The snowstorm was about as intense as I’d seen it, this fall or last winter, and the degree of the city that had been evacuated left the building interiors dark and unlit, especially this far out. The lights I did see were just as worrying, because it marked people who would be lost to us if we let the city break. It was better to look at them as distress flares than anything reassuring.
So much goddamn effort put into this city. It felt like my family dog had been run over, but I couldn’t even say anything about it because anyone I’d complain to had been closer to the dog and consequently was more affected than I had been. I’d at least had a chance to save it, to step in and do something more, and I hadn’t managed it. I’d scraped my knees and palms diving into the road and I’d failed, but those other people hadn’t even had the chance to try.
So shut the fuck up, Victoria, right? Can’t bitch when other people are hurting worse and are way more helpless.
“How are you doing?” I asked.
Kenzie trudged through the ice-crusted snow to my right. The snow was piling higher, and the city infrastructure that would have cleared the sidewalks had already been cut down to a tenth of what it was. It should have been zero infrastructure, zero people left, but it wasn’t. Zero infrastructure now would have left some people trapped, without any choice to leave.
My question hung in the air, unanswered. It was just Kenzie and I, now. Damsel and Deathchester, Breakthrough, Etna, and the Wardens’ megabase were behind us. Dark, hollow city, ice, and uneven road stretched ahead of us, along with sections of the city that had been abandoned for a few weeks now.
“My foster dads had a system, where we’d put these smiley faces on the fridge,” Kenzie finally said.
Bit of a non-sequitur there, but it had to be on her mind, because she rarely talked about them, and now she was jumping at the excuse. I put a hand out to help steady her and to support her. In more than one sense.
“Frowny face or grumpy face if we were in a bad mood, there was an anxious face and a happy face, a calm face and a sleepy face. Most of the time you’d come in the door, and the kitchen was the first place you’d go, and you could check in while updating people on how your day went without even saying a word.”
“Whenever someone asks how someone else is doing, I think of that board. I think of how I could be in a really crummy mood, but I’d put a smiley face up there anyway, and how everyone sort of does that, you know? I do it a lot but everyone does it, don’t they?”
“They do. I know.”
“Jessica once told me that we all have different kinds of intelligence, and she asked me where I think my strengths are. I’m really good at schoolwork and organization, and staying motivated, and I’m not that intelligent when it comes to figuring out what faces people are putting on. Especially when I get excited, and especially especially when it’s about people.”
She ducked her head down as a snow flurry blew right at her face. I pulled my hood around the side of my face to shield it.
I didn’t interrupt her.
“It’s like there isn’t room for being excited about people and loving people and also understanding those people in the ‘people’ part of my brain. But then things go wrong, they leave, the excitement becomes dread, and I have all the time in the world to go back and look at every conversation, every moment, and realize how badly I fucked the dog.”
“Fucked the dog, huh?” I asked.
“Heartbroken slang. Candy says- said that Imp and the older Heartbroken try to get the younger Heartbroken to start saying it because it really really bothers Rachel.”
“Got it. I’m not sure she’s the type you want to tick off, though.”
“That’s the fun of it. She gets so grumpy, apparently.”
I thought of Rachel ordering her dogs to maim people, breaking legs, when my mom and I had turned up at one crime scene.
The night everything had gone so wrong.
“I think, uh, whatever happens, you shouldn’t go out of your way to annoy or bother Rachel Lindt. I think that should be a rule. I don’t think you lose anything by doing your best to stay on her good side.”
“Except fitting in,” Kenzie said. Then, “Except I’m not even fitting in normally, and I don’t even know what I’m supposed to do there. I hate it.”
“I know,” I said. “And I don’t want to add pressure or more rules. I think I get what you’re saying. People are frustrating and nonsensical and it’s all so hard. The clearest system in the world where you’d expect people to take their feelings and put them up on- it was the fridge?”
“Fridge. Even that doesn’t work out clearly.”
“You asked if I’m okay. Um, I learned tips and tricks from Jessica and I found my place in the team and the world, and I thought I was doing okay. And I wasn’t, was I?”
“You’re doing better, according to everyone that’s been paying attention.”
“…I don’t think I’m better.”
“I didn’t say better. Just… you’ve improved. Sveta would say to keep your eyes forward, build the you that you want to be.”
“After the first incident with my foster dads, I had other stuff around school and my dads. People would say I had a tough start, growing pains, you know? But I lost my foster dads. I went to the Wards and I talked to professionals, and they said I was doing better, I was improving, they liked how things were going, and… I lost the team. I got sent away to training camps, and they said a change of scene was doing me good, I was better, I was improving. And I got people in trouble there.”
I shook my head. Snow fell from my hood. “It’s a pattern, but that doesn’t mean you’re not making headway.”
“I’m going to be your age someday, if I live that long, and a friend is going to be patting me on the back, telling me I’m doing better, keep looking forward. But I’ve had it explained to me and I still can’t stop it. How do you stop yourself from doing something if you can’t see yourself doing it in the first place?”
I had a moment’s thought about whether she was calling me old or being way too fatalistic, then pushed it out of mind. It wasn’t the issue she was trying or wanting to deal with.
“Things change, Kenzie. Nothing stays the same forever.”
“Ashley was supposed to stay by my side forever. She said she’d be by my side forever so long as I was her minion, and then she stopped saying the minion part and kept saying the forever part,” Kenzie said. “I’m so mad at her I could cry.”
I couldn’t see her face, as she had her head turned down to face the ground, watching her steps as we trudged through snow.
“If it was just the Chicken Tenders, I’d be able to deal. If it was just Ashley, I think I could deal eventually. But this is the first time since I first ruined everything that I feel like it’s all gotten so much worse.”
We’d reached the end of the city.
No more sidewalk, no more road. Just wilderness. A tear in reality taller than any building off to the east, making the weather so much worse, snow everywhere, and ice on everything.
“I wish I knew what to say or do, Kenz,” I told her. “A hug? A reminder that there’s always a sleepover and hot chocolate waiting?”
“You make really good hot chocolate,” she said. “You make a lot of really good stuff in general.”
“After Gold Morning, I drifted a bit. I focused on the Patrol, school, trying to get into University. But food, eating healthy, and having meals to look forward to were a thing for me. Figuring out how to be an adult.”
“Yeah. Makes sense,” Kenzie said. “Chris said once that when I became an adult, or when I started to become one, it would be a nightmare.”
“Chris is an ass.”
“But he’s an extra big ass because he’s right, a lot of the time,” she said. “I’m worried because the nightmare started already.”
I floated down so I was in a sitting position, my rear end a couple of inches from the snow below. Putting myself more on Kenzie’s level, my legs crossed. I leaned forward, but she maintained a position where she stared off into the distance, not facing me, so I couldn’t see her face, even now.
I ventured, “I noticed this morning that you took some toiletries from under the sink.”
“I can replace them, sorry.”
“No, no need. It’s there to be taken, so help yourself, take some with you the next time you come by. But if you have any questions…?”
“Not that,” she said. “Maybe a bit of that. There are two of the Chicken Tenders that I really like. Being away from them hurts extra.”
“Crushes?” I asked.
I couldn’t see her face, but I could see her swallow hard. “I keep getting double-whammied. Two crushes, then I’m sad and my stomach hurts because of Ashley and I’m weird-sad and sore because yay, I’m a woman or something-”
Might need to chat at another time and place.
“-and I’m missing them because I’m not there and they hurt my feelings and I screwed up by reading their stuff, and I’m missing them extra because more weird feelings and hormones.”
“These things level off, they balance out,” I said, to say something, even though it felt like an empty platitude.
“I’ve been told for years now that I’m scaring people, I’m hard to predict, I’m out of control. And for most of that I just kind of felt like… no? Not really? I meant well, it wasn’t that bad. It was an accident.”
“Feeling like I do right now…” she trailed off.
“What feelings?” I asked, to prompt her, because it seemed like she really needed to get this out, and because I had no answers to give, and asking questions had a chance of moving the conversation to a point where there were answers to give.
“Desperate feelings,” Kenzie said. She hugged her arms to her chest. “Like some of the worst feelings I had, like when my foster dads were almost gone, or I knew something had happened to Ashley but I hadn’t looked to check for-absolute-sure yet. Or when Chris left but I thought maybe he could come back. It’s like there’s someone really deep inside me, and she’s scratching at the walls of the box she’s in so hard she’s leaving marks in the metal.”
I took in a deep breath.
“I’ve been in that box,” I said. “Scratching.”
Dean. Me sitting in the hospital room, pining for Amy.
It was hard to even think about, hard enough that I felt like the facade I was maintaining and had been maintaining for a while might crack, and past those cracks I might be right where I started, right after I got a ‘me’ body again, compulsions removed.
She seemed to absorb that, then said, “There have been a lot of times in the past where people described what I was doing as scary.”
“Yeah, you mentioned that. Feels unfair?”
“No. It did. But feeling like I do now is the first time I’m a little scared by my feelings and what I might do.”
That was making me reconsider a lot about what we were doing right now. What the hell was I even supposed to say to that?
“Do you think you’re a danger to others?” I asked, as gently as I could.
“Maybe? No, not… I really don’t know,” she said, quiet. “I said before that I couldn’t see in the moment, but then after when people ran away, I could see it.”
“They’re running and I can’t see it, now. It’s getting harder, the feelings weirder and crazier. So what do I even do?”
Her hands in her pockets, snow a quarter-inch thick on her hat, shoulders, and arms, she turned to look at me for the first time in a good while. The smile on her face was the saddest and sweetest I’d seen her wear.
I could see the headlights. Our ride. The car drove slowly through snow that reached up to the undercarriage.
“There’s a set of guidelines I’m pretty sure I’ve talked about before. You do what the law says. That’s absolute.”
Kenzie hesitated, then nodded.
“Then you do what’s right. When you’re dealing with people, that means being honest, truthful, you show caring, share, be respectful -respectful of privacy-.”
“-but you treat people right. I think your intentions are good. After that, if those two things are in conflict or you can’t figure it out, reach out. Ask for help, ask for advice. Hold back, move slowly, put on the brakes as best as you can, and leave room for others to say stuff.”
“What they say isn’t always what I hear.”
“And just… try to live so you have no regrets.”
“That’s your system, then?” she asked. “I think you did mention it, but I was distracted.”
“It’s my system, yeah.”
When was the last time I’d even invoked it, or invoked it fully?
I felt like such a hypocrite.
“A part of me wants this to fall apart,” she said. “Because that’s something I’m used to.”
“That’s a hell of a trap to fall into.”
“Yeah. Have to do this.”
The car had started at the end of the road, moving at maybe thirty miles an hour, and it was halfway to us.
“Can I give you a hug?” I asked.
She shook her head, shifting her weight, still wearing a smile, even if it wasn’t the scarily sad and sweet smile I’d seen earlier, that would forever be ingrained in my mind as an expression that was indelibly Kenzie.
“I know I’m sick, but would it be sufficient excuse if I said I was the one who wanted or needed a hug?”
“That’s cheating,” Kenzie said, quiet.
“And the answer’s still no. I shouldn’t be hugging anyone right now.”
“You’re usually safe,” Kenzie said. “But if I let myself slide with you, then I slide with others, and I really, really can’t slide right now.”
“Okay,” I said.
The car had to stop, because the snow piled up at the front was slowing it down. It backed up, then began to drive over the hump that had been created.
Why am I usually safe? I wondered.
I couldn’t dwell on it. Not when there were bigger concerns.
Had Kenzie confessed these desperate feelings to me earlier, I wasn’t sure I would have arranged this.
The car stopped. I opened the door for Kenzie, kicking aside a bit of snow so the door would open all the way and close without scooping in a heaping of snow with it.
“Sorry to have you come all this way,” I said.
“Not too long a trip,” Natalie said. “But the roads are awful.”
Past a certain point.
Rather than open another door, I climbed into the back, while Kenzie scooted across the back seat.
“Project done?” I asked Natalie.
“Yeah. A lot of last minute changes. Being more aggressive, laying out more rules. We really missed having your mom there.”
“What project?” Kenzie asked.
“New laws and rules. Figuring out consequences we could levy against parahumans that don’t rely on prison. I ended up using a lot of what I observed and saw.”
“Do I need to be worried?” I asked.
“No. Nothing targeting you. I did make an argument at one point that if we didn’t make parahumans listen to us or include us, they wouldn’t,” Natalie said.
I sat with that for a bit, aware Kenzie was looking at me. I conceded, “Fair.”
“It’s my fault as much as anyone’s. I could have been more insistent when I had issues, but I wasn’t. I was being paid to be available, and past a point you didn’t need me to counsel you on the work you were doing. I get that.” Natalie glanced at me in the rear-view mirror.
“A lot of what we were doing wasn’t hero work,” I said. “Aftermath of the Fallen, investigations that started and ended with cape business, Goddess, diplomacy…”
“Absolutely,” Natalie said. Her forehead creased above the overlarge, round lenses she wore. “I’m not trying to condemn you or make my unhappiness known after the fact, Victoria. It was a learning experience. I learned, I applied what I learned. If I hadn’t worked with Breakthrough, I’m not sure anyone would have even listened to me. So I owe you something.”
Natalie began fiddling with her dashboard map system. I would have told her to watch the road, but there were barely any cars this far out.
“What changes did you make?” I asked.
“I convinced them to be strict. Where there are voids, capes and people in general will develop their own systems and rules within those voids. The laws include rules of forfeiture, labeling capes as noncompliant with rules for any media or businesses dealing with them…”
“Forfeiture? Government takes their stuff?”
“Yes. Property, cash, vehicles, assets, any tinkertech,” Natalie said. Again, that concerned look. Like she thought capes might go ballistic at new rules and restrictions, and I was among those capes.
Maybe that was unfair.
“You run into the problem of the government having to actually take the stuff.”
“We don’t. We have Dragon and some thinkers to keep an eye on the digital marketplaces, and they can swoop in to seize any funds there for fines. For everything else, we put out a bounty on assets equal to the amount specified by the legal action.”
“A bounty,” I said.
“If you cause undue property damage, for example, you get a chance to appear in court. You don’t need to reveal your identity, though it helps, and just showing up gives you a reduction in any penalties. If the ruling is against you, you can pay the fine, but if you don’t, your stuff is up for grabs, in an amount up to double the value of what the fine was. If someone wants to take your hideout, they can, and the government will consider it a fair transfer of property.”
“Kill orders for stuff,” I said.
“Hitting where it hurts. If you’re deemed noncompliant with the local government, then there are other penalties. Restrictions on language and images that can be used, so the media isn’t promoting villains or dangerous vigilantes. Businesses have to do paperwork to establish paper trails when working with the noncompliant, or face penalties…”
“Making it easier to ignore the problem capes than to cater to them.”
“Yeah,” Natalie said. “Other stuff, too. Formalizing the processes where you guys send capes off to a mystery dimension with limited or no contact thereafter. We get our guys in on that process, victims get a jury of their peers, and we’re requiring a few more rights be afforded to the defendants. Scummy as they are.”
“Honestly, that would probably be a relief,” I said.
“What do you think?” she asked.
“I think it makes sense. I think you’re going to be sparking a lot of individual conflicts and fights when you’re saying people can legally take one another’s stuff-”
“-But that might be intentional. Diverting those of a mercenary mindset and setting them against the troublemakers.”
“That was part of the intent,” Natalie said.
“Won’t be easy or clean,” I warned her.
“No. I never thought it would be.”
“Follow the law, then do what’s right, reach out if you’re not sure,” Kenzie said.
“Yeah,” I said. “Minimize regrets.”
“It might not even matter,” Natalie said. “We’re going to try to spread the word, but we’re worried nobody’s going to listen because the anti-parahumans are louder and they just got a quote-unquote ‘win’ by attacking the mayor and killing her boyfriend.”
“And there’s the city itself,” I said.
“Either we evacuated for nothing and people will be so mad they won’t listen to reason, or we evacuated for a reason and nothing’s going to matter for a while,” Natalie said. She sighed.
I heard that sigh, and it sounded like a perfect distillation of the feeling that had seized me earlier. A dead dog sigh.
I hadn’t felt any profound degree of kinship with Natalie until that sigh.
“Let us know what we can do,” I said.
“I will,” she said.
The conversation turned, and we recapped our encounter with Deathchester, with Kenzie chiming in, in a very Kenzie way. Not quite the happy Kenzie I wanted to hear chiming in, but happy was expecting a lot.
She’d still lost her favorite person.
I’d noted my ability to sense the turbulence of the world where the reality had been wounded and scarred over too many times, in too fragile a place. In this car that wasn’t meant to drive through snowy dirt roads, I was aware of different sorts of turbulence. Natalie and her underlying feelings on things. Kenzie, and the rising nervousness and intensity.
Emotions crowding out emotional intelligence, maybe. Compensated for with more verve, hype, excitement.
I could hear howling well in advance of anything being visible. As we got closer, I could hear the barking.
Massive cabins, and there were buildings I might have tentatively called stables. As we drove up, a dog larger than Natalie’s car ran up alongside us, separated from us by a fence it could have easily jumped. No rider. Some bones that should have been on the inside were on the outside, connected by webworks of mystery bone, ligament, muscles that didn’t correspond to normal body type and shape, and were studded inconsistently with spikes and longer, thinner bits of bone that might as well have been spines. The tail that flicked out behind it was like two human spines joined together and then joined to the butt by a haphazard tangle of meat.
Kenzie rolled down her window, which saw snowflakes and cold air streaming into the car interior.
“Doooooon!” Kenzie called out.
The beast crashed into the fence in its sudden enthusiasm. Natalie swerved a bit, as if anticipating the dog would crash through and cut her off.
The smell of horses, dogshit, and horseshit followed in after the wash of cold air. Kenzie remained at the window, staring out at the scattered settlement of large cabins and larger stables. Whole areas were lit by spotlights, but it seemed more inwardly focused than previous iterations I’d seen. It wasn’t Earth N setting up to defend themselves against an assault. It was about illuminating fields that had been cleared for animals to run around in. It was the mid-afternoon, just starting to get dark with the season being what it was, and people were out on their own sorts of patrol, with poop collection tools and trashbags.
“They said to pull into the round parking lot,” I said.
The round parking lot was situated near a cluster of buildings. Just between one of the buildings was a skating rink. It looked like a couple and a father with his daughter were out on the ice.
The Heartbroken were near one of the main buildings. Not just the Tenders. Chastity, Romeo, Juliette, Aroa, Amias, Flor, and a few others I didn’t recognize. Darlene, Aiden, and Candy were slightly apart from the rest, and all three wore their costumes. Syndicate, Chicken Little, and Decadent.
Imp stood by. No Rachel. Remembering the bit about Imp convincing the kids to use a swear that would upset Rachel, I wasn’t exactly glad to see her hanging around.
Kenzie pulled off her hat, and squirmed around to see her head in the rear-view mirror, with Natalie moving it to help. It hardly mattered, Kenzie’s hair was perfect.
“I’m having second thoughts, but I can’t exactly leave now that I’m here, can I?” Kenzie asked. She hadn’t left her car seat.
“We could,” I said.
“But it’d make things worse,” she said.
“If you want to stay in the car, I can ask for your stuff. It simplifies things.”
“And it makes the gaps bigger,” Kenzie said. She shook her head, like she was shaking something off, and she got out of the car before I could say anything more.
The door slammed.
“How bad is this?” Natalie asked.
“I couldn’t even guess. It’s the Heartbroken, and the only rule is that they’ll surprise you, and they have the ability to make their surprises especially nasty.”
“Okay. What do I do?”
“I wish I knew,” I said. “Just back her up.”
I climbed out, Natalie did the same.
It was Decadent who closed the distance, jogging along the snow that had been trampled to a hard packed and mostly flat plain around the major buildings.
Kenzie brought her arms up to block the incoming hug. I saw Decadent pull off her grinning, heavily decorated mask, and I saw the hurt on her face.
The others approached. All of the Heartbroken but one had black hair, the exception being a red haired girl I hadn’t seen before. All but two of them were the same slender, slightly-shorter-than-average, body type, with buxom Chastity and a more robust looking little dude being the exceptions. And so it went. Juliette and Roman were the only two who had straight hair and not the unruly, wavy hair of the rest of the group.
Of note, Candy was one of three to dress in brighter colors, with nice clothes in a very modern style. Her hair done over in a dramatic tumble over to one side of her head, a complex set of braids at the side turning what might have been an eighties-style disaster into something elegant.
Darlene was wearing more ‘high fashion’, with a ruffled dress and jacket that could have been the very thing for girls to wear to an event eighty years ago, her hair cut to be level with her chin, makeup done up to include bold red lipstick and similarly red eye shadow. The effect was better and more striking than I’d seen it in the past. Practice paid off. She stood out from the pack because of her nervousness, when so many of the others were more the laissez faire sort of confident.
And then Chicken Little, who couldn’t come off as anything but a kid, when surrounded by so many others who seemed so bad at acting like regular kids. The amusing thing was, he was showing off more power than the others, with three birds perched on his shoulders, where his red jacket had straps arranged to be extra padding and grip-points for talons. But he didn’t seem more powerful.
It wasn’t fair, that it had to be one against thirteen. Fourteen if I counted Imp.
Wasn’t fair, that there was so fucking much pain, implicit in the fact that these kids existed and all had the same dad. That no moms were present to watch over them.
I approached Kenzie, standing behind her so at the very least it wouldn’t be quite so one-sided. She looked back at me.
“We can leave at any time,” I murmured.
“Okay,” she said, barely audible.
“You’ve been doing your hair the way I showed you,” Candy said. Kenzie had her hair in the two buns at the back, but had left some kinky hair she’d arranged to frame either side of her face and tuck behind her ears.
“I cheated,” Kenzie said. “I liked it when you did it, so I took pictures to save them for later.”
As if to demonstrate, she waved her hand through one of the locks of hair. The hair didn’t budge.
“That’s not allowed. You won’t get better if you don’t practice.”
“I know. But it’s been hard to find the time, the last few days,” Kenzie said. And with those words, a few people dropped their eyes or reacted. She seemed to gather up a bit of extra energy, pushing herself to add, “I’m sorry about Samuel. I’ve already said it to Darlene and Candy and to Chicken Little too, but I liked him when I met him, and I… sorry.”
“Condolences for Swansong,” Chastity said, from the sidelines. She glanced at me, and I nodded.
“I didn’t want this to be a big thing,” Kenzie said. “You said you packed up the office, and you got my tinker gear?”
“It’s here. We were extra careful,” Darlene said. “Knowing how tinkers work, we might have broken some of it no matter what we did. We tried to call.”
“I was in a fight. With the other Ashley. If it’s just small issues I don’t mind. Thank you for being careful.”
Kenzie sounded so earnest. Forced-earnest.
“What’s going on?” Candy asked.
“I didn’t want this to be a big thing. I just thought I could get my stuff, we could chat for a bit, bring up some stuff to talk about more later, um, cover more of this later.”
“Tattletale said you were coming and you needed stuff, but that we had to have a serious talk.”
Approaching a sensitive situation with the social equivalent of a sledgehammer, I see, I thought to myself. And you’re nowhere to be seen.
“Is there a reason you haven’t been around? That isn’t Swansong?” Chicken Little asked.
Kenzie wrung her hands in front of her.
“She’s scared,” the heavier-built boy that was under Kenzie’s age said. “And guilty.”
“Please don’t do that,” Kenzie said. “When I was in Teacher’s system, I ran a system snapshot tech, reorganizing and sorting the files and contents by a few different metrics-”
“Don’t tinker-talk at us,” Candy said. “Talk to us.”
“I am! I found files about us. Stuff he watched or captured. Stuff pulled from our computers by hackers, from your computers before I put my own security on there. From your phones.”
“You read our stuff?” Darlene asked.
“I thought it was faked stuff like he set up to divide teams and my first thought was that I wanted to protect you guys, in case he wanted to split up your family or attack the Undersiders through you, so I ran some system check and comparison stuff.”
“But you read our stuff?” Darlene asked. “My writing? You saw my pictures?”
“Yeah. What I saw was good!”
I cleared my throat. Kenzie turned around and looked at me, and I shook my head a bit.
“Did you look at Chicken Little’s stuff?” Darlene asked, sounding more offended than she had about her own things.
I saw Chicken Little stiffen.
“Yeah,” Kenzie said.
Chicken Little piped up, “I told you to leave my stuff alone. You said you’d respect any rules or requests if we had any, and I said to leave the ‘family’ folder alone. But you went in there?”
“Okay, but you have to understand, I thought it was faked, like a bunch of the other stuff he did. Stuff was flagged with the parameters I set.”
“No tinker-talk,” Darlene said.
“My pictures of my mom were flagged?” Chicken Little asked.
“No. But other stuff near it was, and the sort structure I used linked-”
“No tinker talk!” Darlene raised her voice. “Stop.”
“I’m not! It’s not tinker talk!” Kenzie raised her voice to match. “It’s regular computer talk. I think.”
“To go into pictures of my mom you’d have to go into the folder,” Chicken Little was quieter, while everyone else was louder, but everyone listened to him when he talked. “You snooped.”
“I didn’t, not like you’re thinking! I wanted to be sure we were safe and nothing was there that would drive us apart.”
“How would those pictures ever do that?”
“I don’t- I can’t say without talking about them and I won’t talk about them because that’s private for you.”
“It was, until you snooped,” Juliette said.
“Guys,” I said, cutting in. “Hey, let’s tone it down. This is for Kenzie and the members of her team.”
Juliette shot me a look, cold and pointed. Like she was more ready to pick a fight now that I’d asked her not to.
I looked to Imp for help and I saw none. Was she waiting for things to get worse? Was she in the same boat as Tattletale, wanting Kenzie out of the team?
“Might as well tell people,” Chicken Little said, sounding sullen, dejected. He shrugged. “I’ve been saving pictures of people that remind me of my mom, since I don’t remember her at all. It’s random and stupid, but it’s supposed to be my private random and stupid.”
“It’s not stupid,” Roman said.
“It’s a bit stupid,” Aroa cut in.
Roman stuck out his foot, lightly kicking Aroa in the butt. “Shut up. You know the rules. And you know that moms and dads are tough topics. Nobody’s going to laugh at Chicken for this unless they want my foot jammed up their ass.”
“I wouldn’t laugh,” Kenzie said. “I could even help, if you wanted me to do a composite image for you using the parts you thought fit, or if you wanted me to search old databases.”
“It’s my thing,” Chicken Little said. “I specifically asked for you to not butt in, and you’re butting in more now that you’ve been caught?”
“That’s not-” Kenzie stopped herself.
“Do you want to go?” I asked. This was more aggressive than I’d anticipated.
“Hey, Lookout,” Aroa called out. “Since Roman just mentioned the rules, do you need a refresher? The most important rule. They would have warned you pretty early on.”
“It’s fine,” Chicken Little said. “No, not fine, but I don’t want-”
“You don’t hurt the Chicken,” Aroa called out.
“Don’t speak for the group, Aroa,” Imp said. She’d been leaning against the side of a stable. Now she was cutting in. “This is about the quartet and their team.”
“You don’t hurt the Chicken,” Darlene said.
“Okay,” Imp said. “I’ll rephrase, don’t speak for Chicken. He said he doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, right?”
“Right,” Chicken Little said.
But some younger Heartbroken had picked it up. Amias, the chubbier eight or nine year old. The red haired Heartbroken.
“Okay,” Imp said. “I guess that’s the conch shell broken.”
Okay, way more aggressive than I’d anticipated.
And Kenzie stood there, wounded. Candy a few feet away, passive, while her big sister approached, bending down to whisper something in her ear. Candy nodded.
I looked at Imp, and I made a surreptitious motion, toward the car.
I put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder. I had to give her a tug to break her out of her daze and get her moving. Leading her back to the car.
I nearly tripped as she jerked to a stop. I used flight to catch my balance, then turned around.
Kenzie, stricken, wasn’t moving a muscle.
I looked past her, and I saw Juliette in the background, unmoving.
Imp put herself between Flor and us, while Flor tried to duck around. She got closer to Chicken Little in the process, and it was Roman who looked after the kid.
But that left a few others who were approaching.
“Guys,” Imp said. “You do this, you don’t get to come to Aunt Rachel’s for a long, long time. I’ll be disappointed. I think a lot of people will.”
Chastity faced off against some of the younger group, whip out. Candy was beside her, arms at her sides.
Darlene caught my eye, because Darlene was on the side of the aggressors, and I’d had enough warnings about her to date that I knew she was almost as bad as Flor. More than any of the others, she reminded me of what I’d seen of Cherish, and of Jean-Paul Vasil. Regent.
I used my aura, blasting it across the group. Fat lot of good it did. Three out of four of the kids didn’t even react. The rest barely seemed to be affected.
I bent down, swooping the frozen Kenzie up into my arms, in something approximating the hug I’d offered her earlier, but emptier, purely in the interest of saving her from whatever this group was threatening her with. The swiftness of the motion gave me a coughing fit, which I did my best to suppress, face turned away from Kenzie.
The freeze gripped me. My every muscle ceased to listen to me, and only my flight kept me from falling over.
She fell from my unmoving arms, landing on the snow. I flew to rotate myself around, but my body remained statue-still.
“You looked at my computer?” Candy asked. Kenzie was a matter of five feet behind her, kneeling in the snow.
“The letters I wrote to dad’s friends?”
Candy looked back, her expression pained. “I didn’t want you to see those. Not yet.”
“You’re going to be really sorry if they get to you,” Candy said. She took a step to the side, putting herself between Darlene and Kenzie. To Darlene, she said, “Don’t.”
“She hurt the Chicken.”
“The Chicken says he doesn’t want this. The reason you’re doing this is you’re jealous, because he likes her and she likes him,” Candy said.
“Saying that out loud means it’s more likely I do something to her,” Darlene said.
“You like her,” Candy said. “You’re happier and more friendly when she’s around.”
“When she’s not hurting him!”
“You enjoyed her company more than anyone. You had the least complaints about her. Sorry.”
“I read all that too,” Kenzie said, still kneeling, eyes downcast.
“Oh,” Candy said.
“Get out of my way,” Darlene said. “You don’t want to get on my bad side.”
“Try me. This is stupid.”
Natalie had exited the car, running forward, and was stricken mid-stride. She fell hard, stopped for just a pivotal second while running. Juliette again.
Roman had left, taking Chicken Little with him. She used her power, as someone ran across Roman’s path, to make that someone stop in Roman’s way. Roman nearly fell, then pushed the civilian aside. Getting Chicken Little clear of a bad scene.
Someone else exited the main building, a big guy with a black beard, his attention on our group. He fell down the bottom three stairs when she froze him.
Aroa laughed, and it was a haunting, joyless child’s laugh.
I was free, and I flew closer, only to be caught in a cloud of blinding pain that made my nerves sing high, sweet notes. I couldn’t fly into the crowd of Heartbroken when I couldn’t see straight, so I plunged into the ground near Chastity. A fierce enough impact that it spooked some of the kids nearby.
“You’re being selfish and shortsighted, and you’ll drive away all of the best people here. Chastity, and Imp and Tattletale and Rachel, Char and Forrest, Ben and Old Bird,” Candy said. “You’ll lose Chicken, and not because he likes Lookout.”
“Why are you defending her?”
“Because she’s our best friend, you tit! It sucks we lost Sammy and it feels like balances are broken but that doesn’t mean we go bad! It means we try to fill the space he left behind! And she lost someone too and maybe she was dumb and she broke rules, but I think that matters. Swansong was cool.”
Darlene huffed for breath. I remained in a crouch, feeling more like a feral dog than a person as the pain crackled off me, my entire body tingling in a way that brought back the worst of bad memories. About four kids were keeping their distance just because I was where I was. Darlene sort of included.
“Lookout,” Candy said. “When you looked at all that stuff, was it after Swansong?”
“Before. But we knew we’d lose someone.”
“You weren’t thinking straight.”
“It was shitty,” Candy said, her attention split between Kenzie and the ongoing skirmish, kids fanning out. Some, I was pretty sure, were unpowered. But some weren’t, and I didn’t know all of those powers. “Those letters were for me and my doctor.”
Rachel’s dogs were on the scene now. The one from by the fence, Bastard, Yips, and two more. They approached, and they interjected themselves into the middle of the fight. Crazy or sadistic, the kids didn’t fuck with the dogs.
Rachel hopped off Bastard’s back, joining Imp, who seemed to be recapping.
“I know. Really. I know I upset you guys, I pushed things too far. I crossed boundaries without meaning to.”
“You’re talking about the other stuff. Like when we complained about you waiting outside the bathroom while we went. Or that day you didn’t go more than five minutes without calling one of us.”
“Yeah,” Lookout said. “I read the things you said. The jokes. Like when I called and you said ‘look out, another Kenzie call!’ or Candy calling me thirstier than a humpless camel. You said I was so broken it would take your dad to fix me, and you hate your dad.”
Rachel turned away from Imp. I held up a hand.
“Some things are so horrible you have to joke about them,” Darlene said.
“I’m that horrible?” Kenzie asked, quiet.
The fighting had stopped. Various kids looked sullen or wary. Others like Chastity looked exhausted.
“We’re all kind of broken or horrible,” Candy said. “Obviously. But we grew up with each other, so we got over it. We said a lot of nasty stuff about each other over the years, as part of learning how to live with each other. You’re… can I say she’s part of the family?”
She’d asked Darlene. Darlene frowned.
Candy didn’t press. Kenzie clasped her hands together for warmth, crouching and making for a very small, slight figure, still kneeling in snow that had to be freezing.
“Yeah,” Darlene said.
“Okay?” Candy asked.
“I have to think about it. I really want to hang out with you guys again, even if the team isn’t a thing anymore, but Ms. Yamada told me I have to be careful and watch out for anything like people who treat me badly and then draw me back in.”
“We’ll ease back in,” Candy said. “Make amends over time. Please? I like having a girl as a friend I’m not related to, who wears normal clothes.”
“Time to go,” Rachel called out.
She was addressing us.
I stood, using my flight. I gave Kenzie a hand, and had to pull her up.
“I need my stuff,” Kenzie said, her eyes downcast. Her voice was so quiet it was more for me than for anyone else, even Candy, to hear. “For tonight.”
“Can we get her lab stuff?” I asked.
“After. We’ll send it to you.”
“That’ll break stuff more,” Kenzie said. Still talking to me, not Rachel.
“We’ll go,” Candy said. She stepped forward and took Darlene’s hand. “As a team. Whatever you’re doing.”
“That might not be the best idea,” I said. It makes a sketchy situation worse, and embroils the Undersider’s kids in this. If this goes sour, the Undersiders will kill us.
“It would help, actually,” Kenzie said. “Having Syndicate, especially.”
“Please,” Candy told Darlene. “You said she was your best non-family friend. You enjoyed having her around. You complained less than any of us. Right?”
Kenzie nodded in affirmation.
“Can we go?” Darlene asked Rachel. “For a project tonight?”
Rachel looked pretty unimpressed.
“No, I think,” Imp said. “Not until we get all the lords and ladies of the flies loaded up onto the warship. Sort out what happened. Keelhaul a few of you.”
“It’s important,” Kenzie protested.
“And Darlene didn’t do anything except get mad,” Candy added.
“I didn’t! And you should be focusing more on Aroa and Juliette!” Darlene cut in.
The protests overlapped.
Rachel whistled, hard. The kids shut up.
“She said no,” Rachel said.
“I say yes,” Tattletale said. She was just joining the group from behind Natalie’s car. One of the other buildings. “At least for now, the kids should get in the car and make up. Bring Chicken back, have them talk. It does more damage if they don’t at least say sorry to each other and get on the same page.”
Rachel heaved out a sigh, staring Tattletale down.
“Really,” Tattletale said. “I have the impression this is important. Let’s get someone to get the tinker stuff while we wait.”
“I swear,” Imp said, and her voice was hard. “If I have to have another funeral for the Heartbroken so soon, I’m gone, and I’m taking them with. Samuel was bad enough.”
“Okay,” Tattletale said.
Slowly, quietly, the mob was broken up, the kids sent their separate ways. Kenzie, Darlene, Candy, and after a minute, Chicken Little all gathered in the back of Natalie’s car, with Natalie sitting in the front, hands on the wheel, staring out at nothing in particular.
“You want me to bring your Damsel of Distress into the villain inner circle,” Tattletale commented.
“It’s what I said on the phone. Yeah.”
“Talk me through it.”
“You can work with controlled chaos. Semiramis wants a Little-Midas-like violent subfaction to bounce off against, it’s how she operates, and I know Damsel will like Semiramis’s shtick without them being so similar they’ll threaten each other. Prancer knows her and knows her team, pretty much.”
“She’s a known quantity, sure. But she’s a mess, and she’s petty.”
“She’s looking for direction. You’re looking to expand your collective power base. She captures a share of the villains out there that the rest of you guys don’t. Her being petty is her having aspirations without having a lot of hard-to-meet needs.”
“And what do you get out of this? You get to play kingmaker?”
“I get a villain who could blow a hole in reality off the streets and into a place where she’s being watched and encouraged to be cooperative,” I said. “For right now that’s all that matters.”
“Until this big, scary side project of yours comes through.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“You’re taking my kids and you’re taking my Chicken Little?”
“Lookout seems to think it’ll matter.”
“And she’s… really the one you want to be leaning on, in this specific moment?”
She looked out over the area where the skirmish had been happening. Most of the kids had cleared out.
“This is my mess that boiled over. I’ll babysit your Damsel for one day. After that, I suspect she’ll either lose interest, or we’ll have other distractions. In return, you keep my kids safe, and whatever you end up doing, you don’t point it at me or my people. If you can fuck Teacher front-on with a nail-studded baseball bat while you’re at it, I’d consider it a favor.”
“I’ll look into that,” I said.
“Do I go talk to Damsel now?”
“No,” I said. “You say yes, and I’ll believe you. That should be enough to get her on board. She has details to share for our Teacher-fucking project tonight, but they were conditional on getting some promises. I had to ask you first.”
“Face to face.”
“It helps,” I said, shrugging.
“And you’re meeting her now. You’re meeting everyone now.”
I nodded. I looked back at the car. Kenzie sat in the back, knees drawn up to her chest, a smile on her face. It was not, at the very least, the horribly lonely smile from before. “Talking to Damsel and getting the tech going.”
Tattletale grinned. “Then I’ll come, to keep an eye on the kids in my charge, and to see what kind of glorious, horrible mess you’re about to make.”