  In costume she’s halfway with us, halfway with her old team.  Whatever she prefers at the time.”

I felt uncomfortable that my mother had so casually, even easily slotted herself into this.

“Parents are complicated,” Lookout said.

“They really are, aren’t they?” Dragon asked.  “We interact now and then with your sister, just to make sure you aren’t caught unawares.”

I winced.  I tried to be diplomatic.  “Makes sense.  She’s strong.”

It was Defiant who mercifully changed the subject.  “You did a good job with the portals, getting us to a place where we could save most.  Valefor.  Mama Mathers.”

“Our team’s collective efforts,” I said.  “This is one member.  Lookout.”

“I know Lookout,” he said.

“We’ve met?”

It was Dragon who replied, breaking away from a side conversation with Cinereal.  As she approached, the head of her dragon craft moved slightly to follow.

“The internet slowdown?” Dragon asked.

“Oof.  Embarrassing.”

“Confidential files on capes.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “Oops.  I didn’t think it was a big deal.”

“If you got into the files, we might have had to take action.”

“Not going to do it again.”

“Glad to hear it,” Dragon said.  “I’ve read your file-”

“Oooohh.  Oh no.”

“-and I know where things stand.  Did you need anything?”

“Nothing big.  I know you’re busy.”

“The little things can matter a lot.  I wouldn’t mind a brief distraction.  What did you need?”

Lookout looked up at me, then over at Dragon.  “Why’d you use Brim’s visor tech with my eye tech?”

“A very good question.  If you promise to be good, and if your teammate is okay with it…”

“Sure,” I said.  “We need her back in a few minutes, though.”

It looked like Weld, Sveta and Tristan might soon wrap up the Warden business of corralling people and handling questions.  The crowd was dwindling, with people breaking away to talk to others.

Lookout took Dragon’s hand.  The ship opened up to accept them into the bay area, where a team or cargo could presumably be stored.  Monitors lit up around them.

“I’m glad you’re better, Victoria,” Defiant said.

“Thank you,” I said.  The words were kind, but I wished I hadn’t heard them, because they were a reminder.

“I’ve scanned files about your team members,” he said.  He leaned back against the side of the ship, setting the spear so it stood a few feet beside him, needing no hands on it to keep it upright.  “You’ve taken on a pretty heavy job.”

I nodded.

“I wish things had gone differently.”

“I want things to be different this time around.  Thinking about the future, not the past.”

“I agree.”

“And- completely contradicting myself… Armsmaster- Defiant.  I don’t know exactly what happened, when Leviathan attacked.”

Even with the power armor he wore, not just regular armor but armor that required motors and machinery to move, I could see him draw in a deep breath.  I couldn’t see his face to read his expression.

Same as Lookout.  Same as Dragon.

Was it because I’d grown up with New Wave that I found it so frustrating, now?  I’d always considered myself a cape at heart, and now I was feeling this annoyance at the omnipresence of something fundamental- masks.  Secret identities.

Did I jar them just as much?  Did they look beneath my hood and expect to see a mask there?

“What about that day concerns you?” he asked.

“You did something- you broke the truce.  You were deemed guilty enough that they ‘retired’ you.”

“All correct.”

“Eric Pelham.  Neil Pelham.  Shielder and Manpower?”

“Yes.”

“You did something, and… did that something get my family members killed?”

“Shielder was before my mistake.  Manpower- he was after.”

“You got him killed?”

“Not through malice.  Not even carelessness, I feel.  My mistake was that I decided I was fine with villains dying if it meant the monster could be slain.  By me, ideally.  Manpower was there, but I didn’t want him to die.  I told myself that if Leviathan had to kill someone to end up in a certain time or place, it might as well be Kaiser.  My computer helped work out the sequence of events.”

Shit on me.

Yeah.  That was a violation of the truce.  It fit neatly into things.

“If the villains had been spared- if you hadn’t started down that route?  Would his chances have been better?  Do you think Shielder could have died because you were subconsciously preparing to do this?”

There was a pause.

“I don’t know, Victoria Dallon,” he told me.  There was something less crisp and confident in his voice, more momentarily lost, that left me feeling like he genuinely didn’t know.  Maybe even to the extent that it wasn’t something he’d truly considered before now.

I wanted to be angry and I couldn’t.  It just hurt.  I felt the loss of those family members very pointedly right now, especially with Crystal away.

He went on, “But if there’s even a possibility, I’d be willing to do anything reasonable to make it up to you.  It’s the sort of effort that keeps me moving forward.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t even sure how to feel about that.  I understood the idea, even if I hated that he might be responsible for the renewed feeling of loss I was dealing with right now.

I hadn’t come here with the plan of guilting him and using that- but he was offering help and… fuck me, we needed it.

“The prison complex.  We have teammates there,” I said.

“I don’t think we can release them.  Things are volatile.  Unless you have new evidence you’d like for us to push through.”

Kenzie needed this.  The team needed it.

I shook my head.  “I don’t think you could or should, either.  My question is, can you get us in to visit?  As a group?”

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