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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89 thoughts on “Gleaming – Interlude 9.z”

  1. Jesus Christ…..I mean what else is there to be said? Byron’s proved himself to be the better person by forgiving Tristan in spite of everything he did. Also, now that Citrine and Number Man have gotten involved, things are about to get very interesting for Breakthrough.

  2. This was a whole new kind of emotionally satisfying. From the threads I read it seemed like everyone was pretty anti-past-Tristan but here I actually feel bad for him, which is ridiculous because he’s hurting from scars he’s carved. It’s just so well-written that I can’t help but feel his anguish. And the genuine confusion for why Byron was lenient at the end was incredible, and the continuity of Tristan still never quite understanding Byron’s motives, thought processes and actions; he’s still misinterpreting stuff. It’s so great to read because that’s how it would be – everyone’s minds work in different ways, it’s incredibly unlikely that you will ever 100% correctly interpret someone. Wildbow’s writing always seems so much more believable and realistic than most other stuff I read.
    Also, I AM REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO THE AFTERMATH OF THIS ARC.

    1. Eh. a lot of people manage to master understanding people who are different from you. It’s an art and a science, and a hell of a lot of work if you don’t have it naturally!

    2. I mean…it was still an explosively terrible, shitty thing to do, and the fact that it would even occur to him to do it is awful. The fact that even while the guilt caught up to him, his main concern was to prevent Byron from doing the same thing back to him. Even now, it is clear that pretty much all of their current safeguards are not for Byron’s protection, they’re for Tristan’s peace of mind. Tristan literally cannot understand the idea of Byron not wanting to do unto him as he did to Byron.

      Even in the end, when the guilt was killing him, Tristan still cared more about getting away with it than about doing the right thing. He let Byron go before he was caught…but when his capture was inevitable and the game was already up.

      Tristan’s not a sociopath, but he is a real piece of shit as a human being.

      1. He’s pretty clear in his confessional scene that he did it because he was afraid Byron was going to do it to him if he didn’t act first. Which, well, he might’ve been wrong there but both of them were spiraling pretty badly. Byron was escalating his self-harm and would probably have done something drastic, and given exactly how the psychiatrist responds in the day 60 scene I think he had the company’s interests in mind rather than theirs.

        Plus Byron did assault and start choking him that one time so I think Tristan does have reason to suspect Byron might eventually lash out at Tristan if under enough stress. And reason to be a bit confused about Byron not seeking any kind of retaliation and even protecting the person who trapped him in a living hell for 72 days straight. There aren’t many people who would do that.

        Tristan is deeply flawed, but his flaw is failure to understand people rather than malice, which is why the guilt could catch up with him. And, you know, one of his teammates is a former Endbringer-worshipping terrorist and another is a reincarnation of a murderer who got drafted into the Slaughterhouse Nine so it’s not like he’s killed an anomalously large number of people for a Breakthrough member.

        1. Also, Byron is willing to trap Tristan for an indefinite period of time under the right conditions, and is deterred from doing so by the deal with Barcode. We saw that in the early phases of last arc.

          No one is going to make anything of it because it was all in the service of countering Alignment, but it’s not something he’d never do.

          1. To be fair though, “my brother has just been mind-controlled by an angry demigod and I am the only one untouched by her influence capable of preventing this from spiraling out of hand” is a pretty extenuating circumstance. That wasn’t selfish in the least on Byron’s part.

      2. I agree that the safeguards are for Tristan’s peace of mind, but I think you have it a bit backwards. Tristan’s scared that he might do the same thing again, he needs safeguards to feel like he’s safe from himself. He doesn’t understand the forgiveness, but he also doesn’t seem worried that Byron will turn the tables on him anymore, just confused that Byron didn’t push for a harsher punishment. Even in the past, Tristan seemed more worried that Byron had been driven insane by the months of being trapped, not that he’d purposefully trap Tristan in the same way.

  3. Interesting—so it’s basically confirmed that Capricorn’s powers wax and wane depending on who’s getting more time.

    1. Or maybe it was Byron lashing out inside that caused the red autonomous angry spikes of doom, and Tristan got back to his more standard sculptures once Byron forgave him. The few results we have are subjective as it gets. Not enough data points, for one, but I’m not expecting anything like that.
      Worm has proved that midichlorians were a bad idea, and hopefully Ward will nail that coffin shut even further.

      1. We do have the Passengers as a known factor making powers various degrees of screwy, so anything’s technically possible, but having it be controlled by the active brother while shifting material based on the emotions of the inactive brother would be pretty weird even for weird power things.

    2. I’m still dubious that’s the story in its entirety; Tristan is currently waxing but as far as we know they’re averaging out to an even split with Tristan trading off time not spent with Breakthrough whenever he wants extra. My money remains on it being about getting more time around parahumans in a similar matter to how Eidolon drew power. Based on the trigger vision I think this is the Shard Scion used to help out Eden after the collision and their visible powers are actually a specialization of the mechanism like how Jack Slash used Broadcast for a ranged attack.

      Also I think the material is correlated to their relationship but it’s more about each brother’s own emotional state. And I suspect Furcate was at least partially right about it being the power screwing with them; the deadly, flailing razors seem to me to be the Shard’s way of saying “You have a duo thing. Your thing is to switch back and forth to exploit your paired powers. You will do your thing or you will regret it. Let him out.”

  4. Typo thread:

    >Even the pair of them being out would be a hell of dread and mortal worry.

    Unclear what both of them “being out” means. Is he considering the possibility of their Case 70/body sharing status being undone, or does “being out” refer to his homosexuality, or something else?

    >It let him get in the car immediately, getting ready in the back while the driver focused on the road

    Consider, “This enabled him to get in the car immediately…” eliminates the ambiguity of whether “it” refers to the driver

    >A conspiracy to start.

    “A conspiracy, to start.”

    >The kind that wasn’t available on Gimel, unless people were willing to pay a premium for otherwise premium clothes from elsewhere.

    “The kind that weren’t available on Gimel…”

    >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.

    “Stuff… was expensive enough”

    >A pair of black birds flew down to feast, maybe ravens – they were large enough. An officer waved it off.

    “An officer waved them off.”

    >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

    “We can provide information when we provide it to the other teams, and we’ll encourage the law enforcement and parahuman patrols to cooperate with you, insofar as the mayor can do that”

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

    Weird tense choice; consider, “The collection process was going to involve using Mama Mathers and Scapegoat,” Rain volunteered.

    >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

    “…even a joke there wasn’t out of place…”

    > Breakout, by our narrative, was captured later broke free more decisively.”

    Breakout, by our narrative, was captured later and broke free more decisively.”

    >pushing him down against the bad

    “against the bed”

    >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.

    Rephrase for clarity

    1. He could imagine the scenarios. Even the pair of them being out would be a hell of dread and mortal worry.
      -What does this mean?

      Her clothes were nicer than Kurt’s. The kind that wasn’t available on Gimel,
      -I want to say that wasn’t should be weren’t, but I’m really not sure about it.

      I want everything possible that you have on Case Fifty-Threes and on Case Seventies.
      -Why did he add in ‘possible’? It’s covered by ‘everything you have’.

      Kenzie being happy and laughing was all well and good, and even a joke where wasn’t out of place,
      -joke wasn’t

      “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.”
      -candy,

      and you can punish yourself for a situation what your unconscious is telling you is your fault.”
      -that your

      “I can’t imagine anything more tragic than getting your parent’s hopes up,
      -parents’

      Same as what happens to anyone with powers is near anyone who gets powers.
      -drop the ‘is’

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

    2. “the cliff he was was expected to jump from.”

      “They were honest ones.”
      Extra spaces.

      “with the assistant Warden.”
      “what we told the Warden differed,”
      Extra confusing now that the actual Wardens are mentioned in the same chapter.

  5. 72 days of being in Tristan’s head, looking out and hearing it all, every moment and second, every single word and being totally unable to do anything about it, that’s… I’m not sure if I could have forgiven Tristan were I Byron.

    This was a great chapter.

    1. I think… They key thing was he could feel what Tristan was feeling. So he knew the guilt was real. But Tristan… He wasn’t brave enough to actually do it, to own up and accept he couldn’t mitigate it. All he could do was dig a deeper hole. And Byron knows what that hell of being locked in the void is really like. And they can’t put Tristan in jail or otherwise punish him without Byron having to deal with it.

      Forgiveness might have been the only thing Byron could do.

      1. I don’t think emotions transfer over. Byron’s good at reading Tristan- better than Tristan is at reading Byron- but what Byron feels is what Byron’s feeling. Not what Tristan’s feeling. He does also the advantage of feeling everything the body feels- heartbeat, etc- but emotions themselves? Don’t transfer over.

        I am aware that forgiveness might have been the only thing Byron could do, I just don’t know if I could have done it myself.

        1. Emotions transfer over.

          “Byron could feel the guilt, the disappointment, surging through a body that wasn’t his. He had little doubt the emotions had absolutely nothing to do with him and his own part in this.” Gleaming 9.x

          1. They can’t read each other’s minds, but emotions are physiological responses, and they can feel that. Byron has misread Tristan before, attributing more forethought to him than Tristan was capable of, but seventy two days of increasing guilt would probably drive the point home.

  6. Hm…is Tristan thinking that he and Byron could potentially be separated by Barcode’s help?

    Monokeros is all alone in a hole in a parallel Earth and anyone that cares about her has been told she’s dead. Good.

    It’s interesting, there’s no mention of Furcate in the scene where they takedown Tristan. I wonder if they weren’t trusted to help due to their closeness with Tristan?

    1. Barcode’s the hitmen paid to take care of the brothers if either of them start abusing their two-hour slots, refuse to release the other, or start getting mind-controlled to manipulate their switches.

      Cauldron might have some research that could split the brothers, I’m sure they tried to replicate Case 70s to understand how they happen and work.

      I think Furcate was close to both brothers, in different ways. Tristan’s good at noticing things in the background; he noticed the bar-lady serving Byron and leaving when they went in with Moonsong, for example, which helps him keep general track of how people are doing, whilst Byron’s better at focusing on one person at a time. Tristan, being gay, had the closest experience to Furcate’s in the team, but I think Byron would probably have been closer if it weren’t for the half-dating-Moonsong thing, even though I can’t quite figure out why I think that.

  7. Now this is quality character growth backstory, loved every sentence of it.
    And hey, Glow-worm 0.2 re-reads great afterwards!

    1. Oh damn, you’re right. Moonsong saying she regrets leaving him alive after *this* event, I guess, really makes a lot of things connect.

      And apparently Moonsong can tell whether it’s Byron or Tristan active on chat as soon as they arrive, which is interesting. Maybe she kept a bit of Byron-water in a jar, and thus incidentally sees when it turns to rock, but mostly checks to see if it turns to spiky, hostile bits like when Tristan pulled his bullshit the first time? Byron is all about forgiveness but I can see Moonsong holding that sort of grudge forever.

      1. I doubt that moon has some water in the jar. Remember, in order for the material to switch, it has to be “alive” still. If it isn’t, it is permanent and part of the normal world as much as matter from nowhere can be.
        So, they would have to be aware of it in the back of their minds and both would have to agree to keep it alive. If one doesn’t, it’ll be a rock or a jar of water permanently.

        I can’t see why Tristan would agree to giving moon that if he finds hitmen to keep track of the switch themselves with texting and meet ups. If they could just use jars, they might add that measure in there. Alternatively, he would give a jar to moon to give her peace of mind that by is getting his time, and give another jar to his bf or anyone on his side to ensure he gets his time as well, and that would be the same thing only cheaper.

  8. Moonsong’s got some major badass nerves to pull that innocent act right after confirming her worst fears after two months. Waiting almost two weeks to act upon it must have been hell as well.
    Hell hath no fury, as they say. No real surprise about their current relationship.

      1. I imagine she can’t understand how Byron can forgive Tristan. She’s got her bad traits… But I don’t fault her for not trusting Tristan after that, and always wanting to check on Byron.

        1. Yeah. “switch to by, now” makes a TON more sense.
          “I can’t fucking trust your word, nor the word of your teammates, you manip. ass”

    1. I think he was a very good therapist as far as the people who paid his salary were concerned. Look where he goes right away; he tells Tristan that if this gets out it’ll hurt the brand. Then the rest is a nicely couched “nice career you’ve got here. Be a shame if something happened to it.”

      It’s all kindly phrased and totally deniable, but at base he’s not offering help, he’s making an implicit threat. Tristan hears it quite clearly.

  9. Well Tristan, as they saying goes, be careful what you wish for… Or maybe more accuratly you found out that you do something you talk yourself into thinking you have to, but know is wrong, it won’t work out like you think.

    Interesting to see the two brother’s mindsets, and how they contrast. Tristan’s better with people, but they way he thinks there’s just things that Byron gets that he can’t.

  10. fantastic chapter
    as far as i see it, that shows that tristan is not a good person, but deffinetly not a monster, or at least, he was not a good person before, hence he cant even undertand the concept of not seeking revenge.
    also, byron is genuinally a good person.
    again, great chapter, the only thing missinf is Thief of Words, appearing with pseudo apologies and complaining about how everything is edgy and that he will stop reading

  11. Oh, nice. I really like how this ended with Tristan wanting to consult Byron before negotiating this job, as a callback to the Byron interlude where he was just plowing forward with joining Reach and denying Byron his say.

  12. Yeah… after 72 days of pure hell screaming is definitely the response to being freed you’d expect. Jesus poor Byron.

    Weirdly this chapter still managed to soften my opinions on Tristan, seeing everything from his perspective does that I guess.

  13. Wow. Some good heroing from Moonsong. Sees through him at the beginning. Lies low and acts normal. Catches him in the confession (and btw how F$&@ed up is it that Reach’s doc was going to try to cover it up). Sets up an ambush, detects and deflects his attempt to hire an assasin, and saves her boo.

    Moonsong has her faults, but great work from her here.

  14. Welp, I told myself that there was no way WB could make me feel sorry for Tristan after the shit he pulled, but I should have known better than to doubt. Mind you, I still can’t really forgive him, and I think Byron deserves sainthood for doing so, but I get Tristan now. I think this kind of character study is where WB’s writing really shines, when you can take a character you never really understood or sympathized with and then be made to say, “okay, yeah, I get them now”. Ashley’s interludes are, I think, still the best example of this.

    Oh yeah, and Breakthrough is founded by Cauldron now? So that’s not gonna be weird at all. I’m amazed they got Sveta to agree to that.

  15. You know if I was Byron I’d get drunk and basically do whatever the hell I wanted for a day or two. I love that I can sympathize with Tristan while also seeing that he caused this and deserves the pain he’s suffering. It’s also ironic how he has his life back, but is unable to enjoy any of it because of the guilt. At least Tristan isn’t a sociopath like I originally thought.

    1. Given how Byron’s reaction is just described as “screaming” my guess is he was so badly traumatized by the event that he ended up in a parahuman asylum like Vicky. Maybe they were even in the same building!

  16. Ward; a story about siblings dealing with each other, in various orders of stability. Ahsly and Ashley, well they’re clones and are getting along nicely. When they fall out, I have no desire to be near that blast zone, or even in the same universe. Then there’s the slow rebuilding happening between Byron and Tristan.

    I think Tristand and Byron and Swansong and Damsel are mirrors to aspects of the main two siblings in this story.

      1. He did mention them, right at the end. Anyway, those two go without saying.

        The real omissions are Kenzie, Chris, Rain, and Sveta, who have no siblings. Yet. That will need fixing… Well, the obvious solution for Kenzie and Chris is for Monokeros to find her way back and adopt them both. For Rain, we’ll just need a reveal that Cradle is his brother, who was accidentally left behind at a fast food joint by the Fraziers as a baby and was “adopted” by a marginally more respectable family. As for Sveta, at some point it’ll occur to Number Man to inform her that they also nabbed her sister way back when, and that she now goes by Ratcatcher.

        Oh, and I guess Jessica and Lung need siblings. How convenient that we don’t know Lung’s surname.

          1. I’m actually not very familiar with Psycho Gecko since I mostly binged through Worm without paying much attention to the comments. So no, he’s not my mentor. But there are the striking avatars, fetching names that abbreviate to PG, and of course the great minds thinking alike, so perhaps, just maybe, he is my Slashley.

            Attention Psycho Gecko: If you’ll be my clone sister, I can be your pizza pie. I can call you Ashley, and Ashley when you call me, we can help folks die.

      2. I skipped mentioning Amy and Vicky because mostly becaue they have been dicussed quite often already. Pizzaisgood nailed it there.

        There’s even the sidelier of Tattletale and Imp being united in grief through loss of their ownsiblings. Hell, Tattletale has her trigger due to her brother.

        Also, I think Lung’s full name is ‘Lung Yamada’ now…

        And finally, Pizzaisgood, if the Gecko is silently mentoring you, then I shall assist as I can with out there Batshit ideas, such as “W e now present a well balanced discussion betwen our guests, Donald Trump , Michael Moore, Dennis Skinner (a Member of Parliament) Germaine Greer, and U.K hand puppet children’s tv show star, ‘Basil Brush’.”

        1. Actually, Lung is his codename; it’s Chinese for Dragon. His given name is Kenta.

          On the topic of names, mine’s Pizzasgood, not Pizzaisgood. You can pretend there’s an apostrophe in the middle covering up the missing i if it makes your inner pedant or pirate feel better, but that fantasy will not accurately reflect the reality of my choice to use an invisible apostrophe, so take care that it does not lead your fingers astray as they dance upon the lumpy field of letters. And if you must misspell my name, the preferred misspelling is Pizzasgod, for I am the Anchovy and the Oregano, the Point and the Crust, the Delivery and the DiGiorno. 8)

          1. Lol, that does indeed remind a tad of Gecko. And you’re definitely evil if you like anchovies… But then again, I like Chip Butties… (In the US that should translate to ‘Steak fry’ sandwich.

            And I remembered about Lung being a cape name half an hour after posting , And thought, ‘Bugger, oh well, someone will catch that.’ So ‘Kenta Yamada’ it is.

            P.S, Never forget no matter how evil someone can get, I can trump them with Welsh place names like a train station called,

            ‘LLanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwerndrobwlllantiysiliogogogoch.’ Google it and if you try to say it, Gargle it

          2. @Shawn: …typo.
            > Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.
            Still, a Levenshtein distance of 3 is rather respectable.

    1. Ashley’s clones can’t hurt each other with their power blasts, so that’s one terrible nightmare off the table right there. They can finally hug a family member without fearing the worst; something to fall back to, you could say.
      I hope this will prevent any kind of strife between them.

  17. Great chapter, really wish we got more insight as to what exactly happened next though. Their parents reactions, hopefully the comfort of Byron from everyone, etc.

  18. Kudos. Thank you for relieving the tension in your readers. I do hope the team gets a few chapters of being treated decently.

    Also, again, the portrayal of Tristan’s sexuality is very realistic. The additional level of carnality, compared to other liaisons in Ward/Worm, is a great touch.

  19. I wonder if Slashley just gets to walk away and join Breakthrough now, and does Ashley get to come back? Is Victoria going to have two roommates in that apartment now?

    I mean I know we should be focusing on how Tristan has grown as a person since the events of his past, or on the fact that things seem to be progressing with Breakthrough and Cauldron potentially working together, but honestly I’m more focused on knowing just what is going to happen to the former prisoner members of the team now that the prison is gone.

    Also another tangent, Rain got called Rain O’fire by Citrine, is he going to be forced into using his real name as his cape name, by outside elements? Kind of like how Skitter didn’t get to choose her Cape name.
    What the heck is Barcode going to do? Are they going to track down Chris?

    So many questions that are only tangentially related to the main focus of this interlude!

    1. What the heck is Barcode going to do?

      Isn’t it obvious? If Kenzie is going to begin selling devices to generate revenue, those devices are going to need a standardized machine-readable means of product identification. She could implement a solution herself, but she’s overworked as it is. So, Tristan is being a good leader and delegating that task to Barcode.

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

    Tristan’s not lying, though. Life imprisonment in a hole in the ground of a world that’s closed off *is* a permanent end to her. He’s not actually saying she’s dead.

  21. So Tristan didn’t have sex with Nate but blew him instead? Not sure that’s better tbh

    Tristan you fucking asshole.

      1. Then I’m genuinely confused. It mentioned that in his fantasies it wasn’t this sweaty. Making out and petting was allowed pretty sure, so this would have to be something new, no?

  22. So… the main take away from this chapter is that Tristan kind of owes Moonsong big time.

    I mean like… literally she saved his brother’s life, and saved T from making a horrific mistake even worse.
    And if T actually VALUES his brother, he shouldn’t be insulting her and arguing with her every chance he gets, he should be THANKING her.
    “Thank you for what you did. Thank you for rescuing By”.

    But instead he gives her crap. He calls her deluded. He calls her a Bigot (which is mostly just an informed ability told to us by T. I’m not saying she doesn’t screw up on that score… but based on what we actually see her DO, it feels like that was stuff she was brought up with, not stuff she BELIEVES in).

    The fact that she was actually there and supportive of him while By was “Dead”, and he just LIED TO HER, makes it even more shitty.

    And then AFTER this is all over what? He doesn’t apologize? He doesn’t say “Hey thanks”? He doesn’t even recognize that what she did meant something?
    That’s pretty fricken blind, even by T’s standards.

    1. I mean Furcate has implied that Moonsong was shitty to them too
      I don’t think we need to be SHOWN the queerphobia to believe that it was there -_-

      but yeah there’s a lot more to see there 0.o

    2. Why would Tristan feel that he owes Moonsong anything? He wouldn’t see her actions as rescuing Byron since he’d already made the decision to release him and was just trying to figure out how to do it in a way that wouldn’t result in Byron taking over for the rest of their lives and everybody else calling it justice. Byron wasn’t going to do that, of course, but Tristan truly believed it was how things would go. So if anything, Tristan likely views Moonsong as a reckless meddler who risked his life on the chance that Byron wouldn’t retaliate in kind, assuming she even cared what would happen to Tristan once Byron was out. It was no secret she didn’t like him, and after finding out what he’d done to Byron, I’d be surprised if she wasn’t fine with the prospect of Tristan never having control again — I certainly would have been, in her shoes. And her later behavior implies that this is indeed the case.

      Even if we assume that Tristan believes Moonsong knew exactly how Byron would react, and that he therefor views her actions as ripping off the band-aid rather than gambling with his life, she still only expedited Byron’s release. She did them both a favor, but a favor is only worth so much goodwill. Moonsong being Moonsong and having legitimate cause to be mortally angry with Tristan, she probably exhausted that goodwill and then some during the period between Byron being freed and Scion catching rabies from Jack.

      Even so, Tristan tried to maintain civility when they encountered each other in Glow Worm up until he perceived her comment about him caring about people as an attack (which it may well have been, but I can also see it as banter in response to his comment about her skill with words — which I could also see her interpreting as an attack, though it’s more of a stretch). Even then, he was mostly just grumbling about what may or may not have been barbs… up until she straight up told him she spent a lot of time hoping he’d died. Then he went on the offensive. And at the Warden’s HQ, it was Moonsong who initiated hostilities. Tristan remained polite (and even stopped Kenzie from standing up for him) through Moonsong’s initial harassment and use of powers on the entire team. He finally called her deluded as an immediate response to being called a sociopath. I probably wouldn’t treat him any better in Moonsong’s shoes (though I’d hopefully be more accurate in my insults), but I don’t think he’s reacting unreasonably either.

      You say he hasn’t apologized, but I point in rebuttal at the time gap between Byron’s release and Scion catching rabies. If he was going to apologize, he’d have done it then while the emotions were fresh, and I’m sure he did (he did actually feel bad about the pain he caused her, and right away, too). Obviously Moonsong didn’t accept it. When somebody refuses to accept a sincere apology, you can either keep begging, or you can shrug and get on with your life. Or go conquer an Earth, I guess. Byron probably would have vetoed that last one though.

      1. If he had a shred of decency he’d take every scrap of abuse she and anyone else deigned to heap on him and politely ask for more after.

        He committed a supernatural equivalent of kidnapping his brother, drugging him into paralysis, and locking him in a dark basement with a video feed into Tristan’s life. If it were at all feasible, he should be in jail for life no matter how “sorry” he supposedly is.

        That people actually feel sorry for him after this chapter astounds and sickens me. There is nothing defensible about his actions even with the post hoc justifications he came up to make himself feel better about being such a subhuman piece of shit, and it makes me sad there are so many people out there who are so easily manipulated by it.

        I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, even Charles Manson has his fucking groupies, but somehow I’m still disappointed.

        1. Dude. Sympathizing with somebody does not mean that you condone or even forgive their actions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their justifications, absolve them of consequences, or have no consideration for their victims. It only means that you feel where they’re coming from.

          I don’t know enough about Manson to sympathize with him, and I don’t really care to. But Tristan? Yeah, I can understand how Tristan felt, how he could make that error, and how he could then drag out the process of freeing Bryon. If you think that being able to understand this and feel empathy for him is somehow disturbing, then you may kindly go and sit vigorously upon a rusty fence post. (Same goes for the folks who are disturbed by people feeling sympathy for Bryon when he strangled Tristan, or with Amy, Victoria, Ashley, Taylor, or…) The world needs more understanding, not less.

          He committed a supernatural equivalent of kidnapping his brother, drugging him into paralysis, and locking him in a dark basement with a video feed into Tristan’s life. If it were at all feasible, he should be in jail for life no matter how “sorry” he supposedly is.
          He was also a fourteen year old with an alien parasite fucking with his brain and forcing him to give up half his life. What he did was terrible, but not terrible enough to spend the rest of his life in prison. In fact, in real-life, the Supreme Court ruled in 2011 that sentencing a minor to life without parole for anything less than intentional homicide violates the Eighth Amendment. That means the most he could be given IRL would be life with the possibility of parole, and between Tristan’s social competency and the fact that he is genuinely remorseful and striving to be a better person, he’d get that parole. And rightly so.

          Prison doesn’t exist as a mechanism for victims to get revenge, nor as a way to provide peace of mind to the emotionally fragile. Prison exists primarily to keep people who can’t coexist with society out of society, and it has a secondary purpose in attempting to reform the less broken of the inmates so that they can coexist with the rest of us again. Tristan doesn’t belong there any more than Rain does. At most, he deserved a short stint to serve as a swift kick in the ass and perspective check. He seems to have accomplished that without prison (the end of the world has that effect), so now prison is no longer necessary or appropriate.

  23. Wow I can’t believe I’m saying this but I think I can understand where Tristan’s coming from, albeit this reminds me of back when I was a little kid and felt guilty for doing something wrong and tried my hardest to pretend like nothing happened, and try cover my ass. That’s what past Tristan reminds me of.

    Don’t get me wrong, I still believe his actions are irredeemable and I wouldn’t be as strong as Bryon is about the situation, but it’s definitely difficult to come up with an appropriate situation, given how Bryon and Tristan work. Though I guess one solution could’ve been to have Bryon in control for 72 days. Sounds fair to me.

  24. Ward.

    A story about family.

    Two sisters caught in an incestuous mind-rape with each other learn that just being around each other just gets worse and worse.

    A youth learns that he has to leave the love of his life because she’s a pawn from his mind-rape cult of murderers that will kill him if they learn he defected from their beliefs.

    Two brothers who can’t understand each other slowly devolve into worse case scenarios until everything goes to complete shit and a 72 day confinement.

    A little girl wants a family after her first family abuses her for her entire life, then she lives with a perfect couple, who she accidentally molests when trying to figure out how to pay back their kindness and then has them leave her life forever.

    Two clones learn that they are just perfect and they should be the Queens.

    Okay, that last one doesn’t fit the theme, but I’m sure Wildbow will tell us why they aren’t perfect together.

    1. Those last two are the unknown quanity and are a ticking time bomb. All the other siblings are slowly developing coping strategies with each other, even if it is badly. My money iss on the ‘stable’ sisters falling out at some point and gunning for each other.

      Swansong goes full hero thanks to her Morality chain, which is Kenzie (Oh, and never let Kenzie spend time long with Imp btw, It would have Vicky and Lisa ‘allied’ on your ass) and Damsel decides that oen of them has to remain sensible ad sicne all of the ther villains have buggered off to Earth Bet, then she is now the big cheese.

      Plus the hero that will chase her down witll be Swansong, which measnit take her to taer herself down, showing just how awesome she must be.

  25. Grr. Breakthrough was in a position to demand answers yet didn’t bother to ask the key question: what is everyone else busy doing? I mean, two of the biggest players made moves to secure control of a huge concentration of Parahumans and neither Cauldron nor the Wardens reacted. Granted, Goddess’s Alignment made it really hard to use Parahumans against her, but the Wardens have at least some countermeasures. Why did the prison, of all places, slip through the cracks? Valkryie has Doormaker; she’s ten seconds from anywhere. Why were Goddess and Lung not a problem severe enough to merit her presence? I mean, has she stumbled over Abbadon’s target world and got drafted into fighting thirty Endbringers or something?

    1. Valkyrie has Doormaker, but she’s missing the Clairvoyant – without C, D is just a glorified line-of-sight portal.

  26. So…what was Throttle’s power? How he did get Byron out (or almost get him out before Tristan did it voluntarily) And why did Tristan hire Throttle ?

    1. Guessing a cluster trigger, one Mover power and one rope-related power and a pun for a name. The rope power is a Master power on whoever he has the rope on, it lets him control movements and powers, but apparently doesn’t prevent them from controlling anything he’s not actively controlling.

      Tristan hired him to fake a kidnapping; I’m guessing the goal was to run to Barcode or analogue and go back to the 4-4 split without being arrested, like he’d been planning for on day 60.

      1. And a Trump power- he was asked if he could swap Tristan/Byron whilst they were caught in his noose. Could instead be Master, controlling the person he’s got caught, rather than Trump controlling just the powers. Tristan swapped out before Throttle figured it out.

        1. Thanks 🙂 So I’m guessing that means Moonsong set it up from the beginning. Else what’s the odds of Tristan hiring a mercenary with that specific power?

          1. Quite good, since he needed a cape who could capture him, stop him resisting and get away without being stopped. More likely (in my mind), Moonsong compromised Tristan’s computer and re-hired Throttle and Bazilizk with more money.

            Moonsong’s dad was a politician, and I strongly suspect Moonsong is a Cauldron cape. Both suggest she’s got the funds to hire mercenaries out from under Tristan’s feet.

          2. Tristan specifically sought out somebody with that specific power as a countermeasure against Byron. Remember, he desperately wanted to release Byron, but he was terrified that Byron would then take over and refuse to share. So, Tristan found a cape who’d be able to override Byron and force a switch back to Tristan if that happened.

            At the same time, Moonsong would have been looking for somebody with the very same ability, but with the intent of using it on Tristan instead of Byron. That search would have led them both to Throttle, meaning there’s no need to assume espionage or clever maneuvering on Moonsong’s part. They were both talking to Throttle, and Throttle probably let something slip that tipped Moonsong off to Tristan’s interest. Assuming she didn’t get to Throttle first, in which case it would have been a happy surprise to the both of them when their target followed on her heels.

      2. I have just realised I’d misread this when I first replied to it. My other comment doesn’t add anything guy hasn’t already covered.

  27. Just an FYI for Wildbow: I don’t believe the last two Interludes have been making it to RSS. At least on Feedly, I’ve not gotten updates for a week and checked in last night to find out that there were two interludes waiting for me.

    If there are other RSS users who are seeing this comment and can refute I’d love to hear it, I can’t tell if this is a Feedly issue, just me, or a general RSS issue.

  28. I have a hard time understanding what was Tristan’s original plan. He planned for himself to be kidnapped with plausible deniability – to do what? It should have something to do with setting precautions for letting Byron out, but I fail to see how kidnapping could help.

    1. His main goal was to find capes who could force Byron to switch back to him (i.e. Throttle), but he also wanted to find a way to duck responsibility. So, what if Byron was only critically injured and their power refused to let them switch until he’d healed? That explains away Tristan’s initial belief that Byron was dead. Now suppose that Byron healed enough to switch after a few weeks, but by that point Tristan had given up hope and stopped trying. He continues on for over a month without trying to switch at all, while Byron sits there losing his mind. Finally, after being kidnapped by supervillains, Tristan panics and grasps at straws, and lo! Byron miraculously pops out to save the day! But Byron is very unhappy about what happened and has a very distorted view of events, blaming Tristan for purposefully locking him away. Meanwhile, Tristan realizes that it’s his fault Byron was stuck in there for so long! He shouldn’t have given up; he should have believed in Byron and kept trying to switch every day. Every minute of every day! Tristan is a terrible brother and he feels oh so guilty! Byron is right, this is all his fault!

      Tristan also mentioned a tinker who does behavior modification. It’s possible that he intended for the kidnapping to give that Tinker time to adjust Byron to the point where he’d go along with the story, or alternately to provide an excuse beyond simple madness for why Byron’s story doesn’t match Tristan’s. “He tortured us and made us believe things that weren’t true!”

      1. > a tinker who does behavior modification

        Oh my. I kind of missed it, thank you for pointing it out. That’s even worse than I thought.

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