Breaking – 14.2

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What was the saying?  Three could keep a secret, if two of them were dead?

I wanted to have more faith in humanity than that.  Three could keep a secret, if everyone involved had balls or tits in a vise, or if their throats were directly on the line.

Problem was, we weren’t talking about three.  We weren’t even talking about a mere thirty.

Advance Guard had thirteen capes on its roster right now.  Foresight had nine.  The Shepherds, who’d kept to themselves and hadn’t interfered or been involved with Breakthrough or Breakthrough’s business nearly as much as the other two teams, had sixteen.  The Wardens had twenty-five.  Breakthrough had five to seven, depending on how Capricorn was counted and if we included Lookout.

And I wasn’t even counting the likes of Fume Hood, who had been looped in, or the Major Malfunctions, who by their own choice hadn’t.

Not everyone was in the loop.  Team leaders were making tough calls and leveraging their knowledge of the people on their rosters to decide if those people needed to be lied to, left in the dark, or told.

Every decision involved its own kind of stress, and I wasn’t thinking merely of stress of the emotional kind.  I was thinking of stress lines appearing across a metaphorical piece of metal.  Something solid, seemingly unshakable, that was being pushed just enough that the damage was leaking in.  Cracks formed, and those cracks threatened to become breaks.

The Wardens had expanded their headquarters over the last few days, and yet the number of capes that were housed within had increased by several factors.  Each team had made its individual calls on who to inform and who to leave in the dark.

There were capes in attendance who were too short-tempered, unreliable, or otherwise prone to break under stress to have out in the city.  There were capes who could, but who were sitting this one out, because they had other shit going on, or because the stress of it was too much.  Effervescent was one, and she’d been open about the reasons why: she had a substance abuse problem and acting like she’d been pushed to her limit put her at the cusp of a slippery slope.

It showed.  In expressions and in appearance, in how close capes sat to one another and how far they sat with personal space established.  It showed in body language, in arms folded, in tension, and in the tone of the chatter that I could hear but couldn’t decipher, or in their intent silence.

All to keep our ruse going.  We pretended to look more stressed than we were, more desperate.  We pretended we were more ready to pick fights, to turn to our coping mechanisms, or show evidence that our coping mechanisms had failed.

Some capes in attendance were only barely keeping their identities secret.  Two of the Shepherds were wearing clothes I wouldn’t have worn leaving the house: stretch yoga pants with patches where they were worn thin, and plaid sleep pants.  Both wore their masks, but the one with the plaid sleep pants hadn’t even brushed her hair.

I saw Victor- Brockton Bay native, named for his power, not because it was an actual name.  The costume had been changed so it didn’t have that bold red, black, bit-of-white color scheme, but he’d kept the name, I knew.  He was talking with one of Capricorn’s old teammates from Reach, and had his girlfriend with.  She seemed to be Gospel, an ex-member of one of the smaller religious teams.  Rune sat at the opposite corner of that collection of Shepherds.  She’d changed her name to Scribe, updated her costume by adding a brimmed hat and a crook-topped cane that she could use to write her symbols, but it was hard for me to not see her as Rune.

Two days ago, the pair of them had been outed.  Victor hadn’t really been hiding it, but he’d kind of been exposed to the public years ago, and had more or less dropped off the map for two years after that, long enough for most people to forget.  After they’d been revealed as ex-members of the Neo-Nazi gang back in Brockton Bay, Victor had been open about it.  He’d written a letter about his past life, his attempt to use the amnesty to be better, how he had someone close to him that inspired him to be better, he’d found God, he condemned everything about who & what he’d been, blah blah blah.  He’d still been a guy who had a history that was violent and stark enough to have records remaining after the end of the world, who’d done what he’d done when he was a full-fledged adult.  The letter had been an apology letter without an actual apology or trace of contrition.  I was kind of glad in a way that the public hadn’t really bought it, but his team was standing by him.

Rune, by contrast, hadn’t written any letter.  Her silence had been damning, and I suspected that if she hadn’t already been brought here to the Bunker and firmly asked to stay here, they would have enforced it then.  She was benched, and she had no friends for the time being.  Nobody to talk to her.

Cracks.

Our last arrivals were trickling in.  Capricorn sat on a table next to me, strapping on his armor while Sveta provided a hand as needed, to hold things in place or hold straps out ready for Byron to grab them.  Ashley had set aside her coat.  Rain had stepped over to a storage area to switch over to a proper costume.

I remained much as I was.  No secret identity to protect, and I was comfortable as-was.

Gundeck and Solarstare entered, with Rain among the half-dozen people who were right behind them.  Gundeck was a big guy, loaded down with his weapons, but even though his power left him able and ready to carry a whole arsenal with him without buckling, he moved like a burdened man.

He’d apparently promised his family he was out of the game after Gold Morning.  At the same time, he was leading a double life.  They’d found out in the midst of all of… this.  I wasn’t sure how much was Teacher and how much was that he’d shifted his priorities to more… I didn’t want to say important things, but the ramifications of what we were doing were important.

More cracks.  If not an outright break.  He really didn’t look so hot, and I could only see his general body language and the twenty percent of him that his costume didn’t cover up.

Rain was in costume, with a silvery-white hood and upper body to the costume, a glowing crack running through one of the eyes of his gunmetal mask and down to the edge near the cheek.  His mechanical forearms and hands, attached at the elbow, were smaller than his ordinary hands but still five fingered and dextrous, colored the same way as his mask, with finer glowing cracks running along them.  The lower body of the costume didn’t hug him, but it wasn’t quite ‘pants’ either.  Silvery-white panels, some devices and weapons, and decorative tinker attachments contrasted the darker material.  More of the decorative attachments joined the fabric to his metal boots, and bridged the divide between the upper and lower half of the costume.

In my opinion, he’d graduated from a thrown-together costume that didn’t do anything explicitly wrong, but didn’t do anything explicitly right either, to something that looked good.

More came down from upstairs.  The floor above us was still partially under construction, but they’d been hanging out.  Egg, Engel and Scraping were staying here to stay safe from Teacher, and were finding friends, because Engel at the very least was the kind of person that people were drawn to.

Engel and Egg found a place in the crowd near the Shepherds.  They looked our way, and Engel stared at Sveta, hard.

Sveta, for her part, kept her eyes toward the front of the room, avoiding any interaction with the glowing, sense-scrambling Engel.

The influx of people saw the crowd shift.  The way the crowds were organized, each team had sort of gathered with its most familiar allies nearby.  Small teams stuck to the big teams that they tended to work with, which put some of the smaller religious teams I didn’t know in the Shepherd’s orbit, Navigators and Kings of the Hill closer to Advance Guard, and Foresight had… not many.  Auzure was close to them but not close enough for them to talk among themselves.  We were close, and we’d exchanged hellos, so maybe Breakthrough counted.  They were on the best terms with the Wardens, though, which counted for something.

With the people finding their places, Gundeck and Solarstare stepping up to the front of the room, Rain joining Breakthrough, and others finding their respective teams, some were squeezed out.  Vista widened the gap to slip between people, which seemed to take some effort, and then ducked into the space between me, the wall, and a table.

“Thank you for coming in,” Cinereal addressed the room.  “Tensions with one of the border worlds demands the attention of some of the Warden leadership, so I’ll be handling this meeting today.  Those of you that know me know I’m strictly business.  I won’t mince words, I won’t give you context that doesn’t matter, so pay attention.”

For the most part, the way the PRT, Protectorate and Wards programs had been run had been a closed-doors thing.  The public didn’t tend to hear that so-and-so was a good boss or that one PRT director in one city was a stickler for routine.  At best, those without boyfriends in the Wards would know that one newly appointed PRT director had a history of being a politician in a cape-heavy area, or they’d been FBI, or they’d risen up from the ranks of being a PRT squaddie or investigator.  When it came to Protectorate or Wards, similar thing.  Guesswork and whatever they decided to reveal.

But Cinereal stood out.  Atlanta was something like one thousand three hundred miles from Brockton Bay, but we’d heard about what a hardass Cinereal was.

She faced the room without flinching, with several capes, mostly Foresight, arranged in front of her, also facing us.  Crystalclear was among them, as was Effervescent.

Tattletale didn’t form the lineup, but she sat near the back, amid the Wardens, her eyes scanning the room.

“We’re close,” she said.  “We want at least two more entry points, ideally three, and with some help we’re getting there.  One day, maybe two, then we move.  We’re handling that and we’re holding off some of the big dangers, like war and the Machine Army.  Your job, each and every one of you, is to maintain and support the peace.  If the best way you can do that is to stay out of everyone else’s way, then do that.”

Ashley gave me a look over her shoulder, her head tilting with the motion.  It made the projection of smoke spill down from her eyes and bounce off her shoulder.

Sitting on the table, Byron tugged at his straps, fixing on the last pieces of his armor.  He tugged again, then twisted around, trying to see what he was doing.

They weren’t the only signs of restlessness around the room.  I suspected a lot of people here had hoped to hear something closer to a timeline of hours, not days.

“There are two ongoing wars between villain factions in two locations,” Cinereal said.  “The first is between Semiramis, Little Midas, and Bluestocking, Earth N.  The Wardens and Foresight have discussed it and we would like to push for a stable alliance between Bluestocking and Semiramis.  For those of you who don’t know, these are behind-the-scenes operators who are stepping in to fill a void after Marquis has left for Shin and Lord of Loss was arrested.  Auzure, you have a working relationship with Semiramis.”

“We do,” Lark said.

“You’re up to date on who these individual faction leaders are, and what they represent?”

“We are.”

“Talk to Semiramis, then.  See what it would take, and broker a peace with Bluestocking.  Offer assistance in taking down Midas.”

“We can try.”

“We need better than try.  We need success.  All three parties know about Teacher and we need that handled.  We want Midas arrested and at least temporarily shuttled to our prison world, and we want Bluestocking and Semiramis cooperating with each other and with us.”

“We’ll manage it.  Can we bring in others if we need help with the actual handling and takedown?”

“Yes.  Talk to the Wardens if you need help organizing that,” Cinereal said.  She got a nod from Lark and moved on, addressing the rest of us, “The second war is over the portal-wracked areas in the heart of the city.  Those of you who are more used to working over there will recognize the names.  Deader and Goner operate from a corner world much as we’re operating from the Bunker.  Barrow is a corner world, in a manner of speaking.  The Lords of the Pit have the villains of the Pitstop under their thumb.  We think the best use of resources would be to put Advance Guard on this.”

“We’ve already been preparing to handle it,” was Mayday’s response.  “While I have the floor, I also want to say we’re taking the last steps to fold the Kings of the Hill into Advance Guard.  If you’re looking for them, it’s best to go through us.”

The fox and the hound, Foxtrot and Houndstooth, raised their hands.  Dangerous mischievousness and stoic seriousness, respectively.

“Good.  Consolidation helps.  We are very curious and very interested as to whether any of the other corner worlds are shielded from Teacher’s eye.  If possible, we’d like to talk to Barrow and to have Deader and Goner in custody for interviewing.”

“We’ll make it happen.”

“If you can’t, at least distract them.

“Shepherds, we want you at the east end of the city.  Boston, periphery of New Brockton.  You have the numbers and organization to do it.”

Moonsong answered, “We talked informally with Legend about it last night, I told him I had reservations, and he seemed understanding.  Things feel fragile right now and if we split up too much or stop maintaining a lot of face to face contact, that leaves us weak.”

“We need all bases covered for one day.  Perhaps two.  There’s-”

Cinereal, in her ash-gray costume with a bird motif, feathers weaving together and criss-crossing along the length of her robe and at the edges of her mask, turned her head as some members of her frontline of thinkers broke ranks.  Crystalclear had stepped away first, going to talk to Effervescent.  Tattletale hopped down from her perch of a stack of chairs and joined them.  Countenance, Foresight’s team leader, joined them to make it a group of four.

“Is there a problem?” Cinereal asked.

“Nothing confirmed,” Countenance said.  “We’ll take some people upstairs to talk, if that’s okay?”

Cinereal nodded, gesturing for them to go.

The thinkers rounded up a few members of one of Advance Guard’s tertiary groups.  People I didn’t recognize.  After a short pause, they also gathered up two members of one of the Shepherd’s teams.

All were escorted upstairs.

“One or two days, Moonsong.  Knock down the nails that stick up.  Keep any villains from getting cocky, keep any big incidents at bay.”

Moonsong looked surprisingly stressed out by the notion of having to distribute her team across several areas of the city.  I’d have to ask Byron, who was staring at Moonsong, while absently adjusting his armor.

The armor- I turned to look.  The straps that he’d been tightening for the last forever dangled off the side of the table and down to the floor.

I turned to Vista, who was smiling to herself, and I elbowed her, which set her off, in a fit of soundless, supressed laughter.

Byron noticed, and then noticed the straps.  He gave Vista a push on the shoulder.

“Breakthrough,” Cinereal said.

All at once, we were at attention.

“You’re missing a member,” she said.

“Lookout is part of a new team now.  We support her and she acts as an adjunct teammate, but officially she’s part of a new kids-only team.  They’re on a job handling a kidnapping.”

“We hoped to talk to her about security and protocols.”

“We can let her know and send her your way.”

“Good. We would like you to handle some of the rising anti-parahuman sentiment.  It’s been simmering for a while now and we think it’s going to boil over.”

“Assessing our abilities and where we stand in the big picture, I’m worried we’re not the best choice for that task.”

“You may be the best we have.  We would have sent Legend and some other Wardens, but current events have forced us to refocus.”

“Could I suggest that we help out the Shepherds, and the Shepherds send their best front-facing capes to handle this?”

“The Shepherds are mired in scandal that’s about to get worse.  I won’t say more on that subject.  We feel that if they get some concrete victories, this will help.  You, meanwhile, have been involved in this exercise from the start, we want to keep you close to the bunker and available in case we need to act, and like it or not, your appearance on Hard Boil made you visible to the civilian side.  Your voices explained things that they had wanted to know.  You opened a dialogue, now use it.”

Her voice was hard, brooked no nonsense, and struck a tone where I felt like anything I said, one way or another, would make me look and feel like a petulant child.

“Got it,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  She turned her head, then pointed across the room at Tattletale, who had apparently just come down the stairs.

“Three moles,” Tattletale said.  “The others are figuring out when and for how much, but I can tell you right now that they’re new, they weren’t moles before, so they didn’t know much.  He doesn’t know anything about what we’re aiming to pull, yet, or he’d be acting differently.”

“Just the three?”

“So far,” Tattletale said.  She grinned, even though what she’d said was chilling, not funny.  It wasn’t a Kenzie thing either.  She was just way too fond of her own wit sometimes.

“If you try, you will be caught,” Cinereal addressed the assembly.  “It’s not worth it.”

Tattletale went back upstairs.

Cinereal paused, her eyes searching the room, as if she could see the traitors or informants in our ranks, who might tip off Teacher and spoil everything.

We were out of the limelight, in any event.  Byron was trying to fix his straps and looking a little bewildered as he tried to figure out which parts had stretched out.  Vista helped by contracting it back to its normal length, moving her hand to indicate.

I bumped her elbow with mine, moving her hand closer.  Byron noticed the moved hand, looked up, and moved his arm close enough that Vista could touch the straps.

She fiddled for a second, pulled the straps tight, then gave his arm a pat.

“Thanks,” he whispered.

“It was my fault anyhow,” Vista whispered, before turning her full focus to Cinereal.

Not her full focus.  Her hand reached past my coat for my side, thumbnail poking through my shirt to my stomach, fingernails at my back.  A claw of revenge, for forcing her hand.

Entirely undeserved.  If she’d embarrassed herself because I’d pushed her, I’d feel like shit and I’d deserve the revenge claw.  But she hadn’t.  We needed the bright moments, against such a grim backdrop, and we couldn’t take or maintain those moments so long as we had our greater deception.  A secret kept by, if I was counting right, seventy-two people in this building right now.

Cinereal continued, “Clip Kidz, we have a special errand for you, if you’re willing and if your guardians are willing to sign off.  We will pay, but we need you to take on a mission that we know will fail, because it’s important that Teacher thinks we’re putting up some resistance.   If you’ll stay after? Thank you.  For the other smaller teams, you’ll be running errands for us or supporting the larger squads.   One of those squads is us, because we anticipate an attack on the Bunker by Teacher once he realizes what we’re doing…”

She went on.  It hardly mattered.  To one in three of us, it felt like busywork, meant to bide time while the Wardens figured out where they could access or crack open portals to Teacher’s realm.  Those in that group wanted to move now.  Forget the extra portals, just send more people through the four or so that we had.  They were restless.  For many of them, the other shoe hadn’t dropped yet.  Every hour that Teacher was left to his own devices, their secrets and relationships all hung in the balance.

To another one in three of us, I was pretty sure, it felt like a doomed proposition.  That the attack on Teacher’s base would be hard, and resources we were committing or spending now would be resources we didn’t have against Teacher.  Or at least, we wouldn’t have at full readiness and capacity.  It was necessary to keep up the act, but ugh.  That group would be the quiet ones, the ones who were chin up and shoulders square today, but who dreaded tomorrow.  For many of them, secrets had already been spilled.  They’d felt Teacher’s hand and the associated hopelessness.

And to the last group, one I subscribed to, both were true.  It felt like the Wardens knew the attack would be devastating.  It felt like they were being safe, distracting us, preoccupying us.

Not chin-up, not shoulders-square, not restless either.  Just… dealing with a sinking feeling in our guts.  I was certain that nine out of ten of us had come to this meeting hoping to get the order, the news that we’d be attacking in a few hours.  It was too hard to believe that things would be easier or better tomorrow.

But we’d wait, we’d lie, and we’d confront the worst sides of ourselves, while trying to convince ourselves that we weren’t playing into the asshole’s plan by doing so.

The worst of ourselves.  I hadn’t expected a crowd.

“What the hell do we even do about this?” Rain asked.  “Christ.”

The swearing was a nice touch.  In figuring out how to present the best picture for our would-be attackers, we’d started talking to each other about our tendencies and habits when stressed, reminding one another, or pointing out things we did that we weren’t even aware of.  I’d told Rain he amped up the religious swears when the stress was at its highest.

We stood on a rooftop, looking down at the scene.  A single street was littered with people from one intersection to the next.  They weren’t shoulder to shoulder, but they were close enough that people had to weave and made it about ten steps before they had to ‘excuse me’ their way through.  Most of the focus was around a single place, a bookstore, and the building interior was packed, with employees wearing store colors beneath jackets that weren’t store-branded, keeping too many people from making their way inside.

The people who weren’t indoors were watching through the store window.  Though it was cold and the snow came down in thick wet bullets halfway between raindrop and snowflake, the crowd was more interested in watching than in seeking shelter.  Large screens displayed the video feed from the inside.

I’d expected signs and angry cries.  Instead, they were book readers.  They were silent, intently focused on what was going on.

“You and Vista were getting chummy,” Rain said.

At first I thought he meant me.  Then I saw him looking at Byron.

“She pranked me good.  My head wasn’t anywhere near my armor, I was thinking a clasp was broken and it kept loosening.”

“She’s pretty cool,” Rain said.  “Y’know?”

A little blunt there, Rain.

“She is,” Byron said.  He glanced at me.

“No question.  If the world had more Vistas, it’d be a better place.”

“You should talk to her more,” Rain said.  “Ask her out or something.”

So damn blunt.  You’re going to scare him off.

“Nah,” Byron said.  “I shouldn’t.  Wouldn’t be nice.  I think ‘girl I’d want to spend the rest of my life with’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think ‘attractive girl’ and I think of Moonsong.  I think of girls I might take home for the Christmas holiday and I think of Moonsong taking off her coat in the entryway.  It wouldn’t be fair to anyone, if I wasn’t totally over Moon.”

“Oh!” Sveta said.  “This is a good opportunity.”

“What?” Byron asked.  “For what?”

“That device Kenzie made, so whichever one of you two was stowed away could talk.”

“She’s working on the final touches, she said.”

“Nope!”  Sveta said.  She reached into her pocket, withdrawing a supiciously phone-like container.  “Ta-da.”

“That’s your phone,” Ashley said, deadpan.

“It’s built into the phone case, but it’s not a phone.  See?  I turn it on, press it to Byron’s arm…”

Byron stuck his arm out.

Sveta leaned in close to the phone, tilting her head to put her ear near it.  Then she switched to a deep voice, “Beep, boop, boop.  Test, test, I’m Tristan, and after hearing Byron say all that, I might actually manage to throw up in this extradimensional space, it’s going to make such a mess, and I’ll never be able to clean it up.”

Byron dropped his arm, moving it away from the phone.  He blurred, shifting over to Tristan.

“It works,” Tristan said, in the dullest, most unsuprised, unexcited tone he could manage.  “Also, after hearing Byron get mushy over Moonsong, I might throw up.  Good thing I’m not in an extradimensional space as I do it.”

“See?  It’s amazing,” Sveta said.  “Good work, Lookout.”

Her phone illuminated, showing a new text.  A thumbs-up icon.

“In all seriousness, though, the way things are right now, don’t speak for me, don’t put words in my mouth,” Tristan said.  There was a tone to how he said it that made Sveta take a step back.

“Sorry,” she said.  Then, like that wasn’t enough, but she couldn’t think of what else to say, she said, “sorry.”

“Are there any boys you’re ga-ga over?” Ashley asked, sounding very much like the words ga-ga shouldn’t have ever left her lips.  Her expression reflected a similar sentiment.

“What the fuck am I going to do with boys?” Tristan asked.  “I can’t do anything.  We can’t act, we can’t get the Wardens to take us seriously.  They assigned us this garbage watch-the-people-at-a-bookstore job.  Which would be bad enough, but I’ve got Sveta putting words in my mouth-”

“I said sorry.”

“And I swear I’m going to lose my mind.”

“Maybe you should switch out, cool down?” Rain asked.  “It’s Byron’s turn anyway.”

“Fuck him,” Tristan said.  Metal clicked against metal as he settled in, arms crossed, looking down over the roof’s edge.

Tristan was signaling – left foot planted a bit ahead of the right foot.  The signal had been Rain’s idea, with either arms being folded or footing being our cue to one another that we were playing a part.  That we weren’t really upset.

Still, it was spooky to go there, to see backlash and hear friendly voices sound so unfriendly.

My hands in my coat pockets, I looked down from the roof’s edge.

A narrow woman with short black hair shot through with gray was speaking, face displayed on the screens.  I recognized her but couldn’t place the name.  I was so bad with non-parahuman names.

“What’s her name?” I asked, to change the subject.  “Woman in the window.”

“She wrote a book, didn’t she?” Rain asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.  “I read it, but I forget the name.”

“What’s the book?” I asked.

“Deconstructing power,” Ashley said.  “I like deconstructing things-”

She made an intentional spark with her power, a flicker of shadow twice the size of the flame a lighter might’ve made, and loud enough I worried heads on the ground five floors below us might turn our way.

“-and I like power.  It was fine.  Wasn’t a very good deconstruction or look at power, I think.”

“It’s apparently made the author popular,” Byron observed.

“Other person on the screen,” Rain said.  “Gary Nieves.”

“Ex-candidate for mayor,” I noted.

“He’s been a voice surrounding this general sentiment,” Rain said.

“Paying attention, huh?” I asked.

Rain nodded.  He turned his head slowly, glowing eyes of his mask surveying the crowd.  “I like paying attention to what ideas are taking hold and how.  Makes me feel more secure, like I won’t be blindsided by that stuff again.”

Speakers planted outside the bookstore that was hosting the informal presentation, dialogue, or debate had Gary Nieves’ voice now, distinct from the woman’s.

The crowd was reacting.  Little by little, step by step, they were being hyped.  Finding courage.

“What’s he saying?” Byron asked.

“I don’t know, but I want to know,” I answered.

“Let me,” Sveta said.  “I can go incognito.”

She pulled off her mask, then pressed it to her stomach.  Skin pulled away in strips, and then fat, muscle, and other structures were their own layers.  All the organs were there, but as necessary parts were pulled away, the organs went still, shriveling, moisture sucked into other surrounding spaces.

The mask was wrapped up  by the strips, then drawn into her stomach.  Strips then fell back into their natural order, with one or two misfires before something tidy was managed.  Only a slight bump suggested the mask’s presence.

Then, more dramatically, she did the same with the remainder of her costume.  The costume was salvaged from her damaged prosthetic body, forming armor that she wore with curling, wavy components to it, all painted either in a dramatic fashion with bright reds, yellows, and oranges, or in deep, cold greens and blues.

It took her some doing, to pull in the armor and wrap herself around it.  There were places it protruded through the skin, but it was set deep enough inside her that that when she pulled her coat out of her bag and pulled it on over everything, her silhouette was normal.

“Pretty cool,” Byron said.

“It’s uncomfortable.  I’m going to head down.”

She made her way down the side of the building, strips of her being helping her down, more appearing as she needed them to seize handholds.  The rain had settled in part, but the snow still came down hard.

My phone rang.  I put it on speaker.

“Woman named… Reidleigh Darleet is talking.  She’s the author,” Sveta reported.  “They’re talking about the amnesty.  Violent capes getting a pass.  The Drenched.  Valkyrie.  A… bunch of villain names I’m not sure I heard about.”

“Me,” Swansong said.

“Didn’t come up,” Sveta said.

“I’m offended by that,” Swansong said.  “I’d be offended if I were named, but being ignored is worse.”

“I think I’m okay with you not being named,” I told her.  “Earn your reputation as Swansong, don’t lean on what you did as Damsel.”

“I’m both,” she told me.  “All three.  Who I was, who I am, and who I want to be.”

“I guess don’t let one happen at the cost of the other two.”

“I’ll do that as soon as you take your own advice,” she told me, archly.

“Woah, hold up,” I said, my voice overlapping with Tristan’s, who’d said something similar.  “Dial it down.”

“Hmph.”

Her footing was right, at least.  Fuck me, though, we needed a middle ground that wasn’t her ranting at people on a train and murdering teammates with words.  She was so good at wearing this latent hostility that it spooked me a bit.

“Shitty thing is,” Tristan said.  “I think my parents would attend a group like this.  Powers fucked all our lives up.  They’re not exactly shaking the pom-poms.  Especially not for me.”

“Bitch at us when you don’t have any parents, like Sveta,” Swansong said.  “When you’ve killed them by your own hand, like I did, or when you’ve smeared your mom’s head across concrete, like Victoria did.”

My blood ran cold.

Ashley met my eyes, and there was nothing there.  Cold, emotionless, unflinching.

“Not fair,” I said.

“Cries for fairness are the loser’s prerogative.  Don’t be a loser, Antares.”

Fuck me.  I’d need to have a chat with her, because that hit a little too close to uncomfortable territory, tracing a ways back to a basketball game.

Tristan spoke up, “I’m not trying to one-up anyone, I’m saying it sucks.  It doesn’t have to suck the most to count.”

“If Cryptid were here, he’d have a good immature joke about sucking the most,” Rain observed.  “I miss Cryptid.  How fucked up is it that I miss Cryptid?”

“Very,” I said, at the same time Swansong said, “Exceedingly.”

“Alright,” Rain said, a little defeated.  “He was alright company sometimes.”

“Guys,” Tristan pointed down at the street below.

On the monitor was a grainy gray image, like one from a security camera.  The figure in it was unmistakably Ashley, Hollow Point era.

“Guys,” Sveta said, over the phone.  “I don’t know if you see-”

“We see,” I said.

“But it’s Swansong.  They didn’t mention her earlier because they’re using her as one illustration of their bigger point.  Trying to get people upset.  They’re talking about her place being provided for her, about support, how she abused amnesty when others didn’t get a shot…”

Swansong was shaking her head.

“We can deal with this,” I said.

Swansong’s answer to my statement was to step off the edge of the roof.

Shit.

Shit.

I followed her off the edge.  I flew down to make  up for the second or two I’d taken to process implications, then veered off as I saw her move her hands into position, one a little too close to me for comfort.  I didn’t want to get clipped by a lazy blast.

She blasted once to break the momentum of her fall, twisted in the air, and blasted again to reorient.  Her boot skidded on sidewalk covered in salt and gravel.

“We don’t get anything by doing this,” I said, as I put myself in her way.  I was aware members of the crowd were watching.   Behind me, the crowd parted, getting out of Swansong’s way, even though she’d stopped in her tracks.

Tristan was drawing out orange motes.  They solidified into a pole.  He slid down, controlling his descent with both feet and one hand at the pole, one hand on Rain’s shoulder.  The pole broke, and when it did, Rain stopped in mid-air.  With his grip on Rain’s shoulder, Tristan stopped too.

Together, they stopped once more on the way to the ground, landing heavily.

Sveta hung back, with the crowd.  Probably a good thing, because she wasn’t costumed and she passed for ordinary.  She could do things from that angle that the rest of us couldn’t.

“We don’t get anything by hanging back and watching,” Swansong said.  “Let’s open a dialogue.”

“You need to say that last bit without flexing your hands,” I murmured.  I glanced down at her feet.  She was putting on a show.

I was really, really worried that the show would bleed over into reality.  This really wasn’t the time to play with fire.  It made things more authentic, I was sure, but it was also playing with a really fucking volatile situation.

“Maybe you need to go,” I told her, my voice low.  “Let the rest of us handle it.”

“It’s about me.  It’s relevant to me.  My reputation.  They’re saying I was subservient, lesser, groveling for handouts.  I earned my money.  You don’t know me, you don’t know the answers to the questions.”

“I know you might do something you regret here.”

“I don’t play second fiddle, and I don’t bow down or back down.  At worst, I’m a partner.”

“Be a partner then.  Listen to what your teammate is saying.”

She set her jaw, knuckles cracking as she clenched her fist.

Rain and Capricorn caught up with us.

“I’ll let you take the lead,” Swansong said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“But we have to go,” she said.

The crowd had backed away, and in doing so, they’d opened a more or less clear path to the door.

I looked at Tristan.

“Yeah,” he said.  “We might as well engage them somehow.”

They’d moved on from Swansong, talking about others.  We approached the door, and the voices that came from speakers while we were outside became voices from speakers inside, resonating as they bounced off of bookshelves, walls, and ceiling.

I’d dealt with too many racists back in Brockton Bay to be optimistic about dealing with bigots of another stripe.  I could use the minute we had here, while they finished their segment on a villain from the west end of the city, and I could try to figure out what my arguments were.

I didn’t have any.

“For those of you who don’t have a vantage point to see,” Mrs. Darleet said, her voice smooth, one that made me think she’d practiced it over radio.  “Swansong , who we were just talking about, has graced us with her presence.”

Swansong swished her dress with one hand and swept a hand in front of her as she curtsied.

“Along with three others,” Gary Nieves said.  “All in costume.  Naturally intimidating.”

“Naturally,” Swansong said.

“No,” I said.  “That’s not our intent.”

“It’s the result, isn’t it?” Gary asked.

“It is.  Unfortunately, it is,” I answered.

“If intimidating us into silence isn’t the intent, then what is?” Gary asked.

“Clarifying facts,” I told him.  “Swansong wanted to clear her name, I think.  I and my companions wanted information, though we kind of planned to wait until all was done.”

Although I’m worried you might have started a riot or provoked something if you’d gone on too long.

“Clear your name?  You didn’t benefit from the amnesty, Swansong?”

“I did.  But I was on thin ice.  When I killed a killer that ice broke.  I accepted my punishment.”

“You admitted to the charges and punishment, so I can skip my second question.  Funny, that you admitted to murder, and yet you’re still here.”

“The prison is gone.  I’m doing my part by cooperating and helping to permanently remove villains,” Swansong answered.  “There’s no place to put me and they don’t consider me a priority.”

“An admitted killer isn’t a priority.”

“Seems not,” Swansong said.

“Gary,” I said.  “If you want, we look into giving you an inside look at the process.  Obviously we can’t let you talk about details, because the villains could use that, but you’d be free to agree, say the idea is flawed, say it’s inhumane, even-”

“Can it be inhumane if you aren’t human?” Gary Nieves asked.

“I think it can,” I said.

“I’m noticing you didn’t protest and say you were human,” Gary pointed out.

The reality was that I wasn’t sure if I really could say parahumans were human, exactly.  Too many structures went out the window.  Humans were social animals and parahumans were so often solitary, banding together by necessity and circumstance, but not by gravity and natural bonding, like humans seemed so able to do.

“I think my energy is better spent on other arguments,” I told him.  “Whatever you want to call us, we think, we feel, we have ties to loved ones.  Introduce humanity to an alien race from another planet with all of those qualities and I’d protest any cruelty or injustice turned their way.”

“She would,” Rain said.  “She’s a natural hero.”

Thank you, Rain, but it’s best to stay quiet, I thought, as I met his eyes and shot him a tight smile, I willed him to absorb the intensity of the thought.  If they turn on you or point fingers at you, this all gets messy.

“And I don’t think we’re that alien,” I added.

“Putting questions of cruelty and the inhumane aside, can you really say it’s fair, if Parahumans like Swansong get preferential treatment?  If people are dying out in the cold while a girl who got lucky gets her choice of apartments?”

“It’s-”

“It’s a tired old falsehood,” Swansong said.  “I’m no slave, I’m no servant.  I’m not an animal with my apartment as my pen to keep me contained.  They had questions, I was in a unique place to answer them.  I died, I came back.  I remembered things.  When I dream, I dream of other mes.  The labs were interested.”

“When the world ended, we wanted answers,” Tristan said.  “She was getting paid to help provide them.  Enough to pay for an apartment.  She’s working for the heroes and she’s doing so with the okay of the mayor.”

“The mayor,” Gary Nieves said.

I had a bad feeling.

“Do me a favor, Vince?  Open up my second set of slides.  Then go to slide… sixty-eight, I think it was,” Gary told the guy who was managing the slideshow that went with the talking heads on the screens outside.

Slide sixty-eight wasn’t the mayor.  It was Amy.  It was Cryptid, as some polished, gaunt figure that was so tall that Amy’s head only came to his elbow.  Marquis stood off to the side.  Other parahumans in fine clothing and costumes were arrayed around them.  A photo.

“No, wrong slide, that’s Earth Shin,” Gary said.  “Go forward.”

The next slide was a digital photo of Cheit leadership, in their long suit-jackets and straight-leg slacks, walking with sandals on in weather too wet and chilly for it.  The right half of the image had a zoomed-in version of one of their arms, where skin could be seen through the cuff.  The man had a vein running along the back that glowed like white hot metal.

“No, that’s Earth Cheit,” Gary said.  “Next.”

A candid photo.  Marquis and Lord of Loss on the rooftop of the Lodge.

“That’s Earth Nun,” Gary said.

“We get your point,” Tristan said.  “And that’s outdated.”

Being right doesn’t mean he’s wrong, I thought.

“Outdated?  So humans are in charge now?” Gary asked.

Tristan shook his head.

“Good enough for my point that you say you’ve already grasped,” Gary said.  “Next?”

The mayor, side by side with an image of Citrine from the Brockton Bay era, pre-Gold Morning.

The room filled with murmurs.

“Tell me again how the mayor signing off on your activities is okay.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with secret after secret, lie after lie, coverup after coverup.  With people wearing masks while leading double lives.  Tell me how we’re supposed to be okay with the fact that every single world we’re in regular contact with, our world included, is under the thumb of parahumans, openly, otherwise, or currently undergoing a transfer of leadership between powers.”

Amy.  The thought made my thoughts skip beats, turned mental connections into dead ends.

Yeah.  Fucking thanks, Cinereal.

Gary had been ready, waiting for someone to take a stand or speak up, to drop this.  He’d planned to drop them as attention-grabbers late in this specific event, or he’d been holding them in reserve for when he was challenged, quietly changing minds and turning hearts away from capes in the meantime.

This was more serious than we’d been led to believe.  Gary was armed with all the damning information.

“You’re right,” Rain said.

I turned his way, caught off guard.  I wasn’t the only one.

“It’s not okay.  This whole dynamic is- Jesus, it’s fucked.”

I was betting that ‘Jesus’ wasn’t because of my tip to him.  It came from his stress, speaking in front of so many eyes.

Rain looked to me, to the others for support.

I nodded.  Swansong didn’t move, holding her head high.  Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder.

The crowd was talking among themselves, and Gary seemed to be waiting for them to drop in volume before responding, visibly forming his response.

Rain didn’t wait.  Rain went ahead, and people shut up because they wanted to hear him.

“You’re absolutely, totally right,” Rain said, visibly agitated with the public speaking, being in the limelight.  “And we’re on your side in this.  More of us than you’d think, we agree with what you’re saying.”

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