“Bianca. This wasn’t what I agreed to,” Amy stated, a tightness in her voice.
“I told you the damn stakes.”
“No, Bianca,” Amy said, firmer. I watched the projected image on the wall, and saw the little creature crawl out of the space between duffel coat and body, perching on Amy’s shoulder. She held what looked like a razor blade melted into the plastic end of a pen, but the nib of the pen was a spike- the resolution and angle weren’t good enough for me to see. “This isn’t okay. This is not how you win me over.”
I blinked a few times, my thoughts turning over.
“Amy,” Goddess said. “I like you. I like your father-”
“Then don’t mess with my family.”
“-But I can’t make concessions to win you over if I lose everything else. You know the stakes, you know the situation, and if you want to change my mind, you’d better stop posturing and start thinking of some good fucking arguments or options. I have no patience right now.”
“Okay,” Amy spoke with measured words, “I would appreciate it if you would free them to think coherently so they can also come up with arguments and options.”
“They’re clearheaded. Or they will be.”
Were we? I didn’t feel like I had my mental footing, after the realization of what Goddess had done. I didn’t feel especially bothered by the realization either, but I couldn’t find a train of thought that went anywhere and that did bother me. It wasn’t that they were stalling or being derailed, but that it was a complete and total paradigm shift to switch over to thinking of something that would work for both Breakthrough and Goddess. My eyes darted over the room and looking at anything, everything, in my effort to find inspiration. Everything except the image of Amy on the wall.
“Give them a moment. Once they’re with us, this discussion will move more smoothly,” Goddess said. She sounded calmer than before.
“I-” Amy started.
“It’s fine,” I said, authoritative. If I’d had my aura, I might even have used it for punctuation, for all the good it would do against Amy. I didn’t want to let her respond if it meant I had to hear her voice. “Let’s do what we need to do, you can leave for some world where you get to be a queen, and I never have to see you again.”
“That’s-” Amy started. She winced. “That’s a gut punch, Vicky. For what it’s worth-”
“It’s not worth anything.”
“She was going to come after you all anyway. I convinced her to talk to you and your team-”
“We talked,” Goddess said.
“-but you didn’t talk enough before doing this. Please believe me, Victoria, I didn’t want this.”
A refrain that I’d heard before, that played through my nightmares. I shook my head, as if that could cast off words or whatever else. “Just stop, please. Stop talking. Leave, get lost. Please, you owe me that much,” I talked over her, too impatient and angry It was worse because I was experiencing a moment’s hesitation, a lurching feeling like I stood on a cliff’s edge and I was unable to fly.
“I do, but- there’s no point where I’ve done enough to make up for it? I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.”
Did she mean to let bygones be bygones, as if that was even possible? Was I misunderstanding? ‘Done enough to make up for it?’
“I mean, I’m doing more harm if I let this happen,” she said, as if to clarify, her voice quiet. She sounded lost, a little hollowed out.
I tried to ignore her, my skin crawling. She sounded lost, hollowed out, and she communicated that same sensation or experience to me with her voice. It wasn’t an unfamiliar voice, either. I heard voices like that around the edges of my nightmares, images and scenes my brain couldn’t keep in my long-term memory.
There were other things to dwell on. Goddess, for one. This feeling- I could place the why of it. I’d made assumptions. I addressed Goddess. “I said we’d part ways after this was done. Was I right about that, or is the plan that we come with you after?”
Goddess answered me, “I’ll end my relationship with Breakthrough after I have what I need from the prison, a few of our mutual enemies’ underlings removed, then you can decide with clear heads if you want to come with me. Agreeable?”
“No, it’s not agreeable to me,” Amy said.
“It’s perfect. Stop talking, Amy,” I said.
“Stop!” I raised my voice, taking a step forward. It took Capricorn’s hand on my shoulder to remind me that she was more than sixty miles away.
I’d spooked Lookout by being so loud, by the looks of it.
I saw Amy drop her hands from the small raised ‘hands up’ position that had followed my shout. It would have been comical if just about anything about this scene had been different.
I didn’t like feeling so off when it came to my mental footing, especially when I had to deal with the relative proximity of someone I’d really hoped I’d never have to see again. I avoided looking at the screen- I didn’t want to make eye contact, to see if she was staring at me.
“Make her stop talking, I’ll stop, you can talk to the team,” I said.
“Breakthrough?” Goddess asked.
The others were voicing their agreement- most of the others. My thoughts were chaotic enough that I was momentarily incapable of sifting through overlapping voices.
“…should work out,” Capricorn’s voice trailed after the others.
Even the projections of Swansong and Precipice nodded assent. Good. The satisfaction that we were all on the same page was disrupted by the sound of her voice. Amy’s voice. I grit my teeth.
“Vicky,” Amy said. “I’m on your side here… and I don’t think you’re on your own side.”
“Are you working against me now?” Goddess asked.
“No,” Amy said. “Because I think this is a bad move. I’m helping you by saying no to this.”
“You don’t get it,” I said, and my voice went weak on ‘get’ in a way that made me think it would crack. I didn’t want to be weak. I wanted to be angry, so I spoke with more fervor, more harshness in my voice. “The fact that you’re here, that you wanted to talk to me, it shows you don’t get it. You invade my thoughts every few minutes. You altered me as a person, on multiple levels. Everything I do now, everything I touch, everything I eat, it’s stained with- with you. You intruded that deeply, that thoroughly, and the very fact you think you can talk to me is screwed up. It’s another intrusion, your words in my ears. Whatever you think you’re doing- this isn’t helping.”
“After this is done with, I think you’d thank me.”
Heavy words. I was pretty sure she’d said the same thing way back then.
Something in my expression seemed to communicate that.
Her expression was forlorn, lost. Fuck her. She asked, “What am I supposed to do? If I let this happen then you’re never going to forgive me.”
“I was never, ever going to forgive you in the first place, even before this meeting,” I spat out the words, and the pent up emotions found some release in those words, anger etching the sounds more and more. I was aware of my team in my peripheral vision, and my voice softened a bit. The Warrior Monk. What would Jessica want? I didn’t have an answer, so I asked a question instead, with no anger in my voice. Only the disappointment equivalent to an entire childhood of friendship, loyalty, trust and respect being dashed to the rocks, infusing quiet words as much as anger had infused the loud. “How do you not get that?”
She didn’t have a response to that. Her creature looked between her devastated expression and ‘me’- the projected image of me.
“I could ask you to,” Goddess told me. “Forgive her.”
“No,” Amy said, as I shook my head.
The standing-on-a-ledge feeling lurched inside of me at the idea.
Goddess reached out to fix a lock of brown hair that the rain had pressed down to Amy’s ear. I moved my shoulders, shifting my weight on my feet- I wanted to squirm free of skin and awareness to not be a part of this.
Goddess asked, “What am I going to do with you, Amy?”
I stared at Lookout’s workstations, at the other monitors, the email feeds, desperate for something that would give me an excuse to not be here, a distraction or a daydream.
“It might be better if I handle things from here on out,” Capricorn murmured in my ear.
“Yeah. A lot better,” I murmured back. “Thank you.”
Goddess was talking to Amy in the meantime. I didn’t want to listen, but she wasn’t the kind of person who was ignored.
“…asked you what you wanted, you said you wanted to talk to her. You wanted resolution before you left. That was part of the deal.”
“I meant- I didn’t say to force her.”
I heard Goddess talking to Amy, telling her, “You didn’t say it, but you wanted it. Needed it, even. Now you have it.”
There was only silence. I imagined a head-shake, but I didn’t want to look.
A damning silence, I thought.
Something about Amy’s voice with an edge of desperation to it hit me to my core. Silence was better.
“We’ll return to that if we have time. Breakthrough,” Goddess said. “Let’s talk strategy.”
There was a moment’s hesitation before Capricorn responded. “Let’s. What do you need?”
That hesitation was a factor- especially if the hounds were coming calling. I knew Capricorn’s own thoughts were no doubt working on getting used to the new paradigm. There were wrong answers and right answers, and nothing was explicitly saying we couldn’t choose the wrong answers, but… why choose the wrong answer?
“The last time I made a play, there was a twenty minute delay before they came. This time, my danger sense suggests something closer to ten or twelve.”
“Good to know,” Precipice said.
“What does it mean?” Capricorn asked. “When the hounds come?”
“They’ll come for me, at first. Lesser tinkers and thinkers with guns, grenades, more tricks than sheer power. I don’t get the feeling he’s willing to go for outright war. Squads are led by people with enhanced coordination and special means of communication. They strike in coordination, multiple squads with perfect timing between them. I can fend them off, but not forever, not without my full complement of powers. If I use my full powers, it draws hostile attention of other sorts. Your Wardens, or what’s left of them. Others. If I run, I have to abandon my missions, they gain ground, and they will divine who I was working on and target them.”
“This is Teacher?” I asked.
We’d heard some of what was going on from Tattletale. To hear about Teacher having this kind of clout was a little daunting, bringing home some of Tattletale’s anxieties.
Forget Goddess having a small influence over us- the notion that I was both facing down Amy and sympathizing with Tattletale threatened to break my brain in half.
No. This wasn’t okay. The wrongness of the situation crept through my bones and belly. If I’d had to talk more or ask follow-up questions, I felt like I’d be stuck for what to say.
“You had a camera person?” Goddess asked. “It came up on the television program.”
“Me,” Lookout said.
“And you’ve networked with other groups?”
“Yes,” Capricorn said.
“Connect me to those groups. I want straight video feed, or multiple groups gathered in one place. Internet is unreliable and phones are frequently down. What can you do in ten minutes?”
“I have connections already,” Lookout said. Eager to please, happy to have been proactive. “Secure line, separate and distinct from what the city has. It doesn’t connect directly to most of those guys, but I can leapfrog from a place very close to them. I can do it in a minute, as fast as I can dial the numbers.”
No hesitation curve there, I noted.
“I’ll come to you. Be ready.”
“No,” Cryptid said. His voice nearly overlapped with Amy’s.
“It doesn’t make sense. We should be compartmentalizing more.”
“Compartmentalizing like having thirty-two online accounts?” Rain asked.
“Like that. Break operations into cells. You want to do something, Goddess? Fine. Hold off your small army and let us do what you need us to do.”
“Just you? No. I want others.”
“If you reach out to others, people are going to realize. Thinkers watch out for this kind of thing. Some teams have their precogs, others are scattered and wary. We’ve told them to be careful, because multiple players in this game have stranger or master powers.”
“Cryptid is the paranoid type,” Capricorn explained.
“If you’re not super paranoid then you’re not paying enough attention to how fucked up things can be,” Cryptid said. “There are people still trapped in time looped torture bubbles. The kid who did it? He was supposed to be dead. There is no degree of ass-covering that’s too much. This? You can’t show your hand.”
Amy had been murmuring with her creature- to Dot, she’d called it. Trying to work out a course of action. She’d paused to observe this part of the conversation, and that she was observing that keenly was something worth paying attention to, as much as I didn’t want to.
“I’m not convinced,” Goddess said. “There’s no time for subtlety.”
Cryptid explained, “They put the prison behind two portals. They have the means to close ways between universes- they used it to seal off Aleph entirely. That’s the trap. If you go there, they abandon ship and lock you in, or they’ll just blow up the prisoners that might end up compromised.”
“Let’s avoid that,” Precipice said.
“They’ll try to evacuate staff, they have ways to get them out fast, but they will lock them in if they have to. If you try to take over teams and word gets out, they’ll take similar measures, blow up anyone who might be compromised, or they’ll lock off the prison, temporarily or permanently.”
“We could shut off communication,” Lookout said. “Keep them from sending out an alert.”
“Sure. Except are you sure that wouldn’t set off failsafes?”
“I think it might set off failsafes,” Cryptid said.
“Things were rushed,” I said. “They can’t get universities up and running, groups are underfunded, we’re just getting a working government. And you think they’ve built a perfect prison?”
“I think the stakes are high,” Cryptid replied. “Swansong probably wants to keep her legs. Precipice too, though he could probably do a prosthetic arm for a leg. And I’m betting our Lady in Blue doesn’t want the other guy to win. Screwing up would hand him that win. We can be better than that.”
“A good-enough prison, maybe?” I asked.
“Let’s anticipate everything,” he said.
“It’s hard to imagine you were being so unreasonable a few hours ago, and you’re Mr. Rational now.”
“I was reasonable and rational all along,” Cryptid retorted. To the screen, to Goddess, he said, “I’m confident I’m right here. This isn’t the way to do this. There are too many traps.”
Goddess didn’t respond. The silence stretched.
Cryptid was staring at the screen, chin up, headphones and headgear on, but masked with the projection plate that dressed up his body in weird shapes and shades. I could see his silhouette, slightly broken up, but I couldn’t see much of him.
Between Rain and Capricorn, Swansong was staring off into space. Was it a consequence of being on the other side of a computer screen, two steps removed? No- because Precipice was more or less normal.
She was fighting this- treading water. The inverse of Lookout.
Amy approached Goddess, and she spoke in a very low voice, inaudible.
Lookout glanced over her shoulder at us, then typed something out.
The audio distorted, then settled at a point it was audible. Nobody complained- I suspected because they all wanted to know.
Even my desire to know outweighed how little I wanted to hear Amy talk.
“-to do things better this time. You wanted people who weren’t yes men. I’m trying to be that, but I’m not good at it. I’m not a debater, I’m not quick. Cryptid’s team has information we don’t, and he says no.”
“We can hear you,” Cryptid said.
“Chri-ptid!” Lookout hissed.
“So don’t go talking about anything private,” he added.
“Is he trustworthy?” Goddess asked Amy.
“No,” Cryptid said. “No I’m not.”
“He’s reliable,” Amy said.
“Cryptid. You’ll come to me by the fastest means possible. Head to Bridgeport, the downtown crossroads, wait five minutes, then head East from there. Stop at landmarks. I will find you.” Goddess said. “We’ll compartmentalize, as you said. Individual cells. You’ll come with me and coordinate. Breakthrough? Work on the prison problem. I will be in touch. Acceptable?”
“If I’m understanding the way this works, you could tell me to level the entire city, and I’d think it was acceptable,” Capricorn said. There was something in his voice that made me think he was smiling beneath his helmet.
It felt disconnected, weird. The storm still raged outside, there was virtually no light out there, and the lights inside seemed artificially bright. It was like we were in a box, and the world beyond wasn’t real. This was just a story, a contained, ethereal scene.
A nightmare in a box.
“No,” Goddess said, approaching Capricorn’s projection. She studied it- a head and face that perfectly matched our Capricorn’s in position and in every last detail. “You’re not capable. By asking if it was acceptable, I wanted to know if there were questions or concerns.”
“You’ll be in touch,” Capricorn said. “We’ll ask then.”
“Then we’ll go, there’s not much time before the asshole’s mind-slaves are after us,” she told Amy, Dot, and Luis. “I’ll be in touch, Breakthrough. Next time, we meet in person.”
I glanced at the screen just in time to see Amy glancing back. Momentary eye contact I hadn’t wanted. She flipped up the hood of the white coat, with its red cross at the brow. I watched her go, her squirrel-gremlin climbing up to her shoulder, to wave its toothbrush-razor in what might have been a wave or might have been menacing. She put a hand up to catch it, pulling it down to the front of her coat, where she rummaged, presumably getting it settled there.
I didn’t know how to digest it all. I had fear in my chest, anger running through me and a pit of something bleak in my gut. I felt like I could burst into tears and I felt like I was too numb to move, let alone cry.
I suspected that if we’d been there in person, I would have hit her hard enough to kill her. As part of that thought, I well and truly believed that had I hit her hard enough to kill her, I would have felt better.
Cryptid dropped his costume-projection, becoming Chris in the process. stretched on his way to the door, taking only a short detour to grab his bag and coat, flipping his hood up to brave the rain.
“You’ll be okay?” Sveta asked him.
“I have a form prepared.”
The door slammed behind him.
Capricorn immediately began shucking off armor. Sveta backed away from the consoles, while Swansong and Precipice exchanged looks- Precipice losing his mask to become regular Rain. It was done. That was the meeting.
“That could have gone worse,” Rain said.
“Yeah,” Capricorn said. “Like Victoria said, the effect from her isn’t that bad.”
“Tolerable,” I said, again.
“Are you okay?” Sveta asked me.
I shrugged one shoulder and shook my head.
“Did it help to get things off your chest?”
“If it did, it was outweighed by how much that sucked in general,” I said. “I don’t know if it helped. Ask me again in a week, when I’ve replayed these conversations and those expressions over and over in my head a thousand times.”
“For what it’s worth,” Tristan said. “Thanks for coming, Victoria. I think someone as powerful as Bianca is used to getting her way. If you hadn’t been here, the meeting wouldn’t have happened, and she would have plowed forward- probably triggering the trap.”
“They’d shut off the prison portals, cutting it off from everyone and everything,” Sveta said. “Except maybe the man who can apparently travel between dimensions.”
“At least now we have Cryptid on the case, and he’s guiding the game plan,” Tristan said.
“That doesn’t make me super confident,” I told him.
“It’s better than what it looked like we were going to be doing with her,” Tristan said. “We’ll find a way to help Goddess and we’ll do it while avoiding hurting the other teams.”
I walked over to Ashley and Rain, my arms folded.
Rain was walking over to Tristan, noting the gear, his attention on tables and tinkerings. Lost in thought. It had to be a tricky situation, to be so far away and so relatively helpless. He’d be more helpless if they figured out he was spending hours a day in front of his computer and logging next to no hours online.
And then there was Swansong. Ashley. She stared at a point on the table like she wanted to kill it.
“You’ve been quiet,” I observed, to Ashley.
“I’m trying not to think, so I don’t fall into her way of thinking. I think I’m slowly losing.”
“It’s fine, we’re fine,” Kenzie said. She had removed her helmet. “Chris is gone, which sucks, but we’re all mostly okay.”
“I don’t think we are,” Sveta said, her voice gentle. “But we have a way forward. We’ll have to rely on Chris to handle his end of things. In the meantime, we do what we need to.”
Tristan was still pulling off his armor. “We should touch base with the other teams. If we’re going to get information, it should be soon. Byron, I owe you time, but can you do me a favor, and let me swap back to pick up my gear before you leave to go anywhere.”
Tristan blurred. In frame and the color of the clothes he wore, he changed. The momentary blur faded.
I saw Byron with his eyes wide, like the deer in the headlights. I knew, with the same certainty that I’d known she had us. He was unarmored and unarmed, and wholly his usual self- which was also the self that would look most alarmed by the status quo.
She didn’t have him.
“Think very carefully about what you do next,” I said.
“I’ve had a pretty level head when it comes to sitting in the back seat and watching someone do something awful. I’m careful, don’t worry,” Byron said.
His movements betrayed his words. He backed up, moving toward the largest, most empty portion of the room.
“Byron,” I said. “If you make this whole thing more complicated than it is, there’s a chance people get hurt. A chance Rain and Ashley get hurt, their legs blown off or they’re stuck on a prison world with no way out. There are bystanders. Prison staff who could get hurt.”
“I can sympathize with your sister in this,” he said.
I winced. “Bad choice of words.”
“In this. Trying to deal with you, when you’re like this.”
“It’s not major,” Sveta said.
“Are you telling me that in your current state of mind, you wouldn’t hurt a bystander if it helped her?”
I paused, my thoughts working out the best possible answer, which took some doing, since it was pretty far from what I might have normally said.
“There’s always a chance I hurt someone,” Sveta said. “And I lead the most selfish existence because I go through everyday life and I do the costumed thing despite that chance.”
“I know,” Byron said. “But… would you willingly do it, instead of your body doing it? If it helped her?”
Sveta didn’t answer. I could see her eyes move.
“I might,” I said.
“Then you’re not you,” he said.
Kenzie was in the back, staring. But she was on our side.
Rain was behind Byron, but Rain was limited in what he could do. He was a ghost.
Ashley, too. But Ashley stepped forward, talking. “That’s not the way it works. When your brother said something about leveling the city, she said it wasn’t something he was capable of. It has to be something you’re capable of.”
“You think you’re capable?” Byron asked me.
“I came close with Valefor. Raise the stakes, and-”
“You keep saying that. You got that from the Lady in Blue. You and Kenzie are the good ones. The only ones besides me who haven’t killed. You can’t be so casual about it.”
“It’s not being casual about that,” Ashley said. “It’s about being serious about this.”
“I was thinking about what we could do. She wanted the connection so she could get people right?” Lookout asked. “If they see her on camera, she can take control over them. If we do that enough times, we can get an army.”
“See, that? That’s terrifying,” Byron said. “That doesn’t sound like you, Kenz.”
“It’s a plan,” Sveta said.
The lighting in the room changed. It was Byron’s motes- like fireflies that left lines drawn in the air as they traveled their lazy helixes and loops. All around Kenzie’s workstation and tinkerings.
“No, no, no,” Kenzie said.
“You guys broke free of Valefor. Can’t you break free of this?” he asked. The water-to-be floated around the computers and things like a knife held to a person’s throat. Kenzie’s work.
I shook my head slowly. I wasn’t the only one. Sveta did too, the logistics of her body obviously applying.
“Byron,” I said. “Switch back with your brother. Take a backseat role while we do the high-risk stuff. I know you didn’t ask for this life, and there’s no reason you should be caught up in something bigger.”
“I don’t think I’m going to do that. The problem with the powers thing is that it sweeps through everything and leaves ruin and devastation,” Byron told me.
“This is a lot of really big powers in one persons’ hands, and she’s catching you guys up in her wake. She would have caught me too, if I was out and Tristan was in, like he was supposed to be. We can’t let that be a thing- the devastation. I don’t want that here, with you guys.”
“Two of us aren’t really here,” Rain observed. “Whatever we’re made of, it’s cracked and broken.”
“No,” Kenzie said. “I don’t believe that. Because they’re still here. They’re here in the way that counts.”
“Maybe,” Byron said. “But I’m not sure that’s true. That Woman in Blue is not equipped to lead. As far as I can tell, that’s a woman who was younger than I am now when she took over her planet, and nobody was strong enough to stop her. She didn’t know how to lead, she just… things work out because she keeps everyone united in fear, if they’re unpowered, or united under her banner if they’re powered. She’s spoiled and unhinged. I can’t see a good outcome from that. If I don’t take a stand here, there’s going to be more ruin and devastation. This whole thing needs to stop now if we’re going to keep this from ruining Breakthrough, hurting the other heroes, letting Teacher or Goddess win, or letting both win while everyone else loses…”
There was a pause. I suspected nobody involved really wanted to pick a fight or force a move. Too messy.
“Um, I’m sorry to interrupt,” Kenzie said. There was nothing to interrupt, really. “Your Malfunction Junction guys have an major update, Victoria. Please don’t drench my workstation, Byron.”
“Noted. Thank you, Kenzie,” I said. My voice was empty of emotion. My expression was unflinching, as I stared down Byron, one corner of my eye noting the blue motes. The stalemate continued.
Ashley was stock still, watching. Sveta circled the room, flanking him.
He rushed me. I held up hands to either side, telling the others not to intervene.
With fear clutching my heart to alternately slow and hurry its beats, a sick weight in my stomach, and nervous energy running angry through my limbs, I caught Byron’s wrist as he reached for me, pulled it down, and used flight to help step into his stride, planting one foot such that it was right behind his, the length of my leg leaning against the side of his knee, keeping him from extending his leg. It put him off balance, and he grabbed me to try and regain that balance.
I didn’t need to care about weight or balance. I let flight carry me off the ground, got to the point my foot could touch down, and with a push forward, drove myself into him. He tumbled to the ground, started to grab my breastplate with both hands- and ended up grabbing it by one hand, because he might have stabbed himself on decorative spikes if he’d used the other hand.
He tried to pull me down on top of him, and I used flight to help arrest my fall. He was hanging off of my breastplate now.
“You have to realize there’s something wrong here!” he grunted.
Even being out of practice, after having my arm in a sling, followed by a move that saw my weights and bars packed up, and even with my injured arm not being at one hundred percent, I was stronger than him. His build was the build of an average guy who ate and exercised an average amount, but who had also never developed his strength.
Because it would make him too similar to his brother, maybe.
I hit his sternum with the heel of my hand. He let go, and he dropped to the floor. All of the negative emotions were stronger, not better, after this exercise, and it pained me. I didn’t want this to continue, I didn’t want to think about the situation with Goddess and Amy.
“Victoria!” Sveta called out. “Above!”
Water hit me perhaps half of a bathtub’s worth, with no pressure beyond the fact it dropped from ten or so feet above me. But the weight of it and the surprise made me sag, bringing me close enough for Byron to grab.
He’d had training. He was rustier than I was, but something went into him gripping my armor and the cloth of my costume, and using that leverage to hurl himself from a lying-down position to a position where he was beside me, pushing me. Blue motes swirled around us.
“Give me something!” he said.
There was desperation in his voice, like there had been desperation in Amy’s. He gripped my throat, the whites of his eyes showing as he stared me in the face, and then he let go just as quickly. My skin didn’t feel like my skin as his fingers slid off of it. Slick with anxiety sweat, prickled with the goosebumps of cold, even though I was hot in this outfit, in a room with too many hot lights overhead, with muggy wet weather outside.
I got a grip on the shoulder of his v-neck shirt, and used flight to wing around him, twisting up his shirt and putting my arm part of the way around his neck. I started to pull my arm into a proper headlock. He knew how to break it.
Had I used my strength, the Wretch would have torn him to shreds. This was the scenario Uncle Neil had been preparing me for when he’d sparred with me.
I’d sparred with Dean too. Roughhousing and real sparring both. The difference was that Byron kept trying to grab me, but Dean had been more of a striker.
“What do I say to convince you!?”
Byron brought his leg around, hard enough to bruise my side, and tried to use the momentum of the kick to drive me closer to the ground, where he could try to grab me again. I wasn’t sure what he aimed to accomplish.
I knew what my goal was, though. To grab him, subdue him, and if we couldn’t have him become Tristan again, we would keep him from calling the wrong people until Goddess could bring more people onto her team.
Again, I tried the head-lock. I let my aura burn at ember-level heat, my cold breastplate pressed against his back, the icon at the pointed top near my clavicle pressing in between his shoulder blades. As I’d used my flight to stress myself, I put weight on his shoulders, pressing him down with more than just my physical weight. His legs buckled.
“Victoria,” he said, his voice strangled.
“You shouldn’t be able to talk that easily.”
“Apparently… perk of.. water-focused power. Didn’t know,” he said, each couple or trio of words heaved out with a fresh breath.
I maintained the pressure. It was having some effect. I gave Sveta a look, a jerk of my head. She’d help. We’d bind him if I couldn’t make him pass out.
“Master stranger,” he said. “Master stranger protocols. You have to have studied them.”
Master stranger. It put me in mind of my study sessions with Dean.
A second thought of Dean. It was refreshing and bright when everything else felt so dark.
“You’ve been a hero since birth. You studied this shit. You have to know this. They drilled us on it in Reach, you-” he huffed out a laugh. “You probably enjoyed it.”
I nodded, unable to speak, as if I was the one being choked.
“Follow the protocols,” he said.
Sveta had reached us. She had straps that had been used to bind boxes closed.
“Follow the protocols,” he said. “You’re compromised. You know you just interacted with a strong Master. Your team’s at stake. Master stranger protocols.”
It was such a subtle effect, wasn’t it? I felt like I’d barely been influenced.
I released him. Sveta grabbed my wrist, hard, like I was the danger, all of a sudden.
“It’s fine,” I said. “Trust me.”
I wasn’t sure it was fine. I wasn’t sure I trusted this. This course of action felt wrong.
“It’s fine,” Byron said. “I won’t cause trouble.”
Sveta bit her lip. She released my wrist.
I didn’t feel quite as lousy as before. Less fear, less bile, less anger. A whole lot more doubt.
As if Goddess and my sister both were power so great that they had their own gravity. As Byron had said, they left chaos in their wake. Devastation, if we weren’t careful.
“The Major Malfunctions have something?” I asked, trying to change the subject away from Byron.
“They moved on to another prison employee. He turned out to be shady. They’re waiting for backup before they act on it. It’s what we’re looking for, and it’s what Goddess wants.”
I closed my eyes for a moment.
“I’ll go with Byron,” I said.
“You’re sure,” Sveta’s tone made the question a non-question, more of an accusation. I was crazy to do this.
“Have to be. We can’t leave the kids alone with him. He is interested in helping, right?”
“Yes,” Byron said.
“I can manage him. Can you get the info from Kenz?” I asked.
She gave me a dubious look, but she went to do it.
When it was the two of us again, I lowered my eyes to the ground, and with words I scarcely believed in, lit by a glow of warm feeling. That feeling emanated from a scene in the back of my mind, of me studying classifications with my boyfriend. I’d honor that memory by throwing myself into this morass of doubt, this wrong feeling, when the last thing I wanted was to feel the weight of more wrongs.
“You’re going to have to steer me away from the wrong kinds of actions,” my voice was a whisper, words in confidence to a person I didn’t know well enough to have confidence in.
“Okay. Thank you,” Byron whispered back.
“We have to get ahead of this whole thing, fast, before Chris or the others do their things,” I said.