“What the hell is wrong with you?” Tristan asked. “What the hell?”
Byron stared his brother in the eyes, incredulous. “What’s wrong with me?”
“Did you take drugs or something? You’re all aggro, not making any sense.”
“You’re not fucking listening!”
Tristan made a face, shaking his head a little. “Then I guess we’re not going to get anywhere, huh? I’ve got stuff to do that isn’t being yelled at for random shit.”
He headed for the door. Byron stepped into his way, grabbing for his brother’s shirt-collar. Tristan’s attempt to shove the hand aside produced a small ripping sound.
“My shirt! Let go!”
“Sucks to lose stuff you care about, doesn’t it?” Byron asked.
“Oh fuck you, you didn’t lose anything. Now let go. If you want to bitch and shout about stuff, the parents will be home soon, you can share your feelings while we eat and they can tell you that you’re making no fucking sense!”
Tristan’s attempt to push Byron aside and leave didn’t get him anywhere, except to risk tearing his shirt further. He grabbed Byron’s wrist, hard.
“Tried that. They take your side.”
“Because I’m right!”
“You’re not right!” Byron raised his voice, which went a note too high. There were tears in his eyes.
Tristan screwed his face up in disgust. “Come on, By. Name one person we know who would look at what you’re doing right now and say ‘hey man, cool. Good for you for handling this this way.”
“That’s the whole fucking issue!” Byron jerked his hand, tearing the shirt on purpose this time. Tristan grabbed him with his other hand, fingers digging into Byron’s shoulder and wrist, and shoved him against the door.
Through grit teeth and pants of breath, Byron growled the words. “Do you know how hard it is to make friends? To get people who have my back?”
“It’s not hard at all! And that’s the furthest thing from the issue!”
“It’s the issue!” Byron shouted the words into his brother’s face. “It’s what I’m trying to get into that thick skull of yours! Ever since sixth grade, I’ll make the effort to make friends and then you’ll show up to a party or even a place where we’re sitting around and talking and you’re in, you’re part of the group! It’s only easy for you to make friends because you take mine!”
“It’s not a transaction, you dipshit! Just because they’re my friends doesn’t mean they’re not yours!”
“It does! It always fuck-” Byron pulled his hand to the side, ripping the shirt more. He stuck his other elbow into Tristan’s shoulder, partially shrugging free of the hand that gripped him. What followed was flurry of him wrestling for a grip and striking out in half-push, half-punch hits, and Tristan doing much the same. Tristan prevailed, just a bit bigger, a bit stronger. Byron found his breath. “It always fucking did, Tristan! You join my groups of friends and then you make fun of me!”
“Reality check,” Tristan, his face inches from Byron’s, breath hot against Byron’s face. “Ninth grade, little brother. That’s what people do. Dad and our uncles rib each other.”
“Rib!” Byron shouted. “Not fucking destroying each other!”
His voice cracked at ‘destroying’. He hated that.
“Destroy?” Tristan asked. He started to laugh, but he didn’t even get a sound out before Byron pulled his fist free. Byron bucked, trying to dislodge his brother, and brought a knee up to hit him in the side. When held back, he scratched- anything to hurt, to convey what words couldn’t. Tristan winced. “Fuck, that hurt! Stop!”
Byron panted. “If there’s a new thing in clothes, you beat me to it.”
“That’s not destroying you, you shit. That’s me reading the fucking magazines and paying attention!”
“If I beat you to the punch, wear my hair a way that looks good, you do the same and say I copied you! I can’t say things without you saying I’m copying! I can’t talk about a movie I watched or say a slang word without having to wonder if you’re going to use it to get a laugh, or if people will do the pecking order inside joke shit and say you were there first, you beat me to it! They say it because you keep hammering it in!”
“I’ve been trying to make a point! You need to walk your own path!”
“You’re the fucking parasite! You’re the one who follows me! You’re the one who’s walking on my path and calling me the copycat! You’ve been doing it for years and there’s nothing left for me! That’s what’s destroying me!”
He pulled his wrist free and punched Tristan in the side. Tristan grabbed his hand.
“Having nothing I can choose to do with my hair or clothes without you or someone in the group using it as ammo!”
He punched, and Tristan deflected, shoving his arm off-target.
“Every time I say something, you have to edge your way in, say something better or louder or cut me down, every time!”
None of the hits seemed to be really making any impact. None of this did.
“Not being able to sit down with my friends, because you’re there and I know you’ll all joke about me, and they never did it before you entered the picture!”
“It’s called getting closer to people! You figure each other out and you know where the lines are and you prod them!”
“You break my lines! You kick them down and say things and they make fun of me for weeks! They’ve been calling me ‘little brother’ for a year!” Fueled with adrenaline, Byron punched out. Even with Tristan holding his arm, he was able to clip his chin. “And then you go out with Katie!?”
“That? That’s what this is about? It was going together to the stupidest fucking movie! it was one thing! It didn’t matter!”
“It mattered to me! I’m trying to convey to you that it matters and it doesn’t get through if I say it, hit you, or scream it!” Byron’s voice was reaching a fever pitch. “I liked her and now she’s your best friend! Your beard!”
Tristan’s expression changed. His voice was as cold as Byron’s was hot. With a surge of strength, he pushed Byron’s arms down. “We’re going there? You’re going to scream it so our parents might hear it if they come in through the door?”
“They know! Everyone fucking knows because you’re really fucking bad at hiding it! It’s why they treat you with kid gloves and give you the extra attention while you ‘figure yourself out’! Katie’s more excited to have you as a gay best friend like in the movies, than she is about having me as an anything! Even when you’re not there it’s about you, because they talk about how brave you are because you’re out to people, and then they joke I’m weak, I’m lame because they think I don’t have the guts. I’m not fucking gay! I’m not weak! It’s fucking ridiculous that I get the flack!”
Byron started to win the hand-to-hand struggle once again. Tristan was stronger, but in the sheer emotion that Byron brought to bear, he forced his way forward, arms straining. He got his leg forward and pressed it against the side of Tristan’s knee, so Tristan couldn’t stay standing. Inch by inch, he pushed back and pushed Tristan down.
“You’re a fucking- fucking gay basher, then?” Tristan’s voice was strained.
“Fuck you! Fuck you to hell, Trist! Fuck you, no!” Byron shouted, his voice a snarl. “You don’t get to play that card when I have backed you up! I have gotten in fights for you because they kept saying shit! Gaylord, gaylord, gaylord, back in seventh and eighth! Gaylord, gaylord fucking faggot gaylord!’
“Sucks to hear, doesn’t it!? But you know I was shutting them up, back then! I took the harder path so you’d have it easier and it doesn’t matter! You don’t care! It never counted for anything and you even used it against me! You were the one who called me a pussy after I told them to shut it on the ‘sissy’ shit! You just take! You have to win, you make this a competition! Except when I win, if you can call it that, I don’t get anything except normal, and when I lose I lose people that I care about!”
He pushed Tristan onto his back, and in the moment Tristan put his hand back to push himself to a standing position, Byron moved forward, pinning the arm under one knee.
Both of his free hands fought with Tristan’s free one. He hit and deflected.
“I. Lose! Katie laughs at me! Rob and Jem call me weak! Mama and papa talk to you more than they talk to me!”
“You first! Back the fuck off! Stop taking!”
“I’m not taking!”
“You are! Why can’t you listen? Stop talking and listen to me for the first time in your shallow, selfish life!”
“It’s not on purpose, you moron! It’s life! You’re quiet, I’m loud! You’re lazy, I’m actually out there talking to people! So they listen to me more! Nature and school fucking politics and fucking logic favor those who do and say stuff! Now stop fucking hitting me or I’m going to hit you back!”
“I’m saying give me a chance,” Byron said. The volume was going out of his voice as the emotion shifted to something else. “You don’t have to speak up, you don’t have to butt in!”
“Give yourself a chance!”
“Shut up and listen!” Byron couldn’t get anywhere with the arm, but Tristan was lifting up his head. With a shove, Tristan’s head cracked against the floor in the basement. Seizing the opportunity, Byron gripped his brother around the throat, still kneeling on one of his arms.
Tristan’s reply was choked, a non-word. His one free hand groped, while Byron hunched over, denying him anything he could get much of a grip on.
“Shut up for one fucking minute,” Byron said, calmer than he’d been, though his voice was warped by the effort.
Tristan made a longer, strained sound, trying to get a word out and failing.
“You’re not even capable of shutting up. Learn to step down. Learn to give some ground, any ground, okay? Please.”
Fumbling to break Byron’s grip, Tristan was scratching now, groping for weak points. He wasn’t putting up half the fight he had been. He hadn’t even been choked for that long.
“All I want is my own space. Give me room to figure shit out,” Byron said. “I’m not asking for the world here.”
Tristan’s hand fell to his side.
“Just… nod, okay? Nod, agree. Or tap out, show me you can tap out.”
Tristan moved his arm. Byron felt a piercing pain.
He’d been stabbed.
What followed was nonverbal, almost animal. His grip tightened, because there was no other way this would end in his favor, because he was worried that Tristan would keep stabbing with whatever he’d just stabbed him with.
An impulse or thought ran through the background of it, he knew it was unrealistic on a fundamental level, but he couldn’t afford to lose this last one time. He’d already been beaten down so much, people he’d once liked had turned ugly, turned on him. ‘Ribbing him’.
If he lost here, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t break.
Tristan’s stabs, more aimless, caught on the underside of his arm. A worse cut than before, but it didn’t seem that much worse.
The blood, though. What followed was a ridiculous, outright scary amount for the size and depth of the cut.
In desperation, he maintained his grip as best he could, fingers digging into flesh. Tristan flailed, a flash of gold and black, a sharp point dragging against and puncturing skin.
He felt his own consciousness slip, and it wasn’t because of the blood loss.
He saw silhouettes, paired. Human, with something to them that he recognized on a fundamental level, or because the vibrations in the background of it all spoke to him. Warrior and scholar.
Another pair of silhouettes. Not human. Not a warrior and a scholar, but a creator and a destroyer.
He opened his eyes. They widened a bit further as he saw the amount of blood soaked into the carpet.
Mama and Papa were going to be pissed.
He coughed, and in that small action, everything felt wrong.
He coughed again, and when his hand came to his mouth, it wasn’t because he wanted it to.
His lips moved and pronounced a single hoarse word. “Fucker.”
His vision swayed. His limbs moved. He found a standing position, before coughing again.
He hadn’t bid any of these actions to happen. He was… an inside observer, viewing through eyes, feeling sensations, hearing the hum of the fan upstairs. He could smell the blood.
He felt cold horror of an almost alien sort as he began to absorb what this might be. The horror didn’t extend to gut, to the dilation of eyes, to breathing. The coldness of the emotion was at stark odds with the heated, breathless “Fucker!” that passed through his lips.
Through Tristan’s lips. The horror welled.
Byron watched as the eyes, not his, moved across the room. Looking for- for him. Searching for some sign. They moved to the blood puddle, then scanned the surroundings, tracing a line up the stairs, zig-zagging in a search for a trail of blood.
Every movement of the eye felt like someone was taking his eyes, wresting them to one point of focus, then to another. Muscles fired into action, felt alien around the edges because the configuration was right, but the scale and pattern was that one percent to ten percent different. The muscles forced the body into movement, into balancing to stay upright.
There were more coughs as Tristan rubbed his throat. He made his way up the stairs, into the kitchen, then wandered through the house, hands running through hair, around the neck, fidgeting.
Byron wanted to struggle, to push out, to find a way free. There was nothing. He could feel, he could think, and he could sense what Tristan sensed. There was nothing beyond that.
Having finished searching the house, checking the small bedroom for Byron, Tristan made his way back to the kitchen. He took a seat at the kitchen table, and buried his face in his hands, coughing once or twice. His throat hurt, and Byron felt the hurt.
With every second that passed, not even able to control the focus of his vision or sharpen his awareness on any point within the eye’s field of vision, Byron felt his thoughts growing more confused. There was nothing here, only void, and everything in thought and emotion bled out aimlessly into that void, with no perspective, no grounding, no action he could take.
Please no, he thought. Whatever this is. Please.
Emotions welled, but without a heartbeat, a stomach, muscles, and breathing to give substance, they were like blots of watercolor, bleeding out and into one another.
“Tristan?” Papa asked. He put down his bike helmet, stepping into the kitchen. He was sweaty from his ride back from work. The biking was because he was trying to lose weight, but he was only part of the way there- everything about him from mustache to build were heavy and thick. Heavy eyebrows furrowed in concern. “What happened?”
Tristan stared off into space.
“Tristan?” Papa asked. He seemed to see something that alarmed, because he turned toward the front hall. “Anita! Come fast!”
Mama came into the kitchen, still wearing her own biking outfit, her long hair damp near the scalp. It was Tristan’s eyes, not Byron’s, that searched out the little details that made her her- the shock of white hair by one temple, the twin moles that Tristan had called ‘vampire bites’ as a child. Byron had felt bad about that, even being the observer to his brother as Tristan unwittingly evoked a look of faint hurt on their mama’s face.
Help, Byron thought, as they turned their attention to his brother. Please help me. This is hell. It’s already hell.
“Byron flipped out on me,” Tristan said. He coughed, forced the cough, then touched his throat. “He was upset because I took Katie to the movies.”
That wasn’t it.
“I told you not to,” Mama said, her voice soft.
“He strangled me. Scratched me. Punched me,” Tristan searched his arm, pulled back his t-shirt sleeve with one hand to see where Byron had hit his shoulder.
“That’s too far. That’s too far and then some,” Papa replied. “We’ll talk with him. Where is he?”
Please help. Please notice that something’s wrong.
“Um,” Tristan said, sounding very disconnected. He wasn’t looking anywhere in particular. To an outside observer, it might have looked like a thousand-yard stare. “He stormed out, I think. I looked through the house.”
“Look at me, Tristan,” Papa said.
See me in here. Isn’t that how it works in the movies?
Tristan’s eyes watered. “Something’s fucked up. A lot of things are fucked up. I’ve been sitting here trying to process, but my thoughts are sparks and I can’t think straight. When I can think straight, I’m worried I have brain damage because it’s really intense.”
Tristan stumbled through, not stopping. “And I’m worried he’s going to the cops or something-”
“Because I got scared when he was strangling me and I couldn’t even hear anything except the ringing in my ears. I stabbed him with the pen I had in my pocket to try and make him let go, and he was so angry. So angry.”
Tristan dropped his eyes. The thousand-yard stare again.
“Tristan.” Papa took Tristan by the shoulders.
Tristan made eye contact again.
“He wasn’t making any sense,” Tristan said.
I made sense, you weren’t hearing it.
Their mama rubbed Tristan’s shoulders. Their papa gave him a kiss on the top of the head. Byron felt it all and he didn’t feel better in the slightest.
“We’ll get this figured out, mi hijo,” Papa said.
“I don’t know,” Tristan said. “I feel like something broke inside of me. I can’t think straight- I think in…”
The orange-red light flared between him and Papa. A will-o-the-wisp from a video game, The diffuse light of a tinted lightbulb without the glass to encase it, condensed into a ball a couple of inches across.
“…sparks and lines.”
“Dios mio,” Papa said. He stepped away. Mama’s hands dropped from Tristan’s back. The lights traced thin lines through the air, just as intense as the lights were at their center, but without the diffuse glow around them.
Byron might have been the least surprised of all of them. Deep down, he’d realized something like this had happened.
Tristan seemed to belatedly realize what was happening. He pulled away, and the lights and the lines drew together into something solid – a tangle of metal that had been twisted and bent, with razor-thin strips twisting and branching up and out. It crashed into the kitchen floor, and Tristan nearly fell from the stool in his haste to move away.
In the retreat, Tristan receded. Byron felt the void he was in fill up, pushing him out-
Byron emerged, and the metal growth exploded into a spray of steam with no heat to it, only a sharp chemical smell. His parents backed away to the far end of the kitchen.
Byron gasped, much as if he’d surfaced after being held underwater for a very long time. He found his breath, and then he screamed. Neither parent could do much more than stare.
“My boys,” Papa said, his eyes wide, his voice filled with heartbreak. “What have you done to yourselves?”
He felt the void he could slip into so easily, more a sentiment than anything he could touch. It was as if he was standing with his back to a ledge, an impossibly long drop below that ledge. With that knowledge came the realization that Tristan was inside him.
Nausea and shock overwhelmed him, and he vomited onto the floor.
Danger. How much risk do we face? Is there a chance we get hurt? What’s medical care like? Does it involve fighting Endbringers?
Organization. How many people in the group? How are arguments resolved? Is there a human resources department? Manager? Team leader? How is that stuff handled?
Secret identity. How many people will see our faces? Know our names?
School. What do we do about school?
For that matter, what happens schedule-wise with holidays? Church?
Ask, damn it! Ask or swap so I can ask! You’ve only talked about money and costumes!
“Any more questions?” Mr. Vaughn asked. The man had shaved head, light brown skin, and both a mustache and beard that were trimmed down to a series of lines, the beard being little more than a narrow arrow that pointed down. His jacket hung on his chair, and the sleeves of his button-up silk shirt were rolled up, showing only hints of the tattoos at the upper edges of his forearms.
Byron knew because Tristan kept glancing at the guy’s arms.
“Nah. No more questions,” Tristan said.
“Some,” Papa said. He hesitated. “But this is a lot to take in. I need a moment to get my thoughts in order.”
Mr Vaughn smiled. “Instead of that, why don’t you hold onto any questions you might have, go home, sleep on things, and you can email our department any time. We will answer any questions- if you want to send us a hundred, it won’t be a problem.”
No. There’s a big difference between what they say to our faces and what they say if they have time to compose an email and word things carefully.
“I think we covered most of it,” Tristan said.
“…Yes,” Papa conceded.
“Great!” Mr. Vaughn pronounced, with a smile.
Byron had to bite back his annoyance. Danger, management, secret identity, school, schedule, holidays. It was a mantra he mentally recited, so he could fire off the questions when he had the opportunity.
Mr Vaughn leaned back. “Tell me, what do you think?”
“I’m very interested.” There was no hesitation in Tristan’s reply.
“I’m not sure,” their Papa said, sounding hesitant. “To be honest, our number one priority is getting this whole situation fixed. The PRT has resources.”
“The PRT absolutely has resources,” Mr. Vaughn said. “I would say they’re above average in what they can offer.”
“Alright,” their Papa said. He looked at Tristan.
What’s the pitch?
“If you look into it, however, you’ll find they’re strictly above average. They’re exceptional and consistent at holding things to that level. You won’t get the exceptional wages, service, or attention from them. The people at the top have been in the PRT since before Tristan was born. There’s something called upward mobility, how many promotions you can get or how high you can rise in the hierarchy.”
“I know what upward mobility is,” Papa said.
“Then it should please you to know that when it comes to Tristan and his brother, we can give them mobility, and we can give them something the PRT won’t. We can give them exceptional.”
“With more risk, I’m guessing?” Tristan asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Vaughn said. “Being on a corporate team is like being in sales, except you’re selling your own brand. We’ll pay you handsomely, and you stand to gain much more if you hit our reward points. You’ll get extra for media events, a stipend for holding higher rankings on the right sites on the internet and any cape ranking lists in magazines. You’ll get a thousand dollars for every headline you net, five thousand if you get a positive headline in a major paper. But it’s more work, and not everyone’s cut out for it. If you don’t think you can sell and you can’t handle the risk, then the PRT is a safer bet.”
“I’m a risk taker,” Tristan said. Byron could feel his brother’s face stretch in a smile. “And I think I’d be a good salesman.”
I’m not a risk taker.
“I get that impression,” Mr. Vaughn said, smiling back at Tristan with something resembling a twinkle in his eye. “It’s why we’re so willing to reach out here, if you’ll excuse the pun. Costume, starting salary, branding push. You hit all the marks and then some.”
“Marks?” Papa asked.
Tristan shifted, almost as if he was uncomfortable with their Papa’s participation in the conversation.
“He’s the right age to match the others. He’s hip, attractive, he has a background in drama, good presentation, and a visually interesting power. Byron brings a different attitude, good academics, and their interplay is an interesting twist on an established formula.”
Damned with faint praise.
I don’t want to do this.
“I’m excited to do this,” Tristan said.
“We need to consider Byron,” Papa said. “Don’t jump to making a decision, okay?”
“Of course,” Tristan said. “I think he’ll be down for it.”
I’m not down for this, but you saying that makes it harder to say no.
I’m still going to say no.
“Let’s hope,” Mr. Vaughn said. “He can hear me, right?”
“He can,” Tristan said.
“We draw big money. We pay it forward. The PRT labs are very good, but every cape under their umbrella needs power testing at one point or another. It’s in their requirements.” Mr Vaughn leaned forward. “Byron, with the contacts we can provide and the money we can pay you, we can give you more help, and you won’t spend years in a queue after getting your requisite, everyday power testing appointment.”
Years. It was horrible to think about. A month had been hell.
He hated to admit it, but just the fact that Mr. Vaughn had said his name, addressing him directly, it meant so much. Only his parents really did it when Tristan was out there. Yet when the tables were turned, he didn’t miss that Tristan was so often addressed directly, with the odd person speaking right past Byron.
But he wanted to say no.
“Come, I’ll show you the facilities,” Mr. Vaughn said.
They all stood. Mr. Vaughn walked around his glass desk, opening the door to let them out into the main offices of Reach.
“We should let Byron out,” their papa said. “He needs a say.”
“After? Please?” Tristan asked. “He had all yesterday. I’ve barely had today, and I spent a lot of it in the car. I’m so restless.”
Byron was left to wonder why he had such a horrible sinking feeling at that.
“Okay,” their papa said. “But he gets a say when we’re done the tour, after you’ve stretched.”
Tristan’s face stretched in a smile that didn’t match Byron’s feelings in the slightest. This was the hell. If there were bars to this cell, Byron might have grabbed them, shaken them, screamed.
But there were no bars. To react like that and be in that state when he emerged was something that pushed others away, which made it impossible to enjoy the time spent with family. It made them fret, worry.
Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule. He held onto his list of questions.
“Would I be staying here?” Tristan asked.
“Reach travels. You’d have nice accommodations if you were out of town. We accommodate your parents if they wish to chaperone.”
“Oh man,” Tristan said. “I love you, Papi, but-”
“That might be a problem,” their papa said. “I have work.”
Byron was aware of Tristan’s faint exhalation of relief. He’s thinking like this is a done deal.
“And your wife?”
“We work in the same office.”
“Ah, I envy you,” Mr. Vaughn said. “I’m sure we could work something out if we needed to. Come, let’s walk. Tristan, you should wear this mask, temporary, to protect your identity.”
Tristan pulled the mask back on.
“And Mr. Vera?”
“I might as well. I feel ridiculous.”
The walls of the entire building were decorated with a stylization of Reach’s logo, a symbol that was clearly meant to strike a middle ground between a flame, the loose silhouette of an outstretched hand, if that hand were drawn with a very limited set of swooping lines, and an arrow. The symbol stretched diagonally across walls, separating the bold color on the bottom half from the white on the top. Tiles on the floors had whatever colors were on the walls at one edge, dissolving into less and less squares. It was the kind of thing that could have been tacky, but so much of the rest of the building was high quality, with high resolution images on framed posters, benches, railings, and other things in striking designs. It looked more like an art museum than an institution.
They’d been to the institution, the PRT offices. Past the lobby, there hadn’t been a lot of polish. The room where the staff worked on computers had smelled like stale coffee and printer ink.
But Byron was wary of things that presented a polished facade to hide their flaws. He knew well enough because he was inside a living embodiment of it right this moment.
Mr. Vaughn waved to a musclebound man who was standing beside a computer in a gym. The man waved back.
“Gym. Free to use. We have one staff member who is there at all times, professional trainer, and between nine and four there’s a second person in the building who can turn up in five minutes, if the man on call is busy with someone else. You look like someone who hits the gym.”
“What sports are you into?”
“Right now it’s rock climbing, mostly. Some snowboarding, some surfing, but that’s only doable if we’re in the right place at the right times. I was into football in grade seven, but I got injured, had to sit out for the season, and lost interest.”
“A lot of injuries,” papa said. “Too dangerous.”
Byron felt Tristan’s eyes move over papa’s face. No doubt worrying as Byron was hoping.
Ask. Danger! What’s the risk?
But their Papa was silent.
“There’s a pool as well, if you surf, you probably swim. It’s a very, very nice pool. Some of the members of Reach will use it as a place to take selfies or, ah, ‘selfless’ shots.”
“Selfless?” papa asked.
“Another kind of selfie, papa, don’t worry about it,” Tristan said.
“For heroes,” Mr. Vaughn explained. “They will have social media. The face is hidden, shots are taken from behind, or below the shoulders only. It teases the fans, gets them thinking about the person beneath the costume. The boys and girls will take these ‘selfless’ photos by the pool, or while standing on rooftops.”
“I’m not sure I like any part of that,” papa said.
“I’m sure you raised Tristan and Byron to be smart about these things.”
Papa laughed, abrupt, which looked like it surprised Mr. Vaughn. He looked at Tristan. “I think you might have misjudged my son.”
“He is very smart, but not about that sort of thing.”
Byron felt Tristan turn his head to look at Mr. Vaughn, felt the heat in the face, the clench of a hand that indicated emotion more than anything in his voice betrayed it. “I think what my dad is saying is that if it sells, I’ll probably end up doing it. But if it’s about modesty or… whatever other issues my dad has with it, yeah, it’s probably not me.”
“Why would you want to get people to think about who you are under the mask? Keep it secret, Tristan,” Papa said.
“I will, I’ll just… tease. Misdirect.”
“All posts to social media are held for a short period of time and run past our staff,” Mr. Vaughn said. “Each will be scrutinized to make sure there is no danger, nothing that can be misinterpreted.”
“See?” Tristan asked.
“I do see. I see so much of my younger self in you,” papa said, one hand cupping Tristan’s chin, shaking it. “And this is why I’m worried.”
The longer this goes like this without me getting a say, the more likely I am to say no. Not that I’m sure it’ll matter.
Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule.
“I love you too, papa,” Tristan said, reaching up no to push the hand away, but to fix the mask. But as they rounded a corner, he pulled back a little, breaking the contact.
“The cafeteria,” Mr. Vaughn said. “And… the young members of Reach.”
Byron was forced to look where Tristan looked. He’d seen the images in passing, enough to know the names.
A helmet that consisted of a face-shaped plate at the front with chiseled features, hinges at the brow, the back and sides of the helmet fashioned to look like rolling locks of hair- all ivory and silver. The bodysuit of the costume wasn’t skintight, but a material thick enough to hold the armor plates that were worked in rigid. the armor’s edges and the pattern along the suit’s chest and down the legs echoed the rolling waves of hair.
The white of the costume’s face was supposed to draw the eye, but Tristan’s eyes touched on the face, then shoulders, arms, chest, down the side of the body, as if noting silhouette, then pausing for a tenth of a second on the package between the guy’s legs before moving and across to the person just behind the teenage guy.
Figurehead, Byron thought, with a bit of exasperation. The glances were something he’d had to get used to.
Tribute was taller, and again, he had a high quality costume, sleek and form-fitting down the body. A decoration extended up from a disc at the chest, like a raised collar, but gold, and with nothing joining it to the shoulder. More gold and more disc motifs decorated belt, mask, gloves, and formed a pattern on the inside of the fabric that draped down from the belt to the ankles. The skin that was visible was a cool black. Byron would have thought Tristan would pay more attention to the guy, given his apparent fitness, height, but no- Tristan’s gaze paused for that tenth of a fraction on Figurehead’s mask as it cut across again, to the man standing to the other side of Figurehead.
Then there was Boundless, all angles, athletic, muscular, but in a lanky way, like a basketball player. His mask and the pattern on his bodysuit weren’t shaped like anything, but instead had a pattern that started from a ridge at the center of face or chest and swept back in sweeping lines.
Another person Byron couldn’t identify, hadn’t seen in marketing. Newer, maybe. Lean, skinny, and fidgety. Her mask was like a cat’s, with ears that were worked into the side, sweeping back. Chain links ran down the black-bodysuit-covered neck and draped over the shoulders and over a flat chest. More chain decoration extended down the hands to oversized claw-gauntlets, which dangled from the elbow, leaving her hands free.
Steamwheel was a girl tinker with a mask that was hard metal, starting at two rectangular frames and extending down, leaving the forehead uncovered and mousy, greasy brown hair free. Short, flat-chested, maybe young. In full costume she was a titan of metal with a dramatic wheel mounted on it.
Then, more eye catching, there was a another girl, with a veritable mane of silver hair, a bodysuit that clung to the body, styled in a complex weave of jet black and silver locks that made it look like her hair was worked into her costume- the harlequin-ish design had one arm covered in the metal molded to look like hair, with blades extending up and sweeping back from the rigid structure. Tristan didn’t look, but Byron knew from pictures that she had a very generous chest. Coiffure.
And, beside Coiffure, the last member of the junior team. Raven-haired, wearing a dress-ish costume that she wouldn’t have gotten away with in the Wards, her legs long and slender. Like the others, fine molded metal was persistent across the design, and hers had crescent moons and discs with crescents worked into it, extending up from shoulders and from her mask in a diadem or crown style. She could have played a princess in a movie.
Her mask left more of her face exposed, enough that Byron could see her lips, painted with lipstick. For whatever reason, Tristan noticed it, focused on it, and Byron was treated to a view of the slight smile.
When he had been looking at photos of the team, he hadn’t even paid much attention to her. Seeing that small smile? He was paying attention.
“So this is the guy we heard about,” Figurehead said.
“Is he joining?” Tribute asked.
“I’m tempted,” Tristan said.
“Discussion is pending,” Papa said, firmly. “And I have questions about things like school, other things I’m apparently supposed to email about.”
The adults left.
Let me out. I should meet them too.
Tristan approached the group, all smiles, shaking hands. There was a brief demonstration of his power. The newer member was introduced as Furcate.
Let me out.
It was everything that had happened with his prior friend groups. Tristan bullying his way into things, elbowing Byron out. If Byron knew them first, Tristan knocked him down a peg on his way into the group dynamic. If Tristan knew them first, Byron never had a shot.
I’m going to say no, you asshole. I’m going to veto. I’ll ruin this any way I can, if you fucking don’t give me a chance to get to know these people.
“We’re going to have to adjust tactics, with Boundless leaving in a few weeks. Less mobility on the team, more stand-in-place-and-mess-them-up types,” Figurehead said.
“I’m pretty mobile,” Tristan said. “You get in fights then?”
“We’re supposed to be careful about how we go about it,” Coiffure said. Then she winked. “We have a lot of ‘accidental’ run-ins with villains and crooks.”
“If you want food, by the way, we’re totally stocked. There’s a microwave too,” Figurehead said.
“Oh man, thanks,” Tristan said. “I’m ravenous. It was a long car trip, and we grabbed gas station food.”
“Figured,” Figurehead said. “I’m going to grab something too.”
Byron’s anger mixed with disgust. Eating was a singularly unpleasant activity when one had zero control over their body. The mastication of food, the involuntary nature of the movements, the acute awareness of how the mouth felt different, the food dissolving into slurry. Byron’s tastes were slightly different from Tristan’s, too.
The entire team ducked into the cafeteria. Tristan got a sandwich loaded with cheeses and deli meats, and had Tribute show him how to use the panini press to heat it up.
With every chew, Byron felt his patience tested. He couldn’t see what he wanted to look at, couldn’t ask what he wanted to ask, couldn’t rejoin or add an anecdote as he saw the moment, watched it pass, and left it well behind.
He would get his turn, right? He’d be able to meet these guys for more than a few moments?
He talked about sports. He talked about movies, and shows, and the team talked about heroics.
“It’s a bit of a head trip, when you get your head around how the corporate side of it works,” Figurehead explained. “You hear about the ridiculous money they bring in for having us show up for a company’s event or putting on a show at a convention, right? Six figures, and we only get six thousand each? That’s what took me the longest to adjust to.”
“I don’t really care about the money,” Furcate said.
“That’s because you’re weird,” Moonsong said.
“We’re a corporate team, hon.”
“Reach had the best costume design,” Furcate said.
“That was the deciding factor, huh?” Coiffure asked. When Furcate nodded, Coiffure shrugged, before using one hand to flick her hair over one shoulder, to better expose the silvery waves and whorls along the shoulder. “Well, it’s not like you’re wrong.”
Tristan extended a fist toward Furcate, “I think you and I are going to get along.”
Furcate hesitated, then slipped one hand into the oversized cat’s-paw gauntlet, before tapping it against Tristan’s hand. “I’m going to get something else.”
“Eat something that isn’t shitty candy,” Figurehead said.
“I’m going to get seconds,” Tristan said. “That was the best sandwich I’ve ever had.”
Byron hadn’t even noticed the taste, he’d been stewing over being trapped within, too busy trying not to think about slick tongue rolling through masticated food.
The realization that Tristan planned to take the time to make and eat a whole other sandwich -not even a small one- made him want to scream, to lose his mind.
His thoughts were a storm of fuckery, of vitriol and plots to get his brother back, to maybe finally get through to him and score one win, when Tristan realized that his selfishness in this moment had cost him a chance to sign up with this team.
Meanwhile, oblivious, Tristan made another sandwich, then put it in the press. He plated it up, grabbed some napkins, got another drink, and then sidled up to Furcate, who was grabbing what looked like lemon drop candies, of the sort grandmothers might buy and keep in a ceramic bowl, collecting dust.
“Do you have a preferred pronoun?” Tristan asked, voice quiet.
“Hm?” Furcate asked. Her entire posture was immediately more defensive.
“Sorry if I’m totally wrong. I was listening to see what they said, but they dodged around it.”
“They,” Furcate said, guarded. They looked over at the group, then added, “I’m saving the ‘she’ for when I feel done.”
“You know if I have a shot with any of the guys on the team? Figurehead?”
The tension in Furcate’s neck and shoulders relaxed. The response was a head shake.
Tristan returned to the table.
“Welcome back,” Coiffure greeted him.
Tristan held up his sandwich, like he was toasting the group. Byron knew that if he tried to do the same, it wouldn’t work, somehow.
“I was remarking to the others, you look very interesting to my power,” Figurehead.
“Ah,” Tristan said. He sighed a little, almost resigned.
“Is there a story? Does the boss know?”
“The boss knows. I’m kind of a special case. Literally, I think there’s a label for it.”
“Fifty-three?” Coiffure asked. “Is it only obvious if we get your clothes off?”
“Ha ha,” Tristan said. He winked at her. “Hate to disappoint. No. Case seventy.”
“I don’t know that one,” Figurehead said.
“I share a body with my brother. He would be joining the team too.”
“Yeah? Shouldn’t we meet him then?” Moonsong asked. “Come on out, brother. Don’t be shy.”
“I have to let him out, just like he has to let me out.”
“Then what the fuck is wrong with you?” Moonsong asked. She moved her hands dramatically. “Let us meet him already.”
Byron was so stunned by that line that he had trouble processing it. He felt only confusion as Tristan held up his sandwich, pronounced, “Goodbye sandwich, I’ll miss eating you,” with dramatic flair, and then stood from the table.
Tristan took off his mask, turned his back to the group, and tossed it up, before releasing Byron. Byron only barely managed to catch the mask.
He put the mask against his face, holding it there as he turned around, still putting the cord back behind his head.
He saw Moonsong smile, red lipstick, almost pleased with herself, or pleased with him, and he felt his heart skip a beat.
He realized he’d been looking at her, just her, in a way that would have been very obvious. He dropped his eyes. He looked at the others.
“So. You interested?” Tribute asked.
The list of questions he’d meant to ask had already flown from his mind. With them went his reservations about joining the team, his anger, and the intent to stick it to Tristan.
“I think I might be,” he decided.
The team was dusty, battered, and bruised, with a few cuts here and there. Nice costumes were damaged, and where they weren’t damaged, they were soaked through with sweat.
Tristan walked them through the door, limping slightly. Steamwheel clunked off in the direction of the garage.
Reach’s staff was waiting for them.
“Injuries?” Mr. Vaughn asked.
“Nothing serious,” Figurehead said.
“Event report?” Mr. Vaughn asked. “It’s late, so make it a short one.”
“Do you want to hear how the fight went or how the media’s going to report on it?” Coiffure asked, one eyebrow arched.
“Time spent asking that question could be spent telling me both. Then you can give your costumes to the design team for repair and go to bed. It’s been a heck of a week, let’s rest when we can.”
“We did okay,” Tristan said. “Scritch, Scratch, Snicker and Snack all got away. We got one of the other powered ones, Hell’s Belle, and the civilians didn’t get a scratch on them, despite her attempts to pull some hostage stuff. I think the cameras will be kind, when they report the news in the morning. Extra kind if they get surveillance video from inside the building, because that hostage stuff was some of the best caping I’ve seen.”
He put out a hand. Furcate tapped their cat’s paw to his gauntlet. He moved his hand in Coiffure’s direction, and she did much the same.
“Anyone disagree with the assessment?” Mr. Vaughn asked.
There were head shakes here and there.
“Good. We’ll see if you’re right about the media tomorrow, Capricorn.”
“I always am.”
“You’re getting cocky.”
“So far. Not that I don’t like that. Mr. Bigs loves you for it. Anything else? Questions, any resources you need to request? If there are disputes about the team or issues you can’t bring up here, you bring them to me or the appropriate staff member.”
With a sweep of the hand, Mr. Vaughn indicated the other staff- trainers, spin, social media, design, and accounts.
“Tristan’s taking over as leader,” Figurehead said. “Someone’s going to mention that. I’m not bothered, though.”
“He’s the least experienced member here,” Mr. Vaughn said.
“He’s good. Really, I don’t mind.”
“I hate to admit it, but he’s good,” Moonsong said.
“Why do you hate to admit it?” Tristan asked her.
“Enough,” Mr. Vaughn said. “Get costumes to design as soon as you’re back in civvies, then rest, do your things. It’s been a tough few weeks.”
The team began to break away. Tristan hung back to unstrap his armor, where a blade had cut through pauldron and the entire length of the arm. He handed it the guys from design.
“How’s the power?” Mr. Vaughn asked. The others had left.
“Metal and rock,” Tristan said. “More rock than before.”
“I want to set you up for another appointment with the lab. We should stay on top of this.”
“Not going to complain,” Tristan said.
“It’s working okay for you? Things aren’t harder.”
“Well, they’re harder,” Tristan said. “Ha ha.”
Mr. Vaughn smiled. “Puns don’t do well in front of press, online, or anything of our other marketing battlefields. Don’t you dare do that to the team.”
“I won’t,” Tristan said. He smiled behind his helmet. “It’s fine. Easier to be cautious, avoid hurting people.”
Tristan gave his armor a once-over, then passed over control.
Byron was even more ragged and battle-damaged. His costume was trashed. Funny how that worked.
“Almost entirely water now,” Byron said.
“And putting aside the power things… how are you?”
Byron had no idea how to answer the question. “I’m- things are better than they were. The schedule helps.”
It was only after the words had left his mouth that he realized the lie. Did Tristan sense the lie, feeling the slight changes in body language?
No. For Tristan to notice, Tristan would have to pay attention to him.
“You know where my office is,” Mr. Vaughn said.
He made his way to the showers. He took off his costume, rinsed off, and experimented with his power. Sprays of water. When he contrived to get some in his mouth without spraying himself, it didn’t have that chemical smell or taste to it, like the suffocation gas had.
Rather than give the damaged pieces, he decided the entire costume needed attention, and deposited the whole suit of scale mail with the design guys. They would be pulling an all-nighter.
On his way back to the dorm rooms, he saw and waved at Figurehead. Then it was back to his room.
He couldn’t sleep. More accurately, he couldn’t bring himself to lie down in the bed, couldn’t bring himself to give up the time he would spend unconscious. It wasn’t supposed to count, but-
Suffocation gas, the thought crossed his mind. It was hard to breathe, to swallow. It had been a heck of a week, as Mr. Vaughn had said. Something practically every day, whether it was fights or showing up at an event for law enforcement. As fun as the cape stuff could be, with the banter and the team interplay, the emotional highs and lows had their cost.
And he had so very little available to spend.
He made his way to the desk he shared with Tristan. Homework.
He felt like if someone said one mean word to him, he could burst into tears. Homework felt just masochistic enough to punish himself for not going to bed. Just enough to not break down into sobs.
At least with homework, he could tell himself that the time he spent in the here and now was time that he was freeing up later.
While the questions were easy and mindless, it was a good distraction. But they weren’t all easy. There was a paper he needed to write, and he was supposed to frame a thesis.
Try as he might, he couldn’t think to put the thoughts into action.
Pen jabbed. Stabbed his thigh. The pain was a shock, like a wake up call.
There’s something wrong with my brother, like the piece that can get him to compromise and understand just isn’t there. And I’m stuck with him.
The pen jabbed again, near the same spot.
There’s something wrong with me. I felt like I was going to lose my mind from all of this months ago. Things haven’t gotten better.
In a fit, like he wasn’t in control of his own body, he brought the pen down ten times in half that many seconds.
He released his hand. The pen fell to the floor. Rather than pick it up, he kicked it.
He jumped, hearing a knock at the door. He hadn’t shut it.
It was Kay. Furcate. They wore pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, hair tousled like they’d just woken up, rather than like they were just about to go to sleep.
Byron’s hand pressed over the spot where blood was seeping into his pyjama shorts. “Something up?”
“Can I come in?”
“I’m not really up to company right now,” he said. “Is it important?”
“Okay,” Byron said. He swallowed hard, then nodded.
Kay approached, until they stood behind him. “Open.”
“Wha-” Byron started. A hard object was pressed between his teeth.
One of Kay’s old lady lemon candies, that tasted like menthol, citrus, and ass. Kay’s favorite.
Just as he was coming around to the idea that this too could be masochistic, he felt Kay’s arms around his shoulders. A hug from behind, Kay’s face smushed against the side of his head.
His fingers gripped the fabric of his shorts, tight around the oblong spot of blood.
They gave him a pat on the shoulder as they broke from the hug.
“Good work tonight,” Furcate said.
Then they were gone.
He didn’t let go of fabric, find another pen, or even think about much as he sat there, trying to summon up the strength to- to what? Go to sleep?
His feelings leapt into another paradigm, where they shuffled around in confusion. He twisted around to look.
Brianna, at his bedroom door. She was wearing clothes, not nightwear.
“Want to get some fresh air?” she asked.
He nodded. “I need to change.”
“I’ll be waiting by the front door, then.”
She shut his door as she left.
He released the fabric that he’d clutched in his hand for long enough that the blood had stuck to his palm. A bandage covered it, and from there, he was quick to get his clothes on, fixing his hair with his fingers.
Fresh air was… very much what he needed, when being where he was felt so suffocating.
Jacket on, boots on, and… yeah.
They left through the front door, and then they walked. It was late enough that there could be trouble, a good hour for muggers. Silly to think about, when they were as capable as they were.
“Kay sent you?” he asked.
“They stopped in for a minute.”
“I think Furcate checked on everyone.”
At the center of the little park was a fountain, and around the fountain were stairs in concentric circles. Brianna sat on one stair. He sat down on the step her feet rested on, his shoulder near her knees.
She slipped down one step, so she sat down beside him.
“I want to talk to you, not the back of your head.”
He smiled. “Alright.”
“Thank you for agreeing to come for this walk. If you’re half as tired as I am, you must be dead on your feet.”
“Too tired to sleep.”
“Yes,” she said. She smiled, red lipstick parting to show white teeth with the bar of a retainer across them. He felt that emotional jumble again. “Yes, exactly.”
“I can’t promise I’ll be a very good conversation partner.”
“No,” she said. “Me either, probably. When I joined the team, Mr. Vaughn was on about how I was the daughter of a politician, I should be very good at the speech and the presentation-”
“Yes, but there’s pressure! And even now, there’s pressure, you know. I invited you and now I’m obligated to not make you regret it.”
“We could sit here for two hours, keeping each other company without saying a word, and I wouldn’t mind,” he said.
Words he immediately regretted. Words he wouldn’t have said if he weren’t as tired, as emotionally raw.
“Good to know.”
Her shoulder touched his as she leaned a little closer. She turned to look the other direction, and her hair brushed his ear.
The entirety of his focus, every inch of his being, was consumed in that oval-sized point of contact, where her shoulder shared its warmth with his. His head swam with the smell of her shampoo. Something like tea, but refreshing.
“I’m going to suck and say something that might be really lame,” she said. “Then you’ll think less of me.”
“I don’t think that’s possible.”
“I think you’re really strong.”
He shook his head.
“Really. You’re managing despite a situation that would drive anyone crazy.”
“I’m not managing,” he said.
“Aren’t you?” she asked.
He shook his head.
“Is there anything I can do?”
“This,” he said. “This is nice.”
She reached out. Her fingers worked their way between his. She clasped his hand. “Like this?”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I wouldn’t even know how. I’m not sure what I’d say.”
“I can’t imagine,” she said. Her voice was a whisper and it sent tingles through to the core of his body. Like the stab of the pen, it sent a shock through his body, as sure as anything. It reminded him that a girl this pretty and this amazing was sitting with him, so close that she could whisper and he could hear in that nuanced a way.
“I’m glad you can’t. It sucks.”
“That it’s your brother, that can’t make it any easier.”
He allowed himself a slight laugh. “Oh man, you have no idea.”
“I have some idea,” she said. “I’m pretty sure everyone has some idea.”
“Now you’ve lost me,” he said. He wasn’t sure she had, but he didn’t want to be right about his initial take on the statement.
“He’s doing the whole gay thing, because he likes to be bold and out there and-”
“-it’s weird. It’s creepy! That’s all I’m saying.”
He pulled his hand away. He saw the look on her face, like he’d slapped her.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“No,” Byron said. All of the warm, fuzzy emotions, everything that made everything feel okay was now something black and bitter. Disappointment was the predominant feeling in that stew. “That’s- I have a hundred issues with Tristan. But that’s not one. I think I’m going to go.”
He stood. Brianna grabbed him by the wrist.
“And he’s listening. He sees everything I see and hears everything I hear,” Byron added. It was intended as a way to get her to let go, to break this and- and…
…To go back to that room where shorts stained with blood were lying in the corner.
She didn’t let go.
“Stay,” she said. “Fuck him. Just… stay?”
“I can’t betray him like that.” I have to live with him.
“I worry about you,” she said.
I worry about me too, he thought.
“…And I really enjoy your company,” she added. “I would like to sit for those two hours in silence. If- maybe we could? And that way there won’t be problems?”
Byron turned his thoughts over in his head. He was so tired, so heartbroken.
“The only way…” he trailed off.
“Give Tristan a shot. Try to be open minded about his being gay. Okay?”
“It matters to you?”
“It- I think really highly of you, Brianna. You’re good at so many things, you’re smart, you’re stylish, you kick thorough ass. But this makes me think less of you.”
He could see the hurt on her expression. He was stunned, bewildered that she cared enough that she could even feel hurt at all.
She tugged on his arm, as if to get him to sit again.
“Yes?” he asked.
“If it matters to you. Yes.”
He allowed himself to be coaxed to a sitting position. She took his hand like she had before. She leaned into him more than she had before.
“Tell me about your family,” she said. “Tell me everything about you.”
“Everything is a lot. That would take a very, very long time,” he said.
“Perfect,” she whispered.
They talked until the sun was rising.
“I thought for the first time that I was legit going to lose my mind!” Tristan’s voice was raised. He paced. “Holy fuck. Holy fuck!”
To experience Tristan like this was to be in a plane with an erratic pilot. There was no way to wrest control, to change the course, to pull up from a nosedive. There was only remaining in the seat, helpless.
“Like the most boring movie in the world!” Tristan said. “Nothing happening for hours! You can’t- no!”
Had Byron been possessed of blood, that would have been a moment that his blood had run cold. Had he had eyes, they would be widening.
A moment of realization.
In the wake of last night, spent with Brianna, the issue wasn’t that Brianna had been homophobic. Conversely, the fact that Byron had stood up for Tristan wasn’t even a point of data in this moment.
It wasn’t even the time spent. Yes, Tristan was mentioning that, but Tristan had gone days with even less happening. Days of silence, when Byron had been almost nonfunctional in the first weeks, the two of them trying to find their way. Tristan had given up control at their Papa’s orders. Byron had spent hours just staring at the television, at repeats, nothing going on. Then Tristan had retaken control and without comment he’d taken care of the eating, resumed his day with only the periodic freakout.
Tristan had been able to deal with that. In this, something was different.
For the large share of those hours, Byron and Brianna had talked about themselves. Byron had done most of the talking. He’d even tried to keep the topics relevant to Tristan’s interests when he could.
That was the issue, in the end.
For his brother, listening to him was so impossible that it was literally harder than doing nothing at all.
And with that, a realization of just how insurmountable the obstacle was. The fact that Tristan might never understand, because he wasn’t even willing to begin trying.
That was what would make blood run cold, eyes widen, if Byron were anything more than a watercolor splotch diffusing out into a void, along for the ride.
A half-dozen hours of listening to Byron explain his perspective had Tristan more on edge than Byron had ever seen him. Byron had ran out the remainder of his day, deferred control a couple of hours early… and Tristan was seemingly unable to get over it.
“I can’t,” Tristan said.
Tristan shucked off his bodysuit, and then donned civilian clothes, with a clear intent to go out.
The plane with its erratic pilot dipped. Tristan made his way out of the building.
“Capricorn,” Coiffure said, noticing him as she entered. She was costumed, and she looked like she’d just come off a patrol shift. “Everything okay?”
“Nothing’s okay. I’m losing my fucking mind.”
“I can get the boss.”
“No,” Tristan said, stopping in his tracks. He fidgeted. “I can’t do this, but- that would spoil things.”
“You’re supposed to run a patrol tonight,” she said.
Byron could feel the emotional impact of that realization rolling over Tristan.
He felt his own, really. Tristan wasn’t one to lose track of the team stuff. On the usual day, at a snap of the fingers, Tristan could probably recite the next month’s schedule and then produce an essay on what it meant for team strategy.
A slight exaggeration.
“I’ll cover your shift,” Coiffure said.
“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Just… do what you’ve got to do. We all have our bad days.”
“You’re the best hero I know,” he said.
“You’d better believe it,” she replied.
“A week ago,” he said. “We crossed paths with some of the other local heroes. The Wards, the guys from Haven. There was talk of a thing.”
“A thing,” Coiffure said. She glanced up at the security camera. “I’ll text you from my personal phone. To yours. You’re not going to be doing anything in a Capricorn sense, right?”
“Right,” Tristan said.
The thing. Byron connected the thought.
It was late. Nearly twenty-four hours from their patrol last night. In crossing paths with various teams, there had been talking about just how intense things had gotten, with teams breaking up, villains banding together, and crime spree following crime spree. The various kid heroes had talked about needing a break, a chance to cut loose.
And Tristan, it seemed, needed to cut loose.
Tristan had dialed for a ride before he was the rest of the way out of the building, and he moved with the speed and assuredness of someone with an enhanced physique.
The message appeared on his personal phone. An address, and a note. Kay was already there.
The ride showed up, and Tristan climbed into the back. He provided an address on the same street.
“Want to earn some extra cash?” Tristan asked.
“Maybe,” the driver said.
“Grab me a drink from the store,” Tristan said. “I’ll make it worth it.”
“I dunno,” the driver said.
“I have a lot of cash,” Tristan said. Leaning forward, he began putting bills down on the console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats. Byron couldn’t track the amount because Tristan wasn’t bothering to. “And I really want to get drunk.”
The plane with the erratic pilot spiraled.
Byron felt only the experience of suppressed panic akin to imminent suffocation, bleeding out into the void where his body and physical sensations should be.
No more than ten minutes later, with a paper bag tucked under one arm, Tristan was walking up the driveway of a house. There were guys sitting on the porch.
“Got someone who can vouch for you?” a heavyset, twenty-something guy asked.
“Kay,” Tristan said.
The guy twisted around in his chair, opening the door and leaning in. “Kay?”
There was a pause. Then Kay appeared at the door, wearing skinny jeans and a top so small Byron suspected they’d have trouble breathing.
“Hi,” Kay said. They held the door open.
Tristan stepped through. Into his medium. His world, of throbbing music and crowds of teenagers. He put the paper bag onto the counter of the lake house’s kitchen, then removed the two bottles- tequila and whiskey. People cheered, they jostled him, and his face stretched in a smile.
What followed was a roller coaster ride with no stopping or option to get off, a series of scenes that was soon blurred around the edges, as Tristan drank.
Kay danced with abandon, with boys and girls, and when nobody else was dancing, they continued on their own.
There were jokes, conversations, all loud, spoken over music. Tristan watched but didn’t participate in a drinking game.
Byron saw faces and many were familiar, or on the bounds of familiarity, though the haze of drink didn’t help. Capes he’d met. Haven. Wards. Young protectorate members. There were times, though, when he thought he might have pegged one or two, only to see what had to be a sibling or cousin. This had been planned as a chance for the young capes to get out, to cut loose, but they’d brought enough others along that it was safely anonymous.
“Why do you look familiar?”
It was Tristan’s voice, but Tristan’s addled senses were Byron’s addled senses, and it took him a moment to realize the fact. Another moment to recognize the look of alarm in the face of the person Tristan was talking to. It was one person out of twenty or thirty Tristan had talked to in recent hours, and Byron was tuning much of it out, focusing on tolerating all of this.
But this- the look of alarm, it made this significant.
It’s a party of semi-anonymous heroes. We aren’t supposed to bring up secret identities.
The guy Tristan had addressed was blond, wore glasses, and had a metal stud below his lower lip. At the ‘v’ of his v-neck t-shirt, the top of a cross was visible. Tattooed on, not worn. A skinny nerd type more than anything. He glanced over his shoulder.
“I think we met briefly, a few months ago,” Tristan said. “At the… airport?”
“Ahh,” the guy said, before smiling. “All hands on deck?”
“All hands on deck,” Tristan said.
“Had a, uh, sports injury,” the guy said, leaning in close enough to speak into Tristan’s ear. “Been a while since I’ve been out there.”
“Understandable,” Tristan spoke in the loud, overly clear voice of someone trying to be heard in a cacophony. “I didn’t figure you guys for the partying type.”
“Feast and famine. Some of us are as pure as the driven snow. The rest of us need regular breaks from those guys and girls.”
“The girls too, huh?” Tristan asked. “Your girlfriend here? I don’t want to keep you.”
“No girlfriend,” the guy said. He paused. “You can keep me.”
The lingering eye contact made the meaning of that clear.
“You saying that just made my month,” Tristan said.
I can deal with this. I can deal.
It didn’t help shake that feeling, of being a passenger in an out-of-control plane.
“Nate. Want to step out?”
Tristan got a refill of his drink. As a pair, he and Nate stepped outside onto the expansive back porch. A set of stairs with lockable gates led down to the beach, which was more pine needle than sand. Byron could have interpreted Tristan turning his attention away from couples who were sitting in the shadows as being polite. He felt trepidation, all the same.
“You’re… a fan of goats, I’m guessing?” Nate asked.
“Yeah. Good guess.”
“Figured I had a one in two chance. I know most of the other faces.”
“And you’re the… you’re Reconciliation.”
“Just Nate is good,” Nate said. “The names are something you sort of learn to live with, working with those guys.”
“Hey, not judging,” Tristan said.
“You’re judging a little, I’m sure.”
“A little,” Tristan agreed.
“It’s fine. It’s a cost of doing business. We have to deal with the crummy names, you have to… I don’t even know. Wear tight athletic shirts on social media?”
“You’re getting judgmental on me, now?”
“I’m not saying I don’t like it,” Nate said. “I’m… well acquainted with those pictures.”
Byron was aware of every muscle firing, of the movement of Tristan’s arm, the contact, fingers running through the coarse hair of Nate’s forearm. “Limiting it to just seeing it seems like it would be a shame.”
Nate was silent. Tristan’s fingers made their way down to Nate’s hand, which he maneuvered to his stomach. Nate’s hand ran up across muscle and skin, to collarbone.
Tristan kissed him. Byron felt the contact, felt lip brush against sandpapery skin where faint stubble was growing back in, find purchase on smoother lip.
He hadn’t wanted to see or experience this side of his brother. He’d become too intimately acquainted with Tristan, with the physiology- that was unavoidable. But this?
“Where have you been for the last four months?” Tristan asked.
“I spent a few of them in the hospital, after running into Paris.”
“Paris,” Tristan said.
“He’s a lunatic,” Nate said, his voice a whisper. “Steer clear, you know? He’s dangerous, and he came after me. He came after Long John. A little less successful then, but I think Long was spooked. He was making noise about going after Furcate, toward the start of the year. They ended up benched, waiting for Paris to get bored.”
“Asshole,” Tristan said. Acting more drunk than before, like he was drunk on Nate, he kissed Nate’s neck.
“He’s kind of the reason I’m taking my time putting the costume back on again. He could go after you, so be careful, okay?”
“Okay,” Tristan said. “Thanks for the warning. I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”
Nate ran his hand up and down Tristan’s upper body, exploring the muscles, finding the lines of the ribs. This time, he kissed Tristan. Tristan returned the favor, and pressed in. The kiss became a makeout session.
Byron floated in the void.
He tried to turn his thoughts away. To be happy for Tristan. If he just had to endure this for an hour- if he had to accept that in the future, kissing Brianna might require the same tolerance from Tristan- then he would accept this.
That acceptance was gone the second he felt Tristan’s hands reach down, meeting at the buttons of Nate’s jeans.
Nate’s hands clasped Tristan’s firm.
“No,” Nate murmured, practically saying the words into Tristan’s mouth.
“No?” Tristan answered.
“I’m not that kind of guy. I’m not even usually this kind of guy. I’m really happy to meet you-”
“Oh, I can tell.”
“But I’m not… going to do that. I want a husband, kids, a nice house, dogs. I want those things and other things, and us doing this on the first night, or the third, or even in the first few months, it feels like it would put all of those things further away.”
Tristan pressed his forehead against Nate’s neck. “You might not be this kind of guy, but I’m not sure I’m that kind of guy.”
“There aren’t many of us out in this neck of the woods, Tristan. If you want to take some time, figure it out, I’ll probably still be here.”
Byron could feel the guilt, the disappointment, surging through a body that wasn’t his. He had little doubt the emotions had absolutely nothing to do with him and his own part in this.
With that, he felt anger.
“You’re two of my best capes,” Mr. Vaughn said. “It was one mistake. I don’t want this to be a problem.”
“It was not a mistake,” Byron said. “No. If cooler heads hadn’t prevailed, that would have been something much worse than a mistake.”
Mr. Vaughn gestured, fingers extended, moving in a tight circle.
Byron shook his head, pacing across the fancy office with its fancy colored tiles. He switched, forcing himself to dive into the void, to displace Tristan and give Tristan a body.
“He’s making a big deal out of nothing,” Tristan said. “He does this. Gets unreasonable.”
“It doesn’t sound like it’s nothing to him.”
“Not many things are nothing to him. The difference between him and me is that when I have a feeling, I feel it. When he has a feeling, he bottles it up. then the bottle cracks and it fires off steam in some random direction for some random excuse. He hung out with a girl for hours and hours at a detriment to me. I kissed someone.”
“What were you doing? What was your mindset, Tristan?”
“For just a couple of hours, I wanted to get reasonably drunk, and forget… everything. Forget that I had to worry about my brother, forget the power issue, that I’m living half a life.”
“And did this forgetting extend to forgetting about your brother as you pursued… potential relations with a partner?”
Mr. Vaughn gestured. Tristan switched.
Byron was free. “Yes.”
“You can’t know what Tristan thinks or plans, Byron. I think you’re being a little bit unreasonable.”
“I live in his body and look out of his eyes more than a hundred and eighty days a year, Mr. Vaughn. He doesn’t pay much attention to me, but I pay a ton of attention to him. Because I have to.”
“We’ve enforced some loose rules that keep a balance between you. These aren’t sufficient?”
“No! No, not at all. I want- I need something more. That keeps things like last night from happening again. Until this situation between us is fixed, there need to be restrictions.”
Mr. Vaughn gestured. Byron stepped into the void once again.
“We talked to you, we established rules,” Tristan said. “Now he wants to change the rules? No. I am not cool with that.”
Another gesture, another change.
“Is there no room for compromise?”
“Compromise?” Byron asked, incredulous. “I don’t see how you compromise on that. I thought I was being pretty cool with tolerating the extended touchy-feely make-out session. What are you thinking the compromise is?”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said. “But my issue is that it seems very unreasonable to expect total abstinence for the indeterminate future.”
“That’s insane. It’s not that. It’s that he wants to go have sex or do whatever with randoms, and I have a front row seat. I have to see it. I have to feel it. And that’s- you can’t change that. You can’t make it not the case. I know you’re not a stupid man, Mr. Vaughn. You have to understand this.”
“I…” Mr. Vaughn said. “Find myself in a difficult position. On a certain level, I very much agree. Where I’m leery is that we have had attention from the Youth Guard. Gender freedom, freedom of expression, sexuality- they are touchy subjects.”
“So is me being subjected to that!”
“Byron,” Mr. Vaughn said, his voice firm. “My concern is that if I take a stance or take a side, I am opening myself up to issues, no matter what I do. I suspect you are right, though you may be acting unreasonable or operating on too many assumptions when it comes to your interpretation of your brother’s actions.”
“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said, less of an admission of ignorance and more of a statement of direction. “Probably not. You’re probably right. But I don’t and can’t know. I don’t want to abandon you either. If I wash my hands of this and say it’s between the two of you, I think I know the outcome.”
“Oh yeah,” Byron said. “I think so.”
“Before it comes to that, before I’m forced to make a choice that hurts my relationship with one of you, or before I make a choice based on things I can’t know, I would like for the two of you to talk. Discuss. Let me step out of the office. I’m going to go to the cafeteria, I’m going to grab my dinner, I’ll come back, and if you have found a resolution, my respect for the two of you will redouble.”
“And if we don’t?” Byron asked.
“Then…” Mr. Vaughn said. “We will discuss. And we will make hard choices.”
Byron nodded. Mr. Vaughn stood and left the room. Byron tried to think of what to say, what argument he could make. But before that, he had to know.
He had to confirm his suspicions.
He switched to Tristan.
“I can’t believe you brought it to him,” Tristan said. Switch.
“No choice. We needed a mediator.”
“He’s the boss, and he’s not stupid. When you talk about me having a partner, he can connect the dots.”
“You did it first.”
“You’re so demented, By. Seriously. I was already having a shitty day, and… God.”
“Is this about Moonsong?”
“I really don’t give two shits about Moonsong, By.”
“Are you sure? Because you went off rails and made a beeline to that party right after I talked with her.”
Byron switched out. Tristan had the body, but Tristan didn’t respond.
His finger traced his leg, at the thigh. “If she makes you happier, then whatever. She can say whatever she wants about me if she keeps you in one piece. I just- I really despise the fact that you’re not understanding that this is what I need to keep myself in one piece.”
“Tristan, he doesn’t want to sleep with you. This isn’t the hill to die on. Date him. Kiss him, stick your tongue down his throat if that’s what you want, if you can do it while being aware your brother is there and watching and feeling it all. If that’s what you want… I’ll deal with it. But I have to draw the line at anything that goes under the underwear.”
“No,” Tristan said. One word, curt, and then switching out.
Byron switched. Tristan switched back a moment later.
“You fucking child,” Byron snarled the words. “You can’t even justify it.”
He switched. Tristan switched a second later.
Byron was left standing in the office. He knew Mr. Vaughn would arrive soon.
“You know he’ll back me. I think that’s what kills you. You know you’re wrong, and what you’re wanting here is unjustifiable and unreasonable.”
There was a long pause. Then Tristan switched back, not a word spoken.
“Tristan,” Byron said. He hesitated. “Tristan, I have to draw the line here. Tap out. Give. Accept my terms. Or I’m going to reach out to Nate, and I’m going to tell him everything. That I was there, that I could see him- I’m pretty sure he didn’t even think that was possible, because he’s an actually decent human being and he would have stopped you well before, if he’d thought of it. I will tell him, and he will think you are completely and utterly fucked up. Which I’m pretty sure you are.”
Byron let those words hang.
Then he switched.
Tristan was very quiet and very still. That motionless silence lasted the remaining three or four minutes before Mr. Vaughn returned.
“Did you make a decision?” mr. Vaughn asked.
Again, a pause. Long, as if Tristan was having to rewrite his priorities, and find a way to act and form words when everything was reset to zero.
“I agree,” Tristan said, his voice soft. “Nothing beyond kissing and holding hands.”
“I can’t tell you how much I respect you for coming to this compromise.”
“I just wanted hope,” Tristan said. “I wanted to be a regular teenager for a couple of hours, and feel like there were silly, stupid, good things over the next horizon. I didn’t- I wouldn’t have done anything. I just wanted to be able to pretend it was possible.”
“I thought it might be something like that. But you got close enough in your pretending that you spooked your brother,” Mr. Vaughn said. “I admire you for agreeing to this, for his benefit.”
Tristan shook his head.
In a sea of doubt like watercolor bleeding out into endless darkness, Byron counted his first real victory against his brother.
There’d been no fixes. The power labs had scratched their heads.
For half of his waking hours, portioned out in four hour chunks now, existence still resembled a kind of hell.
For the other half, however, things were good. Moonsong sat beside him, her hand finding his, giving it a squeeze. Off in the corner, Coiffure and Furcate were being silly. Furcate had been weaned off of their shitty lemon candy and had now adopted strawberry flavored drops, still of the grandmother’s candy bowl variety, but without the lingering taste of armpit. Their arm was in a sling, but they seemed to be doing okay. Tribute and Figurehead were chatting about team rankings, and they seemed happy enough with where Reach stood.
But mostly it was Moonsong. Mostly it was finally having an equilibrium. Rules had been set, reaffirmed.
Figurehead’s phone rang. The conversation was short. Figurehead paused to think after hanging up.
The chatter of the team stopped. Everyone looked, sensing the gravity of the moment.
“We found that asshole Paris,” Figurehead said. “He went after Furcate once, after Long John twice, and he got Reconciliation from Haven a second time, just a week ago. This is an all hands on deck thing.”
There was no discussion or thought really needed. Byron reached out for Moonsong’s hand, and he gave it a squeeze.
This was Tristan’s fight.
He passed control.
Immediately, he was aware that something was wrong. Aware, and unable to act on the fact.
“Whatever you need,” Moonsong murmured to Tristan. “We’re with you.”
Tristan was silent, not responding.
When he stood, heads turned. Something in his energy, in his expression.
When I get mad, I bottle it up, it releases explosively, indiscriminately if the person is a moron like my brother who can’t see how things add up.
But it was different for Tristan.
Tristan… when he got mad, he became unreasonably mad. There was no upper limit, and the usual boundaries seemed to slip away, much in the way that led to him stabbing at Byron multiple times. When he set his mind to something, he got it.
And when the two coincided?
Byron had a gut feeling it was worse than a vehicle with a reckless pilot at the helm. This pilot knew what he was doing and he was on course; he just didn’t give a damn about the damage he’d end up doing.