For those who didn’t scroll down, you may wish to revisit Heavens 12.x. There’s more content after the ‘Previous chapter —- Next Chapter’ part.
My preliminary stretches wrapped up with a plank. It was hard not to flip that mental switch that would see me floating, because it was so automatic and so easy to do, especially when my feet weren’t so flat on the ground.
I made it thirty seconds, which was abysmal, but I could already feel the stabs of pain, and this wasn’t supposed to be the part where I tested my limits. It was supposed to be where I prepared myself to test my limits.
This wasn’t even the hard part, and I was already sweating. Not from effort, but the way my body responded to the sudden pain. I toweled off, careful of my headphone cords. The music that didn’t match my patient progress and slow, measured stretches was some ‘Goodbye Rock’ that Weld had picked up while touring worlds with Sveta.
I sat on the edge of my bed, and I worked my way through the stretches. Fingers laced together, the fingers of my left hand feeling where the skin at my right hand had a faintly different texture where it had been burned. I stretched my arms out, leaning forward until my abdomen muscles were as tight as they could be. I gently extended the stretch right, because that was easier, and I felt the knot of the bullet wound in my left arm. I extended the stretch even more gingerly to the left, until I could feel the stabbing pain again. I pushed through it, paying very careful attention to the pain and the shape it took. This was where the acid centipedes had sliced into me, and a tearing pain was worse than a ‘nervous system doesn’t know what to report’ kind of pain.
Five repetitions of that, straight forward, right, then left. Then I stopped. I wrapped the towel around my bare shoulders for warmth while I took notes in the notebook I’d laid on the other corner of the bed.
The notes accounted for one minute of rest.
I had another centipede gouge in my leg, and a scar on the bottom of the foot on that same leg. I shifted to squats, five reps of regular squats, testing what my leg could handle, then five reps of one-legged squats, leaning forward so I rested in a tiptoe position. Again, I had to remind myself not to fly to assist myself.
Notes while resting. Wrist flexes and arm rotations that involved shoulder and bicep movements.
More notes. My physiotherapist didn’t care about them, but filling out the book was something of a satisfaction thing. Like filing, or collecting all of my now gasoline-scented case files.
As nice as the apartment was, the cold had a way of leaking in. It had a way of leaking in everywhere. I was sweating from head to toe now, more from hitting limits set by the old injuries than from the limits of muscles, and it made me clammy. With my less injured arm, I toweled off again, more roughly than necessary for the sake of warming up and trying to jar my system from the ‘cold sweat’ response.
I picked up my weighted bar, cane-length, my hands at either end. I worked through the motions for that, bar from chest to straight out in front of me, down to my thighs, curled up to chest, then back out to straight out in front of me. I felt the stabs of pain at specific points during each movement, with the curl-ups in particular making my arm twitch like I’d been jabbed with an electric prod, but I was used enough to this to know it wasn’t a tearing, unhealthy sort of pain.
Three weeks of this. Three weeks of the physio, at the health building once a week and at home another thirteen times a week. Things were improving in some areas, but in cases like that curl-up arm jitter, I wasn’t getting that much stronger. Sometimes injuries happened where the physio wasn’t so much about getting better or getting over the injury, and it was more about keeping it from getting worse.
If I lived that long, I would potentially be doing exercises like these until I was old. For the rest of my life, when I got sick, I’d potentially backslide, and lose that five percent of progress I’d made over months of work. When the weather was bad, I’d feel the pangs and the tightness in the scars.
I penned in notes. Usual pain, fifteen sets.
After the bar was what I’d penned in as ‘fucking dips’. The second most colorful name I’d used for the exercises.
I put my hands on the bedframe, my back to the bed, feet out in front with my weight resting on the backs of my heels. It made my leg hurt, and holding my weight up made everything, even the bullet wound, hurt.
Again, not about strength, but what my injured muscles allowed me to do.
I was in the middle of the toughest part of lowering my butt toward the floor when my bedroom door opened. My hand slipped, my arm jarred, and I used my flight to catch myself before I crashed to the floor.
Ashley was talking to me. I only heard the melancholy rock music, and the notes of her voice. She was angry or annoyed. The two sounded very similar.
I took my time standing, grabbing my towel and holding it to my front, because I was only wearing a sports bra and pyjama pants. I took my time removing my headphones.
Her hair was damp, and she wore a black silk bathrobe.
“…What?” I asked her.
“What about the towels?”
“Are you using the black towels?”
“Yes,” I said. “You had the white, your sister had the black, and she’s gone now, so I started using the black.”
“It fundamentally stands to reason I’d default to black.”
“Does it?” I asked. I debated if I wanted to argue the point. “I’ll use white from now on, then.”
“Good,” she said. She paused. “You’re sweating. More nightmares?”
“Ah,” she said. She moved her hands, and the way she moved them was reminiscent of my wrist flexes. “We have about an hour before we go. Do you want tea?”
“Showering after this, then tea would be great. I’ll make breakfast.”
“If you’ll eat bacon, egg, and scones, I’m already working on it. I’ll keep it warm and put the kettle on when I hear you shut off the water.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Excellent.”
She stalked over- there wasn’t really a better way to put it with how motivated the movements were, and took the black towel I was holding. I let her, and she stalked her way back out of the room.
I rolled my eyes, returning to the damned dips.
Ashley returned, throwing a white towel so it landed on my bed.
“Thank you,” I said, grimacing as pain shot through my arm.
“Thank you for seeing reason,” she said.
After dips were leg lifts, lying on the bed with legs and feet out off the edge, touching floor, then extending straight up until I couldn’t anymore, then bringing knees to chest. Rinse, repeat. I did something similar with sideways leg-lifts, and then the pike pushups, which were worse than the dips.
I felt shaky and shitty enough at the end of it all that I wasn’t even sure I’d have the appetite to eat. I showered, used Ashley’s charcoal shampoo because mine was running out, and dried off, white towel.
I didn’t use a bathrobe, but instead stepped into my room and got dressed right away. A loose-fitting light gray sweater, dark blue jeans, and black leather boots.
I carefully packed my costume in a bag to minimize wrinkles, breastplate and recently redone decorations sliding into a sheath, with buckles and straps to keep it tidy and relatively inconspicuous. I slung it over my left shoulder, and headed to the kitchen. Swansong was at the table, a laptop sitting across from her, and she was tapping a cup of tea to the webcam.
A toast, it seemed. Kenzie was on the other end, doing something similar with her own cup. They were eating breakfast together.
The bacon and eggs were very simple, the scone was the bakery-made sort that Ashley liked to buy frozen and reheat in the oven, and she’d buttered it for me. The plate sat on a wire rack amid other blueberry scones, over an oven burner she’d set to ‘low’.
A little too warm to touch. I put my sleeves over my hands to move the plate to the table.
Ninety-nine percent of the conversation was Kenzie talking about her new team, that she was updating her costume, Amias went to her school and she’d talked to him, and Aiden might, might, might be attending since the Undersiders weren’t in New Brockton anymore and he had to go somewhere and, and and…
“Don’t let Chicken Little name the team,” I said.
“He’s got good taste, Victoria!” Lookout protested. I couldn’t see her.
“He thinks you’re neat,” Ashley said. “Proof enough.”
“Aww, but it’s not just me. He likes a lot of us. Especially Rain, he really looks up to Rain-”
I met Ashley’s eyes, and she met mine at that same moment.
“I saw that! The ‘knowing mom’ look. I’m disappointed in you. Rain is badass!”
“He is badass,” I conceded.
Which led to Kenzie going off on another ramble, just happy to talk to Ashley. Ashley nursed her tea, elbows on the table, both hands around the cup, smiling slightly at the screen.
“-and my costume leggings, I was thinking something fancier, I have a hundred questions for you guys about what I should do, I- let me check. Two hundred and three questions, whoops. I was thinking something patterned, and I wanted to add more decoration. Something skintight, but more over it, and more room to carry stuff, and, oh! I can project some of my favorite ideas and show you, but I have to set that up, and we’re meeting in-”
“Eat,” Ashley said. “No skipping sleeping, eating, or hygiene to work on your things.”
There was something of a merciful silence on the other end. I saw Ashley put her cup down, flexing her wrist while her eyebrows drew slightly together.
She twisted her wrist and pulled her hand free. The socket was black with oil and simultaneously red with blood, a rod sticking out of her arm. “Bad connection. Feels numb.”
“Have Rain look at it.”
“He’s with Erin this morning,” she said. “Then we’re busy.”
“Oh!” Kenzie piped up. “Victoria! I did the mask thing you wanted! You’ll have to remind me, and we can see how it looks.”
What I’d had was purely utilitarian. I was due an update.
“Thank you,” I said. “I hope it wasn’t any trouble.”
“Nope. Took ten minutes. And another twenty because I looked up the images you gave me to reference and I made a few variations so you could try them all on and see what you liked best, in case you didn’t like the first one. But you’ll have to pay me, since I’m not officially on Breakthrough anymore.”
“Will do,” I said.
“And for me coming today.”
“Of course,” I said.
We were drawing a stipend from the local government now, through Citrine’s husband. The money we were using to commission Lookout for her ‘low, low price’ was the same money we were giving every member of the team.
The chatter continued for another ten minutes. I cleaned up from the cooking, and then got everything together while Ashley extricated herself from the video call.
“Got your gear?” I asked.
“By the door,” she said, as she stepped into her boots.
Hauling my bag up onto the shoulder of my good arm, I got the front door. Swansong followed me, wearing a black leather messenger bag with her costume particulars packed inside.
We headed to our rendezvous. And to the grim business that would follow.
The destination was the new Wardens Office. Natalie and Kenzie were at the foot of the stairs as we walked up, Kenzie talking to Erin and Rain. Further away, Moonsong and Byron were perched on a bench, sitting on the back of the bench with their feet on the snow-covered seat.
Kenzie saw us coming, and ran up to Ashley. Kenzie wore an electric blue peacoat, navy blue pleated skirt, gray leggings, and navy blue boots. The pin in her hair was more abstract than I’d seen her wear before, something between a slanted eye and a fish, with a comma shaped pupil or fin in the center.. The clothes looked new, and something in the look told me she was trying to change her look.
Which, as with many things Kenzie, left me simultaneously hopeful and worried.
I left them to it. I passed Natalie, murmuring my hello, and I approached Rain and Erin. Rain wore a heavy jacket and ripped up jeans that he’d rolled up at the bottoms to keep from treading on with his heavier boots. Erin had an overelaborate shawl-coat that wrapped around and draped over her more than it seemed to be zipped up. It left some openings and gaps in coverage, which was probably why she wore the heavier sweater with it. They were very different in style, rustic and hypermodern.
“We arrived early,” Rain said. “And By was here already, talking to her. We didn’t want to interrupt.”
“There’s a lot to talk about,” Erin said.
I studied Moonsong’s civilian self. Pretty, with a beauty mark by her eye, lined up enough with where her eyelashes ended that it looked like it had been drawn or tattooed on. Wavy black hair, earmuffs, and a nice coat with a velvety look, a straight black skirt to the knees below it, and higher boots. Classy aesthetic.
Byron seemed like someone with a good sense, things matched, everything fit nicely, his jacket was a simple woolen one that came down to the belt, jeans slim, and while he wasn’t athletic in build like Tristan, he was trim enough that he cut a fine line. But good sense aside, he wasn’t the kind of guy who paid attention to fashion. I didn’t imagine he looked at magazines, researched, or visited different stores. He probably had one or two stores he liked and picked a suitable, muted color, Victoria-couldn’t-find-much-fault-in-it kind of wardrobe from the selection there.
He was resting a hand on Moonsong’s shoulder, and he took her hand. She let him, but when he let go of it to shift how he sat on the backrest of the bench, she didn’t reach out. There wasn’t any point that I saw where she touched him. No hand on his leg, no leaning toward him so their arms touched. And she looked down.
“Poor Byron,” I thought, accidentally saying the thought aloud.
“What?” Rain asked. “Why poor Byron?”
“She’s breaking up with him,” Erin said.
“They’re not together,” he protested, voice insistent but hushed so it wouldn’t carry. “They haven’t been together for years. And how do you even know?”
“The way I understand it, from how they’ve acted in the past, and from what I’ve heard,” I said. “They’re not together, but for a while now there’s been… an enduring connection. The two of them waiting for each other. That’s what’s ending.”
“Yes,” Erin said. “Exactly.”
“That,” I told Rain, “Is a goodbye. Carefully negotiated, because they expect to run into each other a lot, they want to make sure there are no hard feelings.”
“No resentments,” Erin said. “Everything on the table.”
“Yes, Rain,” I said. “Pretty sure.”
“I was standing here satisfied because one of the two guys that’ve been most decent to me over the last little while was getting to finally spend some time with the girl he liked, and it’s been this awful thing all along?”
“Yes,” Erin said.
“No,” I said, almost at the same time. “I don’t think it’s awful.”
“He likes her a lot,” Rain said.
“Obviously it would be great if they could make it work,” I said.
“Ideally without her being shitty to Tristan,” Rain said. “But it was what I was hoping for.”
“You’re not wrong.” I leaned against the railing by the front steps of the temporary headquarters. “At least this way they get some closure. Not getting closure sucks.”
“Just watch,” Rain said. “He’ll finish up, come join us, and it won’t be a break-up.”
I raised my eyebrows, but I didn’t say anything.
Erin dusted off some of the snow that had accumulated on her. “I won’t get to find out. You’ll have to fill me in, Rain.”
“I should,” she said. To me, she said, “Had breakfast with Rain, ran some errands, and was keeping him company until everyone arrived. But I’ve got a thing with Lachlan.”
“How is he?”
“He’s not doing so well. He’s going through treatments to deprogram. It’s scary how easily some of these things can hit you, there’s no enduring it through willpower, there’s no taking cover, there’s no delay or chance to fight back. Just… there it is. Your mind is changed forever. And then fixing that takes years, if it’s even fixable.”
“Easy there,” Rain said.
“Easy? Oh. The Goddess thing, I didn’t even think. I’m sorry.”
“It’s not even that,” I said. “Something else.”
“I really put my foot in my mouth, then,” Erin replied, cringing.
“Nah,” I said. Hands in my coat pockets, I glanced back at Kenzie, Natalie and Ashley. Kenzie had her leg out, phone in hand, and every few seconds the pattern and colors on her tights would change. Natalie said something I couldn’t hear, commenting on the projected stocking design, apparently, and both Ashley and Kenzie began aggressively disagreeing with her. I cleared my throat, returning my focus to Erin. “Reality is, we thought there was no way around what was done to my head and my feelings. And we thought I’d be like that for the rest of my life. But things did get patched up in the end. I’m a little worse for wear, but I’m me again.”
“So don’t lose hope?” Rain asked, or stated.
I shrugged, looking at Erin. “There are options.”
“Good to know,” she said. “That cheers me up. I really like Lachlan. He’s sweet. He doesn’t deserve this.”
“He really doesn’t,” Rain said.
“Movie night, tomorrow or the day after,” Erin told Rain.
“Perfect. Great, yes,” he said.
“Good luck doing whatever you’re doing,” she said. “Bye Vic.”
I watched Rain watch Erin go.
“Hating Lachlan a bit right now?”
“It’s supposedly not romantic,” he said. “And I can’t hate him. He was good to me when very few people were. Brainwashed, though. That makes it count a little less. But… he’s a really good guy and Erin was supposed to marry him after I turned her down. They lined it up, and it never happened. But now his family and the therapists are trying to get him out of that brainwashed mode, and Erin’s someone he listens to, because she’s kind of but not really his fiancee.”
“Besides. Forget Lachlan, Erin’s still dealing with a lot. Testimony from some of the Fallen came out through the courts, they were pretty open about stuff they pulled. Manipulation, covering up crimes within the compound, some of the stuff they were up to were things that I would have thought even more extreme people like my aunt and uncle wouldn’t be happy with. Her parents are…”
He trailed off, floundering.
“Taking it hard?”
“No,” Rain said, quiet. “Not taking it at all. Refusing to listen, shrugging it off. Saying there’s a greater meaning. Doesn’t feel like the right time, even if I had the balls to say anything on the perfect opportunity.”
“Seems to me like she’s spending all her time taking care of others. Managing her parents, helping Lachlan-”
“Helping me,” Rain said. “Great. Now I feel guilty.”
“But she gets the movie nights, right?”
“That’s for me too. Catching me up on everything I missed by being the little boy who was raised off the grid. The classics according to Erin.”
I considered for a moment.
“Uhh, Sixteen Candles, Oil and Vinegar, Not So Sweet Seventeen, The Lovecats, Metropolitan Girl, Ring Finger, uh, the live action Peanuts with the actress from Sixteen Candles as the red haired girl, ummm…”
“I’m sensing a trend. I’m pretty sure that the movie selection is partially for her own benefit.”
“I hope so,” Rain said.
“Those seem like comfort films to me,” I said. “The kind of thing you watch over and over again.”
“We should get you up to date on films of other genres, sometime.”
“I’m up for anything. I want to get caught up in everything, and get to where I know movies well enough I can recommend something Erin will like, or… just have a conversation without feeling like I’m a step behind. I’m tired of always being the one who needs help.”
“We’ll see what we can do. If you want to help, I know Ashley needs you to look at her hand. Don’t let her forget or pretend she’s fine.”
“Oh, for sure,” he said, distracted because he was glancing Ashley’s way and simultaneously paying attention to Byron and Moonsong getting up off the bench.
The pair hugged, and I saw Rain make a little fist, as if hopeful.
No, Rain, I thought. No.
The pair approached, and as they did, Byron flipped his hood up. He became Tristan, and the distinction between details like jacket, jeans, and frame were subtle enough that only someone looking head-on at their face and the hair beneath that jacket hood would notice.
“Thanks for coming,” Moonsong addressed our group. Her smile looked a mite forced, and she looked very much like someone who had had a long, hard conversation with someone else. “Did you let them know you’re all here?”
“Do we have Sveta?” I asked.
“She’s inside,” Rain answered. “I don’t know if she saw you show up and told people, but she’d probably say hi if she did, right?”
“I’ll let them know,” Moonsong said. She paused. “Thanks for your patience, Tristan.”
“Yeah. No problem.”
She headed up the stairs. Tristan turned to Rain, eyebrows going up.
“Damn it,” Rain said.
“Sorry By,” Rain added.
“She’s pretty shaken up by what happened to her and her team,” Tristan said. “Re-evaluating. I won’t say anything more. Byron signaled he wanted to think for a bit.”
“But she’ll be here today?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Tristan said.
Sveta stepped out of the doors, though step was the wrong word. I was used to her moving with a bit of a stumble, rarely smooth or fluid, her mechanical body a constant balancing act, where every correction to reassert balance was a half-second to a second later than it might otherwise be. Not here. When she moved, it was more fluid than walking, with no bob of the head, only a natural flow forward. She wore her long gray patchwork coat, and a layered dress that just barely traced the ground. Her hands were ones that had been made by Rain, painted, and her hair was as styled as I’d seen it, with two thin braids looped around to the back of her head.
She beckoned for everyone to go inside.
I elbowed Rain, as everyone started forward.
“What?” he asked
“That’s you. You were being down on yourself, about how you always need help but never give it. But that’s the product of your and her efforts.”
“Yeah, maybe. More her than me,” he said.
“Punch him in the arm, will you, Tristan?” I asked.
I didn’t wait to see if he obeyed. I quickened my pace in heading over in Sveta’s direction. I floated and flew the last few steps, and gave her a hug.
“You look better rested than yesterday,” she said.
“A bit. I think Ashley felt bad for me, she made me breakfast.”
“Jealous. Weld tries, but I hate asking things of him, especially lately, when I don’t even have my body.”
Beneath her dress and coat, her body was unrestrained, not bound within a doll-like shell, and not bound by rings or loops. She was keeping it under control enough that the tendrils didn’t reach out, snap, or strike at the inside of the coat.
“You’re comfortable like this? Around people?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “No, I’m terrified. But that doesn’t have anything to do with ‘like this’. I could have a normal flesh and blood body, two arms, two legs, and be my old self again, and I’d be terrified every other minute that I’d accidentally kill someone.”
“I get that.”
“I know you do,” she said. She leaped forward and gave me a peck on the cheek. “I’m okay. Weirdly calm. Focused.”
“Are you keeping a journal? Like I suggested?”
“Yeah. You should see it though,” she said. “I have actual handwriting by the end.”
I reached to the back of her head, and leaned forward, gently bringing my forehead to rest against hers. Like we’d done at the Asylum. The only comfortable way of establishing contact with two people who weren’t freely able to move, one of whom was primarily made up of a face.
“I’m really happy I have that, at least,” she said. “I have arms, courtesy of Rain. They’re… not as good.”
“I know,” I said.
“But I have arms. And they feel like mine. And he’s trying to figure out how to emulate the skin that Ashley has over her hands.”
She smiled. “Come on. I feel better about this job than the last one.”
I made a face, but nodded. I followed her through the doors.
Inside, Moonsong talked to Anelace and Signal Fire. Behind them, Weld, Golem, and Vista were standing on the other side of a desk. Members of a Patrol I didn’t know stood by.
The floors were maple, lacquered, the walls stone and wood. the building was narrow, joined to the buildings on either side. Six paces cleared the width of the lobby, and maybe twelve covered the length. There were desks and booths for employees, rich wood and pretty, computers dark and phones silent, the employees absent. A stairwell at the back led to the upper floors, where business and meetings would be conducted, and a large semicircular window above that stairwell illuminated ninety-five percent of the space.
Three parahumans were bound, on their knees. A fourth was sedated.
I’d read the files. I’d seen the mugshot photos. They’d been given their masks back, and I was left to determine who was who by what they wore.
Two men, two women.
The larger and older of the men would be Drillbit. There were heroes who aspired to climb the ranks and achieve notoriety, and Drillbit was the inverse of that. Reputation didn’t matter and was something to be avoided and discouraged. He was street level and fought to stay street level, moving around to strike out and take down villains of the lowest rung. Somewhere along the line, he had developed a substance abuse problem. He’d targeted dealers to get a supply.
There was a woman who looked like she’d received plastic surgery enough times that things hadn’t held up. Her nose was too sharp and wasn’t straight anymore, her skin sagged by one eye. It was painful to see. That had all been pre-trigger. Her eyes locked on each of us in turn, pausing on me. She went by Sightly in the files.
Another woman was Copse. Woodlands huntress aesthetic, with an emphasis on fur and leather. She’d been a right hand woman for a powerful and obscenely wealthy animal parts trafficker and collector of trophies of endangered species once.
Happyland was the unconscious one. Young, by the looks of it, dressed in bright colors.
“We extricated the last of his victims?”
“Yes, we were careful. Called in a few thinkers and a breaker that could go in and out of that pocket,” Anelace said. “Hi Antares.”
“Hi ‘lace,” I said.
Happyland could push people into a pocket dimension where he was effectively god. Each person was allocated a small twelve-by-twelve-by-twelve foot square space, but whatever he desired, short of expanding the space, could appear or happen.
Kenzie was talking to a tinker. Ashley, standing by, raised a finger. Rain and Capricorn were still making their way in, filling each other in on their respective girl troubles, apparently.
“How are you holding up, little V?” I asked.
“Marveling at how well Sveta’s doing. I have a few other things to say, but they’re not for gentlemanly company.”
“Oh?” I asked. “Now I’m curious.”
“Too bad,” she said, grumping. Her heavy black eyeliner was visible through the green visor she wore, which let me see her eyes narrow. “Salacious details when we next hang out.”
“That’s doable,” I said. “But I hate unanswered questions.”
“Boys,” Vista said. “Weld, Golem, Anelace, Signal, cover your ears.”
“I’m going to walk away,” Signal Fire said.
Weld, Golem, and Anelace did oblige. Vista stepped closer, so it was her, me, and Sveta talking.
“The batshit bunny stabbed me, right? I telescope her sword, so it barely punches past my breastplate, she doesn’t realize. But it does punch through. I concentrate the point that’s supposed to explode into a smaller area and pull it away from me- screws up my breastplate. But that part that did stab me… can’t do anything about that.”
“I know this already,” I said.
“Filling in Sveta.”
“Thank you,” Sveta said. “Don’t feel you have to.”
“It’s fine. I’ve had three weeks of hospital visits and bandage changes, I’m grumpy, and grumping it out is cathartic, you’re giving me an excuse. So anyway, I did get stabbed, and with the angle, it scratches my tit. And that scratch blows up. Blew up pretty good, too.”
“It’s taken three weeks to mend, I got a good look today, and it’s another scar, and it’s going to be way worse than the scar I have on my other tit, from when Hookwolf pushed me away with a chainsaw hand. Fuck. Oh! I hope I’m not being insensitive-”
“No,” Sveta said, making a face. “No, that sounds ow.”
“For the record, it’s really, really jarring to hear you refer to your tits,” I said. “That tiny, small part of me still thinks about you as Vista the youngest Ward.”
“Fuck that. I earned my war wound, I get to bitch about it. I survived this long, I earned my right to swear and talk about tits and dicks, and how I just want to get my hands beneath one cute, unattainable guy’s heavy armor before I lose it.”
“Who? Golem?” Sveta asked, glancing to the side. Golem still had his hands to his ears.
“Once, kind of,” Vista said “But he’s been with his girlfriend since before he joined the Wardens. It’s a trend Victoria pointed out. Gallant, Golem, there was an old teammate who didn’t stick around. Your teammate, I met them…”
“Byron?” Sveta asked.
“Byron?” Vista asked.
“Capricorn,” I said.
“Is he the-” Vista made a gesture, inarticulate and random, distorting the air around her finger.
“I have no idea what that means,” I said. “But if you’re thinking of what I think you’re thinking of, you’re thinking of Tristan.”
“Then Byron is…”
“He has a girlfriend,” Sveta said. “But it’s a Romeo, Juliette thing, except situational, so they’re-”
“They’re not,” I cut in.
“What?” Sveta asked.
“Outside, just now,” I murmured. “They just broke off that undefined, waiting-for-each-other thing, I think. But we’re being mean to Weld and Anelace.”
“What’s he like?” Vista asked, while I motioned that Weld, Golem, and Anelace could put their hands down.
“Quiet,” Sveta said. “Thoughtful. He needs more people in his corner. Taking the high road, a lot of the time, it means you don’t have a corner.”
“And recently broken up,” I commented, under my breath.
“I overheard you talking high roads and no corner, and you’re reminding me of arguments I’ve had with Ava,” Golem commented.
“Don’t, no,” Vista pleaded. Her hand went to her breastplate. “You and her are so good together. Don’t spoil this.”
“We’re really good together,” Golem said, smiling. “Don’t worry. Arguments happen.”
Signal fire cleared his throat.
Impatient. He was from Advance Guard, and Advance Guard seemed to hold to this pattern of wanting to go. He was also, if I remembered right, one of Lookout’s trainers when she’d had a summer of Ward training camps. There had been issues.
We had business to conduct.
Everyone was here; for all our differences, and the schism between the two groups of heroes, we were able to cooperate like this.
We’d started out wanting at least one witness, but it had felt weird, and there hadn’t been enough to it.
By their files, I knew their deeds.
Drillbit had harmed himself enough with his addictions that he could no longer be trusted. The loop had repeated too many times. He wouldn’t get better and didn’t want to get better, and he would either engage in a cape fight while inebriated or drive inebriated on his way to or from a cape fight, and he couldn’t drive while brimming with enough chemicals to kill another man. He would get arrested, even cooperate sometimes, get pulled into jail, enter withdrawals, and break out, sometimes letting other prisoners free.
Without a place like the offworld prison Goddess’s attack had torn up, there was nowhere and no way to keep him. He was the one I felt worst about here.
Sightly’s power scarred people for life to make herself beautiful on a temporary basis. At her peak, she danced through combats, all grace and poise. At her valleys, when she was at her lowest point and more than a week without a victim, she manifested attack mutations. Raw strength, claws, and teeth in hidden places. Her track record of victims was almost enough on its own. Her recalcitrance when it came to getting help or seeking alternatives sealed the deal.
Copse’s master had no last-of-the-endangered-species to collect on this world, now that she was set up again. There were no rare animals, and so she had taken to sending Copse after people. Two of the three victims had had rare conditions, vitiligo and keratinous horns, and both had featured in a modeling shoot that portrayed the beauty in those conditions. The third had been a Case Fifty-three.
Copse’s master had collected them and kept them naked and contained in an open-to-the-sky garden prison, surrounded on four sides by manor, with windows looking in, so the master could always watch, treating them like zoo animals.
In the process of investigating and solving that whole situation, Foresight had found out that Copse’s master had ordered Copse to kidnap a son for her to ‘adopt’, five years ago.
The old woman had killed herself when the law caught up to her. Copse had been brought in. She was processed, taken before the courts for preliminary hearings, and given bond, which she paid. Less than twenty-four hours after release, she had been reaching out, pitching her resume, so to speak. Clear intent to recommit. Bond revoked, and… here she was.
And Happyland… simple enough. In our world he was a nobody, but he was a nobody who could snatch people up and disappear with them. They’d go to a pocket world of his where he had absolute power, and if and when they died, he left the bodies there, in a cell he never visited.
“We just going to do it in the lobby? I thought the box was upstairs,” Signal Fire said.
“It is,” Lookout said. “We can operate it by remote.”
“It’s weird to do it in the lobby,” Signal Fire said.
“Nobody around,” Ashley said.
“That’s just it. No judge, no magistrate, no court appointee. We have her, and I don’t even know who she is-”
He indicated Natalie.
“I’m nobody,” Natalie said. “I don’t matter here.”
Signal Fire looked dissatisfied.
“Right,” he finally said.
There was a tense silence. Gagged and bound, guns to their backs, the four prisoners knelt on the hardwood floor.
“Then… any objections?” Moonsong asked.
I’d already considered.
“Drillbit,” I said. “Doesn’t feel right.”
“He’s had five last chances,” Anelace said. “I get the feeling, but… what do we do?”
Signal Fire reached down, and he undid Drillbit’s gag.
“Death sentence?” Drillbit asked, his voice tight. He worked his mouth where it was sore from the gag.
“We’re sending you away. A world with nobody. You’ll be at least ten miles from the next person… but you should know anyone else that’s there… they were sent there because they were a problem.”
He looked so miserable, as he digested that. Face lined with hardship.
“It’s winter,’ he said.
“You go with a kit. Tent, food for a month, heating stove, supplies, tools.”
“You can make a promise,” Anelace said. “Convince us.”
“Can I?” Drillbit asked. “I can’t even convince myself.”
“Or if you want to articulate it better, Antares,” Anelace said.
I wasn’t sure what to say. I couldn’t even articulate just why this didn’t feel like it was the right move.
But I couldn’t think of an alternative move.
“Send me,” Drillbit said. “Don’t send any strong medications with me. It might be the only way I live out the rest of my life. I’ve hurt too many people.”
Kenzie nudged me, as a back-and-forth followed.
She had my new mask.
“You don’t have to stay,” I whispered to her. In case she was distracting herself from proceedings.
She shook her head.
I took my mask, and I tried it on. It covered my upper face, nose, cheekbones, eyes, brow. The projection clicked as it set into place. Lookout provided the hand-mirror.
“Antares?” Anelace asked. “Rule is, if any one of us objects to a prisoner being removed, we rescind it. And we have a pretty diverse set of people here. If this feels wrong, it feels wrong. But we need a decision.”
It was black, and faint lines and spires of gold traced a pattern across it. They would be faint beneath the shadow of my hood. The part over my lower face was some limited protection, but projected to be see-through. More projection was devoted to the image that covered the rather large eyeholes, that maximized peripheral vision.
They said justice was blind, but…
“Okay,” I said. “No objection.”
I saw Drillbit nod. He wasn’t gagged anymore, but there was no sound from him. No protest. If anything, he looked more at ease.
Not so, for the others. The two women grunted protests. Happyland slept, unaware.
No more objections.
Rain had the controller, and Rain was the one to hit the button, with Kenzie pulling his arm down to check settings before nodding.
The portal opened. A narrow, distorted doorway, in the lobby of the Wardens’ temporary headquarters.
“Happyland. Drug given, he should wake up in five with a hangover,” Anelace said. “Sent to spot H, for future reference.”
“Noted,” Signal Fire said, writing it down on a pad of paper that he’d laid on the unoccupied secretary’s desk.
Happyland was rolled through, and the portal closed. A moment later, it opened again.
“Copse. We are placing a tool in your hands. It should take you a few minutes to free yourself of your bindings.”
Copse fought every inch of the way. She ended up dropping her tool, and so the others kicked it through, where it disappeared into the grass.
“It’s three feet to your left,” the Patrol officer said.
Copse screamed through her gag.
The portal closed.
Sveta nodded, seemingly satisfied with it. Copse had kidnapped a Case-Fifty-Three. Let her master dehumanize him.
“Sent to spot I. Coordinates are in the logbooks.”
The next portal ripped open.
“Sightly. Are you going to cooperate? If you lose this tool, your life over there gets a hundred times harder.”
Sightly didn’t scream or fight. Officers seized her by the armpits. Her head hung, and tears streaked down.
“I’m putting the tool into your hand. Cut the wrist-bindings that way.”
She nodded. She was helped through, and turned around to stare at us with one eye slanted by the skin that didn’t sit right around it.
The portal ripped its way closed.
Drillbit lurched to his feet without help. His head hung like Sightly’s had. He didn’t cry. His gag was off, and he didn’t speak.
When the portal appeared, he walked through it. Someone had to stop him from going too far, passing him the tool because he’d been so quick to leave. The officer stood on the far side of the portal with Drillbit, by the little four-foot cube of packed up supplies we’d already deposited there.
Drillbit didn’t look back or do anything except nod to himself, tool clasped in his hand, as the portal roared shut.
“Wrote it in.”
“Patrol vans will leave as if they’re carrying the prisoners. Standard evasion, cover, shuffling the seashells approach. If there’s an attack, surrender immediately. This batch should be fine, I don’t think they had many friends.”
I exhaled, a heavy feeling in my stomach.
We’d chattered and chatted and talked drama and war wounds earlier, and now… now nothing.
Well, not quite. Kenzie was naturally the first to break silence, nudging me.
“You like it?”
It took me a second to process what she meant. I touched the mask and nodded. It worked.
“We should talk about pickup plans. Imp and Tattletale might be dropping me off sometimes- will that be okay? They want to coordinate.”
She was so casual. Her face was disguised, but it wasn’t smiling. Did she even get it? This?
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I’ve got that to look forward to.”
“We’ll talk about it after,” Swansong said. “Natalie will help broker any deals. Let’s go outside.”
Everyone filed out. Sveta went to Weld, Capricorn and Rain paired up. Moonsong hung back with Anelace. The Wardens murmured to one another.
It felt better, everyone being involved, making sure everyone agreed. The first few goes had been more rushed. A through G.
Natalie gave me a pat on the arm as she passed by.
“You okay with this?” I asked her. “Legally?”
“Legality doesn’t come anywhere near this,” she said. “It is what it is.”
“Is it?” I asked, quiet.
“A last resort, I think.”
“You didn’t have to come, you know. I think if… if I’d had a real choice, if I hadn’t helped set this in motion, I wouldn’t have. It would be easier.”
Almost everyone had filed out of the space, going upstairs or leaving by the front doors. Those that hadn’t that weren’t Natalie or me were by the doors.
“Would be,” Natalie agreed. “But I thought it was important that they have a witness.”