I took Kenzie’s keyboard-sized bit of tech that she’d brought with her, slinging it over my shoulder with a strap she’d attached. I would have let the others do the carrying, but the others were working. Huntsmen, Tristan, and Sveta pushed a car that had been put into Neutral out of the middle of the road. Rain still had his silver blade and was chopping down the fully-grown wooden growths. With Backwoods out of the way, they didn’t seem to be triggering with proximity.
If I’d been in costume, I might have felt like I needed to do more while in the public eye. Instead, I surveyed and I took a break to cough violently for a minute. My head pounded. I’d taken the time to go talk to the people who’d lost property. Kenzie had taken pictures, she said, of the damage, license plates, and what she’d seen of the looting. I’d asked the car owners where they were headed.
Kenzie stood next to me, and it wasn’t the normal kind of standing-next-to. We all had our normal expectations of personal space, and she stood within mine, as close as she could get to hugging herself against my side without actually touching me. I’d nearly elbowed her in the head while attaching the strap for the keyboard not-cube.
I put a hand on her shoulder.
“Tonight?” Kenzie asked, looking up at me.
Making the sound made me cough.
“Rain’s thing that we were just talking about. Tonight. Um. It’s about noon now, I think if I got some things together and checked old readings, ummmm… I think I still have readings from the Shin prison. And he’s slept over at other times. I have most of what I need. I could really use some tips from Ashley, um, Damsel, but that’s not super needed.”
“Tonight was sooner than I was thinking,” I admitted. “Damsel?”
“Tonight is better, isn’t it? They’re saying things could break like they almost did here, sometime today or tomorrow. Isn’t it better to be soon?”
“Yeah. Yeah, it’s better.”
“Cool,” she said, before dropping her head, hands up to her hair. “Shoot! Not cool, ugh.”
I could feel her shoulder tense beneath my hand. “What?”
“Some things I need are back at my workshop. The one I set up with my other team. Uuugh.”
“Alright,” I said. “It’s up to you. It doesn’t have to be tonight-”
“But it should.”
“Probably. And we were talking about this as a conversation that needed to happen.”
I rubbed her shoulder. She let her head wobble with the motion.
“They’re out of the city, by the way,” she reported. “They got into a pair of cars. Ash- Damsel of Distress is riding shotgun. There’s less cameras near them now.”
“Okay. But you can track them?”
“I put a tracker on Torso.”
“I’d say that’s perfect, but I don’t like you getting that close to the action, especially with an unknown power.”
“Sorry,” she said.
I gave her shoulder one last rub, then stuck my cold hand in my pocket. What was I even supposed to say here? What would Ashley have said, that would be so out of sync with normal expectations but so right for Kenzie?
Who’s going to stick around to tell me I’m awesome if you go and get your head smashed in?
No, not that blatant about the ego. But…
“Who’s going to tell me to use challah for French toast if you go and get your head smashed in? I like having you around, Kenzie.”
After a pause, she let her head tilt left, resting against my arm.
“And for the record,” I said. “I’m saying that to Kenzie, not Lookout. I like Lookout too, but I think we got along from the start, when we first met. That was before tinker powers came into play.”
“I always get along with people at first. Usually, when it counts. Then I ruin it. It’s dangerous, saying stuff like how you like having me around.”
“I can handle dangerous,” I said.
Of course, finishing that sentence made my throat tickle, and I had another coughing fit.
At the very least, when I was done, I could feel Kenzie’s head trying to find its place resting against my arm, while she laughed to herself.
I craned my head down to see, and there wasn’t a smile on her face. If anything, she looked pensive, jaded, eyes half-lidded and downcast, even as she shook with the last few chuckles. I felt in the moment like she’d grown up by years in the past few months.
It was a fucking shame, in so many ways.
The others rejoined us. Tristan signaled, and I nodded.
My hand on Kenzie’s back to give her the initial impetus, we started walking, heading over to the Huntsmen.
“Good work,” Snow White said. Etna was just a bit behind her, floating while leaning against a car, still holding the glass spear.
“I mentioned we might be able to trace them. We can, we have a tracker on them, and we know they’re leaving the city, heading into the woods to the west. Do you think you’d be willing to negotiate to know where your rivals’ HQ is?”
“What are you looking to negotiate for?” Snow White asked.
“As much as I’d like to accept, we have other obligations.”
“The moving trucks?” Etna asked.
“Yeah. They’re only available for a few hours,” Snow White said. She turned to us, to me. “Packing up our base. I’d invite you to come and see if there’s a chance to make a detour, but we’ll be loading up two of our apartments as well.”
“I just helped someone move,” Sveta said. “It’s a pain.”
“Any other time, I’d put off the moving trucks, but they’re booked solid. They’ve taken trucks from the city’s construction companies and they have them hauling houses twenty-four seven, and it’s still not enough.”
That made me regret not packing up more, kind of.
“I can take ’em,” Etna said. “It might be a bit cramped.”
“Yeah?” Snow White asked.
“I don’t have anything to move. It lets me be useful, I can bring some of the info back.”
There was a brief confab within the Huntsmen. I took the opportunity to check with the others, more in the sense of looks and shrugs than anything else.
No objections. If anything, my own reservations about Etna, however small, were probably overblown compared to everyone else’s.
“Good luck,” Snow White said.
“You too,” Tristan said. He shook her hand.
“Hey,” I said, just to get their attention before they left. “If this thing happens, this shattering of the worlds, the damage, whatever Teacher was working for. What are you going to do?”
“How bad are we thinking it’s going to be?” Snow White asked. “Gold Morning bad?”
“We survive. Scatter. I think we stick together as a team, we keep doing what we’ve been doing for a while. Put arrows in the worst bad guys and manage the rest.”
“That simple, huh?”
Snow White shrugged. “Simple yes. Easy no.”
She gave us a short wave by way of farewell, then left with the rest of her team, leaving us with Etna.
Etna led us back to the portal, a couple of blocks and an elevator ride away. From there, we crossed a part of the complex to reach another portal that extended further out.
It felt like an interminably long time, especially because Etna was the type to kill any conversation or small talk by giving short answers that were impossible to follow up on. I would have thought she didn’t want to chat, but her responses were earnest, and what little I could see of her expression suggested she was trying to be nice and she was pleased and bewildered that we were taking her switch from villain to hero in good stride.
And I wanted to reflect that attitude of hers so much, but I was mostly being quietly down and introspective, all of my defenses up so I could fend off intrusive thoughts. I was doubly annoyed with everything and doubly distracted because I couldn’t fly. I’d stopped flying to try to make an ‘I’m disarming’ point to someone who didn’t see it as me being armed, and I couldn’t conscience using my power until we were away from the highest danger part of the city.
Fuck it. I was grumpy, I was letting myself be grumpy. My ego felt bruised after Mockument’s had hatched that creation, and I felt so many different instances of bad for people that I felt bad overall.
Felt bad for Kenzie. Felt bad for Tristan. Felt bad for the dozen or so people or families that had seen their cars get trashed and their life’s possessions totaled.
It felt so petty, to go after these guys with half our rationale being to get jewelry and clothes back, but… it was important too.
We found ourselves back outside and the group trudged along sidewalks that hadn’t been cleared of snow in the last day. I spent a minute tuning everything out, my head pounding, my heart trying to channel every bit of negativity into hating the snow and the winter.
As long as the trudge felt, the use of portals had let us cross some surprising ground. Flying, the trip might have taken me fifteen or twenty minutes. As it was, it took maybe twelve, and the rest of the team got to come with.
Etna and I at least floated above the snow, but I flew low enough that my toes trailed in the snow, so I could give Kenzie a hand if she reached up to get over the snowbanks that piled up at each intersection, barring the way to crosswalks.
“Any tips on making weapons with a power?” Tristan asked. Most of the attempts at conversation seemed to be him taking stabs at it.
“Not really,” Etna said, holding up her glass spear, as if to launch into another bit of conversation or explanation.
Nope, her arm dropped.
“I know we come at it from pretty different directions, but there are factors like weight, balance, edges… the sharper the edge, the more brittle it’s going to be.”
“I run into that with making knives,” Rain said. “I made a mistake using too pure a steel once.”
“Exactly,” Tristan said, enthused. “Do you run into that, Etna?”
“Oh. I guess so. I figured that out as I went. I never really thought about it.”
“Ah, so it’s instinct,” Tristan said, “But even with instinct, there are different kinds. For a parahuman, there’s the instinct that comes from you, and there’s the instinct that comes from the connection between you and power. Or you and agent.”
“I like that a lot,” I said. “You could say there’s an instinct that comes straight from the agent.”
“You can definitely say that,” Sveta said. “I’ve been fighting it for all my life. It’s only recently I got to stop fighting and finally relax.”
“I think most of my instincts are learned and come from me,” Rain said. “Or is it more accurate to say I’d like to think that? How do you know?”
“You know,” I said, at nearly the same time Sveta did.
“Then I think I know it’s me,” Rain said, his tone a little different, like he’d been subdued a bit.
“Three kinds, then,” Tristan said. There was an energy to his mannerisms and tone that wasn’t always there. I might have thought it was related to him being away from the hospital bed or energized from the fight, but it wasn’t. Not exactly. He turned to Etna, “Any theories or thoughts?”
“Hmmm,” she said. “Not really. But I’ll think about it.”
“Are the Huntsmen treating you well?” Sveta asked, her tone bright.
“Yes, they really are. Nice, but they’re very serious when it comes to the cape stuff.”
“Good serious?” Tristan prodded.
“Yep. It’s good.”
Tristan was strong enough to move through the snow without difficulty, due to that small boost his powers gave him to his physical capabilities. He put a hand back to give Kenzie a hand, while I took her other hand. We lifted her up and over a tough patch of footing.
I could just see how much agony he was in. The energy he was putting into bashing his head into this brick wall was a consequence of his stubbornness and his extroverted nature catalyzing together. I could picture him dragging fingernails down his cheeks.
It was comically amusing at a time comical amusement felt out of place. My thoughts were on Mockument and on Swansong, on Kenzie and on Byron.
“You remind me of my brother when he was a kid,” Tristan told Etna, his tone still light.
“Really? Should I take that as a complement?”
“Yeah,” he said. “He’s a good guy.”
More agony for Tristan. Ten or fifteen minutes of this.
“Here’s my car. Sorry it’s a bit of a mess.”
The hatchback had been painted a bold red, but aside from some rust on the passenger side door, there wasn’t much mess that I could see. Her car was cleaner than just about anyone I knew, and even the back was mostly vacant, with a second spare tire within. She had to unlock all four doors manually with her key. It was one of the post-Gold Morning cars. Early-era by the look of it. In a world where everything went perfectly, humanity got over its current crisis and we found our equilibrium, I could imagine it being a collector’s item.
Everyone climbed in. I took the back seat, Kenzie on one side of me, keyboard not-cube on the floor by my feet. Sveta took the next spot in the back seat, followed by Rain. Tristan in front. Sveta loosened up her body, looked for a space to occupy, and then went over the back seat into the trunk area, looking over the top.
“You drive, huh?” I asked.
“Yep,” Etna said.
“I can, but I couldn’t convince myself to get a car when I fly most of the time.”
“Oh, that makes sense,” she said.
I wondered if I’d given her any brain damage after all.
The car was in the process of pulling out when something struck the windshield, which made Etna hit the brakes, hard. Cracks spiderwebbed out from the point of impact.
Some of us climbed out, to look for the source of the attack. I was one of them, floating up to get a better perspective.
There were maybe ten people close enough to have thrown- it looked like a car part. Ten people close enough, twenty people in total all standing along a street with mostly one-story businesses.
They stared. Their attention was wholly on us. The classroom dynamic of every kid looking at the class clown that had just disrupted things wasn’t in effect.
“Let’s go,” Etna said.
“You’ve had this happen before?”
“No,” she said. “But I’ve heard about incidents with capes and angry people. Let’s just go.”
“Are you sure?” Sveta asked.
“I can fix windshield damage. I don’t know what I can do if other parts of the Etnamobile get damaged.”
There was none of the eager awkwardness from before in her voice.
“Ballsy,” Rain said.
Tristan was looking around. “It’d be more ballsy if they stepped up and admitted who did it.”
“I know who did it,” Kenzie said.
“Let’s leave it alone,” I told her. “If we make an issue of it, we make ourselves look worse, not better.”
“I joined villains because it seemed fun and easy,” Etna said. “Everything else seemed so much harder. There’s money in being a villain. The costumes are better.”
“Ehh,” I said. I remembered Etna’s skimpy fire sorceress outfit from Hollow Point, before the weather had cooled.
“They really are,” Kenzie said.
Traitor, I thought, with no venom to the thought.
“But it isn’t easier. It wears on you, you have to worry about being caught. People will like you from a distance because you’re cool, you’re dark, you’re edgy. Then they hate you to your face, even if they don’t talk about it because they’re afraid. I went hero and… they hate us anyway?”
“Might be because so many people chose being a villain first, because they thought it’d be easier and more fun, even if it meant stepping on the civilians along the way,” I said.
“Oof,” Etna grunted. She sounded genuinely wounded as she said, “That’s fair.”
“It’s fair but a little mean of Antares to say,” Sveta said, poking me. “She’s in a mood.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I really do think it’s great you joined the side of the heroes, and I think the costume looks cool.”
“That’s not just me saying it because Tress is jabbing at me. I don’t have the energy to be fake.”
Etna made an amused sound, which had the benefit of not being another conversation aborter. At the same time, Sveta stopped poking me.
“Turn right,” Kenzie said. “Then head pretty much straight until we’re out of the city.”
As Etna turned right, I let my head go left, resting it against the window. I partially closed my eyes, tuning almost everything out.
The buildings to our left grew thinner, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a vehicle to watch the city go by, that hadn’t been me with the Patrol. Jasper, heading to the community center.
As the buildings got thinner and further between, I could see past them to the city proper. I could make out the slice of the highest density portals all mixed in together, like a pane of glass that had broken, each segment a different piece of sky, many of them brighter than the sky we had here. The wind that came through seemed to repel clouds and storm, as they emanated high-pressure air.
Was that going to be the entire city? How much of the rest of our world would follow it?
I didn’t sleep, but I wasn’t wholly awake either. Kenzie used the windshield to start talking about glass and lenses with Etna, and Etna didn’t seem to know how to disengage from a conversation with a tinker who was deep into her subject material. Kenzie needed the distraction and we’d exhausted our collective conversation starters with Etna inadvertently shooting every single one of them down, so I didn’t expend the energy to steer Kenzie away.
My thoughts turned to the upcoming conversation, ways to handle it, and from there they spun off in a bunch of different directions.
I brought up a few with the team, and we had a back and forth, before the conversation died for reasons having nothing to do with Etna.
I lost myself in thought and in the absentminded tracking of the sensations of power. If I paid attention to my flight while sitting in the car, could I feel the difference as we got further away, like I’d felt a difference while rising in the air?
The drive felt like it took the question mark at the end of that question and dragged it out into a long, unconscious drone. A question without firm answer.
My eyes opened as the car slowed, rumbling over a frosty dirt road that had barely been looked after. Kenzie was leaning into me, fiddling with a button, a needle-thin screwdriver, and what looked like the world’s smallest arc-welder, her cupped hand containing the brilliant light.
“Slower,” Kenzie said, without looking up. “We’re close enough they could hear us coming.”
“Okay,” Etna said. She slowed down considerably, to the point the car had trouble making it over roots that cut across the top of the road.
I opened my car door and slipped out while the car was still moving.
The woods were dense on either side of the road, and the ‘road’ such as it was, was just a strip of dirt cutting an irregular path through the trees, less like it was intended to take a straight line and more like they’d cut down as few trees as they could get away with while still getting where they wanted to be.
The house itself was half concrete and half prefab, thick walls on the lower section and the side facing downhill, slabs like shipping container walls locked into each other on the other faces. The prefab slices were construction yellow, but it had been painted over in a paint that wasn’t entirely sticking. The effect was almost cool, because it looked like it was glowing through.
The chimney smoked, and two cars were parked under one corner of the building, which was held up by a pillar.
The others gathered below, Etna momentarily looking like a deer as she bobbed up and down to avoid branches above and annoying undergrowth below.
“Do we knock?” Rain asked.
“We could,” Tristan answered. “But I don’t think that would go over well.”
“Wait,” Kenzie said. “This is my specialty. Here, Etna, take this.”
Etna took the button. “What do I do with it?”
“It’s a gift,” Kenzie said, while she busied herself with her phone. “For giving us a ride. It gives you a cool effect, but probably only for thirty minutes. Use it to look intimidating and cool or if you have an event and want to look cool for the cameras or some junk like that. It was supposed to be for a friend, but I swapped out the aesthetic tiles and mapped in molten glass and regular fractal glass patterns. Just press the button when you want to use it- not here! Not here, or you’ll give us away.”
“Uh, okay. Thank you.”
“And use it before the next year is up. Then dispose of it somewhere far from any people, or deplete its battery. Just to be sure nobody gets hurt.”
“A-alright. Thank you.”
“Here,” I said. I had my wallet in my jacket pocket. “Money for gas, and for the windshield, while we’re at it.”
I forked over the bills. Etna handed me back a twenty-five New Dollar bill, waving it off as too much.
Kenzie got Rain to pull out his phone, because he’d apparently let her tinker with it, then had it display a feed from an external camera outside the forest headquarters. I could see us- or the general area where we were, though we were too small and muted to be easily made out.
Her own phone showed the interior. The villains were settling in. A few were working on first aid.
She motioned for me to get my phone out, then positioned herself so she wasn’t looking at any of the phones, instead staring out toward the cabin.
My phone flickered, then showed an image similar to the interior shot. All villains were highlighted in yellow, their names above their heads, while the rest of the place was there in shades of blue. X-ray vision.
“I’m going to point out again that you’ve got way too much tech packed into your eyes, Lookout,” Precipice said.
“I used the concepts from the contact pads you showed me, to have eyeballs outside the head, remember?”
“And then I figured, why not just have eyeballs inside my head like a normal person? Phase them in, each one on a different channel, with the contact pads going straight on or near the brain? Fake optical nerves, minimum connection issue. Like how you talked about your stuff working better if you planted the pads nearer to the spine or the median nerves of the arms.”
“I have about six different problems with that,” Rain said, his voice low. “Seven, now that I think about it. How hot are you running?”
I put my hand on her forehead. “I’m not feeling anything.”
“I’m not running any side routines on my brain,” Kenzie said, sounding exasperated. “Look, first of all, we have a job. If I zoom in, focusing in on the car… the trunk is still in there.”
The phone I was holding up had the x-ray vision. Kenzie had tuned the view to capture the loose luggage shape in the back of the car.
“We could sneak down there, crack that open, and steal it. No fight, obviously we wouldn’t get a chance to talk to Ashley, or it would be an ugly and unfriendly talk, but it’s an option, okay?”
“I feel like you’re distracting us,” Rain said. “I have six problems with your tech load and how you’re carrying it. I’m not even a good tinker and there are red flags here.”
“Can we deal with it after?” Kenzie asked. She pointed. “Mission. Ashley.”
“Damsel,” I said, quiet. “Not Ashley.”
“I get it. I’ve been doing the mental flip-flop in my head, myself,” I told her. “That’s Damsel, that’s Ashley, that’s Damsel. But that first talk was to look for Ashley and reach out. This time, we’re here for Damsel.”
“And Damsel’s here for us,” Kenzie said, turning her head. “Did they see us? Do they have a thinker?”
“No thinker,” Etna said.
The Deathchester group was leaving the headquarters. They fanned out at first, which suggested they hadn’t directly seen us.
“I was careful with the camera,” Kenzie protested. “Shoot!”
Tristan reached out to touch my shoulder. We looked at Sveta, who nodded, then at Rain, who didn’t protest.
We stepped out of the cover of the trees, away from our parked vehicle.
Deathchester lined up, facing us. A few of them had stayed inside. Sidepiece was thankfully one.
Gibbet reached for a log from a stack of firewood, and broke off a stretch of bark. She dropped into a crouch and pressed it into the ground before turning it like a key, ignoring the hardness of the ground she was turning it through. All around her, like a ripple expanding out, jagged, thin walls of wood stabbed up and around us.
Until we were surrounded, walled in. Not that it was much of a wall. Cardboard thin.
I supposed her use of the gallows before had been a style thing.
“We didn’t see a tail,” Trophy Wife said.
“How did you know we were here?” Kenzie asked.
“I’ll tell you our secret if you tell us yours,” Damsel said.
More at ease, even surprised with a situation like this, than she’d been back in the city center. Oddly so. Because she was further from the thin ice?
“Can I?” Kenzie asked Tristan, before looking to me. “It’s a security thing.”
“Yeah,” I said. I saw Tristan nod at the same time.
“Tracker,” Kenzie said. “On Torso.”
“I told you to check yourselves over, you in particular,” Damsel hissed the words, before striking Torso on the back of the head. He toppled, landing on frozen earth, the back of his head scuffed by the claw-marks.
“How did you find me?”
“You’re getting sloppy,” Damsel said. “I hired someone because I had a sneaky little suspicion that a sneaky little heroine would be snooping around. Epeios.”
Kenzie groaned. “He’s going to have his greasy fingerprints all over my stuff, now!”
“With way too much of that stuff in your head,” Rain muttered, under his breath.
“No whispering,” Damsel said, extending a bladed finger our way. She seemed pleased with herself. “We might get paranoid, and I destroy anything that might make my underlings paranoid.”
“You got your trial run as leader, Damsel,” Trophy Wife said. “It doesn’t mean we’re all underlings.”
“Shh,” Damsel said. “I’m leader until someone says otherwise. If you want to oust me, do it formally, not in front of the riff-raff.”
“Can we talk?” I asked. “You scored your win, walked away. I want to strike some deals. Think of it as walking away with something more.”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t quite understand you, with that mask in the way,” she said. “Mockument, could you do us all a favor and bring us out an impartial translator?”
“Do that and you’ll be picking a fight,” Tristan warned. “We can’t negotiate with a distraction like that.”
She waved Mockument off. “Since you’re pleading with me, I’ll be gracious.”
“Sure,” Tristan said.
“Three things we want,” I said.
“Greedy. You know, it’s really hard to take you seriously, Antares, when I’ve seen the ugliness that lies within you.”
The cast of figures around her were either stone-faced or masks covered their faces. Mockument was utterly still and expressionless, as were Trophy Wife and Nailbiter. Gibbet and Backwoods had masks, and Hookline and Sidepiece were inside.
I answered, careful to keep my voice steady. “We could have come after you hard, with the stunts you were pulling and the risk you were putting all of us in. The only reason we’re here talking to you is that we’ve seen what lies within you.”
Her smile dropped away. She went completely, dangerously still.
Maybe it wasn’t the best move from a diplomacy standpoint, but it was satisfying on a visceral level.
“We want the loot back. That’s thing number one. it’s not a lot to you, but it means a ton to those evacuees, sentiment-wise. We’ll pay you more than it’s worth, you won’t need to fence it. Provided you agree to our other terms.”
“What if we want to keep it?” Gibbet asked. She still crouched.
“Clothes too big for you and random jewelry?” I asked.
“It makes sense,” Trophy Wife said. “And we need to sell it to give the boys their cut of the earnings.”
Damsel cleared her throat.
“But-” Gibbet started.
Damsel’s power flickered along the blades of one hand. Gibbet shut up.
“Two,” I said, while she remained silent, glaring. “Swansong provided the Wardens with information about dreams. She got money for it. She’s gone now. Lookout wants some details to prep something we’re looking to do tonight, you want money, do you think we can talk about a short term deal? Brief twenty or thirty minute conversation, couple hundred New Dollars to share with your team?”
“What dreams in particular have your kiddie all up in a tizzy?” Damsel asked. She paced a bit, now. Pacing was better than dangerous stillness. “Do you want to know if I have any fond memories of Swansong? Are you having a service tonight?”
“No,” Kenzie said. “No service yet. All the places we’d normally hold one are evacuating.”
“We can get into which dreams when we’ve agreed on prices,” Tristan said.
Damsel shrugged. She flexed her claws.
She was dangerous. In another time and place, I wouldn’t have wanted to work with her. But Damsel of Distress was chaos, and we needed chaos under control. The only alternative was to extinguish her, and I was pretty sure that the ramifications of that would be far far worse than at least trying this.
“Third thing,” I said. “We can’t have repeat incidents. We need you to back off, for real. We need to know we don’t have to worry about you attacking our most vulnerable areas or causing interdimensional disasters because you’re willing to take those risks.”
“But Antares,” she said, putting an inflection on the name. “You’re prostrating yourself before me, offering me all of these things. Money, free reign, escape. I bet I could ask anything of you. I know you like your discussions over tea or bread and wine with black and white movies. I know our deluded Swansong enjoyed her breakfasts with her desperate little supplicant, but those things don’t have any hold over me. Why would I tie my hands?”
She moved her claws to demonstrate just what hands would be tied.
I could see too much of her eyes, too much energy in how she moved and moved those claws. She was bringing up details she had no right or ability to know. Things she’d picked up from the dreams, from Swansong. Ashley. Using them.
Earlier, I’d thought maybe she was less on edge because she was further from the thin ice. Now, I was thinking it was different. She’d been caught off guard back there, and any variation of Ashley or Damsel that was caught off balance would often rebound the opposite way, violent, devastating, and unpredictable. It had been the case even in our first match against one another. In many unfamiliar situations.
Here, she wasn’t off guard. She’d had time to consider the situation, and while I’d been thinking of how to approach this conversation and what to offer, she had been coming to terms with that glimmer of Swansong within her.
She felt in control, poised, and powerful now because she was harnessing that glimmer. She’d used knowledge of Kenzie to hire Epeios, probably before today given the timing. She was using knowledge of me and Kenzie to get at us on a personal level, show how much she knew.
“Think of it less as you tying your hands, and more about… elevating them,” I said. “Moving up in the ranks, big-picture.”
She didn’t immediately respond.
That blade cuts both ways. I know you too.
“You’re a new team, pulled together, you can tolerate each other for the most part, okay. You’ve got power, a first win, some credibility. Geography’s changing. We put you in contact with Semiramis, Prancer, and the Undersiders. The rules we’re suggesting are the rules they want to play by too, I guarantee you. Play by their and our rules, you can sit at their table.”
She betrayed nothing in her expression, but her team sure did. I saw Trophy Wife smile a bit. Gibbet was nodding. Torso, still lying face-down, stopped trying to get up and twisted his head around to look up at Damsel.
They were transparent, but I felt like I knew her well enough that I was more sure about her answer. She would quibble, but she would say yes. She’d called her group Deathchester, after the territory she’d wanted back in Boston. Where she’d almost but never quite claimed her seat at the table among the local villains.
I could take a stab at giving her that. Give her exactly what she wanted, while embodying so much of what and who I didn’t want to be.