Seven Years Ago
The interrogation room was concrete, a metal table set against the wall. A monster was in the corner, perched on a metal folding chair that creaked when she shifted position.
It was all arranged to make the suspect as uncomfortable as possible. The chair was situated in the corner, and the table had a bar between the legs so the suspect couldn’t turn the chair toward the table or easily put their legs beneath.
Whichever orientation of the chair they chose, they had to sit uncomfortably or twist if they wanted to look at anyone else in the room, and they had to to turn a hundred and eighty degrees if they wanted to look at the mirror set into the wall behind them.
It was to the detectives’ benefit that the suspect was not only made uncomfortable, but that body language was put on full display with no table to block the view. Every movement of the hands, every adjustment of the feet.
It was a bit of a twist of expectations that they were on the other side of the one-way mirror. This was the room where the various members of the station normally gathered to watch investigations in progress. It was tempting to keep looking back, to try to read something into a scene without sound, when the speaker was switched off. In the other room, a thirty-something woman was talking to three officers. In this room, two officers and the suspect waited.
‘Suspect’. Nic had already come to her verdict: Monster.
Nic stood by the door, pretending to be watching that scene. She took periodic notes.
“We’re having a conversation here, that’s all,” Doug told the suspect, all smiles.
“And I’m Alexandria,” Jen, the young woman at the far end of the room said. Suspect. Monster.
“Oh, wow,” Doug said, breathy, excited, playing along and happy to play along. “That’s amazing!”
Trying to sweep their suspect up into a rhythm. Nic wouldn’t have gone about it that way.
The response was a sneer. “I’m not saying anything without a lawyer. I went to a decent high school, we got an intro to law in tenth grade. We all saw the video breaking it down. This. Nothing I say can support my case, but you’ll twist it around or use pieces of it to screw me over and make me out to be the bad guy.”
“It’s just a conversation, Jen,” Doug said. “You can leave at any time. For right now, until things are settled, we think it’s best you’re here and not in the pit.”
The pit. The floor with all of the desks and phones, where the most informal of interviews were held.
“Of course you do.”
“When you were sitting out there and she passed by you, your stepmom started screaming at you. None of us want that. Not at this time of night. Or, worse, we get a situation where you’re outside waiting for your cab when she comes across you and there’s nobody around to hold her back.”
Jen’s response was a shrug.
“The stepmom. She’s very emotional,” Doug observed.
Anyone would be.
“It doesn’t help her, acting like that while making accusations,” he said. The friendly, good looking officer, playing nice. Jen didn’t bite.
No bite, but she did twist around to look. The woman in the other room was dabbing at her eyes with a kleenex.
“Oh god,” the monster said.
“Right?” Doug asked, smiling.
Their suspect responded to the smile by retreating, arms folding, settling into the chair. Reminding herself she was talking to the enemy.
Doug pressed, “Look, she won’t be much longer. A lot of the people here, we were up at six this morning, got our coffees, breakfast sandwiches, ate our oatmeal, ran through our routines. And we’ve been up for fifteen hours. We aren’t interested in anything that’s going to take hours. We want this done and out of the way. We’ll wrap up the interview with the stepmom, send her home, then we’ll let you go. Then we get back to you in a few days to let you know where things stand.”
That wasn’t really how it worked. Some started late and worked late. But it made for a good story.
Jen, the monster in the chair, turned and looked up at Nic, who was pretending to watch ‘the stepmom’.
“How long have you had to put up with that?” Doug asked.
“I won’t answer any questions until I have my lawyer.”
“I’m trying to kill time, that’s all. Trust me, a guy who’s been working for fifteen hours is not the guy who would be interrogating you. We already got your statement.”
His finger tapped the paper.
“I’m not saying anything,” Jen said.
Tenth grade law class or no, ‘Jen’ had yet to actually ask for a lawyer. She’d stated she wouldn’t answer questions without one, but it was a distinction that mattered.
Nic watched the ongoing back and forth. Frustrated, she stood up straight, no longer standing with her back to the doorframe. “Boss just waved me down. Back in a sec, D.”
“You need me to take notes or anything?” Doug asked.
“Keep an eye on the stepmom. Look for shiftiness, bullshit.”
“Any first thoughts?”
Doug gave her an affirmative grunt.
Even though it was for good ends, the implications sat uneasy with her. ‘The stepmom’, the implications that the woman in the other room was in the wrong. The focus on that woman, while Jen was situated in that uncomfortable metal chair, feeling the pressure without any active pressure being applied.
The heel of her hand rubbed against the corner of her jaw. That uneasiness and the tension of the long day were wearing on her. She’d been gritting her teeth and now her jaw hurt, and it would hurt into tomorrow morning, if past experience was any indication.
She hadn’t been hailed or waved down. Her destination was the locker room. She had some evidence baggies inside a larger resealable baggie in her coat pocket. She pulled them out, setting them down on the small shelf.
The pills she put into the first bag were her own pills, as was the pill bottle- she’d peeled away the label a long time ago. The stepmom had said something about the kid being on medication. She felt it was important, so she would use that.
Flipping open her phone, she brought up images she’d snapped while visiting the kid’s house. Jen’s half brother. Pages of lined paper with the chicken-scratch writing running through the lines, the words written large and along the longest edge of the papers. It had caught her attention when she’d first seen it. A little puzzle she’d answered later in the night, when Jen had talked about disabilities.
Owen had a syndrome, the full name was in her notes, but in addition to the obvious facial and neck issues evident in his photographs, his fingers were shorter, the joints at the base of each finger malformed and gathered together. He had similar issues with wrist and elbow. Writing was hard, so he wrote in a way that let him use more of the page.
She copied out his unique handwriting, slowly at first, then with more confidence. As she wrote more, she could let herself be sloppier, always with a mind for the limitations of his hand and arm.
The pages went into another bag. Sealed away, the contents recognizable but partially obscured by the label pre-printed onto the bag’s exterior.
She had other files still in her locker. Take-home work. She picked through them and she found what she could use. Fingerprints from another case. A kid that had been setting fires. Paperwork from another case. All gathered up into an otherwise nondescript file folder.
With her phone, fingers clicking on the number keys, she flicked through to find more pictures she’d taken while visiting the family home. She found one she’d taken of Jen. A family photo, thirteen year old Owen smiling as best as he could with his facial deformation, dressed smart in a nice shirt and sweater. Owen’s mother and father. And Jen, standing with a measurable distance between herself and Owen.
She couldn’t do it anymore. She couldn’t stand in that room, apply that slow and steady pressure, wait for the interview with Mrs. Bowers to finish, have the pow-wow, work out the plan of attack, and then turn her full focus onto Jen Bowers. Not when Jen would get defensive, insist on her lawyer in a way they had to oblige, and tie up the process. She knew how it would go, what the lawyer would say. What the boss would say.
Her own jaw would break from clenching her teeth before Jen broke. She had to do something.
She had to plug her phone into the printer to send the picture. Grainy and low-res, but that didn’t matter.
Three swipes of the box-cutter knife separated Jen’s black and white image from the rest. It went into the file, tucked beneath someone else’s fingerprints.
She was on her way back when the chief stopped her, one hand at her shoulder. She showed him what she had, and she watched as the older, better detective picked through her ‘evidence’. A pen-tip ran along the case number printed with the fingerprints. The pen turned around and the butt-end was used to lift up pages, then to prod the evidence bag with the pills.
He looked at her, quizzical. She shrugged.
He moved on. He knew it was all charade. His role had changed now, as he assessed whether any of it was poorly done or oddly specific enough to give away that charade.
He seemed amused as he gave her the silent go-ahead.
Three more steps took her into the room where Doug was commenting aloud on the stepmother’s mannerisms. Jen had twisted around in an uncomfortable way to look.
“She keeps adjusting her wedding ring. I read that as a sign of infidelity. Is it a sign of infidelity, Jen?”
“No comment,” Jen said, staring through the one-way mirror. Still trying not to engage.
Jen looked, too, as Nic put the file down, then the bottle, and then the forged notes in Owen’s handwriting.
The file and papers weren’t on the table for two seconds before they were picked up by Doug.
Doug’s smile dropped off his face. Where he had been pleasant, positive, upbeat, he was now cold. It was an act, of course, but it seemed to shake Jen some.
There was no communication. No words, as he read through what she’d written. On the front, in ‘Owen’s’ words, she’d expressed grief and anger, frustration and hopelessness. On the backside, in the same crude handwriting, she’d outlined how everything she’d put in front of him was bullshit.
He got up and he left the room, taking the file with him.
Let her believe we got her. A note with telling information. Or…
Nic looked at the pill bottle. Pills for anemia, which she’d barely touched. So long as she ate on the days she had more to drink, she didn’t need them. In this ruse of hers, she was making a gamble, an educated guess.
Owen, a physically and mentally disabled boy who was struggling through school, friendless and frustrated, had been on more medications than Nic had been able to count.
Nic was pretty sure she knew Jen’s type. A cousin who had been enchanted by her kitten, but when that kitten had grown up to be a cat, had emptied the food bowl into the trash or tainted the food, knowing the hungry animal would eat it. She’d seen it in certain parents and their kids. In kids with dependent parents.
It made sense that Jen would tamper. Switch the contents of one bottle for another, or empty a bottle and replace its contents with something innocuous. Hastening a disabled boy on his way as Nic’s cousin had tried to do to the cat, before being confronted. As parents who no longer wanted to be parents sometimes did. As children who no longer wanted to struggle to care for their parents sometimes did.
And if Jen hadn’t tampered, then they were simply pills. They wouldn’t mean anything.
But Nic could see Jen fidget. Her eyes didn’t miss a detail. Her ears didn’t miss the squeak of the chair, or how Jen seemed more bothered by that squeak in particular.
She could have pressed, applied even more pressure, and it would have worked. But if she’d pressed, she might have screamed, or shouted, or said something regrettable. She didn’t trust herself.
Silence is damning. Silence can tell just as much.
Long seconds passed, and then twenty year old Jen leaned forward, elbows on knees, head bowed.
That was it. The moment every interrogation was aiming for. The defeat, almost always the same decline of the head and slump forward, if she looked for it.
“He’s not an angel or anything, just because he’s disabled,” Jen said. “He-”
Nic left the room, gathering up the things. Because she didn’t trust herself, in small part. She kicked the stop and let the door start to swing closed. Let Jen think that her words wouldn’t matter.
A minute and a half passed. Long enough for Jen to consider how fucked she was. Not long enough for her to work out any answers. Doug re-entered.
“The good cop returns,” Jen could be heard, and there was a bitterness in her voice.
“Detective, not cop,” Doug said, and there was no warmth in his voice. He could sound like a real bastard when he wanted to.
We’re all good cops, anyway, Nic thought to herself.
“Why?” Doug asked. “Why do this?”
In the twenty-year-old monster’s defeat, her earlier composure and certainty about her way forward were shaken. She didn’t second-guess things or think about what she’d learned in law class.
“I didn’t tell him to do anything he wasn’t already thinking about doing. He doesn’t have that long to live, anyway. He comes to me, saying he’s miserable, he’s sore, he’s sick of the medication, he wants to end it all, and I’m supposed to say no? Fuck me, if he was a dog and he was that bad off then we would have put him down a long time ago.”
He’s not a dog, he’s a kid.
Doug didn’t say anything. Nic, standing in the hallway, near the door, was silent, teeth clenched.
A monster had told a little boy to kill himself, and he’d tried. Now he was in more pain than ever. And for all that the classes and the workshops on powers and crisis points hammered in all of the things to look out for, it never came. Killers and thugs and abusers, victims and victimizers. Hundreds like Owen. Maybe even hundreds a year.
No magic answers or anything like that. Just… concrete rooms and human psychology. Looks of defeat that were nowhere near enough.
Restless, angry, Nic paced down the hall. Her boss was there, and he raised his eyebrows.
In answer, she gave him a nod. It had worked.
At her locker, she helped herself to a drink, and she leaned her forehead against the top shelf of the locker where some loose evidence baggies still rested. The drink burned in her mouth and throat, and frustrated thoughts burned in her head.
It was nine. Late enough that dinner was almost certainly out of the question. Not so late that failing to call and see if dinner was in order would be allowed.
She had a message. She put in the three-digit code, and held phone to ear. Was Lee mad?
“Mommee! I had my bath and we had waffles with chocolate chips and strawberries for dessert! Love you miss you going to bed now! Daddy’s going to read me a book!”
Lee could be heard in the background. “Bye!”
“Bye!” Ever said, loud enough that Nic winced. The wince became a smile. Still loud, Ever ordered her, “Get all the bad guys!”
All the bad guys.
The message ended. Nic didn’t lower the phone, even as the automated voice outlined the options available for how the message could be replayed, saved, or deleted.
There was no beating the bad guys. There was no defeating them. A monster had encouraged a little boy to kill himself and he’d tried. Now he hurt more than ever. What was she supposed to do in the face of that?
Earlier in the evening
Love Lost was still, her jaw clenched, as she faced Cradle. Cradle was distracted, barely aware of her as he sorted through her traps.
Her eyes dropped to the table. These traps would trigger on proximity, arm, and then produce a wavelength that arced between them, forming a carpet around an area. The effect utilized some of her emotion power. Agitation, impulse.
“You’re getting good use out of the tinker power,” Cradle observed.
She shook her head. The lash part worked, though the left one was being temperamental. But the power that was supposed to channel through that-
She’d hesitated, procrastinated. Traps instead. The swapping rig for her arm.
“Another night then,” he said.
She didn’t respond. Instead, she focused on getting her things together.
He rolled his shoulders, mechanical hands going to gingerly touch each before he reached out to the window of her workshop. As he touched it, the window became a screen, just as clear and distinct as any computer. He dragged metal fingertip against glass, moving the windows on the screen.
March’s schedule and timing.
There were windows with notes on surveillance, with added details from the mercenaries they’d turned to their side, the outreach to those mercenaries timed to coincide with Tattletale’s downtime. Time she wasn’t as active with her power.
It made sense. Everyone had a routine, even erratic types like Tattletale. She lived on information and she got most of that information in the early morning and late afternoon. After a crisis arose, a new enemy or headache, she was slower to move and recover.
Which meant paying attention. It meant exerting pressure.
A lot of things had changed over the years, but those things were constant. Any threat could be defeated with a combination of the two. If the stories she’d heard were right, the man who’d ended the world had been defeated that way.
“No complaints?” Cradle asked.
She had some, but in her self-imposed silence, words had to be chosen carefully, and she couldn’t bring herself to utter the complaint. To say yes, that she had an issue.
The plan was sound. They had multiple thinkers on their side. Their enemy was weak.
Her claw-tips touched the window, and when she pulled them away, a copy of the window came with them, projected into the air. Not as dense or clear an image, but it was fine to see.
She dragged claws through air and the claws transmitted tactile feedback, a slight drag, a digital buzz. She rotated through to other pages.
To Precipice. To artist renditions of the face of the boy they’d seen in the cells. He would die soon. Seir, in secure custody because of his teleporter power, they would get him and he would die.
…Christine and Elijah Mathers. She paused, looking at the faces.
“Soon,” Cradle said. “Once we’re secured here.”
A swipe of the claw shredded the digital window. In the doing, she briefly shifted from the notes for their long-term plans to the plans already enacted. She saw the Navigators. She looked away.
Had to be done. If anything, they could’ve, should’ve done more. They hadn’t expected Advance Guard to be as capable as they were. The Shepherds had rebuffed the initial attack.
“I should go. She has notes on the times I should leave by, to get where I need to be. Good luck in your fights,” Cradle told her.
She gave him a single nod.
“Can I grab one?” he asked, indicating the agitation traps.
She held up two fingers.
“Two. They’re a pair.”
She nodded. At least.
“Thank you. If I don’t talk to you before then, I’ll see you in the room,” he said.
She nodded, not looking at him or the screens anymore. The tinkering- she had time to make some last-minute adjustments. Clawed hands rested on the table as she leaned over her work.
Cradle stepped downstairs. She could hear him giving orders to his mercenaries. Easier people to handle, in some ways. Tougher in others.
When alone, she removed her mask from her lower face.
Teeth grit together with a sound that someone standing next to her would have heard. The smallest of sounds at her throat and mouth were deafening to her.
When she couldn’t express herself, it was easier. Mask off, even the smallest thing felt like a crack in ice, an essential part of a water-retaining dam falling loose.
A fine screwdriver and a micromagnet adjusted the internal mechanisms of the mask.
A creak of her breath sounded like a whimper.
A slip of the screwdriver made it strike hard against the internal surface of the mask, metal against kevlar fiber. She was put in mind of the tables and chairs in the mall, all folded up, strapped together, and leaned against the wall.
She saw, as clear as day, Ever’s face striking the edge of the table. Clawed fingers dug into her work table, dragging inch-long divots. The memory came with pain, as sure as if she’d been stabbed- not through the heart, but the base of the throat, the point where the windpipe branched to transmit air to each lung. It choked her.
She hurt enough in the moment that she felt like she could die. There was only regret, and that regret killed her a little more every time she faced it. She leaned forward, forearms resting against the worktable, clawed fingers pointing in, touching flesh.
Clawed hands stretched out, fingers splayed out as far as they could go.
A set hand motion, like a gesture of a magician in one of Ever’s books. Except they weren’t called magicians. She’d tried to read the books since, but- it hurt too much.
Middle and ring finger extended, a sweeping, circular motion, sharp, fierce, focused.
Then her hand moved, claws turned away. She moved gently, back of her hand reaching out-
Tactile feedback. Hair. Skin.
She- stupid to do this when her mask was off. Sounds escaped her throat, touched by her power. She usually had rules about when she allowed herself this- this illusion.
Phantom hands touched her arm, near where the rigging ran along the length of it. They squeezed it.
The wizards and whatevers in your stories made hard choices, right? They worked with monsters for something more important. To vanquish greater evils. To save worlds.
A motion of her hand dismissed the apparition.
Channel injector, wave adjuster, screwdriver. She picked up what she needed.
She adjusted the components of the mask, then put it on. It wasn’t anything as complex as a new setting- only ensuring that everything kept working when she made it more comfortable to wear. New components made for a tight fit, and it was already sufficiently tight enough that she couldn’t open her mouth a fraction, her voice silenced.
The air filtered through the mask, and more feedback beamed into her eye indicated that the air quality was good. In a pinch she’d have the ability to breathe for at least two minutes before the filters gave out. She made sure to bring more, slipping them into her belt.
But the new components- she adjusted the dial at the side, claw-tips finding niche grooves, rotating. In her reflection she saw the mask’s external change. Roar, snarl, mouth clamped shut, teeth meshed. With each one, she felt out with her emotion power- felt the people downstairs.
Anger and hostility? Not much, all considered, but it was crystal clear in her mind’s eye where it existed. Tension? More than a little, and very clear, like a thrum of a guitar string. Overall? The setting with teeth meshed was more focused on range than a specific flavor of emotion. It worked just fine.
The sub-settings to focus that range in a cone or a line in front of her, with corresponding increases of range as she widened her blind spot were all operational.
It would do.
Carefully, given the machinery around her arms and hands, she wiped away moisture from her eye. She choked back the emotion that settled at the branch in her windpipe. She stood straighter. The sensation of the apparition clung to her, warmed her.
Everything in order.
She made her way down the stairs, claws clicking on the wood.
“It’s not your circus, it’s not your monkeys.”
“It’s kind of my monkeys.” Colt. “I’m here, right? I’m a part of this.”
“Nah. Because you can leave.”
“No. Not really.”
“Yes really, you loser. Don’t let someone else’s shit become your shit. They gotta do what they gotta do. You gotta do what you gotta do. I’ve gotta do what I’ve gotta do.”
“Aren’t you- you’re helping though.”
“I’m doing what I gotta do. And what I gotta do is Disjoint, every morning and every night if I can help it, I gotta make money, I gotta keep my ghoulish figure, and I gotta work for the coolest, fiercest gal this side of the end of the world. That’s me. What’s you?”
“I don’t know what I am. I’m staying away from home, being independent.”
“Nah, bullcock-and-shit. You’re not independent. You’re the furthest thing from independent. And staying away from home isn’t what you are, my big-haired loser friend. Staying away from home is what you aren’t.”
Silence was ever damning, whether it was damning others or damning oneself.
“Anyone with powers has horrible shit they’re wrestling with, unless they’re one of the lucky ones who got the good powers for being math superstars or going to mars or some bullcock-and-shit like that, you get me? And we deal with it. If we’re really fucking lucky, then we’re like Disjoint and me, and we find someone really boneable who also helps us through our horrible shit. Or we’re pretty and classy as fuck and we get a bunch of underlings willing to help us, like our boss. But mostly we deal with our own horrible shit ourselves.”
“What if you can’t?”
“Then we don’t. Most don’t.”
“What if… a bit more help makes the difference?”
“What if it doesn’t? Then whoever tried to give that help gets fucked over and things stay bad.”
“But,” Sidepiece said, and the word was a condemnation. “Come on. Fuck off.”
“But- sometimes when you’re dealing with your shit and you’re dealing with it alone, you lose…”
Colt’s voice faltered.
“Perspective?” Disjoint offered.
“What if you need someone outside of it to point you in the right direction? A second opinion?”
“If you think you are in a position to give second opinions or directions to someone as badass as Love Lost, then I have a totally harmless bit of uterus to sell you, uterine lining included. Harmless!”
“Please put that away.”
At the base of the stairs, Nailbiter passed by, glanced up, and saw Love Lost.
Love Lost floundered in her efforts to put a description to the woman. Scary, yes. Dangerous, yes. She wanted to say Nailbiter was good even though she didn’t know why, but she knew that was a lie. Enough of a lie that amending the statement to ‘good at her role’ felt false, because it had ‘good’ in it. Reliable? Too minor.
Important. Nailbiter was important, because Nailbiter was a reminder of what Love Lost had to be careful of. The line between villainy for a reason and degeneracy was a fine one. Nailbiter was effective, strong, focused, and Nailbiter was degenerate. It was important to keep in mind that a series of the wrong decisions or mistakes could put her where Nailbiter stood now. The reasons lost.
It was easier every day. Love Lost didn’t enjoy this war, and the damage she did or condoned along the way was wearing on her soul. Lately it felt worse. Like there was less of her intact.
They were all important, really. She had spent so long working on the side of the law, and these people who worked under her now were exemplars of the different types of people she had fought to put away. She understood them. She could see everything that made them who they were. The fact that they could love. That they had priorities and dreams. That they enjoyed certain foods or searched the internet to keep tabs on family they no longer spoke to.
With that in mind, when she’d done what she needed to, she would ensure they were killed or gone.
And Colt, stupid, immature, quick-to-anger Colt… who was absolutely nothing like Ever, and was perhaps the only younger person Love Lost could tolerate in her company and in that role for that very reason? A girl Love Lost couldn’t decide was adult or child?
“Really, please, put that away!” Colt said. “Please! Uncle!”
“You’re dripping on the couch!” Disjoint shouted.
“Oh fuck!” Sidepiece shouted, louder.
She really didn’t want to kill Colt as she killed the others.
Something in that look was communicated to Nailbiter, who remained at the base of the stairs.
Nailbiter, who understood her because they were very similar people at different points in their journeys, gave her the slightest nod.
Seven Years Ago
Nic tapped her shot glass against the counter.
“Keys,” Shelly the barkeep said. A tattooed woman with a streak of gray hair despite the fact that she looked thirty at the oldest.
“Don’t infantilize me,” Nic said.
“Keys, Nicole. If you want your refill.”
She took out her keys, slapping them onto the counter. A carabiner separated her car keys from the rest.
“Making my job easier, huh?” Shelly asked, disconnecting the carabiner. She put the car key beneath the bar counter, before returning the house and locker keys.
“I try,” Nic said, arms folded on the counter, chin resting on her arms. She watched the drink get poured out.
“I’m going to call you a cab in a minute. Let’s get you home to that gorgeous husband and that little girl you’re so proud of.”
“She’s asleep already. She’s usually asleep by the time I get home. I feel guilty when I wake her and I feel guilty when I don’t.”
“If it’s an unwinnable situation, don’t get down on yourself for losing.”
“You’ve said that before,” Nic said, before deciding she’d stared enough at the contents of the shot glass. She imbibed. Shelly was giving her the cheaper liquor now that it was later in the evening.
“You guys deal with a lot of lose-lose situations, hon. But if you don’t mind my saying so, I don’t think this is a win.”
“I don’t want to bring it home to her,” Nic said. “The anger, the ugliness.”
“This doesn’t fix that.”
“You know what haunts me?” Nic asked. Her voice was a whisper. Her chin continued to rest on her arms, which were folded on the bar. “It’s not the rapists. It’s not the human traffickers or the look in the eyes of the victims. That gets to me, but it doesn’t haunt. I can move forward.”
Shelly leaned closer to hear, because the words were quiet and the people at the far end of the bar were loud.
“Four times, I’ve cried in front of her. Ugly cries. Sober. I… hold it together all day and then the moment she toddles over to me and gives me a hug, I think about how I don’t want her to deal with anything remotely close to any of the stuff I see, and I break. Three times I cried so hard I scared her.”
“You said four and then three.”
Nic looked up at Shelly, blinking tears out of her eyes, then blinking fiercer. She whispered, “The fourth time she was used to it.”
Shelly handed her a napkin, and Nic dabbed at her eyes. She saw the approach of the boys, Doug and Maz, and put the napkin away.
“You can always quit, or change to something else.”
“Woah!” Maz cut in. “Woah, Shelly. Those are fighting words! You can’t tend the bar the precinct goes to, then sneak around our backs and try to scare away one of our best!”
Shelly held her hands up in surrender, but she gave Nic a look.
“Our best,” Doug said. “Not one of our best. Not one of the boys, she’s our boy!”
“When you’re drunk you get sloppy sentimental, Dougie,” Nic said.
“You’re worth it. You get ’em all. You- you get ’em.”
“I don’t get ’em all,” Nic replied. “I wish I got ’em all.”
“I mean you get how they tick. What they want. The tells. That thing earlier tonight, you brought the evidence bag in with the medicine bottle?”
Nic bobbed her head in a nod. The world wobbled up and down in a mostly pleasant way.
“You knew she’d done something to his meds.”
“Seemed like the type.”
“Shel, give our Nic another shot? A celebratory one.”
“I just gave her her last. I’m calling a cab to send her home.”
“One more. One more, come on!”
Shelly paused, then looked at Nic. Nic nodded.
“I’m calling the cab. Just in case that little redheaded girl is lying awake at night, worried her mom’s hurt.”
“Too young to know it’s a thing to worry about,” Nic muttered. “Small mercies.”
“Perk up, Nic,” Doug said. “At the risk of overinflating your ego, I have to remind you that today was a damn good day. I will use the time it takes the taxi to arrive to extol your virtues.”
Nic shook her head. “Don’t.”
“If you’re thinking about quitting, then I think it’s my obligation,” Doug said, barely getting ‘obligation’ out.
Nic felt the warmth of the bar, heard the noises, loud and muttered, the war stories, the camaraderie, the boasting and jostling, her partner’s good cheer. She could smell the cigarette smoke that wafted in whenever the door to the kitchen or the front door of the bar opened. The smell of the alcohol.
And, as shitty as the bad got, she could feel good about the successes. About being appreciated. Doug’s praise felt genuine. It was a hell of a thing, to get to the point where people would sing someone’s praises and others wouldn’t immediately cut them down. Especially, she admitted, as a woman.
It felt good.
“I’m not quitting,” she said, absorbing it all. “No quit, don’t worry.”
Time was lubricated enough that the cab’s arrival surprised her with how early it seemed. The trip home equally lubricated, massaged by the hum of the cab’s engine, the whir of heaters and the feel of wheel on pavement.
Home. The cab waited- Shelly had given them instructions, maybe, or they knew the routine. It was usually one or the other. She reached the front door and put key to lock, letting herself in. Only a few of the lights were on, giving her a dim path to bathroom and bedroom.
Bathroom first, because she had to go enough that the resulting stream threatened to penetrate the material of the toilet bowl. She washed her face and cleaned up.
Then she looked in on Ever. An angel in sleep, arm in a lethal sleeper hold around a unicorn’s neck.
Then bed. She kicked and shrugged off her clothes. Lee watched her at first, then looked away. She slithered under the covers, finding the space beneath warmed by Lee’s presence, but as she drew near to him, he pulled away, turned his back to her. Cold air found its way into the gap between them.
Her hand pushed the blankets down into the gap. The good feelings from earlier in the night had evaporated.
The silence lingered in the bedroom, damning.
Silence and a void so empty that even distant starlight barely touched it. Fragments and facets had only themselves to reveal.
Love Lost’s mask communicated the intensity of emotion to her before her own senses recovered. The black-haired boy, Romeo. He was fast and he was intense, eyes wide as he lunged in.
Her claws intercepted the blade, and it slid between the two claws, which redirected the thrust to a point over her shoulder.
She was barely aware of things as she came back from that darkness- that space that was escaping her memory, but she’d been in enough dangerous situations, enough fights. Instinct prevailed. He tried to pull the blade away, and a shift of her hand trapped the blade between two edges. She kicked, the claws on her foot raking for his midsection, and he drew back.
He’d recovered his balance, not just in the physical sense, and when he came at her again, it was with his power roaring. She felt it wash over her, and it was so familiar as to be ordinary. Pain and rage, struggling within her, trying to find an angle to push or twist at her to drive her forward.
She retaliated, swiping with claw, throwing the sword he’d let go of aside, then kicking, first with one claw, then the other, a figure skater on ice. She turned, using the length of her body to hide the claw-lash as she extended it to its length, whipping it-
He kicked the end of it, intercepting.
So capable, and he was just thirteen years old. She’d had to draw the line somewhere, about what was acceptable. She’d settled on Ever’s age, at the time Ever had passed. Too many parahumans were young, and both Breakthrough and the Undersiders were willing to employ the young.
Swansong used her power, launching herself into the air. Arms were spread, one leg half-bent, and residual wisps of her power traced from her fingers.
Disjoint caught her, hauling on one arm, so feet were no longer beneath her. Swansong had to fire another blast to reorient herself, rather than to go on the offensive. Her landing was still hard.
Love Lost lashed out, whipping for Swansong. She saw a shift in expression, a tell, and immediately changed course. The whip cracked twice in quick succession, and the defensive blast that Swansong fired didn’t reach the length of the weapon.
The gun went off.
Imp collapsed, off to the side.
Colt. Stupid girl. What was she doing?
“Imp!” the littlest girl present screamed. She wheeled on Colt. “I’ll end you!”
Colt turned the gun on the girl.
Love Lost lashed out, cracking the blade. Colt flinched, no longer aiming at the littlest girl.
“Fuck. Fuck!” Imp gasped. “Oh no.”
Swansong lunged, power flaring. Others were closing in-
And Colt erupted into a nimbus of light.
It was weird, perhaps, that Love Lost had so often ruminated on the power seminars that she had been given back at the station, in a past lifetime, in another world. She’d hoped, ironically, that the victims she worked for would get powers, that they would just this one time be able to fight back.
It had been a frustration that every lesson and tutorial she’d been given had been for nothing, and a part of her had been waiting for eight or nine years for it to be relevant.
Somehow her getting her own powers hadn’t counted. The thought had never connected, because it was her, and she’d been expecting someone else.
Now… now it was Colt.
Colt pushed out with a power, and Love Lost felt her thoughts scatter. She reached up to her mask, adjusting the dial, and changed the focus for all emotions she was absorbing and reading.
That dampened the effect.
With her lash, she struck Swansong down, while Swansong reeled. The cut went through Swansong’s arm, exposing wires.
Colt was a parahuman. That wasn’t- it shouldn’t be. The idea scared her, because it took everything that made Colt important and utterly destroyed it.
Love Lost snarled behind her mask, angry, inarticulately upset. Nailbiter had tried to reach out to the girl and convince her, and it hadn’t worked. Love Lost had hoped Colt would either prove herself to be a child or be adult enough to make a decision and Colt had done neither. Naibiter had given the girl an upper, something to keep her from backing down at the wrong moment and opening their flanks to an attack.
Colt’s power continued to blanket the battlefield, creating more openings. Love Lost struck out at Romeo, who ducked the claw-lash’s tip as it cracked.
Colt rose into the air, flying, and her hands turned into blades, edged in dark smoke.
As Colt rose, Love Lost’s heart sank.
She would deal with that later. Gritting her teeth, she turned her focus to the ongoing fight.
Imp was a problem. Whether this was a feint or not-
Love Lost reached up to her mask, releasing the catch. As the mask fell away, she drew in a breath.
She felt the phantom presence of Ever. The touch, the sentiments that were so predominantly regret. She felt the anger, the echo of Precipice’s laughter in the seconds after Ever had died rang in her ears, and that anger twisted. If it were a muscle in one second it was black cancer through and through in the next.
The pain, she felt it, physical. Choking her, like screaming would be impossible. She always felt that part – the rest could be there one time and not the next, but the pain and that near-certainty that she couldn’t breathe, let alone scream?
All of it bundled up with fleeting memories. The breath that went into promises made that weren’t kept. That whispered hopes and fears to a newborn who would never grow up. The choked sobs out in a wild crying fit that had scared Lee and Ever both, coming out of nowhere.
She put all of it into a singular scream that she aimed at herself, in more than one way. Screams were usually at or to someone, but in this, she screamed at her own feet, hunching over, and the effect rippled out in every direction.
Love Lost could see that Romeo had a bullet wound from earlier, and he stopped favoring it as he retaliated. Less affected than most, but it helped that anger and resentment naturally ran through him.
Swansong lunged, as did Imp, who hadn’t been feinting. If Love Lost could have gathered up blood into two hands cupped together, then that was the amount Imp shed to the snowy road with every running footstep.
Even the children, both the smallest and Lookout, joined in the charge.
Her mask was set to read anger. She could see them coming, and it was a question of timing the whip cracks. One to Swansong’s leg, another to Imp’s ribs.
She caught Lookout and thrust her into the littlest one’s way, backing up.
Colt’s power put most of the group down for the count. Swansong was injured and Romeo and Imp were now feeble from blood loss. It left only Lookout, and Nailbiter had roused enough to go after her, grabbing her and locking her in place.
That didn’t mean things were completely dealt with. The little girl with the pixie cut was quick. She ducked around, then charged, a wicked grin on her face.
Disjoint grabbed her leg, and she tripped, falling hard. She was on her feet shortly after, charged, and was tripped again.
It took two more attempts before the kid struggled to stand, an ankle twisted. Love Lost put the claw-lash around the girl’s neck with care, watched the girl put hands in fingerless gloves up to the lash, and shy away when touching the sharp edges.
Love Lost drew a trap from her belt, switched it on, and tapped it hard against her leg to activate it. As it went off, crackling with red lightning, she touched it to the lash, letting the energy conduct down to the girl.
Down and out.
Love Lost looked over the remainder. Unconscious, severe bleeding, severe bleeding, disabled, spasming, pinned…
Her eye settled on Colt last.
What a profound fucking loss that was. She’d hoped Colt would run or get away from all of this. Now…
“Should I call Cradle?” Nailbiter asked.
Love Lost nodded.
Colt dropped out of the ethereal form, falling the last two feet to the ground. Her eyes were wide, and there was a look on her face somewhere between horror and amazement.
“I have so many powers. Blades, flight, the burst that stops people in their tracks… I think I can build things. Studs, for my arms?”
At that, Love Lost realized what Colt meant. Her instinctive response, inexplicable, was that she wanted to kill Colt. To respond to this horror and alarm by eliminating the source of it.
But it was horror because she didn’t want this for Colt. Horror because she wanted to tie up loose ends, to end this. She was doing this for a reason, and Colt utterly defied that reason.
In the moment, she found herself hating the girl.
“Boss,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost turned.
“He wants you to bring them to him. He wants to sever them.”
Love Lost looked over the enemy group. Swansong stared back, angry. In a start, she used her power, firing from one hand-
Colt used her power. A burst of emotion. Swansong landed hard. Love Lost bent down to put claws against the young woman’s throat.
Love Lost nodded.
“All of them,” Nailbiter said. “Kids included. If it’s just the older ones, he thinks they’ll be brave or willing to take risks.”
Love Lost stared at the youngest ones. Why was it so much harder to reach for that part of herself that felt anything but pain when thinking of Everly?
Pain, anger, frustration.
All more intense, seeing Colt throw herself headlong into this existence.
She undid the clasp on her mask. It was just her and Nailbiter. If she made any sounds or revealed any emotion in front of Nailbiter, she sensed it would be okay, somehow.
Her voice had a creak to it, from disuse. “Do you think one bad experience would scare them away from this life?”
Nailbiter looked down at the one with the pixie cut, who was twitching and kicking.
“No. It’s not likely.”
Love Lost reached for something, any shred of empathy. Anything that would let her relate them to Ever, as she might have done before.
All there was, was a rule she’d made when she had some warmth left in her.
Her voice creaked, and the words hurt. The creaks and unevenness of her voice mirroed the emotion that threatened to pour out. “There’s nothing good waiting for them if they live this life. We’ll reverse it when everything’s done.”
“There’ll never be a day when we’re done,” Nailbiter said.
Love Lost shook her head.
There had to be. She would expose and then deal with the worst capes, everyone who was willing to break the rules. She would kill them, starting from the worst offenders, the Fallen, moving on to Teacher, to the people who would have worked for Beast of Burden.
She would take them all down in a blaze of glory, if she had to. She had plans in mind.
She did up the mask, sealing her mouth shut. Her breath filtered through, cleaner and easier than if she were breathing through nose and mouth.
With claws, she gestured, her intent pushed into the movements of her hands, trusting that the people who followed her knew what she meant, because they’d had to learn to.
Pick them up. Let’s go.
The dream came like a bad trip.
A day so sunny it was delirious. Ever and two of her cousins were in the backyard.
The topic of Lee was carefully avoided as she listened to Lee’s sisters talk. She kept one eye on Ever and one eye on making sure refreshments were served.
“Do you have a lighter, Nicole?” Ever’s Aunt Didi asked. “I’m going to cheat and grab a smoke.”
“I’d have to search,” Nic said. “It’s been a long time since I smoked.”
Ever was watching more than playing.
“I do have a lighter, now that I think about it, it’s for the barbecue.”
“That works,” Aunt Didi said.
“Keep an eye on the kids?”
“Of course,” Aunt Didi said.
Nic had to rummage around the barbecue and the associated drawers before she found the lighter. It had a band of stars around it for remembrance of those lost to Endbringer attacks. She hadn’t bought it for that reason, it had just been on sale.
She was in the midst of handing it over when she looked for Ever and saw that her daughter was gone.
“Where’s my daughter?”
“She’s somewhere over there,” Aunt Didi motioned to the far end of the backyard. Ever’s two cousins splashed in the pool. “She’s fine.”
The backyard was long, and the trees that were scattered on the one end were dense on the other. Her heart pounded as she ran, and with the pounding was a distant rattle, that seemed to grow ever closer. With the shouting of the kids in the pool was an echo, overlapping cries of a crowd.
The pounding in her chest grew worse when she found her daughter, paradoxically.
Ever was crying. It was the ugly kind of crying that Nic remained ashamed she had allowed her daughter to see, no defenses, just weeping, snot dribbling, tears appearing faster than hands could clear away.
Nic felt her heart break as she rushed to her daughter’s side.
“What happened? Did your cousins say something?”
Only a head shake. Ever’s first attempts at speaking only produced sobs. Nic tried to hug her daughter, only to get pushed away, to have her daughter turn her back.
“Please tell me. Please.”
“Ever,” Nic’s voice shook.
“Dad. I want dad,” the words were wailed. Further attempts at touch were rebuffed. “I need dad!”
Something she couldn’t give her daughter. Lee wasn’t coming back. And Ever had retreated to a place to hide so she could cry, rather than go to her mother.
She tried to draw Ever into a hug, and Ever fought her. Sobs and shouts and fighting overlapped with accusations, blubbered, inarticulate.
“-cause of you-”
Each accusation was like a stab of a knife.
She forced the hug, and in that moment, Ever stopped fighting and hugged her back, fierce. The accusations stopped. With legs and arms both, Ever clutched her like she would never let go. And the noises and bangs of children playing became deafening. The press of trees and branches all around them became people, hands.
Nic fought to keep her daughter close, pulling her tighter into a nook between folding tables and chairs. People scraped by, pressed in so tight that jeans scraped the backs of her knuckles.
Ever cried out as tables nearby slid closer to the ground.
“I love you,” she said, and the din stole the words out of the air, so she couldn’t be sure Ever heard.
Then- a break in the noise of the crowd and the banging. A second where people didn’t press in so close that it hurt.
A chance to draw Ever further into the nook, her back to the folded tables.
To say something.
But- what could she even say? She’d said sorry before. So many times. She’d told her daughter she loved her more times than she could count. She’d uttered words in anger and words in despair. She’d made a thousand promises that she would do better or be a better mother, but she knew that she’d made those promises and broken them. She’d made promises in dreams, and she would never ever get a chance to keep them.
“Goodbye,” she said. Lucid words, while looking her daughter in the eyes. “I’m going to do my best to make sure no monster ever does something like this again.”
The press of bodies collapsed nearby furniture, people climbed over them. For once, she dreamed of her daughter, and she held her daughter in her arms until the last, instead of having her torn away. Instead of that dreadful, sanity-shattering, life-ending impact.
Then- then she wasn’t herself.
Not past self, not present self. Not anymore.
She was the Fallen boy. In a parking lot. She watched as the mall employee ran. As Seir the horse-headed used a power of lightning and darkness to leap onto the girl, and hurl her to the ground. The Fallen boy had his mask off and in one hand, his face etched in anger, in twisted emotions.
This isn’t the way things go.
“Don’t fucking second guess me. You know how this goes if you fail us. Soldier or slut, and as shitty as a soldier you’d be, you’d make for one depressing slut.”
The Fallen boy looked away.
“What? You want to fight? You want to say something?”
The Fallen boy turned his head. As he did, a thin woman in white appeared beside him.
“No,” the boy said.
Seir shoved the employee inside, but grabbed her hair, hauling back. The girl shrieked in pain as she was yanked backward, shrieked more as the door was shut on the hair, trapping it.
She wasn’t on the ground as she had been before. But the essential elements remained the same.
Seir produced the chain, and he bound the door shut. The lock was placed through chain to secure it, but as always, it wasn’t actually locked.
The option was given.
“If you open that door, you’ll never be a soldier.”
“I’m not going to open it,” the boy said, stubborn.
As monstrous as Seir, just underdeveloped. Content to talk about murder and righteousness while a girl fumbled under the blanket they shared.
Capable of laughing as people died.
Seir left. The boy remained.
Then the explosions. The fires. The attack.
Love Lost could remember how scared Ever had been. She could remember seeing Ever’s friends, seeing them run from her as she’d tried to corral them and manage them as a group. They’d been intimidated of her.
Perhaps for the best.
There was a pause, then fists pounding on the door. The screams, the shouts.
She could count it, almost. More than a minute passed, but she knew, right down to the fraction of a second. She would hear the noise as the tables fell, the distant thud, her own scream as her daughter died.
The lock was pulled free. Chain rattled as it was unwound. It was cast aside, and the doors opened wide.
Then he watched as people tried to exit the hallway at the mall’s side door. But there were too many bodies. The people pressed in together and wedged themselves into the door. In all trying to get out at once, nobody got out. He reached forward, trying to grab someone- but it was futile. A hand grabbed him. A suffocating man on the ground had him by the pants. Reached up, toward the mask that was held in one hand, still.
Then the last dream. Cradle, moving through scenes, trying to keep ahold of his glasses. Cornered in the schoolyard, faced by four girls a year younger than him. They shouted and their words were only the rattle of chain, the pounding on a metal door, and the blare of a fire alarm.
They shoved him, he bounced off of a car, and he lost his glasses. The car wailed, its alarm going off.
The wail became his mother’s wail. He was in his home, standing at the door to his bedroom while his parents shouted and screamed at one another. One held up a paper, a list of numbers and letters running down the center column. Cradle, standing around the corner, flinched at the words, gibberish though they were.
He adjusted his glasses, and when he fixed them, he stood in the mall.
He watched as the first Fallen appeared. Men and women in disguises that barely served. Tattoos barely covered. They looked Fallen, whatever else. Subhuman, gleeful at what was about to happen.
Cradle turned, and he walked away, stepping into the pharmacy, and cutting a path for the door. As he did, he nudged a store employee, and his voice was a thousand creaks of metal hinges.
While the store employee ran, he opened the door, to the sound of a single door’s metal hinges creaking, that same sound that had just been made a thousand times.
Then there was only silence.
Phantom sensations of Ever slipped under and around Love Lost’s hand. Just as when she used the device to simulate the tactile.
But it was, as always, a doll’s head. A bit of curtain with attached rod, intended somehow for a window, though the space they occupied had none.
She swallowed hard as she found her way to her feet. The pain was fresh, but in the moment it was dulled by confusion.
What had linked those three deviations from the norm?
What- no. Not what, exactly. Who.
She turned to look. The black fifth cell remained black, no light entering or leaving it. Cradle occupied the space to her left.
Across from her was the Fallen boy, who wore the demon mask. Always wore it. He didn’t seem to realize, a lot of the time.
She felt disgust well up. Anger, because that scene-
-hadn’t made sense.
Silent, the Fallen boy pointed.
Love Lost turned.
Within her cell, Colt stood by the nursery bookshelf, looking spooked.
Love Lost beckoned.
Unsteady, Colt picked her way along uneven floor, over toys and a fallen changing table. Toward the dais.
Two of them, one cell.
“What the hell?” the Fallen boy asked.
In reflex, her hand twitched. Ready to punch the barrier, to do something to silence him. The sound of his voice bothered her as much as anything she’d experienced, and she’d talked to a nurse who had been proud to spread hepatitis among her patients, who had been smug about it.
“What is this?” Colt asked.
Love Lost put a hand on Colt’s shoulder. She didn’t trust herself to talk, so she relied on the gesture.
“You brought someone,” Cradle said.
People with powers can have kids with powers. She counts?
The cells are inflicting a bad joke on me. Taunting me with the loss of my daughter by giving me the last one I’d ever want.
“What was that dream?” the Fallen boy asked. “Did you guys-”
“Shut up,” Cradle cut him off.
“I saw it,” Colt said. “I felt it. What is this?”
“It happens every night, but tonight was different,” the Fallen boy said.
“It happens every night?” Colt asked.
“Yeah,” the Fallen boy said. “This happens. This room.”
Love Lost’s grip on Colt’s shoulder grew tighter.
Colt pulled free, shrugging it off.
“How was it different?”
“It was everyone,” Cradle said. “What you saw was- not the way things happened.”
“I hope not,” Colt said. “What happened in those first two dreams was pretty awful.”
Cradle shook his head. “All three. But what happened in the originals was worse. And it’s been that worse, accurate version every night for the last year and three months.”
Colt hugged her arms to her body.
“I think it was your dream,” the Fallen boy said. “Somehow.”
Colt shrugged. “I dunno.”
“It was what we wanted,” Cradle said, looking at Love Lost.
“I know I didn’t want people to get trapped like that-”
“The new girl being here means someone might actually believe you when you say that,” Cradle retorted.
“Fuck you,” the Fallen boy said.
“Christine Mathers,” Love Lost whispered.
Colt looked between her and the rest of the room, then echoed her, louder. “Christine Mathers?”
“Mama Mathers,” the Fallen boy said.
Love Lost saw the look on Cradle’s face change. They’d been plotting to deal with the greater group of the Fallen for enough weeks now that it was a familiar subject.
“She watched everything I did. If I’d gone against the group, I would have been castrated,” the Fallen boy said. “I would have been driven insane. She can do that.”
“That’s scary,” Colt said.
Love Lost turned away. Sympathy for the devil.
“It doesn’t excuse anything,” the Fallen boy said. “I was stupid, I could have done more.”
“Probably,” Cradle said.
“Fuck,” the Fallen boy said. “This is fucking with my head.”
“Um, I think my head is most fucked right now,” Colt said, her voice wavering. She offered up a nervous titter of a laugh. “First time.”
Hearing Colt be so familiar and so unaware was a special kind of hell of its own.
Then a worse kind of hell. To be utterly alone. Cradle ventured. “More of a head-fuck to think maybe you were telling the truth all along.”
The words were stilted, awkward.
If they were a lie intended as bait, then the Fallen boy didn’t seem to believe them.
If they were truth, then Love Lost would never forgive Cradle.
“What was he saying before?” Colt asked.
“I can barely hear you,” Cradle said.
“Yeah,” the Fallen boy echoed.
“Meaning we have a problem,” Cradle said.
A problem. Love Lost wheeled around, looking at the other cells, at her own room, and at the dais. The lights that had no source that filled the area were dimmer in her shared fifth of the room. As she watched, they grew dimmer still.
This was what had happened to Jonathan. Her heart pounded as she reached out, fist striking the surface.
“I know why,” Cradle said.
“What’s happening?” the Fallen boy asked.
“Two people in one area. It’s draining the power twice as fast. They get half the time.”
“Has it even been half?”
Cradle shrugged. He pushed scratched-up glasses up his nose.
There were some, Love Lost knew, that she’d never quite been able to get. The very best criminals she’d gone up against. The ones she was closest to, like Lee, who wasn’t a criminal, except that he’d left their family and left Ever, and he’d never come back. But he counted. She’d never been able to get him.
As her room began to dim, it dawned on her that Cradle fit both categories. Too good, too close to her, because he was a part of this room. This engine.
Her hand slammed against the invisible barrier, and she screamed. They didn’t seem to see her.
A face on the wrong end of one-way glass.
Her scream became raw. So close to that scream, Colt shied back, scared.
“What’s happening?” Colt asked.
“March released something bad,” the Fallen boy said. “They’re calling it Class S. She’s going to release more.”
“The plan was for her to release one,” Cradle lied.
That hadn’t been the plan. Zero, not one. If she found the one she needed then she would mercy kill before it became a real problem.
She screamed again.
“Why?” the Fallen boy asked.
“Because all of the rules we used to operate by were based around mutually assured destruction. We needed a scare,” Cradle said. “Something that forces everyone to look at where they stand and what they’re willing to do. We pose a threat without actually following through, then remind you all that you need us.”
None of it true. Well- some. It had been a contingency plan. Discussed in the span of one minute, as a possibility if something did get loose.
Just as bad as the Fallen boy.
“You chopped up my teammates. You chopped up kids!”
“We took them out of the picture! The plan was to take the best and most vulnerable-”
“And chop them up into mincemeat!?”
“No! To disable them. To force them onto the bench so that if something did happen, they wouldn’t get hurt in the time it took us to step in.”
Truth… except now she didn’t believe him.
“Because I handed the tool off to a hireling and they lost their mind.”
“I don’t believe you,” the Fallen boy said, gripping the dais. “I don’t believe any of this.”
“I’ll admit. A bit of it was to fuck with you. To pressure- her idea.”
Cradle pointed at Love Lost.
She screamed and pounded.
“To put you into a corner. To force you to surrender. That was true.”
“You’re a fucking lunatic.”
“I hate you so much I can’t think straight,” Cradle snarled. “I want you to die in the worst ways…”
His head bowed slightly.
“Love Lost?” Colt asked, her voice small.
“I’ll show you I’m genuine,” Cradle said.
“I don’t trust you.”
“Do you have the pieces of the red whip?”
“Then I’ll give you what I have. All of it.”
Love Lost swiped her hand across the dais. Clearing away rubble.
Turning up the teeth.
Nothing new for Colt.
“Take these coins,” Cradle said. “Full strength tinker power. Fix the whip. Use it to undo the damage to your team. When we offer our help with whatever March is pulling, you let us.”
“Love Lost,” Colt said.
Colt turned to look at the younger girl.
Colt indicated the floor.
Centimeter by centimeter, hair by hair, the floor changed. The nursery disappeared, and Cradle’s domain grew.
She touched the barrier, and she could feel its movement.
Hair by hair. Drop of blood by drop of blood.
Hers- and probably Colt’s too.
She screamed again.
Cradle held out the coins, fingers pinching at the edges while he held them to the barrier.
Were they a trap, somehow? How?
The Fallen boy didn’t take them. When he’d said he didn’t trust Cradle, he’d meant it.
“Why is the room shrinking?” Colt asked.
“Be-” Love Lost started. Her throat was raw from screaming. “Because he’s killing us as we speak.”
She watched the Fallen boy reach up, hesitating, not yet taking the coins.
He’s been killing us- killing me, for a long time, she realized. Just not physically. An ego death.
The compromises she’d made. The coldness. The lack of warmth. The inability to feel for the children.
When we give up our tokens, we give up aspects of ourselves. We change the other. Cradle’s been constantly giving up his tinker ability. To Jonathan and me, then to me alone.
Giving us the ability to tinker, and making us into monsters. That’s how we bleed through.
Her hand shook as she touched the barrier.
The most galling part of it all- the Fallen boy had never been given anything. Until now. No bleed-through. Just him.
In the near-pitch darkness of her shrinking room, staring at the exchange between the two young men, she gripped the teeth.
All of her anger, in one gripped fist.
She would have a split second to act. When the dream ended, she would pass on her ability, and with it, all of her rage and savagery. To throw it into one room, in hopes they would wake before the teeth could be collected and thrown back.
If that was even a consideration.
She watched, waiting for her chance, waiting to see if the Fallen boy took the coins that would steal his warmth. Whether he did would determine who she gave her teeth to. All her power for the day, and dangerous, reckless rage.