“Here, think I got it,” Kenzie said. She pulled a clip off her belt, which I realized was a repurposed hairpin. She stuck it in the snow, and let the three-dimensional map expand around it. The corner of the image flickered where it was closer to the fire.
A zoomed-out, three-dimensional view of the Fallen compound. Two feet across.
“You’re missing some craters down here,” I pointed down near the southeastern entrance to the compound.
“Geez,” Rain said. “I lived here, and I’m struggling to make heads or tails of it.”
“You’re looking at it upside-down,” Kenzie said. She moved her hand and rotated it. “It’s not a very good map, either.”
I could see a glove or a hat balanced on the end of a shovel by a fence. “Seems pretty good to me.”
“No. I could have gotten more, but I thought my cameras being a couple pounds lighter would be better, since I was carrying them around. If I’d added a bit more tech, I could have the data we need. As it is, different soil types or conditions could impact tree growth, and this image doesn’t see through the trees, so it’s a bit of a guess.”
“We’ve got a Precipice,” Chicken Little said. “Right, Precipice? You have any ideas? If you don’t, Tattletale might.”
“I’m coming in second to him,” Tattletale noted.
“Only for this! He lived here, like he said,” Darlene protested.
“I buy you cool clothes, get you self defense and martial arts lessons…”
“You know martial arts?” Kenzie asked. “That’s so cool, Chicken!”
“I’m only a yellow belt.”
“…I get you rides, get you equipment, support your new team, even acquire prehistoric birds for you. And you rank him higher than me.”
“For this!” Chicken Little exclaimed.
“Little guy is leaving the nest,” Imp said, wiping away a fake tear from her mask.
“He is not leaving the nest. The nest keeps him safe,” Tattletale said.
“Can we get back on topic?” Foil asked. “Mission.”
“Pointless mission,” Tattletale said.
“You’re more prickly than Rachel today,” Parian commented.
“I’m not prickly,” Rachel said. She’d taken a seat vacated by Hookline, who’d gone off for a smoke. “Prickly means… little things. That’s not right.”
“Gruff,” Cassie supplied.
“Gruff is good. Why are we dwelling on this? Pick the highest mountain.”
“Because they want to feel like they’re doing something, but we’re in ‘hurry up and wait’ mode,” Tattletale commented. “And the ‘something’ they decided to do is try to work out something I can just tell them.”
“You’re wrong sometimes,” Candy said.
“How often? Five percent of the time? Less?”
“But it’s kind of a huge disaster whenever it happens,” Candy pointed out.
“This is not that sort of moment. You want a vantage point. Lookout, can you label the hills and mountains? I don’t want to get up from my bench for something this dumb.”
Gibbet was building a small foot-high snowman out of the snow around her log. Part of her team had vacated the area, including her boyfriend. Some of them had wanted to smoke, others to get the lay of the land. Only Sidepiece, Disjoint, Gibbet and Damsel remained from Deathchester.
“Do the hills have names?” Kenzie asked.
“Nah,” Rain said.
“Okay, then. What’s closest to this hill? Important buildings? Anything?”
“This is so dumb,” Tattletale muttered. “Hill A, Hill B. You’re complicating this so much.”
“Let them,” Foil said. “This doesn’t hurt anything, and it could be useful. If we have names for places we’re going, directions, reference points could be really useful. Not everyone’s good at holding As, Bs, Cs, and 1-2-3s in their heads.”
The labels appeared as Rain gave Kenzie suggestions. Entry Hill, Stable Hill. The Workshop Cliff. Logger Hill. Mount Cross. Mount Misery.
“Mount Cross?” I asked.
“Fallen were going to set something up there,” Rain said, indicating a mountain in the distance. “Blew over, they got bored, didn’t want to restart it.”
“Mount Misery?” Imp asked.
“There’s a little house, out that way. Sometimes people who weren’t doing so well would get stowed there. I… got an offer to live out there. Away from the thick of the Fallen nonsense. But it would’ve meant I had to betray my team. I think a lot about what would have happened if I said yes, and I inevitably decide I would have been pretty miserable. So… the mountain near there that they cut a chunk out of for the stone? Mount Misery.”
“Doesn’t seem like a very good offer,” Imp said. “Hermit hut, but you gotta lose your friends.”
“Wasn’t the only part of the deal,” Tattletale said, leaning forward to warm her hands by the fire.
“Thank you for deciding the way you did,” Sveta said, just over my shoulder.
Gibbet balanced the head of her mini-snowman atop the body, which seemed late to have taken her a while to do. It wasn’t until I saw her carefully put a scarf around its head and cinch it tighter that I saw she’d tied the scarf into a general noose shape. She placed her hand on top of her little snowman, and pushed it into the ground. All around her and us, life-size snowmen rose up from the snow, all with oversized scarves.
She flicked the little snowman’s head off. The others remained as they were. I couldn’t see her expression, because her entire face and head was covered by black cloth, with her looking out the eye-holes, a short noose hanging from her neck. I felt like she was maybe dissatisfied or nervous.
“I’m going to go find my boyfriend and bum a smoke,” Gibbet said.
“Don’t suppose you could rearrange those snowmen? Block off the wind?” Imp asked. “Moi derriere is tres froide.”
The Heartbroken groaned. Damsel seemed pleased though, smiling.
“Culture, y’know,” Imp said, as an aside to Damsel. “Can’t wear a slinky black bodysuit and not speak some sultry French.”
The Heartbroken spoke up, talking over in their efforts to jump in with their retorts and criticisms. I caught ‘as a bulldog in fishnets’ from Roman, mostly because he was the loudest.
Imp ignored them, calling out to Gibbet, who was walking away. “Yo! You didn’t answer me. Barrier? For the kids, even?”
“It’ll shrink when I leave,” Gibbet said. “Doesn’t matter. Let me know when you decide on a location.”
“We’re close, really,” Imp said. “Could be a minute.”
“Then find me in a minute.”
“Pick the tallest mountain. Simple,” Rachel said. “You’re overthinking it.”
“What if the trees are tall because of soil or whatever?” Kenzie asked.
“Then you’re a few feet lower. Does it really matter?”
“Okay, but… there are other considerations,” Kenzie said.
“Like?” Rachel asked.
“Vegetation,” Rain answered. “This is pre-human. There aren’t as many trails, lots of woodland where fallen branches and trees are overgrown with their own shrubs and bushes. You can’t walk through that. Which is why Logger Hill might be best. The way is already clear.”
“I can,” Damsel said. “I’ll blaze a path.”
“Then, hm. Stable Hill. It’s rocky, I remember it’s overgrown from discussion about runoff from the hills flooding some houses. It’s close.”
The Malfunctions were very quietly having soup, because they’d apparently skipped lunch with all the patrolling and commotion. The Heartbroken were having hot chocolate scavenged from military rations along with biscuits and salty crackers. Darlene using the fabric of her dress stretched between her legs to hold whole handfuls of the things, and handing them out on request.
There was a game plan, at least for ensuring our side had enough eyes on what was going on. But we weren’t eager to budge. I imagined it as something like standing in a doorway. To go inside, literally in our case, was too much fo a retreat. Going out meant leaving the small sanctuary, warmth, and limited shelter provided by the nearby buildings.
And honestly, everyone had experienced mortal fear this morning.
A bunch of small conversations bubbled up. The tactics question had been more of a ‘what if’, it seemed. I wasn’t about to press, not when I wasn’t sure of where I was at.
I was itching to do something but they were just recovering from doing something. It made me think, not for the first time, about how tricky group dynamics could be. Keeping a balance, keeping everyone on the same page.
There was more to it, though. The cliques and groups. Going around the circle of people who had gathered at the fire, everyone had found their groove, and the ones who hadn’t had left.
Rachel had Yips zipped up into her coat, so his head stuck out of the ‘v’ of the zipper’s opening. It was a heavy coat that looked like it could flatten a small child if it were dropped on them, with fur around the collar and hood that was more wooly or shaggy than it was ‘hair’ like I normally associated with parkas. She shrugged at something Cassie said, pulling the ‘v’ of the zipper up against Yips’ throat. He hacked out a cough, which disturbed the other dogs that were lying between her feet and the fire.
Rachel had Cassie, her henchwoman, an older teen with tousled hair and grungy clothes very similar to Rachel’s, with patches sewn into a jacket showing bulldog faces from biker gangs alongside cartoon dogs. She had overdone black eyeshadow that served to bring out how pale her dichromatic eyes were in contrast to her skin, and a spiked collar around her neck.
Cassie had Chastity, her Heartbroken friend, who had invited Rain to sit down next to her. Chastity was splitting her attention between Cassie and Candy, with less attention to Juliette and Imp. Every time she turned toward Juliette and Imp, I could see Rain trying to look as nonchalant as possible with her leaning past him or brushing up against him. Roman and the Tenders helped distract him with questions.
“You’re ignoring me,” Imp said, to the Heartbroken.
“Sorry, Imp,” Cassie said. “I was curious about the clothes.”
“Getting out of those rags?” Juliette asked.
“I’m not much of a clothes person,” Parian said.
“How does that work?” Chicken asked. “Aren’t you the most clothes person that ever personed?”
“I… it’s different. I know things about outfits and fashion, but mostly I like doing what I do for the art of it. It’s like wanting to do makeup for professional photography or special effects instead of doing your own makeup for everyday.”
“I wasn’t aware those two things were different.”
“Cass, please, you’re killing me,” Chastity groaned.
Parian ignored Chastity, leaning forward. The eyes of her doll mask were dark, her voice slightly muffled by the mask being between her mouth and the rest of the world. It didn’t help that she was soft-spoken. “If you do professional makeup, you need to understand skin tones, face shapes, match to the situation and wardrobe. If you’re doing your own, you only have to understand your own, and you need a few basics.”
“Interesting,” Cass said.
“What’s the motivation?” Parian asked.
“Curiosity. I went shopping for Chastity’s birthday present this summer, and I thought about getting her clothing, before realizing how much I didn’t know.”
“What you got me was tres cool,” Chastity said.
“You can always email me.”
“Or ask me,” Imp commented.
“I’ve seen you wear electric blue, neon green, yellow, and hot purple all at the same time,” Tattletale murmured.
“I don’t think that’s even possible,” Chastity sounded appropriately horrified.
“For contrast. I wear a monochrome costume, I need a colorful civilian identity, so nobody ever suspects who I am.”
“This was before your powers.”
“When the heck did we ever meet before powers?”
“No comment,” Tattletale said.
“You spied on me?”
“That’s rich coming from you, Imp.”
“I get no respect. I’m one of the most dangerous parahumans here. Right, Antares?”
“The almost-fire in your study? Remember that? No hard feelings, of course.”
“Some hard feelings,” I said, staring at her.
“Ugh. You people! No respect.”
“Weren’t you the one telling us to second guess anyone demanding our respect and obedience?” Roman asked.
“If you’re going to remember every last thing I say…”
“You mean listen to you?” Chastity asked, leaning over, while Rain leaned back in surprise. “The thing you were complaining about seconds ago?”
“Do you see what I deal with?” Imp asked Damsel. “Give me a good word for it.”
“Impertinence,” Damsel said.
“Please,” Tattletale said. “Don’t encourage each other.”
“I recommend corporal punishment,” Damsel told Imp.
“There’s an idea,” Imp said. “Next person to ignore me or sass me gets an Imp ambush. Snow down the back of your top.”
“I was thinking of something more impactful.”
Imp shook her head. “Can’t blow your wad that fast.”
“Blow-” Damsel cut herself off. She shook her head. “You were doing so well.”
“You’re criticizing me for word choice, and you’re sitting next to a girl who, fifteen minutes ago, was dangling her literal ovaries in front of her boyfriend’s face.”
“Don’t remind me,” Foil muttered. I saw Finale nod.
“I’m consistent in keeping people wondering what I’m going to do.”
Sidepiece had Disjoint and Damsel.
Rachel had Cassie and her dogs.
Cassie had Rachel and Chastity. Chastity had Rain and her family. Of that family, Roman was enjoying a quiet exchange of words with Rain, while Juliette paid more attention to the Imp-Damsel interaction.
I could have said that Tattletale was an odd one out, only chiming in periodically, part of her attention consumed by her phone. But she was between Imp’s group of older Heartbroken and the Tenders. The Malfunctions had each other, and were staying quiet, mostly watching and eating their soup.
“You three okay?” I asked.
“Been better,” Withdrawal said. “I had family in Scotland when Gold Morning happened, but that was so far away, and I only ever saw them once every five years. Didn’t really impact me. Today was the first time someone I know has died.”
“Maybe not dead. Do you think they could undo it?” Finale asked.
“I wouldn’t count on it,” I said, keeping my voice soft. “If you want or need to hold onto something you can imagine that anything might be possible when powers are involved, but… small chance of that.”
“I didn’t really talk to her, but she seemed cool,” Sveta said.
“If you guys want, I have pictures,” Kenzie offered.
“Oh, um,” Caryatid seemed at a loss. “I don’t think I could look at a picture right now.”
“I could,” Withdrawal said. “I don’t want to say no now, then not run into you again and never get a chance.”
“Our teams are allied, you know,” Kenzie said. “You could call, say hi, ask for whatever.”
“I wouldn’t want to bother you,” Withdrawal told her.
“No bother. Really. Um. Shoot. Victoria or Sveta may I please have permission to grab Withdrawal’s phone info and put the photos there?”
She rolled her eyes a bit as she said it.
“I could give you my permission or number myself,” Withdrawal said.
“Or that. Flick it to my phone. For the record, Victoria, this is really awkward and lame. It’s like the house I grew up on was on a road nobody went down. And I’m having to walk five blocks thataway to go to the traffic lights to cross, then five blocks thisaway, when I could see there are no cars in sight and just cross the street.”
“You broke the rules, you thought there were no cars in sight and you nearly got hit. People in charge noticed. This is me doing one half of the punishment while still trying to be evenhanded,” I said.
“I know, still!”
“Still,” I said.
“Ugh,” I said, monotone.
“It’ll be better in the long run,” Sveta said. “You said you wanted warnings before certain situations came up? This is us helping with something like that.”
“Hey,” Withdrawal said. “Lookout. This is kind of my first time doing this, but I’ve been told that when tinkers hang out, they share ideas? How does that work?”
It was a good distraction, and an intentional one, I suspected.
He was a natural caretaker, I suspected. It would be why he fit into his specific team. Why losing Fume Hood had hit him pretty hard.
Okay. They weren’t totally isolated. Caryatid and Finale joined the conversation. Everyone with people to talk to, connections within this group.
Leaving Sveta and I. Sveta had draped herself over me as I took a seat on the bench, which was simultaneously comfortable and uncomfortably reminsicent of my time in the hospital. The best of the bad days.
There was space to sit down where Trophy Wife had been seated before she’d gone off to tour the area, but Sveta had already been settled; she hadn’t volunteered to move elsewhere, and I hadn’t asked.
Both of us feeling pensive, content to watch the rest.
I touched her tendril. “Can we talk?”
I felt the little organs that were resting against my back expand as she drew in a breath. She didn’t make a sound, but she nodded.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” I said, standing. Sveta unwrapped herself from me. “We should probably mobilize soon.”
“Alright,” Rain answered.
Sveta pulled herself together, then fixed her hair before sticking her tendrils into her gloves, and forming the hands within.
We walked. I stretched. My front was toasty but my back wasn’t. The core of me was a comfortable temperature, though, and that was what made the difference.
“Will that whole debate over the vantage point matter?” Sveta asked, as we walked. We’d passed through this area at some point during the raid on the Fallen camp, but I didn’t really have a sense of it. My focus had been on very different things back then.
“Might not,” I said. “But talking about it gets people thinking in the right directions, and it’s a good stress test for how we’ll communicate inter-team when things get hairy.”
“When, not if, hm?” Sveta asked, her hands in her pockets.
I nodded. “I’m worried.”
“You’re always worried.”
“I’m especially worried. Tristan isn’t doing so hot. Malfunctions aren’t doing so great. This fight is hard enough, but if they get an edge, form their networks, whatever else, then the cracking expands. We might not even have the settlements we put an hour outside the city. And people like Tristan or the Malfunctions…”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “Giving us more things that are awfully close to being Endbringers, making it harder to gain ground. But how are you? Are you counting yourself in your risk assessment?”
“I’m… managing. I want to fight,” I told her. “I feel more in control than I have in a long time.”
“Armstrong sent me a message, asking me to keep an eye out.”
I blew air out my nose, and it became a puff of fog.
“Should he have?” she prodded.
“Jessica asked me to look after Breakthrough. If there’s any room to resist that happening, there’s no way I’m letting it happen while I have a member of Breakthrough to protect.”
“For Jessica?” Sveta asked.
“For me. I made it a commitment, I have to follow through.”
“You certainly sound better than Tristan, you seem better than the Malfunctions. But you also seem…”
She trailed off.
“Like I had to fight tooth and nail to be listened to, while being unable to do anything to keep my best friend alive?”
“I feel like it goes back to the dreams last night. Not that we talked after waking up but… I saw you. I heard your voice.”
“I believe you.”
We passed a group of patrol officers who were sitting on a porch.
I thought of the dream. Sveta’s portion.
How to gracefully bring it up?
“A lot of us, I think, had to face parts of ourselves last night. I think that’s part of what that space is. Lays everything bare.”
“Yeah,” Sveta said. “Well put. Tattletale dialed up the assholishness to one hundred after the dreams.”
“She calmed down. Helped me help you with Amy.”
“Want to, uh, fly?” I asked. “Visit the hill the others wanted to set up at?”
Sveta pulled her arm apart, wrapping tendrils around my shoulder and stomach. I put my arm around her upper body.
Away from the site of old battles, from snow and onlookers.
Over to the stables. I could recognize their general shape and the fenced in areas meant for the horses. The hill wasn’t far from there. Large enough to straddle the definition of hill and mountain.
I found a tree to settle on, setting down on the sturdiest branches at the top. It bent a little under our combined weight, so I floated a bit to reduce that burden.
Titan Eve was in the distance, gas billowing off and around her with an intensity that didn’t match the wind. Head bowed, streams of gas instead of hair. Gas speared up, solidifying, and became a spike. She broke it off, then stabbed it into the earth, where it joined another two.
What was the range on that? What happened if she threw it this far, to us? Did it become suffocating clouds?
Sveta said, “after we were all sent our separate ways, I went back home. Dug open my boxes of things I’d packed for evacuation. I made a mess of my packing system, but I found my dream journals. I spent a while going over it. Seeing what I could piece together. There were some pictures of my artwork. Stuff I’d draw after dreaming.”
“Any glimmers? Insights?” I asked, carefully.
“I thought… I was stolen away from a life where I was happy. I realize now I wasn’t happy. But…”
“It was still a loss,” I said.
“It was. But I can’t reconicle it in my head, like this. If I’d never fallen and been hurt, if I hadn’t been sliced to ribbons, if they hadn’t taken me away… taken Nadia… I don’t think I would have been able to bear living there. Not with, um… sorry.”
“…A body I hated even before I was Case Fifty-Three. I haven’t even fully formed a lot of these sentences as thoughts in my head, it’s hard to get it out in a way that makes sense.”
I gave her a squeeze with one arm. “You don’t have to make sense. If you want to vent incoherently, I’ll still do my best to listen.”
“Goo gobol goo hur ga guk,” Sveta said, dead serious, maintaining eye contact with me.
“I thought for sure that would get a laugh out of you,” she said. “Now I feel dumb.”
“Don’t. It would take a lot to get me to really laugh right now, while…”
I used my free arm to indicate Titan Eve.
“That’s fair. That poor woman.”
“I wish I’d known she was struggling,” I said.
We watched Titan Eve for a minute. She gathered more of the spikes, creating them with a strange kind of methodology. Briefly, she raised a wall of gas about six stories tall around her, solidifying it. From our distant vantage point, we could still see most of her.
“You were talking about struggling to live there, in your hometown,” I said. We’d sidetracked a bit, and the conversation didn’t feel like an easy one to restart.
“How do I reconcile the fact that Cauldron might have saved me? That I lived through a kind of hell for so many important years of my life, but I came out the other side with a body I’m actually happy with?”
“Do you have to?” I asked. “Reconcile?”
“I spent a whole summer touring worlds to try to find my original home, based on scribblings and paintings after I dreamed. I thought if I found home then something would make sense, I’d replace a missing piece of myself. Now I find I don’t want it. If we did get through this thing with the Titans and if I did go back, I think I’d have to lie… that’s the impression I get from dreams, feelings I thought were parts of me being Case Fifty-Three that I can’t let go of. I’d have to call myself Nadia. That’s a huge part of what I thought was my identity that isn’t anymore. That’s just the first thing I’m wrestling with.”
“I hated Cauldron and I still do, but I’m grateful at the same time, and whichever emotion I feel I feel like I’m betraying the other.”
“I had to confront a feeling like that earlier. Thinking of what to say to Amy. Digging deep into what I knew about powers to extend an olive branch and an excuse. I think, um, it’s okay to hate.”
“That’s not exactly something for the Saturday morning cartoons, Victoria.”
“Nah. Maybe. Maybe we need to tell kids that when we feel afraid, we feel afraid for reasons. When we feel angry or hateful, we feel those things for their own reasons. We could do with a little witch with pink hair telling kids it’s okay to hate, if you recognize it and manage it.”
“I can’t imagine that,” Sveta said.
“They hurt you, they hurt a lot of people, and they did it for reasons that I’m not even sure mattered. Fuck them.”
“Say it like you mean it,” I said.
“Fuck them,” Sveta said, with invective. “Fuck Cauldron, fuck all the hurt they caused and fuck their moral and smug technical superiority. Fuck all those people they let me kill because they thought Case Fifty-Threes would be a good smoke screen and the testing they did would let them create more ‘good’ superheroes. Fuck them for killing my sister. Fuck them for doing what they did to Gentle Giant and Hunch and Egg and Engel, to Whippersnap and Chantilly and to Witness and Gully. To so many others. To Weld.”
“Damn straight,” I said, and my words came out a bit rough around the edges. “They don’t get any thanks. Save the thanks for Weld, and Armstrong, for Bough, even. For Jessica.”
“Jessica didn’t want me to do it. But…” she trailed off. “So much of my life revolved around him. Sometimes literally, I’d be tied to him. Fuck Weld. Fuck him for hanging around Slician so soon after breaking up with me. Fuck Slician for being willing to do that. Fuck Armstrong for not telling Weld off for choosing this moment and me to be a jerkass for the first time in his life.”
She had tears in the corners of her eyes. She turned back to look over at Titan Oberon.
Fume Hood was distracted from the creation of her spikes. Javelins, maybe. I saw the line of a beam cut across the space in front of her, cutting the beams in half. They billowed out to blanket the area around her in gas.
I watched the gas crawl across a whole tract of the city, getting partway to us, wary that I might have to sound the alarm.
It dissipated before it reached us.
No message on my phone. The team out there was doing something in the way of a testing of the waters.
“Sorry,” I said, seeing Sveta watching me put the phone away.
“No. I’d be offended if you didn’t check.”
“I’m so sorry about Weld,” I told her. “I’m sorry if there’s a fuck you in there meant for me, because I’ve been too busy, or distracted, or…”
She shook her head, leaning it against my shoulder.
“I don’t have a full childhood’s worth of memories to draw from,” Sveta told me. “I don’t have much in the way of an adolescence, that doesn’t still give me nightmares if my brain wanders into the wrong places when I’m asleep. So I hold onto ideas. Dreams and what ifs, and obsessing over cool boys with metal skin, or about the injustices Case Fifty-Threes face. Dreams about who I was and the anger, and feeling like this tattoo-”
She touched her cheekbone. With her at my left, I couldn’t really see it.
“-gave me membership in a club. Even if that club decided to turn on me or use me as a scapegoat. I don’t know if I even qualify now. Egg is kind of freaked out. I spent so long wrestling with this demon that was my body… I kind of didn’t realize that all I was inside my body, inside my head, my identity, it was more demons.”
“Can you befriend your demons?” I asked. “Tame it- them?”
“I think I’ve vanquished too many of them. Or left them behind. I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“Mind letting go of me? I won’t let you fall. Just…” I pulled back a bit as she unwrapped herself from me, making sure she had her feet on the sturdiest branches, while I held her arms. “Balance.”
“What’s up?” she asked. “Going to leave me up a tree?”
“No. I wanted to face you properly,” I told her. “Sveta Karelia. That’s you. It’s a name you can go by because it’s a name you chose yourself.”
“I wasn’t really gunning for a pep talk,” she said.
“This isn’t. This is a friend-to-friend talk,” I said, looking her in the eyes. they were a bit red. “Sveta Karelia, you are, above all else, colorful, inside and out.”
I fixed her coat with its large sections done up in different colored patches, some triangular, some in other geometric shapes, tugging at the front to pull it tighter around her body.
“You’re an artist to the point it overflows. Your whiteboard in the headquarters, your skin, your clothes and your costume. Every notebook that sits within your reach, including my notebooks I was using for my University lectures in the hospital.”
“I was bored. I liked the company but I was bored,” she said. But she smiled fondly as she said it.
“You have a sense of injustice, Sveta. You feel a genuine outrage when the weak are bullied and when wrongs are done. I think it’s what makes you a good hero. And you are a good hero. You saved Armstrong. You gave your all against Mr. Hugs or whatever asinine name it was Chicken Little gave him. You stopped Saint.”
“Saying it’s a sense of injustice feels kinda off.”
“It’s not a bad thing,” I told her. “You have a softer side. A gentleness around animals and kids, genuine caring. I well and truly believe that if the world had more Svetas in it, it would be a better place.”
She averted her eyes.
“Identify them. Name them. Those parts of yourself,” I told her. “Mosaic, Painter, Justicar-”
“Caretaker. You can even name the side that has to carry the anger you feel toward Cauldron if it gives you more power over it.”
“And what do I do with all of these pieces of myself, after I’ve broken apart the mirror and divided my personality out among the shards, so each one shows a different me?”
“Get to know them. Recognize them. Make peace with them. Love them. But above all else, care for and love Sveta Karelia. The you that comes together when all of the pieces are in place. That mirror isn’t broken, and it shows someone I care a hell of a lot about. Someone I respect.”
There were distant noises, the chalkboard screams of reality tearing, dogs barking, and the creaking of wood. A tree further down the hill toppled.
Sveta immediately started dabbing at her eyes with the corner of a sleeve, getting fixed up.
“Sorry,” she said. “This is so dumb, isn’t it? I’m okay now, I got luckier than I thought was possible, I got a body, and I feel like I know myself less than I did a year ago.”
“It’s a part of me,” she said. “Even before I was a case fifty-three. Did you know that? I think I dreamed it. So if I’m going to be mosaic, painter…”
“Justicar,” I supplied the answer.
She laughed, “No, I am not calling myself justicar. I have an iota of self respect. Defender instead. Then Caregiver. If I’m all those things, I’m Apologizer.”
The group below us was making their way up the hill. Periodically they did enough damage that a tree fell. Or… if I squinted and looked through foliage, they might have been walking on the fallen trees as a path across denser foliage.
“For the tie to your past?” I asked.
“Yes, but not just because I think I said something like it before Cauldron took me. Because I killed a lot of people, once.”
Gibbet was using her power. I could hear the creaking and the wood snapping.
“Whatever happens, I have your back,” I told her.
“Telling me to embrace my hate and call myself Justicar?” Sveta asked.
“Whatever I can do. Shoulder to lean on, anything.”
“I’m really glad they introduced us way back then,” Sveta told me. “We kind of danced around the subject, but… I wouldn’t be anywhere near where I am now if we hadn’t met. Not with Weld, I know he left the first time and came back because you urged him to. I never would have met Breakthrough… I’d be over in Europe in the new Asylum there.”
“You kept me sane,” I told her. “You’re still doing it.”
“Seriously, Victoria. ‘Justicar’?”
All around us, the others were emerging. Gibbet’s power replicated materials in large scale. Her trademark was the actual gibbet with the hangman’s noose, but here she reproduced fallen trees. They rose up taller than the actual trees, and on each broken-off end was a parahuman or a pair of parahumans. Some stood, some sat, one clung to the top of the wood for dear life.
On pillars of wood that stood taller than any of the treetops, on a forest-covered hill that had yet to really be touched by mankind, each essentially a platform three or four feet across. It was a lot of pillars, because even with the occasional two people to one pillar, there were a good number of us. Undersider, Breakthrough, Tender, Deathchester, Malfunction.
“If anyone falls, I can catch them,” I addressed everyone.
“Already volunteered my services as a just-in-case,” Withdrawal said. “But I appreciate the backup.”
“Still good to hear,” Chicken Little said. He had Darlene kneeling next to him, while he was on all fours. He looked up and out, then immediately returned his gaze to the wood immediately beneath him.
“Just, you know, scream,” I said.
Withdrawal nodded, metal at his shoulder squeaking with the motion. “Yeah, that.”
“I’ll try,” Chicken Little said, with a nervous laugh starting early and making the ‘try’ wobbly.
“Come on,” Darlene urged him. “She’ll save you if anything happens. Just stand up. You’ll be glad you did.”
Wobbly, Chicken Little did just that. I floated a little closer, just in case his nerves inadvertently pitched him over the side.
“I think it’s really cool you did this even though you’re scared of heights,” Darlene said, her voice soft. “That takes a special kind of courage.”
“I have a lot to live up to,” he said, just as quiet. “And Roman said people would think I was lame if I didn’t go.”
Off in the distance, Titan Eve was still being harassed by capes too distant to clearly make out. Periodically a power would be visible as a line of light or a small explosion. Her solidified gas provided protection.
“Fume Hood,” Finale said, quiet.
“She looks badass,” Cassie said. She shared a tree pillar with Chastity, sitting casually whle her friend stood.
“She looked badass before,” Finale said.
“What do you call an elephant that’s painted pink and blue?” Caryatid asked. After a pause, she said, “An elephant. She was badass before. Doesn’t matter what happened to her, that won’t ever change.”
Finale nodded with vigor.
For some here, this was their first look at a titan. Not so for the Major Malfunctions. They’d been at ground zero for the first appearance.
“Eye to the ground,” Capricorn said. Still Tristan. He’d come back from the church. “Look at the landscape. Look at the cracks. Look where the city’s still standing. That’s going to be our battlefield. Try to keep a mental map in your head. Know where you’re going. Don’t run somewhere and find a chasm waiting for you.”
Titan Eve was starting to move. First one way, then the other.
We stood, we sat, we floated in the air. We watched. We did it together, though some of us were near-strangers.
I felt okay about Sveta. Mostly okay about Rain. Someone who carried all of their anxieties and stresses in private made for a hard read.
I didn’t feel okay about Tristan. I didn’t feel okay about Kenzie.
We’d needed this, everyone in a position to safely see, to take it in, and to come to terms with what we had to deal with. Titan Eve, seemingly getting more restless, minute by minute, as minutes passed.
Titan Oberon, out by the water, head craning around. Taller than any of the buildings around him.
More minutes passed, and I saw how some people were getting cold. I was counting the seconds until I interrupted our viewing to suggest we head back down when Titan Eve’s restlessness ceased.
She looked over at Titan Oberon.
“Shit,” Tattletale said.
When our phones rang, I felt only annoyance. We already know.
I checked anyway. Sure enough, we had orders. Almost immediate, following that look.
Titan Eve attempt to form a connection with Titan Oberon.
Priority one: Intervene.
It was Kenzie’s tech. Doorways, that would lead us to where we needed to go. I remained where I was, watching people, searching for signs. They ripped their way into existence around us and below us, while we stood above the treeline.
“Jumping,” Sveta called out, so nobody else would jump and bounce off of her.
One by one, people took the leap. I went to Chicken Little, giving him my hand, and carried Darlene too, for good measure. Carrying them to where I could drop them through.
Gibbet was one of the last to go through. I stayed because I wanted to look after everyone, ensuring nobody fell.
The hooded Deathchester cape leaped through. With her leaving this world to make her way elsewhere, her power ceased to hold up the pillars. They began to sink, one toppling.
I flew through, after my teams, really hoping someone had the guns I’d asked for.
Hoping above all else that I could do this, when I was far from the best person to the task. I didn’t feel equipped at all for the job, but priorities that high didn’t give a shit what I felt.
Something this big, this messy, we didn’t come out unscathed. People would die. If I fucked up my promise to Jessica again, it could mean worse, that people would become Titans.
I wasn’t sure our chances were that great as it stood, with only this many.