Where are you, Victoria?
Crystal resisted the urge to fidget. PRTCJ Oversight was stretched so thin that they weren’t taking calls or clarifying orders, and with only a brief text telling her to go here and handle things, she had no idea if she was here in an official or personal capacity. Whichever it was, she knew fidgeting wasn’t something she was supposed to do.
Officially, she placed herself on the sidewalk, as close to the armed personnel as she was comfortable getting, back straight, hands behind her back, wearing her PRTCJ jacket with her icon and her bodysuit. She projected calm and confidence, and remained ready to intervene with forcefield or lasers if anything happened between the armed guards at the building entrance and the gathered civilians on the street.
It was cold, but her costume was good quality and warm, made of a thicker material that softened the lines of her body somewhat. It was her nose and ears that got cold, even with earmuffs on and mostly hidden by her hair, her face turned away from the strident wind.
On any other day or circumstance she might have used her forcefield to block that wind, but the people at the building entrance were from Shin and they didn’t like powers.
In a personal capacity, she had tried to be friendly, to open discussion, and answer questions for people. People had been notified and given the impression that the prisoners would be out soon. Two hours ago. As a form of compromise, considering the shitty weather, she’d offered to text everyone on a list as soon as people emerged, so the worried friends, family and teammates could wait in a nearby coffee shop or store. Only half had taken her up on the offer.
She was trying to piece together who was here for who.
She knew Erin, though she didn’t know Erin. The girl had ducked off to a coffee shop. Rain would be pleased, she imagined. Less pleased that Lachlan was with her.
Then there was the gang of creepiness made manifest. Eerie to see them hanging out, all just slightly off. She imagined that one kid in a classroom, who was weird or offbeat, traumatized or with a weird home life, who an objective observer would choose as the odd one out. Except they were all like that. The one who was too quiet and unwilling to make eye contact. The touchy-feely one with a poor sense of boundaries. One who laughed a little too loud. The sullen one who looked ready to pick a fight if someone so much as dropped a pen. The one who wore makeup that didn’t suit her age or the circumstance, who brimmed with nervous energy. The robot who looked too placid at all times, even when others erupted or got agitated near him.
All lanky, with fine boned faces, straight noses, and pouty lower lips, most with heads of black hair that straddled the line between curly and wavy, with some exceptions for the one blond guy or the girl and her brother with straighter hair. All dressed in expensive clothes, in a city where expensive clothes were really expensive: three to five times more expensive at a baseline as what it might have been before Gold Morning.
Eerie, too, because she had run into them in the years before Gold Morning. They were growing up. Some had left, by the looks of it, but most had stayed.
There were parents. She recognized Vista’s. She had talked to Tristan and Byron’s, answering questions and sending them to the coffee shop. Mr. Vera looked old, and he wasn’t really that old in reality. Good looking in a dad way, graying hair, lined face combined with a younger, athletic frame. It broke her heart in a few ways, just talking to the man. Because some of that age and weariness was because of the events of the last few years weighing heavily on him, wearing him down and costing him sleep. She saw it in his eyes, a perpetual sadness or pain.
Trigger events didn’t just affect the one person, after all. He’d lost one half of two sons when the brothers had triggered, years ago. From the way he’d talked, he was here for only one son, which made her think of Carol. She didn’t know the full details, but she was pretty sure the circumstances were different here. Carol hadn’t been so wounded or sad about it, when she’d taken the stance.
It broke her heart too, because this sad old man made her think of dad. Mr. Vera was a reminder that her mental measure of a father was broken. Hers would remain perpetually frozen, locked at a certain age, a certain posture, a certain tone and sound of voice. Just like her measure of a little brother, or her measure of a mom.
She blinked a few times in rapid succession, to clear her eyes and focus on the situation.
Mrs. Vera was younger, petite, and had locks of white hair in an otherwise young complexion and hair. From the way she’d fawned over Crystal and brought her a coffee a half hour ago, and her general nurturing demeanor, dropping in the occasional Spanish word, she made Crystal think of a woman destined to be a great grandmother one day. She spent a while talking to Tribute, one of the Shepherds.
There were others, but they’d turned up after she had set up position on the sidewalk, and they didn’t look as approachable as the Veras had.
She waited, keeping hands clenched together, an empty coffee cup held between two fingers.
She tensed as soldiers emerged from the portal station, walking straight over to the guards on duty.
Come on, come on.
The first of the group emerged. Chief Armstrong, Ashley, and Sveta. Crystal pulled her phone out of her pocket and sent the alerts to everyone she’d promised to notify.
Vista met with her parents. Crystal had talked to Vista enough to know the details. Give even a hint of being on one parent’s side and a bystander could earn the lasting enmity and suspicion of the other. Her dad had gotten cancer, her mom had slept with his brother instead of supporting him. Her two dogs had both disappeared around the time he found out about the cheating, and that had been the start.
Ask him, even today, and he would be ready with an argument about how she couldn’t take care of him or her daughter so how could she take care of animals, he’d given them away to caring owners, she was a psychopath whore, and so on. Ask her, and she would describe how he’d neglected their relationship and they’d been on the outs for a long time before she cheated, he refused to give any proof he’d given her dogs away and not killed them… It was the same for every set of incidents thereafter. Neither had wanted to move from the family home because that made getting an eventual share of the house in the divorce harder, and neither had wanted to initiate the divorce because they’d believed in their own righteousness enough that a ‘fair’ divide of assets wouldn’t be enough- they had to break down the other. So they’d stayed together and lived in the same house for a year before even initiating the separation, while having fights loud enough that police had been called. All with a ten year old girl caught in the midst of it.
Later, a frustrated judge had found what he thought was a compromise: that the house would remain unsold, with Vista remaining in one place while the parents alternated a paired custody of house and Vista, each parent maintaining a separate residence they would be in when not taking care of Vista and the house. Bad fucking idea, when competing renovations, rearrangement of furniture and things, and other passive hostility came into play. The divorce hadn’t happened until a few years into it.
Crystal knew the line Vista was giving to her parents, as she put a hand out, refusing the hug. Not while I’m in costume. Because it was easier to go without.
Just behind Vista, Victoria emerged, Aunt Carol leaning on her shoulder. No Uncle Mark.
Crystal’s hands crushed the cup behind her as her heart sank in that horrible way that made her think of how things at deep enough ocean depths could collapse under the pressures. The expressions on the pair’s faces did absolutely nothing that would buoy, that enabled her to breathe again.
Choked, worried, she let them approach her instead of approaching. She forced a small smile to her face. Nothing she’d regret, if there was bad news.
Victoria had a bandaged hand again. She was doing such a terrible job of managing her forcefield these days, in a way that made Crystal worry. Victoria was- Crystal stopped as she processed the thought, and that crushing pressure didn’t go away as she realized what it was. Victoria had the same look as the prematurely aged Mr. Vera had. Carol simply looked tired.
“Hey,” Victoria said. She let go of Aunt Carol, made sure she was stable, then gave Crystal a hug.
“What happened?” Crystal asked, hugging back. “Where’s Uncle Mark?”
“He’s staying behind, to keep an eye on Amy,” Aunt Carol said.
He’s alive, Crystal thought. She could breathe again, even with the tight hug. The sunken, crushed feeling could gradually make its way to the surface now.
“And you?” Crystal asked her aunt, talking over Victoria’s shoulder.
“I’m fine. I’m not combat-ready, but I can get there on my own from here.”
“That’s good. But you left early?”
“It’s dangerous over there. Sentiment. Mark can handle himself and I’m more liability than asset. If I’m out here, I can get Mark out when it’s time, if things don’t get better, and I can keep in contact.”
Carol answered, “He’s something close to being a prisoner. He’ll be fine if it’s like this, I think. Their politics are more focused on each other than on us, now. They made an attempt to paint us in a bad light and that was shut down. Victoria and her team did well. The Founders and Coalition are reasserting control of things. More of yesterday’s status quo, as far as we’re concerned.”
“That’s good,” Crystal said. “I think.”
“It’s good,” Aunt Carol said. “You look like you’re frozen inside and out.”
“I am, if I’m honest. Do you want to eat somewhere we can warm up and catch up on details, or…”
“Vic?” she asked. She rubbed Victoria’s back with her hand.
No change in the tightness of the hug, no change in breathing, barely a movement.
She looked at Aunt Carol, helpless, not sure what to say or do. Aunt Carol didn’t have anything to offer, her head turned to look at others, and Crystal had no idea if that was on purpose or by happenstance.
“Vic. You okay?”
Victoria broke the hug. Crystal got a better look at her cousin, and saw a hundred-yard stare, gaze averted, fingernails digging into the coat sleeve over forearm. The Victoria she’d seen after Gold Morning, who was still re-learning day to day life.
By herculean measure over a span of a second or two, a rapid-fire set of tiny step-by-steps, Victoria adjusted posture, body language, and reasserted focus, then eye contact. To reassert the facade Victoria of last week, instead, if a more tired one.
“A lot,” Victoria said. “Food sounds good. Something quick? There’s stuff that needs attention.”
“You need attention. Can you catch me up on things over food? I’ll treat.”
“Maybe another time, for the catching up,” Victoria said. “The Wardens apparently need help.”
“Victoria,” Crystal said, her tone a warning.
“I have to. I need to,” Victoria said, and the words were accompanied by another set of micro-adjustments. Posture, body language, footing, a hand going to hair, a movement of the chin. Like someone getting ready to have their photo taken, but this presentation was something taught with the idea it would be worn at all times, if possible. A heroine could have video footage or a photo taken at any time.
Crystal looked at Aunt Carol.
Aunt Carol didn’t remark on a bit of it, but Crystal could imagine she found a bit of pride, energy, or personal power in how Victoria summoned up her own strength and then armored that strength in image. Carol’s remark was innocuous, “Food sounds good. I think the heroes are rendezvousing at the Warden’s, they’d appreciate us bringing stuff.”
“Okay,” Crystal said, giving Victoria a worried look. But she no longer had the ability to accurately read her cousin.
Only that lingering sinking feeling.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Rain said. He had the hood of his costume up under the hood of his jacket, hands jammed in his pockets.
“Of course I’d come. You called,” she told him, as she approached. “Kind of. It was a weird by-proxy sort of thing, huh?”
“It was- a Kenzie thing.”
Erin smiled. “Is the critter okay?”
“She’s okay. Got a bloody nose earlier, but we kept her safe. She was asking who we wanted to see when we got out-”
They’d had to navigate around the mob of Heartbroken, and only just now found themselves facing one another.
“-and I didn’t realize she was actually arranging anything until she’d sent out the messages. Didn’t mean to inconvenience.”
Impulsively, she stepped forward and gave Rain a hug. With the layers he wore and the layers she wore, it was more a squish of outer clothing than bodily contact.
And the poor guy looked like he needed a hug.
His answer to the hug was delayed, as he had to pluck hands out of pockets first, figure out what he was doing, and then put his arms around her, just at the point she was breaking contact.
His hands dropped back to his sides nearly as soon as he’d raised them, then found his pockets again.
He had a cut beneath his eye and a bruise on the side of his face. She reached up to brush a thumb lightly across the bruise, before dropping her hand. “You got battered.”
“Always,” he said. “Got ambushed by guards and prisoners. Then there was a prison riot this time.”
“It’s a really good skill to know, being able to take a punch.”
She leaned a bit closer, like she was telling him a secret, “It’s an even better skill to know how to avoid the punch.”
He smiled more. “Oh. So that’s what I’ve been missing.”
“It means a lot that you came,” he said.
“Stop. Stop mentioning it. I’ll come whenever you call, okay? I know you’ll come if I call.”
“It’s not something you’re used to, huh?” she asked.
“Not in the slightest.”
“You’re on the side of good, you’re an actual hero-” she stopped as she saw him immediately start shaking his head. “You are! You are.”
“You helped stop the Fallen. You’ve helped out. You’re putting your neck on the line. You deserve some backup and support. I’m happy to be that. Now don’t say no or argue with me. Just say ‘thanks’.”
“Thanks,” he said.
She rubbed his arm, encouraging, which made her realize her fingers were getting numb. “Oof, chilly. Want to head inside for a coffee? We can watch out the window and if you need to go with your team you can bail then.”
“Yeah. Coffee sounds good,” he said.
Battered and bruised as he was, he seemed more whole. The Rain of even a few months ago had been like a starved stray, kicked too many times, ranging from wounded to desperate for any hint of affection to the very rare burst of surprising anger. Never directed at her.
Thinking about bursts of emotion and desperation, of where they’d been months ago, she thought of the bedroom, of the proposed marriage.
If there was anything she admired about Rain, it was his ability to deal. She didn’t feel like she had that. When things went to shit, she found herself at a complete loss, not even sure how to feel, because she couldn’t process the situation enough to even summon up initial feelings, or because the feelings overflowed and flowed into one another.
Thinking about that scene, her lowest point, it was one of those no-deals. An incomplete feeling in her chest, that could be the seed of anger, resentment, love, hate, horror, shame, appreciation, or pain. If he’d said yes then they’d be together now, she was pretty sure. It would have been ten times more messed up then but things would be better now. But he’d dealt with it his way, even if it hadn’t felt like dealing at the time, when the outcome had been so in question.
And he’d dealt after. He’d thrown himself into a serious battle, even with threats against his life. He’d killed a man. He and his team and his assembled allies had won.
Before she could wrestle with feelings and realize that incomplete no-deal non-feeling was impossible to budge, he’d gone off to prison. The first time.
Then Lachlan had needed help.
“You didn’t wait long?” Rain asked.
She shook her head.
“Nobody bothered you?”
“No. Who would bother me? The Heartbroken?”
“Kinda. I wouldn’t rule it out,” he said, looking back.
“Chastity has my back,” she replied, while joining Rain in looking back at the assembled people.
“She’s a good one,” was his response.
The kids barely warranted a glance. It was Capricorn’s parents who caught her eye. Golem with his foster family. Even Vista, a little more standoffish with her parents.
Erin’s parents were still Fallen, even though the Fallen were no more. They weren’t alone. A lot of others were out there.
The envy she felt was heavy in her chest. It wasn’t a no-deal feeling, that felt like it could become something overwhelming but never did. It was just overwhelming.
She looked away, looked at Rain.
“From when the guards jumped me. Someone kicked me in the side of the knee.”
“Lean on me,” she said. She moved around to his other side. He rested some of his weight on her, though she suspected not as much as he could have.
Those uneasy, incomplete feelings didn’t budge at the physical contact, and the fact she was touchy-feely by default didn’t seem to impact that. It made her wonder if this set of feelings would be with her the rest of her life, never resolved, caught in a kind of limbo inside of her.
Lachlan had a seat reserved. He raised a hand in greeting, and to indicate where he was.
Rain was so good at taking his lumps that she could glance at him now and have less than zero idea if he was bothered by Lachlan’s presence.
Which was shitty. He deserved better than active poking and prodding until he showed a reaction. But she couldn’t bring herself to broach the subject.
Lachlan, at least, was easy.
The shop was mostly empty, but the people who were present paid attention to Lachlan. He’d been in the media enough that his face was recognizable. He left his things at the table and joined them, where Rain was getting into line.
“Hey Lachlan,” Rain said. “We good?”
Lachlan glanced at Erin, then nodded at Rain. “Yeah.”
Lachlan still had programming he was working through. The way he described it, his first thought was always pro-Fallen, his second thought was a contradiction.
Rain had attacked the Fallen, and so Lachlan’s first thought was one of enmity.
“What have you been up to?” Rain asked. “Sorry you came out here for my sake.”
“Nah. Good to get out and away. Uh, been getting into leatherworking,” Lachlan said. “Talked to you about it ages ago.”
“I remember,” Rain said. “I’m itching to get into something like that, but there’s never time, and when there is time I have tinkering to do.”
“Made a wallet, let me show you. I’m working on a rucksack now-”
Lachlan fished out the wallet, and showed Rain.
“The edges are rounded.”
“There’s a tool for that. A few, actually…”
Good boys, Erin thought to herself, as they got more into it, even as she rolled her eyes a bit. Rain had to break from the chatter to order his coffee, and stopped in the middle of that to check his phone.
“Team’s calling,” he said. To the person at the counter, he said, “Can I get, I don’t know, six more coffees? And a bunch of pastries. Whichever, a variety.”
“Sorry you have to go,” Erin said.
“Me too. Another time?” he asked her. When she nodded, he looked at Lachlan. “Another time?”
There was hesitation, a pause as Lachlan thought about it. Then nods from Lachlan, that lasted a second or two too long, like once he got started he forgot the usual length of a nod or the normal niceties, because he’d had to push to get there.
But he was trying and Rain was trying, and she appreciated it.
“See you soon,” she asked, as he collected the coffees and things, added sets of hands reaching out of his sleeves to hold things steady.
“Guaranteed,” he told her.
At the door to the station, Kenz peeled away from Ashley to make a run toward her other team. Candy, Darlene, and Aiden all ran up to her, and with an exception to Aiden, who moved through the area near Chastity like a breeze might blow against her skin, her power didn’t register her siblings, who were like black mice running through darkness.
As headlong as the runs toward reuniting were, the kids seemed to hit an invisible wall, as Kenzie stopped so abruptly she hopped on the spot to get her balance.
“I want to hug you all so bad,” Kenzie said. “But Victoria told me to wind it back. It hurts-”
She reached out, staggering a bit like a zombie. Abruptly, she stopped, looking around with a smile. “What? You cut me off?”
“Darlene cut all of us off,” Aiden said.
“Now that we know you’re safe,” Darlene told them. “We were worried, what the heck?”
“But you did so good. We did so good! That was teamwork and you followed my cues, and you helped me tinker, and we saved the day!”
“I was worried, you toad!” Darlene said, giving Kenzie a light push. Chastity stepped forward to put an arm out, forearm braced against Darlene’s collarbone.
Kenzie regained her balance. “Sorry.”
“None of that was fun,” Aiden said. He reconsidered, “Almost none of it.”
“No,” Kenzie agreed, smiling slightly. “But it means a lot to me that you guys had my back.”
“Of course we did,” Candy said. “We’re a team.”
The smile dropped from Kenzie’s face. She fidgeted, nodded.
The girl wore her costume suit, with abbreviated jacket and dress over bodysuit, and a camouflaged face that wasn’t quite her own, her helmet tucked under her arm. She looked so lost and lonely, but she always looked lost and lonely to Chastity. Even when she was surrounded by people, like someone starved, given a mouthful of nourishment, and left all the more aware of how hungry they were.
Chastity had seen that, once upon a time. The woman- she couldn’t remember the name, because she’s just been ‘mama’ to Jean-Paul, Cherie, and Darlene, and a face in a small crowd to the rest, but she’d offended papa. It was because she was sick and she couldn’t go get medications as long as she stayed with papa, but as far as he was concerned, she didn’t deserve to eat. When the woman finally had been allowed to, she’d been almost animal, food on her face, desperate, eating so much she threw up. Papa had insisted everyone laugh at her and mock her.
That had been back when she’d been pregnant with Darlene, now that Chastity thought about it. It might explain why Darlene had always been a little smaller than the rest.
Chastity hoped the woman was doing okay now. Whatever her name was. From that day until she’d left the house, she had been anxious about food.
Kenzie, at least, wasn’t that bad. But Chastity saw that anxiousness in her.
“Sacre,” Chastity said. “The situation is appropriate. I think you can hug. Get it out of your systems.”
She didn’t miss that Kenzie waited for Aiden to make the first move before joining the four-way hug.
Chastity backed off, letting them talk and catch up, asking questions. The hug stopped but the physical contact didn’t, as they huddled together. Darlene held Kenzie’s hand and didn’t let go.
Rain was waltzing off with his gal pal, Erin. He had mentioned her before, and in her search to alleviate boredom and get a break from way too much time spent with annoying younger siblings, Chastity had struck up a conversation with the girl.
She was a good sort. Not necessarily a good sort for Rain, but Chastity was willing to admit she might be biased.
Others had family. Victoria, Capricorn, Vista, Golem had a girlfriend and family present.
Well, Vista wasn’t exactly engaged, and Chastity had caught Vista’s father looking at her cleavage earlier, but all in all…
She stepped away from it.
Crisse, she wanted a smoke. She’d picked it up as a kid and quit when the world ended. Part of her motivation had been that cigarettes stank, and boys didn’t like girls who stank. Except now, every time she thought about wanting a cigarette, she felt the pang alongside the reminder she was alone.
That feeling of being alone was in and of itself a trap, something that got her heart racing if she dwelt on it. It made her think of being one of the mamas, bound to some loser like papa because they had nowhere else to go, or being cast away with no prospects and minimal chances at a normal life.
Which wasn’t to say she wasn’t already fucked up, but it would be nice to try to force it.
The kids, Kenzie and Aiden included, were young enough they’d recover and find their way. They had each other now.
She found a railing to lean against, and used her phone to send a message to Cassie. The non-romantic yin to her yang, scruffy and bad with technology, she’d lose the cord to recharge her phone or forget to recharge despite having the cord, because she only ever used it to talk to Chastity or run errands.
But they were forever friends and that helped. It changed Chastity’s worst case scenario to being old ladies together with Cass.
“Aww, but I thought Cahoot was great,” Aiden said, voice raised.
“Cahoot is terrible,” Chastity said. “This is a cape name? For who?”
“Then it’s even more terrible. Don’t be mean to Darlene, Chicken.”
“I’m not! Names are hard, when so many are taken. Darlene liked it, too!”
“Um. I didn’t?”
“You didn’t? But you seemed so pleased!”
“Volume down,” Chastity said. I really want that cigarette.
“I was pleased you were so interested in picking a name for me, not in the name, exactly.”
“Then you need to say something.”
“We need to get help from Breakthrough,” Kenzie said. “Capricorn was on a corporate team with a big brand focus, and Victoria really knows this stuff, and Ashley’s, uh, super cool.”
“I can hear you,” Ashley commented. “Should I walk away?”
“No. I don’t say anything I wouldn’t want anyone to overhear, and I’m saying you’re cool. You’re the coolest person I know, and I know a lot of cool people.”
Ashley walked past Kenzie, putting a hand on top of her head, before walking away.
“I was thinking of Skinship as my name,” Darlene said.
“Yes,” Candy said, right away.
“If Candy says yes right away, you need to think twice,” Chastity pointed out.
“We’ll run it by the experts at Breakthrough,” Kenzie said.
Chastity tuned out the conversation, turning her back to the group. There wasn’t much management that was needed here. It was a good set of least-bads in their best environments.
Ashley walked over and leaned against the railing next to her. Chastity could feel her presence, the physiology, the general shape of her body, with arms that terminated at the wrists.
“Do me a favor?” Ashley asked.
Ashley used her power, which momentarily interrupted the children’s conversation. A flicker of darkness swept across the eyes, erasing pupils and irises both.
“How are my eyes now?”
“Pure white. Coolest person indeed.”
“You’re too kind,” Ashley said, turning her face toward the kids, so she and Chastity faced completely different directions. “Tell me they’re good for each other.”
“Who knows? I can’t think of a single long term relationship among anyone I know that was ‘good’ for everyone involved,” Chastity said.
“Doesn’t have to be for the long term. Right now, they’re good for each other?”
“Oui,” Chastity said. “Good enough. When she’s with her team she misses Breakthrough. When she’s with Breakthrough she can miss her team, unless she is connected and talking to them.”
“Yes,” Ashley murmured.
“But even now, surrounded by people she loves, she misses everyone.”
“You’ve been paying attention.”
“I’m a student of unhealthy relationships,” Chastity said. “Especially those with my family members involved.”
“Your family member just kissed Chicken Little-”
Chastity whipped around so fast her snow-damp hair struck her own mouth. She pushed it away. “No kissing!”
“It was on the cheek!” Kenzie protested. “It’s fine!”
“It was a friendly kiss!” Candy said.
“It’s a rule. Time out,” Chastity said. “It was you, Candy?”
“It was, but-”
Chastity reached for her waist. The bullwhip unfurled. Candy ceased protesting.
Chastity pointed, then watched while Candy trudged over to the side of the road, seating herself in the snow on the sidewalk, elbows on knees, hands on cheeks.
Some of the parents who were talking to their cape children looked at her, aghast. They didn’t even know.
Darlene, meanwhile, mouthed the words ‘thank you’ to Chastity.
“It’s inevitable,” Ashley said.
“I worry this is unhealthy, but I think of the literal blood that can be shed if teasing or flirtation go a step too far…” Chastity trailed off.
“I’m glad she has it, even if some small amounts of blood get spilled in the meantime,” Ashley said.
“It won’t be a small amount.”
“I’m glad she has friends, whatever happens. I do miss her terribly when she isn’t around.”
“And she misses you. I’m similar with Candy, even if she doesn’t reciprocate. I spent too long protecting her from our mamas and papa, I can’t let my guard down now.”
“It makes you lonely, doesn’t it? Seeing them be… not as lonely?” Ashley asked.
Chastity took a moment or five to answer, not because she needed to consider it, but because it hit her right in the center of the gut.
“Kenzie isn’t coming for what comes next. I won’t let her. The others won’t need to worry.”
“She’s a target,” Chastity said. “Tattletale keeps saying, Imp says, even her teammates seem to accept it as a law as fundamental as gravity. She could be anywhere at all and she would be in as much danger as any of us on any day.”
Ashley nodded. “Yes.”
Victoria made a hand motion, beckoning people to come closer. Ashley pointed for Chastity’s sake, though Chastity had seen, and the two of them approached the huddle. Chastity put her foot out, kicking Darlene lightly in the butt to get her attention. A person could have been drawn and quartered ten feet from the huddle and it might not have distracted them from their conversation.
A motion of the hand gave Candy permission to exit time out.
Kenzie broke from her group to hug Ashley, walking with her and Chastity.
“Kenz,” Chastity said. “You’re going to need to listen to Ashley here, even if it feels like you’re going to be left out.”
“I’m being left out?”
“We need to keep you safe,” Ashley said.
“If anything happened to you, it would hurt too many people.”
“I’m safest with my team,” Kenzie protested.
“You got a bloody nose,” Swansong said.
“A bit of one! And I helped!”
“You being safe is part of the deal for you being on this team, and we don’t break that, agreed?”
Kenzie hemmed and hawed, until Ashley nudged her.
“We keep you in one piece.”
“Agreed,” Kenzie said, with a small smile.
Byron returned from the washroom. At Anita’s assistance, he’d removed his armor so she could hug him properly. Byron had the sense to obey his mother’s whims.
Once Anita was done, Ray could finally speak to his son.
“Mi hijo,” Ray said. He brushed Byron’s hair back. “Prison? What is this madness?”
“It’s over and done with. Posturing and politics.”
“Because I’m out there. We’re doing things. We’re scary to some people.”
“It is scary,” Anita said. “Parahumans.”
“Our son, Anita,” Ray said. “Our sons.”
“I worry about the way things are going,” Anita said. “It’s scary. that’s all I’ll say.”
Ray wanted to say something more, but he didn’t. When everything had gone wrong, he had tried to help the boys find answers, even as every action they took seemed to carry the boys further and further away. In the end, Tristan had lost himself and Ray had been too far away to play a role in it, or even to recognize what was happening when they saw Tristan after.
Anita’s way of handling things was different. Even here, Anita had been questions, questions, questions, fervor. Questions for Crystal Dallon, questions for the other parents, asking how they handled this, what did they think about that?
But in her endless search for answers and sense, she accepted anything and everything, and the reality was that she could watch hours of video from online, every single day, about the parahumans and how laws and protections were needed. She could only get minutes at a time of talking to people like the Birons or Crystal.
The former won out, and when those people were done convincing Anita that there were problems and that actions were needed, they started convincing her that the dangers were greater, the actions required more severe. Here and there she would parrot off something and he would have to challenge her, ask her why this, or why that. She would think about it and reconsider, but she would go back to those same videos.
But they gave her peace that she hadn’t had since Tristan had… done the unthinkable, really. They made sense of a nonsensical world. So he steered her when he could, and he grit his teeth in moments like this, where Byron was too quiet to challenge the statement.
Or because Byron agreed, but for different reasons.
It made Ray momentarily wish Tristan could join this conversation, because Tristan was brazen enough to challenge those things, to be bold and forward enough that holding the shakier views would be impossible.
“Are you well? You weren’t hurt?”
Byron shook his head. “Tristan was, just a little.”
Ray made a face.
“We were pleased you called for us. We worried when we couldn’t reach you.”
“We thought we would enter and leave the same day.”
“You’ll have to call more frequently,” Anita told Byron.
“Ah. Ahgh,” Byron said, the latter sound somewhere between the sound of a realization and the gurgle of a dying man. “I call once a day.”
“We miss you. We worry that this takes up all your time,” Ray pushed. “It would mean a lot to your mother if we could hear more from you, hear that you’re… exploring life.”
“Meeting people who aren’t parahuman, to expand your horizons,” Anita added. “Girls?”
“Aghh,” Byron made a faint sound. He looked like he was going to say something, then didn’t.
Anita wasn’t one to miss that. “Who?”
“Is it Brianna? She was a good, beautiful girl, with the best heart. I know she’s still around.”
Anita put her hands on either side of Byron’s face. “I want the best for you. Te quiero.”
“I love you too, mom.”
“Tell me about this girl.”
“I never said there was a girl. Even if there was, right now it’s too complicated. With Tristan.”
She made a face. “You’re putting your life on hold. There has to be a way. If he needs a… whatever kind of boy he likes, you can have this girl you like, you figure out a way.”
“I am absolutely not talking about this with you. And Tristan likes brainy guys.”
“You will talk about it with me,” Anita said, pushing past the mention of Tristan. “I’m your mother.”
The blonde girl, Victoria Dallon, made a small whistle, signaling. She was close enough to hear, as she raised her voice, “Got a call, we’re being asked to come in!”
“So soon,” Anita said.
“If you hadn’t made me change-” Byron said.
“No blaming,” Ray told him. “There’s too much of it these days.”
“No blame,” Byron said. “Yeah.”
“Anita,” Ray said. “Before they go, I want a moment alone with him.”
“Do you want a divorce?” she asked. “Because I get little enough of him without you wanting exclusive time. We share our own children.”
“Anita. It’s important.”
“Byron will make it up to you by calling twice a day for the next short while.”
“As a consequence of taking so long to tell us what was happening here.”
“I was trapped in prison in another dimension, no phones, and I still managed to let you know in a pretty reasonable span of time.”
“You missed your daily call.”
“I was in prison. I still got in touch, I- I’ve got to go.”
“You’re smart, you have a capable team, Byron,” Ray said. “And stay, let me have a word, por favor?”
“Only because I love you guys.”
“You’ll call twice, every day for the next two weeks,” Anita said.
“Next few days.”
Anita wanted to protest, but Ray ushered her away.
“I’ll be at the car, nursing a grudge,” she told Ray.
She walked away. Some of the more distant people like the group at the coffee shop were just leaving.
Ray waited until Anita was gone. He looked at Byron. Byron, who had worried him so much when he was young, because he had never flourished. Part of that was living in his brother’s shadow. Part was because Byron wasn’t a flower or anything of the sort. A flower bloomed in visible ways, while Byron was encapsulated in a shell, the metamorphosis happening within, in small steps that only Byron noticed.
And somehow, without anyone realizing, he became this wonderful young man, noble and strong in his own way. Perhaps Ray’s first thought when he thought hero.
Sentiment in an emotional time, surrounded by other people reuniting with loved ones and catching up with colleagues, maybe.
But he’d had so many regrets when he thought this boy had died in battle.
“I could not be more proud of you,” Ray told his son.
Byron seemed to be at a loss for words.
“Except perhaps if you called your mother more.”
Byron smiled. A rare treasure.
“May I speak to Tristan?”
“Thought that was why you wanted mama gone,” Byron said. He blurred, features twisting, the lines of the blurs distorting the boundary between the boys before settling into Tristan’s outline.
Byron hadn’t been wearing a jacket, and Tristan wasn’t either, but Tristan seemed to immediately feel the cold.
More pronounced by the cold was his reaction to seeing Ray. He looked away.
“If you want to talk, I know it’s hard, but we’re there. If you want to write a letter, we will gladly read it. I miss you.”
“Mama doesn’t,” Tristan said, still not making eye contact.
“Mama has complicated feelings. I think complicated feelings are forigvable, aren’t they?”
Tristan’s hands kept going to his dyed hair, trying to fix something that didn’t need fixing.
The hair and its brilliant pink was just an extension of Ray’s feelings toward Tristan as a whole. There had been a time he fully understood his boy, lasting well beyond the point that a parent normally had a firm grip on their children. Then he had seen how excited young Tristan was to see certain characters on his favorite show, the internet searches-
Madre de dios, the internet searches.
He’d understood Tristan less fully then, but he’d made efforts. He’d reconciled. The divide had really started at the hair, it was strange and it was wholly Tristan.
What he’d done to his brother… it was the same. Strange and wholly of Tristan, understandable without being relatable. And it had seemingly put their boy forever out of reach.
“You’re being good to your brother?”
“For once, I might be,” Tristan said, avoiding eye contact. “But I don’t trust my own opinion on the matter. You’d have to ask him.”
“You’re being good to yourself?”
“This girl that Byron likes, is she good?”
“I’m not sure he likes her. But she’s good.”
“And these brainy boys you like-”
“Dios mio,” Tristan said, smiling for the first time. “Byron knew he was throwing me under the fucking bus with that line-“
“Language,” Ray said, stern. He reached his hand up, and tapped fingers against Tristan’s cheek in the lightest possible version of a slap. He kept his fingers there for a moment, then dropped them to the back of Tristan’s neck, holding firm.
Tristan made eye contact for the first time.
“I miss my sons. Reach out. Make the effort. It would mean the world to her.”
“She might say she doesn’t want to see me.”
“She might. Twenty years with her, and I don’t know for sure, myself. But you got yourself into this. Having to brave this is the price you pay. Just know you don’t need to wonder with me. Byron says he forgives you? I can manage it.”
Tristan nodded, looking away again.
“After all of this. I have to focus on things, and technically, I have to go-”
“After. Don’t break our hearts,” Ray said, giving his son a shake, by way of the grip on the back of his neck.
“After,” Tristan said.
Ray dropped his hand.
He watched his sons walk away with the heaviest of hearts, Tristan disappearing as Byron appeared, an exchange of muttered words, one brother to another, and then Byron disappearing, as Tristan appeared…
Number Lad #4
As the people filed into the room, Number Four scribbled the 4,444th iteration of the kanji for ‘Shi’ on a piece of paper, each last one precise.
Citrine and the rest of the background capes were all present and organized as Breakthrough joined. The group sat at the front of the room, closest to the door, and Heartbroken children filed in after to sit behind Lookout.
Four’s attention was on Sveta Karelia. The ex-Case Fifty-Three. Perhaps. It was hard to say if she qualified. But he watched over the top of his glasses as the other Number Boys talked or scribbled their own notations on their pads of paper.
Others in his set looked too, timing the looks in a way that had been calculated to avoid drawing her attention. In their synchronicity, however, they drew a few weird looks. Kurt looked at them, disapproving.
She had asked, once upon a time, who she was. She, according to other Case Fifty-Threes, had killed Doctor Mother, and for everyone in his set, Doctor Mother was someone they remembered without remembering. She slipped into their heads in dreams and was easiest to see if they didn’t dwell on her.
She had once asked Number Zero who she was.
Now she had gone and reinvented herself.
Others were joining as well. Stragglers, B-listers, capes with issues.
Five thousand, two hundred and twelve parahumans had attended the final confrontation against Scion. Two-thirds of them had survived, with the majority of the losses occurring in the period after Doormaker had shut down, but before Khepri had achieved strategic control.
Of those two-thirds, roughly half had remained in Earth Gimel, stretched out over an area ranging from Maine to Boston to the old New York. Forty percent of those capes were heroes or something close enough to count, and eighty percent of the remainder had scaled down, retired, shifted priorities or sought lower-profile hero work, at least in the short term.
Advance Guard, Foresight, The Shepherds, and the Attendant had captured a lion’s share of the remainder who wanted higher-profile hero work. Taking control over jurisdictions, they managed the smaller teams while training their elite forces, often with a specialized squad or a series of squads. The Wardens had handpicked some for specialized needs or because those members were just good.
Except they’d gone silent. All zeroes on every frequency. Not that good, perhaps.
Those who gathered now weren’t necessarily the elite or the most capable. They included capes coming out of permanent or partial retirement, friends and colleagues, and those who hadn’t been able to attend due to other requirements.
Breakthrough had been in prison.
Advance Guard had a sub-team that had been handling a mission they couldn’t jeopardize.
The Shepherds had benched some members.
The teams under the umbrellas of the four primary teams like the Navigators or the Major Malfunctions were now sending people to shore up numbers and support. People they saw as friends had gone in to wage a war and those friends hadn’t returned. They’d go the extra mile now.
It was more convenient to not have any friends at all.
“I’m glad you’re here,” Jeanne said. “I heard things were resolved.”
“More or less,” Capricorn answered. “We’ll see how things are tomorrow or next week.”
“I’m sorry it came to that. I hope my efforts were some assistance.”
“They were, thank you.”
“I’d like to start,” Cinereal said.
With that, she had the attention of the room.
“A few hours ago, our precogs and danger sensers gave us our best numbers yet for an attack on Teacher’s facility. Many members of Warden leadership, Advance Guard, Foresight, and the Shepherds entered. We received regular status updates-”
She indicated a digital map of the facility. Second by second, it showed dots moving through the building. Rooms changed color from red to green as they were cleared. Some turned to bright green as they became base camps and retreat points for the attacking capes.
“-until around this point. Radio signals became intermittent, then stopped, all in the span of seconds. We made enough progress to attack what we’ve termed the gallery, with the character assassination groupings. Buildings were scattered and to the best of our knowledge the people and groups that were being used to access our media and track us from remote locations were captured or disrupted. We need to make a push, at the very least to establish what happened.”
“Mortari is willing to offer its assistance,” Jeanne said. “I’m going to put this as bluntly as I can. We have assets, resources that took weeks, months, or years to gather together. We are giving you these assets. In another world, we would have liked to keep these in our back pocket until another Scion-level event, should something like that happen. Or if the Kronos titan were to attack. But we’re not, because we believe this is essential.”
“What resources? More murderous kids?”
The voice came from the lone Case Fifty-Three in the room. Sveta Karelia.
“If you’d stand?” Jeanne asked, looking to another end of the room.
Behind Number Four, four rows of capes stood from their seats. All wore crisp uniform costumes, derived from a singular theme.
“You had more vials,” Sveta said.
“We tracked them down some time ago.”
Sveta shook her head.
She might kill Jeanne, like she did Doctor Mother.
Four met Three’s eyes, as Three looked over. Three was thinking the same thing. Dreams were vivid, and there was enough empty space between the falsely created memories for things to be filled in and elaborated on. The death of their old boss was one such thing.
Care would need to be taken.
“We need to know who’s willing to work with us.”
“Will you be participating?” another cape asked. One from the Shepherds.
“I will. My husband will. Frankly, Dragon went in ready to fight Saint and we haven’t heard from her. Knowing what we now know about her, and knowing past history, that’s a catastrophe unto itself.”
“Breakthrough is in,” Antares said. “Most of us. And Shin is too. They offered a bit of help.”
She held up vials of her own.
“I was wondering if that was an option,” Jeanne said.
“What are they?” one of the remaining members of Advance Guard asked.
“Drugs have weird effects on powers. They studied that. They think they have something that dampens powers, they have something that changes variables, and they have something that augments powers for a while, though there’s a withdrawal period after and it needs to be given to a non-tinker who has very good control over their power, which frankly rules out most of my team.”
“I didn’t think we were on such good terms with Shin,” Jeanne said.
“The Coalition and Founders are acting pretty happy that the messy stuff has been handled and the blame is being pointed in the appropriate directions.”
“Meaning anywhere but at them,” Slician said, from one of the front rows.
Sveta’s expression changed again. Brow, lines of the face, and mouth could be measured to work out a specific emotion. Annoyance?
“Everything helps,” Jeanne said. “Every set of hands helps. If I could have people stand or raise their hands?”
One by one, people and groups obliged.
“We’d be leaving territories and neighborhoods unprotected or undermanned,” a girl in Advance Guard said.
“This is more important,” Jeanne told her. “If we can’t salvage this, we lose. No question.”
With some reluctance, more hands went up.
Four again looked to Sveta Karelia.
One member of his set had been changing his mind, thinking back on past events with guilt and remorse. A break in the programming, a disruption in the pattern. Whichever one of them it was, they had been able to perform in the field without issues, but it was getting worse, if dreams were to be believed.
It threatened things.
And the conversation with Sveta Karelia had been had with Number Zero and then broadcasted to the others in dreams. Their member with a newborn conscience had seized on that, replaying it and processing it in depth, alongside a dozen other similar memories and incidents. Glimmers suggested they had done research, looked into things. Information picked up there had bled into the rest of the set as ambient knowledge and memories.
In the background, Jeanne was asking if people had colleagues they could call or resources they could tap.
She got her response, but for once, Four wasn’t paying attention to her, despite the fact she was very close to being perfect. He didn’t pay attention to Breakthrough’s suggestion at releasing specific prisoners.
Not until he came to his resolution. He pulled off his glasses and cleaned them with a microfiber cloth, working through the thought.
This raid would be a chance to tidy things up, and make the irregular regular. Everything in order.
“Good. Let’s hope that’s enough,” Jeanne said. “Let’s prepare.”