The five pound phone I carried blared. I had to ignore it.
Through the clouds, I could see thick bolts of lighting the color of deep forest, with finer traceries of gold lightning dancing along and around them. A moment later, those clouds were pushed out of the way by a darker mass.
Traced by Oberon’s power, Skadi plummeted from the clouds, axe-hands swinging down. Legend unloaded everything he had on her as he flew straight down. Chunks of her armor came away, revealing what was beneath- more armor with sucking muscle holding each segment in place.
I flew to intercept, diving down at an angle, dropping my forcefield so I could lose that extra bit of air resistance. With the angle of my flight, I couldn’t see above as much, and only caught the splash. I flipped over, belly to the sky, maintaining my course.
Skadi’s blade had clipped Legend. Flesh became lasers, radiating out, curling back into one another in loops. A defensive measure.
She hit the ground. I flew past her, and forcefield hands became a wedge as I speared through damaged armor plating, cleaving it away from her body. My forcefield gave way before I was all the way through, and I was forced to squeeze out as Skadi moved, the armor plate to my left pressed close to her side.
I got ninety-five percent of the way out before it closed around my foot. I shifted direction immediately, pulling, but twisted my foot in the process.
Fucking stupid, Victoria. She’s barely even aware of your existence, and she just got you.
Fucking hurt. Ow. I was already brimming past full with the kind of emotion that… I couldn’t even put my finger on a word that would encapsulate it. The same feeling that would drive a child to destroy their own toys, in their desire to make an inarticulate fucking point. If I hadn’t been past capacity and on a battlefield, I was emotionally exhausted enough that I might have just curled up, cradled my foot, and cried. I was so damn cold.
Fucking hurt. I bit my lip, blinking away moisture.
Titan Oberon was there, not far from me, dealing with four flying capes. One used a laser beam that seemed to pull, hauling the Titan off-balance, while another stabbed strategically at Oberon with needle arms that had to be thirty feet long.
They repeated the process, and this time Oberon flicked a foot, kicking at the ground to throw himself forward.
My phone buzzed. I would have picked it up, but… more immediate concerns.
Titan Oberon hit three capes in two swings, and would have hit a fourth if a cape hadn’t created a forcefield in the air. Not Aunt Sarah- this field acted like a net, coating Oberon’s fist.
My immediate concern was Skadi, attacking other capes who were playing defense for Legend. She did much like Oberon did, still crackling with traces of Oberon’s energy, that made her faster, quicker to shift position, and more slippery.
One of the swings was aimed at someone else, but came right at me by what might have been accident. I floated to one side, then went after her arm, forcefield out, tearing at the damage to armor there.
A shout from behind got my attention.
I was transfixed between two alarmingly large things that were demanding my immediate attention. Just beside me, Titan Skadi was teleporting, the parts of her in the light seeming to disappear before the parts of her in deep shadow. A short distance away, Oberon was on the attack, attacking another cluster of capes who were close enough to one another that the swing of one titanic arm could catch them. Us. Me included.
My forcefield protected me from the impact. That wasn’t the problem. The problem was that it sent me flying toward the ground, at a speed my actual flight couldn’t touch, a massive shockwave promising to pulverize me if the impact with the rubble below didn’t.
I flew hard left, while trying to slow my descent, on the half-formed thought that moving at a diagonal might buy me an instant more time before impact than moving almost straight down.
I turned over, belly toward the sky, looking for any help that others might be able to provide. A forcefield, a reaching hand. I just saw the green-tinted air that carried that pressurized air. Oberon’s ‘shockwave’.
I turned over again, facing the ground, and it filled my vision.
Aiming myself, contorting my body, I plunged into the crack. The side of my body skimmed the edge of the crack, and my costume tore.
I plunged into the oblivion where the damage to reality was heavy enough there was only this, a dark red landscape I’d seen in someone else’s dream.
Here, where my flight was weaker, my aura not even a spark in my chest, and where my forcefield struggled to get back up.
Like my power was underwater, floundering, but I wasn’t.
I stopped falling and came to hover in the air. I let out a breath I’d been holding, in a single, “bluh,” followed by panting breaths.
It was quieter down here. Calmer. Just… cold air washing in from above, the whistles and hisses of wind, and the dull impacts of distant fighting.
My phone buzzed.
I picked it up, pressing it to my ear, and I heard only static.
I flew up, and the flying was a struggle.
Static became words. “-evac.”
“Say again?” I talked into the phone. I flew back and up, away from the Titans.
“Get out, Antares. You’re done. People are evacuated, Titan Eve has moved on, and the reinforcing group is there. We don’t expect or want you fighting through the initial encounter and the second shift.”
Fuck, my foot hurt. I hoped I hadn’t broken bones.
I floated up further. Legend wasn’t that far away. I could see him in the air, drifting slightly, the wound with loose, curving lasers unspooling out from his upper body and bleeding out in white and blue that contrasted with the dark sky. He was slowly knitting itself together. As more of his face formed into human features, I saw him grimace in pain.
In the course of one fight, the Titans had leveled a section of the city. Had this area of city been a neighborhood, one team like the Rooftop Champs could have made it a long-term goal to protect it. On Earth Bet, it would have been a town. Twenty, thirty thousand people might have lived here. Decayed with gases, trampled, damaged, or lost in the cracks in reality.
“Got it,” I said into the phone.
“Thank you for your hard work.”
I let the phone drop back to my hip. I floated up and back, getting a wider view of the battle and the battlefield. Two Titans fighting in concert. Twenty heroes, with only a dozen actively engaged in this moment. Parian’s creation was deflated. The bodies had been carried away.
The Titans were healing, now. The damage being done didn’t quite make up for the speed at which they were recovering. Most of the damage had been done by Eve. By retreating, we’d given up on that incremental damage.
And I could see it. I got it. Yes, we could have won, with Parian’s power fully unleashed, and one Titan pinned down. We could have wiped out Oberon and there was even a chance that we would have disrupted every other Titan he was connected to. What happened to Titans Skadi and Auger if the Titan central to their network died? Maybe we could have discovered that.
But… then what? Would we have been in any shape to fight what came next?
I flew, and I could barely recognize the city I flew over. Too much damage, and the path I took showed me buildings that had rotted, places with no snow because every surface was tainted, to the point that water was transmuted to something else, or the concrete of buildings interacted with trace chemicals and moisture to generate heat, steaming even ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes after the Titans had passed. Too hot for snow to settle on.
Dauntless was standing between other Titans and Titan Fortuna. Those who ventured too close to her suffered a blistering attack. Long-ranged strikes that did more damage in one hit than Legend managed in five minutes of fighting. All the while, Fortuna did nothing, her face turned skyward.
Fume Hood was trudging in Dauntless’s direction. She was still healing some of the damage that had been done, though she’d been relatively unmolested toward the end of the fight and in the course of her journey. Was it that Oberon’s group had more clout and power? Three or four Titan’s worth of energy or infrastructure to draw on? That Dauntless was spending his coupling’s power for each of those heavy attacks, that drove Auger and Arachne away?
I couldn’t be sure. But I floated in closer to Fume Hood, the gas-cloaked Titan.
Tried, flying past her face, to get her attention.
I settled on her shoulder, standing in waist-deep gas. My forcefield kept it from touching me.
Her head turned, the hood and the darkness beyond it. The ‘hair’ that was a constant, heavy downpour of gas out of each lower corner of the hood washed over me, and I made sure my forcefield had its mouth shut, everything sealed.
She didn’t slow down or stop.
I put chilly hands in my pockets. My entire body felt clammy, with sweat on every inch of me, forming a wet layer between me and my costume. That costume had holes in it. I’d torn it when Oberon had smacked me down into the side of the tear in reality. My skin was intermittently visible and abraded from armpit to hip, with a few cuts and tears that had already clotted.
“Sorry we hurt you,” I told her.
“Sorry we didn’t get the message, when you told us to go, that you had it handled. We’re still kind of concerned that if you build a network, it’ll catalyze something dangerous.”
Her body creaked incessantly, like the suspension of a bridge in strong winds. Always like something was on the cusp of tipping over or snapping, though it never happened.
The hair-gas flowed over and around me, obscuring my vision. A mustard-yellow and green haze that consumed everything that my forcefield counterpart didn’t protect.
“You aren’t trying to kill me, and you aren’t overtly trying to hurt the rest of us or the city. That’s… I didn’t want it to pass without mention. I can’t imagine it was easy, or more of the others would be holding back.
“You won over the Malfunctions. You did good and you’re doing good, and I… I know this is gibberish to you. Whatever I try to say or write won’t get through, just like you can’t communicate directly with us. But maybe tone of voice matters? Or just the fact I’m here?”
Her head turned forward. She kept trudging forward, body groaning and creaking like a massive structure. The gas around me cleared, though I still stood waist-deep in it.
“I spent too long trapped in a monstrous form. I didn’t feel like I got the backup I needed, not from the people I needed it from. Maybe I’m not in your top five favorite people, you never called me to hang out and the only times I really called was for information or to ask you to help out. I don’t remember having any intense or hours-long conversations. Almost a ten year age gap between us. But we were kind of friends? There was mutual respect, right? And I want you to know, just, um-”
My voice gave a bit, emotion coming through. Fatigue played a part in it, but a bigger part of it was that I wanted to convey with tone and emotion what might not come across in words.
“If you need any backup, if you want a tiny human riding on your shoulder to keep you quiet company, like I needed a certain girl with tentacles for those few weeks I had a best friend… give me any signal at all. Even when I’m not here, I’ll be in your corner, arguing for you, fighting, I presume, for the same thing. These people, those kids. A future.”
I remained where I was, watching, as gas continued to dissipate. I looked out over the city, which was battered, blistered, dark, and empty. The only lights were at the very edges of the horizon, as cities and settlements prepared for evening, starting up generators and using whatever means necessary to ensure they could see and continue seeing as they got camps set up.
“We don’t have much going for us right now,” I said. “But I have little doubt we’d be absolutely screwed if you and Dauntless were fighting us too. All my respect, Fume Hood. Lauren. You’re a hero.”
She kept trudging forward, slowly recuperating from her wounds.
I took off.
I landed, touching ground with one foot, the leg with the sore foot bent at the knee.
The Fallen camp was busier than it had been earlier. A share of the people who had helped with Oberon and Skadi were here now, milling around. Our fire was occupied by Advance Guard and two groups I couldn’t place, with a few members of the Patrol standing around because there wasn’t enough sitting room. The people around the fire provided the block against the wind that Imp had asked for when she’d wanted Gibbet to make snowmen.
My phone, and not one of the clunky brick-phones, vibrated in my pocket. I pulled it out, but it showed an endlessly looping ‘loading’ message. A half-bar of signal. It would take a bit.
I still had to get back to Dragon. I’d tried reaching out earlier and she’d put me off, telling me to get in touch later. My worry was that it had to do with Lookout.
On that note, my team had taken out their eye-cameras. Only Lookout had hers in, and she was -I closed one eye for a few seconds, then let the heads-up-display come up. The map we’d had in Teacher’s base didn’t have an equivalent for this camp.
I could see out of her eye, and saw her at a desk, a puppy in her lap.
“ReSound,” I addressed Advance Guard’s leader. She had a costume in yellow and orange gradient, with dark concentric circles and the jagged, dark lines of a typical Advance Guard costume. “Have you seen Breakthrough?”
“They went that way,” she gestured vaguely toward one end of the settlement. “Didn’t pay much attention, sorry.”
“No problem. What about the Undersiders?”
“Uh, Tattletale, but I could do with knowing Rachel Lindt’s location too.”
“Council hall, that way, and uh, Stables, that way.”
“Slumming it?” Shortcut asked.
My old friend Shortcut. He’d been an incidental run-in prior to the Community Center attack. Stupid fucking costume that looked similar to ReSound’s, except the circle bits were bladed and were crafted to look like they were stuck in his body. His weapon was stuck into the dirt behind him.
“Get bent, Shortcut. I’m too tired and hurt, and in a situation like this, anyone who’s willing to help is okay in my books.”
“You realize we wouldn’t be where we are right now if it weren’t for the Undersiders, right?” Shortcut asked. “That attack on the community center? That was Tattletale. Do you think Fume Hood getting shot today would have mattered if Tattletale hadn’t pulled what she did at the end of the Summer?”
“I’m more inclined to blame the people who shot her rather than take the convoluted path necessary to blame one of the villains,” I told him. “Frankly, I’m all out of blame.”
“It’s not that convoluted,” Shortcut answered me. “You just need to think about it for more than three seconds. Or do you not have the ability to do that?”
“Stop, Shortcut,” ReSound said.
“I’m pretty tired, so maybe I am lacking the ability,” I told him.
“Maybe it’s not that you’re tired,” Shortcut told me. “I’m not going to outright say you might be embarrassingly dumb, so-“
“Shortcut,” ReSound said.
“-taking another stab at it,” Shortcut continued, ignoring his boss. “Maybe being on a team with two creepy kids, an ex-villain, and a bunch of ex-murderers has compromised you?”
“Get up,” ReSound said.
“The ex-villain died,” I pointed out. “Saving Warden lives. Every member of the team has bled for the side of the heroes.”
“Please don’t engage him,” ReSound said. “Up, Shortcut.”
Shortcut didn’t budge. “Someone needed to say it.”
“Are you going to fight me if I don’t?” he asked, looking up at her. “Here? In a time of crisis?”
“That doesn’t make you immune to basic rules of decency and inter-team cooperation.”
“People like her thrive on us being civil and decent and letting things slide,” Shortcut said.
She didn’t budge or relent, looming over him.
“If you want me to move, you’re going to have to make me.”
I could feel the tension radiating from the capes around the campfire.
“I’m going to head off. People to check on,” I told ReSound. “Thanks for pointing me in the right direction.”
“Off you go,” Shortcut said.
One of the other guys in the group said something under his breath. It might have been, “Fuck off, man.”
I bristled, but bit back the emotion.
“I’m going to head off too,” ReSound said. “I invite any members of Advance Guard who want to be respectable heroes to come with me. We need to check on our accommodations.”
The bulk of Advance Guard got up. Shortcut started to do so as well, and one of his teammates put a hand out on his shoulder, keeping him from getting to his feet.
He settled back into his seat, trying very hard to look like he intended to sit there and make himself comfortable.
“Your costume needs fixing,” he pointed at my side. My coat had pulled far enough back that the damage to the base layer was visible. I resisted the urge to cover up the damage.
“So does yours.”
“Fuck you, no it doesn’t. You’re not going to pull a ‘made you look’. They didn’t touch me. Not even the gas.”
“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” one of the other capes at the fire said.
“Being untouched isn’t the badge of honor you seem to think it is,” I told him. The others around the fire looked roughed up enough that I figured I could get away with it.
“You don’t want to know what I think,” he said, glaring at me.
“I don’t really care either,” I told him.
Then I flew off.
Childish of me to engage, more childish to leave the conversation that way. But I’d held back enough today. Playing nice with Defiant, holding back with Eric. I was fucking done.
Fuck me, let this be easy.
I needed to check on my people.
Stables were closest. I remembered the location from our little geography discussion, when we’d been distracting ourselves with a discussion on vantage points for viewing the Titans. Stable Hill had been one of the hills, and it thus followed the stables were close.
Dogs, dogs, and more dogs.
I saw Cassie outside, throwing the ball for a crowd of dogs. Chastity sat on a stool next to her, while four older dogs competed for the two hands that could pet them. An exceptionally skinny teen in grunge fashion and a seventeen year old who looked twenty-two, who wouldn’t have looked out of place amid celebrities at a high-class event, provided I looked past the bandages, and the bright red patch of skin at her neck.
I landed. Dogs immediately swarmed me, some barking, but most were friendly.
“Hey,” Cassie said.
“Heya. Kenzie around?”
Cassie jerked her thumb toward the stable interior.
“She brought all the dogs, huh?”
Chastity laughed. “This isn’t even close to all of the dogs.”
“Pretty miserable back there, huh?”
I wasn’t sure if she meant the camp or the fight.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“Any word from Rain?” Chastity asked.
“I, uh, haven’t checked. Do I need to?”
“I wouldn’t,” Chastity said. “But you know your team better than I do. Right now Sveta, Tristan, and Rain are at one of the houses. Big white one near the end of the road, with the white stable, fenced in yard. They said, um…”
She glanced toward the stable door, then leaned forward, conspiratorially. I stepped closer.
“…Sveta and Rain are closest to Tristan, so they wanted to talk to him without the munchkin. Asked us to keep her busy.”
Betting five bucks she heard that, I thought. “If that’s it, I’ll hang back.”
“That’s good,” Chastity said. “They didn’t think it would be long. Byron gets a bit of a turn after they’re done, he’s going to spend time with Vista, Rain’s going to come here to hang out-”
I didn’t miss Cassie’s attention momentarily flicking my way.
“-and I don’t know what Sveta is doing.”
“Perfect,” I said, putting my hand on a dog’s head. Another dog nosed my hand out of the way, tried to get his head under my palm, and failed when a bigger dog wormed his way in. Tails were wagging all over the place. “Did Kenzie set up her workshop here?”
Cassie shook her head. “Limited power, so tinkers are taking turns at the machine shop.”
“Oh,” I said. I approached the door, peeking around the corner.
Chicken Little, Darlene, Amias and Nicholas ran by, chased by a herd of puppies. They hopped up onto hay bales, Chicken helping Amias up, and the puppies were too small to follow. The kids hopped down and ran over to the next spot they could find high ground.
In the center of the horseless stables, there were plastic and metal containers that I was guessing the Patrol had brought over. The containers formed a walled in area with a layering of newspapers that had been soiled. Within the area were two chairs, a foot from one another. Candy and Kenzie sat facing one another, Candy’s legs were propped up on either side of Kenzie, heels resting on Kenzie’s seat. Candy’s legs formed walls while Kenzie’s lap and knees formed a floor. Three or four puppies, no more than two months old, were inside the de-facto basket of legs, fast asleep.
Rachel sat on the stacked containers, high above them. Her wolf, Yips, and two other dogs were on various levels of the stack.
I thought for a moment Kenzie might have nodded off too, but her hands moved, like she was going to touch a puppy, then stopped.
“Touch it,” Rachel said. “Touch heals, it comforts.”
“What if I break it?” Kenzie asked.
“I’d send my dogs after you, take you to pieces,” Rachel said. Then, softer, “You’d have to try to hurt them.”
Kenzie didn’t touch them.
“It was a part of my unofficial therapy,” Candy said, quiet. She stroked one pup. “I don’t like… liking things. It makes me nervous, like if I for-sure decide I like something it’s just going to be taken away, or used against me. Aunt Rachel made me take care of the puppies every day. Holding them and reading books to them.”
“While some of us picked up poo and carried around huge bags of dog food,” Darlene chimed in.
“But it worked,” Candy said, her tone bright. “And now I’m cured, I can say with an open and unguarded heart, Chicken Little, you are the love of my life!”
Chicken Little bumped into an annoyed-looking Darlene, while looking over at Candy. “You’re such a goof. Ow, frick, my ankles!”
The puppies were nipping.
“Don’t teach them bad habits,” Rachel ordered. “Make them stop and sit. Sitting is how they say please, and they have to say please to keep playing.”
Which distracted Darlene and Aiden with the task of getting eight or so puppies to cooperate.
“I ruin everything I like,” Kenzie said, quiet. “Because I like them too much.”
“You can’t like a dog too much,” Rachel said.
“I bet I could,” Kenzie muttered. “I’d scare away a dog, and even if I didn’t, I’d fall in love with him, and then he’d go back to your farm and I’d have to say goodbye, and I’d get my heart broken again.”
“Maybe a puppy shouldn’t go back with Aunt Rachel,” Candy ventured. Her head turned Rachel’s way.
Rachel didn’t look impressed.
“I couldn’t,” Kenzie said. “I don’t know how.”
“You can build cameras that see the past,” Chicken Little called out.
“They’re so young, though.”
“It would take a lot of work,” Rachel said, with a tone that was more than a warning, or it was a warning compounded on several levels.
“Aw, shoot,” Candy said. “Work ethic and Kenzie? I don’t know how you can put those things in the same sentence.”
“Ha ha,” Kenzie muttered, keeping her voice quiet so as not to disturb the sleeping puppies. It didn’t seem to matter that the pups with Chicken Little and Darlene were yipping, and the two youngest Heartbroken were stampeding around the place, banging into wooden stable doors. “Oh, crap, actually-”
She stopped hissing the words when she noticed my presence at the entrance. More plainly, she said, “-the time. I haven’t been checking my computer. I have a shift at the workshop. Data to collate. Hi Antares.”
I checked my phone. “Five twenty.”
“Not for another half hour then,” Kenzie said, relaxing back into the chair. “Sorry I haven’t been in touch.”
“It’s fine. So long as you’re okay.”
“Forgot to check your tech,” Candy said. “You might be in love. Or the world’s ending.”
Kenzie looked down at the puppies.
“Everything good?” I asked.
Kenzie nodded, not raising her eyes.
“You said Dragon had a message for me.”
“She’s having tech delivered. She asked me to get some measurements on stress, distribution. Stuff. Call her later?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Can you leave your eye thing? I’m doing updates when I get to the lab.”
“Okay,” I said. “I have no idea how to remove it.”
She waved me over. I floated up to her.
She pulled the tech free, and I could feel the meta tines running along the insides of my eyelids, and the bone of my eye sockets. It took a second for my vision to adjust afterward.
“I wish I had workshop time right now,” Kenzie said.
“Enjoy the moment,” I said. “Friends, puppies.”
Candy wiggled her foot, the heel resting on the seat by Kenzie’s hip. The toe of Candy’s boot rubbed against Kenzie’s side.
“It’s because I’m enjoying the moment that I should run,” Kenzie said, not lifting her eyes from the animals. “Get out while I’m ahead. Let things… settle down.”
I couldn’t think of a scene in recent memory that was less in need of a ‘settle down’ than this contained world with two chairs, newspaper with wet spots, and containers arranged in a loose rectangle around them.
“Workshop’s safe, huh?”
“It’s hard to mess up when I’m in my workshop,” Kenzie said.
Candy reached down past a sleeping puppy with the softest looking fur, to put a hand on Kenzie’s knee.
“I’ve got to check on others,” I said. “I can’t relax just yet.”
“Don’t bother Rain, Sveta and Tristan,” Candy said.
“Wait, what?” Kenzie asked.
I guess I lose those five bucks.
“I heard from Cass and Chas,” I said, a little weirded out that Kenzie wasn’t fully in the loop. “Don’t worry.”
“Okay. They’re having a serious talk,” Candy said, to Kenzie. “Don’t worry. It’s not you being left out, because Victoria’s being left out too.”
Kenzie nodded slowly, but I saw the line at the dead center of her forehead, a small crease of worry.
“Do you want me to come back in thirty?” I asked. “Walk you to the workshop?”
Kenzie nodded. Crease gone.
To Rachel, I said, “Going to go hunt down Tattletale and see what information we’ve all gathered. Then I’ll fill you in, and maybe that gives you direction when you’re back at the Workshop, Kenz?”
“Thank you for looking after them,” I told Rachel.
She shrugged, expression unreadable.
I headed back out, pausing at the entrance to the stable, where Cassie and Chastity were standing and sitting by the door, respectively.
“How’s Foil and Parian?” I asked.
“Parian’s napping. Foil’s gone,” Chastity said, without flinching.
“Gone as in-”
“Another settlement. With old New York Ward teammates.”
I nodded, not sure what to make of that. “I hope they don’t separate. The end of the world is bad enough as is. We don’t need to face it alone.”
“Yeah,” Chastity said. “I hope they make up too. I kind of have zero adults to look to as role models for my own relationship goals.”
“Charlotte and Forrest?” Cassie asked.
“I barely ever see them.”
“Then you need to see them more.”
They were getting into a discussion that made me feel like it’d be hard to unstick myself from. I glanced back at Rachel, and I saw her with her bandaged hand in her lap. Yips licked at the fabric. Gas-touched, if I remembered right.
Maybe the puppy thing with Kenzie was as much for Rachel as anyone.
Chastity wasn’t moving very quickly, though the dogs had largely settled down, leaning hard against her leg.
Everyone who had been in the field was hurting, tired, and the places we were retreating to weren’t necessarily warm.
“I’ll be back for Lookout,” I told the pair.
I took off. My forcefield absorbed the brunt of the cold wind.
Community center. I had to assume it was the nicest looking building. I itched to go check in on Sveta, Tristan, and Rain, but the others seemed protective of the trio. I had an ugly feeling that it was serious- that Tristan was worn out or at a breaking point, and that it was the most trusted, Tristan-familiar people only.
If there was anything else, and if I really needed to know, it was possible Tattletale would fill me in.
The stable hadn’t quite been warm, and I was feeling a chill, like the furnace that burned at the center of me wasn’t enough to keep my extremities comfortably warm. It was nice to step indoors, and feel actual warmth, from a stove in the corner.
The problem was that it was the wrong building. This would be the Church.
A woman in a winter jacket put a finger to her lips as I entered. There were people at the front who were praying, it seemed. Before I could turn around, she put a hand out to touch my shoulder. She indicated the back pews of the church.
Commandeered by a group of people from the Patrol. They’d unpacked what looked like five first aid kits, to get necessary components. Things had been redistributed, so that a given box had one, two, or three specific types of thing in it.
Fuck, I supposed I had to.
I limped a few steps before floating the rest of the way with a cramping foot. I took my seat, and a young lady who was probably three years younger than me began assessing the situation at my side.
I was partway through the process of getting patched up when a tall, late-thirties guy with a red-blond mustache and swept-back hair approached, carrying two first aid kits that looked like a different make and model than the ones the Patrol here was currently using. He gave me a long, searching look.
It took me a second to connect the face to the mask.
“Want company? I could take over, even,” he told me, his voice soft.
Weird. Weird weird weird.
“Sure, I guess.”
Even if it felt vaguely… incestuous to have someone I was related to and yet barely knew touching sensitive wounds and bare skin.
The girl from the Patrol vacated the pew. The man, my Uncle Mike, took a seat in her spot.
“I hoped to run into you and I dreaded the idea of running into you,” he said, quiet. “I don’t mean any offense when I say that.”
“Nope,” I told him. “I get it.”
“You were so young when I last saw you. And now you’re… eighteen? Nineteen?”
“That was my next guess,” he said, smiling. “This looks like it smarts.”
“I could tell you stories of my war wounds,” I said.
“I’ve had a few of my own.”
“I think I win,” I said, with a bit too much confidence. He met my eyes, and it wasn’t challenge or confidence or anything of my dad or my mom in that gaze. Sadness, and not because he’d lost a game he wasn’t really playing. The last word of my statement came out late “…though.”
He focused on patching me up.
“I didn’t want this for you kids,” he said, quiet. “I’m terrified of it happening to mine.”
I followed his gaze. At the very front of the room, a slender woman with a mane of black hair tied back with a scarf held a child that might have been six or so years old. Another one shifted restlessly at her feet, blocked from my view by the pews.
“Sorry,” he said.
“About?” I asked.
“It feels like every time I say something about this family, it’s critical.”
“I think that’s the way it goes, isn’t it?” I asked him. “We have our good points, but we have a lot that’s worth criticizing.”
“Who’s in your corner and who isn’t?” he asked, very carefully.
Was he asking to be careful? To gauge where my allegiances lay?
“Can I master-stranger you?” I asked him.
He raised his eyebrows.
“Penetrating questions from someone I don’t know all that well.”
“You really are your mother’s daughter, hm?” he asked.
“Can I verify you? Can you tell me things only you would know?”
“You had a stuffed lion, once.”
I gave him one nod.
“I remember…” his voice was almost wistful. “Maybe it was Crystal, but I think it was you. You were small, no older than my kids are now. You were lying on the floor of the living room, and your parents had a horrible carpet, like a scrub brush you’d keep by the sink. You stared up at the ceiling and you said, over and over again, ‘I wish I was a superhero’. With conviction and emphasis and constant repetition, sometimes yelling it, as if you could make it happen with sheer force of will and determination. Sometimes you’d pound your fist on the floor.”
I smiled. “I almost forgot that.”
He wore no smile. Just a bit of a sad expression.
“Well, you’re verified, I think,” I told him. “You’re my uncle or you’re a very good mind reader, and if you’re that good a mind reader, there’s nothing I can do anyway.”
“Crystal’s in my corner,” I said. I glanced back. A few people had vacated the church, and there was nobody really in earshot, so long as we spoke quietly. “Everyone else has kind of let me down.”
There was a bit of an awkward silence.
“Sutures,” he warned me, holding up the curved needle. “I’m a little out of practice.”
I could have taken over, doing the task, but I kind of didn’t want to leave him with nothing to do. I felt like he might walk away. I shifted position to give him better access to my side. The skin at my ribs hurt the most.
“Are you happy?” I asked him.
“The world is ending.”
“But… before that. Or past that.”
“Reasonably happy,” he told me. “I tried retiring. Turns out that if you neglect your powers-”
“You lose control,” I finished.
“Yeah. My power became hair-trigger. Almost like it was ready to go off if I sneezed. I made a deal with the local PRT. Helping the police, someone to watch the back door when the police kick in the front. I see in the dark, so I sometimes catch things. Couple of of times a month.”
“And after Gold Morning?”
“Tent cities, protecting the area. We only got a place to stay last month. Now everything’s in five boxes in another tent.”
He shrugged, and he did it with a languid ease, the movement of his shoulders not affecting the dexterity of his fingers. “You’ve had a rough time, I hear.”
“What have you heard?” I asked him. It was me who tensed a bit.
“Brockton Bay had its trials. New Wave stuck it out in one of the most talked about areas, then disbanded. I was- I was horribly sorry to hear about Eric and Neil.”
“I- even before that. The attack on the mall. I heard you were hurt. I sent a card.”
“I got it. Kept it right up until Gold Morning. You didn’t leave a return address.”
He smiled. “Carol would have hounded me. I needed away.”
“Because of Aunt Jess?” I asked. “Fleur?”
“It was a good excuse.” He tied off the sutures and put everything down, before reaching for sticky bandages. “How much do you know about the old days?”
“War stories, victories, lessons from defeat.”
“That sounds like your mother.”
“Yep. War stories are more my dad’s thing, I think.”
“I remember… being a kid,” he said. “My sisters- your mother, your aunt, they disappeared. I don’t remember specifics. They were young but I was still very small. Kidnapped. Did she tell you?”
“A little bit.”
“The kidnappers wanted ransom and our parents weren’t equipped to pay. We looked better off than we were. They kept Carol and Sarah for weeks. The cops called one sunny afternoon to say that the pair of them had escaped. They came back to us with powers.”
“Yeah. More or less what I heard.”
“They came back haunted, and our parents weren’t equipped to deal with it. So they sent us all off to a kind of boarding school with an attached summer camp. Nature, airy classrooms, small class sizes, horses- your aunt Sarah loved-”
“Probably still loves horses,” I said, thinking of the Valkyrie-created Aunt Sarah.
“I resented them for it, you know,” he said. “Because two of our parents’ three children had an issue, all three of us were sent away. Our family does that a lot, I think.”
I was all patched up, at least at my side, but I didn’t want to exit the conversation. “Does what?”
“Overreaches when it comes to closing doors or making judgments. Your mother closed off her heart, you know. As if she was so guarded against the idea of showing mercy to the evildoers that she couldn’t afford any for family.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s mercy, exactly.”
“Maybe not. But I always worried about you girls. I hoped Mark had a handle on it.”
He hadn’t. Not really.
“Our parents did the exaggerated defensive maneuver when they sent us away. They never really took us back. Because that’s something else we’re bad at.”
“A few years of them sending us messages saying we could come for Christmas if we wanted. So I would come and Sarah would as well, but your mother wanted to study. Or Sarah and your mother would go and I’d be busy. Then… they kind of ceased to be family.”
“Because they had me and Crystal as young as they were.”
“I never got the impression that was a big thing,” my Uncle said. “They were… perfunctory in their grandparent duties. There were grudges and frustrations that felt like they weighed heavier on the family. Speaking for myself, I did resent being sent away for my teenage years, made to spend time with problem children. My parents never did apologize.”
“I can see that. It’s such a shame though. Mom says they’re dead?”
“They probably are. My stupid defensive move was to move away. Jess was a part of it. But the team didn’t feel healthy. You all were growing up and then we heard the kids of people with powers could get powers. Your mom seemed to accept it as a given that you’d be brought onboard. Your aunt surprised me by agreeing, and I think that was her move… establishing an unsafe bubble, not pursuing civilian life. Powers as a part of everything. Even the damn home recipes. We argued like hell.”
“You sound like my old therapist,” I said.
“Was he a smart guy?” my Uncle asked.
“She was a smart lady, yes,” I answered. “I still disagreed with her pretty seriously about what the division between cape and civilian should look like.”
“How’s that working out for you?” my Uncle Mike asked, his eye dropping to the tears in my costume and the bandages that covered just about all of the skin there.
“Now you’re sounding like a true member of this family. That was… very much like my mother,” I said, smiling.
He grimaced, looked toward the front of the room, and the grimace softened. “I don’t think I am.”
I followed his gaze, then glanced back at him.
He clarified, “A member of this family. Related, yes. I definitely share traits with my sisters and parents. But…”
He paused. Struggling to find the words.
I let him.
“…Your mother closed her heart off. She had room in her heart for her sister alone, back when we attended the school. Then for Mark. Then for you and I presume Amelia. I never quite figured in. Your Aunt Sarah, my heart jumps every time I try to think if I should speak of her in the past tense or be horrified that I can’t… she threw herself into her role as Lady Photon. She found someone who could keep up with her.”
“And you didn’t figure in.”
“I wanted two ordinary sisters and one of them didn’t want a brother, and the other didn’t want a civilian life where she might be vulnerable. I wasn’t a saint, either. I was angry and emotional, I acted out. Part of it’s on me. But I don’t think we’ve been family since they were kidnapped.”
“You could take another tack. Say we’re all just one massive, fucked up family, and it’s that twisted nature that defines us as a unit.”
“Or I could keep a safe distance. My life for the past few years has been warm and calm, and I’ve stopped being the angry teenage boy I was after I got sent away to school. I go to your mother’s house for a barbecue, and I lose my cool.”
I nodded, frowning. “What did she tell you?”
“That you and your sister were estranged. That your sister put you in the hospital, she went to prison, she was out after two years, and she was looking to make amends. I reacted badly to the way the situation was being manipulated, like she used to try to direct the Brigade. Telling my kids what to do, dancing around something that sounded serious. It made it abundantly clear that my worst fears came true. No divides where we needed them.”
“Should I have details?” he asked.
I shook my head. “Just don’t go to her for healing. Don’t take your kids to her for healing. Take that from one of the people who knows her best.”
“Okay,” my Uncle Mike said.
“Okay,” I echoed him.
“But,” he said. “Unless you’re about to tell me I should keep my distance from you too-”
I shook my head.
“Any walls? Any defense mechanisms I need to watch out for?” he asked.
He sounded like he was teasing.
I could one hundred percent believe he was still holding on to his own. That it was a genuine belief and a genuine worry on his part.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think I have any.”
“Or you haven’t figured out what they are yet,” he told me.
He sighed. “I wanted to say… I know it’s not a good comparison, but I was sent away for four years, only seeing my family for holidays. I don’t know if the hospital stay was anything like that, but I could offer a listening ear. I think I understand my sister, and even my old friend. I could answer questions or help you figure things out, if Crystal’s not up to it.”
“Or not. When we get through this mess with the Titans, if you wanted a bit of normal and you don’t mind going out to fast food with your two kid cousins, I could try giving you a taste of what’s ninety-eight percent ordinary civilian life.”
I don’t think we’re getting through this. I think this might be the new normal.
I can’t imagine a reality where I can draw a clear line between cape and civilian anymore. If I ever could.
Isn’t that right, my fragile, many-handed friend? It would be risky, like we might pull apart. I could lose my control and you could lose your connection to me.
“Thank you,” I said, with a small smile and zero sincerity.
“Ah, you’re your father’s child too, aren’t you?” he asked, looking into my eyes.
“I have no idea what you mean,” I said, keeping my expression blank as I thought of the uncomfortable memory of my mom with Uncle Neil. My mom crying after I confronted her.
He reached out, and I was bewildered enough in the moment that I didn’t react before he pulled me into a hug.
He might have sensed how tense I was, because he did pull away.
No damage, no disaster, just-
He touched his cheek, and he pulled something away.
Two long strands of blonde hair. My hair.
I reached up to the side of my head that had touched his cheek, stroking it. It prickled like I had a sunburn.
At least ten strands of hair clung to my palm.
I used flight to facilitate standing from the pew, and backed away a bit.
Horrifying. Horrifying, horrifying, horrifying.
Fuck me, what was this? I could look to one side and see injured people, bleeding people, and people with ulcers. In another direction there were two scared little kids I was related to. People praying with zero hope in their expressions. More injuries, more hurt, more despair.
In a warm church I’d let my guard down and let myself pretend things were normal and I could relax. Now it felt claustrophobic. Four walls and a steepled ceiling that couldn’t contain the hurt and fear the people inside were feeling.
I flew a bit over to get to the door, and to get out. Hair dug into the folds where finger met hand as I adjusted my grip on the door handle.
Refugees, and families carrying tents. More injured capes. Scared capes. People on edge.
And I had hair falling out, and I had no idea why, but the reasons weren’t good, and the air was so cold it was hard to breathe.
“Victoria,” My uncle called out.
I was losing hair and I’d scraped my side and my foot wasn’t functioning. My nice costume was in shreds and so many people had died, or been broken, or broken up.
To score a fucking draw, if it could even be called that. The Titans were healing and we weren’t.
What the hell was I supposed to do in this world where we couldn’t win, where there were horrible titanic monsters that, at best were incommunicado and still strong enough to hurt us by accident? In this world where I could throw cars and I couldn’t affect outcomes any more than a housefly could impact a human.
Things were only going to get worse, and more and more out of control. We were one bad disaster from an impossible tipping point.
I clenched my fist and I could feel strands of hair rubbing against strands of hair.
What the fuck?
“Did I get you to review my tattoo?”
Not my uncle.
I refocused, frowning.
“Do you remember? I’m a dumbass, so I definitely don’t.”
It was Jester. From the patrol group.
Fuck, how much had I been freaking out?
I looked around, and in the process, I felt the pressure at the small of my throat, against my windpipe, and around my heart. Everything still felt delirious.
Only Jester and my Uncle were paying attention to me. One standing on either side of me.
“Do you remember what it was?” Jester asked.
“Who could forget?” I asked. “It’s all you would talk about for months. Playing card.”
“Did you give me a review of it?”
“I… yeah. You said you were happy with it.”
“Gilpatrick’s around. You free? We came bearing gifts.”
I swallowed hard. The lump wasn’t quite as bad. I nodded.
“Cool,” he said. “I’m glad I ran into you. Went to the community center, because the people at the stable said you’d be there. Those people… their names?”
“Cassie and Chastity.”
“There we go. Lots of kids, lots of puppies. One scary woman with a scowl that could make you shit your pants.”
“Come on,” he said. “Walk with me?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Uncle. I’ve got to look after my kids, unless you need me, Victoria?” My Uncle asked.
I shook my head.
I went with Jasper, walking through a doomsday cult’s town. They’d preached an end of the world and they’d been right. Two for the price of one.
“Cool,” Jasper said. “Gilpatrick’s this way. We’ve got a bunch of the old squad around, though a lot of them went on to be captains of their own groups. I even have my own. You remember everyone’s names.”
“Jasper. Jester. You don’t need to ask me questions to, um, ground me. Anymore. It’s good, I think.”
“Cool,” he said.
Gilpatrick was sitting, a thermos of coffee next to him. I recognized Camisola. He stood, and extended a hand for me to shake.
A firm, warm hand did a lot to make all of this feel a little less nightmarish.
“Hi,” I said, glad my voice sounded normal. “Good to see you, Gil.”
“You all managing okay?” he asked, quiet.
I hadn’t once been able to answer that question in all the time I’d spent with him.
I looked at him, and then at others. The Patrol wasn’t breaking down. They weren’t freaking. They looked a bit miserable, but… it didn’t feel like it felt elsewhere. With my team, and the kids distracting themselves. I knew the Patrol wasn’t on the front lines, but…
“How the hell are you guys managing?” I asked.
Gil glanced at Jester, then at Camisola.
“Guess that’s answer enough,” he said.
Which was fucking unfair of him, when he didn’t end up answering my question.