The entire damn building was inoffensively room temperature, but the ice cold water from the tap was still a relief. He let his hand sit under the tap for a minute before rubbing the cold water along the back of his neck.
When he raised his face from the sink, looking into the mirror, he saw traces of a skull across his face, where the cover-up had been washed away. His hair was in short, chemically textured curls, and he had a cut on his lip from where he’d been out in the cold.
It used to be that I was seventy-five percent civilian. Three-quarters of my waking hours, I was Brian Laborn. I worked, I bought groceries, I cleaned up my place, and I had nights where I pulled on a helmet with a skull on it and worked as a burglar for hire.
His belt was more of a ‘utility belt’ style, though he didn’t have much use for tools, a lot of the time. His belt buckle hid a few cards, including his Warden-issued I.D., a debit card, and a card for one of the big clothing co-ops. For a moment, he considered fishing it out and throwing it out. Then he reconsidered. It was important to hold onto things.
Instead, he went to the next compartment over. He dried with a paper towel and then popped open the oval container within the tiny pocket. The cover-up from that tiny container went on like clay more than anything, thick and similar to the texture of his skin.
Now I have to put my face on to be a civilian.
His eyes were still paler than they’d been before he’d died.
It was hard to shake the feeling that he had just walked off a battlefield. In a sense, talking about an hour ago, he had. He had watched as the woman who had brought him back from the dead succumbed to the cracks that chased her and became a monster.
Her ‘flock’ had dispersed.
The world was ending at this very moment, and that seventy-five percent of him that was battle ready was prepared to stride from this small washroom to go lead his squad, his team. Most of his experience had to do with face to face meetings in the underworld of Brockton Bay. Tattletale had been the strategist, and had left it to him to carry things out, and to handle the alliances. But he had attended six Endbringer fights and he had been there for part of the fight against Scion. All of that was so clear in his mind it felt like it had happened yesterday.
But that team wasn’t his anymore, and it wasn’t a team that was suited for this threat they were fighting.
He finished covering up the skull. For good measure, he used his power to dismiss some of the shadow that filled the bathroom, allowing the light from the ceiling to illuminate his head and shoulders. He could see through his own darkness, but different details stood out when he saw things with the light his power assumed he should have, as opposed to the shadows of reality.
He saw some bone-white skin in the folds near his eye, and used residual cover-up to get rid of it.
The world is ending. What am I doing here?
He straightened, rolling his shoulder to work out a bit of a strain from the earlier fighting.
He left the bathroom, walking down the hall where his darkness filled the space, until he was at the back room. He could see Lisa and Aisha with the kids in the main room, and two more kids in the side hallway that led to the break room and kitchen.
Lisa looked agitated, upset.
He dismissed some of the excess darkness that flooded the hallway, side rooms, and bathroom.
“There you are,” Lisa said. She looked weary, but she smiled. “Refreshed?”
“Yeah,” he said. He never felt entirely refreshed, though. “You looked worried.”
“Just had phone calls. I don’t like Breakthrough’s plan,” Lisa said. “They gave us a deadline.”
“Expand on that?” he asked.
“An hour now, and we’re past the point of no return. It lines up with the Simurgh’s flight path and speed. They’ve got some people going back to dig for more information, others are talking to the Wardens. Right now I’m trying to convey, with technology that doesn’t work half the time, that they aren’t going to have enough time when they get back.”
“What can I do?” he asked.
“For right this minute? The kid woke up,” Lisa said. “Darlene’s tapped into her, and said she’s trying to get out of her quote-unquote ‘cell’. We could stand for someone to check on her.”
He tensed a bit.
“Trying being the operative word. According to Darlene, the kid is moving her eyes like she’s programming, and I’m hoping that’s because she’s preparing to deploy something and not because she’s got a signal out and is doing something with that tech over there. It would be helpful if you could stop in, make sure it’s safe.”
Tattletale indicated the abandoned tinker workshop. There were more of the Heartbroken kids throughout the room, crowded into this space and the second of the two hallways in this office space, but despite the crowding, they kept more than two paces from the workshop.
That, at least, was smart.
Sending him, though…
Tattletale searched his face with her green eyes. “I can send Aisha, if it’s a problem.”
“Huh? What?” Imp asked, looking away from her conversation with Roman and Chastity.
“We could send you to talk to Lookout.”
“I thought my big bro was doing that. He’s so good with kids.”
“I’m what?” Brian asked. The suggestion had kicked him into fight or flight mode- not just the idea that he might be forced to interact with more kids, but the idea that he had been good with kids, that it might even have been a big part of his identity, and he no longer had that.
“Look at that. Cracked his big stoic tough guy facade. One point to me.”
“Jesus, Aisha,” he grumbled.
“Don’t encourage the Heartbroken,” Tattletale said. “If they think they can get points, they’ll push things too far.”
“You’re the last person I’d expect to say is any good with kids,” Brian said. “You complained incessantly.”
“I wasn’t a kid! And you tried to be my dad, which, no thanks. You’ll be fine.”
“You actually know her. Maybe you should-”
“And I know you, and I have my instincts. Go, stop in for a minute or two, check she isn’t going to blow anything up-”
“And fix up the darkness, so she can’t get signals out,” Tattletale said. “If you’re so inclined.”
He looked between Tattletale and Aisha, and then at the crowd of Heartbroken.
It was so hard to keep up with them. Even in the quiet moments.
“You can say no,” Tattletale offered.
“No, I’ll go,” he sighed out the words. “Let me know if something changes.”
“Brian,” Darlene said. “Can I ask a favor?”
“Sure,” he said, holding himself back from a groan or sigh.
That got harder when she didn’t ask, fidgeting and biting her fingernail instead, and looking in the direction of the hallway he’d filled with the darkness. Twelve or so, Darlene had black hair that didn’t go below her chin, tucked behind her ears, and bold red lipstick that didn’t suit a kid her age. She wore a costume with a knee-length dress built in, the cloth a shiny black, overlaid with silver tracery. Her tights were silver with black tracery.
His impulse was to turn to the efficient, to-the-point language he’d been using for the last few months with Valkyrie’s flock. Demand that she cut right to it. The habit was almost military-like, and he was almost irritated that he had taken to it as well as he had. It made him like his father.
He only stopped because of the kid’s lipstick. It reminded him of Aisha on a level; she had done a similar thing. In Aisha’s case, it had been because Aisha had physically grown up fast. She’d had to grow up fast in other ways, to survive her mom. Not so different from the Heartbroken.
No, he was reasonably certain he had never been even remotely good with kids. Aisha in particular.
“You have to tell him if you want something, Dar,” Imp said.
“What do you need?” he asked Darlene, trying to keep his voice gentle and soft. He didn’t feel good at it.
“I want to disconnect from her. I’m networked to her and only her right now, because Candy couldn’t stand it and Chicken didn’t want in, but it’s… a lot. Too intense.”
“Okay,” he said. “What can I do about that?”
“Um. Like, maybe I can stay connected in case she does something, but then after you’re in there and safe, I can disconnect? She might get upset again.”
He felt a bit nervous at the idea, and it took him a few moments to square away the feeling.
“Can you endure until I’m back? I’d like the backup.”
“Okay,” Darlene said.
“Thank you,” he said.
He couldn’t drop the feeling that he had stepped away from a life-or-death battle just minutes ago. Just the act of walking away from this, returning to the hallway, he had to consciously put in effort to relax.
He made his way to the side room.
There was a window by the door, and he peered through to look at the little girl. She was at the doorknob, which they had pulled apart, flipped around, and reconnected, so the lock was on the outside. Her expression was frustrated.
Softly, he laid his hand on the knob, and he could feel the rattling.
He flipped it to ‘unlocked’, saw her freeze, turned the knob, and pushed his way inside, feeling a bit of trepidation as he grabbed her shoulder and walked her backwards, away from the door, before he closed it behind him.
She pulled free and retreated to the back of the room, where there was a cot.
“Awake already,” he observed.
She shrugged and smiled, taking a seat on the cot.
He checked the doorknob. There was a thin strip of metal, like a shaving, that was slipped in between the knob and the door. He pulled it out.
He glanced around the room, then reasserted his darkness, pressing it out in every direction, then clearing everything that wasn’t the walls or ceiling. The lights flickered as his power reached into gaps between white wall panels and between the wall and the doorframe, licking at wires.
What had been white walls, floor, and ceiling became black smoke, heavy and slow moving. He left apertures for the lights.
“How long was I asleep?” she asked, looking up.
“Not long.” Not long enough to sleep through all of this.
“I need to go. I have too much to do,” she answered, but she pulled her feet up onto the cot, retreating a bit further.
He held up the metal shaving he’d taken from her. “Let’s talk about this first. How?”
She went still for a moment, then leaned to one side, fishing in a pocket. She pulled out a metal tab that could have been from a can of food. “There are a bunch of these around. Connecting furniture to stuff. Holding the cot together. I used one to scrape off a bit of metal from the shelf.”
He held out his hand.
She leaned forward to give the metal tab to him, before returning to her position on the cot. One of her hands touched the side of her face, fingers curling so the knuckles pressed against her cheekbone.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
“No. Yes, but not… it’s only my feelings that are hurt,” she said, before smiling.
He tapped his cheekbone.
“Self conscious,” she said. Her fingers moved, showing a small scar, one he could have covered up with a small adhesive bandage. She returned her hand to that spot.
“Can you be left alone, or do I need to worry you’ll escape?”
“The world is ending. My team needs me. I’m not going to say anything else to Decadent, Syndicate, or Chicken Little, but I have to get back to work.”
“I don’t think that’s possible. Can we leave you alone? Will you be good? It would count for a lot with your teammates.”
“I don’t want to be alone,” she replied, eyes wide, her fingers curling up against her cheekbone.
That’s not the main subject of what I was asking you, he thought.
But he let it be. The lights flickered and shifted in the room, darkness rolling against the ceiling. Just him, her, and darkness, if he made himself recognize that the darkness was there. Without his own focus, it was a slight dimming effect, and a change to the texture of things.
On the other side of the dark room, the little girl smiled. The lights flickered.
There were memories in his head of a prepubescent girl doing much the same thing, the lights also flickering, because she’d been drawing power from the building for her tech. Dark, unpleasant memories that kept him up some nights.
Valkyrie had confessed that she didn’t want to make him a member of her Flock. Only his performance, ability to follow orders, and his no-nonsense attitude had changed her mind. He had ceased being a shadow and became a man again.
The little girl’s voice echoed in the room, bouncing off of the darkness. “There are important things I’m doing that I can’t tell you about, I can’t leave them be.”
“I don’t think this is negotiable. I don’t think there are words you can say that would convince me. I think the thing to do would be to lie down. Rest. Trust Breakthrough. It sounds like they have a plan. Trust your team.”
“Is Chicken Little back yet? Is he safe?”
“He’s safe. He was in the break room.”
“Is Candy okay? I scared her. I said stuff I shouldn’t have.”
“She’s resting in Tattletale’s office.”
“I want to see them. I want to see Breakthrough. I want to help and be useful.”
He shook his head.
“I need to.”
He folded his arms. “Why is it so important?”
“Because… the world is ending. I might die. I can’t think of anything sadder than spending most of my life alone and unwanted and stuck on the outside, and getting so close to having something better, and then ending up alone again when, um…”
She swallowed hard.
“…you know,” she said, quiet. “We all get snuffed out.”
“Trust your team,” he told her.
“My team is supposed to have me on it!” she raised her voice. “I’m kind of really, really good at what I do, I worked so hard to be useful, to give them the info they need, the equipment, the tools. I stayed up late, I studied, I wrote notes, I kept track of everything! I trust the team but if you take me out then the team is incomplete! There’s no Swansong, there’s no Capricorn Red, there’s no Lookout!”
“It’s not just them. They’re cooperating with Tattletale and you played your part in that happening, connecting the two teams. They’re reaching out for help, pulling in allies, and you played a part in that too, or so I hear.”
“That’s… not enough. They’re just going to keep dying. It’s always when I’m not looking or when I can’t do anything about it, so obviously the solution is to look more, do more, upgrade, expand. If I don’t then people die.”
“That’s not on you.”
“And then what? They all die, I’m alone, and cracks spread everywhere, the world turns to crystal, and I’m stuck here with nobody to hug me or keep me company or tell me it’ll be okay, and… even right now I’m trying to think and I can’t think of many people where I left a good last impression. It’s just death and anger and hurt and a whole lot of embarrassment. If you’d let me access my tech, I could at least talk to some people. People who are feeling abandoned right now, who need me right now. What a way to go, letting everyone down, all my life.”
He stepped back, until he was at the door, and then he sank down, back sliding against the door until he was sitting, opposite her.
“I had someone, the last time the world ended,” he said. The smoke around him passed in front of his mouth as he spoke, distorting the word ‘last’. He dismissed some of it with a wave of his hand, thinning it out into nothingness.
“Was it a guy or a girl?”
“What was she like?”
“Driven. She could really perform, she could put on an act, and I think that’s important when you’re a cape. She had a long history as a thief and a burglar, and I actually got my start as a burglar for hire. I liked that… hm…”
“You liked that she was a burglar?”
“I’m trying to think of the words. I liked that she reminded me of who I used to be. Who I wanted to be, back when I got started. I think I lost sight of all of that.”
“Aw,” Lookout said, leaning forward, hands on her ankles, with her legs crossed. “That’s sweet. You shouldn’t steal, though. Don’t do crime.”
“Uh huh,” he said, leaning back. He tried to seem casual, even while the light admonishment made him want to react, to leave. “Out of costume, she was a much quieter person. Like she saved up her energy for the performances when she put her mask on. I liked that part of it. She’d make dinner one night, I’d make it the next. We’d skip lunch, sometimes skip breakfast too, just to sleep in or do other things instead. The way we traded off on the chores and work, it’s like we took turns taking care of each other. It was calm. Even when we were in costume. But-”
“What about Skitter? Sorry, I interrupted you. What were you going to say?”
“It’s okay.” Brian paused. “What about her?”
“She was important to Chicken Little. And you and Skitter dated, Chastity told us.”
“It was a different period of my life, a different time in the city. We weren’t together for long. But she offered me support and she did it when things were worst. I think, if she’d stuck around, if I’d gotten cancer, or if we had another bad spell, she would have tried to help, no questions, no complaining. I don’t know if she would have been good at it, but… yeah. I’m probably being unfair to Cozen, thinking she would have left. Maybe she would have taken care of me for weeks or months, instead of one or two days at a time before it was my turn to do the chores and look after her.”
The smile had fallen from Lookout’s face. She tilted her head to one side. “You liked her. Cozen.”
“Year and a half. My longest relationship. We were together when the world ended.”
“You-” she said, at the same time he said, “And-”
“Go ahead,” she told him.
“It didn’t matter,” he told her, his voice echoing in the dark room with walls and floor of shadow.
The little girl smiled and laughed softly to herself, “What?”
“Maybe this is too heavy a way to explain it or say it,” he said. “I thought I’d approach you seriously, straightforwardly. I don’t want to say my experience is everyone’s or it’s what you should expect, it’s how I saw it.”
“What didn’t matter?” Lookout asked.
“My… at the end. I died fighting Scion and it wasn’t any harder or easier because I had someone I loved at the time.”
“But… no,” Lookout said.
“Maybe I’m a bad boyfriend, but I didn’t think of Cozen or Skitter. I thought briefly of Aisha, but mostly I thought we lost, that that was it.”
Lookout laid down on the cot, moving the pillow to put it under her head. Turned sideways, her head at a right angle to his, she stared at him.
“I think it matters to me,” she told him.
He leaned back, his head resting against the door. “I thought it mattered to me. A lot of my thought process was devoted to how hard it was to connect to people. I’m not even sure I liked the Undersiders, before. But that didn’t matter, because it was all about the business, the job. Skitter… if she helped with anything truly special, it was making that first contact, opening that door. She did that with Rachel too. She gets big credit for the Rachel that I just had a sandwich with. Then with Cozen, I thought I’d solved it. I still messed up here and there, but… baby steps forward. Something I thought I couldn’t ever do, I did it. It didn’t make a difference when the world ended, but it made a difference for the year and a half I was with Cozen. The weeks I was with Skitter. I think that’s what you hold onto.”
Lookout adjusted her pillow, pulling one end of it to her chest, while resting her head on the other end, taking a second to fix her hair so she wasn’t crushing it. Once settled, hand still at one side of her face, she heaved out a sigh.
“I really messed things up,” she said, barely audible, her hand mashed into one side of her mouth.
At least like this, the small, smiling tinker didn’t nag at his fight or flight response, didn’t make his heart race.
“Do you want to rest?” he asked her.
She smiled at him. “I want to talk, but I’d be keeping you.”
“No,” he said. He reached for the doorknob and used it to get to his feet, groaning at the pain in his shoulder. “Darlene said she needed to cut the connection to do some things. I’m going to tell her she can.”
He watched her face. The fleeting hurt, the smile.
“Okay,” she said.
He stepped out of the room. Into the darkened hallway, that would be pitch black and oily to anyone else. Back to the war room.
Tattletale was making a call, leaning over a desk.
“How’s the kid?” Aisha asked, quiet.
“On edge. Calming down,” he said. “Still remorseful. Scared.”
“Sure,” Aisha said.
“I’m going to go back in, unless you need me or something comes up.”
“Oh really?” Aisha asked, sounding amused.
“I wanted to tell Darlene she can stop using her power. And to ask for a stick-on bandage.”
“Here,” Darlene said. She fished in a pocket of her belt, and pulled out a band-aid. “I just stopped using my power on her.”
It was hard to shake the trepidation, that general unease that came with facing a tinker head-on.
“How’s the fight going?” he asked.
“We’re losing,” Juliette announced, her normal speaking volume at odds with everyone else’s hushed exchanges. Tattletale turned her way, finger pressed to lips, before refocusing on the phone call.
“Breakthrough seems to think it’s a good thing we’re losing,” Aisha told him.
“Then let’s hope they’re right. Come find me in the darkness if you need me.” he answered, before stepping back into the darkness, a fraction cooler against his skin than the air outside of it.
He stopped to peer through the window at Lookout, aware that she was no longer connected to her friend. She wasn’t manic, hadn’t moved from her cot.
She watched him, her eyes wide, as he approached the cot, then knelt down. He tore open the small package for the stick-on bandage, then turned it around, showing her. It was glossy, white, and covered in hearts.
“From you?” she asked.
“Good theme, for the Heartbroken to have these,” she said. “What’s it for?”
He tapped his own face to indicate.
Still lying on her side, she lifted up her face, and he bent down, removing the cover so the adhesive was exposed, and pressed it on. Covering up the tiny, inch-long scar.
She checked, touching it, then dropped her hand from her face, and then clasped her hands together, pinning them between her knees.
“Better?” he asked.
He retreated to the other side of the room, and sat down, his back to the window.
“When you died…” she asked, her voice small.
“Did you see Heaven?”
“Maybe a part of me did,” he said. “But not the part that went to Valkyrie and came back. I wish I could give you a better answer than that. I’m not sure I’d get to go there, if it exists. I was a villain. I stole.”
“I wouldn’t,” she said.
“You were a hero. You helped people. The things you do wrong seem to come from a good place.”
“Except telling Candy I’d make her be my friend and stay by my side. I threatened to blackmail her and the team.”
“Mmm,” he made a sound, his head leaning back to rest against the window. “That’s not so good. I didn’t hear that bit.”
“I think if I went to Heaven, I’d get turned away. Or they’d offer me a chance to prove myself, and I’d mess it up. That’s the way it always goes I get close to people, and I don’t want to lose that, so I go too far, and I push them away.”
Almost my inverse, he thought.
“I said it to scare her and hurt her, because I was hurt. She said no when I knew- I thought I knew she liked me. I tried so hard, working for their benefit, helping them design their costumes, being nice…”
“You can’t,” he said.
“I have to.”
“No,” he said. “You can’t change other people. The Heartbroken couldn’t do a thing to make their father less of a monster. I couldn’t do anything to change Skitter. Skitter couldn’t change Rachel.”
Lookout rose up, propping herself up, “You just said, before, that she did.”
“You change yourself. Set your boundaries, decide what you’ll do and who you’ll be to others. But you can’t change them.”
She put her head back to the pillow.
“Decide who you want to be,” he told her. “Refine that person. Study the skills you’ll need, hit the gym-”
“I totally do,” Lookout said. She held up one arm, bending it, like she was flexing her bicep. He was pretty sure he could have encircled three-quarters of her arm with one finger and his thumb. “Can’t you tell?”
He smiled. “The gym was where I went, when I had no idea of where to go. I told myself that no matter what happened, I was better off having gone, hitting the punching bag, lifting weights.”
“That’s my tinker workshop,” she told him, hugging the pillow tighter. “And studying, and clothes. I do that a lot. People tell me to stop.”
“After… one bad run-in,” he said, closing his eyes. Having his guard down in a room with a strange young tinker still made his heartbeat race. Especially while referencing the event. “I hit the punching bags until my hands bled. Imp made me stop. She did it because she cared.”
The little girl took a second, and he opened his eyes, to check. It took a few seconds before she nodded.
“I really want to go to my workshop, though. I need to.”
He shook his head. “Part of the self care, self-improvement, is resting. Hitting the gym or your workshop to be stronger is good, but resting well makes you stronger too.”
She didn’t fight him on that.
“Were you a good student?” she asked.
He smiled and shook his head.
He didn’t manage to stop himself from an abrupt laugh.
“But she speaks Latin! And French! And reads classics!”
“She called in all the troops when it was done.”
“Did you run into him? Talk to him?”
“No,” Brian said. “I was unnerved enough walking into the building. I worried he’d forced her to call and lie. I… won’t get into the details.”
“I have cameras everywhere. I see stuff, I accessed databases with crime scene photos. We got chopped up by Cradle. That stuff doesn’t bother me.”
Lookout, sitting on the cot with her back to the wall, legs and arms wrapped around the pillow, just gave him a shrug.
“I don’t think I want to make that dynamic worse. So I still won’t share the details.”
“Heartbreaker slit his own throat after Imp tormented him for long enough. Everyone freaked out.”
“I… let’s skip that part.”
“Sure. I’m good at skipping parts.”
“I met them then. Heartbreaker dying upset the women, but the kids were calm, up until we surrounded them, trying to corral the situation.”
The door rattled. He twisted around, looking through the window.
“Visitors,” he told her.
He saw her tense. Her eye contact broke, and he could see her eyes start to dart around.
The eye movements Tattletale had mentioned.
“Are we okay?”
“I don’t know,” Lookout told him.
He reached up and opened the door, before dismissing some of the darkness.
Aiden and Darlene.
“Oh,” Lookout said, shrinking down to hide a bit behind the pillow she held.
Darlene told her, “Your other team’s coming. They’re getting all the teams together. We wanted to talk before you left, if you’re leaving.”
“Remember the freaky dream one of us had?” Aiden asked.
“Don’t,” Darlene nudged him, indicating Brian.
“I remember,” Lookout said. “Nightmare.”
“After, we thought we had to meet, in case it became too hard to do it after,” Aiden said.
“This is the same idea,” Darlene said.
“What I did was worse than have a bad dream and freak everyone out,” Lookout said.
“A lot worse,” Darlene told her. Aiden took hold of her arm to tug her back a bit.
“A lot worse,” Lookout said, quiet.
“You scared Candy a lot. You scared all the Heartbroken. We invited you in and you threatened us,” Darlene accused her.
“Are you?” Aiden asked. “Are you actually sorry? You said you can’t help it. Is that still true?”
“I don’t know,” Lookout answered.
“If we told you you’re off the team, would you freak out?” Aiden asked.
Lookout cringed, hearing that.
“Yes? No?” Darlene asked.
“I don’t know. Probably. I try but… I feel like with Tristan, with everything else that’s happening, I might need to freak out. I need to get to my workshop, I need to work. The world’s ending. There’s barely any time.”
Aiden leaned back at that, his posture weakening a bit.
“What if you had to choose?” Darlene asked.
“I don’t know. I really don’t.”
“Oh,” Aiden said. “I… thought this might be easier.”
“I don’t want to lie,” Lookout told the pair.
“Um,” Aiden said, he looked down at Brian, and then latched on there, like he was looking for something that was easier to fixate on. He held up a hand with a small bird in it. “My bird tried to fly through the dark and bumped into a wall.”
“Is it okay?” Lookout asked.
“I’m- I’m going to go take care of it. It’s not bad,” Aiden said. He glanced back at Lookout, then stepped back into the dark, feeling his way back to the main room.
Brian watched Lookout’s expression change as Aiden disappeared into the dark.
Darlene faced down Lookout.
“You hurt the Chicken’s feelings.”
“All of us are messed up, you know. Chastity, Roman, Juliette, Amias, Aroa, Nicholas, Cherie, Jean Paul, Candy, even the unpowered. There are twenty of us and all of us go too far sometimes.”
“I scared you, the last time you hurt the Chicken. I’m trying to do better. I’m trying really, really hard right now.”
“The thing about us… we’re family, before and after everything else. Roman and Juliette hate each other but they consider each other brother and sister. That’ll be true until the world ends or one of them dies.”
“I think we have rules like that, that we don’t and won’t break. Family being one. You’re… part of this family, Kenzie.”
Lookout looked up, startled.
“You’re… similar to us in ways. So you’re part of this family, until you decide you don’t want to be. So maybe after today, you won’t be one of us.”
“Don’t! Speak!” Darlene raised her voice. The echo of her voice joined Lookout’s. Brian rose partially to his feet. “Don’t argue.”
The sound reverberated, hollow.
Lookout fell silent.
“We protect each other,” Darlene said. “I will give my life if it saves Chicken Little. My hand still hurts from where I broke stuff fighting that red assassin guy, every day.”
She was rambling a bit, her voice wild, emotional.
“My… Candy will forgive you, you know.”
Brian could see the hope in Lookout’s eyes.
“And I can’t let her. That’s how I protect her. Not if I can’t trust you. And I don’t trust you like this. Which means you’re not family anymore.”
Lookout hugged the pillow tighter, burying the lower half of her face in it.
“I planned that better in my head,” Darlene said. “I said everything I wanted to say, just not in the right order.”
“You did okay,” Lookout said, her voice small.
“I hope so,” Darlene said, staring at the girl for a few seconds, before ducking her head and walking into the darkness.
He was leaning against a wall, arms folded, watching Lookout lying on her side on the cot, her back to him. He felt small leaps of fear on seeing every small movement, but each was a fraction smaller than the last.
A commotion in the other hallway came distorted through the smoke, drawing his attention. Voices overlapped.
Tattletale felt her way through the smoke, one hand on the wall, approaching. She entered the room.
Without speaking, she made a small circular motion with her fingers.
He dissipated the smoke, clearing most of the room.
She made the gesture again.
He made all of the smoke fade. Lookout stirred, raising her head from the pillow. There were damp spots on it, visible for a fleeting second before she flipped it over.
The voices, a veritable crowd, was audible now.
Lookout stood, and her first step was unsteady, like a leg had gone asleep, or she was that out of sorts.
Tattletale let her pass through the door, then gave Brian a look.
He followed Tattletale into the hallway, then into the main room, with the area sequestered for the workshop. Breakthrough had gathered in the no-man’s land where nobody had been treading earlier.
There were others. A boy with a needle on his back. One of the Damsels of Distress, with blade-fingers. Vista, all grown up. Most of the strangers were at the far end of the room, opposite Brian and Tattletale. Imp and the heartbroken were opposite Breakthrough.
“How are you?” Victoria asked.
“Not great,” Lookout said. “Is it time? You’re doing the plan?”
“We are. Final attack, final play. There’s no time for much else.”
“What do you need? I can get my costume, if you want me to go-”
“No, Lookout,” Victoria said.
“Even to somewhere not dangerous? Like the shard world?”
“No need for the costume. Not here, either.”
“Haha, what?” Lookout asked. She looked around, then even looked back at Brian, as if seeking an anchor with him, a half smile on her face.
“We talked to Dragon. She’s taking your tech. She can operate it reasonably well.”
“My tech? But-” Lookout looked around again. Again, that fleeting manic edge touched her expression. “Part of the deal was that you wouldn’t leave me behind or leave me out.”
“A bigger part of the deal was that I would protect Breakthrough. I made promises.”
Lookout clenched her hands. “That’s not fair. That’s not right. No.”
“Yes,” Sveta said.
“But… you’re abandoning me too? You’re… that’s it? I’m out? I’m alone?”
“No,” Victoria said. “This is the opposite of abandoning you. We’re doing everything, absolutely everything we can to fight for a future where each and every one of us can be together. That means keeping you alive and well. You can’t join in here without ending up in a dark place. You’re too tired, the stakes are too high.”
“You’ll die. You’ll break your promise even if you don’t want to, like Swansong did.”
“Trust us. Trust us and we’ll do our all to survive and see you on the other side.”
The fists clenched, shaking. Brian felt his heartbeat pick up.
The clenching relaxed. His heart rate increased further. Calm was more dangerous.
Lookout turned, heading back to the hallway, back toward the back room.
“Wish us luck,” Rain called out.
There was no response.
Victoria sighed. “Fuck.”
A second later, Lookout reappeared at the entrance to the hallway.
The entire room seemed to tense.
“What’s up, Peep?” Imp asked.
Lookout raised her hand to her face, toward the bandage, then hesitated.
Then, after some silent deliberation, she touched her eye, and pried out something that looked like a foot-long nail, with a head as wide across as her iris, and numerous pointed branches extending from it, forking out.
She pulled it free, and then laid it on a desk.
She looked at her team, then smiled and told them, “Good luck.”
“Thanks, Lookout,” Rain said.
“Thanks,” Capricorn echoed.
The kid retreated. Brian watched as she went back to the side room.
Brian watched as Candy swayed on the spot, then quickly followed, walking down the hall and into the back room.
Brian looked at Darlene.
There was no objection. No fight.
“Where are we at?” Tattletale asked. “What do we need?”
“We need… a lot more,” Victoria said. “I don’t know. I went to my sister, but that didn’t work.”
“Panacea?” Brian asked. “Why?”
“I… she’s strong. But she’s unwilling. Unwell, but she realizes that now. I asked Bitter Pill, Bough’s partner, the healer in Advance Guard, Capricorn Red’s old boyfriend. None have what Amy has. My next line of thought is mind control, force Amy to help, take away culpability, but… that’s skeevy.”
“A little bit,” Vista said.
“A lot bit,” Victoria echoed. She folded her arms. “We’re desperate.”
“What about Bonesaw?” Brian asked.
The room glanced his way.
“Gone,” Tattletale said.
“I know where she is. Valkyrie was keeping tabs on her. But… she’s unwell,” he said, tensing despite himself. Aisha leaned into him, her arm bumping his elbow.
“I’m not so sure,” Victoria said. “I saw… visions, down in the crystal. She held herself back. She seemed better.”
“I have trouble believing that,” he told her.
“I don’t say it lightly,” she said, and her voice was soft, heavy with meaning. “How far away is she?”
He hesitated. Old fears stirred.
He looked back in the direction of the tinker that had retreated. Given how Victoria had decided to handle this… He thought of Bonesaw.
He decided to trust them.
“Far,” he told them. “But doable with a chain of portals.”
“There’s a delay between portals appearing. Battery considerations, machine’s overloading a bit,” Vista said.
“Then we need to act fast,” Victoria said.