Gleaming – Interlude 9.z

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Day Zero

As soon as the words left Tristan’s mouth, he regretted them.  He saw the looks on the faces of his teammates, and the magnitude of what he had just done hit home.

“Liar,” Moonsong said.

Tristan had dealt with his share of adrenaline before, but in this moment, he wasn’t sure if he felt the adrenaline from the fight bottoming out or if he felt the adrenaline of this moment ramping up to a ridiculous extreme.  The system shock, the shock of being called out, and the tension of the moment made him tremble.

“No.  You’re lying!”

“Easy, Moon,” Figurehead said.  He reached out and she pushed his hand away.

There were tears welling in her eyes, and he couldn’t even call them crocodile tears this time, because there were tears forming in his own eyes.

If he changed back now-

No.

The line had been crossed.  If he took it back now, it wouldn’t change the fact that Byron would know.  Byron would start thinking about what to do.

Tribute was filling others in.  Steamwheel was mostly out of costume, wearing only her mask.  Her suit had been disintegrated, hadn’t it?

Furcate stood off to the side, staring.

That hurt.  It threw him.

He couldn’t tell Furcate, he realized.  They’d never been someone he could really talk with, but they’d been an ally.  He couldn’t tell Nate.  He couldn’t tell anyone.

Figurehead dropped to one knee, hand clapping down on the metal of Tristan’s armor.  The half-hug and supporting touch was walled off by thick, elaborately decorated metal, to the point he could barely feel it.

“Tristan,” Moonsong hissed his name.  He could feel his heart stop.  “Look me in the eyes.”

Tristan reached up, fumbling as he tried to pull off a helmet he had put on and taken off a hundred times.  His movements were so ineffectual that Figurehead helped, and Tristan accepted without complaint.

There were no bystanders, and the group was clustered in close.

He looked her in the eyes.

“He was my brother,” Tristan said.  “I love him, but- he’s not in here anymore.”

His vision momentarily blurred as a tear covered the surface of one eye.  He rubbed it away.  She didn’t rub anything away, letting moisture streak her cheeks beneath her mask, dark with makeup.  He saw her expression – anger dominated it, and that anger terrified him.

Every survival instinct he had meshed with that quiet horror, seizing him.  He pushed it to his expression, raw and unfiltered.

He had no idea what to do, and he let her see it.

The anger faltered.

“Try again,” she said.  “Please?”

If he released Byron now, what would happen?  They would both live in fear.

He could imagine the scenarios.  Even the pair of them being out would be a hell of dread and mortal worry.

He tried to convince himself, to step to the edge of the cliff he was was expected to jump from.  For his entire life, he’d made the jumps.

He couldn’t.

“I can’t,” he said.

Coiffure rose to her feet, ginger in her movements, and walked over to Moonsong to hug her.  That was good.   Coiffure was good.  Naturally kind, heroic, and cool.  Moonsong had her shitty side, but he didn’t want her to suffer.  He especially didn’t want her to suffer alone.  Nobody deserved that.

Byron.

“Tribute,” Figurehead said, interrupting Tristan’s thought.  “Call the bosses.  Call everyone.”

Everyone.

Something in that word crystallized the horror in Tristan.  He shivered involuntarily.  Everyone.  The team, the staff, students and teachers, other teams.  Hell, there was the girl at the pasta bar just down the street from Reach’s headquarters, who was clench for By, bringing her A-game for flirting.  She’d been visibly devastated when they’d come in with Brianna.  Byron hadn’t noticed that she’d taken their drinks, but hadn’t been around the rest of the night.

Teenager stuff, in the best and worst way.  Tristan would have brought attention to it, but what good would it have done?  Byron would have accused him of being underhanded and trying to undermine the relationship with Brianna.  What would the pasta bar girl think now?  What would she say?  What would anyone say?

Family.  The thought made Tristan go cold.

“Breathe,” Figurehead said.  “Okay?  We’ve got you.”

Tristan nodded.

Their cousins.  Their aunts and uncles.  The old ladies at the church.

Everyone was so many people.

“Deep breath, Capricorn,” Figurehead said.  “You didn’t actually breathe when I told you to, you just nodded at me.”

Tristan drew in a deep breath.

They would ask.  Everyone would ask.

The thought had crystallized and he was getting his head around the shape and the scale of it.

“They’re coming,” Tribute said, a phone still held to his ear.  “Mr. Vaughn and the rest of the staff.  They want to know if we need emergency services.”

“Coiffure?” Figurehead asked.

Coiffure shook her head.  Her hair was still limp, trailing on the ground.

“No, then.  Nothing-” Figurehead started.  “There’s nothing we can do.”

There was a commotion.  His first thought was Moonsong.  It wasn’t.  Furcate, clawed costume shoes with metal decoration scuffed against the road-top.

Furcate bodily collided with Tristan.  Their arms wrapped around him in a hug.  Again, as it had with Figurehead’s half-hug of support, the armor prevented Tristan from feeling the body contact.

Furcate moved their mask, pulling it so it sat sideways.  The side of their head pressed against Tristan’s.

“I’m so sorry,” Furcate whispered.

The words shook him.  Everything seemed to.

“Me too,” he murmured the words.  They were honest  ones.

He would have to explain to everyone.  He would need… explanations.  Expressions.  Tones of voice.  He couldn’t act.  Acting could be seen through.  He knew that.

It required something else.  Tapping into real feelings and letting them show, as he had before.

Baring his soul, when he wasn’t sure he could bear to.

He was lost in thought, and he didn’t even realize that Furcate was stroking his head until they stopped.  Cars were pulling up, navigating the potholes and other damage from Paris’ bombardment.

Mr. Vaughn had a driver, which he normally reserved for events and for emergencies.  It let him get in the car immediately, getting ready in the back while the driver focused on the road.  A touch of makeup, a change into nicer clothes, and preliminary phone calls.

Oh, this probably counted as an emergency.

Tristan accepted a hand in getting to his feet.  He had the support of most of the team, Moonsong excepted, but Coiffure was looking after her, and she needed looking after.

He’d never, even after his trigger event, ever felt any emotion quite so terrible as what twisted in his midsection.

“Do you want me to handle it?” Figurehead asked.

Tristan shook his head.  “No.”

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure,” Tristan said.  The words felt overly mechanical in his mouth, at odds with what he was feeling inside.  He had to insist, because he couldn’t imagine coming to terms with any crisis by letting others handle it.

Head on.

He had to take on the issue starting with the man at the top.  If he could sway Mr. Vaughn, then others would follow.

The issue was with swaying Mr. Vaughn.  The guy wasn’t stupid.

“Something happened to Byron?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  “Are you okay, Tristan?”

“I’m not hurt,” Tristan reported.

“You didn’t tell him?” Figurehead asked.  The question disoriented Tristan, until he realized it was aimed at Tribute.

“Tribute explained it,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I wanted to hear it from you all.”

He looked so grave, so serious.

Which wasn’t to say Tristan wasn’t also.  He’d always related to Mr. Vaughn; Tristan had even imagined that if Byron hadn’t fucking strangled him and if they hadn’t gotten powers, he might have ended up in a similar position, doing similar work.

“Sir,” Tristan started.

“No need for anything fancy, Capricorn,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Tell me what happened, if you can.”

A conspiracy to start.  They weren’t even explicitly supposed to be here.  He had raised the subject of going after Paris again with Mr. Vaughn, and he had been given unofficial, deniable permission.

“We were scouting areas where we knew Paris might turn up.  From our research, we know some of his patterns,” Tristan said, his voice still mechanical, hollow.  “It was strict recon.  His reconnaissance got us before ours got him.”

A conspiracy.  Mr. Vaughn knew part of it was a lie, but he wouldn’t press.  Reach would get in trouble with the likes of the Youth Guard if it sanctioned minors going after professional killers, as much as it wanted the credit for arrests.  The rest of the team knew that part or all of it was a lie, but they didn’t want to get in trouble with Mr. Vaughn or Reach.

Both sides would want to keep this quiet for selfish reasons.  Both sides would want to go to Tristan if they needed to keep the story straight, which would let him control the story.

“Byron got killed,” Furcate said.

“It was Paris that did this?”

“Later into the fight.  He started hitting a lot harder.  He had a trick, shooting giant nails like cannon blasts.  Byron and I were in sync for a lot of the fight, and then we weren’t.  I don’t know if he got disoriented, but he stayed a second too long.  I can’t change.”

“Don’t you dare blame him,” Moonsong was heated.

“Calm down.  It’s okay,” Coiffure shushed.

“I blame-” Tristan started.  His voice quavered, and he had to steel himself.  “I blame myself.  I should have pushed to run.”

“You utter asshole,” Moonsong said.

“Come on, Song,” Coiffure said.  “Let’s- we won’t say anything we regret.”

Moonsong shook her head.

“Capricorn,” Mr Vaughn said.  He put hands on either of Tristan’s pauldrons, the elaborate ram’s head armor panels at Tristan’s shoulders.  A light shake communicated the touch through the armor.  “Why don’t you get in my car?  We’ll talk privately there.  Dr. Wall is waiting at the office, I’ve called your parents, and they’re on their way.”

“And Paris?” Steamwheel asked.

“Paris,” Mr. Vaughn said, and his voice hardened.  “We’ll call the PRT.  We’ll let other teams know too.  He crossed a line.  Intentionally?”

Tristan hesitated.  Paris- Paris had been in the back of his mind as he’d made the decision.  He’d known Paris would come up and the community’s way of dealing with Paris would change.

Thinking about it rationally, though-

He thought of Nate, miserable and vulnerable in the hospital room.  Of Furcate getting hurt.  Of the innumerable people who Paris might have interacted with in his day to day.  The ‘little’ acts of hate.

“Intentional,” Tristan lied.

Mr. Vaughn nodded, his expression grim; none of the usual professional warmth was visible.

“We’ll talk things over in the car, Capricorn.  I’ll walk you through everything.  Everyone else, there are cars if you want a ride.  It may be best, in case he comes back this way.  All team activities, missions, and events are canceled until further notice.  We’ll pull in the adult capes that we have on the roam and on commission.”

The effects kept on rippling out.

Tristan listened for a second more, realized he wasn’t really registering what was being said, and climbed into the car, closing the door behind him.

Present

The car door opened.  Two people got out.  Mayor Wynn and her assistant.

The rain still fell.  Tristan wished he had Byron’s cold immunity, because he was starting to feel it.  He had talked to the only person in charge of the prison who hadn’t been compromised, and he had talked to the hero groups.

Nothing set in stone.  They were uncertain, and they wanted to talk among themselves.  There was always a chance that things could go awry if the wrong voice was forceful enough at a time others were uncertain.  Some would be waiting to see how this went.

“Jeanne Wynn.  Citrine,” Victoria’s voice was quiet.

“And the Number Man,” Sveta added.  “Cauldron.”

Tristan blinked.  That was a name he hadn’t heard in a long time.  “I’ve heard that name.  The Number Man, I mean.”

“Supervillain banker,” Sveta murmured.  “He bankrolled almost half of the villainous groups on Earth Bet, serving a secondary role as a broker, protector and distributor of funds, launderer.  He was an assassin, acting as one arm of the ‘bogeyman of the cape world’ group.  The Irregulars were keeping track of him for a while.”

Tristan looked at the assistant more closely.  Not quite nerdy enough to be nerd chic, the man had a nice belt buckle, wore a peacoat and narrow slacks, with a muted plaid shirt beneath the coat.  Strong chin with a cleft, boring hair.

No, not nerd chic, but he wore clothes that fit him damn near perfectly, helped by the athletic body beneath the clothes.  When most guys didn’t wear clothes that fit them, even fairly nondescript clothes worn well could draw the eye.  Tristan had always had a thing for dorky guys with shells that he could then crack open.

And then there was Wynn.  Citrine.  Her clothes were nicer than Kurt’s.  The kind that wasn’t available on Gimel, unless people were willing to pay a premium for otherwise premium clothes from elsewhere.  There were different tiers of ‘premium’, too.  Stuff like a rash guard or nice pair of pants were expensive enough that they needed three to five days of construction work to pay for them.  For a nice sheer top with a pattern on it in what looked like gold leaf?  Admitting that he knew next to nothing about women’s clothing, he felt like it was a special case where barter was necessary, because Earth Gimel’s currency was still in uncertain territories.

Tristan tried to remain still and calm as he recalled all of the little details.  Tattletale had dished on these guys, and so had Barcode.  Victoria had talked about Citrine before, and the Number Man… well, he was a myth.

“That is one way to tie up a loose end,” Citrine noted, her attention on the body that had yet to be touched.

“Tying up this loose end may have created a hundred more,” Tristan said.

“As is always the case,” Citrine said.  She extended a hand.  “You would be Capricorn?”

He pulled off his gauntlet and shook her hand firmly.  “Yes.  Pleased to meet you.”

“I’m Mayor Jeanne Wynn.  Good solid handshake there, Capricorn.”

“Ah, you too.”

“Thank you.  I was raised by someone who would break a bone in my hand if my handshake was anything except perfect.”

“I’m… sorry?”

“He was the best thing for me at the time,” she said.  “Sometimes we need a bit of decisive, pointed violence.”

Her hand indicated Goddess’ corpse.  A pair of black birds flew down to feast, maybe ravens – they were large enough.  An officer waved it off.

The awkward share had been a lead-in to bringing up that topic.  There was something callous about that.  Jesus.  She wasn’t even pretending not to be a villain.

“Antares,” Citrine said, greeting the group.  “Rain o’ Fire, Swansong, Ashley Stillons, Lookout.  Natalie Matteson.  And, of course, Tress.  Sveta Karelia.”

“I hope you don’t mind,” the Number Man said.  “I took the liberty of looking up your information.  I remember the fact we didn’t know it was a point of contention last time.”

“It wasn’t a question of courtesy,” Sveta said.  “I didn’t want you to look it up.  I wanted you to know it.”

“Then I’m sorry,” he said.

“I don’t think you’re capable of feeling anything, let alone remorse.  You don’t do what you’ve done if you have any remorse.”

“Not often,” the Number Man said.  “Remorse is a funny thing.  The mark it promises to leave can so easily be drowned out by the need we feel in the moment.”

“I think there’s an element of choice in that,” Victoria said.  “Pretending there’s no choice and that it’s a force of nature sounds dangerously close to a justification.”

“If the strength of our needs justified anything, there wouldn’t be any remorse.  If we were all capable of accurate self-assessment.  If.”

Sveta spoke up again, audible through the reinforced ball that contained her.  “I can’t escape the idea that if you were capable of accurate self-assessment, Kurt, you would have offed yourself politely years ago.”

“Is that a threat?”

“Opinion.  I don’t think I’m capable of assessing you and coming to any fair judgment, I’m biased.  You know, on account of how you turned me into a monster.”

Tristan met Jeanne Wynn’s eyes.

“What are you here for?” he asked her.

“Answers.”

“I don’t get the impression you’d buy any bullshit or white lies,” Tristan said.

“It would have to be very good lying.  If I think you’re trying to pull one over on me, then I’m going to walk away, and I’ll get my information elsewhere.”

“If we’re honest and upfront, then that should count for something,” Tristan said.  “Something beyond what we deserve for being experimented on, gotta give Sveta and Weld a nod here, and for being the ones to stick our necks out on this.  Too many people held back.  You, the Wardens, Tattletale.  You were scared.”

“Not in the way you think.  You want to make demands?”

“We want many of the same things you do,” he said.  He let some latent frustration seep into his voice.  “And I swear, if you take us for granted, we’ll leave right now.  If you don’t think we will, you should be the one to walk away, because you did pledge to do it if I lied to your face.”

Citrine looked at The Number Man, then back to Tristan.  “What do you want?”

“Cauldron studied powers.  I want everything possible that you have on Case Fifty-Threes and on Case Seventies.  If you have any clever ideas on undoing the damage, reserved for your high-end clients, you provide it.”

That got him a few surprised looks from his team.  Antares folded her arms, eyebrows raised.  Sveta was looking up at him.

“Alright,” Citrine said.

“Alright what?”

“Power research documentation from several governments.  You may need translators.  Our own field notes.  There’s no reason to keep them in our back pocket.  PRT power testing notes from all known Case Fifty-Threes and Seventies.”

“Can-” Victoria started.  She looked at Tristan.

“Go ahead,” he said, shrugging.

“Can we get all PRT files?” Victoria asked.  “My collection has massive holes in it, and I know the Wardens feel the loss.”

“Aren’t you greedy?” Citrine said.  “I can provide the means, not the ends.”

“That’s fine.  As long as I know they’re out there somewhere.”

“They are.  I’ll point you to a server and give you the tools to access it.  Distribute the information as you see fit.”

“In terms of mutual goals, we need backup from the city,” Tristan said.  “I know it’s politically inconvenient, but we’re catching the worst of it on every front.  The public, resources, information, lack of connections to people in power, the danger and the chaos.”

“We’re already making plans to elevate the other teams.  The Wardens haven’t been in a position to be a public face or a middleman since the portal disaster.  We can provide information when we provide it to the other teams, we’ll encourage the law enforcement and parahuman patrols to cooperate with you, insofar as the mayor can do that.  Will that be all?”

She asked that last question like she was hinting that her patience was wearing thin.

“So long as you don’t throw us under the bus,” Tristan said.  “Yeah.”

“Fill me in.”

“I’ve massaged things with the assistant Warden.  I explained the sequence of events, and he was reassured by Foresight’s counsel at the scariest moments in the night.  He’s on our side, except for the sheer number of prisoners they just lost.  He’s scared.  He needs reassurance.”

“He just lost his job,” Victoria said.  “He’s worried he’s going to be painted as the villain or made out to be the scapegoat.”

“Understood.”

“We caught wind of the plot when we traced Cheit’s people and they turned out to be Teacher’s.  He was responsible for the attack on the portals and for the attack on this prison.  It didn’t feel like he went all-out, even if he did it smart.  He wanted the prison sealed off so he could collect everyone within, and we think he wanted Goddess with them.  She slipped the trap.”

“The collection process is using Mama Mathers and Scapegoat,” Rain volunteered.

“We know that much.  He’s made several oblique attacks on key capes.”

“If he’s using the portals, I have a way to mess with him.  I could make devices,” Lookout said.

“It could help.  Keeping certain individuals out of his reach, for one thing.  Thank you.”

“You’re-”

“No,” Tristan interrupted Lookout.  “Not for free.”

“If you’re trying to look better in front of your team by driving a hard bargain, you should know that there are limits, Capricorn.”

“I’m not driving a hard bargain or trying to look better,” Tristan said, his voice rising.  “We drove.  We looked good.  We put on a damn good performance out there, all considered.”

“We talked it over as a team,” Victoria said.  “We agreed we’re willing to cooperate with you.  So far, we’re only asking for information and cooperation.”

“You talked about that when you appeared on television.”

“Things are coming apart at the seams.  We’ve got something resembling a needle, you’ve got thread.  Can we please cooperate?” Victoria asked.  “Even Sveta agreed it was necessary.”

Citrine drew in a breath.  “I’ll help so long as it doesn’t hurt elsewhere.  We’re interested in the devices that could block off Teacher’s portals.  What do you want?”

“A pony?” Lookout asked.

Tristan felt a twinge of alarm.  Kenzie being happy and laughing was all well and good, and even a joke where wasn’t out of place, but it seemed uncharacteristically young for Lookout, and when he paired that with the Cryptid betrayal…

He’d have to talk to Victoria, Sveta, Rain, and Swansong later.

Lookout laughed a little, “No sorry, I’m kidding.  Um.”

“Funds,” Swansong suggested, as serious as Lookout was being silly.  “Materials.”

“You have a person named The Number Man,” Tristan added.

“Funds.  Easy enough,” Citrine said.  “But the pony comment is a good opportunity for me to gracefully segue-”

“Oh no,” Lookout said.  “Did I do something?”

Again, just slightly off.  He didn’t consider himself a Kenzie whisperer like Ashley and Victoria seemed to be, but… he wanted to talk it over with them.

“On the topic of things little girls dream of, not a pony, but a unicorn.”

“Monokeros,” Victoria said.

“You know her.  We’re interested.  We’ll barter, if need be.”

“She’s a monster,” Victoria said.

“We can keep a leash on her.”

“A lot of people seem to think that,” Sveta said.  “Goddess did.  Teacher might have.”

“We’re confident.”

“And we’re sorry,” Tristan said.  He shrugged, and then he lied, “We had to put a permanent end to her.”

Monokeros was still in the hole.  The last they’d seen, as they’d collected Kingdom Come and Blindside, Monokeros had been trying to stack things high enough to reach the lip.  When they’d left the prison dimension, Lookout had confirmed everyone was out, re-keyed the exit portal behind them.

The lie threatened to end the bargaining, to make Citrine walk away, to cost them the notes, the PRT files, the funds.

“Noted,” Citrine said.

If she’d noticed the lie -Tristan was fairly confident she would have had to read another member of the team to see it- she gave no indication.

One less loose end to deal with.

“Let’s talk sequence of events,” Citrine said.  “Tell me what happened.”

“What happened and what we told the Warden differed,” Tristan said.  “We thought it best to paint a picture that the mass control was briefer and more fragile than it was.  It will sit better with the public.  Breakthrough, by our narrative, was captured later and broke free more decisively.”

My narrative.

“Is that a problem?” Victoria asked.

“No,” Citrine said.  “Walk me through it.”

Victoria handled the talking, focused on a task in a way that helped to pull her out of the mire, even as her body language was nervous and defensive.

Tristan looked over at Goddess.  More scavenger birds were clustering close to the body.  It looked like the medical examiner was at least preparing to collect it now.

Byron had compared Goddess to him earlier.  It wasn’t wrong.  Her fatal flaw wasn’t so different from his own.

Like a vehicle with no ability to reverse course.  The only difference is that I was given a chance to turn around.  You turned around just in time to get disemboweled.

Day Two

This would get easier, right?  Couldn’t he harden his heart?

Mama sobbed.  Both of her hands clutched his right hand, gripping it tight enough that it might have done damage if he hadn’t had that tiny boost of power.  He could hear the pain, and he felt like it was killing him.

“We should go, Anita,” Papa said.  “We’ll be at the hotel.  We’ll see him tomorrow morning.”

“Come, Tristan,” Mama said.  “Come to the hotel.  There’s a cot.”

Tristan didn’t know what to say to that.

Papa was the savior.  “He has had his fill of us, Anita.  He’s grown used to his independence and he needs his own space and privacy to grieve, and- I want my space to grieve with you and nobody else.”

Mama released Tristan’s hand and pulled him into a hug.  The gesture made his own tears fall free, just when he’d thought he’d run out.

“Eat, drink.  Meet with your friends.  We will meet in the morning and talk about the funeral.”

Tristan’s breath caught in his throat as he opened his mouth to respond.  He saw something similar in his mother’s face.

Papa cupped the side of Tristan’s face in one hand.

“Mr. Vaughn offered to handle things,” Tristan said.

“We will do this as a family,” Papa said.  His gaze lingered a moment too long, too hard.

That in itself almost took the air out of Tristan’s lungs.  He swallowed hard.

Does he suspect?

“Tomorrow morning,” Tristan said.  He dreaded it already.

He stood in the doorway to his room as he watched his parents walk away, raising a hand in a small wave each time they looked back his way.

Two days.  Two days and not one minute to himself.

‘Himself’.  ‘Independence’.

He knew why.  They were concerned about him, about what he might do while he grieved.

He shut the door.

From the moment the door closed, it took about ten or fifteen minutes for him to pull himself together.

“Byron,” he whispered.  “I had to.”

For Byron, it could easily be the first moment that he knew for sure that this was Tristan’s doing, and not a mistake or a glitch with the power.

Tristan crossed the room.  On the bulletin board, amid notes from Tristan to Byron and Byron to Tristan, there were pictures.

He pulled one free, not removing the tack first.  A bit of the picture tore.  It was a small photo- smaller than standard.  A young Byron was standing with a clear pout on his face, arms folded.  He’d dyed his hair green, and standing beside him was a younger Tristan, hair a bright red.  Where Byron had been pouting, young Tristan was grinning wide, posing by flexing his arms, tiny muscles standing out.

They’d been eleven.  Byron had dyed his hair and Tristan had followed suit, and he’d done a better job with the bleach job prior to applying the dye.  Byron had not been impressed with Tristan.

“I had to,” Tristan said, to the photo and to his silent company.  “We were both- we were going to pieces.  I was miserable, losing weight.  I know you noticed I couldn’t sleep.”

He wanted to hit something and keep hitting it until he couldn’t move anymore, but he was so tired he couldn’t bring himself to move.  He wanted to party and yet at the same time he couldn’t imagine spending more time around people.

More time around people while being completely, utterly alone.  Completely and utterly by his own doing.

“And you…” he continued to whisper, out of a concern for bugs, because he wasn’t willing to rule anything out, not when the stakes were this high.  “The self harm, By?  The repeated, escalating self harm, starting with the pen?  I’ll assume that was self-harm and not you trying to hurt me.  But it was scary, By.  One of us was going to lose it eventually.  Do something stupid.  The way you were going, I wasn’t sure you were going to last the rest of the year.”

No rebuttal.  Only the exaggerated pout, skinny arms folded.

Out of a desire for words, for anything, he turned the photo over, hoping for a caption or note.

Nothing.

“I was thinking about it.  I was thinking that maybe you were thinking about it.  As you got close to Moonsong, I couldn’t help but worry that you were thinking more and more about the future.  What you would have to do to have that future you wanted.  House, white picket fence, dog, wife, and kids with really high chance of getting manipulative bitch genes?”

He paused.

“Sorry,” he amended his statement.  “But I was thinking it and our thoughts are all we really have to ourselves.  I don’t know what you were thinking, but you were getting more and more controlling.  You were strategically taking out things I value.  It’s hard to convince myself there’s not an endgame, and that we’re not in a cold war race to see who can find a plausible way out first.”

He pulled off his shirt, pausing halfway to dab at his eyes with the fabric.  He pulled it off the rest of the way, balled it up, and threw it into the hamper.  Nothing but net.

There was no joy in that small thing.  Only an oppressive feeling, crushing down on his chest.

“I saw Furcate kill their other self during the first Paris fight.  It put the seed in my head.  I tried to shake it, but I couldn’t.  By the second fight, I wasn’t planning anything.  I thought about what the scenario might look like.  I might have helped it along subconsciously.  Then, in the middle of everything, I saw things line up.  Nobody had visibility.  Paris was… probably the best person to take the fall, because he’s scum…”

Please understand.

“It was an impulse.  It was maybe my one and only chance, ever.  A massive choice, my existence on the line.”

He smoothed out a wrinkle in the photo.

“I can’t take it back,” he said.  “Because if you weren’t thinking about how to take one hundred percent control before, you have to be doing it now.  It was about survival for me, and I’ve made it about survival for you, doing this.”

He looked at the bulletin board, organized into two sides.  The things common to the both of them ran down the middle.  The picture he held was among those things.

He touched papers on Byron’s side, as if he could find a line that matched up with what he wanted and needed to hear.

The silence weighed on him, condemning.  No response from the photo.

He felt an irrational kind of anger at that.  Slowly and methodically, motions out of tune with the flare of anger, he began removing tacks.  Byron’s reminder about an I.O.U. for a movie choice on movie night fluttered to the table.  Tristan’s hand struck it hard, the impact loud.  Pinning it down.  Both the violence of the motion and the noise had surprised even him.

He resumed work.  One by one, he removed notes from Byron’s side.

“If it’s down to one of us surviving, I’ve got to side with me.”

Day Twenty-Four

“You’re really up for this, Capricorn?” Coiffure asked.

“I need this,” Tristan said.

“Alright,” she said.  She smiled.  She was wearing her training costume, the same general shape, but without the bells, whistles, and decorations- what Steamwheel called ‘tinsel’, the zig-zags of metal that stood out on the bodysuits.

Tristan didn’t have a bodysuit.  His armor was all metal, all decorated.  He strapped his armor on, setting everything in place in its proper order.

There was a ritual to it, and he liked the ritual.  There were days that were rituals, each meal a single step in a larger pattern with a long-term purpose.  Each point of hygiene.  The phone calls to the parents on Wednesdays and Sundays.

Others came in, finding their seats at the end of the room opposite the door.  Most had snacks from the vending machine.  Steamwheel, Figurehead, Tribute, Furcate.

“Sparring?” Figurehead asked.

“Figuring out where my head is at.  The fans are starting to ask where Capricorn is.”

“I’ve been wondering that myself,” Moonsong said.

Tristan’s heart skipped a beat.

“You took on a role as team leader.  We got used to you in that role,” Moonsong said.  She was keeping Coiffure’s kid brother company, the two of them eating the same candy.  She paused beside Tristan as she crossed the room, reaching out to lay a hand on his arm.  Her smile was an encouraging one.  “Let’s get you back on your feet.”

Tristan nodded.

Moonsong headed over to the benches.  Coiffure’s little brother sat between Moonsong and Furcate.

“Slow motion to open, speed up?” Coiffure asked.

“Sure,” Tristan said, smiling before he pulled his helmet on.

Crimson motes.  They appeared freely and after his expectations that he would be badly out of practice, the ease with which they moved caught him off guard.

Coiffure produced a hair whip, freeing a flail -chain and spiked head- from her silver mane.  The chain was lengthy and the hair itself long enough and strong enough to produce a lazy whipping motion.  Tristan ducked beneath, though it was swung so high it would have barely grazed his helmet.

The little brother cheered for blood.  Probably the most enthusiasm for cape stuff that Tristan had seen out of him.

It was typical for the team to warm up with a back and forth, speeding up as they went.  Because it was a back and forth, it was his turn.

He materialized his rock, aware that there was no other form to swap to.  Wherever he placed it, that was where it would be.

Coiffure’s hair-flail slammed noisily against floorboards as hair went limp.  The sound echoed through the empty arena.

Spikes, jagged, like pyramid-shaped triangles drawn out long, some connected as one triangle after another to form the angular breaks where the lines had drawn curves.  Some were connected in chains of three and four.  All black, with crimson material visible through gaps, where one connected to another or wedded the spikes to a surface.

“That might be harder to sell to the design team,” Coiffure said.

Tristan couldn’t respond, his throat tight.  Of course it changed.

“Holy shit,” Tribute said.  He hopped down from his seat, approaching one near him.

Tristan felt it.  “Trib!  Back!”

Tribute reacted, stepping back.  Moonsong used her power, and Tribute’s backward step became a bound.

The chain of spikes moved- the red bonds acting like muscle, the black spikes rigid, spearing, stabbing, and scraping at floorboard.

All through the arena, the spikes moved, scratching, reaching, stabbing in the direction of people they couldn’t reach.

Coiffure destroyed one, swinging out with her flail.  The one she hit on the backward swing survived the hit, then stabbed down, pinning the chain to the floor.  It yanked, pulling Coiffure closer to another spike.

Tristan kicked it.  With the damage that was already done, a firm kick with a metal boot destroyed the spike, breaking it away from the ground.

He did what he could, but it was really the team that stepped up.  Tribute gave strength, Steamwheel had a gauntlet in her backpack, and Figurehead scanned with his ‘first impressions’ figuring before wading into the fray.

Tristan fled the room.  Down the hall, past the staff offices.  Into his own room.

He gasped for breath and he couldn’t find it.  He’d practiced techniques, but this- this was something beyond.

For just an instant, he’d been left to wonder if the intelligence behind those things was By, somewhere in there, gone mad enough he’d hurt his old friends.

Tristan looked across the room, trying to keep his breathing straight.  All of Byron’s things were packed away into a single box, slid into a corner.  Moonsong had taken some, on a night she’d visited to chat and reminisce.

A gasp of a laugh escaped.  There were moments they were almost friends.

There was a knock at the door.  Tristan looked up, and he saw K, mask off.

“It changed based on our relationship to each other,” Tristan said.  “I did- I did something.”

“No.  That was your power, and powers can be cruel.”

“I- it’s my fault.”

“No.  Sometimes the powers do this.  Sometimes I don’t get any good Furcates for weeks on end.”

“It’s not-” Tristan started.

What was he supposed to say?  Any words he uttered, any proof he gave, it would be as good as sealing his own fate, and it would devastate K.

Could he hurt them that badly?

Irrationally, he knew the right thing to do, but with the small sorts of pain he would inflict so clear in front of his face, looking at him with worry, he couldn’t bring himself to say it any more clearly.

K unwrapped a candy.  “Open.”

He opened his mouth.  He made a face as he tasted it.  “Lemon?  I thought we got you onto something else.”

“We all need something to fall back to,” K said.  “When we lose track of ourselves.  If we run into a tie and we’re supposed to decide among ourselves, we have a fourth number we track.  Physical health, mental health, girl-ness, and the tiebreaker.”

“The candy?”

“Reminds me of the woman who raised me,” K said, sucking on the candy  “If I ever don’t like it or I don’t feel reminded of those days, I’m not me.”

“I don’t have anything like that.”

“Not Nate?”

“Not- no.  I like him, but…”

But I killed the person I was supposed to fall back to.

Day 57

He panted for breath.  In all of the fantasies, he hadn’t ever imagined it being quite this sweaty.

He didn’t even have his breath before Nate was kissing him again, pushing him down against the bed.  His hand ran through the thin line of Nate’s chest hair.  Nate smelled so good.  No products really dominated, there wasn’t a heavy sweat smell.  It was just Nate.

Tristan broke the kiss, panting for breath again.  Nate leaned in to kiss him again, and Tristan had to pull his head back.  “I’m out of breath.  Give me a second.  What got into you?”

“I missed you.”  Nate’s fingers stroked Tristan’s hair.

Those words made Tristan choke up just a bit, which didn’t help with the fact that he’d barely had a chance to breathe.

Nate bit his lip, then reached down for the button of Tristan’s jeans.

A reversal of months ago.

Tristan helped with the removal of the jeans.  He kicked them off.

The moment was very still.  He felt Nate’s hand.

Nate leaned in close, kissing him.  The hand moved to Tristan’s neck, instead.

“Sorry,” Tristan said, as the kiss broke.

“No pressure.”

“I can’t.”

“No worries,” Nate said.  “It’s been a har- a tough few months.”

“It doesn’t feel right, I think.  That’s why-”

“Shh.  What would feel right?”

“It sounds lame, but… can we just hold each other?”

“Anytime,” Nate whispered, stroking Tristan’s hair.  “Always.”

Day 60

Tristan knocked.

“Tristan!  Come in.  Please.  Sit.”

Tristan obeyed, entering Dr. Wall’s office, shutting the door firmly behind him, then seating himself on the couch.  Such a cliche, that there was an actual couch.

“I know we didn’t make an appointment.”

“My door is always open, provided I’m not already talking to someone.”

Tristan nodded.  The fingers on his right hand trembled.  He seized them with the fingers of his left, and the nervousness seemed to multiply.  His two clasped hands trembled together.  He unclasped them, and he smoothed down the lap of his pants before gripping his knees.

“What’s on your mind, Tristan?”

“Everything,” Tristan said.

“Well, that will only take about ten billion years to the twelfth power to get through.  Do you have the secret of immortality?  Or do you want to narrow it down some?”

It was said in a joking tone, but Tristan didn’t feel much like laughing.

“I did it,” Tristan said.  He looked at the therapist.

“What?”

“I killed my brother.”

Dr. Wall nodded.

“Maybe you misheard me?  I said-”

“I heard what you said.  I’ve been expecting this visit for a while.”

Tristan shivered, whole-body.

“Survivor’s guilt, Tristan.  It plays tricks on our minds.  We replay scenes over and over again, imagining things with a different emphasis, or we exaggerate details.  I’m honestly shocked that it took you two months to come here and say this.  I’d even say it’s a mark of extreme emotional stability.”

Tristan laughed, incredulous.  “What?  No.  No, I’m anything but emotionally stable right now.  I’m saying I killed my brother.  Deliberately.”

The smile fell from Dr. Wall’s face.  With it, Tristan’s heart plummeted down to where his balls were.  He’d expected this.

“Okay,” Dr. Wall said.  “Serious talk.  That’s a lot of weight to be carrying on your shoulders.”

Tristan was silent.

“How long have you been wanting to come here and say this?”

“I’ve been thinking about it for a month.”

Dr. Wall nodded.

“I almost told Furcate.”

“It’s probably for the best that you didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He laughed, and it sounded fake to his own ears.  “Yeah.  There’s… there’s preparations to be done beforehand.”

“Preparations?”

“I can’t- he’s in here.  He’s been in here for two months.  I can let him out, but not before I’ve done something to ensure that it’s not going to get switched around, with me stuck inside for forever.  I need to write letters, I was thinking-”

“Tristan,” Dr. Wall said.

Tristan swallowed.  His head was shaking.

“You’re a promising hero,” Dr. Wall told him, his voice level and soothing.  “And you’re clearly in a bad place.  Anyone would start to fantasize after being so close to their sibling at the time of death.”

“It’s not a fantasy,” Tristan said, hands jittery, head jittery, legs jittery.  He thought he might punch Dr. Wall, and he knew what a disaster that would be.  He’d need cooperation to write the letters, ensure he was protected when he let Byron out.

“You’re a promising hero with a lucrative career with Team Reach ahead of them.  I can tell you that nearly every hero that I’ve worked with has gone through a dark period.  Their minds play tricks on them, they replay memories in their heads until the footage becomes distorted, and honestly, we don’t love talking about it, but the powers play their role.  Yours recently changed.  You’ve been adapting, doing okay in the field with the new power.  We’re hoping it will change again.”

Tristan didn’t have a response.

“You don’t like the new power, I know.”

“No.”

“You’re still mourning your brother’s passing.”

“Yes.  No- it’s not that he passed.”

“Listen,” Dr. Wall said, voice firm.  “Anyone in your circumstance would want a magic bullet cure to what ails them.  When people aren’t coping or are finding their way to coping, they construct fantasies.  In yours, if this is a fantasy, you get your brother back, you have a resolution to a memory that would haunt anyone, and you can punish yourself for a situation what your unconscious is telling you is your fault.”

Tristan stared down at his hands.

“I can’t imagine anything more tragic than getting your parent’s hopes up, getting your own hopes up,  bringing controversy to the team and your teammates, and potentially letting word get out that would give Paris an escape clause in his court proceedings for your brother’s murder… only for nothing to come of it, a trick your grief has played on your brain.”

Tristan shook his head.  “Except I could let him out now.”

A noise made Tristan’s head turn.  He was jumpy.

“Could you?” Dr. Wall asked.

“What?”

“Could you let him out right now?”

Could he?  He’d shied away from that part of his power for so long he worried it had atrophied.  It was hard to even think about it with all of the compounded dread, each day worse than the last.  To think about doing it without the protection of a pre-existing deal, a promise from powerful people?

“Guess not,” Dr. Wall said.

Tristan shook his head.  “I can, but I need precautions first.  I screwed this up so fucking badly.  I got rid of him, but he takes up more of my day, my thoughts and my routines now than when I gave him half of my time!”

“Sit down, Tristan,” the therapist said.

He’d stood up, and he didn’t realize it.  He stood on the spot, the mechanical instructions for sitting himself down momentarily blank and blacked out.

He didn’t sit.

“If what you said were true, there isn’t a binding contract we could devise that would supercede the criminal charges.  We can’t give you a magic contract that would protect you.  You would likely see some form of punishment, including removal from the team.  The team would no doubt be devastated.  We both know Byron threatened to go to the media in the past, when he was concerned with your behavior.  He would do it in the future.”

Tristan shook his head, eyes on the floor.

“Yes?”

Tristan stopped shaking his head.

“He would.”

“Maybe.”

“We know he would, it’s a pattern we’ve seen before.”

“Yeah.”

“There’s a lot we need to talk about, and a lot of work we need to do, but we can get you to a better place, where this is well behind you.”

Deeply uncomfortable, Tristan started to turn away.  “I’m gonna-”

“I think you should stay.”

“I’m going to go,” Tristan said.

“You have a bright, brilliant future ahead of you, Tristan.  Talk to me or talk to someone here at Reach before you do anything.  We’re on your side.  You’re not alone.”

Not alone.  He’d felt so alone for so long, even the words were a comfort.

He shrugged, then turned to the door.

It was ajar.  He’d closed it on entering and now it was open.

He shut it behind him as he stepped into the hallway, pushing to make sure it couldn’t just pop open.  Belatedly, he realized he hadn’t said a farewell to Dr. Wall.

It didn’t matter.  Fear stabbed him in the gut as he looked around, checking around the corner.

When?  When he’d shouted?

He’d heard a clicking noise earlier.  Who was it?  What did they hear?

Fear gripped his heart.  If he didn’t own this?  If he didn’t release Byron with all safeguards in place?  They might condemn him.

A trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face as he looked around.  Nobody was in the exercise area, and why would an eavesdropper go straight there?  No staff in the nearby offices.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Who?

Nobody was here.  It was part of why he’d gone to Dr. Wall.

There was a distant noise.  He jogged in its direction.

Moonsong.  He felt his blood run cold.  The light streaked down the hallway, illuminating the colorful tiles.

“Hey,” Moonsong said.  “I didn’t know anyone else was around.  Do you want something?”

She indicated the vending machine.

He stared at her.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“No,” he said.

She offered him a sympathetic look.  “I don’t feel okay a lot of the time either.  I know we haven’t always gotten along, but if you ever wanted… to talk, or whatever.  Go do something, reminisce, I’m okay with that.”

He shook his head, then realized how it might be taken.  “No thanks.  Not right now.”

“Take care of yourself, Tristan.”

“You too,” he said.

They parted ways.  She went outside.  He went to his room.

The television’s channel zero-zero was to the surveillance cameras.  He found Moonsong and watched for a minute.  She seemed normal.

Seemed wasn’t good enough.

He pulled his old laptop out from beneath the bed, coated in dust and hair, and put it into his backpack.  Not a Reach laptop.  Those might be monitored.  He couldn’t use the Reach internet connection either.  He’d go to a coffee shop or library.

Insurance.  He’d need insurance.

Day 72

Helicopters cut through the air.  Searchlights illuminated a squat industrial building.  The light had a blue tinge, the building itself was terracotta.

Figurehead gave the orders.  “We go in quiet.  We move as Steamwheel orders from comms.  Twelve gifted kids on a special trip with their study group, one teacher, and one guy with a weapon and a whole lot of anger.”

Figurehead used a stick to draw in the dirt.  An overhead map, with the layout.  He placed bits of gravel down to represent the kids, and then put down a quarter.  He tapped the quarter.  “Shooter.”

“Why us and not the police?” Tristan asked.

“Because when they sent a PRT hero in covertly, he blacked out.  Same as what happens to anyone with powers is near anyone who gets powers.  Given that the situation isn’t resolved, we have to assume it was the shooter.”

“Alright,” Tristan said.  He looked at the others.  He saw smiles and nods.

It took a minute before all instructions were given.  Tristan was careful.

They probably talked it over beforehand, Tristan thought.

“Go go go!” Figurehead hissed the words.  The entire group, Steamwheel excepted, ran down the slope and along the shadowy area where the fence-mounted lights didn’t reach. They reached the fence, and Coiffure cut the fence with her hair.

Figurehead likes to fall back on the playbook.  When making up a crime, have the details be ones you already know.

He went with the group, and then they began splitting up, fanning through the building.

They asked each other if they’d talked about this one in front of me.  They must have agreed that they didn’t.

They forgot that I’ve gotten drunk with most members of the team.  I remember other people’s drunk stories.

Students on a field trip, during the day, not the evening.  One person taking them and their teachers hostage.  One of the kids triggered.

It was a training exercise or a trap.  The trap made more sense.

The moment the group had fanned out enough that Tristan wasn’t in sight of anyone, he took a detour.  Down to the basement.  Personal cell out.

Backup.  His insurance.

The intensity of the moment made the sick feeling faint and ethereal.  The trap meant they suspected.  If he could just distract, maybe things could go back to normal.

He had four names on his contact list.  Three were local.  Two fit for this situation.  Bazilizk, ‘z’s instead of ‘s’s, and Throttle.

In the dark, the glow of the screen was painfully bright.  He saw the first message pop up, and then the second.

He felt calmer than he’d imagined he would.  As if everything going as wrong as possible meant he had nothing to worry about.

He’d already laid groundwork.  The fourth name on his list was a tinker, one capable of behavior modification with needles.  He’d already planted evidence around his room, changed his schedule.

If they really did suspect him because he’d been acting strangely, he could use that, create reasonable doubt.

The alternative to that was losing his Mama and Papa.  It was losing Reach, Furcate, Figurehead, Coiffure, Tribute.  It was losing everything.

Still, he felt calm.

Twenty minutes passed.  Then thirty.  There was no commotion.  There were no gunshots or powers used.  He heard people pass by, and he knew they were looking for him.

Come on.

Another minute passed.  His screen glowed.

They were here.  The insurance.

He texted them his location in the building.

They’d give him an out, an excuse, and time, all of which were things he needed.  He’d get away, then he’d figure out his next steps.

The sick feeling was bad enough he thought he might throw up.  The costume and the armor helped, more than anything.  A wall between him and the rest of the world.

“Are we going out the way we came in?” Bazilizk asked, his voice a whisper cutting through the dark.

Tristan turned.  “Is there a better way out?”

“Not really.  Usually people don’t hire me unless they want someone to die, and going out that way will be quiet,” Bazilizk hissed.

Bazilizk was as tall as Paris, but had very broad shoulders, with elaborate decoration at the face, hands, and feet.

Throttle was more unassuming, a guy with tousled hair, a helmet that looked like wood wound around a stump, gaps left for the eyes.  His clothing was mundane and ragged, and he carried a rope.

He would be Tristan’s excuse.

“They’re expecting me to run.  They may cut us off.  If that route works, it works.  Just be prepared for an incident.  You remember the outline?”

“You want plausible deniability.  We make it look like you’re captured.”

“Yeah.”

“Do I kill anyone?” Bazilizk asked.

“No,” Tristan said.  “Not unless-”

He imagined the tables being turned.  Losing his mind as Byron lived his life.  Moonsong and the white picket fence, and the two kids with creepy Moonsong personalities.

“Not unless absolutely necessary.  No.  Scratch that- just… let’s just get out of here.”

“I want an answer,” Bazilizk stated.  “I don’t like gray areas or unclear jobs.”

Tristan thought for a long second.

It felt wrong, that Bazilizk would be that insistent.  But everything felt wrong nowadays.  Everything felt like a trap, a statement left unfinished.  Hollow.

It was as if he was playing a slow, careful game of chess, moving his pieces while only guessing as to the state of the other side of the board.

Were they even playing?  Or playing at a high level?  Could he make a decisive move, or confuse his opponent?

What they never showed in the movies was that these games that masterminds played went with stomach-churning degrees of stress and consecutive nights without a wink of sleep.  Performance faltered.  All it took was one mistake.

“No deaths, no killing.  Lead the way.”

“I’d better make it look like I caught you,” Throttle said.  “It also makes it easier to make a fast escape if I have my rope on you.”

Strangulation and fast movement, and he’d gone with Throttle.  The rope and ‘throttle’ name didn’t mesh, but the guy was supposedly competent.

“I’ll do without for now.  Just lead the way.  I’m the one paying you two.”

He saw the hesitation.

He ran.  Crimson motes painted the area around him, providing dim illumination.  Spikes like razor-tipped insect legs manifested just as he passed them.

Throttle wasn’t fast.  Or if he was, he wasn’t using his speed.

Bazilizk, fortunately, wasn’t using his killing sight.

His mercenaries had been bought out by someone else, and he knew who that someone was.

He had to get away.  Boots tromped on hard floor.  He didn’t get tired, even running in armor heavier than any medieval knight might wear, but there wasn’t much he could do about the noise.

Like an array of stylized drum beats, boot struck hard ground, metal armor rose up, settled with a series of metal on metal sounds, rose up, settled.  His heart hammered in a loose accompaniment.

Until his foot came down, and he went too far up in response.

Moonsong.

Silver strands barred his path.  Coiffure.

And then there were the others.  An entire hallway was blocked by Steamwheel’s mech.

And behind him- he couldn’t do anything except draw out spikes, buy himself a few seconds more of existence.  Just a few seconds.

Throttle reached him.  The rope, now a hangman’s noose, went around his neck.

Through that rope, he felt a power seize him.

Motes appeared, and he didn’t summon them.  His hand moved, and he hadn’t moved it.

“Ahhuh,” he made a sound, involuntary.

“Can you do it?” Moonsong asked.

Before Throttle could figure out how to make it happen, Tristan used his power, and he shifted out, slipping into the void within Byron.

Because, whatever else happened, however narrow the margin, he wanted to be able to tell himself he managed it in the end.

“I’m sorry it took so long, Boo,” Moonsong’s whisper cut through the dark, anguished.

Byron’s answering scream tore through the throat he and Tristan shared.

Tristan’s cut through nothing.  Limited to a dark void.

Present

Tristan was patient.  It was Byron’s turn.

Irony of ironies.  Barcode hadn’t brought their cape to test for brainwashing.

“All clear.”

“Thank you,” Byron said.  He reached into a pocket.

I have it.

Byron swapped out.  Tristan reached beneath his armor for an envelope, then handed it over.

There was something of a relief in the fact that they’d established something of an income stream.  The Number Man would fund them.  They’d answer the favor with cooperation, a continued supply of information, and some of Lookout’s devices.

Without that income stream, this would have been harder to sustain over the long term.  Especially with the dropping dollar.

“Gonna count.  Give me a minute.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.  He leaned back against a wall.  The Barcode hitmen walked over to where the light was stronger, and tore open the envelope to begin counting the contents.

“By,” Tristan murmured.  “I was thinking about… everything that happened, two years ago.  Been thinking about it a lot tonight.”

He swapped out.

“Mind whammies always bring up those days.  Dark feelings,” Byron said.  Swap.

Tristan, as soon as he had control, replied, “I don’t think you’ve ever given me a straight answer about why.”

Swap.

“I’ve given you answers, Tristan,” Byron’s voice was so quiet it was barely audible.

Swap.  Each finished statement was followed by one.

“Not satisfying ones.  Why?  Why didn’t you push for harsher punishment?  Why… let me go?  Why not press charges?  They wanted to arrest me for attempting to murder you.  If it hadn’t gotten snagged in the courts, interrupted by Gold Morning…”

“Your time in jail is my time in jail.  I don’t think you’re going to do it again.”

“Not with this.  Barcode.  Prevention.”

“This was always more for your sake than for mine, Tristan.”

“Is your punishment going to be you being frustratingly vague for the rest of the time we’re stuck together?”

Byron shook their head.  “You punished yourself enough.  I don’t want to dwell in that time, so I’m letting it go.  I forgive you, little brother.”

“Little?  Don’t be that fucking cliche, By.  Minutes.

“I thought it’d get your goat.”

“Uuugh.  Torture, torture.  How is it that we get along best when everything’s gone most thoroughly to shit?  Gold Morning and we reconcile.  You decide to give me this weird pseudo-forgiveness.  Tonight, prison breakout, mind control, and we have a nice chat.”

Tristan swapped.  There was a moment of thought before Byron shrugged their shoulders, then switched back.

“So vague,” Tristan grumbled.

“It’s not pseudo-forgiveness, Tristan.  I have days when I’m angry and days I’m not dealing at all.  You know I have nightmares, I freak out.  But that doesn’t make it pseudo.  It’s forgiveness, little brother.  I might have hated actually going to church, but that doesn’t mean I hated the lessons.”

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.”

“It’s not, Trist.  Let it go before I change my mind, you know?  It’s an ongoing work, but it’s a work I do for me as much as I do it for you.  So… take it without arguing.”

Byron switched to Tristan.

Tristan didn’t argue.

“We’re good,” The barcode guy said.  “We’ll see you soon, then?  Unless you need something else?”

Tristan paused.

“What?” the guy asked.

“I was thinking we might be able to do business… but I need to talk it over with my brother, first.”

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