Infrared – 19.d

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“Bee, I need you to unpack that box, we have one of the better space heaters somewhere in there.  Let’s get it turned on.”

“Okay.”

All around them, people were getting sorted.  The dirt ground had melted from the passage of vehicles and feet, turning into muddy dreck.  Cars were parked haphazardly around the clusters of tents.  Her experience in the tent cities told her that tents were classified by label and number.  These were ‘fives’, with tents made to be connected to other tents, forming a star shape when all of those other tents were fives.  A mass-heater went in the middle, funneling heat to all of the connected tents.

The control freak in her wanted to get upset at the people who were ignoring what the labels, instruction manuals, and organizers were telling them to do.  The spot to the left of each of the tent’s entrances was for vehicles.  There were ‘air lock’ flaps for keeping the heat in when bringing in boxes.  But people parked in the way, obstructing incoming traffic, and they left their front flaps open for convenience, which chilled every connected tent.

She dug in the box.  Toaster, pressure cooker, microwave… the heater was the biggest, in the bottom corner.

“Little Bee,” her father said.  “Could you hand me the box knife?”

She looked up from her efforts to empty the box.  Her father was by the entrance, in the air lock, and the box knife was in his arm’s reach.  He was wearing a suit, but the jacket had been taken off, the sleeves rolled up.  No wonder he’d wanted the space heater.  He was Japan-born, with very broad shoulders and a broad jaw, a thin mustache and a goatee like an arrow that pointed down from his lower lip to his chin, his hair slicked back with two parts hair stuff, one part sweat.

She looked over at her mother, who gave her a pleading look, both hands pressed together.

She could imagine how that exchange would go, if her dad wasn’t in earshot, or if she stepped away to have a conversation with her dad.  ‘Don’t agitate him, this is all hard enough.’

She got up from where she was kneeling, adjusted her coat, and walked over to her dad, picking up the box cutter and holding it out with what felt like a whole lot of irony.

“Can you hold this?” he asked, taking the box knife, and then handing her screws.

“I don’t have long.”

“Thirty seconds,” he said.

She held the screws, drawing in a deep breath and sighing.

It took more than thirty seconds.

“Have you gotten the space heater out yet?” he asked, as he took the screws.

“No, dad.”

“We need that done.  Can you help me lift this, and then get right to it?”

She glanced again at her mother.

“Ren,” her mother said.  “Our daughter is supposed to be taking a break right now.  She was just fighting, she’ll be fighting again tonight.”

“I’m not asking for much.  If you’d just-” he said.

She squared her feet, drew in a deep breath, and then tinted her vision, tapping into that other set of senses that let her see the world through her power.

Mass was an indent in the world, however slight, and that indent saw things drawn toward the mass, even if by insignificant fractions.  The world itself, the big magnificent globe they all lived in, produced an indent so steep that they were all pulled directly into it.

With her power, she adjusted tolerances and tensions.  Made indents less, made them more.

An increased tension in the fabric at the front and center of the tent served to make everything lighter.  Her father stood easily, and picked up a heavy box with just as much ease.

It was easier to expand the ‘donut’ of increased tension than to cancel it and start it again.  Moving from where she stood or being interrupted saw everything snap back to normal.  A snap back to normal could be disastrous, if her father was holding something fragile.

The casualty was that she was affecting people outside.  She wasn’t sure she had the energy to care at this point.  Her dad’s career was already fucked, and as far as her secret identity went, she wasn’t sure what she was fighting to maintain anymore.

“There,” her father said, “How about that space heater?”

Ren,” her mother said.  The fierceness of it surprised Brianna.  Her mother tended to be meek.  “Let our daughter rest.”

“I’ll be happier if I know you guys are okay,” Brianna said.  Then she wondered why she’d said it.  Why she’d countered her mother when her mother was showing off more spine than usual.

Tired, she decided.

“Thank you, Bee.  Alright,” her father said.  He clapped his hands together, rubbing them, looking around.

Brianna took the opportunity to mouth an apology to her mom.  All she got was an ambiguous smile in return.

“Can you help me with this stuff?” Brianna asked.  “It’s buried.”

“Okay!” her father said, and it struck her that he wasn’t being bullish, driven, and high-energy for no reason.  He was trying to be strong for the family.

He knelt by the box with the small appliances, picking up the radio and toaster, balancing them on the box’s edge with one hand.  She did what she could to move the wires aside.

She used her power, surrounding the box, turning downward-pointing indents into peaks, and then lifted appliances by the wires.

A touch at the side of her head drew her attention.  A floating toaster oven and waffle iron bumped into her dad’s arm, the wires threatening to get entangled as he reached over to her.

His hand touched her hair, then the side of her face.

“We worry,” he said.

“I’m not field leader for nothing,” she said, looking down.  “I know what I’m doing.”

“I remember when you were small.  The one year you were in public school, you had trouble fitting in, you intimidated the other children.”

“I was a stuck up rich bitch,” Brianna said.

“Never apologize for being better.”

“It’s not being better.  It’s acting better.  I was dumb, I paid for it when they gave me a hard time.  That’s a lesson we all need to learn.”

He nodded, as if just now accepting that idea, ten years after the fact.  “Do you remember that day I skipped work, and took you on the ferry?”

“Yes.  It’s one of my cherished memories,” Brianna said.

“Do you remember how that day started?”

Brianna shook her head.  Her long ponytail swept against the back of her neck and shoulders.

“It started in tears.  You begged me not to make you go to school.  You were so terrified you were making yourself sick, because the other girls teased you.  I think it might have been your first time experiencing enemies.  We talked about that.”

Brianna nodded.  “Yeah.”

He reached over to push the things that had tangled around his arm away, before pulling back his hand.

His expression broke, calm confidence giving way to… she likened it to how he’d acted on camera, when their state had been hit by the flooding.  She’d watched from a distance, because she’d been with Reach, then.  Seeing her dad on camera, expressing his sadness over the dozens of deaths.

Except this was real.

She didn’t know what to say, or how to handle it.

“You’re here, eighteen and- you’ve grown so much.  If I tried to say how proud I am of you, all of this would be over before I was out of things to say.  I’m so, so proud of you.”

She opened her mouth to speak, but he held up a hand.

“Let me speak.  I’m… crushed with guilt.  I put you here.”

“I put myself here,” she replied, around the lump in her throat.

“No, I… I played my role in shaping you.  Telling you to be brave, to aspire to big things, how to talk to people.  We’ve never talked about it, but that day you got your powers…”

“That wasn’t you.”

“Wasn’t it?” he asked, quiet.  “When the government reached out to tell me what happened, I was proud.  Scared but proud.  They say you get powers if you achieve true greatness, true successes.  You were managing clubs that seniors didn’t, singing in choir, you were popular, loved by your teachers, loved.  You stood above all of them.  Of course, I thought, and my heart swelled.  I didn’t know how it would change your life and that terrified me, but it made sense that it would be you.”

Brianna nodded, her eyes moist.

“I opened the door to that room, and the window in the door showed me your reflection.  I heard you crying.  Not so different from that small girl who told me she didn’t want to go to school.”

“I didn’t know you were there.”

Why didn’t you come in?

“I watched from there, as you pulled yourself together.  My busy Bee, putting on makeup and a brave face.  Until I could open the door, see you smile, composed, like you hadn’t shed a tear in a long time.  I made you this way.”

“I made the decisions.  I was old enough to be my own person.”

“I’ve thought about that day over and over.  It wasn’t that the powers were new and scary.”

Brianna shook her head.

“The moment you got your powers, it wasn’t success.”

“The damn expectations of that place.  Of everyone,” she said.

He winced.  “I tried to convince myself that wasn’t it, ever since hearing you and seeing you at the door.  I never really succeeded.  I sent you there.”

“Dad… you can’t do that.”

“I can.”

“Was it our expectations as well?” he asked.

She shook her head, but when she moved her mouth, the words didn’t come out.  “Yes.”

He looked over at her mother, his eyes damp.  Brianna turned to look.  Her mother sat on the corner of the bed, a meek little woman of Italian descent, the only one with dry eyes.  She wondered if it was because those tears had already been shed and exhausted.

The sound of the box crumpling and appliances shifting made her turn back toward her dad.  He leaned over the box, and used large hands to smooth down the hair at the top and sides of her head.

“Bee,” he said.  “Brianna.  I was saying, I was trying to say, you’re grown, you’re an adult now, and you are inspiring.  But if you chose this moment to be that girl again, asking for rescue and reprieve, I would take you wherever you wanted to go.  No judgment, there are no expectations today, I would not- we would not think any less of you.”

She swallowed around the lump in her throat.

“We would be grateful,” he said.

She removed her father’s hands from her head, holding them in her own, and then she used her power.  It took doing to maintain the focus and tensions when floating, which meant her mind wasn’t on what her father had just said, or the fact she was seeing him cry for the first time in her life.

Weightless, she leaned over the box to kiss him on top of his head before hugging him around his shoulders.

“No?” he asked.

“I have to.”

I put that scared little girl away that day, when you saw me putting on the makeup and composing myself.  Even after Byron’s ‘murder’, even holding Furcate when she died, I held myself together.

A ‘spike’ of low gravity lifted up her upper body, while her lower body was lowered to the ground, letting her stand.  With one hand, she straightened her coat, then fixed her hair at the side, where a strand brushed against her temple.  Once done, she walked over to her mother, to hug her.

“Take care of each other,” Brianna murmured.

“I’ve been taking care of him since three years before you were born,” her mother answered.  “I’ve gotten pretty good at it.  You focus on what you need to focus on.  We’ll manage.”

Her father sorted through the box with some commotion.  It was enough commotion she might have thought he was angry, except he wasn’t.

Turning on the spot, she approached the box and used her power again.  This time she let it fill the tent.  Again, she lifted things out and let them float up, and batted at them lightly to send them floating weightless in the right directions, before a gentle downward spike of gravity pinned them to the ground.

Finally, they pulled out the space heater.

They unpacked the appliances and found a place for each.  They unloaded more of the truck, pausing to help an elderly couple, and then began sorting through those things too.  Her parents had been thoughtful enough to use different colors of tape for different essentials.  A lesson learned from when they had left home.

No more words were said.  Her father stopped layering chore after chore, instruction after instruction on her.

It was nice, in its own way.

Until her mother said, “Dave.”

‘Dave’ was tall, black, and wore a beanie hat over what Brianna knew was a shaved head.  By default, he kept his face at ‘sad and thoughtful’, but he smiled in a genuine way as he replied, “Gia.  It’s nice to see you again.  It’s been a long time.  Congressman, sir.”

“You can call me by my name, Dave,” Brianna’s father said.  “And I’m not a Congressman, nor am I a Councillor.”

“That would feel weird,” Dave said, chuckling lightly.

Dave wasn’t alone.  The people he was with weren’t people Brianna had expected to see.  Tammi and Kay.

For one thing, Tammi, Scribe, hadn’t really gone out of her way to reach out to certain other members of the group.  It had been noticed and commented on, that the girl with the neo-nazi past wouldn’t hang out with the two outspoken atheist members who’d also come over from the Attendant, that she didn’t hang out with Dave, who was black, or even go out of her way to spend time with Brianna, who was half Asian.  She had kept to her own sub-group, alongside Victor.

Which might, Brianna had to be fair, be mostly due to Victor.  Brianna hadn’t liked their group dynamic, and she’d split him and Tammi up into separate sub-teams.  It had been just long enough to see that Victor had followed orders to pair up with Tribute, a person he had incredible power synergy with, and then continued to avoid associating with Tribute unless ordered, but not enough to shine a light on Scribe.

And here she was, with a black man and a trans girl.

Dave and Kay being here together was almost more weird, but not because of any huge opinions or labels or anything.  Just… in all their time in Reach, it hadn’t happened, so there was a lot of precedent.  Dave, who went by Tribute in costume, had never clicked with Kay.  They were teammates without being friends, and if they were put in the same place together, they remained silent instead of striking up conversation.  Part of that was Dave’s character.  Part of it was Kay being weird.

Kay’s other weirdness gave Brianna a moment’s pause.  Her parents…

“Scribe and I came hunting for you, and we ran into Kay,” Tribute said.  “She tagged along.”

“I do that,” Kay said.  Her eyes were almost too bright in the dark, her hair short and styled to be strategically messy.  Her upper lip had red lipstick on it, the bottom had pink-a line of red-pink.

It pushed memories to the front of Brianna’s mind.  On the beach, holding Kay while Kay wheezed her way to a slow death, blood on her lips.  The crimson lipstick unsettled.  Brianna had cried then.

“Am I in the way?” Kay asked.  Standing at the very fringe of the group, weight resting on one foot with the other lifted off the ground, like she was halfway to taking a step back and walking away already.

“No,” Brianna said, though she felt nervous.  She crossed the distance and reached out, taking Kay’s gloved hand, squeezing it before letting go.  Will Kay bother my parents, or vice-versa?  “No, you’re fine.”

She’d wanted this to be peaceful and easy.  It was why she hadn’t taken issue with the orders and requests from her dad, earlier.

“Your phone was off.  I was worried for a bit,” Dave said.

“I told the Wardens I needed an hour with my parents, and to handle any calls.  If you’d let the call go through, they would have picked up.”

“Ah ha,” Tribute said, frowning.  “Shit.  Sorry we interrupted, then.”

“Only have…” she checked her phone.  “Six minutes left on the clock.  It’s fine.  Is it important?”

“We were getting people together, pre-planning.”

“Since you’re here!”  her father exclaimed, loud, authoritative, his hands clapping together, before he rubbed them.  “Do you know how to lift heavy boxes, Dave?”

“Ren,” Brianna’s mother said.  “Don’t tire them out.  They need every bit of energy and strength they can spare.”

“It’s fine,” Dave said.  “I can help.”

“I’ll help too,” Tammi said.

“Once you’re inside, can you fetch the radio?  It’s in the box with green tape in the middle of the room.  Plug it into the heater, turn it on?”

“Can do,” Dave said, lifting a box.  “Brianna, if you’re tired, let me know.”

“I know,” she said.  “Thanks.”

Dave was Tribute and Tribute could grant people mental and physical traits, at a cost to his own.  Keeping Tribute on the back bench for busier weeks had meant he’d been able to lend others a few hours of double the recovery time and natural healing, as well as mental recuperation and equilibrium.  It impacted his own recovery, of course, but if he wasn’t tired, the effect on him was negligible.

But she wasn’t tired enough to need it.

Still, Brianna winced, seeing her teammates being recruited for busy work.

She did what she could, jumping up to stand on the tire and lift the boxes over the side of the pickup.  While waiting for people to get through the little double-flap ‘airlock’ she used her power to lighten their loads a bit.

“How are you managing?” she asked Tammi, as they waited.  Tammi was up in the truck bed with the rest of the boxes, sitting on a box.

“One of the only people I kept in touch with from the old days turned into a mindless monster,” Tammi said.  “How do you think, boss?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean to touch a sore spot.  I’m here if you want to talk, that’s all.  We could walk away for a minute, chat.  Or do it later.”

“I’m good to keep fighting, boss,” Tammi said, less like a person and more like a robot saying her scripted lines.

“I’m trying to be more than just your boss.”

“The sad, shitty thing about this is, not getting down on you or being bitchy, but you’re actually one of the people I know most, now, and I barely know you,” Scribe said.  “Along with Armiger and Vessel, but I’m not allowed to hang with them anymore, huh?”

“We’ll see what happens.  Things are bad enough I think we can relax rules for the duration.  If you need support and they can provide it…”

“I don’t really care that much.  Armiger wasn’t very rich in the personality department, and half the fun of being around Vessel was seeing how she practically creamed herself every time Victor made eye contact.”

Brianna sighed, checking her parents weren’t in earshot.

“What’s the other half?” Kay asked.

“Huh?”

“Half the fun is her creaming herself-” Kay said.

“Let’s uh, not talk about teammates that way,” Brianna butted in.

“-what’s the other half?”

Sullen, Tammi shrugged.  “I guess she was nice.”

“That’s a good thing to pay attention to,” Kay said.

“I guess.  Only ‘nice’ people I knew before were the brainwashed Nazi murder couple.”

“So that’s a thing,” Kay said, her eyes widening.  She looked off into the distance.  “And the world suddenly seems a little bit darker.”

“The world wasn’t already at peak dark already?” Tammi asked.  “What kind of fucking rose colored glasses are you wearing?”

“I did die once,” Kay said.  She wrinkled her nose.  “It was pretty horrible.  Painful.  I think I get to wear whatever color glasses I want.”

“…Fair,” Scribe said, looking even more sullen as she made the concession.  She considered for a moment.  “Respect.”

Kay shrugged, like she didn’t care.

“Okay,” Brianna said, as her mom emerged from the tent, giving her a worried look.  “Let’s just- not talk about depressing things.  If you need to talk about real shit, fine, but… making fun of teammates and talking about… very dark things, it’s making this ‘break’ of ours feel less like a break.”

“It’s how I deal, boss,” Tammi said.  “Stuff gets bad, I become an asshole.”

“Language,” Brianna’s mother said, giving Tammi a light swat on the head.

Tammi looked around, bewildered.

“Yeah, watch the language around my family, please,” Brianna said.

“You need to decide if you want to be my boss or if you want to be my friend, because being my friend means accepting I get vulgar sometimes.”

“Being my friend means accepting that you’re supposed to be polite around my family, and if it comes down to it, I’m your boss until you decide you want to leave the team, but I’d like to be both your boss and your friend.  That’s your call.”

Tammi regarded her with half-lidded eyes, then said, “Can I use my powers?”

“If you’re reasonably discreet.”

“Good,” Tammi said.  As Dave emerged from the tent, Tammi hopped down from the back of the truck.  The remainder of the boxes floated off the back and in through the flap, as Tammi held it open.  She walked inside.

“I was looking up the others,” Kay said.

Brianna looked at Kay.

“Boundless died before Gold Morning, Steamwheel went Rogue-”

“Good for her,” Brianna said.

“Figurehead retired.  We lost Coiffure.”

“Yeah,” Brianna said, worrying about what this was leading up to.

“If we could round up Capricorn, we could have the team together again.”

“I don’t know,” Brianna said.  “Byron’s… complicated.”

“Lovely boy,” Brianna’s mother said.  Such a horrible situation.”

Brianna gave her mom an annoyed look.  Her mom threw up two hands, retreating.

“Complicated, horrible situation,” Brianna conceded.  It made her heart heavy.

“Are you aware of how he’s doing?” Kay asked.

“The injury?”

Kay nodded. “You know.  Good.”

Had she wanted to notify Brianna?  If so, why did it look like she had more to say?  Kay was just… always so tense, and it was hard to know if it was because they were pretty opposite in personality, or if it was because of the situation.

“Are you still in touch?” Kay asked.

“We broke up.”  Brianna looked back to check her mom wasn’t listening in.  She was in the truck now, sorting through things.  Probably still listening in.

Kay nodded, silent.

“…I was willing to try, he didn’t think he could be my boyfriend, and then you add Tristan to the mix… they come as a package deal.”

“Yes,” Kay said.  She looked off to the side, before rummaging in her pockets.  She made a face when they turned up empty.

“You’re being cagey,” Brianna accused Kay.  “What aren’t you saying?”

“You should know, he might not be alone next time you see him.”

“That’s even more cagey,” Brianna accused Kay.

Kay shrugged.  Metal stuff in her bag jangled with the motion.

A bad feeling in her gut, Brianna asked, “He’s with someone already?”

Kay nodded.

“Who?”

“Vista.  I thought you should know.”

The thought rocked Brianna.  That wasn’t even minor competition, it wasn’t a trashy rebound, or…

Fuck, she was still thinking in terms of status, of pecking orders and being on top.  Of not being on top in this particular pecking order.

She could very much see it.  Knowing Byron, having some peripheral knowledge and having had a handful of conversations with Vista.

“Well, that… really sucks,” Brianna said.

Her mom was in the front of the truck, trying to look busy.  Tammi and Dave were sorting out stuff, while her father’s commanding voice was giving instructions.

She felt like she sometimes did if she lost focus while trying to maneuver with her gravity well doing more than one thing at once.  Like there wasn’t even ground or equilibrium in easy reach.

“Do you want a hug?” Kay asked.

Brianna didn’t really have an answer to that.  The last proper non-parent hug she’d had was Byron, which was a gut punch on its own.

Kay gave her the hug.

It was uncomfortable, with a lot of self-consciousness, and wondering if her mom was looking, knowing what Kay was about, and judging.

Which sucked, because she’d been making a renewed, concerted effort to let her judgments go since she’d found out about the three ex-nazis joining, seen some of their behaviors and attitudes, especially Eagleflight, who hadn’t been anything close to subtle, and who had been kicked out in short order.  She’d connected her own reactions to how Byron must have seen her.  Except now that brought everything back full circle to thinking about Byron, provoking more than a little frustration, and a feeling like she wanted to spite him by being a bit shitty here.  Which made her think of her private school, and the way everyone had been there, herself included, and…

Kay squeezed her tighter, and for a second, those thoughts dropped away, but they bounced back, uncomfortable, working at getting back up to speed, circular.

“Thanks,” she said, more curt than she wanted, breaking the hug.

“Anytime,” Kay said.

“How did you hear?” she asked.  “Do I want to know?”

“Solarstare.  Vista’s friend.  The girl has no filter.  She portrayed the whole thing as a funny story…”

“Do I really want to know?” Brianna asked.  “I can’t imagine any story being very-”

“Guys!” Dave called out.

“-funny,” Brianna finished.

Dave fought with the tent seal for a second before pulling it open.  “Hey.  Radio.”

They made their way into the tent.

A voice, young and female, was speaking.  Good presence, good pacing, a little too much pausing for dramatic effect.  Brianna’s dad had the same problem.

“…taking the fight to the heart of the Titans, while others fight to keep them pinned down.  For this we’re requesting your help.  Able and ready volunteers who can follow instructions, handle themselves in a crisis, especially those who have experience in combat.  If you heard that and you thought you could be one of those volunteers, we need you.”

Another pause for effect.

It had an effect, Brianna realized.  She could see her dad standing a little straighter.

“I’ll go,” her dad said.

“No,” she said, quiet.  “You need to look after mom.”

“I have to,” he said.

That’s not fair.

Her composure almost cracked at that.  It was only the other faces in the room, people she trusted, people she loved, people who needed her, and people she owed something to, that kept her secure.  Her team, her family, at least, had her back.

“They’re getting more aggressive!” Furcate called out.

“I know!” Moonsong’s voice was devoid of emotion.  Accepting the facts.  Emotion didn’t come into it.

The Titans had been dazed ever since the cracking.  They’d kept the Nemean Titan at bay so far.  But now the Titans were attacking more, and they were succeeding.

A cascade of flying debris stood out to her gravity-vision, the indents clearly visible.

Feet placed squarely beneath her shoulders, her body as steady as she could get, she reached out, blindly, until she found the mass flying through the air, most of it traveling an arc that was too high to hit the Titan, especially as the Titan took evasive action.

The Nemean Titan.  Victor.  He’d been a teammate, even if he hadn’t been someone she’d liked.

She tracked the mass, used her best judgment about the Titan’s location, and then altered the gravity in the air.  Not a big well of gravity, but a concentrated one.  Getting five stones with this much intensity was better than getting ten with less intensity.

They changed course as if they’d hit a wall and immediately started dropping at terminal velocity.

One chunk crashed through the Titan’s shoulder, tearing away flesh, while causing blood to gout out.  The thing’s reaction speed was enough that it moved before the others could make firm contact.  They grazed it, instead.

“You’re such a taint-hole!” Scribe screamed the words.  “Get a grip on yourself!  Other Titans were able to!”

“You’re clear, hon!” Riveting called out.  She backed away swiftly from the metal beams that Scribe stood on.

Scribe hopped up, holding her staff to slow her drop to the ground.  The yellow-painted steel girders flew in the Titan’s direction.

They flew through the air, not especially fast, pale shapes disappearing into the darkness.

Two explosions shook the area in front of the Titan.  He fell.

“Good!  Again!” Moonsong called out.

“On it!” Riveting answered, hefting her bag full of explosives tech.  Scribe pointed to their next set of projectiles.

Tribute shifted to using his power on Moonsong.  She felt her focus increase, her concentration narrowing, until it felt like her thoughts had been coated in rust and clouds before, and were shining steel now.

She was already maintaining twenty different gravity wells, one of which was being used to hold the ground steady beneath her team.  Her mind pulled in twenty-one different directions, if she counted her own mental focus on the situation and her team.   Tribute’s help did a lot to lighten her mental load.

Low to the ground, concentrated… her eye was focused on the piece of ground she could see between buildings and rubble, between the Titan’s feet.  A burst of reversed gravity and…

It was like a bomb had gone off.  Dust, snow, and particulate ‘fell’ upward, forming a cloud around the Titan.

It escaped, jumping free, and she immediately slapped the dust cloud flat to the ground, pressing it there.

Off to her left, she could see the red lights and lines, and it dawned on her that the attack she had assisted earlier was Tristan’s.  A new shape, at the same time Byron was reportedly injured.

Always, their powers changed when something horrible had happened, or when horrible things were about to be revealed.

It left her with a bad feeling.  But it was impossible to spend three months around an attempted murderer, trusting your life to his hands, without feeling more than a little betrayed.  It had been so supremely fucked up, and then the consequences had come home after.  The team shaken, Byron struggling with daily tasks, the hounding from the news, not because they knew, but because they knew something was up.  The fears that someone would leak the answer, and turn their lives upside down.  Fear for Byron.

She hated him.  She hated hating him, but it was one of the only feelings she couldn’t put aside.

The Nemean Titan pulled one of the ruined girders free of its chest.  It reared back, and then threw it.

Armiger created his massive winged shield, above the group.  It flashed as the chunk of metal slammed into it.

“Grabbing it!  Recoup!” Moonsong called out.

“Don’t tax yourself!” Tribute told her.

“I’m fine!”  I have to be fine.

She produced a spike, stabbing up at the chunk of metal.  As the forcefield shield disappeared, the metal tumbled, then fell, lazily, toward the ground.

Armiger took the time to let his shield recover.  If he let it get too intense, it would shift to another power entirely, the emotion-affecting shield.

“Come on, Victor,” she murmured.  “Recognize who you’re fighting, then either man up or find a bit of humanity in you.  But don’t do this.”

The Titan hurled two more things.  A piece of signage, a truck cab.  Same procedure.  Forcefield shield raised.  Her gravity power handled the fallout, giving people ample time to get out of the way.

Tristan, standing a block away, created another volley of concrete.

It got the Titan’s attention.  The Titan began running toward them.

His teammate, Sveta, landed next to him, and they talked.  He glanced toward Moonsong’s Shepherds.

Immediately, he began drawing out more lights and lines.  Moonsong could unfocus her eyes and see the outcome, with a bit of guesswork now that the power was different.

“Damn it…” she muttered.  He’d draw the Titan straight to himself.

She needed to-

She had to save Tristan.  If only to save Byron.  But… no, she was lying to herself again.

The emotional turmoil…

“Tribute,” she said, watching as the Titan stampeded toward them.

Tristan’s power produced its first attack.  A pillar of building materials, stabbing up at a diagonal, straight for the Titan.  The Nemean Titan stumbled as it slammed into his shoulder, then fell as the second creation followed up.  The third hit only air.

She put a gravity well on top of it to slow its ability to get to its feet.  A lot of mental effort for minimal effect, but everything they did had minimal effect.

“What do you need, Moon?” Tribute asked.

“I need… control over my own emotions.  Courage.”

She felt it start to take hold.  The calm, the awareness of what she was feeling.  A bit of strength.

The Titan was on its feet again.  She felt even more removed from that reality than before.

“Capricorn!” she called out, top of her lungs.  Her focus on her existing projects, like the one that pinned down the Titan, was getting shaky.  Even turning and shouting threatened to spoil her control.

Capricorn looked her way.

“Focus,” she said.

It sounded like it was an instruction, but it was a need.

Tribute gave her focus.

She waved, beckoning for Capricorn to come.

“Aw, fuck no,” Tribute snarled the words.

“Yes,” she said.

Because the Titan was coming straight for Tristan.  She had to use that.

Tristan was creating another constellation, halfway between the Titan and her group.  Trying to protect them.  He jogged over, faster than one would imagine with that heavy armor.  Byron had always complained about the weight of it, but his was a little over half the weight of Tristan’s.

“Furcate!” Moonsong called out.  “Status!?”

“In place.”

Infuriating, because times of stress tended to see Furcate using about half as many words as would be convenient, or staying silent.  ‘In place’ didn’t convey a lot.

“Who’s in place?” Tristan asked, before Moonsong could ask.

“My others.  They have the bombs.”

Furcate raised a gauntlet with claws fixed to it, pointing at two rooftops of buildings that were still standing.  Between those buildings, they could see the Titan, who had stopped as it saw the red lights of Tristan’s power.  Staying clear of the range.

“They’re ready to die?” Moonsong asked.

Furcate nodded, her expression grim.

“What?” Sveta asked.  “No.  I could grab them.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Furcate said.

“It does,” Tristan said.  “Can you?”

“There’s no time!” Moonsong said.

“It’s important,” Tristan said.

Moonsong looked between him and Furcate, then shifted stances.  “Scribe!  Shoot, then delay and obstruct!  Try to keep it on target!  Armiger, try to hem it in, but don’t exceed capacity!”

“Go,” Tristan told Sveta.  “Fast.”

Scribe and Riveting launched another two telekinetic projectiles.  Still slow, but it was more about getting Riveting’s bombs close.

Armiger ran ahead.

Sveta grabbed nearby rubble, then slingshotted herself forward.

“Stay clear of Nemean’s power!” Moonsong called out to the case fifty-three.

She almost lost her grip on the gravity wells near the Titan.

The Titan was on its feet again.  It hit Armiger’s shield.  Tristan hit it, starting to form another constellation.

“You too,” Moonsong said.  She looked Tristan in the eye, saw hints of Byron, but saw more of a person she hated.  He looked much like he had in the later days, before she’d brought him into custody.  Emotionally raw, a bit spooked by everything in reality.

It scared her more than anything, and she was emotionally secured by Tribute.

“Get back to safety,” she told him.  “No more constellations.”

“I’m actually here to help.”

“Everything’s in place.  Help by not getting in the way.”

“Explain,” he said.

So bullish, driven, so stubborn.  Fuck. 

“Fucking go, murderer,” Tribute snarled, before she could give her abbreviated explanation.

“I didn’t actually murder him, but-”

“But we don’t care about the distinction,” Tribute’s voice was low, angry.

“Boys,” Moonsong cut in.  “Seriously.  You’re professional heroes.  Get it together.”

But Tribute was giving her the very thing he needed to stay calm, and Tristan was Tristan.

“What next!?” Riveting called out to her.  Pulling her attention away from the issue.

Tristan butted in.  “Moonsong, you know these guys can’t be stopped with bombs or anything like that.”

“Tristan,” she spoke through grit teeth.  “Trust me, for once.  Back down, chill out, for fucking once.”

“…Okay.”

He let the constellation go.

She called out orders, “Riveting!  Contact Fishtank, pull him back!  You retreat!  You’re done!”  Looking back, she could see the boys still where they’d been standing.  “You boys, you go!  I mean it!  I’m trusting you on this, Tribute!  You both make sure my team is safe!  Be good!  Armiger, get in position!”

Looking back, she could see the doubt in Tristan’s eyes as she sent Armiger even further toward the Titan.  But he went.  He ran with Tribute beside him.

Like the old days.

She blamed him for a whole hell of a lot, but she didn’t blame him for that bit of doubt.  If she fucked this up, if this went wrong… Armiger would be among the dead.

The Nemean Titan dropped to all fours.  It had been too long since it had people to feed on.

Every time a foot came down, striking the ground, rubble shifted, and she felt the punch of it through ground and air both.

She stood her ground, staring at this boy she’d failed to save.  Victor.

As Tribute retreated, she felt that emotional security slip away.

With her power, once again, she created her plume of dust, making everything that was light and free of the earth fall up.  A screen.

She could see Sveta, with the two Furcates.  She raised one hand.

As the Titan pushed through the smoke, between two buildings, the bombs went off.  One near the Titan’s head, the other partway down.  One of the buildings tilted.

Not a topple, sadly.  She’d hoped it would fall on the Titan.

Not the end of the world, she thought.

The emotion control continued to slip away as she saw the Titan stumble forward.

Armiger off in the flanks, perilously close to the Titan’s range.  If the Titan hopped to one side, Armiger would be rendered invalid.

But there was no reason to hop to one side.  It was just the Titan and her.

I hope you’re doing okay, Dad, she thought.

The Titan shook its head, mane of gold flipping left, then right.  It drew closer.  Rubble crunched beneath its feet.

This next move was all on her.

It lunged.

She released the gravity wells she’d been holding.  Where rubble filled cracks, suspended weightless over a hole in reality, it now dropped away with a rolling sound of cracks, scrapes and crunches.

The Titan found no ground beneath it.  It reached for the nearest handhold, and Armiger was ready.  The forcefield shield blocked the claw.

Momentum carried the Titan further than she had expected.  It slammed into a ‘v’ of cracked reality, which caught it around the middle.  Claws scraped at rubble and road, pushing rubble back to try to get purchase on more road.

The relief of no longer having to maintain the gravity well was dizzying, but short lived.

It was climbing out.  It hadn’t fallen cleanly through.

She hit it with more gravity, a spike as big as she could make in short order, pressing it down.  She couldn’t get a grip on the Titan itself, but it was caked in other things.  The ground it tried to dig its claws into compressed and fell away more easily, dropping into the chasm.

Slowly, surely, it began to win out.

Then she saw the red lights.

Red lights and lines, with a course she could imagine.

It meant she had to shift the gravity well, stop it- letting the Titan rise up a bit more, so she could position it far enough back.  If she didn’t, then Tristan’s power would just shoot straight into the ground, not even touching the Titan.

She extended Tristan a bit of trust, in this, and she hated doing it.

Lights and lines became a building, thrusting itself up and forward, and falling to pieces in the process.  A battering ram, to the Titan’s chest, followed by another.  It slipped.

The third strike caught it in the face.  The Titan fell back, and his claws went out sideways, one to his left, one to his right, gripping the edges there.

Building became mist.  Brianna turned to see Tristan becoming Byron.

The mist became ice.  The ice-coated Titan’s claws slipped on the fresh ice.

Without much of a noise, it fell into the void.  A long drop, and there were no places Moonsong was aware of that the place below the cracks was close enough to a handhold he could use to climb up.

“Last I heard from Tristan, there are still people down there,” Byron said, walking up to her side, looking at where the Titan had gone.  “Capes.  My team.”

“Are they close?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“It has to be better, taking him out of the picture.”

Byron nodded.

“I didn’t do this recklessly.  We got permission.  My dad’s one of the people down there, I think.”

“I liked him,” Byron said.  “Coolest adult I knew that didn’t turn out to be an asshole.”

He was talking about the people in charge of Reach.  The therapist.

“I hope he’s okay.”

Sveta caught up, the two Furcates and Armiger with her.  Byron pointed in the direction the others had gone.

Sveta nodded, before she, Armiger and the Furcates ran off.  Moonsong gave the departing group a thumbs up as they ran by.

Leaving her alone with Byron once more.

“I didn’t make any choices about other people’s loved ones that I wasn’t willing to make about my own,” she told him.

“You don’t have to justify it,” Byron said.  He looked so weary, and he hadn’t even been fighting, by the looks of him.  “I trust you.”

“Have they communicated the next part of the plan?” she asked.

There were still so many titans.  They’d baited the Nemean Titan out to the flanks.  There was still the Custodian, Cinereal, Ophion…

“Some, I think.  Playing defense?” he asked.

She nodded.

They couldn’t win this fight.  The Titans were too strong and too concentrated here.

Their task was supposed to be to retreat to safe ground, get in contact with the Wardens’ command, and get their assignments.  To pick a Titan and protect it from the others, prevent any and all connection.  Teams down in the crevice were preparing to bomb any evident connections in progress, if things got too far.

Given how the last bombing had gone, it would be messy, and it’d hurt parahumans almost as much as it hurt the Titans.

“Come with?” she asked.

“I’m not very able,” he said.  “It’d be Tristan.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Alright.”

“Be safe,” he told her.  “Don’t stand alone on battlefields against monsters like this.  You’re needed.  You’re important.  We’ll catch up on things once we get through this.”

“The only reason I’d be anyone decent or important,” she told Byron, “is that you helped me get there.”

But he was already Tristan.

“He can’t hear while he’s inside.  The head injury messed up the reciprocity there,” Tristan said.  “I don’t think he caught that.”

“It was dumb anyway,” she said, really feeling like she could use a hit of Tribute’s emotional stability right now.  She wasn’t prepared to look at Tristan.

“Wasn’t dumb,” Tristan said.  “I’d like to think he helped me too.  But I still have a way to go.”

“Me too,” Moonsong answered.

The distant fighting was getting uglier.  Dragon and Legend were fighting in concert.  The dull ‘booms’ of Chevalier’s gunblade were audible.

Mostly Wardens, holding the line.  The other teams were retreating.

“We should go,” she said.

We, she’d said.  The word was heavy, standing in the face of a whole lot of history.

“Okay.”

“I’m going to try and ask if we- if we can support the people in the crevices.  My dad, others.  Get a reprieve from Titans.”

“Okay,” he said.  “If it’s okay, I’d like to come support you.  Next to Breakthrough, you’re the people I know best.  How you fight, everything.”

He looked confident, as he said it.  Actually sincere.

“You’re not going to be a problem?” she asked.

“No, just the opposite.  Really, I’ve got your back.”

And with those words, somehow, that confidence and sincerity seemed to slip.  Again, that look in his eyes, that didn’t seem like it should match the situation.  Sad and a little wild.  It made her think of the Tristan who’d hired mercenaries, the Tristan who had tried to get away with murder.

She weighed her trust for Byron in his brother, against her distrust for Byron’s brother.

For Byron, she pushed those feelings aside, and nodded.

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34 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.d”

  1. Typo Thread:

    said, “How > said, “how
    around his arm way > around his arm away
    be mostly > have been mostly
    here!” her (extra space)
    “Lovely boy,” Brianna’s mother said. Such (missing quotation mark)
    accused Kay. (appears twice in quick succession. intentional?)
    gout out (gush out?)
    her eye was > Her eye was
    between the Titan’s feet (should this be beneath)
    distinction,” > distinction.”
    She stood her ground, staring at this boy she’d failed to save. Victor. (is boy intentional)
    Armiger off > Armiger was off

    Hmm, Reach and Breakthrough = Breach

  2. -Moonsong Interlude and I completely changed my opinion about her. I disliked Brianna before this Interlude because of her beliefs but now I can say that I like her. She matured a lot and became a much more better and tolerant person than her former self.

    -I love her parents, some of the very few good parents in this universe. I’m so proud of her father, what a brave and kind man. Hope he survived.

    -Yay, more Kay and she is adorable as always <3.

    -Brianna and Tristan buried the hatchet. For the sake of fighting to save humanity. So good.

    -What an wholesome Interlude, despite the grim situation :).

  3. -Scribe is making great progress. It seems to have been triggered by Victor becoming a Titan, but she is there, hanging out with a half asian girl, a trans girl and a black man. Thats progress!!Even if they are not BFF it talks volumes about her will to change from her past self, and I congratulate her for that. The road to change is a hard one but is worth it.

    -That said, I cant believe we have Scribe´s name now, and we still dont know Marquis´s. What the shit wildbow. Does he has to die so we can get a name??

    -Moonsong is a hero. She is flawed and has a long way to go, but she is a hero, and she has a good heart, deep down. She is working on her own prejudice, and I wish good things for her. Is sad though, that her trust on Tristan has broke so completely that she literally gets flashbacks of his worse moments from a “trust me” moment meant to be supportive. Cant blame her, that she cant see how much Tristan has changed and improved, I really cant hold it against her. Is sad, though

  4. FURCATE <333 gosh i hope we can get an interlude from her point of view before everything is done- I'm really interested in knowing how her power works, and having more of her in general!

    …also oh hey, two copies of a trans girl saved by another trans girl, lookit that

    also also, i'm glad to see that Moonsong is growing, and that this makes it pretty clear my early theory about Furcate's death being Moonsong's fault was wrong

  5. Marquis is he-who-must-not-be- named because if the characters and we, readers, will ever know his name both universes (theirs and ours) will implode. Better to avoid this total disaster.

  6. Perhaps his real name *was* marquis this whole time- he kind of got boned by his parents, and a lot of subtle ribbing from his friends and enemies was something he didn’t find humerus. Before we knew it, it was such a pain in his spine that he knuckled under, and in conjunction with some broken limbs had a trigger event :p :p :p

  7. >Furcate when she died, I held myself together.

    The use of pronouns in this line makes me so happy.

    Also: Yay Furcate! very kind of her giving Moonsong the heads up.

    Concern about Tristan is tots valid and… how to put it…. Moonsongs hatred of Tristan is like… kinda pretty valid. In that he proved himself to be untrustworthy on a fundemental level. He’s changed, but it feels like Moonsong holding it against him is pretty fair.

    Also, lovely foreshadowing to the Radio broadcast (weirdly enough, foreshadowing to an event we already new about … just not its impact here and now)

    1. I said that too, I cant hold that hatred against her. When what he did to Byron was revealed I hated him with a pasion. Like,the only reason I like him now is because of the insight I get of him and his regret and change as a reader. Without that I would still hate him/not trust him.

  8. Huh. I was absolutely sure that, given the weird, up and down gravity of her power and her status as ‘rich bitch’ Moonsong was a Cauldron cape. We know they tried to put one on every team they could.

    1. > I was absolutely sure that … Moonsong was a Cauldron cape
      Imho, this possibility is not removed completely 🙂

  9. @Kinetic and Lulu

    “The names E. …. Mark E.”

    @ Earl of Purple:
    Yeah… I totally assumed that too. ESPECIALLY when her dad started talking about feeling responsible for her powers and her being in danger etc.

  10. Well, that’s one way to redeem a whole lotta characters at once. Moonsong grew to be less of an asshole and all it took was looking at the Nazis joining her team and realizing that this was how Byron saw her.

    The resurrected Furcate growing into her humanity as the Flock members apparently do the longer they go from their creation.

    Scribe becoming less of a hateboner with powers, and we even learned her name! Is that one death flag or two?

    (I also loved the “Shit, I can’t compete with Vista socially” moment)

    Also, interestingly this chapter also sets up the fact that none of Moonsong’s teammates are at risk of Titaning, apparently, herself maybe excluded if she has the same issue as Tristan with feeling overburdened.

    Very nicely played, Mr Bow.

      1. Vista being the best girl is an universal truth on all Earths and everyone is aware of. March made the exception and…. we know how it ended for her. Never deny the universal truths, accept and embrance them.

    1. There’s going to be a risk if Tribute gives too much of himself and ends up slipping through the cracks because of it. Giving away focus and courage/emotion stability here was pretty dangerous imo.

  11. – Eeesh. Brianna’s dad give me the shivers. ‘You don’t HAVE to do what I say, honey, but you know I’ll remember EVERY TIME you refuse, for future reference.’ Wildbow really nails side characters like this that help explain how someone like Moonsong came about.

    Heh. Wildbow can come up will all the body horror he wants – a character being turned inside out, leaky egg-men with (literal) thin skin, or even a group of Case 53s forced to live Human Centipede-style, and the worst reaction I’d get is a (admittedly strong) ‘Ewww’.
    But show me a parent like this guy or Carol Dallon and it cuts *much* deeper.

    – Again, I thought this was going to be a setup for someone catching titanus. Especially after Moonsong learned about Byron moving on…

    – @ Diner Kinetic: Your theory on Marquis is now my headcanon. It explains both how he triggered and why he decided to become a villain – plus your skull with puns is most fibula-ous.

    1. My dad is like that,and is just worse thing ever, I testify to that. Also Carol Dallon sucks,my hatred of her will never die,not even if she sacrifices herself to save the world. A lot of Amy and Victoria’s problems come from her shitty,shitty parenting. She is high on my hatred list with Emma Barnes,Sophia Hess,Caryatid’s parents,Slashley’s entire team and whoever is responsable for not bringing Lung to battle titans after it didnt went so well the one time.

      1. I’m glad that I’m not the only person who see Emma and Sophia as huge bitches with no redeeming qualities. Everytime when these bitches appeared in Worm, they made me wanted to wish to be real and to have the possibility to strangle them to death without suffering any consequences. Horrible people who were not monsters like Jack or power hungry assholes like Teacher but they’re bad in their own way because they reminded me of real life bullies. Bullies are worse than monsters because they exist everywhere and its easy to have your life destroyed by them. Monsters like Jack exist as well, but you probably will never meet one in your lifetime.

      2. Carol Dallon bonded with Amy and accepted her as daughter over their mutual lesbian rape fetish. She goes way beyond sucking.

    2. Well, he was ready to sacrifice his life to make sure that his wife and daughter will still have a future. Maybe he is a very strict father who asked too much from his daughter but he actually fight for his family. Compared with 90% of parents in that universe, he’s a much more better father. He wants to save his family, he wants to save lives and I see him as a heroic person despite his flaws.

  12. Hmm, from how she uses it in her tent there, it seems Moonsong’s power affects mass rather than gravity (or maybe both, with an innate affinity for how much to affect each).
    Or those were small appliances to begin with.

  13. I wonder if Sveta knows how Furcate’s power works and how she uses the copies to move towards a version of herself she likes/accepts more or not.

    I don’t remember if we have confirmation earlier in-story but Tristan/Byron could easily have told her/Breakthrough at least some of it.

    I’m just wondering mostly why Sveta cared so much about saving the other Furcate’s when she was okay (or said she was) about leaving them. Was it just because she cares for life and protecting people or was it a body imagine empathy thing?

  14. @grinvader: to be fair, mass and gravity are about as separate from each other as electricity and magnetism are.

    That is to say, not very separate at all.

    1. There’s a somewhat meaningful difference that’s very noticeable in any low gravity setting like outer space. Mass over there is still very much the same thing as it is here (and drains your engine power to get anything heavy to move).
      If you cancel gravity in an area, things won’t have ballistic trajectories and most of the ground friction will be gone, but moving something horizontally will take the same amount of work.
      If you cancel mass, you also cancel momentum and then it’s party time – you can lift anything and move anything with basically no effort.

      That might just me being too hung up on details when considering giant transdimensional power-granting brainsquatting annelids, but hey, that’s how I roll.

  15. @Aname

    another way to put it is, gravity is a property of mass- if something has mass, it must be affected by gravity. (Or be Catholic, either way)

  16. Wildbow know how to nail that horrible, cold, sinking feeling, amirite. Both when he describes a subtlty suffocating father, and when he describes a battle the main characters seem to be winning. Ah, well, they’ve won, but Victor is sure to drop right on Breakthrough/a team of Muggles setting up bombs.

  17. I didn’t pick Scribe/Rune as a Tammi, but ok, good to know.

    Wildbow shines as ever in this chapter.

    I like the scene break with the switch to using cape names.

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