Two Hours Ago
Colt winced as Love Lost threw a gun at Nailbiter with no apparent intent to make it a gentle or careful throw. It wasn’t because of anger, but because she trusted Nailbiter to handle it. Nailbiter extended a finger to thread the trigger-guard, before using an overlong finger to slap the gun into her waiting left hand.
Nailbiter seemed to consider for a moment, dark eyes catching all of the lights as she looked down at the lump of metal. She gripped it by the barrel and held it out toward Nursery.
“Oh no,” Nursery said. “I don’t believe in guns. I have to be a good example, you know.”
Lord of Loss chuckled.
They were gathered outdoors, with members of the gang coming and going. Some weapons, some food, multiple cars being loaded up, gassed up with plastic jugs. Breath fogged in the air, except for those who didn’t apparently breathe. Lord of Loss was one.
Colt, Love Lost, and Nailbiter were standing near the door, with Nailbiter taking things as they were handed to her, or pointing when someone held something up for her, designating a vehicle. Lord of Loss, Spruce, Nursery, and Unbound were standing off to one side, the latter three wearing their winterized costumes.
The rest of the group was already by one vehicle. The powered didn’t have to carry or haul. Colt wasn’t being asked to carry or haul, but that wasn’t a good thing.
“Keep the peace at the Lyme Center,” Nailbiter addressed the mercenaries. Colt barely noticed the whistling ‘s’ sounds anymore. “One or two of you can wait there. It won’t need attention unless someone gets stupid. Picks a fight, gets drunk, doesn’t matter.”
“What kind of response do you want?” Lord of Loss asked.
Love Lost paused, meeting Nailbiter’s eyes.
Nailbiter supplied the answer. “Dramatic, but not dramatically violent. These people are ours. If you act and use powers, mention our names.”
“Then we’ll put Spruce there. He’s used to keeping order,” Lord of Loss said.
“And he’s bounding back from the flu, poor dear,” Nursery said. “It’s good if he’s somewhere warm.”
“Don’t tell them that,” Spruce said. “I’m well enough for whatever needs doing. I can keep things calm, resolve disputes. When you say mention your names, I should say, hm, ‘Love Lost wouldn’t want this’?”
Love Lost nodded, a firm motion. Her heels clicked and scraped on the floor as she took something one of the henchmen had brought from upstairs. A belt that sat askew on her hips. A rigging of claw-work and thin metal bars that formed a half-circle around her upper arm, reaching almost to the shoulder. It took a second of work to get the rigging to attach to the existing work that reached her elbow.
She made a motion with her arm. The claw that was attached to her hand swept in a half-circle, slapping into place at the upper arm, while the configuration of bars and blades at her bicep slapped into place over waiting forearm, hand, and fingers. She made a backhand motion, and the new, smaller set of claws uncoiled like five slinkies, with a sound like a hundred tiny swords being drawn from their sheaths, then sheathed again as they returned to their normal claw shape.
Cool. Scary but cool.
Or was it scary- cool but scary? Colt wasn’t sure. She wasn’t in Love Lost’s graces and that was a problem. Love Lost disposed of problems.
“Only the one?” Nailbiter asked.
Love Lost tapped her wrist, claw-blade striking metal bars there.
“What’s she mean?” the mercenary in orange asked.
“No time to get the second one done,” Nailbiter told him, keeping her eyes on Love Lost. No disagreement there, Colt noted.
But Love Lost did tap her wrist again.
“And we should go,” Nailbiter said. Love Lost nodded, firm once again. “Those of you who aren’t at the Lyme center, keep an eye on our place. Cradle thinks they’ll come for us. If they do, we want them to find you instead. Protect our headquarters. Don’t mess around there. It’s trapped.”
“We can guard it,” the giant shell of a man said.
“I could add my own traps,” Nursery said. “If they get close I’ll know where they are. If they get too close, my baby can pacify them.”
Love Lost gave the go-ahead to Nailbiter.
“The stairwell,” Nailbiter said.
“Enclosed spaces. Anything I can seal shut, without the power leaking out. I was thinking of the refrigerator.”
“It’s a pantry under the stairs. I’ll show you,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost held the door open for Nursery, then followed her in.
“Or she will. She knows where all of the traps are,” Nailbiter said.
Colt felt intimidated, surrounded by the people who were here. Lord of Loss was huge, and had a big personality. The other mercenary had quality, and the thugs they’d chosen to surround themselves with were big enforcer types, like they’d taken their pick of the largest five percent of guys from over in Earth N.
Colt’s dad had once said that he liked people who surrounded themselves with smart people, because they weren’t insecure. It was the same thing here. They surrounded themselves with big, strong guys and they didn’t look any less powerful in comparison, even though Spruce was a skinny guy and Nursery was barely any taller than Colt was.
It was uncomfortable, thinking about her dad.
On her side, Nailbiter was skinny, even rangy, and Colt liked that last word because it made her think of the range, of steer and cattle and that thought made her think of beef jerky. Love Lost was lithe like a jungle cat, and some people were like that. Beast of Burden had had that bullish quality to him, even when unarmored. But Nailbiter? Nailbiter was less beef and more jerky. Salt and grit in personality and quality, everything in her condensed down, her hair dried up with bleach and her brown skin abraded here and there, lips chapped or scraped up with the nails, a cut on one eyelid.
“Sidepiece,” Nailbiter called out. Sidepiece was sitting on the hood of a running car. Disjoint leaned against the edge of the hood, feet on the ground and back to his girlfriend, and had Sidepiece’s legs pressed against his arms, knees by his shoulders, while she did something with his hair. They were casual, even lovey-dovey, while Kitchen Sink and Hookline stood by, stiff and looking like kicked dogs. Hookline had one hand at the elbow of his other arm, head down, while Kitchen Sink had his arms folded, shoulders drawn forward.
In the same doghouse as me, Colt reminded herself.
“What do you want?” Sidepiece asked.
“Show the mercenaries around. Key areas.”
“There’s not much,” Sidepiece protested.
Nailbiter’s already hard expression took on a harder cast.
Rolling her eyes so hard that her head moved with it, Sidepiece disengaged from her boyfriend and hopped down.
“Thank you,” Nailbiter said, to Sidepiece and Disjoint. Her smile was all nails and one screw. Sidepiece gave her another eye roll.
Leaving Nailbiter and Colt alone. Well, alone except for the people who were loading up trucks with basic supplies
Fuck, Colt thought. That was on purpose. It was cold, and the chill that came over her made her feel even colder. Nailbiter still had the gun.
“What are you going to do?” Nailbiter asked.
“Do I even have a choice?” Colt asked.
“If you did, what would you do?” the woman asked her.
Colt shivered, jamming her hands in her pocket, ducking her head down. “I don’t know.”
“You need to know,” Nailbiter said. “I’m sure you can guess why Sidepiece isn’t asked to watch you. You’re not that stupid.”
Colt shook her head. Her hair was a mess and she couldn’t bring herself to fix it.
“Disjoint handles it sometimes. Love Lost sometimes,” Nailbiter said. “But it’s usually me. Do you know why?”
“Because you’re the one who’s going to kill me, if she decides it needs to be done. The others aren’t reliable for that kind of thing.”
There wasn’t an immediate response. Trunks and car doors slammed. Some men turned to give Nailbiter a thumbs up. She responded with a motion of her hand.
“We talked about it,” Nailbiter said. “She draws the line at a certain age. You’re over it. The question is if you’re a kid.”
Colt’s first attempt at speaking failed. When she tried again, her voice was closer to being a whistle or hiss in Nailbiter’s voice than a normal person’s voice would be. “And?”
“And I want to know what you’re doing right here, right now. Are you coming here? Are you staying behind, making sure the errands are done and dinner is made, being careful not to open the wrong cabinets?”
Colt swallowed hard, looking through the open door to where Nursery was crouched by the pantry under the stairs.
“Very careful,” Nailbiter said, amending her statement. “Or are you going to run and try to go home?”
“I know too much. You’d catch me.”
“If that wasn’t a consideration?” Nailbiter asked. She turned her face toward Colt, her eyes dark, her teeth frozen from where moisture of her breath had gathered on nails and formed an ice coating.
“I don’t know.”
Nailbiter’s expression changed, a snarl without a sound to it, and Colt dropped her eyes.
“We were the bastard children, my sister and I,” Nailbiter said. “Our daddies passed through town and they didn’t know it, but they left our ma with child. School was a suggestion, and I fucking hated and hate it when people suggest I do anything. You hear me?”
Colt nodded, not sure why this tangent had come up, but it was better than talking about execution.
“I was young enough that I’d just grown in my adult teeth when my face got caved in by a boy from town, five years older than me and he got most of those teeth. He said I picked the fight with him, I fell and bit the curb by my own clumsiness. They took his word for it.”
“You had nothing to do with it. Thing is, times were changing. Powers meant an awful lot of people with causes were getting the ability to make themselves heard. My sister and I, we heard people were commemorating the anniversary of one of those people getting arrested. Lustrum. You know her?”
Colt shook her head.
“Kids aren’t getting educations in what’s important, these days. She stood up for women when they needed it and she was put in a hole forever as punishment. What her followers were saying sounded good, ‘cuz I was angry at my daddy that I’d never seen and would never know if I saw him, and I was angry at the boys in town, and the people who let those boys be the boys they were. We joined up. Not that different from this. We had a good role model in Lustrum. Nothing better than a martyr, you hear?”
“Did you get your teeth fixed?”
Nailbiter smirked, showing her teeth. The smirk distorted slightly because her lips stuck to the metal where it was cold. “Stupidest question I’ve heard from you yet. You can see the fix. Third go I’ve made at it.”
Colt swallowed and nodded.
“We split up. I tried the sapphic shit and nah. My sister had a relationship that turned into a ball of drama that was bleeding into everything else in the group, so we moved on. Stayed with our friends in that group. We were on the road, half the group making music and the rest of us robbing the occasional asshole to make ends meet. We realized we were a stone’s throw away from our hometown. Our mama was gone. Dead.”
“I’m sor- that fucking sucks.”
“It did. It does. But the boy who caved my face in wasn’t dead or gone. We tracked him down. Caught him drunk and alone. Decided we’d corner him, I’d fight him. Get my own.”
“I wasn’t strong enough. I blame being vegan and eating a meal every other day, looking back, but I didn’t think about that then. I just knew I was hitting him and he wasn’t hurting.”
“If he was drunk, that’d be part of it, right?”
“I didn’t know that either. I thought it’d make him sloppy. He managed to land a hit and it hurt me enough that the others all jumped to my side and he was able to run for it. I came to, realized what was up, and couldn’t sort it out in my head. A couple years then of thinking we were invincible, I was strong, we had the answers. The thoughts in my head twisted up in my stomach and in all that twisting, I came out different. I had a cause of my own and it was getting my brand of justice. Him. The people giving him pats on the back the same time my jaw was getting wired shut, because I was just a bastard fucking child with a slut mom…”
Nailbiter drew in a sharp breath, the sound hissing through teeth.
“I kept going after that. I thought about pulling out his entrails. Felt too tidy. So I clawed out his eyes and lanced his eardrums.”
Colt couldn’t bring herself to answer. Nailbiter was staring off into space. Reminiscing. There was no joy in the expression, no sadness.
Worse, Colt decided.
“I did what I’d dreamed of, and it wasn’t enough. So I did similar things to people similar to Noah, then ‘similar’ started to mean less. Sister pulled away, said it was too much. One by one, the rest of the group fell away. I had the cause, I had someone to look up to.”
“Yeah. When you go to the Birdcage, Colt, they sort you out. Put birds of a feather together. I was one of a few prisoners, and once I heard how they were putting certain people in certain blocks, I thought of her. Of course I go there. Of course. But I ended up being Ingenue’s to look after. Not just not Lustrum’s, but farthest from Lustrum’s cell block.”
“And you never got to see her?”
“I got to see her. You can go this way or that. You can even pack up your shit and move to another cell block, if the leader of that block allows it. Moment I heard that, I knew what I was doing.”
“I went to ask if I could. Listened in. I realized she wasn’t who I thought she was. A hundred college campuses and a hundred more cities, and her face was printed on caps and smocks all over. Meant different things to different people. For most, being part of her following meant taking a stand. Not even being criminal or protesting.”
“It sounds like it was big.”
“Yeah, well, there was no anger in her, she didn’t even like violence much. Hated that what she’d put out there had been twisted around. My type most of all. I never did let her know. You get ideas in your head, you decide who you want someone to be, and it’s you who disappoints yourself more than them who disappoints you. Understand?”
“I think so.”
It was a question with more meaning to it.
“No,” Colt admitted.
Nailbiter’s expression shifted, that mute snarl again.
“I don’t know who it is you think I’m looking up to that’s going to disappoint me,” Colt said.
“You’re not looking up. You’re looking down,” Nailbiter said, sounding as pissed off and exasperated as Colt had ever heard her.
Colt’s eyes darted this way and that. If this was a test, she didn’t want to fail.
“You think I’m looking down on you? On Love Lost? The group?”
Nailbiter was silent.
“I… have a real choice? You’d let me go?” Colt asked.
“Are you saying you want to go?” Nailbiter asked, and her voice was hard, the hisses and whistles sharper.
Again, that trap of a question. If she said yes, she could be killed or punished as a traitor.
But that could be the ‘looking down’ part.
“I don’t want to go home.”
“Is that because you’re afraid to leave, or you’re afraid to go?”
“I want to stay,” Colt said, and by the time the sentence was done she wasn’t sure if she believed it.
Nailbiter didn’t budge. No tells, no decisions.
“I don’t want to stay behind, but… I’m not sure I’m brave enough to be a soldier. Fire a gun.”
There was noise at the door. It opened, and Love Lost stepped through. Seeing her face, Colt was reminded of the golden man’s face in the rare video footage of him. Of the image that had been mass-printed, of an artist’s rendition of Scion, the man who would later end the world.
Not that Love Lost was capable of ending the world, but the expression was so similar. Caught between anger and sadness, disappointment too light, too loaded a word in Colt’s mind now that Nailbiter had talked about it. Crestfallen? Why?
“You’re not a kid,” Nailbiter said. “If you were, this would be easier. But because you’re not a kid, I can give you options. How would you like artificial courage?”
“Art-” Colt started. She stopped as she saw the pill Nailbiter held between two extended fingers.
“We don’t trust you enough to leave you at headquarters alone,” Nailbiter said. “If you can’t fight, you can’t be a soldier. So either take the steps necessary or get lost.”
Going home meant facing her parents. She’d attacked her mom to get her mom to let her go, while Nailbiter had watched it happen, not stepping in. Nailbiter had claimed her, and now Nailbiter was saying she had things wrong?
She didn’t get it.
But as scary as these guys were, going home was scary in another way.
She reached out for the pill. Nailbiter deposited it in her hand.
“Chew it, don’t swallow it. It’s going to last for a bit whatever you do, and you don’t want it having to sit for too long to work.”
Colt put it between her teeth. She bit hard, and it crumbled. The acrid taste flooded her senses.
“That’s awful. Ugh!” she cried out, doubling over. “Is this that pill person’s stuff?”
She looked up, and she caught the very tail end of Love Lost and Nailbiter silently communicating something between them.
Having already taken a second or two longer than she usually did, Nailbiter answered her, “No. Nothing tinker about it. It’s an upper. Some energy, some recklessness. Courage, if you want to call it that.”
Love Lost looked even more upset than before, but she betrayed nothing and said nothing. A clawed hand was gently laid on Nailbiter’s shoulder in passing. It stayed there as Love Lost stood straight, chin rising. Her claws and other tinker decoration glittered as she raised a hand, fingers moving in a swooping gesture.
The cars and trucks that had been idling to let the heaters run chugged to life, almost synchronized.
She wasn’t sure if it was the rush of fear and excitement or if it was the pill already working, but her heart was pounding now, with a hammering rhythm that paid no mind to her feelings or the circumstances. The brights of the world seemed brighter, and the darks seemed darker, and in the moment, there was a hell of a lot more dark than light.
Nailbiter extended a hand. She gripped the barrel of the pistol, handle out for Colt to hold.
“Don’t take this if you’re not willing to shoot to kill.”
Colt took the weapon.
Twenty Minutes Ago
“Go,” Nailbiter barked. “You’re a liability.”
“Liability?” Sidepiece asked. “The liability is the q-tip down there. Our good old Damsel of Distress needs to answer for betraying us, and I swear we’ll get that answer if I have to blow up everyone here to do it!”
Colt smiled, despite herself. She felt a bit giddy with excitement. She was ninety percent sure that Sidepiece was joking, but the idea that she might not be made her want to laugh.
Smiles were okay, she decided, but laughing was a problem.
“Go,” Nailbiter said.
“Never and fuck you!”
Love Lost pointed.
“Fuck!” Sidepiece shouted.
Colt’s hands shook as she held the binoculars. It was enough that it was kind of hard to keep the binoculars focused on a target.
Which was a shame, because two of the targets was really, really nice to look at.
Damsel, Lookout, Imp, a young girl in a black dress with white lace frills beneath, a boy with wild blond hair, cute and older, but on the nerdy side, and another boy with black hair, moody, glowering, the same age or just a bit younger than Colt. She’d liked boys in the past and she’d really liked some boys she’d gotten to know, but she’d never really really liked boys, and she’d definitely never really really liked boys she’d only ever known from a distance.
Hookline shifted his position, and Love Lost put an arm out. The configuration at her arms broke apart, going through the swapping procedure, then stopped, only the bars extending out, an added foot of reach that blocked Hookline.
“What?” Hookline asked.
Nailbiter offered up the answer, “The blond one senses things at a distance.”
“The kid has cameras.”
“Not aimed our way, probably. If they were, they’d be on alert.”
Love Lost held up a claw, tilting her head to one side. She nodded.
“This is where March’s group has been hanging out, they’re after her?” Disjoint asked.
Love Lost nodded.
“We’re surprising the surprise attackers,” Disjoint said.
Love Lost shook her head.
There was a pause, then she typed out the words. Colt reached for her phone before it even rang, still looking through binoculars.
SURVEILLANCE. NOT SURPRISE ATTACK.
THEY ARE SUPPORT TEAM FOR SOLO ASSASSIN.
“Makes sense,” Nailbiter said. “We don’t know the power level of the three without masks.”
THE GROUP IS SCARED OF THE YOUNGEST GIRL.
UNPREDICTABLE AND POWERFUL.
FORMATION HAS BLOND BOY AT CENTER. PROTECTED.
BLACK HAIRED BOY IN VANGUARD.
Black haired boy. Colt looked again. He walked with Damsel, not saying much. Damsel was vanguard too, it seemed. Made sense, based on what she knew.
“Can we take them?”
It took a second before Colt realized she’d asked the question.
Love Lost nodded.
She reached to one wrist, and adjusted the settings on the claw at the arm where there was only one configuration. Colt watched warily.
Claw-tips glowed. Where they moved, they cut lines into the air.
A circle was drawn around Hookline. A line was drawn from it, as claws tapped at air. Hookline’s phone lit up, and he held up the screen for others to see.
SMALLEST GIRL. INCAPACITATE.
More circles were drawn out. Orders given by text to specific phones. Each person dutifully held up their phones with the targets and orders, shifting position to be ready to take the courses given. Some would attack the rear, others the front.
Disjoint to Lookout.
Kitchen Sink to the black haired and blond boys, whoever provided themselves as a target.
Nailbiter to the same pairing, dissuading Damsel where possible.
Love Lost to Imp and Damsel.
Then Colt. A circle drawn around her and two other hired guns from the Lyme center.
The text appeared.
SUPPORT ATTACK FROM REAR
PERMISSION TO KILL
EXCEPTION FOR TWO GIRLS. LOOKOUT & YOUNGER.
Colt nodded. Her heart continued its racing beat, not slowing, not speeding up. It made the entire thing feel less real. Easier.
Love Lost started forward. She pointed, then the hand moved, fingers extending down. She ‘walked’ the fingers through the air.
“Walk, don’t run?” Kitchen Sink asked.
“Until they notice us. Save our strength and stamina until then,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost nodded.
Their path was downhill. Their target a city street with closed businesses all shuttered. Some looked like they were permanently closed. Ice made some footing treacherous, but different members of the group compensated. Love Lost had her claw-feet. Nailbiter had pointed tips to her fingers and toes. Hookline dragged his hook against the pavement. Disjoint was segmented, most of his body floating.
Kitchen Sink wasn’t so able. The other mercenaries too. Still.
“Gun tag,” Disjoint said.
“What?” Colt asked, startled.
“What we’re doing right now. Playing tag with guns. Get them before they get you and you win. Other way around? Lose.”
“Don’t lose,” Kitchen Sink said. “Those are Heartbroken. They don’t go easy on losers.”
Claw snapped against claw like a snap of a finger, but far more violent, and with the lights still left activated, the movement produced a small sparking of light.
Love Lost broke into a run.
Colt raised her binoculars to confirm, even as she started running too. It was the pat-the-head-while-rubbing-your-tummy kind of coordination that would have been hard at any time, but the pill made it harder or the pill made it seem easier of a task. She slipped and skidded on ice until her foot hit the crust of a snowbank. A mercenary hauled her to her feet, then kept a hand on her shoulder as they ran.
They’d been noticed, so the attack was happening now. Gun tag?
She had a gun.
“It’s not March!” she could hear one shouting. The dorky-cute blond boy.
“Shit,” was his companion’s response. The broody-cute one.
They converged on the group, each set of Love Lost’s people rounding the corners and stepping out from cover in near concert. The Undersiders-Breakthrough teamup had already formed battle lines, a loose ring protecting more vulnerable members.
Lookout already had her tinker weapons out. A clawed tail or something and a white gun that she clasped in both hands. Disjoint’s hand appeared and seized her wrist. She pulled the other hand away, taking on a one-handed stance, aiming off to the side. Another hand caught her.
The black haired boy was stepping forward, and Colt had to remind herself she had a job to do. She aimed high and fired.
It didn’t slow him down or distract. Fists clenched at either side of him, he roared, a fierce sound, veins standing out on his face. Kitchen Sink reeled, then started sprinting forward.
“Don’t!” Hookline shouted.
There was no controlling it, apparently. A headlong berserk rush, meeting the black haired boy, who was still roaring.
Kitchen Sink was all brawn, weapons appearing in his hands, slipping free as soon as he realized he couldn’t use them. A metal stein became a thing he could grab and swing toward the black haired boy’s face. In the other hand, the deciding fixture was a bit of piping with a showerhead fixed on the end.
The black haired boy fought with one arm extended, the other held back. It was a fencer’s pose without a fencer’s foil, grace, timing, and keen reactions contrasting with the way his eyes were bloodshot and veins raised on his forehead. He swayed back, slapped aside, and stepped in close, driving a knee into Kitchen Sink’s middle.
Faster than a normal person, maybe stronger. Inflicting rage but suffering it too. Forced duels. If he kept doing that-
She raised her gun.
Before she could do anything, people were getting in her way. Damsel was one, and Damsel was complicated, and that complication made her hesitate.
Damsel used her power. Nailbiter swiped into the air at the same moment, predicting Damsel’s trajectory. Her power made an explosion that looked like all of the light and all of the dark that Colt had noticed after taking the pill were being twisted together until they snapped, and it sent her flying into the air, toward the extended fingers.
She didn’t stop using her power, though. Rather than end it abruptly, Damsel let it trail off, bringing her hands under her. Her feet went up, and she stepped on the underside of the fingers, before bringing her hand up-
The fingers retreated.
Hookline had the little girl who wasn’t Lookout. Hookline’s power was a chain and hook that couldn’t be destroyed, that he could telekinetically manipulate, and he’d encircled the girl with it, the hook secured on the chain that he was now hauling in with both hands and power.
The girl reached for Kitchen Sink as she passed him, and Hookline whipped the chain a bit, casting her a few feet to one side in the other direction. Out of reach.
She screeched, like only a young girl could. Colt was put in mind of Reese. Her sister. It jarred. She hadn’t thought of Reese in a while. She hadn’t gotten along with Reese in… ever. But she still missed her.
Weird to think about in the now.
Damsel, landing, immediately sprung forward, toward Hookline. Nailbiter produced a cage of interlocked fingers, barring the way, and Damsel avoided the cage, another burst of power to vault to one side, yet another to slide through the space between elongated wrist and ground.
“Fuck!” Hookline shouted. “Fuck me!”
Nailbiter followed up. Fingers drew in, a cage that now closed in around Damsel, and her teeth extended, a scattershot volley that aimed to fill the space.
Damsel used her power twice in quick succession before the kicked-up snow and dirt and the seemingly countless narrow spikes that filled the area caught up to her.
Two shots. One to punch a hold into the ground, the other to reverse course and hurl herself into that hole. The nails had passed overhead.
Colt saw movement. She aimed, sighted her target, and recognized it as the blond boy.
“Samuel!” a girl shouted, not that far away- between Love Lost and Colt.
Reflexively, Colt pulled the trigger. It felt like it had seemed to work with the black haired boy’s power. His power had been rage, both inflicted and felt. This was a horrible, jarring kick, and corresponding to that kick, the boy kicked back and flumped to the ground in a horrible, jarring way.
Colt turned toward the sound, then felt bewildered at the lack of a source.
The black haired teenager was trouncing Kitchen Sink, despite Kitchen Sink’s relative size and weaponry. Sink’s swings were wide and reckless, and he almost seemed to forget he had the weapons in his haste to get in close and hurt the teen.
That changed in a flash. One item fell into his hands, and he hurled it. It produced a cloud as it hurtled through the air, and that cloud left the black haired boy coughing.
Kitchen Sink slammed his face into the boy’s. Sink’s face had a heavy porcelain mask strapped to it. The boy had nothing, and dropped to his knees, one hand to his face. A second later, veins stood out across his face, more intense than before, and the blood loss accelerated. He lunged forward, and didn’t quite manage to get off his knees before Sink started pressuring him down toward the ground. Sink looked pretty affected, almost frothing at the mouth now.
Colt staggered back, an arm encircling her neck. Her first thought was that it was one of Love Lost’s mercenaries, and that she’d somehow crossed a line or gotten her just desserts.
Her other thought was that Love Lost was stalking toward her. Her right claw extended into whips with sharp metal caps at the end.
Colt tried to bring her gun up to shoot at the guy who had her. When her hand raised, however, there was no weight in it and no gun.
She felt a gun press against her back. Though it was a heavy, hairy man’s arm that held her, the voice in her ear was feminine. “You just shot my friend, you fucking lunatic.”
Damsel was using her power more, skipping ahead, while Nailbiter was trying to catch up. Forgetting the strangulation for a second, Colt twisted to try and see what was happening.
She was just in time to see Damsel arrive at the corner where Disjoint was waiting. He had no arms by which to defend himself, so Damsel was free to use her power to deliver a flying knee-strike, as he doubled over, trying to shield himself with truncated arms. When he flew back, he had hands again.
Which freed Lookout, who he had been restraining.
Colt screwed her eyes shut, saw Love Lost doing the same, as Lookout raised her gun.
The flash hurt, even with her eyes forced as shut as she could get, her face turned away. It made her mind adjust light and dark in a funny way, as if she’d always scaled it from one to ten and she’d just found a new, higher bar for ten.
Her mom was always in the hospital for hip pain, she thought. She’d heard a lot about pain scales, had heard her mother complain about how arbitrary a ten was.
Disjoint was knocked out. Hookline- he gathered chains together into a loose wall in between himself and Damsel. Doing so meant dragging the kid a little closer.
Colt found herself able to breathe again, unsure why she’d even stopped. Love Lost shoved past her, and started whipping at the air.
“You need to help!” Colt shouted at Love Lost, her voice too high, tremulous. The mercenaries that had been part of her flanking group were on the ground, and she couldn’t remember them getting beat.
Bending down, she picked up one of their guns.
Damsel crashed into the length of Nailbiter’s claws, then used her power again, forcing the claws to move with her, slamming into Hookline. It meant the littlest kid was free. Colt turned to look, and saw Lookout aiming.
She shielded her eyes, aimed blindly in the right direction, and fired, pulling the trigger again and again, in time with a heartbeat that was moving so fast she couldn’t count it if she tried.
Something hit her across the side of the face. She fell.
It was Love Lost who picked her up again, her grip hard enough that metal claws threatened to pierce skin. Love Lost’s claws were slick with blood. Kitchen Sink was battered, Hookline rattled, but those two were up. Disjoint and the other mercenaries still seemed to be unconscious, except or a guy or two at the far end.
They were outnumbered.
“Traitor,” Kitchen Sink said, to Damsel.
“Old news, that,” she said. Her eyes were black from corner to corner, and they smoked faintly. She’d been scratched at one shoulder by Nailbiters’s teeth.
“You shot a child,” Damsel said. “You’re working with Cradle on that machine of his? You’re a disappointment to yourselves and everyone who has to walk the same earth as you.”
Love Lost was silent, of course. Colt made a small amused sound before she could stop herself. Still a little giddy, loose around the edges.
The smile fell from her face as she noticed Love Lost staring her down.
Oh, this was worse than going to the doghouse. This was fucking up and then doing it again.
And getting beat. They were going to win.
And then- then she would have nowhere to go.
The thoughts that sprung from that were delirious, but they weren’t ‘upper’ thoughts, as far as she got that stuff. They were a swell of darkness, pushed up from below.
“You alright, Roman?” Lookout asked.
“Peachy,” Roman said, his voice a growl. He spat blood onto the snow. “Samuel’s not peachy, and Flor’s bleeding.”
Love Lost and Nailbiter looked so confident, and Colt wasn’t sure why.
Confident and pissed.
In her daze, trying to make sense of things, Colt saw Kitchen Sink try to throw something. Lookout’s claw-on-a-tail reached out to catch it, but that left her blind for Nailbiter to attack. Damsel threw herself at Nailbiter’s real body, to throw off her trajectory.
Love Lost wheeled around, striking out with her whips, hitting empty air, then leaped backward, riggings on her legs snapping out as they fired like gun chambers, giving her a slight boost. Her feet scraped against the wall, and she ran on the surface for five running steps.
She bounded down, toward Damsel, Nailbiter, and Lookout.
Everyone had something they were doing. Except Colt…
…And Flor, the creepy little girl with the black dress decorated in white lace. The girl smiled, showing a lot of small white teeth. She limped with every step.
“You shot my brother,” the girl’s voice was quiet. “Now if I do something extra horrible to you, they won’t blame me. It’s great. Thank you for shooting Samuel.”
Colt backed away as the girl advanced. In the background, it looked like Love Lost was winning, propelling herself from Nailbiter’s claws to strike Damsel in the air.
The girl bolted forward. Even with the limp, she was quick.
Colt turned to run. If that girl wanted in close, then Colt wanted away.
She got three steps before she was caught. In the confusion and daze, she thought it was two people. Two different arms.
The arms thrust her back in the direction of the child. She slipped on ice and skidded to a stop. Where one of her gloves had ridden up, her hand had scraped on the hard ground.
Colt reached for something- anything she could do. A plea- she had no ideas. An anything?
She floundered, like she was in water and there was only water so disturbed and black that she couldn’t find any way up or out.
There were stars in that water, and it wasn’t the water churning, but sleek forms within it.
As the forms came nearer, they welled up in her vision. Less like a person walking toward her, and more like a planet colliding with her own.
That form had a mouth, and that mouth yawned open wide, until it encapsulated her vision, and everything in every direction was this thing. She moved her focus around, struggled, fought- but it was like being in quicksand.
She saw the heart of the thing. She saw the small star of energy and how it was broken up into a thousand facets that were somehow all still aligned, even as the thing came to pieces.
And that star, that pit at the very belly of this thing, it burned so hot and so bright it began to eat at her consciousness. Even the detachment she felt wasn’t any insulation against the consuming light.
But she wasn’t one to follow or obey. She’d run away from- she couldn’t remember the word- her creators. She was doing a shitty job here with this new group. Hurting a child.
Hurting cute boys, but that was the drug talking.
The drug was an insulator. A thing she could put between herself and the ownership of her being here.
The first step in a hundred thousand, all undertaken in a frame of completely different time.
She stood on the edge of that pit, and the power was there for the taking.
She stepped away from it, even in her desperation.
Into the real world, where the ground beneath her hands was cold.
She had a power, but just as she’d refused the greater body of power, she fought the urge to take hold of this. To do so threatened to pull her into that pit.
For the time being, she stood, shaky. Others had staggered, hands to their heads. Powers had gone limp.
The scattered henchmen Love Lost had brought were here, hurrying forward. Roman, the boy with black hair, was clubbed across the head with a baton.
Two of them were still close to Colt. As soon as she grasped the fact, saw the decisive action on the part of the mercenaries, she pulled herself to her feet and kicked- catching the younger girl right in the midsection with her boot.
She wheeled around, saw Imp stagger forward, and struck out with the gun. One blow to the throat, hard, leaving the woman sputtering.
It was only when they were down that she could reach for her power.
When she did, she felt herself teeter. On the cusp of falling. She swayed.
The so-called ‘ground’ solidified.
The fight resumed, hesitant at first, as people were still recovering. But the actions of the unpowered henchmen were forcing the Undersiders and Breakthrough to react.
She had a power. She drew in a deep breath, and she used it.
Bags over their heads, hands bound behind their backs, several with poles attached to the bindings at the hands, so they could be managed from a distance.
Her nose was bloody, her hand and knee scraped, and the drugs were leaving her with a strangely disappointed feeling, out of tune with the reality before her- that she had a strong power. Just the moods swinging in the opposite direction.
Her feelings jerked this way and that as she took it in. Disjoint gave her a reassuring smile. Love Lost, though, didn’t seem happy in the slightest.
Weird, considering they had this contingent captive. Two of Breakthrough, one Undersider, three Heartbroken. Two of those had been shot, one lacerated so badly by Love Lost’s whips that she couldn’t walk, and all three of those were now on the way to hospitals Love Lost had worked with before. The medical care would be held hostage, as necessary. Otherwise, they were all hostages now.
There was no going home again now, a small voice in her head said. She’d crossed lines. Even within this group.
Home had been destroyed two years ago, another said. The concept had stopped meaning anything back then.
“Come on,” Disjoint told her, stirring her from dark thoughts.
Colt forced a smile to her face, and found her feet.
“We’re nearly done,” Nailbiter said.