Infrared – 19.g

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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.”

“Will do.”

“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?”

“Girl.  Cozen.”

“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.”

He nodded.

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.

“From Darlene.”

“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.

She nodded.

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.

“Mm hmm?”

“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.

“Was Imp?”

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.”

“It should.”

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.”

“I… okay.”

“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.

“I’m sorry.”

“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.

“I’m sorry.”

“You hurt the Chicken’s feelings.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.”

“I’m sorry.”

“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.”

Lookout nodded.

“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.

“My team.”

Tattletale nodded.

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.

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42 thoughts on “Infrared – 19.g”

  1. Typo Thread:

    he sighed out the words > he sighed out
    Twelve or so, Darlene (previously stated to be 10)
    herself, > herself.
    me.” he > me,” he
    “Mmm,” he > “Mmm.” He
    always goes (missing fullstop or colon)
    herself up, > herself up.

    I wonder if that’s all of kenzie’s stuff. glad she managed to take that step either way.

  2. -We’re probably going to have an Interlude for each alphabet letter in a single Arc. That won’t be bad but this Arc will be the longest one.

    -Brian Interlude. Good. He is the best big bro.

    -He talks so nice about Taylor and Cozen. He really cared about both :).

    -So, Imp made Heartbreaker kill himself. Good strategy to get rid of this asshole :).

    -Daelene is right for not trusting Kenzie anymore but still…. poor Kenzie :(.

    -Riley and Dragon to the rescue. Yes. I couldn’t think at better people than them to save the situation.

  3. So Bonesaw CAN do what Victoria wants or is thinking.

    Good call on Lookout… Although I can’t help thinking that she’s been programming her “eye” precisely to leave it out there so it can execute certain preset tasks she put into it… and I recall she had more than the one poking into her head… But I’m hopeful she’s taken something from all of this.

    Interesting that they have Damsel of Distress with them. I can’t help but think Victoria’s plan involves something around her and maybe even Vista. Remembering that Vista’s power had some kind of strange interaction with Capricorn’s switching ability. She might have figured something out.

    But it’s mildly strange to think that Cryptid/Chris/Labrat, Bitter Pill and other’s aren’t capable as Biotinkers but Bonesaw somehow is.

    1. She studied powers all her life, understood how they worked better and earlier than even Amy did,is her thing. Also is not that she is better,though she is,is that she is better at the specific thing Victoria wants to do

      1. Possibly (and probably since the story is headed that way). I’d say Amy and Teacher probably understand powers and/or the entities better than Bonesaw does NOW, but certainly Bonesaw understood them earlier.

        Bonesaw never did anything like what Panacea did to Taylor but she did threaten to do it to Grue and Taylor. Her work would apparently be messier but still likely to work, or at least she was confident she knew enough she could pull it off… If we presume she was the one Contessa got to fix up Taylor’s head after the gunshots, she might even have a good idea of what Panacea did and how to curb some of the impacts.

        Now if we imagine it done to an individual or individuals who are much more co-operative with their shards, it’s possibly even less impact… Although I’m not sure what it would do to Damsel… Her shard is known to agitate her moods to encourage conflict but there’s also the possibility it’s been more greatly influenced by the multiple Ashley’s who’s memories reside with it… And then we have that business with Ashley remembering other cape’s memories, thanks to Bonesaw’s cloning work.

  4. I guess Bonesaw did some strange manipulations with powers that involved merging people to create hybrids of a power, but I can’t think of a good example of her really altering powers.

    However… If we wanted another way to resolve the mystery around Taylor’s fate to the Ward cast then I can’t imagine a better brain doctor for Contessa to have gone to than Bonesaw.

    1. > merging people to create hybrids of a power

      Oh, that is an interesting way for “everyone to work together”…
      Not cluster, but physically merged.
      It even cast some darkness into a phrase “We’re doing everything, absolutely everything we can to fight for a future where each and every one of us can be together.”

  5. i dont get why they are not letting kenzie help. are all the youngsters being held back, darlene , aiden, colt, florence. it seems dumb that they wont let kenzie help.

  6. Real closing the plot bunny vibes here, but it’s being done in a way to bring people together and moving forward while treating everyone as *people* not “oh wow the Valkyrie/Dragon/Bonesaw/…” aw of old, so that’s cool.

    And woo, Kenzie and Aisha being supportive in their own way.

  7. – @ remetagross: Yeah. As usual, having this kind of conversation during a looming apocalypse is kind of weird, but still it’s good to see.
    Also encouraging to watch Kenzie stepping back from the brink and listen to others.
    (And massive credit to Darlene for saying what she did. Forgiveness and trust are not the kind of thing you’d learn being raised by Heartbreaker…)

    – I bet it didn’t take a lot of torment for Heartbreaker to kill himself. Guy struck me as basically a child, blessed/cursed with the ability to just get his way all the time; any sustained period of real stress would probably break him.
    Incidentally, he’s a good counterpoint to Eidolon, or Amy. For all the complaints about them, they did hold back (to varying degrees) on what they could do. It’s not a justification, but it’s still true.

    1. I was surprised by Heartbreaker’s demise to suicide simply because I figured Imp had slit his throat at some point. I guess he much have triggered somehow and strongly on an emotional front to get his powers and be strong enough with them that he managed his triggered children and any cape forces sent against him.

      Plus, Tattletale could have informed Imp on all his emotional weakpoints.

  8. So wait….
    On a day when people explode due to phychological trauma…
    You take the girl with abandonment issues.
    You assemble the ENTIRE TEAM she wants to hang out with.
    And you say “No, its too dangerous. Stay home. With the people who you recently blackmailed.”

    ….For goodness sake people. This it literally the ONE TIME when it is appropriate to bring Kenzie along.
    What’s your logic “Oh you might get hurt?”
    Buddy- the world is ENDING in 2 hours. If there is even a 1% chance that she can help, then you damn well bring her along. Hell, if there’s a 1% chance of her being helpful, then bringing her along is one of the best ways to increase Kenzie’s life expectancy. Leaving Kenzie behind is dangerous FOR KENZIE.

    Unless they expect her to be actively harmful, Breakthrough should be bringing her along.
    ESPECIALLY as she is less likely to go Titan if they bring her along.

    1. No. Breakthrough has a history of pushing Kenzie’s mental wellbeing to the back because crisis keep popping up and they never get the conditions needed to help her stop going down the slippery slope of mental health she has been going down,thats why she got where she is now, losing the trust of her friends,blackmailing an already traumatized girl into loving her.

      Kenzie has to stop tinkering NOW. Thats where she goes so she doesnt has to deal with the aftermath of what she has done. This ties to Amy stopping to use her powers,they both need to stop NOW, is an unhealthy way to cope,is bad for them. And they have bonesaw. The girl who has spent all her life studying and understanding powers way before Amy did, the best medical tinker THE BONESAW. They’ll be fine.

      Is time to stop postponing taking care of Kenzie’s mental health in pro of the most recent treat.

    2. It’s more like she had a 1% chance that she can help but a 50% chance she’ll seriously fuck up in some way because she’s in an incredibly poor mental state.

      “You can’t join in here without ending up in a dark place. You’re too tired, the stakes are too high.”

      Besides, they have Dragon who’s a trump in working with other tinker’s tech and is likely able to utilise everything Lookout already has setup without succumbing to emotional trauma.

  9. @ninegardens
    this is exactly how i feel! she wont have breakthrough. she will worry about them dying behind her back like Tristan and Ashley. she cant be close to heart breakers or Aiden because as Darlene said she is no longer a part of what they consider family. Said members of family are more than illing and capable to put fate worse than death on Kenzie and they had her disarm herself plus take away access to her workshop, basically made her defenceless.
    all this when we are minutes away from fate worse than death on a pan multiverse pan humanity level.
    a person who could be a vital solution to this.

    almost seems like a simurgh plot. given that access of Kenzie to undersiders came through Tattletale and Imp it is very very possible. Simurgh has coopted and completely destroyed Tinkers before, proffesor haywire, Mannequin when he was Sphere, Blastos clone tech.

  10. @Naoru
    unlike Amy Kenzie is already apologetic for her outburst.
    while some of her words to Candy parallel Amy, we dont know it was more than words. her parents were psycopaths a thread away from being like cradle or original Chris es Sister.

    Not only do the not allow her to help. they leave her defenceless in company of people like Florence Vasil who would master her in crueal manners just for shit and giggles using her outburst against candy as an excuse.

    it is downright irresponsible. almost too irresponsible, like something of a precog time bomb.

  11. First, Kenzie will be safe with Heartbreakers. They’ll not hurt her because Candy, Darlene and Aiden still CARE about her (even if they will probably never forgive her) and they’ll not let anyone to hurt her. She’s safe as long as she doesn’t make them angry again.

    Second, Breakthrough can’t take Kenzie with them because: they already have Dragon to help them with communications so Kenzie will be pretty much useless, second they don’t want her to be hurt. Come on, this little girl suffered at her age more than a lot of grown up characters: she was beaten up, mutilated, shot with a freaking rocket, mentally controlled (aligned), emotionally controlled and so on. She went through Hell so many times and returned back a little more broken every time. Enough is enough, they don’t want her to be hurt more or worse, to die. She’s more safe where she’s now than on battlefield. Victoria took an excellent decision; later, when Kenzie will realized that Victoria was absolute right, she’ll be the one who’ll be thankful to Victoria for protecting her. Yes, she wants to help, got it, but not when is so dangerous for a little girl like her. Besides, Dragon can do Kenzie’s job, its not like not taking Kenzie with them means that they’re pretty much screwed. Kenzie already did waaay too much in this story (both on battlefield and outside of it), its time for her to relax a bit and let others take action.

  12. Well, this definitely does feel like the story is coming to a close soon; still, I did like seeing Brian’s perspective of his previous relationships

  13. Seeing Brian and Kenzie bond like that was great. I love the peek into Brian’s head, and seeing how he’s changed since…um…dying

  14. I like that Grue’s interluded was letter G. I also note that the Breaksiders really seem set on becoming Underslaughterthrough. I approve.

  15. @ Naoru
    >”No. Breakthrough has a history of pushing Kenzie’s mental wellbeing to the back because crisis keep popping up and they never get the conditions needed to help her stop going down the slippery slope of mental health she has been going down,thats why she got where she is now, losing the trust of her friends,blackmailing an already traumatized girl into loving her.”

    Right- but I’d argue that *Leaving Kenzie Behind* is the thing that is more damaging to her mental wellbeing.
    Bringing her along is dangerous to her physical wellbeing (But the world is ending soon, so *shrug*), but coming along is BETTER for her mental wellbeing.
    The kid feels a lack of agency, a lack of being able to be there for the people she cares about, a lack of people willing to place trust in her. These are legit problems, and refusing to bring her along because “Safety first” ain’t going to help with those.

    Yes- her trying to fix everything is insane. Yes, she may well get hurt.
    But by leaving Kenzie behind, the team is saying “There is a big crisis to deal with, we can’t deal with your Mental health stuff now. We’ll come back later. If the world doesn’t end.”

    >”It’s more like she had a 1% chance that she can help but a 50% chance she’ll seriously fuck up in some way because she’s in an incredibly poor mental state.”

    Yeah, and in this case, fair enough too- if we believe she would bring DOWN the teams success odds, then she gotta stay on the bench.
    Personally, I think she would help, but that might just be Protagonist eye view bias etc (IE, she is part of the team, therefore her being there is part of the story).

  16. How many other foot long spikes does Kenzie have in her head, I’mm betting that wasn’t her only tech phased into her body… We all know she is most dangerous when she goes cold and calm than when she is anxious. Think Christian Bale’s character from Equilibrium during the lie detector scene.

  17. Dark thought: What if Kenzie second-triggers? This kind of rejection during her moment of desperation might possibly be among the worst days of her life.

  18. I dunno guys, this seems perfectly set up to make Kenzie go Titain. I do not have good feelings about the end of this interlude.

    The beginning part though, where Brian was being a sorta supportive big brother, and talking about Taylor and Cozen? That’s my shit, right there. Loved the hell out of that.

    The ending put me on edge though. But it’s a Wildbow story so of course things are going to go badly near the end. I half expect everyone to completely fail to stop the apocalypse.

  19. ‘How many other foot long spikes does Kenzie have in her head, I’mm betting that wasn’t her only tech phased into her body… We all know she is most dangerous when she goes cold and calm than when she is anxious.’

    You are exactly right. That’s just the kind of thing Kenzie would do; get everyone’s guard down, pretend to play along…and then go and do whatever half-cocked, dangerous thing she had planned ANYWAY, this time without guidance.
    Hopefully Dragon’s smart enough to keep tabs on her…

    But that brings up an interesting thought; in a sense, this is Breakthrough’s fault. They’ve been using her powers for ages now, even though they know it’s dangerous and part of the root of her trouble.
    Allowing her to spy on them, on others, using her tech, developing new tech, has really helped them do their job, but in a sense it’s like letting someone take dangerous performance-enhancing steroids because they’re more useful to you – then abruptly cutting them off right before the big race.

    Of course, it’s not their fault the world is ending or that Tristan died…nor was there necessarily a better option, given the turmoil of the story. She was going to do something with her power…

  20. Really looking forward to Damsel being positively fiendish to Defiant just because he kinda killed her that one time.
    Sadly the situation may end up too tense to allow that kind of banter, but talk about a missed opportunity…

    1. They already met after the first foray into the dreamroom and shardscape. She didn’t seem intent on saying or doing much except exiting uncooperatively.

      However I think Damsel and Vista’s powers are going to somehow be important. I recall Victoria mentioning that the sound from the edges of the cracks was somehow similar to the sound made by Damsel’s power. It wouldn’t surprise me if Vista’s power is a good part of the entities ability to move through space either. Victoria’s power? I guess her flight was said to be part of the shard’s flight ability but that was mostly for landing. Her “attention” aura appears to interact with the shardspace to encourage reactions but I think the biggest thing is going to be her field with this new found ability to expand it beyond her body and possibly shape it to her desires together with physical manipulation from any limbs she creates.

      1. I remember that Ashley basically avoided the entire situation with Colin back then; but here she decided to stick around Victoria for a reason, so I’m expecting some harsh spite out of it.
        It’s not everyday the world ends, after all.

        More than ‘simple’ power synergies (if we can call those simple at all), it feels like the situation would benefit more from human understanding of the powers and changing the dynamic – capes quitting being guinea pigs to their shard(s) and trying to establish healthier relationships.
        I suppose that’s what Victoria will ask Riley, and then upload whatever she cooks up to Dragon for large-scale deployment… beyond that, no idea.

  21. I just got to the end of this after reading both this and the previous series over the course of the last 6 months. Pretty great stuff.

    Throughout this second series, I keep thinking that Rain’s hero name should have been “Damocles” – his entire powerset seems themed around the term:

    He makes blades. his blades can cut you in half (“Sword of Damocles”). he can halt his own momentum like the sword can have its descent halt. His emotional control power literally makes you feel pressure in such a way that it forces you to act better or fall into despair (which is how the expression is most often used nowadays to describe a particular situation). The only thing that doesn’t fully match is his tinker power. but the hands thing was always kinda eh?

  22. @Barmanragssays & ninegardens, re: Kenzie: Letting people throw themselves at stressful situations when they’re ignoring internal issues is exactly how you get Titans. Bringing Kenzie into the fight is less likely to help humanity than it is to give the Titans a bunch of cool cameras.
    The assertion that having her hang out with her supportive friends, recent blackmail or no, will somehow make her MORE likely to go Titan than being on the frontlines in a situation where she’s likely to see her other friends die…it’s baffling. What’s the logic, something like “Kenzie likes Breakthrough, ergo she can’t be happy without being next to them, ergo Titan”?

    @Barmanragssays, re: Kenzie vs. Amy: Of course they’re not exactly the same. If they were, Kenzie’s adoptive dads would be camera cyborgs. But you don’t need identical characters for comparisons to matter.
    The parallels are there, the same potential paths are there, and it’s important to steer Kenzie off the paths that Panacea went down.

    @BlueHorus, re: Talking during apocalypse: This kind of scene is probably why Wildbow goes for the slow, seeming-inevitable style of apocalypse, the kind that needs to be held off in shifts. If you’re not actively fighting, no reason you can’t chat with others waiting for their shifts.

    @charlesw81, grinvader, Mike E, Naoru, re: Replies: How?

    1. Certain browsers (typically the older flavours) can reply for some reason. I blame wordpress codebase shenanigans.

  23. @GreatWyrmGold: I’ve also found Microshaft IE and Edge reply correctly, but yeah, Chrome or Safari (like on the phone I’m replying from now) can’t handle Replies.

    On Kenzie, I’m amazed at how so many are focused on what they believe Breakthrough has done to Kenzie instead of the amazing step taken by Kenzie herself to actually step back from throwing herself into her work or “helping” without being asked and simply wishing them luck.

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