Gleaming – 9.15

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We had enemies here.  We had put Monokeros in an extended time out, and there was nothing saying that any of our enemies here could decide to do the same thing to us, or worse.  There were Fallen, tertiary members of Prancer’s group, old Birdcage villains like Monokeros who could be a danger to anyone, and any number of ex-prisoners who might have unkind views when it came to heroes.

The rain wasn’t as intense or driving as it had been before, but it was still a factor, still freezing most things.  Prisoners were using forcefields to shield themselves, because they didn’t have jackets, and the prison uniforms, while warm, weren’t outdoor clothes.  The ground was hard with frost and ice, except for where the passage of dozens of feet warmed it and turned it into mud.

I glanced at Goddess’ makeshift platform.  The portal that led from Gimel to the interim world had been set on a hill with some lesser structures on it, the land leveled out.  The platform was a large rock that had been cleaved in half, forming a flat sheet of rock with a crisp edge that would dull with a few more winters and rainy seasons.  I could see the top half in pieces further down the slope, now serving as seats or perches for various capes in Goddess’ battle line.  The rain traced a loose fractal pattern as it wicked off of Goddess’ bubble of telekinesis.

On that platform, beside Goddess, I spotted Amy, and I immediately looked away.  On the train with Tristan and Ashley, weeks ago, I’d seen Presley out of the corner of my eye and it had reminded me of Amy.  That had been enough to fuck with my mood and my head.  Now she was here for real, not for the first time tonight.

In the corner of my eye.

Keeping her in the back of my mind weighed on me.  Keeping her out of mind meant I was unpleasantly surprised when she came up.  I could rationalize and reassure myself, and those reassurances about her character and the girl I’d grown up with fell to pieces when I thought about how she had repeatedly breached my boundaries.  When she’d used her power on me in the first place – if only that, I could have maybe forgiven.  When she’d used it on me a second time, following my explicit no, because I’d been scared and I’d been dissolving alive?  When she had repeatedly, constantly showed up despite my express wishes?

There was a kind of fear where the heart raced.  There was anticipatory fear where the heart pounded, a singular body-jarring thud at what felt like a slower rate, though it wasn’t.

My chest felt as though everything had seized up, and I couldn’t feel my own heartbeat in my own chest.

Enemies.  Thinking about enemies was easier than thinking about… whatever Amy was.

Lung stood at the furthest end of the makeshift stage from Goddess, tattooed arms folded.  Someone had picked up his mask for him, and he now wore it.  The metal had dark mud still caked in some of the creases. and from the angle of his head, he was watching me with eyes that still glowed.  He didn’t look pleased with his immediate company, which included Seir, and he didn’t look pleased with me, either.

To wait, take a detour, get medical care, or go straight to Goddess?

Straight to Goddess meant getting past the Fallen, and ‘past the Fallen’ could never be a thing that occurred without incident.

Straight to Lung, angry as he was.

Straight to Goddess, who we would have to tell about Monokeros.

Straight to Cryptid, who wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Straight to Amy, who stood at the edge of that stage, lurking in the corner of my eye, not looking at me.  Going out of her way not to look at me.  That didn’t make it better.

Crystalclear’s voice interrupted my thoughts.  I’d forgotten I was with the group.  “I’m going to go see if they’ll let me talk to Ratcatcher.  I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”

“Or a crystal.  Keeping a crystal on her,” Lookout said.

Crystalclear smiled.  “Yeah, I guess.  Can you keep an eye out for Fume Hood, Antares?”

“I will,” I said.  I floated a little higher, so I could see over just a few more heads in the crowd.

Crystalclear jogged off, costume boots tromping in the mud and the puddles that had formed on frozen dirt.

“I miss my gear already,” Lookout said.  “I feel blind.  I can’t believe I didn’t get any readings from him.”

Blind was right.  It was still dark, even with the light of powers and the lanterns and freestanding lights that had been brought over from the prison.  The storm above didn’t make it any better, diffusing the glow of all of the electric lighting.

“What’s broken?” Rain asked.

“Everything’s a little broken, or it’s moist.  Half of it won’t work at all, diagnostics and reboots aren’t helping, and the other half doesn’t work well anymore.  Water between lenses, balances and tolerances are off, uuugh.  My phone doesn’t work, my flash gun is a fifty-fifty about if it’s gonna work, and my other stuff is on the blink, cutting out.”

“I know the feeling.  I miss my body,” Sveta said.

“Oh, gosh, sorry!  Here I am complaining, and-”

“It’s okay.  It’s fine,” Sveta said.  There was a smile on her face, and her voice was light.  “Complain all you want.”

“You’ll fix it,” Swansong said.  “You’ll both be fine.”

I turned to face the group and observe, glad to have my back to the stage.  Freezing rain pattered on my hood.

Lookout shook her head.  “I’ll fix some of it!  Some.  Some is broken forever.  The broken-forever stuff is like my easier, cheaper work, like my mask, and less cheap stuff like my projector disc, but still, that’s a lot of work, and I don’t have my regular workshop anymore, so it’s harder to find the time and get stuff done.”

“You might have a workshop where we end up,” Rain said.  “We don’t know where we’re going from here.  Maybe we all end up with a small country to run.”

“That caught your attention, huh?” I asked.

“I-” he started.  “I’ve kind of always fantasized about having a place of my own.  Even my fantasies don’t ever get nearly that big, but it’s easier to imagine because I’ve imagined smaller scale versions of it.  Give me a cabin or a quaint house with a good size backyard and I’ll be content.”

Standards, Rain,” Swansong said.  “Think mansion or tower.  You need room for servants.”

“Uh,” Rain said.

“Cute young men in elegant black uniforms who run to obey when you snap your fingers,” Damsel said.  Two claws clacked together.

“And young women,” Swansong said.

Damsel arched an eyebrow, “You think so?  Are you more worldly now, or is this a strategy?  Distracting male visitors?”

Swansong shook her head.  “We’re talking about Rain.  Rain would want women, I imagine.”

“You say imagine, but I cannot imagine Rain in a manor with maids,” Byron said.  “Sorry, Rain.”

“No.  I’m grateful you pay enough attention to know I’m not a maid guy, if anything.”

“It would be maids and a singular manservant.  A Jeeves type, if you will,” Swansong said.  “If you’re to go that route-”

“I’m really not going to.”

“-it’s a good idea to have a same-sex servant who has the right sensibilities when it comes to your hygiene, fashion, and other needs.”

“I don’t want any servants at all.  I’m saying my standards are perfectly good where they are.  A house just big enough for me.  A whole country is an interesting thought exercise, but if Goddess wanted me to run a country, I’d still lean toward having a small house, and no servants.  Servants rub me the wrong way, after some of what I saw growing up.”

Swansong made a disappointed ‘tsk’ sound.

“Um, so, hm… you wouldn’t want a Jeeves, that makes sense,” Lookout said, before her tone of voice changed to a maximum unsubtle, “What about an- um, a you-know-who?  Wouldn’t you want room for at least one more person in your cabin?  Even as a maybe?”

“You-know-who and I haven’t talked enough lately,” Rain said.  He paused.  “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really imagined myself having both a house and someone I really care about as part of the same scene.  Well, once, but… that was special circumstances, and it wasn’t a happy sort of special.”

“Now I’m curious.” Byron said.

“I’ll tell you and Tristan later, I guess.  Anyhow, I wonder if it’s because it felt like even that was asking too much.”

“Set your standards as high as you can,” Swansong said, while Damsel nodded beside her.  “Then live up to them.”

“If I set my expectations low, then me being in prison is tolerable.  Things sucked before, and the only thing I wanted was out.  I got what I wanted and I’m happy about that.  I am- was actually genuinely reasonably okay with being here.”

“And now we’re free,” Swansong said.  She looked around.  “Or something.”

Something.

They were talking about future and dreams, and all I could think about was the uncertainty before us.

Either the Chris thing was all in my head, or they hadn’t been looking at the right times to see it.

“We need to get through this first,” Sveta said.

Thank you, Sveta, for saying it.

She went on, “Look at Goddess.  She’s tense.  Teacher isn’t done, and we still have enemies out there.”

“We have enemies in here,” I said, my voice quieter.  “And that’s something we need to be careful of.”

Rain looked over his shoulders.  Lung’s end of the stage was closest to us, and the Fallen were closest to Lung.  They didn’t have much of a ‘tribe’, exactly- the other gangs that they’d roped into their circle to defend against the good guys were too low-level to contribute much to the prison population.  Dealers and bikers.  It meant that they were mostly limited to a gathering of ex-Teacher followers.

“I don’t think they’ll start anything.  You’ve gotta have balls and be stupid to pick a fight when the rest of the crowd could come after you, or if Goddess could get upset.  Shitty as he is, I don’t think Seir is that stupid and that brave.”

The Fallen weren’t my only concern.  I looked at Cryptid, who was still transforming.  More feathers now.  It was a form that looked pretty much exactly like his earlier shape.  The twisted-up wingless bird with the hooked beak, and a neck that looked broken, head dangling.  The point of the beak grazed skin where feathers were pushing through, more spearlike than featherlike as they were slick with moisture, and where the beak grazed, it left a line of oozing blood.

“What’s Cryptid’s form there?” I asked.

“No idea,” Sveta answered me.  Others shook their heads.

“He likes birds for the grieving-sad-pensive-thinking realm of things,” Lookout said.

“I’ve never seen him change,” Rain said, observing.  “And he’s changed a few times today.  Twice earlier in the day, before anything even happened, then to this bird form, he changed later towhatever he was just a few minutes ago, with the ridge of cysts… and now back to this?  Did he-”

Rain stopped mid-question, looking at me.

“Did he get help from Amy?” I asked.  The word sounded wrong in my mouth.  “Panacea?  I don’t know.”

“He might hurt tomorrow,” Byron said.

“Maybe,” I agreed.  It might have sounded callous to say it out loud, but the pain he’d suffer tomorrow was the least of my concerns.  Every time I looked his way, I was trying to find some eye contact, some signal, anything that would suggest he was working with the group.  I felt like I was seeing the opposite dynamic at play.

I saw him limp up behind Amy, the head swung like a pendulum, and he had to catch it with a talon-hand to keep it from hitting Amy.  Amy said something to him.

My skin crawled.

“Lookout,” I said.

“Yes?”

“I know you hate being left behind, but-”

“No,” she said.

“It would make it easier to gloss over the Monokeros thing if you were with Natalie and not front-and-center in front of Goddess,” I said.  Not my only reason.

“No,” she said.  “I don’t want to split up.”

“Even if staying with the group in the short term means Goddess might get worried again, assigning you another babysitter?”

“Even if,” Lookout said.

I found myself a bit at a loss for words.  I could argue logic, but this wasn’t borne of logic.

My issue wasn’t borne of logic either.  Half of the reason I wanted Lookout to hang back was because I didn’t like how Cryptid was acting.  If he was in a bad place, if he was thinking about hurting himself to try and do something, or if he really wasn’t part of Breakthrough anymore, then I didn’t want Lookout in the midst of it.

“She should come,” Sveta said.

“It’s best if we stay together,” Lookout said, sounding solemn and sincere.  “But thank you for thinking about me.”

“Can I call in a favor?” I asked.  I made a rectangle with my index fingers and thumbs.  “Or use the it’s complicated card?  Let me do this, let me explain later?  I have a gut feeling about this.”

“I have a heart feeling about this,” Lookout said, stubborn.

It couldn’t be easy.

“Antares,” Swansong said.  “She stood up to Monokeros.  She’s strong.”

“I know.  I’m not disputing that.”

“She stood up to Monokeros because she’s worked really hard with dealing with obsessive and overwhelming feelings,” Swansong said, her voice quiet.  “And because she really wants to stay with the group.  She wants the group together.”

I bit my tongue.

I looked over my shoulder at Chris.  He still stood by Amy, growing taller and taller, the feathers filling in the space to the point that barely any skin showed, and the skin that did show had large goosebump-like growths on it that indicated the feathers pushing through.

Amy had her tattooed hands clasped in front of her, Dot on her shoulder.  Amy’s hood had been pulled up and to the side, used by Dot for warmth.  Goddess’ power kept them protected from the rain.

The group being together or not together was the problem.

“Stay close to Swansong and Damsel.  Keep that emotional training in mind.  This might be a tough situation.”

“Got it,” Lookout said.

I nodded to myself.

Fuck.

I ran fingers through my hair to fix it, then adjusted my grip on Sveta’s prosthetic body to ensure it sat squarely on my shoulder.

Of course the Fallen stepped into our way.

“Rain-man,” Seir drawled the words.  “We were talking about you.  I’m hurt you didn’t come say hi earlier.”

“Yeah, well, didn’t see the point,” Rain said.

“Respect is the point, Rain-man,” Seir replied.  “We’re not people you want as enemies.”

“I don’t want the Fallen as friends either,” Rain said.  “The respect thing is already decided.  You don’t deserve any.”

The heavyset man smirked.

“We have business with Goddess,” I said, before Seir could answer.  It was, in a passive way, my way of backing Rain up.  More voices in the conversation made it hard to retort, to cut Rain down, and I wasn’t sure Rain was the best guy when it came to wordplay and coming off as intimidating with words alone.

“The lady says she doesn’t want any hassle.  If we let just anyone up there, then everyone’s going to want to come by, say how they can be useful, try to elbow their way in.”

“It’s important,” I said, “And it won’t take long.”

It was Tristan who added his voice to mine.  “Refuse us access and you can be the one to explain why she didn’t get the information she needed.”

When had they switched?

“The drowned rat in gold armor can fly, can’t she?  She goes alone.”

Me?  I could, but-

“We’re sticking together, Seir,” I said.  “I don’t think you were even assigned this job.  You’re trying to make yourself important, pretending to be a gatekeeper.”

“Do you really want to test me, little girl?” he asked.  He locked eyes with me.  “Rain-man, you should tell these ignorant fools to think twice about what they’re doing.”

“Why would I do that, Tim?”

“Because, Rain, you’d better believe we know where your slut friend lives.”

Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder, as if to stop him from advancing.  Rain wasn’t quite the type to charge forward to swing a punch, though.

“Some expert advice for ya.  If you have one person you want to keep in line, Rain, then it doesn’t work if you hit ’em, take a belt to ’em, stick their head in a water barrel.  Takes forever.  But if you get them as a pair, sisters, mother daughter, man and his wife, boy and the girl that will forever be too good for his useless self, it’s easy.  Tell the first one that if they don’t listen you’ll hit the second.  Tell the second that if they don’t listen, you’ll hurt the first.  Takes no time at all to break the both of them.”

“I think the fact that you have to do that makes you all look pretty fucking pathetic, Seir,” Rain said.

“You call me pathetic, I call you the same thing,” Seir said, and his voice was a growl.  “Difference between us is that in a matter of hours, you’re going to be on your knees, sniveling and begging for us to stop hurting the girl.  Could be that you’re there, could be that you’re on the phone.  I won’t even ask, and you’ll still be begging to take back any insult you said about me.  That’s how that is.  And the other way around?  There is nothing you can say or do that will change my mind about how shit you are.”

His words were followed up by some shuffling movements and chuckles from the four or five Fallen and assorted others that were keeping him company.

Rain started forward.  Tristan’s hand was still at his shoulder, and it might have been what stopped him from doing something regrettable.  Tristan became Byron, and Byron leaned in to say something to Rain.

“Can I shoot him?” Lookout asked.

“No,” I said.

“Can I?” Damsel asked.

I thought about it for a second.  “No.”

“What’s going on here, now?”

Another person joining the conversation, with a retinue at their backs.  Coalbelcher.  He’d found clothes, and now wore a heavy jacket with a hood, zipped up all the way, a ball cap and jeans.  I had no idea how he’d found anything that fit him, but he’d managed.  A bit of black drool extended from the corner of his mouth to his chin.  He was of a similar frame to Seir, but a little more put together, now.

Family,” Seir said it like it was an epithet.  “A boy not respecting his betters.”

I saw Coalbelcher’s eyes.  He was crude in dress, in speaking style, and in apparent intent, but there was calculation going on there, as he assessed the situation here.  He hadn’t earned his position as top man on the guy’s side of the prison by pure luck.

“Tell you what, Tim,” Coalbelcher said.  “Let me talk to ’em.  Consider it a stipulation.”

“Stipulation?” Rain asked.

“We still don’t know what’s happening next,” Coalbelcher said, “But they need to shore up numbers, and then there’s me and my people, all without a place to go.”

“You’re joining them,” I said.

“Maybe.  Depends.  If our empress there is giving us each a territory of our own, doesn’t make sense to.  But if she’s grouping us together, could be we join in.  Work with.”

“Bad idea,” Rain said.

“We can hold our own,” Coalbelcher said.  “But I won’t be lowest of the low.  I go in as an equal, and I bring six powered boys from the prison and one powered son with me, in exchange.”

“You want to be a brother of the family so you can tell me to back off and let you talk to these pukes?” Seir asked.  “Seems like a waste.”

“Sure, it’s fine,” Coalbelcher said.  “We have a pre-existing relationship.”

Seir shrugged.  He gave one of his guys a push on the shoulder, and they walked off.  They were still close enough to get in our way if they wanted, not necessarily in earshot.

“You kind of disappointed me, Coal,” I said.

Disappointed?  Must be we got our wires crossed.”

His higher voice had a wry, mocking tone as a baseline, as if everything he said was sarcastic.  It was hard to tell if he was serious about the wires getting crossed.

“Maybe I was too subtle,” I said.

“You said you wanted me to do for her what you did for me.”

“And?” I asked.

“And you got me out.  Or close enough.  Now I’m really out, I’m bristling for a fight.  It’s all good.  Won’t deny that.  Did I misinterpret your intent?”

“No.  You read that right.  Except she’s still there, with the other civilians.  You didn’t get her out.”

“Natalie?” Lookout asked.  She looked up at me, head craning back.

I nodded.

On the stage above, Goddess was walking toward us.  Half of her attention was on the horizon.

“I let her go.  She got away for a bit.  Then they caught her.  I can’t keep letting her-”

He stopped as Goddess came within earshot.  All voices in the vicinity stopped outright or went quiet.  Even the rain was silent, bouncing off of the telekinesis.

Amy stood at the other end of the stage, framed by Cryptid’s black feathers, his rear legs to her left, one of his front legs planted on the ground to her right, head dangling so that his beak was near her elbow.

Couldn’t get rid of her.

“I can’t seem to be rid of you,” Goddess said.

The weird alignment of thoughts threw me for a momentary mental loop.  “Sorry?”

“This meeting,” Goddess said, indicating Coalbelcher and the rest of us with an extended finger- Seir fucked off just enough that he was too far away to be included in the group.  “Two groups that concern me.  Where the fuck is Monokeros?”

She wasn’t just tense.  She was pissed and tense.

“She pulled a knife on Lookout.  It was over the top and unwarranted,” I told her.  “We put her in time out.  Two of Teacher’s thralls are in there with her, Blindside and Kingdom Come.  You should get them, carefully, and get Monokeros if you absolutely have to, but I really recommend keeping her there.”

“I will be retrieving her, but it’ll have to wait, there are other concerns,” Goddess said.  “My danger sense is emanating from your group, from you in particular.  It’s identifying Coalbelcher and his group in a similar way.  Tell me why.”

“I don’t know why,” I told her.

“We may just be those types of people,” Sveta said, her voice slightly muffled.  “A little closer to being dangerous than average.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Lookout asked Goddess.  “You know, if you give me a computer, I can gather information, or I can pull up records on people you have here, see if we can find the right tool in the toolbox for your particular problems.”

“You’re among my problems, according to my danger sense,” Goddess said, her voice hard.  “Teacher has more coming.  Not an army this time, but a trap.”

“Mama Mathers?” Rain asked.

“Yes.  I won’t put my hand into that bear trap.  We meet strength with subtlety and subtlety with strength.  Coalbelcher?  I’ll have you as part of the army that sweeps over that part of the city.  Destroy everything, and destroy her with it.”

“I can do that.”

“Work with Seir and Knock Knock.  Keep them in line.  Do this and I’ll reward you.”

“I’ll get everyone organized.”

“Be ready to move quickly.  The Wardens may choose that time to attack.  Once we know she’s gone, you’ll fold back, and catch the Wardens by the rear.  Immobilize, don’t kill.”

“I’m not much of a killer,” Coalbelcher said.  “I’m not much of an immobilizer either.”

“If you can’t do it, I’ll ask someone else.”

“I can do it.  Let me find people.  I think I know someone who can move large groups.”

“I assigned one to Knock Knock,” Goddess said.  “City Slicker.”

“That’s the one I was thinking of.  We’ll get it done,” Coalbelcher said.

Goddess didn’t respond, didn’t change in expression, or move her head or hands.  She stared at Coalbelcher, and he shifted his weight a little, before raising his heavy chin, emulating a soldier standing at attention, if a soldier could be of the greasy, drooling-black, baseball cap sort.

“You have a choice, Coalbelcher.  My power is telling me there’s something about you that I should be wary of.”

“I have no idea what you mean.  You’re promising power, fame, fortune, a territory of my own, and a slice of normal pie after two years of living in this shithole we slapped together here?  I’m all about that.  I’m yours, I’m loyal.”

“Perhaps,” she said.  She turned her head, found someone, and indicated for them to come.

It was Crock o’ Shit.  The lie-detector.  The tattoos of scales on her arms were standing out slightly in relief.

“Say it again.  That you’re loyal, and that I don’t need to worry about you.”

“I’m loyal.  You don’t need to worry about me.”

Crock o’ Shit nodded.  “He’s fine.”

“He doesn’t feel fine,” Goddess said.  “If something happens, Coalbelcher, if something occurs to you, a thought that you haven’t fully formed, a memory that surfaces, an idea you’re not quite ready to have yet, consider it very carefully.  It may matter more than you think, and your entire fate hinges on the decision you make.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied, his voice nasally.  He horked up something and spat it off to the side.  The spit was like a gunshot, silent but bullet-quick and violent, with a chunky black splatter that smoked visibly.  His voice was slightly less nasal as he finished, “I’ll think carefully.”

She dismissed Coalbelcher with a sweep of the hand.

“I’m in alignment,” I said.  “We all are, in Breakthrough, Natalie excepted.”

“Natalie?”

“Our lawyer, the civilian.”

She looked mildly annoyed that Natalie had even been brought up in that context.  She glanced at Crock.

“They’re fine,” Crock o’ Shit said.

“They feel like an ambient danger,” Goddess said.  “Stay where I can see you, Breakthrough.”

“You should know, we disabled the ankle-bombs,” I said.  “Your army should be safe.”

“Mm,” Goddess made a noise, not even a full word.  I could see a sheen of sweat, where hair was sticking to her head near her temple.  More sweat shone at the back of her neck.

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked.

“This was easier the first time,” Goddess said.  “A decision I made as a teenager, to take over, solve all of the problems.  Eternal youth, through my cocoon man, beauty, endless wealth and power.  It was fine.”

“It sounds great,” Lookout said.

“Then it was all taken away.  Each and every one of my enemies expects me to take it back, which forces me to do just that, because a third of them would eliminate me, a third would enslave me to use me, and another third would castrate me and take… everything vital to me.  All of my power.  That castration wouldn’t guarantee I’m saved from the first two groups.”

We were silent.

“I feel it.  My danger sense makes me aware of the proportions, and how close they each loom.”

“Do you want a hug?” Lookout asked.

“I want my enemies crushed and gone,” Goddess said.  “Be ready to assist in the fighting if they get this far.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“The Wardens will strike in a matter of minutes.  They’re partially protected from me, so timing will be critical.  Teacher will also time his attack, delivering the Mathers woman, in the hopes I stick my hand into the trap.  Be ready.  Maybe you could die in the fighting and simplify things.”

“If it helps, then sure!” Lookout said.

“I’d rather not,” I said, putting a hand on Lookout’s shoulder.

“I was joking,” Lookout said.

“Mm,” Goddess said.  She fixed her hair and her collar- I wasn’t sure why, since she could look like anything and nobody here would mind, and then she lifted herself off the ground.

Wardens inbound.

“I hope it’s not Weld with the Wardens,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” Sveta replied, voice soft.

“Or Vista, or Miss Militia… or anyone,” I said.  I grit my teeth.  “Are you guys ready?”

“I don’t have stuff,” Lookout said.  “Maybe if there’s a computer somewhere nearby, I can track things in the city, or do a quick repair of my phone.”

“We’ll check inside,” I said.  “Capricorn, Rain, Swansong, Damsel, you guys handle the front line?”

“Leave me Sveta and the prosthetic body?  I’ll see what I can do to get things working,” Rain said.

“Please,” Sveta said.

“No promises,” Rain said.

“So after I made a big deal about not wanting to split up, we’re splitting up?” Lookout asked.

I frowned.

“Sorry to be needy,” she said.  “I just, you know, heh, I’m a bit weird after the whole ‘tear your throat out’ thing.”

“You’re a bit weird always,” Rain said.  “But so are the rest of us, so you’re in good company.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “Listen, it’s okay, I”ll manage something somehow, I’ll get stuff fixed, and I’ll have a neat trick.  Maybe I can supercharge my light gun and we can blind an entire attacking force.  Then-”

“Lookout,” I interrupted her.  “We’re short on time.  Let me go get a computer from the entrance building.  I will bring you tech.  Good?”

“Good,” Lookout said, breathless.

Good.

I took off.

We were fighting the Wardens, now.  We were fighting Mama Mathers.  Us against the world, and it didn’t feel triumphant.  It felt like we were up against the whole fucking world.  Multiple worlds.

I was spooked, and I wasn’t happy.  I didn’t like this, even as I could take it as necessary.  We didn’t have a choice, just as Goddess hadn’t.

I saw Crystalclear with Fume Hood.  I dropped to the ground.  One foot slipped in mud, the other hit ice-hard soil.

“Five second recap,” I said.  “Wardens are coming, be ready to fight.  Teacher’s bringing in the big guns, one is Mama Mathers.  If she doesn’t come from the city, it’s going to be up to all of us to deal with what she does, capture and kill her despite the insanity effect.”

Crystalclear made a face.  He’d be vulnerable.

“Five second response,” he said.  “They wouldn’t let me talk to Ratcatcher, but she seems healthy, if irritable.  I tried to check on your lawyer, but again-”

“No contact,” I said.  “I’m getting a computer and then I’ll be back.”

“Good luck!”

Natalie.  I flew toward the building, finding Natalie while I was on my way.  Lights were few and far between, so the entire group of staff was huddled beneath a lip of rock, one light shared by a hundred people.  Natalie was fairly close to the front, near the assistant warden, her fingers pressed together and to her mouth for warmth.

Nothing I could do.  I’d tried to create an opportunity.

Ratcatcher was easier to find again, since she was mounted on one of the trucks in a group that was being used to produce light, headlights cutting through the mist of freezing rain, people’s breath, and people’s body heat.

She saw me, and then she looked away, the rain-soggy cone of her paper mask making the direction she was facing abundantly clear.  Similar to what I’d seen with Cryptid, with Chris.

A rebuke?

No, this wasn’t a rebuke.  I saw the nose move as she angled her head to check where I was in the sky, looking askew at me, then the nose moved again.

Pointing.  A staff building.

I changed direction.

She’d done something before getting caught.  What?  I didn’t even know her power for sure.  Rodent control?  It was supposed to be thinker.

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  My heart had been frozen in my chest for what felt like fifteen or twenty minutes, and now it pounded.  The building interior was dark, with many lights burned out or broken, and the contents of offices, of trash cans, and the papers that had topped desks were now strewn everywhere.

“Hello!?” I called out.

She’d been in the tunnel, and she’d run.  She’d gone through the vents and… she’d come here?  A small building with offices and files.

Chairs, a bench, plants.  No animals to be seen- no rodents.

I shivered.

Paperwork, file folders, filing cabinets, with drawers pulled out and thrown into walls with enough force to make dents and holes.  Nothing about or in the dents or holes, that I could see.

More benches for sitting and waiting, with metal loops embedded in the walls for prisoners to be handcuffed to.  Paperwork, more paperwork, another potted plant, a vending machine that had been raided, the chips and candies that hadn’t been eaten now piled on the ground beneath the shattered glass pane.  A few feet away, there was blood.  Not from the vending machine.

The blood was part of a trail of splatters leading to a dead guard, one of the metal loops for handcuffing prisoners now embedded in his chest cavity.  I felt for a pulse, and I knew there wasn’t one.

My heart pounded harder than before, feeling the lack of a pulse.

What could he have told me?

I reached the end of the hallway, found the stairs, and flew in a zig-zag to navigate the flights.  The building only had two floors, and the damage to the second was negligible, nothing strewn around, most offices locked.

I shivered a bit more.

Lookout was expecting me to deliver a computer.  I was- I was chasing a vague hint from a girl in a paper mask, if it could even be called a hint.

“Hello!?” I called out, again.

Back down to the first floor.  I stared down the length of it.

She’d left the tunnel, and she’d done what?

She’d been caught, just like Natalie.  She’d caused enough of a fuss that they’d tied her up, despite the fact that she was aligned.

Was she aligned?

The tainted food- the drugged food.

Natalie had had her bound hands pressed to her mouth.  Had she been warming her breath, or had I caught a glimpse of something in the way of a message?

They’d crossed paths, met, collaborated.

I flew down the hallway.  The stuff from the vending machine.  Bags of chip that were half air and half chip.  Boxes of candy.  Many were damaged.  Some were dirty, in a way that could have meant they’d been walked on.

I held the candies, and I hesitated.  It was hard to convince myself to.  It felt disloyal.

Master-stranger protocols.  I imagined Natalie with her fingers to her mouth, like it was a mimed order.  Driven by an impulse, feeling like I was potentially about to take poison, I took the most dirty, most damaged package, opened a hole wider, and then tipped a few of the gummy candies back into my mouth.

In the distance, it sounded like Goddess was tearing a mountain out of the ground.

I chewed, tasting the chemicals and preservatives of the candy, something I’d never been a huge fan of, and… it tasted delicious.

I swallowed, turning my head toward the ceiling in the process, and I closed my eyes.

Was it just candy?

A part of me wanted it to be.  A part of me wanted an excuse to feel less uneasy.  The conflict was brewing and- and good people were going to get hurt.  Goddess was-

-fucked in the head.

Fuck her.

Fuck this.

I hope your fucking danger sense is making your head spin, Lady in Blue.

I grabbed the other candies and chips, favoring the broken bags.  When my hands were full, I speared them on the spikes of my costume.

Style be damned.

How had they managed it?  The building had been collapsed.

Rats.  Mice.

It might have been Natalie who gave Ratcatcher the direction, Ratcatcher who did the lifting.  Had they known they were going to be caught, and laid this as a trap?  Something that anyone coming through might pick up and share?

Coalbelcher would’ve been near Natalie, if he’d been protecting her or watching out for her as part of the deal.  Had he taken some candy?  Had he eaten some, or did he have it saved for later?  Was that why Goddess didn’t like her sense of him?  I could see him being loyal but not aligned, or aligned but carrying tainted candy.  More the former, since he didn’t seem the type to save something for later.

I reached the first large group, near the interim portal.

“Chips or candy?” I asked.

“What?”

“There’s a big fight brewing,” I said.  “We need to get energy up, and there’s not much food.  Do you want chips?  Candy?”

“Chips, fuck yeah,” a guy said.

Share,” I said, with emphasis.

With luck, he’d have one or two, it would kick in, and he’d start sharing out of spite.

I sure was.

Another group.  It might have been Auzure, though it wasn’t members I recognized.  They’d come to help defend the portal and stall for time.

I just threw them the candy.  The woman who caught it saluted.

“Share!” I said.

Goddess should be getting pinged pretty hard right now, if this is working like I hope.

Another hero group.  I tossed them two small bags of chips.

Hopefully it got us another set of non-Goddessed allies.

There was a chance that some of this wasn’t treated.

I just had to hope that most or some of it was.  We were picking a massive fight.

A small gang of criminals.  I threw them something, and I didn’t wait for a response.

Rain streamed down around me, drumming against my costume, loud against the plastic of the chip bags and the bags and boxes that had the candy.

I saw my team.

“No computer?” Lookout asked.  “Were they all broken?”

“Something better,” I said.  I tossed her a bag of candy, then tossed another to Rain.

“Uh,” Rain said.  “The sentiment’s appreciated but…”

“Eat.  Energy,” I said.

“Mind trading, Kenz?” Rain asked.

“You don’t like grape?”

“Not this type, no,” he said.

“Only because I like you,” she said.

I felt like my heart was beating so fast it would give everything away.  I focused on the distance.

“It’s bad,” Byron said.  “You can’t see it right this second, but she’s altering landscapes.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I heard.”

There was another blast.  Another sound like a mountain was being uprooted.  The ground shook, and this time my feet were touching it to really feel the impact.

Not a mountain- a building, with some foundations.  I saw it move.  From a distance, it seemed to move very slowly.  I knew that it would be moving at a dangerous speed if one was actually at the scene.

Kenzie, her mask still open so her eyes, nose and mouth were visible, her face otherwise enclosed by the helmet, looked up at me.  I raised an eyebrow, and saw her nod slightly.

“Ash.  Want grape gummies?”

“That sounds atrocious.”

“Atrocious in the best way,” Kenzie said.

Swansong took two.  Damsel did the same.  I watched as the candy was shared around.  Kenzie cracked Sveta’s ball open to give her some.

“Nice fashion,” Swansong told me, indicating the packages that had yet to be delivered, speared to my shoulder.  “I prefer less colorful accessories.”

There were few enough that I could pluck them free.  I held the assorted packages in two hands.

“Ahh,” Swansong said.  She met my eyes.  “Good candy.”

“How the heck did you find this?” Lookout asked.

“Others did the legwork,” I said.  Relief surged through me.

“Guys!” Sveta shouted.

The momentary peace was disturbed.

One of the buildings in the distance had changed trajectory.  Two stories of apartment building flew end over end as it soared toward us, shedding a stream of concrete fragments.

“Look out!” I shouted, at the top of my lungs.

I put my arms out, and I flew.  I caught Lookout and Swansong, and Lookout had Sveta.  I almost had a grip on Damsel, but she slipped free, moving her hands to avoid slashing my hand and arm open rather than cling.  My flight was uneven, and my burdens heavy and awkward enough that I didn’t feel confident flying up.

Tristan and Rain were running, trying to get clear.

It was already so dark, the night so chaotic, that I couldn’t fully process what happened as it hit.  The casualties, the devastation, whether other teams had been caught in it.  The rush of air threw me off course, and my grip on my team members was broken.  Everyone rolled, tumbled, or otherwise sprawled.  Damsel used her power to shoot at the incoming projectile.

I could see most of the team.

I’d dropped the candies.  If only I’d kept them on my armor.

The Lady in Blue.  It had been her, reacting to danger sense, hurling a building.

Now I could see her, flying toward us.

She landed, shaking her head as she did.

The dust seemed like too little for the impact and the size of the chunk of building.  It might have been the rain, or the darkness obscuring some of it.

I could see Lung.  Other teams, people I had definitely not given candy to, were converging on our location, supporting the Lady in Blue.

I could see Amy, in the background.  She did nothing to help.  She was silent, passive.  A ghost to haunt me.

My costume shifted around me.  The Lady in Blue lifted me into the air by my costume.

Not all people who could affect inorganic things only could do that.  Sometimes just being adjacent to something organic made it hard to manipulate inorganic materials.

I fought with my flight.  She held me firm.  I activated the Wretch, then deactivated it as soon as I saw that Lookout was too close, just below me.

One by one, she plucked up the members of Breakthrough.

Her head turned.  Dirt and mud sprayed sky-high as she used her power.  Dealing with another attacker.  Someone I’d given candy to?

The dirt and mud hadn’t even finished raining down when she used her power again.  I saw the shape of him, leaping to one side.  He was more visible in the cloud of dirt, rain and mud than he was ordinarily.

Black feathers on black background.

I could feel the dim impulse that she pushed out.  The punctuation mark.  The power to control.

He moved faster.

I felt it again.  This time, he dropped to all fours.

“Harder!” Crock o’ Shit shouted, from the sidelines.  “You almost had him!”

The Lady in Blue used her power again, more forcefully than before.

Cryptid leaped.

I saw the moment of hesitation, the moment of realization that there was nothing inorganic on him to grab.  She ripped up the earth instead.  He was thrown into the air, lost in the flurry of mud.

I used my power, hard.  To distract, to break her focus.

Appearing sooner than should have been possible, Cryptid was right next to her.  The ground broke under his feet, point blank this time.

It didn’t go any further than the cracking of ground.  Cryptid’s talons found the Lady in Blue’s midsection.  He tore her open, sternum to pelvis, and his talons hooked into vital organs.  He pulled them free, and all of the strength went out of her.

For how much damage had been done, it took four or five surprising seconds before her power canceled out.  We dropped out of the air, and I flew to catch Lookout before she could land too awkwardly.

All around us, people were shuffling closer.

Amy was among them.

Cryptid was at the center, his broken neck twisted around, his head dangling.  His beak was like a curved blade, gleaming in the rain, pointed at the small of his back.

I could see what that was supposed to mean, now.

Crock o’ Shit hadn’t been telling the truth.  Goddess’ power hadn’t almost worked.  Crock had been among the people I’d given candy to, just before I’d reunited with the group.

Fitting.

I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the irony.

“Chris,” Lookout said.

Cryptid looked at her, then seized his head.  He moved it side to side.  Shaking it in a ‘no’.

“Did Amy do this?” I asked.

“I didn’t do anything,” Amy’s voice cut through the dark and the patter of rain.  “Organized.  Struck a deal.”

I swallowed hard.  “Deal?”

She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.  “Everyone!”

I couldn’t remember her shouting.  She’d never been one to do it.

“Everyone!  You have a choice!  We are going to Earth Shin!  We are going to be an authority!”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Sveta did it for me.  “Amy!”

Amy shook her head, glancing at Sveta.  “There will be rules!  This means submitting to my power!  It will not be as Goddess’ was!  You’ll follow a code of laws, you’ll maintain control and peace, and you’ll protect populations.  You’ll be reasonably good!  Or you can stay here.  You’ll be freer, but you’ll also be a target for heroes!”

She planned this.

I looked at Cryptid.

She planned this with him.

Dot was perched on her shoulders, clearly excited, but Amy’s expression was impossible to read.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

She met my eyes.

She looked almost angry as she looked away.  As if she had the fucking right.

“Come with us or stay.  It’s your choice,” she said.  She looked at Cryptid.  “Is that okay?”

Cryptid seized his head, and moved it in a ‘yes’ motion.

Amy’s expression was both angry and sad as she surveyed everything.  Freezing rain streaked down her hood, and her breath fogged.

She met my eyes.

“Red Queen,” Lookout said, under her breath.  “Dot called her that.”

My skin crawled.

The Red Queen started to walk away.  Cryptid was at her side.

Some prisoners were fairly quick to leave to follow.  Ones who knew her from the Birdcage?  With them went followers, and once a critical amount had left, a majority followed.  Only the heroes really stayed.

Only rubble dust, and mud, now.  Scarcely any lights on this hillside.

“What?  Chris?”  Lookout asked.  She giggled, sounding uncertain and Swansong pulled her into a hug, so Lookout’s face was buried in Swansong’s side.  It would have been a full-body hug if Lookout hadn’t been hugging the orb.

What just happened?

Others were arriving now.  Natalie was with the prison staff.  Ratcatcher was with Crystalclear and Fume Hood.  They seemed to be free of the influence of the Lady in Blue.

Who had been practically torn in half, now lying ten feet away from me.  After seeing my- seeing Amy like that, the grisly scene was somehow one of the least shocking things in the midst of all of this.

“He was just waiting for an opening?” Rain asked.

“Shh.”  Swansong.

The assistant warden drew closer.  We’d been some of the people on point through all of this.  He wanted answers.

I didn’t have any.  Amy?

“We need to- to do something about this,” I said.

“Are you up for it?” Byron asked.

I shook my head.  Images of Amy and the sounds of her voice were weighing on my mind, interrupting half of my thoughts.

I reached out for Sveta’s ball.  Lookout handed it over.

“Sorry,” I told Sveta.  I hugged the ball tight.  “Sorry.”

I felt her forehead thunk against the side of the orb.

“Okay,” Byron said.  “I’m officially passing the baton… we both know you’re good at this part.”

He blurred.  Once I realized what he was saying, a second or so later than I should have, I could understand it.

I nodded.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He started striding toward the assistant warden. Without turning to face us, he intoned the words. “Damage control.”

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