When the television cut out and the lights flickered, Presley could see a momentary set of images on the screen, a face in silhouette, that silhouette serving as its own frame for another image and silhouette, leading the eye to a place before it all went dark and terminated early. The sound was a single syllable, as loud as the television would allow.
She was about to rise from her seat at her computer when the icon in the upper right corner drew her attention.
She heard the creak of footsteps.
“Shit,” she muttered. “What was that?”
The knock at the door served as both knock and simultaneous push on door. Her mom leaned into the room.
“The internet’s out,” Presley complained.
“The internet’s out all the time, Pres.”
She clicked the icon. It didn’t try for more than a second before returning the ‘fail’ result.
“It’s really out.”
“They’ll fix it. They’ve been good about it. Maybe you can focus on better things.”
“Soccer’s only twice a week, and we can’t practice outside.”
“What about afternoon classes?” her mom asked, archly. “Cleaning up?”
A finger moved around the room. The house was the kind that had come in pieces that all slotted together. Presley was offended that her mother pointed at the cards she’d slotted into the seams where the upper half of her bedroom fit into the lower half. The top row was soccer cards, the lower row was superhero cards, and there was a very small section in the narrow space between wall and window on another wall of the room where she had hero league soccer cards. Nobody was interested in trading them, and everyone knew it was about as real as wrestling, but they were cheap and she could always grab a few packs if she had change left over.
Presley rolled her eyes as her mom’s finger pointed at the different messes, pointing at some twice.
“Go to sleep early,” her mom said, more gently. “Do you need a ride to the arena tomorrow?”
“I’d check what the weather is like if there was internet or a weather channel,” Presley said. She saw the face her mom made, and she smiled.
“Let me know. For now, go to sleep,” Her mother said. She intruded into the room, approached Presley’s desk, and there wasn’t anything Presley could say about it, because the rule was that computer time was parents-could-enter-the-room-time. Her mother laid a hand on top her head, stroking hair that had been made a bit crispy by the bleach, and gave her a kiss goodnight, between two fingers on hair.
Her mom pointed at the screen. There was a row of soccer cards displayed, with players standing behind them, stats displayed along the bottom. It was a good booster, too, but the ‘no connection’ sign was glaring red, and the way the soccer game worked, a purchase that failed partway through was a loss, to prevent scrubbing.
“I’m not spending any of my money on it. They give you five packs for free and I buy more with the currency I get from trading up.”
“Okay, okay. Be careful.”
“And I don’t really care about that-” even if it was a good pack, “-the team had something big going on, I think. I wanted to ask if they were okay.”
She pointed, to make it clear which team she meant. She had three printed out pictures above and below the hero league cards, each picture in a clear plastic jacket like the cards were in hard laminate sleeves, less to protect them, and more because the cheap printer paper had gotten wavy after the ink soaked into it, and the sleeve helped keep it flat. Antares and Swansong, Swansong decked out in costume with eyes smoking, and a picture of their headquarters, which was just as messy as her room, if not more, and had a glowing sci-fi computer terminal at the far end, with lots of floating screens and stuff, which was really cool.
“Don’t bother ‘the team‘,” her mom said, with the kind of emphasis that suggested she was trying to be clever or make a point. She turned off the monitor, which made Presley wince. At least she hadn’t turned off the computer, which would have definitely cost her the value of the pack. “Sleep.”
Presley nodded, sliding chair over to the window to adjust the curtains. She stopped where she was, looking out. Her voice had a less-sure note to it when she said, “Mom?”
Rather than close, the curtains were opened wider, her mother stepping up to the window.
A glowing figure on the horizon. Taller than any mountain, not glowing, but so white that it looked like a cut-out from reality, head extending up like a wedge, lower body extending down the same way, creating a very narrow hourglass shape, but with a narrow torso in the center, with arms, what looked like a lightning bolt or a spear, and what might have been a round shield.
With it, there was a horrible feeling in her middle. It was like when the Endbringers came; all her life, the years had been punctuated by these big, shadowy monsters that came and changed the tone of the day and the week after, in what she’d once heard a bad comedian call the opposite of holidays. It had always come with a bad feeling mixed with a bad relief that it had been so far away. The kind of relief that made you feel bad.
Except she didn’t feel that relief now, and she didn’t feel any less bad.
“What do we do?”
“I’m going to talk to your father. Stay here.”
“No,” her mom said, before she’d finished walking out of the room. “Not here. Not by the window. Just in case, stay away.”
Presley took a step to one side, so the window was further away. She could have stepped toward the bed, and settled in there, but hiding under the covers felt like such a kid thing to do, and she wasn’t really a kid anymore.
And being where she was, she could see the photos of the team. ‘Something big’, they’d said. This had to be what they were doing.
And, being where she was, she could turn on the monitor, maneuver the trackball to the internet icon, and see it was back. There was some connection, but it was yellow, marked low priority. That was pretty usual for when big emergencies happened.
She typed out a response, leaning over to glance out the window at the figure. It wasn’t moving.
The delay after her message was sent ate at her.
Then the reply, from Antares.
‘We’re waiting and seeing.’
It didn’t ease her worries, exactly, but if Antares was replying, then things couldn’t be that bad.
She confirmed the pack opening, closed the game, and then called out, “Mom, Dad! They replied!”
Lookout moved her ‘hands’, and through the link that Darlene provided, Candy could feel the motions in hand and attached finger, and moved appropriately.
“C, apostrophe, one one, two, four, eight, sixteen, one one…”
“I think you’re making this up,” Candy said, her hand moving to hit the keys. When she wasn’t sure she waited for the word that told her what she was supposed to be hitting.
“I am making this up,” Lookout said. “I make stuff up and make that stuff work. That’s what tinkering is.”
“What are you even doing?”
“Flying a broken camera. It needs coordinates. See?”
“That looks like a screen that’s half black, half blue, and covered in gibberish.”
“Ground, air, and data. Calling it a camera is like calling a Swiss Army knife a knife, which it is, you use it for the knife a lot, but I want to know everything I’m missing out on. I switch modes and-”
“Clear picture,” Candy said. She looked over her shoulder at where Chicken Little was sleeping in the bed across from Lookout’s. He’d been medicated so he could actually sleep. They were keeping the mask on, but there were bandages now.
Darlene had settled into the chair by his bed. It was the comfortable, puffy sort of chair, and her feet were up on the seat with her. Two blankets were gathered up and around her legs and her lap, piled up to almost chin height, and another was on the top of the chair, pulled down a bit so it covered her head and shoulders.
She wasn’t sleeping, wasn’t accepting medication, on excuse of needing to help Lookout, and she wasn’t taking her eyes off of Chicken Little.
Darlene closed her eyes, then opened them.
“Focus,” Lookout said. “Look, clear picture.”
“Sec,” Candy dismissed her.
“Ughhhhh. This is important! The mayor showed up! And she has people, and-”
“Shhh!” a nurse said, from the hallway. There were two capes from Victoria’s mom’s team by the door, standing guard.
Candy focused instead on Darlene, counting the seconds. Twenty, twenty one, twenty two-
“Blink more than the one time, Darlene,” Candy said.
Darlene pulled a hand out from under the covers, and gave Candy the finger.
“Surly,” Candy muttered.
“She’s hurting,” Lookout said, quiet, giving Candy a smile and an elbow to the arm. “It sucks.”
“She’s been hurt before,” Candy said. “Nathan pushed her down these concrete stairs that went from the street to the water, and she had to use her power to make him feel it, but he was mad, so he wouldn’t. She had to tough it out longer than him before he cracked.”
“But other people are hurt. Her favorite person.”
“She’s seen me get hurt, and I was her favorite person once.”
“You still are, Can-can,” Darlene muttered. “One of ’em. When you’re not being a pest.”
“You can hear me from over there?”
“It’s quiet,” Darlene said.
Candy settled in, lying over the covers while Lookout was beside her, lying on them, laptop in front of her, the screen swiveled one way, while the keyboard was swiveled in Candy’s direction. Darlene had done a lot of the work to help jury-rig the setup, before Lookout got frustrated that she was too distracted.
Too distracted and tired.
Candy had taken over, and now, on the topic of being frustrated, Lookout was trying to drum her fingers with fingers that weren’t there, and Candy could feel it through the link Dar had established. She was antsy.
“How are you doing?” Candy asked. “Your hands hurt.”
“We can stop if you want to,” Lookout said.
Candy was feeling that hurt through the link, but she could grit her teeth and deal with fake pain. Lookout had taken some medication, but every time she tried to move her fingers, her hands hurt, and Candy felt it.
“No, this is important, right?”
Lookout nodded, before whispering, “Thank you. It’s important enough I’m doing it even though it hurts to do. Can we- Can we do my thing again, now that you’re done talking to Darlene? I’m missing stuff.”
“Okay,” Candy said. Help in, gripe out. When people were hurt, it was important to help those closer to the problem and the hurt, and any complaints were saved for those further from it than she was. It was a rule that Samuel’s mom had imparted on them before her violent end.
There was an inverse of that rule, but it had to do with hurting people related to the source and keeping evidence in. Not so applicable here. Only if Aunt Rachel failed and Candy got a chance to go after the people who did it.
Slumping down, she adjusted the laptop, which prompted Lookout to adjust the screen.
“E, I, one, five… can you hold down the right arrow key until I say stop?”
This time, Candy was more careful to be quiet. “I can’t tell if you and Dar are going to be best friends or if you’re going to kill-”
“-each other,” Candy finished.
“Go back one. What do you mean?”
The screen showed a bunch of squares and lines, identifying faces, then framing each face. The camera was pointed one way but somehow depicted the face from another angle. Lips were covered by another, bolder square, and then weird arrangements of letters and symbols appeared. Each was like a dial of letters on a lock that might read A-A-A-A, with the lock-cracker changing each letter in turn.
In this case, the lipreading technology spat out words that included a ‘DINAH’ and ‘CONTESSA’. Names and a royal title.
Seemingly disinterested in anything that wasn’t a mention from her friends, Lookout had Candy use the trackball to switch over to another camera shot, focusing on a grid of security camera images. The prior image was visible at the very edges of the screen, with a dotted line feeding into a bubble that read ‘logs’.
“What do you mean?” Lookout asked, again.
How was Lookout this energetic at this hour, this hurt? Candy had been in the one big fight with Nursery and Lord of Loss and all the people with guns, and she was exhausted. She’d forgotten what she was even going to say, but now Lookout was staring at her with large eyes. In the gloom of the room, the whites of the eyes were contrasted with black skin, the orbs capturing the movements of lines and windows from the computer screen.
“I mean you know she likes Chicken. If you get in the way, she will literally tear-”
Stupid choice of ways to put it. She was tired.
“Tear me to pieces. Mm hmm.”
“Because she likes him a lot.”
“Yeah. I’ve liked people that much.”
“And you like him,” Candy said.
“I do. And I like her, and I like you, and I like my team-”
“You know what I mean.”
Lookout stared at her screen.
Candy elbowed her.
“I’m being good,” Lookout said, quiet. “And I won’t get in the way.”
‘I’m being good’ was the kind of thing that made far too much sense to Candy. She’d heard similar things from a lot of her siblings and ‘cousins’, which was their term for the sisters and brothers by another mother. She’d even heard the line about being good from some of their quirkier and more messed up unpowered siblings.
It was a simple thing to say that said a lot.
Candy moved her mental evaluation on whether Darlene would find herself strangling Lookout or being best friends with her one bit toward ‘best friends’.
“What happens if he decides he likes you?”
“I always thought maybe he liked boys, like one of the Capricorn brothers or like my d- like some people I knew did. Do. He was a big fan of Rain. Both with and without the fake face.”
“No,” Candy said.
“No. I’m an expert on these things. Most of us are. He just thinks Rain’s badass. He likes girls. Or he will when he figures out what he’s doing.”
“Oh, ‘kay,” Lookout said, quiet. “Rain is badass. He’s one of my favorite people.”
“Is everyone one of your favorite people?”
“Haaa. Not the jerks who did this to my hands. But Rain yes, and my team yes, and Swansong very yes. And Victoria very yes, and you guys very yes.”
“You’re the kind of girl in school has five friends who are all her best friends, huh?”
“Nah,” Lookout said. “I never had school friends. Hey, is it weird that I’m relieved Chicken likes girls?”
Candy moved her mental evaluation of the strangle vs. friendship thing two bits toward ‘strangle’.
“Because Darlene?” she asked, hopefully.
“I guess? Kind of?”
Not a definitive yes. Another three bits toward ‘strangle’.
She’d have to be careful.
“The portal’s open,” Lookout said. Her leg jiggled beneath the covers. “Hey, the portal’s open. That’s a thing! Move, type!”
“Shhh!” a nurse made a noise from the hallway.
“Tyyyype,” Lookout hissed through her teeth, waggling her hands. “Trackball.”
The screen was filling up with more white numbers against an orange-tinted security camera image. Nobody was coming through, despite the fact the portal was open.
“We have weird readings. Powers on the other side, filtered because some powers don’t work through or around portals.”
The camera changed. The mayor’s group was entering the station. Snuff was with them. Tattletale probably had a reason for why he was there and not here.
Tense minutes passed.
Then the message came over the phone.
“It’s Antares, type type type type,” Lookout urged.
“Shhh!” the nurse in the hallway said. She approached until the capes at the door stopped her. “Or I will ask to have your things taken away.”
Candy was focused enough on the typing and hitting the right keys that she didn’t process the words until the exchange was done, and by then, Lookout was having her type in more coordinates.
“Move that slider to the red,” Lookout said.
“Red?” Candy asked. As she did, the sub-screen with the data and a few wacky star shaped symbols changed to be white text on a textured red background. “Why?”
“Because it’s cool,” Lookout whispered. “And because the whip was red, and this is the whip. And…”
She touched a fingerless hand to the screen, smudging it. Below the smudge, a reel of numbers and characters was flying by too fast to read.
“This is it. Phone. Text messages. We need to let Antares know.”
“And this next part is long but important. Okay? Work with me?”
“If it helps,” Candy said.
“It’ll help. It should. I really hope it does…”
“Shh,” was the urging from the cape at the door. The two were Goalpost and Fireaxe. Fireaxe couldn’t even use his power in the hospital without setting off alarms, which was dumb. It was Goalpost who was shushing instead of the nurses now.
“Type, type type type-”
It took fifteen minutes. The code made her head spin, and she was providing Lookout the hands to write it. The boxes of dense code were arranged like spokes on a gear, and Lookout kept having her use the trackball to rotate that gear around, to add something to one block or fill in another block.
“Okay,” Lookout paused. “Hit the print button.”
“Had to be something.”
Candy hit the button.
Red light crackled and flared at Lookout’s hand, and she removed the bandages that were already being pushed away and strained by the emerging growth.
“Shush!” a nurse barked, looking in. But then she stopped.
It was all growing back, the wound seeming to travel to the extremities, with Lookout gritting her teeth in a weird smile as it happened.
Darlene sat up, moving the blankets that covered her. Her leg was growing back now.
“We did it. They did it,” Lookout said, bouncing. Her most intact hand gripped the most injured one until the last of the regrowth finished.
Then, like it was finally okay to do, she let out a long sigh with a superphysical shudder of relief that shook her entire body.
Darlene stood, wobbly at first. She approached Chicken Little, and she moved his mask, gingerly. Then she burst into tears. Good tears.
The nurses rushed into the room, to examine their patients, and edged a teary-eyed Darlene out of the way.
If looks could kill, a hard glare through wet eyes, over wet cheeks.
“Be good, Darlene.”
Darlene gave her a look that could kill.
“They’re helping him.”
Darlene relaxed, and with that relaxation, broke down again. She rushed to Lookout’s bedside, and she hugged her friend.
“We have more work to do?” Candy asked. After such a hollow, hurt feeling sitting in her upper chest for so long tonight, she felt buoyant.
“No. That’s everyone, and I don’t think that weapon will work again, not without a lot of rejiggering. Hopefully that protects everyone.”
Candy had an ominous feeling, but was too tired to put it to words.
“Flor,” Darlene put it to word before Candy was done.
Candy scrambled out of the bed so fast she almost knocked the laptop to the ground. Darlene followed.
Flor was in the hospital room two doors down, but getting there wasn’t easy. There weren’t any shouts, no noises of alarm, just… a lot of the capes from Antares’ mom’s team, two security officers, and several nurses.
“Let me through. Let me through!” Candy shouted. “You guys don’t-”
Flor was out of bed, wearing a hospital gown, her hair ruffled up at the back because she’d had it on a pillow. A nurse was on her knees beside her.
“Don’t,” Candy said.
Flor didn’t budge, studying the room.
“It’s been a lousy night that’s only now getting better. Don’t make it suck again. They’ll shoot you.”
Flor looked around.
“I’ll play your friggin’ fashion princess video game with you,” Candy said. She indicated Darlene. “We’ll take turns playing it with you.”
“Hey,” Darlene said. “Jerk. Don’t volunteer me.”
But Flor backed down. The nurse scrambled away.
“I thought we said to cuff her to her bed,” Candy said.
“You also said not to touch her. It didn’t seem like she was going anywhere,” one of the heroes said, watching as Flor crawled back into her bed.
“She obviously did.”
Darlene was already pulling on her arm, dragging her out of the room.
They returned to the room. The hustle and bustle surrounding Chicken Little had died down, but some nurses were on either side of the bed. It was Candy’s turn to drag Darlene over to where Lookout was tapping away on her phone.
“Talking to the team?” Darlene asked. “Tell them thank you.”
“Talking to the team lawyer, Natalie,” Lookout said. “She says she’s suspicious I won’t be able to stay with my team. I’ve been hospitalized twice in a really short span of time.”
“Makes sense,” Darlene said.
“Yeah,” Lookout said. She smiled at Darlene. “Makes sense. I’ll figure something out.”
The smile was jarring, but Candy didn’t know what to say.
Darlene climbed up into the hospital bed beside Lookout, her attention largely on Chicken Little, who was still drugged asleep, and Lookout’s attention was on the screen, on her team. Candy sat at the end of the bed, being careful not to block Dar’s view, because tonight wasn’t a night for teasing. She adjusted the blanket at the foot of the bed to cover herself. The hospital was chilly, and cold air wafted in, seemingly through the single-pane windows.
Darlene was letting exhaustion overtake her. Her head rested on Lookout’s shoulder, and Lookout gave her a pat on the leg.
“We could make our own team,” Candy said. “You two, me, Chicken.”
“But-” Lookout said. “I’d be betraying people. Swansong-”
“Then we contract out,” Candy added. “Exclusively to one team. Maybe two. Cheat the system.”
“Maybe,” Lookout said, the smile dropping from her face. “Could work.”
Outside the window, Chicken Large screeched.
Narwhal watched as Undersider and Breakthrough climbed out of their vehicles. Government vehicles, by the color of the plates. Rides provided by the illustrious mayor of the unnamed city.
It had been hours now. The sun would rise in another few hours. Were it a warmer month, it would already be rising.
The figure that had once been Dauntless loomed above them. Dormant, quiet, alone.
As alone as any of them were.
Narwhal’s costume was layered, crystals grown large and each gap covered by another crystal, enough times that her entire figure had changed. Crystals were her boots, so her feet weren’t resting against snowy ground, and they framed her chin, nose, eye sockets, and ears, while providing the structure that held up her horn. A lot of that was to keep the cold off. Temperature didn’t conduct through forcefield, so it kept her insulated. Here and there, she adjusted, exposing neck, collarbone, and shoulder above the crystalline suit.
Her heart was pounding, breathing was hard, and getting past it seemed impossible. She kept her shoulders back and square, her feet securely beneath her, and hands at her sides. People looked to her, and if she let the facade crack, then it would affect them.
She had never been good at giant slaying. She could hold her own against the Endbringers and the other enemies of similar scale, throw up defenses, launch her forcefields for offense, but it wasn’t the environment where she felt like she did the most good.
And she’d been stuck here, facing down the attack from March, and she hadn’t done enough good here. It was more frustrating that the higher-ups and paper pushers would blame her, because a power like March’s didn’t translate to paperwork.
It meant expressing that Defiant and Dragon could have three ships in the air, and a squadron of parahumans and soldiers could be in just the right spot at just the right time to make them dangerously able to flank if the ships tried to fly past. Move around, open fire, the routes were blocked or there were other obstructions. People who would get caught in the collateral damage.
Not permanently, there was always a way, but by the time that way was sought and found, March was on the offensive. And it was always easier to attack than defend.
The paper-pushers wouldn’t get it. They’d talk about budgets and hint at budget cuts, and blame would be shifted, and it would be a repeat of prior engagements against Jack Slash all over again.
But they had the boy who had beaten Jack Slash in the Wardens. Jack Slash had had an unknown factor giving him an edge. His power gave him the upper hand against any parahuman, and his ‘Slaughterhouse Nine’ made it next to impossible for civilians to get to him.
March’s coterie didn’t cover a weakness so much as it augmented her strengths.
It was possible that made it more fragile, but Narwhal wouldn’t get the chance. Her strength was in wading into confrontations and walking out the other side with her enemy broken. Warlords, gangs, armies. But her eternal tragedy was that she was often the only one both capable and willing to step up and be a leader, negotiating the balance between leadership and dealing with the people behind desks and benches.
The Undersiders and Breakthrough parted. Truce between them now done. Hero and villain, each had a side to go to. The mayor’s henchpeople, Harbingers, went their own way. Neither hero nor villain.
Weld had arrived. He was the kind of young man she would’ve drafted to any of her teams, at any point. Driven, conscientious, kind, and just wounded enough that there was something to look after, where she could have him under her wing without feeling like his talents weren’t being wasted leading a team elsewhere.
Antares led Weld to one of the last vehicles in the convoy. He opened the door, and was embraced by what Narwhal took to be his girlfriend.
That was a mess. Narwhal had seen him making eyes at one of the other girls in the Wardens. Slician. She’d noticed and she’d approached him, and he’d turned her down. It wouldn’t have been easy.
This? That? It couldn’t be good. It was too far from human, and Weld was more in touch with humanity than a lot of humans were.
If he’d asked Narwhal for advice, she would have told him she liked Slician for him more than she liked this girl. That he had his own healing and growing to do, and it seemed to her that he was putting it on hold. It was maybe better that he hadn’t asked her.
It was even possible that he knew her well enough to know what the advice she would give would be. If that were true, then when and if he needed help making the hard decision, he would ask her.
Cracks, Narwhal thought. Her fingers touched a damaged forcefield she hadn’t yet dismissed, tracing the fissures and missing pieces. We all have them. If we have to slay this giant, we’ll have to find his.
Cracks in the individual, yes. That was a thing. Weld had his. Narwhal knew she certainly had her own.
But between too. Between Weld and his current girlfriend.
Breakthrough and the Undersiders had closed the gap, at least a little. But some fissures remained. Foil didn’t join Breakthrough, and she didn’t rejoin the Undersiders. Her focus was on the giant.
Narwhal approached, dismissing the damaged shield.
“How is your girlfriend?” Narwhal asked, to open the conversation and let Foil know she was there.
“Parian? I’m surprised you were keeping enough track of me to know. She’s fine now. She has to be careful when eating or drinking, but she’ll mend.”
“You should go to her. We don’t think this situation will change anytime soon.”
Foil nodded, but she didn’t budge.
“I can listen, if you need to talk,” Narwhal said.
“I don’t know what I’d say. Every time I’m faced with this stuff, I find myself less able to deal with it, get images out of my head. It takes longer to ease down.”
“Yes. When the feeling of your heart pounding and your adrenaline surging becomes normal, and the moments of rest or tranquility are the thing that you have to go looking for.”
“Not exactly that. Feeling freaked out. I saw the woman I love get hurt in a really grisly way. Because of March, in a roundabout way. And I’m worried that if I go see her, I won’t be able to stop seeing her get hurt. Does that make sense?”
“It makes sense. But you can’t avoid seeing her forever, Foil. Lily.”
Foil looked surprised at the mention of her name.
Narwhal gave her a sympathetic look. “We thought about recruiting you. We looked you up. It was determined it would be too antagonistic with a mid-tier power.”
“Tattletale?” Foil asked. She sounded angry.
“We can talk about options after if you want. Don’t hold it against Tattletale. Please don’t hold it against us. I’m distracting you from what you were talking about. You’re avoiding Parian?”
“I’m avoiding the reminder. It’s like… there’s all this stuff in the past. Bloody, messy, grisly. So much death. Parian’s helping her family and I’m helping her help them. Family’s important to her, and we’re getting them the last few surgeries they really need. But that’s bloody, messy, grisly too.”
“Do you feel like you have to?”
“Do I- what? I’d do it anyway.”
“But does it feel obligatory?” Narwhal asked. “They come as part and parcel with your partner. Does it feel like you have to, to keep her beside you?”
“But I would anyway.”
“Yes, because you’re heroic by nature. But it being something you must do makes it feel like a trap. A nuisance becomes a torture when you’re trapped.”
Maybe the wrong approach.
Foil ventured, “All that stuff in the past, all that stuff going on in the background when we’re home, in the present, and then I find myself worrying… what if March comes again? What if I have to watch my girlfriend drag a baby out of her windpipe, or if someone does to her what happened to her family, or…”
Foil lifted her arms, then let them fall.
“You can’t control the future,” Narwhal said.
“I can, though. I can control what comes back home. I’m thinking about retiring, at least in the short-term. Just to get away from the grisly, messy stuff. Messy relationships and team dynamics.”
“That would be an awful shame,” Narwhal said. “You’re a good cape.”
“Thank you for saying so.”
“You should go home and take care of your girlfriend. Sleep, rest. This… this is scary, what happened tonight, the deaths and the damage, it’s horrific. But a good night’s sleep with someone you love will put a surprising amount of distance between that and how you feel about it.”
“Do you have that? Good nights of sleep, someone to hold?”
“No,” Narwhal said. She extended Foil an apologetic expression. “No. When I was in similar straits to where you are now, I chose not to go home. Then there was nobody to go home to. I got my power trying to protect someone and… I didn’t have anyone to protect anymore. I stopped being able to have quiet days. I don’t sleep without thinking about what I should be doing. I felt much like you seem to feel now, and I went on one more mission, because carrying on was easier than bringing it home.”
“It’s not like that. That’s not what I’m talking about.”
Narwhal nodded. “I know. We’re different people.”
“But maybe if you’d gone home, then you would have found yourself unable to stop dreading the mess that comes tomorrow, and you would have found it all disintegrating.”
“Who knows?” Narwhal asked.
“I might stay for a while, just to be safe. Offer my assistance if anyone needs it.”
“I could order you.”
“You’re not my boss,” Foil said.
“But I could order you. I bet you’d listen.”
“I want to go after her,” Foil said. “Tell me you have leads.”
Narwhal was quiet.
“Please. I want her gone, so Parian doesn’t have to worry about her. So I can know that tomorrow will be…”
Foil looked up at the Dauntless Titan. There were names being bandied around for it.
“Marchless,” Foil said. “But you were hinting that I would be making a mistake if I went on one more mission, even when I’m not, exactly? I haven’t been active lately. It’s been months. I feel like you’re painting me as an alcoholic when I’ve had a drink every six months and done fine. But if I take this one next drink, it’s somehow going to destroy me.”
“I’m painting you as an alcoholic because you just had a drink and you’re telling me you’re not fine. And you want to take another, now.”
“What would you do different, if you could go back?”
Narwhal took a deep breath. Slices of forcefield rubbed against one another.
“Sorry,” Foil said, “If that’s a personal question.”
“I wouldn’t go alone.”
Foil nodded, her arms folded.
Before the girl could open her mouth, Narwhal said, “I’ll phone you what we have.”
Foil was already moving, driven, “Thank you. I’ll go before the trail gets any colder, then. Thank you. Rachel! Hey! I need your hound, will you…”
Not what I meant by not going alone, Narwhal thought.
“Foil,” she said, her voice stern.
“You could die.”
“I know. But I couldn’t live with it if she does something anything like this again, and I could have stopped it. Either I stop or… I stop her.”
“Who did we lose?” Swansong asked.
“Tempera,” Antares answered. “Withdrawal is hurt. Finale is beside herself.”
“How’s your mother?” Swansong asked.
The question was loaded. Swansong and Antares’ mother had been at one another’s throats.
Antares didn’t immediately respond.
“You don’t have to say. I’ll find out some other way.”
“She’s going to Earth Shin,” Antares finally answered.
“Ah. I’m sorry.”
Antares shook her head. “It’ll either go well or it won’t. I have no idea what to say, whatever happens. But Amy knows enough to explain things to my parents, fill in the blanks.”
“Mm,” Swansong made a sound.
Antares turned her head skyward, hands up near her head, as if she were making a plea to the heavens. Except the heavens were largely occupied by the massive titan that loomed in the upper end of what had been New Brockton Bay, straddling the portal there. “I’m just telling myself that Lookout is happy, healthy, and with friends. The other kids are fine. Capricorn is intact. Precipice’s cluster members are in custody, he doesn’t have to worry about that. You’re intact again. We’re okay.”
“Sveta has Weld,” Swansong said, pointing.
Antares nodded without smiling.
“We made a good impact,” Swansong said.
“We made an impact. The Harbingers counted the injured and the dead. Thirty individuals bound for hospitals. Twelve are dead. Four of those are our fault.”
Our fault. Not counting me?
“Play imbecile games, win imbecile prizes,” Swansong said.
“I threw Etna and her stupid costume into a hill, and I didn’t see her recover. I didn’t overdo it, but… she could be one of the three that are possibly me?”
“I liked her costume,” Swansong said.
Swansong extended a finger toward Antares. “Don’t question my tastes. Flaming sorceress raiment over a long coat is perfectly acceptable costuming.”
“It’s so overwrought.”
“It’s wrought, and whether it’s overwrought or underwrought is a question of the person who wears it. She didn’t live up to it. Yes?”
“We’ll compromise by agreeing on that,” Antares said.
Swansong nodded, smiling.
“Harbinger Two told me that one of the dead is definitely me. I think the reason I’m thinking of Etna, the big question mark, and trying to put her face onto one of those bodies is that I don’t even know what the face of the guy I took down looks like.”
“Imagine a smashed pumpkin filled with hamburger patty,” Swansong said.
“No. But it’s reality.”
“It’s what I did to my mother.”
“Not the face. That was intact.”
“Uuuugh,” Antares groaned.
“She’s alive. She’ll live. That’s better than some outcomes,” Swansong said. “That the violence happened at your hands is something you learn to live with.”
“Do I want to, though?”
“Lookout’s content, Capricorn’s intact, Precipice doesn’t have to worry about his cluster for now, possibly ever, depending on how you want to resolve that…”
“Sveta gets to end the day hugging her boyfriend. I’m intact. The Navigators are healed and being cared for. Hopefully we’ve broken the back of this… stupidity that overtook the villains of the city.”
“Pushback. I don’t know. This… thing, that was Dauntless. It’s like a giant nail stuck in the middle of things. It’s frozen the entire situation. We’re all so caught up waiting for the other shoe to drop that we’re back to where we were a year ago.”
“I’m happier than I was a year ago,” Swansong said. “So is Lookout. She’s not with her parents anymore. So is Precipice, I think.”
“Work on that. Focus on that.”
“And,” Damsel said, deciding to approach before this became any more saccharine, “You don’t need to worry about me anymore.”
“What?” Swansong asked.
“I’m going. I have the money, I have what I need. I’ll send my people to get my things in a few days.”
“You don’t have people,” Swansong said.
That irritated. Damsel bit back a reply, because appearance was too important here, with potential enemies and allies watching. Swansong didn’t have people either. Not in the proper, respectable way. She was so ruined by this whole dynamic that she would have said she was an equal or partner. A member of a team. But she was following orders and being subordinate to someone who had been the ‘coach’ just a little while ago.
“I will. Besides, it’s not like I can stay.”
“You could if you wanted,” Swansong said.
“I cut you. You won’t be able to rest easy with the knowledge that I could do it again while you sleep. You know I would.”
“I know who we are,” Swansong said.
“And if you think you’re safe sleeping under the same roof as her,” Damsel told Antares, “Think again. Keep your distance from her if you know what’s good for you. Because if you don’t splatter her against the wall, until there’s more of her on the wall than on the ground, then she’ll do it to you.”
“Enough,” Swansong said.
“Enough? Don’t you mean stop?” Damsel asked, archly. Her tone became vicious. “Remember? ‘Stop? You stop.’ Wasn’t that what you said to him, before you put a hole in his chest? I did have that dream, you know. And I say dream, not nightmare. That registered. Not any of the soft friendship, not looking after lonely little girls, nor scruffy teenage boys. That moment meant more than all of this put together, and you’re trying to pretend it didn’t.”
“You’re embarrassing us,” Swansong said.
“There is no us!” Damsel raised her voice. “Because I’d be disgusted to be grouped with you at this point. You want to talk about overwrought? You don’t live up to your own damned standards.”
“Hey,” Narwhal said. A forcefield appeared between Damsel and the pair. The material like a crudely cut piece of crystal or thick glass with the edges chipped to a razor edge, bearing a rainbow sheen. She stared into it and through it, and the reflection was distorted. if it wasn’t for the fact that the face she saw was standing alone, she could have thought she were looking through at her wretched sister.
She scoffed and turned her back on the scene.
Lights beyond the window flickered on. A soft alarm began playing.
May had to crawl out from beneath the covers and over Tori to get to the computer by the bed.
“Oh my god,” she murmured.
“If we hadn’t been interrupted, I could be the one saying that,” Tori groused. “What is it? You sound delighted.”
“We have company,” May said. She stood from the bed and she stretched, working every muscle in her body. “And eight minutes before that company finds me.”
“That company being who?”
“Foil and a dog. They’re sniffing around.”
“I’ll contact the others,” Tori said.
May moved her phone. She switched to a map icon, showing the location of everyone in the area. “They’re up. Take it? Confirm. They should start moving. They’ll be here in six, six and a half, seven, and nine minutes.”
“Then wait it out.”
“No,” May said. “No need. I have this. Dress me.”
“Hmm?” Tori asked.
“Like a squire, dressing her knight for battle,” May said. She bent down to kiss Tori. “Come on.”
“Dressing her knight to go romance someone else.”
“I’m a romantic, every interaction I have with someone has a flair of romance to it. You might as well ask water not to make what it touches wet.”
Tori muttered, “This interruption and the way you’re acting is making me dry up faster than the Sahara.”
“Don’t crab at me, baby. Come. Help.”
May kissed Tori passionately enough that Tori allowed herself to believe in the feelings behind the act. Reluctantly, she sat up, swung her legs down by the side of the bed, and picked up the articles of clothing that lay in a heap.
Undergarments, a semi-elastic sleeve of mesh backed by silk that extended from armpit to the bottom of the hips, then the long-sleeved top and leggings she had to roll up. May’s entire body was muscular, lean.
No. With the costume going on, she was approaching the threshold of becoming March, rather than May.
With this stupid vendetta-slash-obsession, she was well past that threshold. This was when she ceased being Tori’s May and became Foil’s March.
She was bitter, but she tried not to let it show. When March was going to battle, the wrong words and sentiments could put the wrong ideas into her head. There was that slim risk that a moment’s doubt at the wrong time could lead to a critical and terminal error.
But she’d known what she was getting into with May. She’d been forewarned and reminded time and time again. It was stupid to have any illusions.
With leggings and long sleeved top on, it could have been a rather plain skintight costume. The pants and jacket were next.
March, probably conscious of time, picked up her own belt.
Mask. Hat. March took the hat before it was placed on her head, performed a motion where it flipped in the air, and settled onto her head. Her hair was messy, and she had morning breath -more than morning breath-, but there was only so much time, and March was mindful of time.
Tori threw on a bathrobe so she would be covered, if not necessarily decent. On a level, being indecent felt like it was important, as if she could remind Foil of where things stood. She put on her coat but left the front undone, and stepped into her boots, following a few paces behind March, who exited. She reached out to tow the door to her hand instead of letting it close.
March spun on her heel, shooting her a wink, using her rapier to blow a kiss.
“No,” Tori said, impulsive, hating herself for saying it. “Take this seriously.”
“I take nothing seriously.”
“Not even me?” Tori asked.
“Then prove it,” Tori said, still hating herself. “You say she doesn’t matter?”
“Not in the short term. But a lot of things that don’t matter are still worth messing with.”
“Prove it,” Tori said. “Kill her.”
“Or I’m walking away.”
Tori remained silent.
“We’ll get to see how Ixnay’s doing,” March said. she flourished her blade. “Alright.”
Tori watched as March ventured down the street. The dog ran out from a nearby alleyway, stopping in the middle of the road. Foil followed it. As rumpled as March was, her hair in some disarray, Foil was crisp, hair straight. She didn’t look like someone who had been up all night.
No, not until she moved. Tori saw and delighted in the faintest sway, as the girl turned and dismissed the hound, bidding it to step to one side.
March had slept like a baby until the early dawn hours, and they’d languished in bed. As messy as she was, she was sharp mentally.
“You found me,” March said.
“There were sightings. The hound got me the rest of the way.”
“Perfect,” March said.
Foil drew her weapon.
March was the first to move. A dash forward, weapon thrusting. Foil’s weapon shimmered before it met March’s. A small, localized explosion marked the conflict between the two powers, each nullifying the other.
There was no attack, defense, pause here. March maintained the attack, one parry becoming a thrust in the next instant, every step of her foot an attempt to slip past Foil’s guard. She leaned back as the blade passed within a half-inch of her throat.
“Close,” March said. “Closer than I in-”
Foil stabbed, and March was forced to stop talking while she dodged the onslaught that followed. She found an opportunity to take two quick steps back, then returned. Instead of an attack that was parried or avoided, it was attack met by attack. Two rapiers, and for what looked like five consecutive thrusts, the tip of each rapier met the tip of the other.
Foil threw nails, augmented with her power, and March avoided them. March struck at the ground, sending power-infused dirt in Foil’s direction, and it detonated in the air. Foil turned away from it.
“One of my arms is pretty torn up. I’m doing pretty well considering-”
“Stop talking,” Foil barked the words. “I don’t want to hear your voice.”
“Don’t fucking laugh!”
Foil advanced, harder this time. March spun with every step, each spin seeing the blade catch at the ground as it passed her left or right and met Foil’s blade every time she faced Foil. Once, it seemed, while her back was to the woman. Foil sidestepped the dirt that exploded with scintillating colors, pressing the attack.
Tori’s hand moved. If she tugged Foil…
Foil threw more nails. March struck three of them out of the air. The fourth found its way to Tori’s middle finger, embedding it to the doorframe. Her knees buckled with the pain.
“Poor form!” March said, jovial.
She didn’t care.
Then Tori didn’t either. She used her power. A tug, to pull Foil off balance.
March’s swing was already underway. Foil hastily parried it, then fell, because she was off balance.
March hung back, waiting for Foil to get back to her feet. She glanced back at Tori, head tilted.
“I’m not going to end it there, but I am going to allow it. It’s fair play. You involve her, she involves you. Speaking of…” March said. Her sword flicked to one side.
Wind stirred a bit of snow around them.
Foil glowered, hand gripping her weapon’s handle.
“You did something clever. Did you assassinate my Megacluster?” March asked, voice light. She laughed. “No. I don’t think you could have. But you have a friend.”
“I hate that laugh.”
“You’re going to hear it again, you know. I adore this. This is what it’s all about, my dear. We lead lives that are nasty in the best way, brutish in the bloodiest way, and short in my case, because I’m just a little bit vertically challenged. Then we’re together forever.”
“You’ve said something like that before.”
“You know this, Foil,” March said. “Deep down inside. You feel hate because it’s a close emotion to love. But we are connected. We’re inexorably intertwined, in power, in mind, and maybe, hopefully, in body. You know that we’re going to end up together in the same way that you know how to put power into that metal rapier of yours, or you know how to move to utilize your enhanced accuracy.”
“Delusion,” Foil said.
“Reality! More real than any of this! I’ve seen it, how do you think I know cluster triggers as well as I do? I’ve seen the network, the landscape, and how it all fits together. I’ve seen the spots that are reserved for us. Homer’s already there. When all’s said and done, that’s where we go. To spend a few aeons talking and intertwining until we dissolve into a greater consciousness.”
Foil stopped, her rapier dropping a fraction.
Tori sank lower, head down. Her heart plummeted.
“That sounds like a nightmare.”
“You’ll see,” March said. “There’s nothing you can do to change it. It’s inevitable. You, me, Homer, together for a long enough time it might as well be forever.”
More snow blew. Foil threw a nail. March deflected it.
“Come on, don’t be childish,” March chided.
“If that’s true, then I can’t kill you,” Foil said. “I’ll have to trap you somewhere else, in another state.”
“Even Gray Boy’s famous bubbles will only last ten thousand years or so,” March said. “I asked when we were working on the ways to break the time effects. That’s like delaying an eighty year marriage by two days.”
Foil’s neck was rigid, hand clenching her weapon.
“Then…” Foil said, and she was clearly floundering. “Then I have to destroy you.”
“You, March. Your identity, every inch of you that wants to talk, your personality, your understanding of english, every other language you could speak. You.”
March swished her sword a few times.
Foil’s head shook with the intensity of what she was saying and feeling. There was no swish to her sword.
“I’d rather become the kind of monster who can do that or who can hire people who do that than I’d go to this hell you describe.”
March looked over her shoulder at Tori.
“Guess you get what you wanted, Tor’.”
Foil lunged. Before Tori could do anything, the pair were out of sight.
Tori focused on her hand. She tried to drag her finger along the nail to the end, but the spike threaded through the bone. The bone reached the flared head of the nail, and it stopped.
She pulled, one half of her hand at the tip of the finger, the other half on the other end of the finger, split between the two sides of the nail. She hauled, screaming. Wood creaked but didn’t release the nail, and her flesh squeezed between the head of the nail and the bone until it separated out in every direction. The bone threatened to break, by the sheer pain of it.
Tori felt the pain at her throat, then the flood of blood washing down her front and onto her lap. Her one hand wasn’t enough to staunch the entire flow, and immediately, her thoughts began to go dark and fuzzy, like all of the buoyancy and light had just dropped out of her brain, leaving it dark and heavy.
She’d experienced this before, with the cluster. Bianca had done it to her. So had their ‘red priest’. It didn’t surprise her in the least that this was how she met her end. She almost, not quite, but almost found her peace with the realization.
She saw a glimpse of an arm.
“Marrrrr-” was her gurgling scream.
“Tori!” was the response. “Dang it!”
Tori saw the arm in shadows. Her second thoughts and resentments fell away like the blood from her slit throat. She did love May. She would-
She reached out, and she used her power. Only a pulse, whatever her power drew on physiologically, it needed oxygen and blood supply in the brain and she didn’t have enough.
But it caused a delay. The figure had just revealed herself, holding a bloody knife, a girl in a gray demon mask. Imp.
March stuck her rapier through Imp’s ribcage. Heart-on.
Foil’s headlong rush tried to capitalize on the distraction. Without turning around, March stuck the now-gleaming rapier beneath her armpit and backward. The explosion marked the conflict of the powers, and helped to push Foil’s rapier far enough away that she could put the weapon through Foil’s chest as well.
“Come on, Tori. Let’s get you looked after,” March said, as the pair fell to the ground behind her. “I suppose I’m going to have to kill their friends, because they’ll be out for revenge.”
Tori’s fuzzed senses heard March’s voice. “That’s not supposed to… be there.”
She forced herself to focus.
March, backing up. Two figures advancing. March tripped.
“It’s not the timing of my reinforcements that you fudged,” March said, as she rose to her feet. She stumbled a little on the retreat. “It’s the-”
Foil stabbed. March deflected. There was another thrust, and March met this one with a riposte. Her thrust extended toward Foil’s chest, and Foil met the tip with her hand.
From Tori’s side-on perspective, she could see how it worked. Harder to see head-on or from the wielder’s perspective. The blade grew shorter as it traveled. There was resistance as it met flesh, but the wound was relatively shallow. The blade didn’t extend out the back of the hand as Foil closed her hand around the guard.
Just as it hadn’t extended through the backs -or hearts- of the pair March had just stabbed.
“It’s the space,” March said.
There was no dodging or pulling away. She pushed power into the tip. Setting the timer.
The wound at the center of Foil’s left hand detonated, but the weapon had been compressed, the explosion was smaller, localized. Chunks of meat went flying, but Foil seemed to consider it worth the price. She returned the favor by stabbing March.
Tori let her head hang.
“Spitting on her. Wowwww.”
“Sure, not going to say no. But woww. Can we go get me my arm back?”
“Yeah. Let’s. And let’s get me a new left hand while we’re at it.”
Tori looked up, and saw the two walking away. The girl in the demon mask had her arm raised, waving off to someone distant. They whistled for the dog, and it padded by.
Tori thought of what May had said, about what awaited her, and allowed herself to recognize that Bianca would be there. As would the others.
The thought gripped her as the darkness carried her away. The warped length of a dropped rapier and the distortion of the ground around her reverted to normal, leaving only snow and blood to alter the ground.