Blinding – 11.4

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The schism remained.  The Shepherds, Advance Guard, Wayfarers and Kings were absent.  The room would have felt crowded if everyone was present and it felt too empty with the more aggressive heroes gone.

I wondered if there was ever a group size that would feel natural.

We’d wanted to gather information.  We’d asked for six hours, admittedly, and it was well past that deadline, but information was why we were here.

‘Here’ was a room in a library where the lights were off because the grid had failed and power was being conserved, and the morning light from outside was obscured by snow that had piled up against the window, with frost cluttering every inch snow didn’t touch.  The light that came through was diffuse and mottled, dimmed and slightly blue, because the glass was solar glass that reflected the yellow and gold hues.

Relay, Cinereal, Weld, Aleph Wolf from the Lone Wolf Pack, Lark from Auzure, and Caryatid from the Malfunctions were all gathered around the room.  I had Precipice at my right, and Foil to my left.

Mayor Jeanne Wynn was also present.  Her presence in the room felt like a shadow when the room was already dark.  The yellow of her shirt under her suit jacket was more striking than some of the costumes present.

Foil’s hand rested on the table, fingers at the file folder with pictures.  My pictures.  The gasoline had saturated my office to the point that even the copies of my original files had a lingering smell to them.

She turned the file so people could see.  A distant image of Cradle, taken by way of flying camera, saved to a computer.  I’d printed it out when trials had been happening.

“Tattletale says she’s seventy percent confident that the attacks on the Navigators were Cradle, who slipped custody when the prison was emptied,” Foil said.  “He had an unknown hireling use the device by proxy, and that hireling worked alongside Lionwing and two Case Fifty-threes.”

“Those two aren’t ex-Irregulars,” Weld said.  “But they’re tied into the community.  People have seen them.  I’ve put out some feelers, but I can’t promise results.”

“Seventy percent certainty that Cradle is responsible isn’t a hundred percent,” Cinereal said.

“It isn’t,” Foil admitted.

“Can we trust what she’s saying?” Relay asked.

“Are you asking if we can trust Foil or are you asking if we can trust Tattletale?” Weld asked.

“I was asking about Foil, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on both,” Relay said.

Relay was standing in for Foresight, after Brio had caught a bullet and while Countenance was leading elsewhere.  Brio hadn’t gotten back up.  I was a little worried that Relay was closer to the leadership, which was about twenty-five percent personal bias, and twenty-five percent that he knew I had my doubts.  The rest was a blurrier mixture of my not knowing him and my instinct that Relay was driven more by emotion than logic.

If Relay had made the call when the hero teams had split off into two groups, would they have stayed?

I could see Relay’s eyes move, studying me briefly before looking back to Weld.  Foil and Tattletale – where did we stand, and what answer could we give that didn’t cross Relay’s crude mind reading?

“I was her teammate for a short while,” I said.  “I like her.”

The nicest, only truly honest thing I could say.  I had reservations and questions about someone who had heel-turned like she had.

Foil nodded, dropping her eyes, as if to acknowledge what I was thinking.  “Thank you.”

“Antares and Foil were on my team when I was first leading the Wards in Brockton Bay.  I hold Foil in high esteem,” Weld said.

“Thank you,” Foil said, stoic, standing up straight, no longer with a hand at the files.

“Can I ask you why you’re here, Foil?” Relay asked, head tilted so he was looking up at Foil more than at her, his tone the sort that was best suited for quietly asking someone if they had a gun and if they planned to use it.

“The Undersiders felt that if we were sharing information, we should have a representative here.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Relay said.

Foil frowned.  Her mask covered most of her face, but the shift in her lips was unmistakable.

“He wants a read on you,” I said.

Relay met my eyes without moving his head, then looked back to Foil.

“I want to help,” Foil said.

“You believe Tattletale’s information is good?”

“Yes,” Foil said.

“But you have doubts… not about the information?” Relay asked.  “About your team.”

“If I was a hundred percent certain, I think that would be more concerning,” Foil said.

“If you were a hundred percent clear you were on the right side, you’d be a Fallen-” Relay retorted.

Precipice didn’t move a muscle at that, but Relay looked at him all the same.

“-But if your head is full of noise and contradiction when it comes to your team, that’s almost as bad,” Relay finished.

“I can do the most good where I am, with the Undersiders,” Foil said.

Relay, head still unmoving, looked down at his hand, where it rested on the table.

“Do we move forward on seventy percent confidence?” Relay asked, without looking up.

“Cradle is a danger and he’s done nothing to earn trust,” Cinereal said.

“He’s done nothing wrong that we can say for certain either,” Relay pointed out.

“He likes to bide his time,” Precipice said.  “But there have been hints that he’s doing business.  I believe it.”

“You’re biased,” Relay said.

“I definitely am,” Precipice replied.

Relay nodded at that, as if it was entirely okay now that the bias was out in front of things.

“He’s cold and focused right now.  I won’t get into how I know, but I have a sense of him, like he probably has a sense of me and how I’m doing.  He’s dangerous.  I could see a world where he’s doing this.  Using tech to torture people like that.”

I cleared my throat.  I had all eyes on me.

“The activities of Cradle seem to be only half of it,” I said.  “It’s a half I’d like to ask you all to please let us tackle.”

“Us being who?” Relay asked.

“What’s the other half?” Weld asked, before I had a chance to answer.

I drew in a deep breath.  “The Undersiders and Breakthrough will tackle the situation with Cradle.  I think we have some sense of his motivations.  Love Lost too.  We plan to keep them separated if we can.  In exchange, we’re helping the Undersiders with a related problem.  But the mercenaries are up to something else and we’d like to ask you to focus some attention on that.”

Cinereal still had that dangerous, intimidating thing going.  She leaned back, looking very casual and very ominous, and she asked, “How bad is this else?”

“We don’t know,” Foil said.  “But Tattletale is pretty certain that their focus is on the time stasis effects in Earth Bet’s Brockton Bay.”

“Tameka Schooley.  Lee Pemberton.  Tom Kahn.  Bakuda’s test run and one use when she was terrorizing the city,” Jeanne Wynne spoke up for the first time.  “Alabaster, Jotun, and Dauntless… Leviathan hurled them into a time stop effect when defenders tried to use one of Bakuda’s leftover tinker weapons to stop him.  Wanda Fowler, Sarah and Patty Martin.  Henry Holmes.  They tried to break into what locals termed ‘The Scar’, an ongoing cataclysm from a bombing run that had been made using more of Bakuda’s leftover technology.  They entered because someone had told them that The Scar had veins of diamond, gold, and other rare materials inside it, where matter had transmuted to different forms.”

“Did it?” Aleph Wolf asked.  “That someone was right?”

“Yes.  Rumors got out while barriers to contain the effect were being put up.  The workers saw things.  Unfortunately, that area also had a lot of active dangers that hadn’t gone off, settled, or stopped.  The four risk-takers tripped an inactive weapon and were trapped by a fourth time-stop effect.”

“Maybe they’re still after that stuff,” Aleph Wolf said.  “Times are tight.  A big chunk of precious metals could go to some other dimension and pay for… a lot of things.  Get a whole city or the city through the winter.”

The Lone Wolf pack was a band of heroes that were taking an especially wild west approach, patrolling the periphery of the city and the surrounding worlds.  They answered problems where problems came up, they teamed up when absolutely essential, which was mainly if there was a bounty to share, but they were otherwise independent.

Aleph Wolf was exemplifying the ‘stick to the basics’ mentality, as well as the group’s ‘heroic mercenary’ streak.

“I think it’s more worrying than a cash grab,” I said.  “Teacher and his mercenaries parted ways.  If it was a question of cash in a really dangerous area… Teacher would put his thinkers and tinkers to solving the problem, he’d succeed, and he’d be in good shape.  I can’t see why he’d back off.”

“The Wardens were looking into those effects, as well as the ongoing Gray Boy loops,” Jeanne said.  “They researched it and decided no.  The same people who petitioned the Wardens then petitioned the government.  It crossed my desk, but I already had some faint knowledge of what it was about.  I considered, researched, and came to the decision that yes, I know a way to undo the effect.  No, I won’t actually do it.”

Using her power, I thought.  She could free people from perpetual torment and she says no.

“Why no?” I asked.

It wasn’t Jeanne who answered.  Cinereal gave me my reply.  “Thinkers say no.  They’re either drawing blanks or they don’t like what they see.”

“Nothing specific?  No details?”

“No,” Cinereal said.  “But if you look at some of the other major thinker blind spots, you’re going to find yourself running into topics like Eidolon, Sleeper, the Endbringers, Valkyrie, the Island-state, the Pastor incident…”

“Concentrations of power,” I said.

Jeanne shook her head.  “Complexity of power, most often.  Whatever thinker powers come into play, with these cases, there’s often too many variables to fully consider, thinkers report that their powers are fuzzy, inconsistent, or blacked out.”

“And it’s not just the time-stop bubbles in Brockton Bay that are an issue?” I asked.

Jeanne shook her head.  “But Brockton Bay is one of the largest collections.  Keep that in mind.”

“And you don’t know why?  The thinkers can’t shed any light on this?” I asked.

“Little.”

“You’re saying you checked, you’re saying no, risky for reasons you can’t disclose.  The Wardens checked, and they’re saying no, the thinkers think it’s volatile somehow…”

“Yes,” Cinereal said.  “Volatile is a good way to put it.  It might not explode.  It might be devastating.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And for the record, I want to stress that Teacher said no.  He broke with his mercenaries from Cheit because they wanted to go after this.  Are the mercenaries after it because so many people are afraid to touch it, or do they know something we don’t?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Jeanne said.

“Can you send me information on the victims?”

“I will.  Bakuda’s victims, the three heroes-”

“Not all heroes,” I said.  “Alabaster and Jotun were white supremacists.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Files on those two groups, and the group in the bubble caught the group that snuck into The Scar.  I’ll send you what others sent to me.”

Trying to wrap our heads around a problem that apparently even thinker powers couldn’t tackle without running into blind spots.

Daunting.

I turned to the heroes, my eye mainly on Cinereal and Relay.  This wasn’t an easy ask.  “We can’t get directly involved until we’ve tackled Cradle, Love Lost, or some other peripheral things.  If we can make headway in solving any of those issues, we should be able to converge on the mercenary problem from multiple angles.  In an ideal world, we’ll catch up with them from the flanks while you’re approaching from the front.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Cinereal said.  “But we don’t have many resources.”

More crime and incidents than we had heroes to send to them.  The city was still on fire, and we didn’t have the means to put every single fire out.

“When you say resources, you mean heroes,” Foil spoke up.

“Yes,” Cinereal said.

“Do you have money?”

“Are you hiring yourself out?”

“No,” Foil said.  “But there are a lot of capes out there who are worried about the winter.  Most costumed stuff doesn’t pay.  The guys you’re dealing with are hiring mercenaries.  This Order of Four, the Case Fifty-Threes.  If you’re really pressed for manpower, we can send you a list of people.”

“A mercenary we hire is someone the other guys can’t,” Lark said.  “I can look into that.”

“We’ll send you the list, then.  I can send copies to anyone else who asks.  You can tell us if you know something about the potential hires that means they can solve a problem we have or if they’re going to be a problem.”

“I’ll talk things over with Countenance,” Relay said.  “My gut feeling is that I’m worried you’re getting mired in something personal, while we’re sticking our necks out with something that thinkers can’t vet.”

“If you have any suggestions or alternatives-” I started.

“I’ll talk to Countenance,” Relay stated.  Firm, final.  He did with me what he’d done to Foil, angling his head so he looked up at me more than he looked at me.  The brow and a partial view of his eyes dominated his expression, as a result.  He took notes on the pad in front of him, as if he was leaning forward to write.

But he still studied me.

Nobody else was willing to commit, with the largest and most influential hero team in our group that wasn’t the Wardens being unwilling to do more without checking with the boss.  The Wardens were too caught up in other things to dedicate themselves unless it was something on the scale of the prison or the Fallen camp, but I was reserving hope that Cinereal would talk to others about the time bubbles.

“We’ll touch base again soon?” Weld asked.  “If you’re approaching the same problem from two directions, you’ll want to compare notes.”

I looked at Relay, who nodded.

If we’re getting involved in the time bubble issue,” Relay said.  “But we’ll meet soon regardless.”

“Capricorn Red will represent us for the next meeting,” I said.

That was it.  For lack of a better word, the room dissolved, with everyone shuffling around, splitting up, or leaving the area.

Weld signaled for my attention.

“You good?” I asked Precipice.

He nodded.

“Foil?”

Foil glanced at Jeanne, who was walking toward her.

“You want backup?”

“No.  I know what this is about.  Old alliances and favors owed.  Tattletale told me to expect her to show up and to expect this.  I’m just the middleman.”

“I’ll stick around,” Precipice said.

I had to wonder if Foil was happy like this.  Having to go out of her way to even collaborate with the heroes, and then being questioned when she did.

I kept an eye on her up until I caught up with Weld, who had retreated to a far corner of the room, mostly out of earshot of others.  He seemed mindful of the other people in the room, his mouth shut.

Relay was already gone, teleporting out.  Aleph Wolf was just leaving.  The moment Aleph Wolf was out of the room, Weld finally spoke.

“What do you think?”

“I think if Alabaster is potentially a part of this, it’s worth reaching out to the Shepherds.  Victor and Rune from the Empire are in the Shepherds now, under new names.  They knew Alabaster and they might know something about Jotun.  He was small-time.”

“Okay.”

“Can you handle that?” I asked.  “The Wardens are neutral, so you can talk to the other group without issues, right?”

Weld nodded.

“I hope the division between the heroes isn’t straining things with Sveta.”

“With different bosses it might,” he said.  “We’ve been together for about three years, depending on how you define ‘together’.  You were a big part in that.”

I smiled.

“I think we’re okay there.  Nobody’s demanding that I make any hard decisions yet.”

“Good,” I said.

“I did want to ask something though,” he said.  “I don’t-”

He stopped himself there.  He stood with his back to the wall, the window beside him, and the texture and material of his ‘skin’ made for a striking image.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t have a lot of friends that I can talk to about certain things,” he said.  “I have teammates, but few who have spent any amount of time around Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Is it about the Fifty-Threes who were doing mercenary work?”

“No.  No- it’s not that.  It’s more awkward.”

With that, I knew just what he was talking about.

“Ah.  I get it now,” I said.

He didn’t reply, and I didn’t press.  More of the heroes filtered out.  Jeanne was talking to Foil, with Precipice standing beside Foil, not really joining in.

“She welcomed me home from my mission away with… affection.  I’m assuming she talked to you about it.”

“Yeah.”

“She brought it up after?”

“She seemed really happy.  I didn’t get details.”

“Can I-” he started.  “I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but I don’t know who to bring it up with.”

“Ask, or share,” I said.  “I get the feeling it’ll do more harm if you don’t.”

“It wasn’t good,” Weld said.

My heart sank.

“I love her, don’t get me wrong.  I was game to experiment and find something that worked.  But none of it worked.  None of it.”

“Fuck,” I said, under my breath.  My fingers dug into my arms.  “Damn it.

“Well put,” Weld told me, sounding just as miserable.

“Can you communicate?  Find a way…?”

I saw Weld already shaking his head.

“I thought I’d play along to make her happy.  Like I do when she wants to experiment with food.  We’ve had some small, tiny successes there.  Maybe there could be a success to be found here.”

“Of course.”

“I spent a while thinking about it.  I think I was wrong, thinking I could do that.  I think each time I try to play along, it’s only pushing me away.  It takes what we can’t have and pushes it into my face.”

I snapped my head around, looking at him.

His forehead was creased, brow knit.  Quicksilver eyes looked back at me.

“I know it’s a fucked thing to say, but I like girls and part of that is liking girls’ bodies.  Sorry if that’s TMI.  I haven’t had one of these conversations with anyone.”

I shook my head.  My heart was pounding in my chest, as calm as I was trying to appear.

“I feel like a traitor, even saying it.  Saying I’ve entertained thoughts about breaking up with-”

I stabbed my finger at his shoulder, using the Wretch to give that finger the power to push his heavy metal body.  I pushed his shoulder into the window’s frame, indenting the metal and damaging the wood.

“Ow,” he said.  He blinked, metal closing over those liquid silver eyes with etched irises.  “Actually pretty close to feeling pain there.  Ow.  That registered.”

“Breaking up?” I asked him, my voice hard.

“It crossed my mind, after the other night.  And the nights since.  I know that makes me the scummiest hypocrite, saying I’m not sure I can date a Case Fifty-Three when that would disqualify me in a lot of people’s eyes.”

I dropped my finger.

“No,” I said.  “You’re not.”

“You don’t have to lie,” he said.

“I’m not.  You don’t have to date a Case Fifty-Three anymore than a black person would have to date another black person.  That’s a screwed-up mentality.”

“It’s different,” Weld said.  “Being black is the most normal thing in the world.  Being me, being Sveta, being Chantilly or Gentle Giant, it comes with complications.”

“If you were disabled, you would not be obligated to only date disabled people.”

Weld shrugged.  With his broad shoulders, decorated with melted fragments of metal, it was a pretty dramatic movement.  “You can say that, but I still feel like a hypocritical scumbag.”

“I don’t think you’re a hypocrite.  I do think you’re a bit of a scumbag, talking about dumping my best friend.”

Weld nodded, with enough fervor that I felt bad for being hard on him.   “I want to do right by her.  I mean it when I say I love her.  But that love gets confused.”

“Confused?”

“It’s there.  But I don’t know if it’s the love I feel for the woman I’m going to marry, a girlfriend, a best friend, or even a-”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

He was being really open.  Maybe more open than he’d been with anyone except Director Armstrong, at least with this stuff.  But he didn’t finish the sentence.

“It’s like trying to compose something and skipping out on the vocals or the strings.”

“Percussion would be a better metaphor,” I said.

I didn’t smile as I said it, and Weld didn’t smile as he heard it.

“There’s no workable physical aspect, and I want that aspect.”

I folded my arms.  Weld did much the same.

Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.  Fuck.

At the other corner of the long conference room, Jeanne was leaving.  Precipice and Foil hung back, talking with one another.

Fuck it all.  Fuck.  Fucking why did this have to be so hard?

Precipice shot me a curious look.  Foil walked past him, and for a second I thought she was walking around the table to approach us, interrupting the conversation.  She was walking to the window though, still at the far end of the library’s conference room, looking down toward the parking lot, then out at the city.  Precipice indicated a portal in the distance, cutting into the sky.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I told Weld.

“Please.  Anything you can offer.  If I could feel sick, I think I actually would feel sick over this.”

“You tell me before you do anything.  You promise me you will, and you keep that promise.  Because if you do something like break up with her on impulse it’s going to be worse.”

Weld nodded.

“And I swear, if you tell her the actual reason why, I will tear your arms off.”

“How do I do that?” Weld asked.  “I want to communicate, be honest that it’s not all that great, and try more avenues before claiming defeat.  Not that there’s many more, but she’s not stupid.  She can connect dots, if that’s the big issue we’re wrestling with and then I break up with her without explanation.”

He’d talked about feeling sick, but I was the one who felt that way now.

Poor fucking Sveta.

“The deal,” I said, because I couldn’t answer the question that easily if addressing it directly.  “Is that you warn me in advance if you make a decision.  I’ll be there for her with ice cream and my shoulders ready to cry on.”

“Okay,” Weld said.  “I’m not sure I’m there yet.  The decision, I mean.”

“Second part of the deal?  Figure out a way that explains it, okay?  That makes it not about her lack of a body or physical incompatibility.  Because that will annihilate her.”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

“For that, you need to take time, and you need to give me time.  Let me research.  Let me ask questions.”

“We’ve looked at a lot of options and possible power interactions,” Weld said.

“Let me research,” I said, my voice terse to the point that it was almost hostile.

“Then I will,” Weld said.  “Okay.  How long?”

“A month.  Two.”

“Month and a half?”

I shrugged.  Already, I felt more like I was buying time to stave off devastation than I felt any hope that I’d stumble on a solution.

“Victoria,” Precipice called out from the other end of the room.  “We’ll be outside!”

I twisted around, looking down at the parking lot.  “Trouble?”

He shook his head.  “Getting organized.  I’m going to load some stuff into the car.”

“I should go,” I said.

“Thanks for being a friend,” Weld said.

“You know, if you break up with Sveta, meet a gorgeous girl and break Sveta’s heart again, I’m obligated to throw you into the center of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Weld winced.  “Sveta’s dished on my weaknesses, I guess?”

“Hm?  Not really.”

“Fear of mine.”

“Through the stratosphere then, so long as it’s ignorance and not maliciousness, but I don’t think you’re that kind of guy.”

Weld shook his head.

“What you do is your choice.  You don’t have to stay with her.  But you have to be gentle.”

“I don’t even know if I will go through with it,” Weld said.  “It’s just… thinking.  The idea of making her genuinely happy makes me happier than anything.  Even imagining that I might make her sad is making me more miserable than I’ve been in a long time.”

I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Go,” he said.  “I’ll go after the Shepherds, distract myself by talking to some vaguely familiar and probably hostile faces.”

Victor and Rune.

I slid the window open, then flew through, heading for the lot.  I shut the window behind me, and floated down.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck…

Precipice and Foil were just now reaching the ground floor.  I waited for them.  Rain indicated the dumpster at the edge of the street.  Metal for roofs, fencing, and power tools that had been thrown out, because they’d been made cheap in a time of need and they hadn’t been made to last.  He’d spotted all of it when we’d pulled up to the library.

We loaded as much as we could fit into the trunk.  Foil used her power to slice some pieces of corrugated metal into smaller chunks.

We climbed into the car.  The driver turned on the engine, but he didn’t pull out of the parking spot.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He held up a note.  There was still tape at the top.

I didn’t even get a chance to read it when the passenger door opened.

“Scoot.”

I turned to look.  Rain was shifting to the middle seat.  At the open door, Imp was climbing into the car.

“What were you doing?” I asked, trying to sound more casual than suspicious and unsure if I was succeeding.  I was usually better at that, but- conversation with Weld.

“Went with Mrs. Wynn.  When she was done talking to us, she got on her phone to talk to her hubby and some guy called Balminder.”

“And?”

“This Balminder guy has Cauldron vials.  We talked about how Tats said there were Case-53s at the attacks.  Mercenaries, right?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.

Both groups were assembled in the hideout, with only Rachel absent.  They’d decided it was time to call her.

Sveta sat beside me, very still as she watched Imp.

“They were talking out loud about whether their vials could be responsible for the new cases.”

“And?” Sveta asked, her voice tight.

“And they think no.”

Both teams and a collection of the Heartbroken were assembled at our headquarters.

I’d thought earlier about how the conference room had felt too empty, but how it would feel too full if everyone was present.

This was that weird middle ground, I decided.  Not a middle ground where the porridge was just right, but one where it was both too hot and too cold.  Fucking uncomfortable.

Chicken Little had a pigeon in his hands, and Kenzie was fitting something around its neck and chest.  One of the Heartbroken- Candy, I was pretty sure, was sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, feet propped up on the back and front edge of Chicken Little’s chair.  Dark hair, braided close to the scalp at one side, the rest left as a tumble.  Darlene knelt on the floor by Chicken Little, holding the cage with more birds inside.

Others were scattered around the room.  Some boys were in Chris’ old corner, having found and started up some of his old games.  One had been given to Kenzie- it wasn’t a video game player, but a scanner.  She would dismantle it later.

Older Heartbroken were scattered in with a trio of mercenaries, and were managing some of the remaining Heartbroken.  A seventeen or eighteen year old with really long, wavy hair was stepping on a leather whip she’d wound around one girl’s hands, keeping the hands pressed to the floor.

Eerie, to think about where they came from and how very dangerous they were.

A hell of a lot of emotional firepower.

On the topic of firepower, Ashley was present, sitting on the floor with her legs tucked under her.  When we hadn’t been sharing info as a group, she had been talking quietly to the little girl that was Kenzie’s age who had her hands bound by the whip.

Parian and Foil sat on plastic cases with perishable foods inside.  Tattletale stood off to one side, a healthy distance from the dangerous little ones, looking at various screens.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Sveta said.

“They have less resources.  And they rule Gimel,” Tattletale said.  “Different mission statement now.  From getting through the end of the world to surviving the aftermath.”

“When you put it that way, you make it sound like they’re on our side,” Precipice said.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Tattletale said, indicating Sveta, who she’d borrowed the line from.  “Doing things that everyone should be unambiguously on board for and making every enemy possible along the way.”

“Great,” I said.  “Countenance and I exchanged a few texts while we drove back.  Relay gave him a quick recap and he reached out.  He sounds…”

“Undecided?” Byron-as-Capricorn asked.

“On the positive side of undecided.  Agreeable but yet to say he’s sure he’ll do it.  They’ll try to look after and stall any plans for the mercenaries and what they’re planning with the time bubbles.  If we catch up or figure out why while we’re dealing with the mercenaries’ allies, we use that info to help them wrap up.”

“We can’t focus on the mercenaries and stop whatever it is they’re doing?” Foil asked.

“We don’t have leads on them.  We do have some loose leads on Cradle’s business dealings, places Love Lost’s people have been seen, people they’ve hurt, and some last known whereabouts of March.”

“We go after them, then,” Byron-as-Capricorn said.  “All at once, after one target?”

“Coordinated strikes,” Ashley said.

“I dunno,” I said.  “I like the focused attack better.  Our goal is to keep them from achieving their goals or our worst case scenario.  A focused attack guarantees we take the most problematic person out of the picture.”

“March,” Foil said, definitively.

I drew in a slight breath.

“You don’t think so,” she said.  Again, a statement, firm.

“We’re supposed to be cooperating,” I said.  “The best order to remove threats would be to remove one of ours, one of yours, another one of ours.  It gives the best odds that we see this through.”

“Or we coordinate,” Ashley said.  The kid on the ground was inching closer to her while she focused on us, wriggling and twisting until her arms threatened to dislocate, just to get closer, gnashing teeth.  “No need to worry about order if we’re going after all of them at once.”

Capricorn shifted.  From Byron to Tristan.

“I think coordinated,” he said.  “It’s faster, and it means we can support the other groups.  Even if we fail on one front, we have better odds of keeping them from uniting.  Doing what you say, Victoria, and keeping them from achieving any goals and meeting up.”

I glanced at Tattletale.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.  “I’m here to collect information, because it’s warm, and we needed another place to go while March is hunting us.  You have some of my mercenaries.  You can ask me one favor.  I may refuse it.  But I’m not getting involved personally.  I need to conserve strength.”

“You can be-” Foil started.  Parian pulled her back down to her seat.

“I can be such a bitch sometimes?” Tattletale asked.  “At least I’m upfront about it.”

“I think we should split up,” Imp said.  “Coordinate.”

I had my reservations.  Still, sometimes with groups, a mediocre plan that everyone was on board with was much better than a fantastic plan with disgruntled people and people who had no idea what they were doing or why.

I nodded.

“Let’s get organized to hit them all at once, then,” I said.  “Three groups, three raids on March and the two members of the cluster.”

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