“I’ve got it,” Natalie told me. She squeezed past me to get to the door, took the keys I had in the flat of my hand and opened it, stepping inside to hold it open.
I had Kenzie in my arms. She was skinny, but her clothes for the cold weather were puffy, and it meant my arms had to go around more. My arm still twinged from the gunshot wound in the left bicep, and my right hand had bandages around it, inside the glove though the skin was on its way to healing.
Kenzie, meanwhile, was resting her face against my shoulder. When the cold weather had blustered, she had ducked her head down, and she hadn’t lifted her head back up.
The kettle was already starting to boil in the other room as we kicked off boots and got ourselves sorted in the front hallway. Ashley took her boots off and stalked off into the kitchen with her coat still on.
Kenzie and I couldn’t take our coats off either, since I was carrying her. Natalie did help me remove her hat and boots, though.
“Hold on,” Ashley said, as I entered the living room. She had a sheet in hand.
The couch was quickly stripped of the backing cushions and then made up with a bottom sheet. It took Ashley, Natalie and me to ease Kenzie down to a sitting position on the couch. Kenzie had been shot twice and had undergone three surgeries in a thirty-six hour span.
“I’m a bit embarrassed,” Kenzie said.
“You’re fine,” Ashley told her.
“It’s going to change how you guys all see me.”
“We already know you,” Ashley said. “Nothing to change.”
“It’s one thing if I talk about how I used to be, but if you actually see it then it’s worse.”
“Was that how you used to be?” I asked.
“Volume down. Keep it at a two or three on the volume knob,” Ashley said.
“I’m not saying anything’s changed. I’m trying to give you a chance to expand on your thoughts there,” I said.
“I remember feeling like I did tonight. Except it was all the time, and it ended up with me going to the hospital because nobody could get me to stop, even me.”
“You stopped,” Ashley said. “You aren’t who you are then.”
“But I feel like I did then.”
“We all backslide. Tomorrow we’ll return to business as usual. Some people will say apologies. If it makes you feel better, you can say yours.”
“Apologies are for the other person.”
“We can agree to disagree on that,” Ashley told Kenzie. “For now, do you want a snack?”
“Yes please,” Kenzie said.
“Some tea to help you get to sleep?”
“Okay. Whatever works. I don’t know about that.”
“Get comfortable. I’ll bring snacks, then I’ll get the rest of your blankets.”
Ashley stepped into the kitchen, past Natalie, who was warily watching Damsel, and then past Damsel, who loomed at the doorway, shadowy, with claws at the frame.
From my vantage point, more used to this kind of scene, I could see Kenzie raise a hand to give Damsel a little wave, and I could see Damsel smile. When Damsel turned to go help Ashley, I saw the bed-head, a lick of hair at the back and the side that was pressed down.
I was pretty sure Natalie didn’t see that. That Natalie saw Damsel reach out for Ashley with knife-fingers, touching them to Ashley’s back, and leaned in close- but didn’t see that Ashley was putting away the tea bags that Damsel had taken out of the cupboard, instead getting out the little jars of loose leaf teas and the tea infuser.
“This wasn’t what I expected, when I thought about having a sleepover,” Kenzie admitted. She smiled. “I thought it would feel happier.”
“Tomorrow will be brighter,” I said.
“I feel weird, not having my tech. You said to leave it behind, but I’m used to falling asleep to the glow of the screen.”
“It’ll be good to try and sleep normally,” I told her. “No late-night tinkering. Eat, drink, sleep, enjoy your time with Ashley. Recharge.”
“I recharge by plugging in, though.”
“You’re human. You’re a mammal. As much as any dog, cat, mouse or elephant, you should be able to enjoy a good nap, warmth, companionship, and treats. They’re universal.”
Kenzie drew in a deep breath, then huffed. “Are you staying, Natalie?”
“I don’t think so. Even if I was welcome, I think I should really be back at my apartment, getting organized for going back to work. I’ll stay long enough to make sure you’re comfortable, and then I’ll be by first thing in the morning to pick you up.”
“I’ll be right back,” I said.
I checked on the Ashleys in the kitchen, and they seemed to be fine. Ashley had her arms folded while she leaned against the counter, and was inaudible as she talked to her sister.
“Does she need something?” Ashley asked, as she saw me. “Do you?”
“I’m just going to get sheets and blankets to make up her bed.”
“There’s a nice throw in the drawer under the coffee table. When you go to the closet for sheets, get the ones from the top shelf. Someone lacerated the nicer sheets.”
“I bought the nicer sheets,” was the response.
“With our shared money. If you refuse to fix your hands, you get to sleep in rags like a peasant.”
I rolled my eyes, and headed toward the closet door. Natalie was talking to Kenzie in a quiet voice, while Kenzie was lying down with her head on a throw pillow. I stopped to watch for a second.
In the other room, I heard the continued dialogue. “The hands are not changing, my dear whitewashed clone. I’m happy with them. They’ll be needed when I go.”
“Go? So you’ve decided?”
“It’s crowded. I’ve deigned to give you free reign, let you have your guests-”
“Guests you like. Also, this is my apartment. Paid for with money they gave me for my help in research.”
“That I contributed to as well. I earned my due, and you’d have nothing without my share of it.”
“I’d have something. I’m disappointed either way. You’re better than this.”
“I’m better than this. This is all very cute. Your friends are… cute. But they’re yours. I’m restless, and you know what this restlessness feels like.”
“I know what it is and what it becomes.”
“I’ve agreed to be good, little clone, because I didn’t want to bring trouble down on your head, and I’m willing to play along with the rules. I committed crimes, they got me, they were taking care of me, and I didn’t want to spend any more winters hungry. Fine. I’ll stay in prison, even if I could easily escape.”
“But there are no rules, there is no prison, and they’ve forgotten about me. I’ll make my mark. I’ll carve out a place for myself, and I’ll build a citadel that makes this cute little hovel feel paltry.”
“You can’t build anything if the energy you’re using is pure ‘restlessness’, if you want to call it that. You definitely can’t if your judgment is so clouded that you think this apartment is anything but great.”
I stopped eavesdropping and left them to their bickering, relatively confident they’d stop when the tea was done steeping. I might not have listened in at another time, but the two were volatile on their own and there was that one in a hundred chance that they could be explosively volatile if they clashed. It was better if I could step in before they got heated enough to disturb Kenzie.
I gathered up the blankets from the closet, stole a pillow from a bed, then took it all to the couch.
Kenzie was already asleep, without blankets or pillow, dozing off to the background noise of Ashley and her clone sniping at each other.
“Are they aware we can hear them?” Natalie asked. She was sitting by the couch, Kenzie’s colorful backpack resting against her lap.
“Doesn’t matter,” I said.
“Isn’t it concerning if the scary version of your teammate is talking about leaving to be a villain?”
“She makes noise about this now and then. I’ve tried to convince her and she doesn’t tend to listen. She’s gradually working her way up to it, but…”
I paused to listen to the back-and-forth. I couldn’t make out all of the words, but I could definitely make out the tension.
“…Not tonight. Probably.”
“Okay,” Natalie said. Her forehead creased with lines.
“Something to worry about another day, if our Ashley doesn’t have input or ideas. For today, I think we’ve worried enough. Give me a hand?”
Kenzie roused only a bit as we set the sheet and heavier blanket down over top, with the folded throw blanket over her feet. Her lifting her head up was a chance for me to get the couch pillow out from under her head and put a real pillow there instead. Somewhere in the midst of it, the Ashleys noticed that Natalie had turned off some of the lights and went quiet.
I said my goodbye to Natalie, collected my tea and crackers, and headed to my room, leaving Ashley watching a television on mute while she had her tea, Kenzie sleeping on the couch behind her, a crossword or something in her lap. Damsel had gone to her room, or their room.
Glowing screen after all, I supposed.
Kenzie had been too upset to go back to her place, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the staff at the institution to put that on their shoulders. Ashley and Kenzie balanced out some of the most troubling aspects of each other, and after some debate and some phone calls, we’d agreed that this made the most sense.
I’d spent the last few nights researching, focusing and thinking about the group, and bracing myself for what I knew would be a tough conversation to have. Now Kenzie was having her turn at the same things, with a bit less research, but she was figuring things out.
In line with that role reversal, I was now taking on the task of building something, putting off sleep and focusing on bigger things. I flicked the row of switches for my computer, monitor, and peripherals to boot up.
Kenzie’s source had given us some information. Photos of bulletin boards, with some more photos of notecards, all with Tattletale as the dubious source, I had the PRT data from Dragon, I had my notes from the Patrol, and I had my own notes.
Noontide was the one name I had to work off of, and from there, I could go to Tattletale’s notes to find out a bit more.
Noontide Demon – reference to apathy?
Partners with The Orders, Contender, Griph/Glyph (see 1104.aud)
1104.aud convo partner Griph could be one of Orders
Contender partners with 3rd G post-prison. ?Romantic?
Names to throw around. I checked The Orders against everything I had. PRT stuff from before Gold Morning, Patrol notes, and the listings in a ‘who’s who’ subscription that had come out in 2008 that had attempted to track every cape and where they were. It had been a phone book of information that required far too much effort to maintain and had commanded a niche market of interested people. At best, it had been the next best thing to an online search to figure out if a cape name or team name was taken.
Three issues had come out. I had a tattered copy with pages starting to come free of the spine.
No ‘Orders’ under the team names. While I was looking, I didn’t find a Contender.
Noontide, though. There had been one, and the name was both in my ‘who’s who’ phone book and available with an online search. The internet being what it was, my search turned up a positive search result, but clicking through returned a ‘page not found’ result.
The truncated description and single portrait of a mask that the search engine had coughed up from its servers was enough to tell me that they weren’t the same person. Noontide had had brown skin, and her aesthetic had been entirely different from the woman in the picture that I’d found with the search.
That, and with a second glance, I realized that there was a termination to the old Noontide’s date in the date provided for activity. Born 1985, dead 2008.
The old Noontide was almost certainly not the one we’d run into. That was a tidbit of info, because it suggested things about how she’d gone about picking out a name, that she hadn’t used our internet, because she hadn’t been able, or she hadn’t cared enough to.
‘3rd G’ was the next thing that caught my eye. My first instinct was to think of third generation capes. Capes with parents that had been the kids of capes. My second instinct was inspired by the mention of the prison. Goddess. I was left with the niggling feeling that more people had disappeared after Goddess had attacked the prison, and very few people had appeared.
Who was involved that hadn’t wanted to go back to Shin? The third member of Goddess’ cluster, potentially?
If so… the Patrol was working with the Wardens to keep tabs on a limited suite of parahumans. Because of the danger Goddess had posed, and because her cluster was paranoid about being targets and about being weak, her cluster had asked for protection. The Wardens hadn’t been able to provide a safehouse and around-the-clock bodyguard, but they had provided some guidance. Three members of the cluster were gone, Goddess included. Two had joined the Wardens, becoming employees. Two more had slipped through the cracks, maintaining a stipend if they would call in or visit on a regular basis.
Just to let the Wardens check that nothing too ugly was happening.
I could search them up, and with the search and the database access I’d been given, I could see some of the notes on the files.
Tori Heflin, NONE (109c)
Power: Telekinetic reel-in, push-out, straight lines only, max 20 lb. weight.
Dispo: NON (Victim)
Appearance: Aboriginal, West Continent, Shin, round face, thick black hair, glasses. Tattoos, neck, dotwork triangles.
Notes: 109c Sought asylum and refugee status, victimized by Goddess. Claimed nonaffiliation, no interest in using powers or parahuman activities, but has been contacting other capes. See MER_CONTENDER, MER_LIONWING, MER_CRETAN. See attached files 109c_D and 109c_E.
To be monitored further.
I checked the profiles for each of the names. The link to ‘Contender’ gave me the image of the guy who had sealed me in his personal fighting arena.
The attached images took a minute to come up. ‘Tori Heflin’ was at a venue too dark to be a bar, sitting with a trio of people in civilian clothes. Each had a label highlighting them- the extra metadata and labeling was part of why it had taken a minute. I could click on each to bring up their respective files.
Tori was brown-skinned and round faced, small and of a build that someone might term cute, but she had a mean look on her face in each of the attached files. The others at the table drank, but Tori didn’t- instead, she apparently smoked up a storm, favoring cigarettes with blue paper and a blue glow at the end. I’d seen them before- blue flames or something.
In the time it had taken her buddies to finish several beers, she had downed an equivalent number of cigarettes. Her unlabeled friend was mixing drinks and smoking, coming just shy of her in smoking and a bit shy of his friends in drinking, if I had to judge by the glasses beside him and the butts he’d stubbed out in the ashtray among Tori’s blue flames. He was unlabeled, but I knew him. I’d seen him as a civilian in past shoots with the time camera, and I’d fought him.
The light-haired woman next to her was leaning heavily into her personal space, and Tori didn’t seem to either welcome it or hate it. One photo where the blonde sat with her tattooed arm pressing hard into Tori’s shoulder, and another photo where the woman had an arm around Tori’s shoulders, half leaning into Tori and half onto the table, clearly tipsy.
The woman was Lionwing. And she, too, had cropped up on the time camera. When we’d first seen the Pharmacist, Kingdom Come had been there, and so had a strawberry blonde woman with a tattooed arm and cat mask.
I clicked the label, and I brought up a page. Lionwing, in varying costumes. She had light armor she wore when in the field, along with a sword and a triangular shield that had decorative arrangements of spikes at each corner. A bit of a ‘gladiator’ look.
The last person sitting at the table was Cretan. Muscular, with a shaved head and goatee. Clicking through produced a blurry picture of him standing in the midst of fires. He had a helmet with a bull motif, but didn’t even use the bull’s horns as part of the aesthetic- the helmet hugged his head pretty close, and the ‘bull’ arched over top like a mohawk, its eyes lining up with his. His armor was similar, hugging his body pretty close, with the design etched in or marked out in white metal.
Making sense of this- the pharmacist had been allied with Teacher. Teacher was connected to the hyper-religious nuts from Earth Cheit, with some Fallen and Kingdom Come roped into that.
They or Teacher had hired six mercenaries. Contender, the one who had created an arena, Noontide, who had tried to put Sveta and I to sleep, and the Order, a quartet of capes we hadn’t seen yet, with only two of them in my pictures here. Attention had been drawn to them only because Tori had claimed to be a victim in the Goddess debacle, had asked for help as a non-threat, and had then started hanging out with people who hurt others for money.
Why come after us or send the mercenaries after us? Because… they’d already been caught on camera, and someone had told them they’d need to keep it from happening again?
Noontide’s lack of research for her name was odd, but it made more sense if I reconsidered things from the angle that she wasn’t from Bet.
I looked into her file, and found a series of jobs she had done. It was stock work for a mercenary, with bodyguard work for a celebrity, theft, and teaming up with another team to rescue a girl that had apparently been kidnapped by some people from the construction worker’s riot that hadn’t been willing to let things go. She was a mercenary- there hadn’t been any lying about that. Was this dry resume a cover? Was she up to something else?
Contender, at least, wasn’t Cheit or Cheit in disguise. He had a history and had gone by another name before. He’d been ‘The Pug’, short for Pugilist, and had taken bids on sites to pick fights with capes, prior to Gold Morning. He’d evolved toward the tail end of that embarrassing debacle, taking more serious money and going after Kill Orders, all the while refining his skill set. He’d had a break, Gold Morning had happened, and a few months afterward, he’d emerged as Contender.
Then, as I turned my focus to the Order, I found them to be ghosts. Some jobs, but they hadn’t existed a month ago, and they apparently worked together and socialized as a tight-knit team. That didn’t happen; not with people who’d appeared so spontaneously and simultaneously.
Insidious, if it was the case. Foreign agents operating as mercenaries, maybe picking and choosing the jobs they did, meeting other capes, sounding them out, and manipulating the ones they saw as vulnerable.
No, it was worse than that.
They’d permanently scarred our horizons, torn up a chunk of our city, and killed a lot of people. People we cared about. Jessica was gone. The cracks that radiated out from that wound and the loss of some of our best Wardens and Warden staff had laid the groundwork for Goddess to take the prison.
They’d done that, and then they’d fucking insinuated themselves into the background of our cape scene, foreign agents acting as mercenaries.
I was left to wonder if Tori was among the scared and vulnerable that they’d positioned themselves to snap up. A cluster-mate of the Lady in Blue?
I began looking into other jobs they’d done, going back to Noontide’s record, then extrapolating to people she’d worked with. The patchy notes meant that even if Contender wasn’t listed as being on a job, I could find a note where Cretan was listed as being on that job, with Contender helping.
I was in the middle of a frustration-induced note that I was planning to send to the Wardens about cross-referencing when I heard Ashley using her power.
A sound like ripping, a sound like nails on chalkboards, and a sound like thunder, all rolled into one.
I flew to the living room, narrowly avoiding a collision on the way. Damsel was exiting her bedroom, and she ducked low as I adjusted by flying high.
The window to the outside was broken, and cold air blew into the living room. Kenzie was propped up, one hand on her stomach, and Ashley stood in the center of the room.
Ashley was silent, looking around the room.
“Someone grabbed me.”
“Kenz?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I was sleeping and I got a huge wake-up call.”
The wind whistled as it blew in through the broken glass door.
“This wasn’t a dream thing?” I asked.
Ashley shook her head.
“How sure are you?”
“Leaving a thirty percent chance you put a hole in the window for no reason,” Damsel said. “Scared your little friend, and scared Kenzie too.”
I gave her a roll of my eyes.
“You got scared,” Damsel told Ashley. “You’ve gotten soft.”
“I’m a little scared,” Kenzie said.
“Shh, you’re fine. All of us are here watching over you,” Damsel replied. “We won’t let anything happen to you. Ashley’s imagined monsters won’t hurt you.”
“You’ve become less funny and more of a bully in the time I’ve been in the hospital,” Ashley observed.
She was still turning slowly, checking the room.
“What was it?” I asked.
“A man. He made noise, I woke up, and he grabbed me before I could react. I was prepared to use my power to throw us both into the wall, but I didn’t get a chance. He threw me from the chair, I used my power, and I didn’t connect.”
“Where did he go?”
“I didn’t see.”
I looked at Kenzie. She shook her head.
“Powers?” I asked.
“Possible,” Kenzie said, her eyes wide.
I drew my phone from my pocket. The contact screen had different icons by different names. Most had ‘Zzz’ beside them.
Rain was awake. Working late on Sveta’s arm- as much as was possible when his tinker power was in its wane period.
Trouble. We might need help.
There was a pause.
That not good.
Can you make your way to us if we need backup?
No – I have no transpo and time is wrong. 13 minutes until my power knocks me out automatically. Then I sleep like dead.
I looked at the clock.
What is trouble?
Ashley was grabbed, thrown from bed. She broke a window. No idea where the attacker is.
Weirdness here too. K’s projector box is sweating.
“Rain says your projector box is sweating?”
“Is that dangerous?”
“No. No, it just doesn’t make any sense.”
“Talk to our guy,” I told her, putting my phone on the coffee table and sliding it to her. “I’m going to check the building.”
Ashley stayed with Kenzie, while Damsel came with me.
Front hall clear. The door was locked.
The kitchen was fine.
Bathroom, first bedroom that included my office with the papers strewn everywhere, the second bedroom that belonged to Ashley, the storage room that still had Ashley’s furniture in it, from where I’d moved it in to make room for my things… all clear.
“Um,” Kenzie said, as Damsel and I returned from the hallway that led to the bedrooms. “So it’s not just that my projector box and computer are sitting in a giant puddle.”
“Spit it out,” Damsel said.
“The door was left ajar, so it almost froze. Rain was hogging space heaters, so it took him a while to notice.“
“Didn’t you waterproof it?” I asked, “because you knew Capricorn would be using his power around it?”
“And proofed it against cold weather?”
“Best as I could, but that has nothing to do with anything, except it means they probably survived the flooding.”
“Why? How? Did it malfunction?”
“It wouldn’t ever malfunction like that. That’s like saying your barbecue is broken, it keeps making salad.”
“Kenzie, please. Simple answers.”
“It’s the simplest answer! It’s wet because someone put the water there,” Kenzie said. “Then, according to Rain, this theoretical person left the door partially open on the way out.”
Why put water on a computer? Attempted sabotage? How did one put water on a computer without alerting the guy who was working late on his tinkering?
And if they were active there, and we had strangeness here…
“Shit,” I said. “My computer.”
I took flight, cutting a path through the hallways.
The door to my room and office was closed when I got there- and it had been open when I’d left it a minute ago. I pushed the door open, and a blast of cold air mingled with choking, blinding fumes to dash my senses. I couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, and couldn’t taste, and the only noise was the wind from the open window.
My files. Months and months of effort, of back-and-forth, five hour round trips, to scrounge up papers from the remains of our house. To dry papers, separate the mildewy and moldy from that which could be preserved, and typing out new versions of any pages that couldn’t be saved, even trying to keep the formatting intact.
The smell was gasoline. He was setting fire to everything that was mine, from clothes to computer to files. To the space that was mine. To Ashley’s apartment.
The others caught up to find me standing there in shock, covering my mouth and trying to avoid the kind of coughing that prompted more coughing.
What the hell?
“He took my feathers.”
I turned back to look at Kenzie.
“They’re important, and they’re not on the coffee table.”
Important. Priorities. I shook off the shock and took stock. The fumes filled my room to the point that it was hard to enter.
“Get to safety!” I called out to the others. Then I covered my mouth and flew through.
If he went after the projector computer, he’d go after my computer too. I had to rescue it. If he was after fire or torching any and all evidence, then I had to deny him that.
A contest of parahuman against parahuman broke down to a game of denial and control. Even if the power was strength. When my mom stepped onto the battlefield, her ability to succeed was dependent on getting to where she could hold her weapon near her opponent’s vitals, and her opponents couldn’t respond or react. That was the endstate.
For Crystal, it was about getting high, dropping forcefields in the right places or using them to protect herself and deny her opponents the ability to hurt her. So long as she held that high vantage point, any place that was in her field of vision was a place her enemies couldn’t go.
For my dad, a thrown grenade created a radius around it where enemies could do nothing but get away, if they were even afforded the time. Failing to do so meant they were concussed at the very least. He essentially maintained a broader circle around him where he could quickly deposit grenades, and the only way to fight him without facing an endless onslaught of light-grenades was to stay out of his range, which extended about far as a strong man could throw a head-sized rubber ball.
For me… especially now, it involved doing a lot of damage, and measuring out how much.
Little things could be fixed or handled later. I flew up, grabbed a bookcase, and used a pulse of my strength to haul it over. It crashed down with enough force to create gaps between floorboards where there hadn’t been any. There were books and papers on it, but the bookcase was metal, and with any luck it would interrupt the flow of fire across the accelerant. It might buy time, if the fire came from the hallway, or if the fire was traveling from here to the hallway.
I flew to the window, my mouth still covered.
No sign of anyone outside, no flame, no lighter being used or match being struck.
I flew to the bookcase. I’d be sealing myself inside, but if worst came to worst, flying through a wall wouldn’t be making the damage that much worse.
A hand seized me by the throat from behind. A sharp blow across the back of the head disabled the Wretch before it could even unfold, and I was pulled away from the bookcase.
He’d never even left the room.
I tumbled head over heels, disoriented. The rush of cold air mingled with the odor of the gasoline vapor. I found ‘down’ and flew straight to it. We crashed to the hard floorboards, gasoline soaking the papers that had been scattered across the floor.
Mine. Mine, and you ruined it!
In the wrestling match, each of us exchanged places, one of us on top, the other with back to ground. I was getting gasoline on me, but so was my shadowy attacker.
I saw the hand reach for a weapon and grabbed his wrist. A taser.
As quickly as it had been grabbed, it was dropped. The spark would be a mistake, given our current battlefield.
The computers- black screens.
Hopefully the breaker switch for this room was down or the connection was otherwise a failure. Because those computers being on meant any number of infinitesimally small ways to ignite the gas.
The computers. I had to remember my goals. Even though our attacker was in my hands, it was better to deny the control of the situation, as I’d done before.
I forced my way out of his grip, then barreled straight for the desktop tower that was my at-home computer. Cables were all still plugged in, keyboard, mouse, and monitor were plugged or even screwed in.
I tore at them, letting the easier ones fall free, forcing the remainder.
The aura was affecting my attacker. Where he might have swung a meaty fist at me before, he was holding on tight, as if trying to wait out heavy weather in a bad storm.
As I tried to fly away, he clung to me.
There were too many things to focus on, between the computer tower, the damage to property, the gasoline that could easily see the neighborhood go up in smoke, and my own well being.
I shoved my assailant off me, then flew closer to the ceiling, holding the computer tower with its stray wires dangling down. Winning the fight wasn’t important. Coming out ahead was.
My notes were everything.
Flying out of reach, near the ceiling, I had a view of the entire room.
Was it over? Had I won?
Well, won insofar as I’d denied him what he wanted.
I shut the window.
“Two bullets to the back of the head. The first will take out your forcefield. The other will end you. Drop the computer. Fly away.”
I turned around slowly.
A girl in a black leather bodysuit with a black leather jacket and a scarf around her lower face. The face I could see was covered in a gray mask, with eyes slanted to match the angle and slant of a woodland animal, each lens an opaque black.
“That’s not flying away,” Imp told me. “That’s standing your ground.”
She was holding up a lighter. I was very worried the vapor in the air would ignite.
“Put that out. We can talk,” I told her.
The lighter flicked closed. “I’m not here to talk.”
“We had a good working relationship a couple of days ago.”
“That was then,” she said. “Put the computer down. You’re going to tear out the hard drive.”
I drew in a deep breath.
“No games,” she said. “I’ve got to protect the kid I’m looking after. Your kid baited him into sharing secrets. In the course of sharing those secrets, he used mundane networks, no encryption. People have seen. Some of those people are mentioned in the pictures.”
“Sounds like a failure on your part.”
“It’s a problem for all of us, Glory Girl. But the kids are most important.”
My volume raised, “It’s a failure on your end, and our home has to burn to the ground? Fuck that.”
“The people who were alerted are going to pay more attention to you, G.G.. If they think you got nothing, if you avoid making specific searches about names, and if there’s a nice fire to assure them that all evidence stops here, the buck stops there.”
“It’s never as simple as that. This isn’t about protecting us. This is about protecting you.”
“Us, not me,” Imp said. “I’m armed, you’re not. Let go of the computer. Let it fall to the floor.”
“If it sparks-”
“Just do it,” she said.
I did. It clunked on landing. There wasn’t quite enough accelerant or anything on the floor here to allow for a splash.
“I’ve been really nice,” Imp said. “I could have humiliated you. Instead, I’m sticking to nonlethal weapons and careful use of fire.”
“Stay where you are,” she said, keeping the pistol on me.
I could use the Wretch, I knew. It had reach, it was invisible, and if it got her, it would pull her in close and tear her to pieces.
Except I didn’t want to be that kind of person, and the computer by my feet was in the Wretch’s reach too. I could trust an invisible hand to probably seize her outstretched hand, but I couldn’t trust anything else.
The gender confusion from earlier was resolved as I glanced back and saw how one of her arms was altered. It was hairy, veins running down the back of the arm, and it was a little longer than her usual arm. The bodysuit’s fabric didn’t roll past the thickest part of the bicep, so she had rigged some other kind of detachable sleeve to pull over and up to the shoulder.
Her power hadn’t effectively covered it, so it regularly figured into my processing of the scenes, and it lingered in my head even as the rest of her threatened to disappear while my focus was entirely on her.
“I’m going to need you to move the bookcase, G.G.”
I locked eyes with her. She motioned with the gun, tilting her head so the lenses of her mask caught the light in a different way.
I used flight and a bit of strength to move the thing. It screeched loudly with the motion. I wasn’t even done moving it when Imp pushed the door open.
She immediately leaped back. I could hear Ashley’s power, almost entirely hidden by the raggedd sound of the bookcase moving over hardwood.
Ashley or Damsel was approaching, and I could hear the sound of it. The power shredded the door and the surrounding frame as she stalked forward. It was Damsel, and her claws contained a large sphere of destruction, annihilating everything in front of her, flickering and storming as power ran through it.
“Move a hair,” Imp whispered in Damsel’s ear, “And you’re going to get a bullet in your throat to match the one your sister got. Except yours will be the last body mod you ever get.”
I wheeled around. Imp had her gun to Damsel’s throat, her man-hand wrapped in a death-lock around Damsel’s front, pulling her off balance. Damsel had her hands out to her sides, no power active.
“Pick up the computer, Glory Girl.”
“It’s not my name anymore.”
“I don’t care. People change names too often. It’s better to have one good one that you stick to.”
“Imp was taken, you know,” I told her.
“I don’t care.”
“You don’t really have it.”
“I don’t care. Pick up the computer. Fly it to the ground outside the window. No games.”
I pushed out with my aura again, but I kept it subtle. Barely noticeable, like Rain’s often was. I began feeding it to Imp, with Damsel as an incidental target.
I picked up the computer, stepped over to the open window, and flew down. I planted the computer case on a stack of firewood.
“If you have any freaky porn that you’re embarrassed about, I promise I’ll only make a little bit of fun of you over it,” Imp said, from the window. “I’ll only share your browser history with a thousand people tops.”
She beckoned, and I flew over.
I was flying, and I had someone in my arms.
The nose of the gun jabbed into the soft flesh beneath my jaw, forcing my chin up.
I was still tempted to drop her. Instead, aware I was outputting a bit of my aura, I slowly ramped it up. If I could do the ‘boiling a frog’ trick…
“Down by the red cloth. I know it’s hard to see in the dark, but do your best.”
There was a red cloth tied to a post. I flew to it.
She hopped down the last ten or so feet to the snow. I chose that opportunity to push out harder with my aura.
“This was fun,” she said. “We should never ever do it again, understand? If someone slips you information that’s supposed to be ours, you hand it straight back over, or you’ll run into problems like your house burning down and you not being all the way sure why.”
“The feathers. You need to give them back.”
“No I do not. The feathers were a gift from a member of our team to a member of yours. They don’t need to hang out any longer. Normally I would encourage friendships, but I’ve read the horror stories, and it’ll just get messy when we’re all on opposite sides. Trust me, I did that back in Brockton Bay for a bit. Kid hero and me, bit of romance? Got awkward when it ended.”
“Not kissing, not telling. Instead, I am…” she drew a flare gun out of her pocket, and with pistol in her right hand and flare gun in her left, kept the former trained on me and the latter aimed at the window.
“…Delivering my coup de grace,” she said, sounding tired. Her flare gun was in her right hand. “And I’ll do it on my first try, like a badass.”
“Damsel is up there. It’s not badass to kill people. That’s complete and utter failure for anyone civilized.”
“She’s not up there, not anymore,” Imp said, sounding even more tired. “She’s at the side, trying to flank me. Still.”
Imp indicated a corner of the building, about forty feet away.
I ramped up my aura.
“Stop,” she said.
So that was her limit for tolerance. I pushed harder and I set my jaw.
“If you think that’s going to mess up my aim, you should know I thrive under pressure.”
I heard Damsel using her power.
“Stupid,” Imp muttered.
I heard Ashley using her power. A little more oomph, more of an eruption of power than a jetting out. Unpredictable, uneven, but it gave her momentum.
Those forty feet of distance closed fast. Multiple blasts, and each one carried one of the two in a different direction.
They zig-zagged through the air, one pale shape and one dark one, and converged on Imp with the same timing, each set to collide with her in the same instant.
The two Ashleys landed, one of them clipping a branch from the overhanging foliage on her way down. They didn’t fly so much as they propelled.
“Are you okay?” Ashley asked me.
I nodded, my eyes searching the battlefield.
Kenzie was still vulnerable, but as I groped for what the threat was, I drew a blank.
“Put up with this if you can,” I said.
I increased the push on my aura until it was at its worst.
“That’s nothing,” Damsel said, even as her face’s microexpressions betrayed what was going on behind the surface.
“Let’s hope our attacker doesn’t think so,” I said.
I closed my eyes, focusing.
I couldn’t sense through my aura, but my aura made it hard to deal. Ashley and Damsel had talked about restlessness. I was creating a sort of restlessness in this moment, of a very different sort.
The snow muffled sound, and with this area of the city being where it was and with everything being after hours, I could hear noise. I started toward it.
We were moving in a direction, and with the weather being what it was, and me not having a coat, it was easier to keep moving. When I hit my limit, I would loop back.
Just to be sure, I cast a glance backward, and spotted the computer case.
Wouldn’t do to lose track of that and let our enemy run away with it.
The Ashleys were advancing on either side of me, and as we heard a pant, we started forward with more vigor.
“You’re being irritating,” Imp whispered in my ear.
The Ashleys had fanned out a bit more to either side… and Imp had me. Gun to my throat again.
“I’m trying to be nice. I’ve been avoiding murder.”
She whispered, “You try anything, I double-tap you. And while we’re on the subject of doubling… we’re doubling back.”
From the woods behind Ashley’s place back toward the rows of buildings.
The Ashleys had noticed and were approaching cautiously. For every one pace Imp and I advanced, they advanced two.
She’d called herself a wolf earlier, and I could see it now. Pack hunting, stalking, dead serious, and very dangerous.
We found the computer once more. Imp drew her flare gun.
She stopped when Kenzie stepped out from behind a tree, wearing all winter clothing, including coat, hat, and earmuffs.
“Doesn’t matter when number one is super awesome,” Imp retorted. “And when she has a hostage.”
Kenzie drew a gun and pointed it. It looked like a toy weapon.
Imp shook her head slowly. “No. You don’t want to do that. Hostage. Use your common sense, kiddo.”
“I spent it all on figuring out my tinkering. I’ve just got a big empty loneliness inside me right now, with some mad scientist vibes.”
Kenzie smiled, and then she pulled the trigger of her Flash Gun, blinding everyone present that wasn’t her.
Snuff held the door open for Tattletale. The kids climbed out too, but they weren’t part of the show of force- not directly. The Heartbroken kids ran around, and headed toward the mall that was at the far end of the parking lot, the older kids who were apparently in charge of them hurrying after.
Tattletale remained, and so did the two members of Palanquin who were guarding her. Imp was with her, but Imp was still blind.
It had been a few hours. I’d had the presence of mind to fly away before more shots could land, so it had been about twenty-five minutes for me, where I hadn’t been able to see anything except hot white spots.
Rain and an unhappily awoken Tristan and Sveta were with me.
Not bringing backup just hadn’t been an option.
Chicken Little seemed to want to go with the Heartbroken, but instead Snuff positioned him at Tattletale’s side. He had a hangdog look, for someone with a hard full face mask.
A few of the Heartbroken lingered. Chicken Little’s age.
Parian and Foil lingered too. I gave Foil a nod, and she nodded back.
Kenzie was with me too, in a sense; she didn’t get out of the vehicle. She sat in the passenger seat, feet swung out over the side. She had her costume on.
“Let’s try this again,” Tattletale said.
“Are you sure? Because your approach of burning everything we cherish and love to ash to protect your info is a great plan.”
“Works for me,” Tattletale said.
I shook my head slowly.
“You gotta scrub it all. You didn’t get it fair and square, and some of that is stuff only I and my sources know, that the kids don’t pay much attention to. When people start blabbing about details that only I’m supposed to know, it makes my sources jittery. Some of them are in very dangerous places.”
“Sounds like you got sloppy,” Tristan said.
“Having a thinker hunting us down and forcing us to relocate regularly is what makes us sloppy, as it would for anyone. Now, you don’t want to be casualties of that sloppiness.”
“Work with us,” I said. “I don’t like you, you don’t like me- but I could help you figure something out.”
“You’re making too many enemies. Profitability-”
“Fuck profit,” I interrupted. “Fuck that.”
“And simple logic!” Tattletale raised her voice. She stabbed a pointed, painted fingernail in my direction. “If we spend too much time around you, your enemies become our enemies. If you have a lot of enemies, which you do, then that fucks us.”
“And if you refuse to cooperate with us and play ball, then we let your intel leak, including that information about sources, and your allies become your enemies.”
“You’re really willing to play hardball?” Tattletale asked.
“Give Kenzie her feathers back. Let the kids talk.”
“You realize what a monster she is, don’t you?”
I glanced back at Kenzie. “Nothing resembling a monster, and I’m an expert.”
“Because you spent two years as one. Of course.”
I looked back at Tristan, who held out my bag for me. I put it down, and as I reached for it, Snuff tensed. The Palanquin mercenary who looked like an ordinary person tensed as well.
“Files,” I said. I moved slowly as I drew the paperwork from the bag.
Tristan was the one who took the files and handed them out. Some for Parian, some for Foil, and some for Tattletale.
All of the information on the Order and the mercenaries I’d picked up. The PRT files.
“Your files are more up to date than mine,” Tattletale said, as she read. “You found a central network server?”
“I was led to one. Bargained.”
“The details on ‘Pug’?”
“Old collection of paper files. Which you guys doused in gasoline but didn’t set on fire.”
“Do you have more?”
“There’s a bit more in there. We’d have even more if we hadn’t been interrupted. Again, your teammate tried to set us on fire.”
“You’re building a narrative here,” Tattletale observed. “It all ties back to Teacher, I see.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “An awful lot of it. Fallen, the baiting of Goddess, the portal attacks.”
“I’ll provide you a tidbit of information then. If we’re going to deal-”
“If we’re going to deal, the feathers first. They’re important.”
“Fine. I’ll agree to that. But Chicken Little is still grounded. He can’t talk to his friends on the phone.”
“I’ll cut twenty percent off his sentence of being grounded forever,” Tattletale said. She glanced back at Chicken Little, who ducked his head.
“Seriously,” I said. “At limited times per day. Or a limited number of messages,” I suggested.
I heard Kenzie groan behind me.
“That would be workable,” Chicken Little muttered, barely audible.
“Feathers and chat. Some meetings allowed if they’re both on good behavior. I’ve read her rap sheet, and I want to make sure he’s protected.”
I looked at Tristan, then at Rain.
They looked so exhausted I doubted they were processing.
I looked at Kenzie, who nodded.
“We’ll negotiate. You want in bed with us, you’re in bed with us. Congratulations. We’ll share resources.”
“Fine,” Tattletale said. “Let it be known I’m immensely unhappy with this.”
“That’s allowed,” I said.
Behind Tattletale, I saw Chicken Little’s leg jiggle slightly. Surreptitiously, after he looked left, looked right, and checked that nobody on his team was looking, he turned his hand to one side, extending the smallest of thumbs-ups.
I looked back at Kenzie, who nodded.
Tattletale heaved out a sigh. She waved Imp forward.
Imp met Rain halfway. She handed over two feathers, and he took them back to hand to Kenzie.
Important to do this. She needed a friend.
And I supposed we needed the intel.
“You’re wrong, though,” Tattletale said.
“These mercenaries you’re looking at… they’re Cheit, your notes are right. The Order is a reference to a verse in their texts. The thousand-eyed beasts, front and back. Lion, that’s your drunk girl. The ox. Your bull guy. You’ve also got the beast with the face of a man, and the eagle. They’re tied up in the fours that run through the texts. Four apostles, four virtues, four whatevers.”
“I think I know the verse,” Rain said. “We have it too.”
“Good,” Tattletale said.
“Why is that important?” I asked.
“Because it means they’re hardcore Cheit, which you guessed. You were mostly on the right track and you might have stumbled on the right answer… if you weren’t keeping your eye out for the wrong destination.”
“The wrong destination?”
“Teacher,” Tattletale said. “He doesn’t have control of his group, so he’s not pulling their strings. He’s happy doing the prison thing, fucking with Goddess, tearing open holes in reality like the one across Brockton Bay and the ones in the heart of the city, but his people turned their attention to people caught in time loops, stasis, other fuckery like that… and Teacher drew the line there. These guys here?”
She tapped the paper before continuing, “The mercenaries from another world? They split from Teacher over it.”
“Are they after Jack?” I asked. “Worst case scenario.”
Tattletale shook her head. “They’re not that reckless. No. One of the names raised was closer to home than Jack. And while the shit with March is going on, the Undersiders can’t go home.”