“We can do this,” Tristan said. But for Boundless, who was working other venues, Furcate and Steamwheel, the young members of Team Reach stood behind him, silent.
Byron was silent as well, but not by dint of choice. His attention was on the details, both of Tristan and of the unfolding mission. He wasn’t sure why. It wasn’t as though he could burst forward to offer advice, and it wasn’t as though Tristan was going to let him out to offer input.
“What if he doesn’t show?” Tribute asked.
“Then we wait a bit longer, and then we go back, and we can tell ourselves that we tried,” Coiffure said.
“Trying isn’t good enough,” Tristan said.
“Sometimes trying is all we can do,” Moonsong said.
“It’s not good enough,” Tristan said, more intense now. Because it was Moonsong speaking? Byron had to wonder. Tristan seemed to rein himself in, and Byron could feel the intake of half of a breath, almost a snort as that breath cut short. Appearing to be calmer to everyone but Byron, who had that inside view, Tristan added, “The guy hurt Furcate. He hurt Reconciliation.”
Be a little bit less obvious if you don’t want to tell the whole team?
“And Long John and apparently Whipping Girl in Virginia,” Coiffure said, like she was trying to pacify. “I know.”
“He’s breaking the rules. I get it,” Figurehead said. “But we can’t blame ourselves if we don’t end up taking a non-opportunity.”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Moonsong asked.
“I… guess I don’t?” Figurehead answered.
Tristan turned around to look at Moonsong, giving her a hard look.
She’s being clever, and that usually brings people closer together, yet Tristan thinks she’s betraying him, Byron thought.
“The shitheel is escalating,” Moonsong said. “This is crime 101. Worse incidents, with shorter times between each.”
“You’re talking all fancy, Moon, but I’m betting you learned that from a crime drama,” Coiffure said.
“It’s true, though,” Moonsong said. She met Tristan’s eyes. He looked away. She continued like it hadn’t happened, “He’s not just a lowlife scumbag who hurts good people. He’s hurting good people more and more as time goes on, and he’s going to escalate to the point where he kills.”
“Yeah,” Coiffure said. “Not disagreeing with you.”
“If he doesn’t show, he doesn’t show,” Figurehead said. “We can agree he needs to go to jail, but it doesn’t change the facts.”
Moonsong ventured, “I think what Capricorn is saying is that if the target doesn’t show, we should focus our energies on chasing him down.”
“Maybe,” Figurehead said. He looked at Tristan, who shut his eyes, leaving Byron to only detect the nod by the mechanics of muscles moving, the weighty sensation of fluids shifting across his brother’s head. “He needs to be dealt with, not arguing that.”
Can you at least acknowledge that Moonsong’s backing you up, shoring you up where you’re weak? You’re lost in the focus on the mission and she’s handling the team for you.
“Update from Furcate and Wheel?” Tristan asked.
The location was part of a mess of buildings, set in a triangular plot of land that seemed as though it had been pledged to three different buildings, ended up shared by all of them, and was then complicated further by the access and egress roads. An apartment complex loomed over a capital-E-shaped section of storage lockers, with a view that was further blocked by a squat building that was shared by multiple stores.
It was no surprise that none of the three installations seemed to be doing especially well. Like plants trying to share the same sunlight, water, and soil, all three withered, with an apparent lack of thriving.
A highway, a major road, and a road leading off of the major road and into a morass of suburbs boxed it all in. The car they were expecting eased its way down a narrow passage that cut beneath the highway, onto a single lane road that would turn the bend and enter the area with the storage lockers.
They heard the slamming of the car door. Tristan leaned out to look, a fleeting glance before he pulled his head back in.
The image was momentary, but it stuck in Byron’s mind’s eye. A man with Boundless’ height, but Tribute’s frame. Boundless could have been a basketball player, if he’d been coordinated in the slightest, and Tribute was a middleweight boxer.
It was Paris, in costume. His mask was the sort that covered the top half of his head, going down over his eyes and nose, his hair was long, very straight and blond, and the costume was a mix of loose cloth, like a mantle worn over the shoulders, and the form-fitting, with cloth and leather bands wrapped around arms and torso. Black and blue-green, with decorative flourishes in a spade-like shape at the front of the mantle, where it hung over his sternum, and in the metal at the end of his belt.
He’d been bent over almost double to look into the car window.
“Let him go, let him go,” Tristan whispered.
Is he talking to the group, or is he talking to himself?
The car had to maneuver carefully to navigate the tight space. It had been here before- the roads in and out of the storage locker area were confusing to new visitors, with most being one-way and one being out of sight.
“This is where he comes after he gets hired for a mission,” Figurehead said. “Our sources were right. Shit.”
Figurehead’s nervous. His power gives him better info with unfamiliar targets. He’s run into Paris before.
“Good sources,” Coiffure said. “Would it be weird to get them thank you chocolates or something?”
“Given the area, I think the chocolates would only work if they had heroin in them or something,” Moonsong said.
“I don’t think that would go over well with the boss,” Coiffure said, smiling.
“Let him go inside,” Tristan said, all seriousness, as if he was unaware of the light, tension-breaking conversation. “Let him get changed.”
“Are we playing it that way?” Figurehead asked. “Perception is going to be that we hit someone out of costume.”
“If he wants to grab his mask on his way out, that’s up to him,” Tristan said.
The shutter of the storage unit whisked open, banging as it reached its apex. Tristan peeked out, just in time to see the door sliding closed, Paris’ legs and feet on the inside. He looked in the direction the car had gone, then stepped out of cover.
Orange motes began to move around the door, forming like the flames of lighters catching, then striking out in straight lines.
He spared only a glance over his shoulder for his team, who was behind him. His focus was entirely on Paris, now.
With a clench of his fist, he made the lines into something solid. A ramp with the sides curving around to the sides of the door, with the backing that kept it from rocking forward. Had someone sat on the ramp and if the door had been open, they could have slid inside.
“What in the world are you making?” Tribute asked.
Tristan pressed a finger to his lips. There was a pause as he listened, and then he began drawing his next object. A pillar, singular, high above.
The door opened, and Tristan passed control, letting the pillar become water.
He can’t even trust me to follow his logic, Byron thought, as the water came down, hitting the funnel. The stone structure bucked slightly, even with the reinforced back, but it did its job. The water was funneled to flow into the door of the storage unit, straight at Paris.
Team Reach fanned out as Byron drew out more water. The direction he drew was more important than the points of light- the opposite of Tristan’s handling of it. He placed the lines so they flowed down, aiming at the ramp.
No movement from within, no sound, no response, no swearing.
Byron hesitated in his drawing.
Figurehead drew his fingers together, middle fingers and thumbs touching, so there was a circle in the middle, and he aimed it at the storage area. “He’s moving! He’s going through the far wall!”
Moonsong shouted, loud enough to be heard on the far side. “Steamwheel, Furcate!”
Byron let the water down. A spray this time, not just a body of falling water with some direction to its flow. It hit the ramp and banked into the storage unit.
He didn’t wait for the water to finish flowing or moving away. He released that water, disconnecting himself from the lines and then drew out others, low to the ground, pointing up at an angle.
Unlike Tristan, he didn’t gesture to confirm or out of some ‘rule of cool’, as Tristan had put it. It was to signal Moonsong as the water sprayed.
They’d done this before. They’d practiced it with most members of the team. He ceded control.
Sprayed water became ramps. His teammates ran up the ramps, leaped, and were buoyed by Moonsong’s gravity.
To work with her like this, to see the team working with them like this, it lifted his spirits. In everything that he did with Tristan, in eating, in sleeping, in watching stuff, listening to music, there was so little in the way of middle ground. There was nothing the two of them both enjoyed and could enjoy together.
Except this. Finding that teamwork. Ceding control mid-run, as the others bounded forward toward their quarry, knowing Tristan could leap off of the ramp, that Moonsong was at the other ramp, he was okay with it. It-
Tristan reached the top of the ramp, and instead of leaping into the field of reduced gravity, reached out for the lip of his funnel and hurdled it, his armor skidding on the rock with its veins of metal running through it. The water was already flowing out, calf-deep as Tristan landed in it, pushed himself to an upright position, and headed straight into the storage locker.
Not sticking with the team, but taking his own route.
Byron could feel the strain in Tristan’s legs as he ran through the water. He could see the red lights, a row of them ahead of them.
Had he been able, he would have said no, he would have vetoed this course of action. It was too brash, too aggressive.
He could only watch, worried. Tristan’s armored boots stomped through water, Tristan ducked through the hole Paris had made, and he punched into the red lights in a move that Byron had seen him practice, though not with this nuance. Never before to augment his glove and arm with a mass of spikes.
Tristan hurdled boxes, and he emerged from the storage locker that backed Paris’. Into the fight where the others were confronting Paris. Steamwheel on her knees ahead of him, Figurehead and Tribute flanking him, and Paris in the center, wearing a white undershirt, jeans, soaked sneakers, and his mask.
His arrival from behind caught Paris off guard, but, as far as Byron could tell, it also caught their team off guard.
Paris took advantage of it, leaping closer to the immobilized Steamwheel while remaining out of reach, and he swung his arm. The swinging motion produced flying darts at set intervals, though dart might have been the wrong word. Lines or needles more than anything thrown toward a bullseye in a bar or kid’s basement. One sank into the decorative metal at the side of Tribute’s leg, another into a shield that Coiffure fashioned of her hair, while the rest buried themselves into the road.
Where each needle sank in, they became a spray, a geyser, firing the opposite direction the needle had traveled. Decorative metal and road disintegrated, the pieces sent flying back toward the point Paris had been- now the point Tristan stood. Coiffure wrapped up the damaged hair in more of her hair, that flowed out like strands of wire she could manipulate, ‘catching’ the geyser in a spherical bubble of hair that left her momentarily unable to use her power. Flecks of metal and road chipped at Tristan’s armor, threatening to strike him in the exposed portions of his face, his eyes in particular.
Tristan had to blind himself by bringing his arm up to shield his eyes. Byron could feel the pain explode as Paris used the blindness, kicked one from the side, maybe trying to sweep Tristan’s legs out from under him.
Let me out, let me fight. We can trade off in moments like this.
Tristan landed on all fours, tried to find his balance, and before he could raise his head, felt the impact of a kick against the side of his helmet. He went flat.
The giant wheel at Steamwheel’s back spun up, steam poured out, and Steamwheel skidded forward, still on her knees.
Tristan raised his head, watched as Paris backed out of the way, and created a mote of light, moving it only an inch or so before giving it life. Paris walked past it, twisting around to throw more darts at Steamwheel.
Tristan didn’t even look at Steamwheel- he was focused on Paris, creating another mote, another short motion before he gave it life.
It manifested as a spike, and Paris stepped on it.
“I’m out of action!” Steamwheel shouted, her voice amplified by mechanics in her suit.
The spike hadn’t punched through, but Paris had rolled his ankle and tipped over. Byron felt a surge of triumph at seeing Moonsong slap Paris down with an increased gravity effect.
Steamwheel hit the ground hard, landing on her back as her suit disintegrated around her, the fragments flying out. While she was on her back, the fragments were directed at the ground.
Paris twisted around and threw darts toward the roof Moonsong stood on. She had to move, and as she did, the gravity effect broke.
Another throw clipped Figurehead in the side of his mask. He had to twist away to keep the resulting spray of his disintegrating mask from firing into the group.
He’s the worst guy for us to fight. Maybe if we still had Boundless…
Or if you would fucking let me out so we can work together, Tristan! Work with me! Work with the team! This guy is a professional, trained mercenary with more years of fighting capes under his belt than any three of us put together!
Tristan heaved himself to his feet, eyes moving to the ground, seeing the twenty dollar bills floating in the water that was still flowing from the storage locker. He raised his eyes to Paris, and Paris flicked his hands down, sending darts into the wet road.
A barrier of geysers, disintegrating the road and sending the fragments directly upward.
Tristan trusted his armor to protect him, running past the barrier. Byron felt the bite of a pellet at one corner of Tristan’s jaw, sharp, with an impact that made teeth clack together, followed by a pain that felt like a sore spot on a tooth had just been hit with ice water, magnified by ten. Another pellet bit into the back of Tristan’s leg, finding its way into the space beneath armor, past bodysuit, and into calf.
Paris was careful with the one leg where he had rolled his ankle, and Tristan was far less careful with his own injured leg, pushing through the pain. He closed the distance, orange motes appearing like stars on the ground behind Paris as Tristan charged in, swinging. Paris backed into a field of spikes and uneven ground, his footing unsteady, every other step a stumble. He blocked one gauntlet with the length of his arm, and the resulting grimace suggested it hurt.
The surge of triumph in the chest the two brothers shared suggested Tristan was glad to see that hurt. Tristan shifted his footing, and with his fist still in close proximity to Paris’ arm, slashed out with the spikes that he’d attached to his armor. Paris pulled back, stumbled more in the process.
A moment later, his feet skidded on Tristan’s rock, wet from the water that had splashed up with each footfall. Moonsong’s work, pushing him down when his footing was insecure.
Tristan closed the distance, swinging in the moment Paris was essentially reduced to kneeling. Byron knew every technique Tristan was employing, every thought process. He’d seen the training sessions and he’d had his own turn at them.
Tribute’s power surged through Tristan’s body, and time seemed to slow down. In the moment he felt it, Tristan felt confident enough to shift his footing and balance, and throw out a kick from the side.
Not a move Byron would have been confident making, but the reason Tristan did these things, took the risks, made the bad jokes, was because they worked. Where Byron failed, Tristan succeeded in his recklessness.
The kick landed, Paris catching it with the entirety of his folded arm, being sent sprawling by the impact. Tristan adjusted his balance, and in the same motion, brought the leg he’d used to kick down in a stomp, aimed at Paris’ ankle. Paris bent his leg to draw it back and away.
Moonsong’s voice, pained.
Byron felt a sudden surge of alarm, and his frustration welled as Tristan didn’t even take his eyes off of Paris. He was drawing out more motes.
Look! Check on her!
“Shit!” Figurehead said.
At that, Tristan glanced to one side. It was the holes that Paris had put into the ground. The geysers had spat the high-velocity fragments skyward, and those fragments were coming down. There was a line of blood at Moonsong’s exposed shoulder. She bent nearly double and touched her hair as another came down.
Get away, Moon!
Help her, you jackass!
Tristan turned his attention back to Paris. In that moment, Byron hated Tristan.
On realizing that Paris had shifted position, using long limbs to put one needle to the gap beneath Tristan’s helmet, that hate didn’t fade by half.
Switch. Look at all of the rock you’ve left here. The rock on your costume, pointed at him. If you switch, that rock becomes water, we put him to the ground, and we fucking have him.
Trust me and switch.
Tristan stared Paris down, not moving, not switching. Behind them, their teammates could be heard running for cover.
The strength and perception effect faded as Tribute had to give up his position. Tribute gave advantages at the cost of his own, and he needed to focus to do it.
I know you like sports movies, because fuck me, you’ve made me watch a lot. How can you not draw the short fucking line and connect yourself to the jerkass team ace who thinks the entire team exists to support him and let him score?
Especially when you share a fucking body with one of those teammates!
Tristan’s eyes were locked to Paris’, and Tristan and Byron were both aware of the moment Paris glanced away, noting the teammates who were now beyond the area that was being pelted with a rain of pavement shards.
Tristan moved, reaching, moving his head to one side. Paris was faster, his free hand grabbing Tristan and throwing him to the ground.
No needle in Tristan’s neck, but Tristan’s armor had been caught, and was coming apart, and Paris was free to run. More darts were thrown behind him, to cover his retreat.
Furcate was waiting, as Paris sprinted away. Their arm was in a sling, but they had the other arm in their cat’s paw gauntlet.
As darts were hurled their way, Furcate split in two, each moving in a separate direction, with the darts passing between them.
Each of the two Furcates was different, one of them resembling the original, the other with an arm free of the sling, a costume of a different cut.
Tristan climbed to his feet as Furcate started swiping and slashing at Paris with their claws. They were nimble, but it was an ordinary human nimbleness, nothing augmented.
For that matter, Paris’ strength and agility weren’t anything special.
Coiffure had apparently realized that her hair was done disintegrating, and she was next into the fray, hair forming a bubble around her as she leaped through the fence of flying particles. She kept weapons in her hair, blades at the end of braids, hidden in the expansive, growing mane, and she used them, hands reaching out, catching a cord, swinging the blade, her own hair deflecting that blade from hitting her as it carried on its course. She moved like she had Tribute backing her, with a flying leap like Moonsong was helping with the gravity situation. When her blades came down, they came down with a force that Moonsong had to have helped with, biting into the pavement.
Then, the rest of the team incapacitated or stuck in support roles, it was Tristan, Furcates, and Coiffure fighting.
Here and there, they drew blood. It was enough to tell them that they were getting somewhere, achieving something.
Furcate split again. Unlike their usual gauntlets, this Furcate had gloves that extended to the elbow, with five long blades each, their mask narrow like a fox’s.
Three Furcates, one Tristan, and one Coiffure.
And it should be one Byron, Byron thought. He wasn’t watching for clues or details anymore.
Furcate was used to fighting alone or as… a pair or a trio, a quartet if they felt like pushing themselves. Coiffure needed to reach out, and Tristan worked best with battlefields he could exploit, and he was limited in what he could do when any changes he made to footing could hamper either of the others.
And, Byron had to admit, Paris was very good at what he did. He didn’t curse, even under his breath, he wasted no breath and few movements, and when one person got in the way of another, he used that, taking a position that meant Tristan had Furcate in his way if he wanted to close in.
In one of those moments when he had no access to Paris, Tristan punched his fist into a collection of motes. They solidified into a single spike, extending forward from Tristan’s hand like an extension of his arm. Even with his enhanced strength, it was heavy.
Byron could watch as Tristan swung, could see Tristan’s eyes mark the point where Paris’ heart was.
Paris saw it too. The swing was deflected, the spike pushed downward, that same hand gripping it, pulling Tristan off balance. Paris’ other hand reached toward Tristan’s chest, where glancing contact with disintegration pins had sliced at his breastplate without producing the geysers. Much as the spike had been aimed for Paris’ heart, Paris held a fistful of needles aimed at Tristan’s. Coiffure’s silver locks caught Paris’ arm, stopping him. As if he was expecting it, he slashed at the locks, freeing his arm to continue forward.
Tristan, only by virtue of the one second of delay, was able to throw himself to the side and fall instead of being struck. Paris tossed the needles down to the ground near instead. They erupted, and the violent eruption gave Paris the opportunity to back away from the group. Moonsong hit him, he stumbled, but he continued to retreat, throwing fistful of needles after fistful of needles, until visibility was nearly gone.
There was no advancing into that storm. A hail fell on the group, each fragment of ground, building or steel shutter razor sharp and heavy.
Tristan started to advance toward it, and Coiffure stopped him.
“You know you can’t,” she said.
“He’s getting away,” Tristan said, and he sounded hollowed-out, far from any Tristan Byron had ever witnessed.
“They have a way of doing that,” Coiffure said.
“But-” Tristan said.
The second of the Furcates that had appeared now advanced, flinching at the nearby spray of disintegrating street, hopping over potholes that the darts had made.
One metal claw thumped against Tristan’s chest, by his heart. Furcate’s body rested against his side, head at his shoulder.
“We made him bleed,” the Furcate said, staring into his shoulder. “We took his storage container from him. It had money in it. Probably a lot.”
“I wanted to stop him, for Reconciliation,” Tristan murmured. “For you.”
“For me,” Tristan said. His voice was barely above a whisper. “I’ve never hated anyone before, and I hate that man.”
“Let’s get under cover before those pellets start raining down any harder,” Coiffure said. “Come on, you badasses.”
Tristan allowed himself to be led away by strands of silver hair tugging on his arm. Furcate pulled back, lingered.
The three Furcates turned to one another. It was as though they played a game of rock paper scissors, but they played with numbers. Gauntlets were shucked off where needed, so fingers were free. All three had injured left arms or hands, but in different ways.
Four-four-three, the one closest to the original signaled.
Five-three-five, the second one signaled, at the same time.
Seven-two-five, the one with the fox mask indicated, putting two extended, splinted fingers against the palm of the right hand with all five fingers extended.
“At least it’s a cool costume,” the first Furcate said, before dissipating into smoke.
The second dissolved away as well, leaving only the fox masked Furcate. They hurried out of the ‘rain’, joining Tristan and Coiffure.
Tristan clapped a hand onto Furcate’s shoulder. “You good, azúcar?”
Then, seemingly lost for words, or defeated on some fundamental level, Tristan allowed Byron free.
“Fuck it,” Byron whispered under his breath.
“We did the best we could,” Coiffure said.
We? I was barely there.
It wasn’t worth fighting. He would hash it out with Tristan later. Somehow.
“You okay, Moon!?” he hollered.
“Yeah! Tribute got an ice-cream scoop’s worth taken out of his leg, though!”
Byron winced, and he saw a matching expression on Coiffure’s face.
He had to move his head to see Furcate’s mask. “Two huh? I don’t want to pry, but-”
“You can pry,” Furcate said. They looked back. “So long as it’s you, and not you and Moonsong together.”
“Moonsong has your back, Furcate,” Coiffure said.
“She cares about you,” Byron added.
“You had a two or close to two in the second position the last couple of times.”
“I’ll deal,” Furcate said.
They hunkered down. Only a few more of the things were still geysering, spitting out their rain of pellets. It would be another minute or so.
Coiffure got Byron’s attention, while Furcate was at the door, craning their head to peer at the battlefield. A questioning gesture, shrug, and then an arched eyebrow above her mask, as she raised two fingers.
Byron tapped his head.
Mental. Emotional. He’d keep an eye out for Kay, some shitty candy and a hug ready if Kay seemed low.
It would be hard not to feel low after this. This didn’t feel like a win, even though they’d sent the guy running scared.
But Paris wasn’t what bothered him. Paris getting away was more the sort of thing that would eat at Tristan.
And Tristan was the thing that ate at Byron. Insisting on doing that whole thing himself? Fuck that. It was a slap in the face.
Worse than that, though… Tristan had said that Paris was the first and only person he hated.
Yet I hate you every single day, Tristan.
“Abide with me. Abide with me, don’t let me fall,” Byron sang. “And don’t let go. Walk with me. And never leave. Be ever close, God abide with me. Ever close, God abide with me. Ever close, God abide with me.”
Tristan tried to lose himself in the greater service, ignoring the little things. The acoustics- he’d always loved that part of it, the way many voices joined into one.
“O love that will not ever let me go. Love that will not ever let me go! You never let me go! Love that will not ever let me go!”
Why did Byron have to focus on the book, glancing down as if to double check? From the time he could read and sing at the same time, Tristan had made it a challenge to see how much he could memorize, seeing how long he could go before he had to check. Seeing Byron do it now that he was fifteen pained him. It was like someone who never took the training wheels off their bike.
The song had concluded.
“Tonight, Mrs. Garza asks that we keep her son Luis Garza in your prayers. He struggles. Pray for him. Pascal Repp is not here, as he is finishing his most recent set of cancer treatments this week. Pray for him, for he more than embodies the strength I talked about in today’s sermon.”
There were murmured responses. Byron put their lips to work, adding good wishes.
Byron reached out for Brianna’s hand. He gave it a squeeze. Then he looked at Mama like- like he had to check with an adult that things were okay and that he had permission.
My brother, please.
People were filing out of the church, and bound in the claustrophobic darkness that was within Byron, Tristan felt an almost physical pain at Byron’s hesitation at entering the group of people filing out. Mama and Papa had already found openings like the ones Byron passed up because he didn’t want to bump into anyone. They were out of the church before Byron was out of the aisle.
It was like being stuck behind slow people on the sidewalk, every minute of every one of Byron’s turns.
“You didn’t mind this?” Byron asked Brianna.
She shook her head, then squeezed their hand.
Oh, dios mio and fuck me, the old women are hobbling toward us. Please, Byron.
Byron passed up another gap in the file of people. The old ladies approached, lights practically flashing in their eyes as they saw Byron holding Brianna’s hand.
“We’ve been caught,” Byron said, sounding far less anguished about it than he should have. “The woman with the hat pressed over her heart was my grandmother’s best friend, Diane.”
“Oh wow. It’s great that you have a community that goes back like that.”
“It’s a plus,” Byron said. His hand found the small of Brianna’s back, as he worked his way forward. They were intercepted by the old ladies.
He’s showing her off, Tristan thought.
“Tristan, how lovely,” Diane greeted Byron.
Tristan mentally pumped a fist.
“I’m the other one,” Byron said.
“Byron. I thought your brother would be the one to have a girlfriend first. He’s flashy like that.”
“Nope. Anyhow,” Byron paused. Stuck on finding the words in the latest of his awkward-ish situations he should one hundred percent have known how to deal with by now. “This is Brianna. We go to school and work together. Brianna, this is Diane, Mrs. Caudle, and Mrs. Plumb.”
“Brianna, dear, you’re a lovely young lady.”
“Thank you! I’m touched- Byron told me that you were close friends with his grandmother.”
“I was. She was lovely. Tristan always took after her, I felt. Naturally athletic, charming, go getters, both of them. You’ve met Tristan, I’m sure.”
“I have met him, yes.”
You deserve this, Byron.
“I’m sorry, I’m so surprised he wasn’t the one bringing a girl to church.”
Byron flexed their lips in a forced smile. No teeth showing, lips pressed together.
The conversation wrapped up, with only two more thinly veiled attempts at setting Brianna up with Tristan while Byron stood there, being far too polite about it. It was Brianna, not Byron, who found the excuse to break away and rejoin Mama and Papa.
As they walked, Byron leaned in close to Brianna, “How are the injuries?”
“They’re okay. The scratch in my arm feels tight.”
“I wish that had gone different.”
“We all do, By. I wish- I keep replaying it in my head, wondering what I could have done better.”
“Yeah.” Byron, still holding Brianna’s hand, raised her hand to his mouth, kissing the back of it.
“You two look so nice together,” Mama told Byron.
“Thank you,” Brianna said. She smiled her politician’s daughter’s smile. Practiced.
As a group, they walked to the car. Byron didn’t let go of Brianna.
Tristan could only think about Furcate, sitting on stairs outside, back to the windows, wiping at their face. It had been after Brianna had said something to them. He wasn’t sure Byron got it, despite having seen. That, or that Byron hadn’t wanted to get it. Willful ignorance.
“I hope you’re doing okay, Tristan,” Papa said, looking past Byron’s eyes. Byron dropped his eyes to the ground.
I don’t think I am.
“As soon we drop Brianna off, I’ll take you out for ice cream, Tristan,” Papa said. “We’ll talk.”
“Oh, that’s nice, do you take Byron out for ice cream?” Brianna asked.
She couldn’t help herself. She had to interfere, and she had to do it in a slimy way, acting innocent and dim-witted.
“I didn’t think Byron liked ice cream,” Papa said.
“I don’t mind it,” Byron said, timid.
“It was always a thing Tristan and I would do, after his games,” Papa said. “Byron and I, we had other things we would do.”
“Oh? What sort of things?”
“We would watch movies together while Tristan went out with Anita.”
“It’s been a while,” Byron said.
“Do you want to do something, Byron? We could make plans, if you have any ideas.”
“It’s okay,” Byron said. “It’s hard, juggling things with the team.”
“Are you sure?”
Byron shrugged. “Yeah. It’s no big.”
Brianna met Byron’s eyes. Byron shook their head slightly.
The closer they were to Brianna, to Moonsong, the more distant the rest of everything felt from Tristan.
He thought of Nate and his failure to get the asshole that had taken a chunk out of Nate, even when he was giving his all, and that distance coalesced into a wedge, driven right at the muscle of his heart.
He might as well have been physical, trapped in this darkness as Byron’s world played in slow motion beyond it.
He had to do something, because he couldn’t keep feeling this way. He’d die.
Tristan was all smiles and charm. Mr. Wall was buying into it wholesale.
A two hour session and Tristan had taken an hour and a half of it.
“…does that make any sense? I don’t… I don’t want a relationship with him, not like he wants. We’re not that compatible. But he’s one of the most important people in the world to me.”
“I think it makes a lot of sense. You don’t have many real allies.”
“I- I guess not. It stings to hear it put that bluntly.”
“You told me you wanted blunt.”
Tristan’s face stretched in a smile. White teeth showing, and when he put on a face like he was trying not to smile, it was forced, acted.
Half of this whole thing had been.
No allies? Most of the team backs you. Dad backs you. Mom backs you. People we know forget I even exist, like Aunt Diane.
“I guess I did,” Tristan admitted.
“Is there a way to communicate that he’s important to you?”
“If you have any suggestions on how to do that without giving him the wrong signals, I’m all ears.”
“I guess that would be hard, huh?”
“Oh yeah,” Tristan said. “He’s the only other gay guy I’ve met, you know. I mean, there’s Long John, but… I don’t think I could have a conversation with Long John. I don’t have mentors, I don’t have peers. Just… one really cool, smart-as-shit guy who doesn’t deserve to have me and my situation inflicted on him.”
“I think we should talk about that. Why ‘inflict‘?”
“Because I’m thickheaded. Because I’m not there half the time. I’m… not allowed to even pretend that I could do something with him that isn’t kissing. It had to be hammered out as a strict rule.”
Because the only thing that stopped you that night was Nate.
“I talked to Mr. Vaughn about that. I thought it was good of you to strike that compromise, Tristan.”
“It kills me. It wasn’t a compromise. It was me losing the ability to even daydream about something I think about every morning and every night. Being with a guy.”
You can daydream, just like I daydream about Moonsong.
“The rule being in place makes it impossible to even hope or daydream about it.”
Not a question, but a statement.
Byron felt Tristan’s head jerk in a firm nod.
“I don’t know if this computes, maybe I’m just fucked up-“
“Yes?” Mr. Wall asked. A question, not a statement.
“It’s like, I had it in my head, Nate was just so neat, and I wanted to do something for him, right?”
“And if I couldn’t put his dick in my mouth, then maybe I could show up by his hospital bed, and I’m still sweaty and satisfied with myself and Nate is pleased. Except it’d be because I personally kicked that asshole Paris’ ass, caved in his face, and made sure he ended up in Federal prison.”
Violence as a facsimile for a blowjob, Tristan? Nooo. Not fucked up at all.
“Have you seen him? In the hospital?”
Tristan shook his head. “I had it in my head that if I could kick Paris’ ass, I could go see him and be proud, be okay. As it is, it’s-”
Tristan clenched his fist.
“It sounds to me like you’re dealing with a lot of pent up frustration,” Mr. Wall said, but he said it with a smile.
Tristan smiled back. “I haven’t manhandled the ham candle in the last year, Mr. Wall. I’m fifteen. Frustration is putting it lightly.”
“No compromise there?”
“Byron says no, and whatever he thinks I was going to do that night with Nate… I’m not going to do that to him. I think I knew Nate was going to say no. I just needed to be able to pretend.”
“What if he hadn’t?”
“Then I would have stopped, asked for his forgiveness for leaving him with blue balls- easier if I’m already on my knees, and I would have explained our situation.”
I was there, and I don’t believe you.
“I believe you,” Mr Wall said. The man pulled his sleeve back to check his watch. It had a Team Reach logo on the face. “There isn’t long left in the session, but if it’s okay, I’d like to have a short conversation with Byron?”
Let me guess. Can you compromise? Tristan this. Tristan that. You’ve already been charmed by him, I don’t have a shot.
Tristan allowed Byron to have control. Byron shifted his position, fixed his pants where they bunched up beneath his ass.
“Hi Byron,” Mr. Wall said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Hi,” Byron replied. He placed his hands on his knees, sitting back, and he braced for it.
“Let’s talk about what Tristan is trying to express,” Mr. Wall said.
Guess correct, Byron thought.
As the remaining fifteen minutes of the session continued, the guess was reaffirmed and then some.
“Byron, I really don’t want to end up in a position where I’m mediating the disputes between you two. Especially when those disputes involve your off time.”
“I don’t want this either, Mr. Vaughn,” Byron said. “But what am I supposed to do?”
“Have you tried talking to Tristan?”
“Every day since we could form partial sentences. I’ve come out with one win. One case where we disagreed and I got what I wanted or needed.”
Sounds about right. That’s your fault, not mine.
“Have you tried talking to him about this?” Mr. Vaughn sounded exasperated.
“I told him it wasn’t cool, it was dangerous. He shut me out. No response.”
“Tristan?” Mr. Vaughn asked. He did the ‘change’ gesture.
Tristan took the driver’s seat, felt his body take shape from the blur, felt the lurch of his heart starting after a long period of dark stasis.
“What’s your take on this?” Mr. Vaughn asked.
“It was a group of people we trust. Kay and Alison were there. So was Reconciliation from Haven.”
“Yes,” Tristan said, even as he thought snitch, he willed Byron to hear the thought with all of the emotion he put into it.
“Underage drinking isn’t great, Tristan.”
“Yes, I know,” Tristan said. He drew in a breath. “It’s how I cut loose, Mr. Vaughn. I know Byron painted this as being a bad thing, but… it wasn’t that bad.”
“You slapped someone’s ass?”
“Yes,” Tristan said. He let out a huff of a laugh, trying to lose some of the tension that was building up in his chest. “It really wasn’t a big deal.”
“It was a guy’s ass?”
“I don’t see how that matters,” Tristan said. Byron wasn’t vague enough. Mr. Vaughn isn’t stupid. He can draw connections.
“Okay,” Mr. Vaughn said. “Doesn’t matter, then. But you passed out, Tristan.”
“In a safe place with friends close by.”
“You passed out in a strange place. I know Kay and you are close, but Kay has their issues. Alison is a damn good cape, but she isn’t someone I would trust my daughter to, if my daughter was out drinking. Alison works damn hard and parties damn hard.”
“Some of those other friends you mention were from other teams. It’s not impossible that they’d want to see Reach come down a peg, especially with our recent ratings.”
“Tristan- okay. But… I think Byron’s right. This sounds more negative than positive. One photo from one bystander, head and face cropped out, matched to your selfless shots, and we have an issue. Potentially a legal issue, or one with the Youth Guard.”
Tristan felt a tightness in his chest. He wondered if Byron felt it too.
“No more drinking, Tristan. Not in excess. Have a beer with your friends if you must, but nothing like last night.”
That tightness became anger, impulse. “That’s- you can’t tell me that. You said before, it’s outside of work hours.”
Tristan brought his hand down on the desk, rising out of his seat. There was a tremor in his voice as he voiced his response. “No.”
“You drinking in moderation seems like a pretty decent compromise.”
“You can’t tell me what I can or can’t do outside of office hours. I’m a damn good cape, Mr. Vaughn. I earn for you.”
“You do. The fact that I’m letting the drinking slide should count for something.”
“I’m just trying to deal.”
“So am I. I’m trying to do what is best for Reach, and I’m offering you a compromise. Moderation. Please don’t fight me on this, Tristan.”
“What if I do?” Tristan asked.
“If you do, then I would have to talk to the staff about the possibility of having some random drug and alcohol testing for the team.”
Tristan slumped into his seat. He sat forward, elbows on his knees, head bowed.
“I don’t have much,” Tristan said.
“Would you consider talking to Mr. Wall about getting to a place where you have more? He’s very good.”
“I’m already talking to him,” Tristan said, around a lump in his throat.
“That’s good,” Mr. Vaughn said.
Tristan shook his head.
Well played, little brother. I guess you win another, with the tactics you learned from Moonsong.
“Do we have a mutual understanding, Tristan?”
Tristan nodded, quickly.
No passion, no wild abandon, no freedom, no time, and less and less fun. No life.
What was left?
He reached for an answer to that question, and a sizable part of him died when he couldn’t find much of anything.
When he opened his mouth to speak, it was more a fish gulping for air than anything else. He swallowed the failed attempt at drawing in breath, getting it past the lump in his throat.
“Please tell me we have some news on that asshole Paris.”
“We don’t, but you’ll be the first to know the moment something crosses my desk.”
“Please,” Tristan said. He raised himself to a standing position. He walked over to the door, and found himself unsure if he’d said it loud enough to be clear. More firmly, he told Mr. Vaughn, “Please.”
“Round fucking two,” Tristan said. He sounded so normal for someone who had had so much trouble sleeping the night before. “Furcate’s back in fighting shape-”
Furcate punched one gauntlet into the other. Chains jangled.
“And we’ve talked tactics. We’ve learned a lot, these past couple of months. Gear upgraded.”
“My second best suit is revved up and ready to go,” Steamwheel said.
“It’s really him?” Coiffure asked.
“It’s really him,” Tristan said.
“How’d you find him?”
“I…” Tristan trailed off. “I found him online, and I tricked him.”
You obsessed, you created an online persona, a convincing one, and you convinced him you wanted to hire him.
“Kickass,” Figurehead said. “I’m worried I’m not going to be useful.”
“There’s a chance he has backup. Just focus on the backup, support us where you can. If you can get a clear scan on him and go in for the critical hit, that’s great.”
Figurehead nodded. “If he has backup, though, and we couldn’t deal with him alone last time-”
“Last time was my fault,” Tristan said. “I was too caught up in doing it myself. Teamwork will make up the difference.”
“I hope you’re right,” Moonsong said.
“I’m right,” Tristan said. “I’m always right.”
Nobody disagreed with him, beyond a roll of the eyes from Moonsong, and it bothered Byron more than he cared to admit.
“We corner him, and we don’t let up the pressure. We’ve drilled on this.”
Tristan put out his gauntlet. Other people tapped gloves and gauntlets to it, with Steamwheel going low, putting her power armor’s fist beneath the group’s huddle.
The group split up, everyone finding their positions. The decoy car was black, parked in the middle of a concrete dock. Shipping containers surrounded the dock, and provided hiding spots for the rest of the team.
“Switch up rapidly,” Tristan murmured. “Like you’ve been talking about, like we did in drills. I want this asshole off balance.”
Tristan passed control.
“Yeah,” Byron responded. Then he passed control back.
Like a handshake.
“But please-” Tristan started. He paused, looking over at other members of the team who were getting into position. “Let me finish him. So I can tell Nate I did.”
Control was passed. Byron couldn’t bring himself to nod right away.
But he did nod, in the end.
“And if you’re going to hesitate like that, then just swap,” Tristan said, the moment he had control again. He fixed his helmet’s position. He didn’t extend control back to get a response to that statement.
It had almost been cool, Byron observed. This had almost been the way it should be.
Paris’ car made its way past shipping containers and to the dock. It stopped nearly a hundred feet away from the parked car. Doors opened, and Paris climbed out of the back, almost unfolding as he stood straight, because he was so tall that even a spacious backseat required some contortion. Tristan looked at the guy’s muscles, at the quality and condition of his costume. It had been updated since their last excursion.
The people in Paris’ car looked like ordinary staff for some rich guy. A chauffeur, with sunglasses and an earpiece, and a woman with a similar outfit of black suit, sunglasses, and earpiece.
The reality was that Paris just wasn’t around that much. He was a mercenary, an admittedly capable mercenary, and that meant he got work. When he came back, it was because this was home.
For whatever reason, coming home also meant attacking certain, specific people.
Tristan drew a spike in the air. As Paris paced around the car in his languid way, Tristan let it fall.
The wind impacted the spike’s course slightly, made the point veer so it no longer pointed straight down. It pierced the engine block with a crash that saw Paris and his staff practically fall to the ground. The back half of the sleek, professional car practically leaped up off the ground. Moonsong caught it with her power, and the residual impact of the hit saw the car fly up, spinning end over end, practically weightless.
Credit to Tristan that a professional like this fell for this.
But falling for it wasn’t as good as things being said and done.
Tristan passed control. Byron began drawing out his circle. He left it unfinished, in a way that tended to make his work unreliable in consistency. In this moment, he was pretty sure he could trust it.
The lines and dots solidified. There was a splash of water, but it was minor. The primary focus of his power taking effect was now ice. The area around the car was now an ice rink.
Immediately, Paris’ darts were thrown around that ice rink, dissolving it.
Still, it kept Paris from running for it. He could maintain his footing, turning around to look for attackers, but running for safety required more traction.
Where darts disintegrated ice, cracks spread between impact points. Paris used the cracks, running so that one foot was directly in front of the other, each footfall carefully settled on safe ground within the crack.
Steamwheel charged in, wheel spinning, steam venting, feet pounding with so much force that broken ice bounced up five feet with each footfall.
Paris leaped, feet going forward, like he intended to slide on the ice, arm going back as he planned to throw.
Byron passed control to Tristan. Ice became stone. Low traction became high traction. Paris went from a slide to a roll, a tumble.
Steamwheel vented steam after Paris, a heavy plume extending forward. Camouflage systems on her suit shifted tints and shadows, making her blend into the steam clouds.
Paris rolled, found his orientation, and sprung to his feet- springing too high as Moonsong caught him. A moment later, as he was still moving through the air, she brought her hand down hard. Low gravity became high. Paris fell in an awkward way once again.
And, barely taking any time to recover, he switched to the offensive. More needles were thrown, and the needles he’d set on ice were creating a storm of hail and rock shards. He barely seemed to care as they came down on his own head, but it impacted the others.
Figurehead apparently had a read, because he went after the driver, who had backed off, and the black woman in the suit.
When Figurehead could use his power, he was an action movie star in a movie with great choreography. Every strike was predicted, countered. Every step was a weak point. The woman reaching for a weapon saw Figurehead getting his hands on the weapon first, using the butt-end of a pistol to rap the chauffeur across the knuckles as the man threw a punch.
Coiffure lashed out. Her hair was longer, this time, her weapons that she’d woven into her hair now tailored for ranged strikes. Whips and chains. When Steamwheel wasn’t in close, Coiffure was lashing out, forcing Paris to dance. Tribute was focused on Coiffure. He would switch to the next person as soon as they took focus.
Paris began throwing darts at Coiffure. Steamwheel put on the pressure, this time, stepping from the cloud of steam to attack Paris from behind-
A feint. He was expecting her, and needles went to Steamwheel’s elbows and knees. She reacted by hunkering down, her wheel spinning, and producing vast quantities of steam. The steam was hot, hot enough that Coiffure had to back off, and Paris had to hunker down.
Moonsong hit him again. Furcate leaped down from a shipping container, splitting as they landed, and Tristan marched forward, leveling a glare at Paris.
We’re on a dock. If he goes for the water, I’m the answer for that.
Somewhere along the line, the choking gas had become water, and then the water had become ice. Where Tristan seemed static, remaining with solids with only slight nuance, Byron had evolved.
Byron liked to think it represented some growth within himself. Finding Brianna. Finding assertiveness.
Paris used his darts to create localized hazards, it was how he fought. He was athletic, agile, and he knew how to fight. As he threw down darts, Byron and Tristan took turns covering up the areas where the darts spat out geysers of bullets.
As the darts started getting flung in their direction, they swapped back and forth, closing the distance, forcing Paris to retreat further. Furcate flanked, because they loved flanking. Coiffure moved out to the other side, her hair creating limbs she could move on, chains and whip noisy against the concrete of the dock.
Paris stopped being quite so conservative with the darts. He threw them out in messy ways, toward Furcate, who split into two, toward Coiffure. They were lower velocity, landing in clumps, but the resulting sprays were violent and harder to work around.
Once again, Tristan created the spike, a fist-encompassing growth of rock laced with metal veins. Once again, Byron felt his nonexistent pulse pounding out its diffuse alarm into a darkness without bounds or perspective.
Tristan broke into a run to close the distance. The sudden movement drew Paris’ attention. Needles were thrown.
Tristan swapped out for Byron. The spike broke apart into water and ice shards, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that momentum didn’t carry over one hundred percent. Byron could pivot, run another direction, then swap again.
This is what I had in mind.
Their more unpredictable movements upped the pressure on Paris. Tristan materialized, created his spike. He had to abandon it a moment later, but he was a few steps closed by the time they’d swapped and changed direction twice in five seconds.
The next time he had a turn, on impulse, almost out of a weird gratitude to his brother, Byron set up the spike for Tristan. As Tristan materialized, punching out, the spike formed around his hand.
Byron felt the smile, almost more of a grimace.
Furcate was close enough to slash at Paris, who kicked them firmly in the stomach. The other two Furcates were on him a moment later, one with spikes on chains instead of claws.
Paris backed away, then moved his hands in a new way, slow, as if drawing a blade out of his sleeve.
Not a needle or a dart. This looked more like a railroad spike.
The spike was hurled toward the ground in the midst of the Furcates. The result was a detonation, not a geyser, scattering them.
Coiffure was next. She tumbled, her hair going limp.
Tristan was silent.
Tribute fixated on Tristan. Byron could feel the strength, the increase in heart rate, and the way that cognitive processing sped up until the rest of the world seemed to move slower.
Tribute would be a sitting duck, dumb, slow, weak and fragile, so long as he was giving this kind of strength. One thrown attack like what Paris was pulling out of his sleeve would destroy Tribute.
But Tristan was slowing, changing course. He switched out to Byron, letting the spike at one hand fall away.
Byron could change direction, doing his best to add to the zig-zag, placing his feet carefully. He switched back to Tristan.
Tristan wasn’t focused on Paris.
Tristan looked at Furcate, at the Furcates, plural. When he looked back over one shoulder, he didn’t look at his teammates. It was at the ice.
Paris threw a railroad spike. Tristan ducked it, letting it detonate. Then, still in slow motion, still with some augmented power from Tribute, that power slipping away with every moment as Tribute went on the offense, Tristan charged.
Another throw from Paris, and Tristan twisted, absorbing the hit, before tumbling to the ground.
He was hurt, but he wasn’t hurt so badly he couldn’t get back up, press the attack.
What are you doing?
Tristan’s body roiled with emotion as he crouched there, head bowed. He kept a wary eye on Paris, who backed away. Tristan didn’t pursue.
The rest of the team was hurrying to catch up. The Furcates were picking themselves up. Coiffure was still down, and Tristan began to move in her direction, like he was in a daze.
“Stop,” Figurehead called out. He set a hand on Tristan’s shoulder. “Don’t move if you’re hurt.”
Tristan stopped moving. He turned to stare at Paris, who was still retreating, not turning his back on the group.
Moonsong and Tribute had caught up now. Figurehead was using his power to do diagnostics on Coiffure, which he would be bad at, since she was a known quantity. He eased her to a sitting position. She looked up at him and nodded, before wincing in pain.
Tristan remained where he was. He watched as Paris climbed a set of shipping containers, making his escape.
“What’s going on?” Moonsong asked. “What the hell happened there, Tristan? You wanted to be leader, and you’re letting him get away?”
“He hit us,” Tristan said. “Direct hit.”
“What are you talking about?” Moonsong asked. Her voice was tight, like she knew exactly what Tristan was talking about.
“We were switching out, for evasive action. Then- then Byron didn’t switch. He kept running, I-I-”
Byron could feel Tristan forcing the sound, forcing his voice to break.
“No,” Moonsong said. “No, I don’t believe you.”
“I think he wanted to throw off Paris’ expectations. When he was changing, we were more him than me, and that cannon-shot of Paris’ hit us.”
“I can’t switch to Byron anymore.”
“I think he’s dead,” Tristan lied, looking a now-anguished Moonsong in the eyes.