“French fry me,” Peep said, though ‘Peep’ was only a name Imp was holding onto for the sake of stubbornness.
Candy picked up a french fry from the big bowl at the center of the room. They were cut fat, oily and salty, and still steamed with heat, so she used her fingernails, and held it out in front of Peep’s mouth. “It’s hot, be careful.”
Peep moved to bite it, and Candy pulled it back.
“Be careful, I said.”
“I ammmm! Give me that french fry.”
“I thought the whole point of us giving you food was so you didn’t get distracted from the tinker stuff,” Chicken Little said.
The process of chasing the french fry, which was constantly pulled back before teeth or lips could get it, saw Peep’s head craning all the way back, mouth open, while Candy dangled the french fry above her. There was a camera shutter sound, and smaller cameras around the desk opened up and whirred lightly as they turned to face the screen. Peep typed without using her eyes.
“It’s like a baby bird, wanting its food,” Chastity observed.
“You feed baby birds like that by puking into their open mouths,” Juliette said. “Interested, Lookout?”
“I just want a french fry! They’re so good!”
Candy lowered the fry enough that, straining with her whole body to rise out of her seat, Peep could bite off the very end.
Aroa, soundless, reached over to the stack of rations, where packets of condiments with faded labels were stored. She found the vinegar and hot sauce, tore them open, her eyes on Peep’s mouth as it opened again.
Imp reached over, and squeezed the bottoms of the packets. Vinegar and hot sauce squirted out, over the girl’s gloved hands, some dribbling down onto the lower half of her costume.
The thirteen year old Heartbroken took a second to digest what had just happened, then set her sights on Peep again, reaching out-
Imp stepped into her way. Aroa tried to walk around, and Imp blocked her again.
“What are you doing?” Roman asked Aroa.
The question prompted Peep to turn her head, mouth closing. Candy reached around to offer the french fry, and Peep took it.
“Missed opportunity,” Aroa said.
“Ruining your costume, more like,” Candy said. “Maybe you should start by asking Parian how to get that ketchup out.”
“That’s hot sauce,” Juliette said.
“Oooh, oh,” Darlene said. “I see what you were doing.”
“Like I said, missed opportunity,” Aroa replied, before leaving the room.
“Thanks for the heads up, Roman,” Peep said.
This was a process. Imp was making it a habit to sit back and watch some of the Heartbroken, because most of them were very good actors, and could put on a relatively innocent face when others were watching. Every single one of Heartbreaker’s kids, including the unpowered, were tricky to handle in their individual ways. Flor and Nicholas weren’t among this group of ‘graduates’ that were getting more and more slack on their leashes, so to speak. Imp could back off, watch and see how they behaved when they thought nobody was looking, and adjust accordingly. Throw in a few minor embarrassments and Pavlovian lessons…
Pavlovian. It made Imp think of Samuel, and how he’d helped her refine her psychological warfare. Shot with a tinker gun. No longer a part of this dynamic. He had been the closest thing she had to a calming, steadying presence. Chastity liked to tease too much, Candy got wrapped up in whatever problem was presented until she made herself sick, and Aiden was too prone to being outnumbered, though he was coming into his own.
He’d also been one of the few she could have regular conversations with. She had been doing this a lot since he’d died. Letting them forget she existed, and observing.
She couldn’t ever relax, and she was even less able to relax while they were in Teacher’s old headquarters. White walls, floors that had been white that were tracked with gritty melted snow, now, and panels above them that illuminated everything evenly. It was too much like a hospital or lab, garish and antiseptic. She liked the spots where things still hadn’t been repeated from the fights and wars of last week or two years ago, but those spots weren’t kid friendly.
“You put hot sauce on your fries?” Darlene asked, horrified.
Juliette was decorating her paper plate of fries using the same packets that Aroa had been fishing in.
“She puts hot sauce on everything,” Roman said.
“It’s the only way I can feel anything, with my cold, black heart,” Juliette said, deadpan.
“Yeah, don’t think I didn’t see you shaking like a leaf after I saved your life,” Roman said. “You guy should know that’s called eighth grader syndrome.”
“That’s a lie,” Juliette said. “And that ‘syndrome’ of yours is from Japanese cartoons, you embarrassment.”
“What does it mean?” Chicken Little asked.
“It’s something you see a lot in middle school,” Roman said. “Kids who convince themselves they’re special or they have powers, or that they’re the coolest people alive.”
“We are special,” Chastity said, her voice dry. “We do have powers. We are cool, objectively.”
“And yet Julie still manages to make a joke of herself when she pretends to be cooler than all the rest of us,” Roman added. “It’s cringe.”
“And bringing up terms from cartoons isn’t?” Juliette retorted.
“Am I going to have to step in, here?” Imp asked. Nobody responded. “Don’t make me, come on.”
Roman bit into a french fry, and was mid-swallow when he froze. Juliette was also frozen, grinning, as Roman made a small cough, eyes trying to widen and failing to.
“Urrrrggh,” Imp said, aware they wouldn’t register what she was saying. “If you force me to make a sudden appearance, tell you off, you’re going to be mad at me, you’ll resent me, I’ll have to come up with inventive punishments to make stuff stick…”
Such a pain.
“…Come on, guys. Work this out for yourselves,” Imp said, her power still erasing her from their memories as she said it. They didn’t seem to register it.
“Ooh, there’s relish,” Chastity said. “You love relish, right, Juliette? Here, I’ll put it directly in your mouth.”
“Not what I meant,” Imp said. “Damn it.”
Juliette didn’t move, while Roman’s face changed colors. Chastity put the torn relish packet between her ‘cousin’s’ lips, squeezing.
Juliette broke, sputtering and spitting. Roman, too, doubled over, heaving out big, hacking coughs.
“You could have taken your win and stopped before I got there,” Chastity noted.
“I’m fine with a mutual loss if it means I get to see him choke,” Juliette replied, before spitting onto the floor.
“Maybe we should kick some people out of the room,” Chicken Little said. “It’s rowdy in here. Lookout’s working.”
“Gotta speak with more conviction than that, Aiden,” Imp advised. She wondered if it would get through to him.
“He’s right. Out,” Darlene said, her response coming after Imp’s comment, as she was dimly aware someone else was talking, and at the same time not registering that Imp was there or what the comment had entailed.
“Oh, look, Darlene’s agreeing with Chicken Little,” Aroa said, from the doorway. Her gloves were off and she had a wet spot on her dress where she’d cleaned off the hot sauce. “Big surprise.”
“This is supposed to be our temporary office,” Candy said. “Out.”
“We brought the french fries, we’re bored, meet us halfway,” Roman said. “Let us watch.”
“Out,” Candy told him, standing up from her seat.
“I’m stronger than you. Can you really move me?”
“I could with my power.”
“Do you know how much trouble you’d get in for that?” he asked. He walked up to her, and his chin came within an inch of touching the bridge of her nose.
Some birds around the room got agitated, chirping and cawing.
Imp sighed. “You guys…”
“Here,” Peep said.
Candy took a step back, reached over and took the gun. Peep motioned for her to move closer, and then adjusted Candy’s grip. “Don’t cover up the indents where I put the screws.”
“Why?” Candy asked, while taking a two-handed stance, gun pointed at Roman, who didn’t move from where he stood.
“Because they serve functions. It’s complicated.”
“You could make a gun that doesn’t have that issue.”
“I could, but doing it this way gives me two percent more output and six percent more transmission range for the data collection in the grip and all I have to do is keep my hands in the right spot while holding it, which is common sense. Don’t block strange holes in a gun.”
“Screw holes aren’t that strange.”
“Everything is strange when it comes to tinkerings,” Peep said, exasperated.
“Whatever. Everyone who isn’t a member of the Tenders, out,” Candy said.
“I think she wins,” Chastity said. “Out, out.”
“Taking the french fries,” Juliette remarked, picking up the bowl, and picking a few packets of hot sauce while she was at it.
“Leave some,” Candy said, turning the gun on Juliette.
“Disarm her,” Juliette said, before freezing. Candy, too, froze.
Roman stepped forward, reaching for the gun. Darlene jumped up, and put her finger through the trigger guard, alongside Candy’s.
They conceded to leave french fries behind.
They were such good kids, all of them. As bad as this situation might look from the outside, all of them had come so far in the past four years. Imp couldn’t help but feel a kind of fondness, seeing the situation end without blood drawn or powers used. Even a year ago, this situation would have been drastically different.
“The world is ending,” Imp told the group, knowing they wouldn’t register it. But Tattletale had said that there was a chance something might get through, when she talked to someone like this. Past events had suggested it might be true. “You’re all tense. It’s good that you’re not outright murdering each other. Let’s stick to that.”
The thirteen-and-older Heartbroken left the room.
All of this had started as a self-imposed obligation, and in a way it was good that it had happened that way. If she hadn’t felt obligated, it would have meant she did it out of goodwill, and she hadn’t felt goodwill when she’d had to rally the Undersiders to hunt down Chastity and the man the girl had dragged off.
She hadn’t felt goodwill when she had been woken up at six am on three consecutive nights because Roman had sneaked off and picked fights he couldn’t win.
Or when Candy had nearly started a Heartbroken riot by emptying a full box of salt onto everyone’s pizza, because unadulterated enjoyment of anything had sparked her fight or flight reflexes, and yet she had still been very much an eight year old who didn’t want to see others enjoying things she couldn’t. She’d used her power three times before running out of charge, once on Nathan, as Nathan’s third big hit from Candy, once on her big sister Chastity, and once on Valentina. It had effectively ruined pizza night as an ongoing thing, as all three would gag or puke at the smell of the food after that. Still did.
Things were better now.
“Imp,” Peep announced, raising her voice to be unnecessarily loud, not moving her head while pointing at a screen she couldn’t see. “You have a visitor!”
“Who?” Darlene asked. “What?”
Imp blinked a few times. It wasn’t Peep’s first time pulling that stunt, but it startled her every time.
“That’s Grue,” Roman said. “But-”
Imp focused on her power, pushing back against the erasure that her power established at all times. Pushing herself into their awareness again.
“-who’s… ah, Imp,” Roman said. “Hi.”
“Hi,” Imp said. She looked at Peep, “I’m going to figure out how you do that.”
“Tinker B.S., as Tattletale puts it,” Peep said.
“Are you guys going to kill each other if I leave you alone for five minutes?” Imp asked.
“We have the flash gun,” Darlene said.
“And birds,” Aiden said, as the birds picked up in volume again.
“And birds,” Darlene clarified.
“Okay, great. Just… keep it down. Tattletale is napping and we maybe don’t want to remind Rachel about the puppy incident.”
Peep ducked her head down, wilting under the memory.
“Chin up. She’s gentler than you would think. Give it a bit of time, and if she doesn’t come around, I’ll talk to her, okay?”
“Thank you,” Peep said, mollified.
Imp gave the kid a pat on the back, then stepped out into the hallway.
Parian was there, along with Rachel, Bastard, and Doon. And then there was Brian, or a version of Brian.
“Hi,” he said.
Same voice. Same face. He looked uncomfortable in the black leather jacket and jeans he wore.
“Hi,” Imp replied. She looked around to check for bystanders, then pulled off her own mask. “You’re not wearing the lame skull face paint anymore. That’s cool. You can always say Valkyrie made you do it, at least.”
“That’s my face now,” he said. “This is face paint, covering it up.”
“And Valkyrie turned Titan. It’s why I’m here, now,” he said.
“This is going swimmingly. Just like I imagined,” Aisha confided in Rachel. “My foot stuck thoroughly in my mouth.”
“That happens when you talk as much as you do,” Rachel told her.
“Valkyrie sent some of her flock out to find people they used to work with, or to help the Wardens. She wanted some of us, me included, to stick close to her, because we had tools she needed. Now that she’s gone, I was thinking of joining with you guys or the Red Hands.”
“They’re gone,” Parian said. “Broken up.”
“I thought it might be that.”
“The only reason they stuck around like they did was because of the political marriage of you and Cozen,” Aisha said. “Without that, new city, new dynamic, it couldn’t last.”
“We weren’t married,” he said. His eyebrows drew together. “Were we?”
“It’s a figure of speech, big brother,” Aisha said. She took a step forward and took hold of his collar, the zipper digging into her palms. “Why are you talking only business? Where’s the ‘happy to see you’?”
“Y-” he started. Again, his eyebrows drew together. “You went and grew up. Your face changed shape.”
“Yuh! That does happen!” Aisha said. She looked over at Rachel and Parian. “I’m not crazy right? He’s being weird?”
“He died, it’s allowed,” Rachel said.
“Big brother, Brian, bro. I’ve been giving you your space, letting you decide when you came to us, and I kinda hoped it would be a week ago, really hoped it would be halfway through this last week when things were quieter. But I can cut you some slack because Rachel’s totally right. You bit it. But you gotta meet me halfway right now, or I’m going to lose my mind.”
“Halfway is hard,” he said. “I have holes in my memories, and I feel like my brain held onto the bad, without enough of the good. Some… tough stuff is sticking in there.”
“Ah,” Aisha said.
She wasn’t sure how to handle that. That was the thing with her and Brian. Their dad had been a hardass and their mom had been an addict who’d thought Skidmark was a neat cape because he was good for a laugh. Their dad had been there to crack down on homework, work ethic, athletics, teaching them to fight, and he’d really taught Brian all of that crap. Aisha had learned from her mom about street smarts, dealing with the shittier side of humanity, and how much you could get away with if you didn’t give a shit. Brian had stuck with their dad because the asshole didn’t know how to raise a girl, so he’d gotten more of dad, while Aisha stuck with mom… or learned to survive while mom did her own thing, more like.
Between the two parents, Aisha had always imagined that they’d gotten a good overall set of lessons in the ways of the world. But they’d missed out on one key component.
“Want a hug?” Aisha asked her brother. She saw him hesitate. “A kiss on the cheek? I can pat your head, Rachel’s told me that works wonders.”
He shook his head, and his smile was slight, unsure. “No thanks.”
“I draw the line at french kisses,” Aisha told him.
“Stop,” Parian said, giving Aisha a light push on the shoulder. “He’s saying he’s going through a tough time.”
“It’s fine,” Brian said, even though he didn’t look fine. The lack of fine seemed to be more general than because of her. “Aisha’s the same as ever. That’s reassuring in its own way.”
“I read now. Is that enough to shake your image of me and put me in that comfortable-but-not-too-comfortable territory?” Aisha asked.
“It helps,” he said.
They looked around. Roman was leaning out of the door into the hallway.
“Oh, Aisha’s there too,” Roman said. “Can Aroa and I go grab more food from the caf?”
“You need an escort,” Aisha said. “Someone to keep you in line. You guys have been antsy, and I have a bad feeling.”
“I’ll walk them down there,” Rachel said. “I need to feed my animals.”
“Bring them back here after?”
Rachel grunted in the affirmative.
“I’m not sure I like that terminology,” Roman said. “That you’ll walk us. Collars and leashes for the Heartbroken?”
“Only if you make me,” Rachel said. “But I’ll get you treats.”
“Can’t argue with that,” Roman said.
“Parian?” Aisha asked. “Can you keep an eye on the kids inside? They were harassing the Tenders, and if they wake up Tattletale from her nap, there’ll be hell to pay.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“Thanks babe. Any word from Foil?” Aisha asked.
Parian shook her head. “We talked briefly when we crossed paths. She said she wants space. That’s it.”
“Okay. Good luck.”
Parian slipped back indoors.
Leaving Aisha alone with Brian.
It was so hard to talk. Again, that issue their parents had left with them. They were so bad at communicating. Their mom had ignored them, their dad had communicated by dragging them to gyms and telling them to turn their aggressions toward punching bags, with tears being deemed weakness. Anything else was their own shit to deal with.
“Aunt Rachel, huh?” he asked, breaking the awkward silence.
“She seems… I thought after a few years of living out in the middle of nowhere on a foreign Earth, she’d cut off contact from humanity entirely.”
“Her little settlement grew,” Aisha said. “When it gets to be too much, she goes for a trip somewhere, spends a while with a few select dogs, and trusts her team to look after the dogs she leaves behind at the camp.”
“I can’t get over the ‘Aunt Rachel’ part.”
“It started as a joke and then became serious.”
“Were you a part of that joke?” he asked.
She smiled, and she shook her head. “Can’t take credit for it.”
“And that was Romeo. He’s a teenager now.”
“Yup. Roman now. Little bastard did something very familiar, recently. Put his life on the line to save someone’s life, in the middle of a class-S threat.”
“Like his brother.”
“I could’ve killed him if I hadn’t been so proud of him. The jackass. Makes my heart hurt, even now. The kicker? That girl was his sister. Juliette.”
“They put each other in the emergency room, I think.”
“Yep. They still flirt with the idea of murdering each other, but I think toying with the idea of murder is better than actual attempted murder.”
“Can’t separate ’em? Send one somewhere else?”
“We do. But they get upset if they miss out. I think that little dude is going to change gears and end up a hero at one point, but don’t let him know I said that. He’s contrarian enough that he’d reverse direction.”
“My lips are sealed,” Brian said.
Hearing her brother’s voice again was like a balm for the soul that she didn’t know she needed. It was tough, but… Brian had always been tough to handle in his own way.
“Want to see the other kids?” she asked.
She saw him hesitate.
She wanted to grab him again, shake him. She wanted to tell him that there was nothing wrong with saying ‘yes’. But ever since Bonesaw had got her hands on him, he’d been even more distant. She could count the people he’d extended any measure of vulnerability to on one hand, and she wasn’t one of those people. Of the two more important ones, one was gone and the other was dead.
“Come on,” she said. “You’re here because you can work with us, and we can work with you, but to do that, you need to know what they’re like and what they can do.”
“True,” he said.
It made her heart hurt that he needed that excuse to come with.
But he was back. It lifted her heart a bit.
She reached for the door, and it opened at the same time she touched it.
It was Candy, who looked up, saw Brian, and shrank back, retreating from the doorway.
“It’s okay,” Aisha said. “You might not remember him.”
“I remember Brian,” Candy said. “Was surprised.”
She still didn’t come closer, and she stepped back a bit further when Brian approached.
“Where were you off to?”
“To get you. Parian told me to. Emergency.”
Imp strode past Candy, one hand on the girl’s shoulder to steady her and keep her on task as Brian followed.
“Come on! Let me try!” Peep’s voice, high and amused.
“Maybe you shouldn’t bother him?” Darlene asked.
“Ha! I think he’ll be a little more bothered if it turns out I could have done something and I didn’t.”
“Maybe,” Darlene said.
The voice was Peep’s. Lookout’s. Imp turned the corner and found the girl on her feet, pulling a tinkertech cube with radiating antennae apart.
“So stupid, I’m so stupid,” Lookout muttered to herself, smiling and shaking her head. “The one time I look away.”
“Stop for five seconds,” Parian said, with zero authority.
“Pe- Lookout,” Imp cut in.
“Hey!” the girl turned, her response eerily like she was greeting a friend she hadn’t seen for a while. She wasn’t wearing her helmet, but the frizz of her hair stuck to her head with light sweat. She had a smile on her face and moist eyes. “Hey, can you tell Parian to leave me alone for five seconds? I made a mistake, and every second counts.”
“There’s been a death,” Chicken Little said. He held his mask, and his birds were sticking closer to him. Some stuck close to Kenzie and her now-vacant chair, and she barely seemed aware of them.
“Teeny-tiny bit of a death,” Lookout said. “And I’ve been so zeroed-in on things that I didn’t even see it. Not like me, right? Ha ha, and it’s actually kind of important that I missed stuff, because if I’m going to do anything about it, I need to have been tracking the data’s movements through the crystals since fifteen minutes ago.”
“You’re a camera tinker, Lookout. What are you planning to do?” Parian asked.
“I’m a camera tinker and a box tinker, and if I build a big enough box, if I have the right materials and the right data… emphasis on the right data, I might be able to do something. If there’s anything left of him in his brother…”
Brother. Aisha looked back at Grue. She looked at the screen, showing Breakthrough looking stricken. People moved out of frame and the cameras didn’t follow them.
“What do you need?” Aisha asked. “How much time?”
“Time? Haha. I don’t know, days? I can skip sleeping, so data doesn’t bleed away. There’s a small chance that all incoming data gets stored in a kind of processing center until it can get sent where it’s going, and since he comes in a big, pre-loaded chunk of data, maybe, five percent chance, or three percent chance…”
“Its Capricorn,” Darlene supplied.
“I figured,” Aisha said. “Lookout, How long do you need to confirm if there’s still a bit of him in his brother?”
“A tether? Or anything that gives me a starting point? I don’t know. Minutes?”
“Go. Do that. Darlene, will you help her?”
“I can,” Darlene said.
“Juliette, clear out. No, stay in the front hall. Stand watch. If Tattletale wakes up or if anyone comes back, fill them in, but let’s keep everyone but Tattletale out of here, so there’s elbow room to work. Chastity?”
“Yes?” Chastity asked. She and Juliette stood in the side hallway at the other end of the room, leading to the back offices.
“Go to the cafeteria. Tell them there’s a minor crisis, and they should stay put until we get in touch.”
“What do I do?” Candy asked.
The girl was still shy of Brian, having already slipped away and moved to the far end of the room. Except shy was the wrong word.
“Parian, can you make the spare bed in the back office? Candy, you help. Lookout, once you’re done with the first phase, if there’s nothing you need to do right away, I want you to think about a rest.”
“Mnnph,” Lookout made an unintelligible, distracted sound in the negative.
“Yes. I know for a fact you didn’t sleep last night, your computers light up like a Christmas tree when you’re tinkering and connecting in remotely.”
“I have too much to do.” Lookout went back to her computer, with a handful of boards from the cube. She handed Darlene one board, and then the two girls began moving in near-unison, dismantling the two identical boards with bits plugged into them.
Not so different from another Heartbroken meltdown. The difference was that Aisha didn’t know this kid. Not well.
“Who is she?” Brian asked.
“Lookout. You remember Glory Girl?”
“Sure. Antares now.”
“Her tinker half-quit her team, joined up with Candy, Darlene, and Aiden.”
He nodded, and she could see his paler eyes searching the scene, taking in the individual components. Aiden, Candy, Darlene, Lookout, how they stuck by one another.
“I’ve… been to the processing center she talked about, I think,” Brian said, his voice quiet in Aisha’s ear. “I don’t think there are others… and that processing center turned Titan half an hour ago.”
“Leave it be,” she whispered back. At the same time, she braced for the impact to come. She didn’t know enough about Lookout. How did the girl react when all the chips were down?
How would the others react? She remembered the incident with Darlene trying to lynch the kid, and Candy’s self-destructive meltdowns.
The work on the boards done, Lookout took one from Darlene, then ran over to the box with the antennae, sliding them in. She reversed course, going to the computer. Her arm moved, and Darlene moved her own arm, already moving the mouse and typing in the seconds it took Lookout to get there and take over.
Lookout struck a key with a kind of finality.
In the aftermath of that keystroke, there was stillness.
“Do we know yet?” Parian asked. She was done setting up the bed, apparently. Candy peered past her.
“Searching,” Lookout said.
A solid minute passed. There was no progress bar on the computer, only a constantly shifting mess of triangles, circles, squares and diamonds, like a blueprint searching for something to take shape.
“The kids are so different,” Brian’s voice was quiet.
Aisha looked back over her shoulder at him.
“They’re helping. They’re staying quiet.”
They were good kids.
Another minute passed.
Moving slowly, Aisha crossed the room, touching Chicken Little’s shoulder. She pointed him to the corridor near where Juliette was. He retreated to the doorway.
She did the same with Darlene.
Lookout didn’t even seem to notice.
“Are you there?” Lookout asked, and her voice was plaintive. “Hellooo?”
The room they were in was a conference room for what was supposed to be a block of offices for one branch of a larger organization. The central table had been carted out, desks moved in. The small voice was very empty in the wide space.
“I don’t know what to do. I’m not sure I can fix this.” The kid typed constantly. Lines of code spread across the screen without rhyme or reason, like cracks crawling their way across a broken windshield.
“No,” Lookout interrupted. “One more minute… please.”
“One more minute,” Aisha said.
One more minute. Lookout periodically typed, her expression shifting between eye-watering stares and frustration.
“It’s not your responsibility,” Brian said.
“If it’s not mine then whose?” Lookout asked. Her eyes were already large in her head, but they seemed impossibly large now. Moisture clung to them without becoming tears. “I just lost my best friend a week ago. The coolest person I knew. She’s out of reach forever now, except-”
She stopped there. Shaking her head as she turned back to the computer screen. She wiped at one eye with the heel of her hand.
“It’s been a minute. Do you think maybe you could keep your end of the deal?” Aisha asked. “Take fifteen minutes, lie down in the bed in the back. Just-”
She reached for Lookout’s shoulder. The reaction was so sudden that it made her jump, as Lookout sprang to her feet, the computer chair, wheeled with a wide base, tipping over. It crashed to the floor. The kid was all tension.
“I’ve got stuff to do,” Lookout said. Her voice was entirely out of sync with her rigid posture, like she was a dog ready to bite. “Sorry.”
“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” Aisha said.
“What do you know what I can do?” Lookout asked.
“Your team needs you alert and you’re all over the place like this. I don’t want to play the puppy card, but the puppy? Less than twelve hours ago?” Aisha asked.
The tension increased, the already small Lookout shrinking down.
“You don’t want to make another mistake like that because you’re not thinking straight, and you’re not thinking straight as long as you’re tired,” Aisha said.
“My team needs me. I’m indispensable. T- Tristan needs me. I’ve got to find the right data, find a way to bring him back…”
“What if you can’t?”
“What if I can?” the little girl asked, smiling like she’d just made a joke or a witty retort. There was a manic edge to it.
Brian spoke up, “Speaking as someone who died…”
Lookout looked over and up at him. Even holding her bent-over, half-crouching posture for less than a minute, she looked like the weariness of hours was overcoming her. Her head hung lower, and she breathed harder, back rising and falling. “You died. I read that, yeah.”
“…I wouldn’t want someone to hurt themselves for my sake. Even if it meant bringing me back.”
“What am I supposed to do with that?” Lookout asked.
“Would Tristan want you to do this?” Brian asked. “To hurt like this?”
“I’m not sure if I care what he wants,” she said.
“Kenzie,” Candy said.
Lookout looked over.
“You’ve said before that there were times you felt like you needed to do something, but it wasn’t until later that you realized you were doing the wrong thing.”
“How can letting someone die and not doing something about it be the right thing?” Lookout asked.
“Sometimes there is no right thing,” Aisha said.
“Listen,” Candy said. “Look at this picture. Close your eyes, look through your cameras. Start with that. Can you do that for me?”
Lookout retreated, backing away until she was in a corner, as far from everyone else as possible, Candy and Parian in the doorway to her right, Grue and Aisha by the wall to her left. She closed her eyes.
“Thank you,” Candy said. “Look at us. Look at this scene from a distance. How many people think you need to take a break?”
“Can you count them?”
Lookout moved her head by small fractions, one bit every few seconds.
“No. I can’t keep my thoughts straight. There’s a lot of noise, tinker inspiration.”
“A lot of people think you need to take a break. You’re the only one who thinks you need to stay. Is there a possibility we’re right?”
“You’re not- no.”
“No- I…” Lookout stopped, trailing off. Her eyes roved, studying things that weren’t there.
The tension relaxed. There was only defeat.
“Darlene and Chicken and I will sit with you.”
The kid nodded. “I left tech with my team. They’ll mess it up if they try to pack it up.”
“We’ll handle it.”
“It’s not that simple, it’s like the screwholes. You guys don’t have any common sense when it comes to tech.”
“You can write it down. We’ll bring paper and a pen.”
“I can type, if-”
“No tech,” Parian said. “You should disconnect for a bit.”
“Good idea,” Aisha said. “I’ll explain to your team.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“Nothing is, Peep,” Aisha told the girl.
The girl retreated to the back room. Candy and Darlene followed.
Chicken Little hung back.
“You okay?” Aisha asked him.
He shook his head.
“Spooky stuff,” she said, her voice soft.
“A bit. I don’t know what to do.”
“Can I go get the tech?” he asked.
“Tattletale would kill me if she woke up and heard I sent you out.”
“I know how to handle it, kind of. I knew about the screw holes. Because we’ve helped build stuff and she made stuff for my birds, once.”
“I want to help but I always feel like a third wheel when I’m standing by someone’s bed. I never know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.”
“Please. It’s not too bad down there.”
“One team dropped a Titan down there, and another might be appearing out of nowhere to stop the teams that are preparing to blow up sections again.”
“I’ve already been down there once. Kind of.”
“Chicken…” Aisha shook her head.
“Please,” he said. “I want to help her and do something more. I feel like I have to, as leader of my team.”
“Tattletale would kill me.”
“I’ll take the blame.”
Aisha sighed. She looked back at Brian, who didn’t give her any indication one way or the other.
“Let’s see if we can open communications with Breakthrough. Fill them in, see if there’s any problems first.”
My brain is hoping they give us a bit of an excuse, while my heart is hoping you can do this for your teammate.
Aiden reached past her to hit keys on the keyboard, rotating windows and bringing up what looked like a webcam panel.
This entire thing looked more like magic than technology. Diagrams, loops, text running in every direction across a three dimensional space.
“Bringing you online,” he said.
“Are you and Darlene connected to her right now?” Aisha asked.
“No,” Aiden said.
“Really?” she pressed him, leaning in closer.
“Because if you’re actually going there, we can’t have you distracted.”
“I’m not connected.”
The kid was a terrible liar.
A box on the desk scanned them with a blue laser.
“Bringing you online, I think,” Aiden said.
A screen changed to show the Breakthrough group.
“And you’re on.”
“Whassup!” Imp greeted them.
“Hzz pt fffzohh,” Antares’s voice was reduced to gibberish.
It took a few exchanges before the voices clarified. The image distorted badly, and the Breakthrough group warped a few times, fingers and faces blurring and stretching out.
“Lemme…” Aiden leaned across, typing. “There.”
“Thanks, kid,” Imp said, giving him a nod. She faced the camera. “Oh, I thought you were giving me the finger.”
“What do you need?” Antares asked.
“Lookout is having a lie down…”
Brian was talking with Rachel, Chastity, Juliette, and Roman, crowded into the little coffee break room that they were using as a kitchen while they were parked here. Aisha, a bit overwhelmed, had retreated to use of her power.
The other kids were elsewhere, Aroa taking a break to phone her ‘cousins’, Darlene and Candy with Lookout.
She observed, studying her brother, and wondered if he seemed more at ease with her gone.
Lower expectations, maybe.
He’d rubbed at one of his cheekbones and wiped away the makeup that covered up the marking that Valkyrie had given him. He hadn’t realized it, either, and nobody mentioned it.
This was all so hard.
Her entire team, her subdivision of the broader Undersiders team, at least, consisted of capes who couldn’t fight Titans. The Heartbroken targeted people. Her own power affected humans, and even if she could move around without a Titan realizing she was there, too many of them were dangerous enough that they could kill her without even recognizing her existence.
Their best mind and their best set of eyes were out of commission for the time being.
Darlene, she realized, was in the computer room, with Kenzie’s partially unpacked workshop. How long had that been the case? Just Candy and Peep in the room, now.
She crossed the hallway, taking long strides up until she was near Tattletale’s door. She walked quietly past Tattletale’s door even though her power was active. Noise would disturb Tattletale, even if Tattletale didn’t register it or remember it had happened.
She checked in on the two girls.
They lay on a single cot, sharing a pillow, Little Lookout with her back to the wall.
“…tracking eye movements, duration of eye contact,” Lookout said. “Body temperature, heart rate. My camera kinda gets it all.”
It made some sense that a tinker would be comforted by talking tinker gibberish.
“I don’t know,” Candy said. She drew back a bit.
“I do know,” Lookout answered, and her voice was insistent. “So… I think it’s fine.”
“How about we have this conversation another time?”
“I’d really, really like to finish having it now,” Lookout’s tone was insistent.
“Then no,” Candy said. She shifted position and sat up, her back to Lookout.
“What?” Lookout laughed. Down part of a hallway and halfway into the conference room, Darlene looked over in alarm. “But-”
“But your cameras know better?”
“Kind of! I don’t think this is me being crazy.”
“I know what I feel better than your cameras do.”
Candy rose from her seat on the edge of the bed, and took a step back. It gave Aisha the first good look at the girl’s face.
Aisha used her power, appearing.
Both girls stopped, recognizing Aisha was there.
Again, that tension. That wild look in Lookout’s eyes.
But in Candy’s eyes, there was alarm, panic.
It had been a while since Aisha had seen that from Candy. The aftermath of Cradle butchering everyone hadn’t even brought her to this point.
“What are you talking about?” Aisha asked.
“A confession,” Lookout said. She rose to a sitting position. “And Candy isn’t being honest.”
“I would like you to take me at my word,” Candy said. “Please.”
“These things are complicated, Lookout,” Aisha said. “There’s history… I think it would be good to let things be. This isn’t the time for distracting things.”
“They’re priority things for me,” Lookout said.
“Maybe you didn’t understand, Candy,” Lookout said. She swung her legs over the edge of the bed. “I like you.”
“You can feel it. You can feel my heart pounding.”
“And yours is. And my cameras… they see you, they can read emotional responses in heart rate, temperature, breathing. I know you’ve looked at my face and you liked what you saw and that’s great! It’s a happy thing!”
“Sorry,” Candy said. “No.”
“Lookout,” Aisha said. “Listen, Candy has history, I know you saw some of it… let it be.”
“But…” Lookout said. She clenched both fists into balls, so tight her hands trembled.
“I don’t like… liking things too much,” Candy said, quiet. “I don’t like anyone liking me too much.”
Lookout’s head snapped up, staring at her friend. She took a step forward, and Candy took a step back.
Lookout looked like she’d been stabbed, with the way the hurt crossed her face, the smile faltering.
“Everyone has a reason,” Lookout said. “It’s always really good reasons, too.”
“Yeah,” Aisha said.
“Did you ever love someone and scare them away?” Lookout asked. “Because I keep doing that. They keep dying, or leaving me behind, or I scare them off.”
“My problem was always the opposite. It’s hard for me to get to the point of liking people. But I really love them once I do.”
“It’s so unfair,” Lookout said. “That I can do everything right, I can be a good student and a friend, and a teammate, and… I still end up alone. Always. They die. My best friend died, and there’s still a sorta-copy of her alive in this world and she hates me. And Tristan’s gone, and my team’s away, and I can’t contact them… what do I do?”
“I don’t know,” Aisha said. “One thing at a time.”
Lookout balled up her fists, again they shook violently. Candy clasped both hands to her heart, taking a step so Aisha was between the two of them.
“I could make you,” Lookout said.
Aisha looked back at Candy.
“How?” Candy asked.
“Blackmail you. Or your team. Everyone here.”
Aisha used her power. Lookout backed away two steps, reached under the pillow, and pulled out the gun. She didn’t look at Aisha, but she trained the gun on her.
“Reappear!” Lookout ordered her. “Or I blind Candy and you!”
Aisha stopped, rematerialized.
“Is that really how you want to do this?” Candy asked. “Forcing us. Hurting us?”
“I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do!” Lookout raised her voice.
“Not this,” Candy said.
Lookout smiled, tears in her eyes. “Do you know what the longest stretch of good days I had was?”
“Your foster dads.”
Lookout shook her head. “Guess again. The longest stretch of time where I wasn’t anxious, where I was happy about every day, my heart was light and I was hopeful about tomorrow.”
“I don’t know, Kenzie,” Candy said.
“It was when I was blackmailing my parents, after Gold Morning. It was when I could at least pretend. So… do I have to pretend here?”
“You’d be ruining everything if you did,” Candy said.
“I don’t-” Lookout shook her head. “I don’t know! I don’t know what I’m supposed to do!”
“You need to rest. You need to stop.”
“You have to.”
Darkness flooded into the room, smoke as black as ink.
The darkness dissipated almost as soon as it had appeared. Juliette stood opposite Lookout.
The two of them promptly froze in place.
“Shit,” Tattletale said. She pressed the heel of one hand to her forehead. She held out the other hand for Aisha.
Aisha took what was offered. Two pills.
“Sleeping pills,” Tattletale said, taking a water bottle from Brian. “Fast acting, for thinker headaches.”
Aisha placed the pills on Lookout’s tongue, then took the water bottle.
Juliette released the kid, and Aisha squeezed the water bottle, forcing pills and water into the back of Lookout’s mouth.
The kid coughed, staggered, looked in the direction of her tech, and saw only darkness.
There was anger on her manic face, her fists clenched, as she remained there on her hands and knees. She was frozen again like that, her expression still. The little mad scientist was mad.
Aisha fished in her mouth, checking the pills were gone.
“Things will be better when you wake up,” Tattletale said. “All of this is fixable.”
Gradually, frozen as she was, the tension was released. The girl’s eyes rolled up in the back of her head.
Juliette released her, and Lookout collapsed, unconscious.
“Or else the world will have ended. Either way,” Tattletale said, with a deep fatigue to her voice.