It’s over for them, and they don’t even realize it.
The man stood in the center of the crosswalk, arms limp at his sides, his mouth yawning open. He gurgled. Beside him, a woman with grey hair was hunched over, hands to her mouth.
The collected members of Erring Right formed a series of loose perimeters, standing amid and in front of vehicles that had all come to a stop. Even now, after the dreaming death, Gold morning, and everything in between, these particular heroes were far from being veterans. They included retired heroes who had come out of retirement, rookies who hadn’t wanted to sign onto anything big with big expectations, people who had drifted away from other teams, and those who didn’t know what they wanted except that they wanted safety in numbers.
They were large in number, generally speaking. They were dwarfed by Advance Guard and Foresight, but those teams had organization. Erring Right was something that had formed organically, filled with opposing interests, and like most large teams, would inevitably fall to pieces. The members would form splinters and then head off in their own directions.
That was always going to be the case. This team that Aunt Carol and Uncle Mark had joined to keep brushed up on their skills was never supposed to be something bigger.
Even now, there were those who wanted to run or pay it safe, those who wanted to make a move sooner than later. Some -Carol- insisted on the most measured approach. Others wanted to do the opposite of measured, because years in the field had taught them to operate on instinct. Capes shifted restlessly, allies looking to allies. Rookies looked to the mentors they had found in the group.
Crystal glanced at the other perimeters, other lines of Erring Right’s capes at other areas nearby. She then set her gaze forward. Those situations were for them to handle, this pair was for her squad here. Privately, she wouldn’t have minded the ‘shoot him now’ approach, but it wouldn’t help anything if she said so out loud.
The man smiled, ear to ear, his eyes wide enough to reveal the whites. A gray stain began to spread across the front of his pants, then the back. What began as a leak became a pumping, a stone-gray liquid with the consistency of oatmeal flowing out of his pants leg to pile up around his shoe. Bucketfuls of the stuff filled the one pants leg and then began to flow out of the other.
The smile didn’t leave his face as fluid bubbled out of his mouth, then ears. His skin distended as the stuff piled up beneath it, his smile remaining so tight that it threatened to tear at his flesh.
Skin stretched so tight it was translucent, he began sweating, and the strained-out version of the stuff had an oily sheen.
“Can I just shoot him?” Crystal asked.
“No,” Carol answered, her phone held to her ear.
“In the leg, even?”
“No. Now please, wait. I’m on the phone.”
Crystal fell silent, watching as the threat mounted and bureaucrats argued over responsibility and risks.
The old woman’s back was collecting most of the extra matter and tearing her dress as she did so. She sat in an expanding pool of the grey oatmeal, and a stop-start stream of the chunky matter was being deposited in her lap, her head bowed forward, her body rocking. Crystal could see past the dry, gray hair and see the rictus grin.
Both had already deposited fluids equal or greater to their own body mass around them.
Some of the capes on the ground had to shift position as vehicles maneuvered to reverse direction, heading away from the scene. Most were trucks, loaded with stuff. Some couldn’t retreat at all, because there were other battle lines that had formed behind them.
Seven people in total were leaking these grey fluids. There was one intersection with three, and the ‘core’ of the Erring Right were preparing to deal with them. Two here. Then one at a number of other junctures.
“No,” Carol said, and it was clear her patience was exhausted. “I don’t want to talk to another assistant. I don’t care if you’re cape liaison. If you can’t make a firm decision, I want to talk to someone who can. Now.”
The settlement here was only partially complete. Salvaged prefab building sections were combined with tent material to form homes, houses, and businesses. When the wind blew, it picked up the petals of the dandelion-like weeds that had been placed everywhere and it made the looser parts of the tents flap, especially where a given bit of tent material had been intended to cover an entrance or partition a interior section and now hung free.
Buildings rippled with that wind, like they were so far from being solid that this patch of civilization was something that could blow away with one good gust of wind. One explosion.
She could see it all playing out from above, her eye half-lidded, her body relaxed, her head primed for that moment she got the signal from Carol and the fight started. Her head was really all she needed to fight.
If the fluids were put together with the original body mass of the man and the old woman, they were each triple the size they’d been, and the fluids showed no signs of stopping. The fluid that had settled for a while was changing in composition. Grey, it dried and it cracked, seams and wrinkles spreading across it.
“Tom?” Carol asked. “Tom, yes. I won’t mince words. If you take five more minutes, good people will be dead at the end of this. If you take fifteen, a lot of people and a lot of property will suffer for the delay. We’ll fight defensively, protect what we can, and limit the damage, but we can’t and won’t take decisive action until we get the go-ahead.”
Bubbles rose to the surface of the grey ‘oatmeal’. They popped as they swelled to a certain size, and left either toothy cavities or eyes where they’d been.
“Because if we take action and someone gets hurt, your boss or someone close to him will start accusing us of violating promises and being barbaric. We’ll answer with video evidence – Erring Right has cameras, we’re recording every step of this. Full accountability, and that goes both ways, Tom.”
Crystal’s mom, floating a bit above her, looked down, at the same time Crystal looked up.
The man’s stomach tore open, the grey stuff spilling out, foaming, and gushing from the intestines and organs that had torn apart. Blood and the red edges of torn flesh and internals mingled with the grey oatmeal.
Teeth began to protrude from the edges of the wound, the portion of the midsection that was nearly torn in half becoming a mouth. Intestines joined with the grey oatmeal to form a tongue, with flesh like an elephant’s skin.
It felt wrong, standing back and letting this happen.
“Someone just died, one of the aggressors,” Carol spoke into the phone, her tone dispassionate. “More are about to.”
It felt wrong, but the people had ‘died’ the instant they’d been afflicted. There was no cure.
“I’m not trying to force your hand in a moment of crisis,” Carol said. “We reached out weeks ago about whether you would be open to intervention. There are records of this. There are records of this present moment, both on camera and recorded sound…”
Crystal dove as the man lurched, stubby, overthick legs stomping, one arm serving as a third leg to give him balance, his mouth yawning open and the tongue extending. Her mother was right above her.
“Don’t attack!” one of the other Erring Right members called out.
Crystal rolled her eye a little, and reached out to press a forcefield into existence. She likened it to drawing a line in the air with her finger, but the line was real and three dimensional, and her ‘finger’ wasn’t. It got a little more wobbly in terms of raw durability as it got further from her, but she didn’t need much. A sheet of translucent red to bar his way.
He crashed into and through it, but his momentum was broken.
Her mother swooped down and projected something denser. Less translucent, and dark at the edges.
That darkness hadn’t been there before. Before her mother died.
The man pounded on the forcefield. Crystal placed another right in front of it, for the added security.
The old woman, hunched over, was gripping her forearms. Fingers bent, twisted, and then dug in, tearing at flesh. She broke her own bones, and the grey shit flowed through the open wounds as she pulled forearms away from elbows.
The grey junk crawled through the stringy mess that extended from the two parts of the arm, inflating and extending it. She lurched to her feet, her legs bound up in a skirt of the mess, and when she let go of her forearms, the grey stuff was solid enough that they remained extended.
“Brandish!” someone from one of the other camps had run over. “Luck?”
Carol shook her head.
The cape remained where he was. There were sounds of distant chaos.
Crystal focused on keeping her forcefield up.
She could still hear Carol, who wasn’t going out of her way to keep the conversation quiet. “That’s your decision. We’ve covered our bases. You decide. Did you cover yours?”
Crystal saw the old woman staggering toward a group of the rookies, and took flight. She shot at the ground to get the woman’s attention, a red-tinted beam flashing beside her.
The woman lunged, hurling herself at the corner of a building, then using the strength of her elongated arms to hurl herself out in Crystal’s direction.
Spheres were a strong shape. There was no weak point at which the forcefield had more or less tension. The matrix was even. As the old woman collided with it, slamming a claw into it, Crystal could feel the force extend all the way around the bubble. Airborne attacks didn’t tend to have a lot of oomph to them, even when the target was strong. Sparring with Victoria had taught her that.
Heavy hits needed leverage and this old woman that was caked in the grey stuff didn’t know how to use hers.
The woman dropped, and the impact of her hitting the ground saw about three bathtubs worth of uniformly grey oatmeal pour out of her ass, vagina, ears, nose, and mouth, decorated with rivulets of blood.
“We have permission!” Carol called out. “We’re good to go!”
Below, everyone jumped into action. The cape that had gone to Carol to ask was running back to his group, shouting. Mark threw one of his ‘grenades’ at Carol, who took a casual step to the side, still within a foot of the glowing orb.
“Laserdream, Trin, Band, Longhorn, Vault!” Carol raised her voice. “The woman’s yours! ”
She shifted to her ball form just in time for the blast behind her to go off. With the sidestep, she flew directly at the man with the giant mouth for a midsection. She exited her breaker state while still hurtling through the air, slashing out at him with a scythe of hard orange energy.
Crystal was still blocking the old woman every time she took a step in one direction or another. She glanced at the squad she’d been assigned. Longhorn was ex-retired and Banded was someone he’d brought onto the team who was so new that there wasn’t even dirt on her costume yet.
“Come on!” Crystal hollered, in that authoritative voice she’d learned with the PRTCJ. She started aiming lasers at the woman. The grey flesh was tough. Closer to the consistency of steel or stone, if she judged right.
She’d got her guys’ attention. The other four collapsed in on the woman.
The old woman wasn’t mobile, unless she used her arms to fling herself. She had virtually no legs. The strength they were displaying with broken or oversized limbs was insane, but that was it.
Accordingly, Crystal targeted the arms. When a hand met the ground, she blasted it. It cost the woman key leverage, her hand blown apart, the arm buckling as she landed on her belly. But the wound shed grey gunk, a blunted blob forming there.
Her other hand clawed at the grey gunk, flinging it at Banded. Crystal blocked it with her forcefield. The woman kept trying, kept moving- and Longhorn had an old injury that had never healed, that slowed him down. Really, all he could do was keep the old woman from charging at the ongoing fight with mom, Aunt Carol, and Uncle Mark.
“Dart!” Banded called out. Her teammates scrambled back as she produced a needle from her wrist, plucked it, and threw it.
The dart sank into the blob of flesh at the woman’s lower half. Veins erupted, crawling out across the woman, and then began to disappear as fast as they were appearing, the grey oatmeal extending out over them.
Crystal kept shooting, running interference with her laser, the forcefield primarily keeping others safe.
Banded stood there, arm outstretched, looking very much like she wasn’t present.
“You don’t have to!” Crystal called out. “We’ve got them pinned. My family’s finishing up the other!”
The man was using his tongue to hold Flashbang’s arms. With the crap that had gathered at his upper body and collected at his legs, he was close to an hourglass in shape, with a twenty-foot tongue lashing out of the middle. His nether regions and lower face were in tatters, split apart by the flow of the oatmeal, then ripped apart further by what followed after.
Flashbang held a grenade that glowed ominously. His eyes locked to mom, moving his hand, he squeezed fingers alone to pop it up. A forcefield appeared between the orb and him.
The explosion tore apart the tongue and made the man stagger back. Carol cut into him, each strike surgical. There was a drive behind every action, the intensity to which Aunt Carol moved.
It made Crystal almost sad to see.
“I have to.”
She looked back at Banded.
Crystal didn’t argue.
Banded closed her fist. The veins flashed, and all the flesh within a foot of each vein proceeded to liquefy. Grey and pink turned to dark water.
The old woman collapsed into the muck, and the flesh that met that puddle began to dissolve too. She fought to crawl free of it with overlong arms, moving faster as the burden of her lower body melted away.
Probably bad optics, Crystal observed. There were bystanders watching. She aimed a laser at the woman’s head. There was enough crap piled up around it that it didn’t feel effective… but the woman wasn’t dripping grey oatmeal anymore.
She drew closer, because each forcefield she placed down felt like it was heavier and harder to get started, and her laser wasn’t cutting effectively at this range. By getting closer, she could keep the woman from scrabbling over to Banded, who was easily spooked, or Vault, who hadn’t contributed much at all.
A muffled bang marked the execution of the man with the tongue. Crystal looked back, and saw her family already making their way to the man.
Carol, laser-axe in hand, swung it underhand, cleaving directly through the man, to more effect than Crystal had managed. Mark followed up by throwing grenades at the old woman, who was leaking fluids from her face and upper body, which were really all that were left of her, and those two parts of her had just been bisected.
Crystal knew how this went. Her forcefield was a dome, and it was joined soon after by her mother’s.
To keep the detonation contained.
Some damage to the road, but it was only dirt. The old woman was gone now, reduced to charred grey flesh that no longer leaked anything.
Carol pointed with her weapon. She hadn’t even broken stride from the moment where they’d finished off the man with the tongue. The cleaving of the old woman had occurred mid run, and she kept running, toward the other fights.
Crystal didn’t mind that she hadn’t made the big play or provided the big answer. Part of what the PRTCJ had drilled into her was that glory and heroism weren’t synonymous. Doing the job with the smallest number of casualties and the best chances was best. If she had to fight the next one hundred threats like this, hemming them in and shooting strategically, she would.
She wasn’t here to stay. This team wasn’t holding together and she didn’t imagine she would find her fit here even if it did manage to keep from splintering.
She began shooting, as their amassed team went after more of the afflicted. Carol, who was so insistent on doing things by the books, stuck to a play Crystal had seen on her first night in costume, a sprint that threatened to spend all of her energy, moving not in a straight line, but a gentle bow-shaped curve.
There was a familiarity there, with an emphasis on the ‘familia’. Crystal, Mark, and Crystal’s mom all knew that Aunt Carol would do that. If an enemy ever studied their playbook, they’d learn to anticipate it, but New Wave had always hit hard enough that there weren’t many enemies they had to fight more than the once. When and if they did fight such an enemy, they changed it up.
Carol sought her glory in this moment. She sought the easy coordination with Mark, the backup that mom provided up in the air, the firepower and extra forcefields from Crystal herself. In this moment, Aunt Carol seemed unambiguously happy. Unambiguously herself.
At the same time, Mark measured out his blasts, thinking about things every step of the way. While his wife lunged in, he sought defense, kept an eye on escape routes.
Crystal’s mom, at the same time, was enigmatic, her expression unreadable, even as the way she fought was so normal.
Flummox was injured, and Aunt Carol was stepping up the leadership duties for Erring Right in his place. It was obvious to all that Aunt Carol was looking to take over, the other leadership contenders weren’t equipped to challenge her for the title. Crystal had little doubt that her Aunt Carol would accept the splintering of the group as she assumed control, or that she had a plan and an approach in mind for how to handle each person that stayed… and she would already know who would stay and who would leave.
With her family at her back, Aunt Carol sought to transform this ragtag team into something with more impact. She knew Crystal was thinking of leaving, had asked for a bit more time, which was more evidence that she had this all planned out.
Except she didn’t have her family at her back. Crystal would stay long enough for Aunt Carol to get established as the presumptive leader. Aunt Carol could get settled from there.
But my mom?
Crystal watched her mother fight, timing her lasers around Crystal’s own barrage, to fill in gaps or be more surgical. Crystal met her mother’s eyes, and saw the purple irises, the black ‘whites’.
Uncle Mark hurled his grenades. He’d fought for over a decade alongside Aunt Carol. They knew one another’s tempo. Aunt Carol knew when a glowing orb was coming her way and Uncle Mark knew when she’d be leaving an area, when that towering blob of two fused-together civilians would be turning away. He was already throwing, the blast knocking the towering thing over.
He found comfort in the teamwork, but there was no joy in it. Not that joy was exactly right, when innocents were hurting and dying, but… there should have been some satisfaction.
His explosions should have grabbed at Crystal’s focus, distracted, but they were background noise now.
“The situation’s handled!” Carol called out. “This is a distraction, and she’ll be making a move elsewhere! I want Banded with me, Flashbang, Crystal, Lady Photon, Spindle! We’re going after Bitter Pill!”
Crystal and her mom descended. They landed by Uncle Mark.
“No luck?” Uncle Mark asked, quiet.
Crystal shook her head. “I don’t think she left. Nobody on the road.”
He leaned in to whisper something to Aunt Carol, who nodded.
The assembly of Erring Right was standing outside the lab. Police ventured inside.
They’d got the briefing when the five people yesterday had got sick and mutated. Today it had been seven. The screens in Bitter Pill’s lab revealed that she’d had enough security cameras around the areas to see them coming, searching for her.
Margaret Madewell was the leader of this particular settlement. She’d named the area Byers.
“Bitter Pill has targeted twelve individuals,” Aunt Carol said. “Five yesterday, seven today. You read our briefing?”
“I had other priorities,” Margaret Madewell said, her arms folded.
“Nanomachines pulled fats and proteins apart and reconstituted them into something far stronger and more extensive. If we aren’t invited to see this through and pursue Bitter Pill-”
Margaret Madewell frowned.
“-You’ll want to pass on what we sent you to whoever does. Lancet is giving the police a tour right now, explaining the lab, what to watch out for, what to sequester. You’ll want to pour concrete if you can.”
“We need the concrete we have.”
“Then hire capes to wipe the site,” Uncle Mark said, more brusque than necessary.
“We’ll figure it out,” Margaret Madewell said.
“Would you object to us preparing and mobilizing to go after Bitter Pill? She should still be around.”
The woman didn’t flinch. “My officers think she left the area. You would be throwing your weight around for no benefit.”
“Our fliers did a sweep, there’s no sight of her.”
“Our police did a sweep here. If you’re saying they’re wrong about this, you’re calling them and the would-be witnesses liars.”
Aunt Carol paused, then composed herself. “We’ll leave you contact information, then. If you have any questions or want help, we’ll provide it. I’ll send it to you and your staff.”
“There’s no need. She’s gone, she has no reason to return.”
“She’s a tinker, she’ll want to reclaim what she left behind. She has a need for resources and that’s easiest to do in places she knows.”
“Noted,” Margaret Madewell said. “But I trust my officers who say she left.”
“Understood,” Aunt Carol told her. “As to the last part of our deal?”
“We made no deal.”
“Your aide agreed that you’d tell us a good place to get lunch, when this was over.”
Carol’s tone was light, easy, but her posture was rigid. This was a power play.
“A joke, nothing more. We wish you safe travels on your way out.”
The stiff conversation was apparently over. Carol smiled and turned. She gestured, and slowly, the rest of Erring Right followed.
The team had parked a collection of vehicles at one end of the town, but as they left the civilians behind and reached the cars and trucks, the team gathered together.
“What happened?” Longhorn asked.
“She’s in league with Pill?” Spindle asked.
“Anti-parahuman,” Aunt Carol said. “The cameras we invested in are paying for themselves. She needed our help but wanted to claim she didn’t ask for it. When she was cornered, she let us make our move and take our win, but she doesn’t want us sticking around to claim it.”
“The lunch?” Uncle Mark asked.
“I thought it’d be points for us, if we stuck around, invited people to eat with us. Making ourselves seem more approachable.”
“It’s not worth the fight. She’ll use her police and conscripted citizens to try to take on Bitter Pill. If we stay, we’ll end up fighting Madewell every step of the way, and we’ll be labeled tyrants.”
“There are people here who’ll get hurt,” Ore spoke through his helmet, his voice muffled.
“I told her I’d send our information to her and her aides. The aides can call us if they need us. That’s all we can do, as frustrating as it is.”
Aunt Carol’s words were so carefully chosen. The word ‘frustrating’. That she seemed to anticipate every question and have something prepared for it.
“We’ll debrief when we get back to Fairhope,” Aunt Carol said. “We’ll discuss with Flummox, and figure out our next steps.”
That, too, was a carefully chosen statement.
“I’m going to stop in the gas station,” Crystal said. “I’m parched.”
A few people seemed interested in that.
There were twenty of them present, and the group split apart, people going to cars to get things, to fix up gear, to go take a whiz in a ditch.
Others went to the gas station. Crystal used flight to get there first, got a far-too-expensive bag of chips, a drink, and paid by the time the first people arrived.
The weeds that were spread around the settlement were there by design, to get nitrogen into the Earth, and lay the groundwork for future plant growth. When the wind came in certain directions, the petals and dust flew off, stirring into the air.
She found her Uncle Mark leaning against a fence. He’d brought his own water. Mom was airborne, and Aunt Carol was talking to her team.
“Have you heard from Victoria?” he asked. “She hasn’t answered many of my messages, and she’s been quiet when she has.”
“Something came up with Breakthrough. She’s making a point of not getting entangled in it. She’s taking a leave from work and flying out to talk to capes about another project.”
“Ah, that’d explain it.”
“It kind of messed her up. But she’ll be okay, I think.”
“I keep expecting you to announce you’re leaving,” he said.
“Do I look that restless?”
“No. You seem comfortable wherever you are. But this doesn’t feel like it’s you.”
“Aunt Carol wants to lead. I thought I’d back her up until she’s settled.”
He nodded slowly.
“What are you thinking?” she prodded him.
“Is it a good thing, if she succeeds?”
“She’s good at bringing out the best in others. She knows about presentation, the legal side of it, training…”
“There’s more to a team than that.”
“There is,” Crystal said. “Some will stay. Others will learn what they need to learn from her before going.”
But that wasn’t what he was saying.
She waited, letting him digest.
“You…” he started. “You keep saying she. Not ‘you two’, not ‘you’. It’s her.”
“Being with her, it’s nice. I love her.”
“But everything else falls by the wayside, somehow. It’s comfortable, I let my guard down, and I let others down.”
“I wouldn’t put it that way, Uncle Mark.”
“On the battlefield, we cover one another’s weaknesses. We have a rhythm, we can read each other’s minds. I think I let myself believe that it’s the same elsewhere. But it’s not. I’m… less, off the battlefield. I know that, I break away, but I find reasons to go back. If I tell her I want to separate and focus on myself, focus on Victoria, on Amy… I worry I’ll find more reasons to go back on it.”
“It’s not as simple as saying ‘no’.”
“If you want to move on, then move on. Don’t separate. Divorce.”
He reached out and created a glowing orb, then made it disappear. His hand clenched into a fist.
“I thought I’d be the one asking you where you’re going,” he told her. “Now I’m the one asking myself.”
“That’s not a no to my idea.”
“It’s something I’ve thought about,” he said. He made a groan of a sound, then looked at her. “Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I’m good, Uncle Mark. I’m fine waiting. The world’s changing and I’ll figure out where to settle down when it’s not changing as fast.”
“That easily, hm?”
“So long as I have Victoria, and my mom,” she said. She looked up, and noted that her mom was gone.
That put a bit of a damper on what she was trying to say.
“I’d worry about Victoria if I were to move on.”
“We’ll all worry about Victoria, I think. But I’ll look after her. I promise.”
Crystal watched as her mom made her approach, flying over from the settlement’s edge.
“Keep in touch?” she asked. She touched his shoulder as she floated up.
“I have to figure out what I’m doing,” he said. “I’d need to feel like there’s more of a purpose.”
She gave his shoulder a pat, then flew to her mom.
“…aides aren’t exactly happy,” her mom was saying.
“What’s this?” Crystal asked, flying over and around her mom, her food still in one hand. “Catch me up?”
“They want help,” Carol said. “They’re wondering if they want Madewell making these calls.”
“They’ll wave me down again when they’ve decided. We’ll hear a verdict in another fifteen minutes or so,” Crystal’s mom said.
“We should take to the air and keep an eye out, then, huh?” Crystal asked.
Her mom smiled.
The two of them took to the air, floating up and above the group.
“It’s changing,” Crystal mused. “It’s subtle, but it’s changing.”
“Tell me how,” her mom said.
The phrasing felt off, awkward. Crystal felt a complicated mess of emotions in her upper chest, like words she couldn’t get out or decipher. Her mom but not her mom. Her family but… splintered. Victoria was elsewhere. She was only here because the PRTCJ had disbanded. So long as she had family, like she’d told Uncle Mark, she was content.
But… family seemed so alien sometimes. So indecipherable.
“Before, it felt like five percent of the civilians out there were diehard advocates for capes. Five or ten or fifteen percent hated us but couldn’t do much about it. The rest were frustrated and helpless, just trying to survive.”
Her mother nodded.
“I don’t feel comfortable around any of them. The advocates, the helpless, the ones that hate us. I kind of just… left.”
“A lot of capes did.”
“It’s different now. We need them and they need us. We’ve created a kind of interdependence. Victoria played a big role in that.”
“Do you know what your role is?”
“I’m comfortable. I’m happy, but-”
“Comfortable isn’t enough.”
Crystal looked down at her uncle.
“So what’s your role, Crystal?” her mother asked.
Crystal looked at the woman and saw alien eyes, touched by powers. Not the eyes that she’d seen when she was a baby. Not the eyes she’d seen when they’d been mourning Eric and dad. She looked away, regretting that eye contact.
“Saying you don’t know is a valid answer.”
“I don’t- I’m not a teenager. I don’t feel like it is. My role, um, I don’t know. It’s not the civilian side of it. I’ve… never been that connected to it.”
“You could try. It’s a skill you can learn.”
“I… think I’m better off focusing on things like Victoria, you, Uncle Mark, Aunt Carol. Old teammates. I liked Solarstare. Vista.”
“Wherever you want to go, I’d be happy to come with you. If that’s okay.”
“Of course it’s okay,” Crystal said, aghast. “Really.”
The look on her mother’s face seemed genuinely pleased, even if she looked away, trying to hide it.
“Want chips?” she asked.
“Sure. I’m actually very disappointed they didn’t tell us where to go for lunch,” her mother confessed. And it was a very human admission, when her eyes were alien, the little things so different. It left Crystal feeling vaguely off-kilter. Always veering one way or the other.
She lasered off the top of the chip bag, catching the strip from the top out of the air.
“Crystal Eve Pelham!” her mother said, in a voice that was perfect down to the note. “Open those chips like a human being, thank you. Your hands will atrophy into claws if you keep doing that sort of thing.”
She blinked, caught off guard.
She blinked a few more times, eyes moist. A barrier that she hadn’t known was up came down, and those feelings in her upper chest that she couldn’t put to words or action settled into a new configuration she could.
“I’m sorry, that-”
She interrupted her mom by hugging her, tight, the bag of chips crinkling and spilling .
“Hey Triple,” Crystal greeted the girl with a wave. She was navigating the set of dormitory buildings, not all that different from the settlement that was a world and three hundred kilometers away. More solid, more condensed, and surrounded by ruins that were slowly getting sorted out.
“I wanted to ask, and this may be a dumb question, but can you make laser swords like your mom?”
“No,” Crystal said.
“Have you tried, or…?”
“I can’t, no.”
“The Girls at Bat are recruiting, and I thought if you could, you could call it a bat, it’d fit the theme…”
Crystal shook her head.
“You guys have your whole dynamic… afraid it’s not me.”
“Darn, I got my hopes up when I saw you and saw you didn’t have a new costume. Some were saying you were very firmly temporarily with the… Errant?”
“Erring Right. A minor team my aunt and uncle joined before the whole Titan fiasco. Yeah, it’s temporary. But… I’ve got stuff to take care of.”
“You all okay, not knowing where you’re going to end up?”
“I’m fine, but uh, I’m looking for someone.”
Triple Play pointed a leather-gloved hand down one of the little avenues between the dormitory buildings, all too narrow for a car to fit through.
“See you around, I hope,” the girl said, walking backwards.
Triple Play jogged a few steps, and threw her arm around a teammate, who looked as villainous as Triple Play looked innocent. Nailbat carried a bat as long as she was tall, with spikes through it. Little bat wings let her fly in short spurts, evading Triple’s affections.
Cute, but not for me.
This wasn’t a vacation spot, but it was far enough from everything that the atmosphere was relaxed. There were no imminent threats, few nearby villains. Capes were getting their feet under them, and teams were figuring out how to restructure, leaders figuring out how to lead.
Frankly, it was a pain in the ass to get out this far from the heart of Gimel’s resettlement. But it was fine.
She flew over an area of cracked ground she would have had to detour around, and looked around until she saw a balcony where a white costume with a red caduceus was pinned to the railing.
She found Amy on the roof, alone.
Amy looked at her, then looked around.
“Anyone hurt?” Amy asked. She had a cup of tea still steaming, resting on the arm of a padded chair that looked like it belonged indoors. Salvage from the ruins.
“Nobody’s hurt. Your mom is recovering okay. Taking over a team for herself. I think she likes the return to the old days.”
“Then why the visit?” Amy asked.
“Because I’ve decided part of what I’m doing is taking care of people. Because family’s important to me and…”
“You don’t see me as family, do you?”
“Victoria’s family. If I keep tabs on you then she doesn’t have to.”
Amy frowned. She’d been in the sun a fair bit recently, and it brought out her freckles, dark against browned skin. Her hair was loose and shaggy. She was thin, but most people were after the winter. The chips Crystal had spilled earlier in the day had been a luxury good.
Looking at Amy more intently, she wondered if that was the entirety of it.
“Are you taking care of yourself?”
“Surviving. Going to therapy. I spend a whole day traveling, stay overnight, buy things they need here, and spend a whole day traveling back. Every week. I feel like shit for three or four days after, get a day off feeling awful, and then repeat the process.”
“Any friends here?” Crystal asked. “Girlfriends?”
“Some people I talk to. Some girls have made overtures. It’s not a good idea.”
Crystal studied the girl, who didn’t seem willing to look at her. There had been a time, a little more than a decade ago, that they’d all gone to the park together. Sat on see-saws. Played on swings.
“Where are my manners?” Amy asked, her tone entirely wrong for the question. “Do you want tea?”
“Sure. Thank you.”
Amy nodded, rising from her seat, and got the kettle that was set above a little fire on the rooftop, bounded on three sides by brick, a metal grille over the top for the kettle to rest on.
“Any word from your dad?” Crystal asked.
“Marquis or Mark?”
“No. He’s picked up the villain thing again, he’s gathering people around him. Pretty women, naive villain boys who look up to him. I haven’t heard from Mark, either.”
“He’s there for you if you want it.”
Amy made a face. She poured a mug of tea, then carried it over.
Crystal was careful as she accepted it. She wanted to grip the mug, but the mug itself was hot, and her instincts made her shy of touching Amy’s hand, with the one finger she’d replaced, that wasn’t tattooed.
She created a forcefield table instead, aware her mother would wag a finger at her.
She smiled a bit, at that thought.
“He’s divorcing Carol,” she said, looking down into the mug.
“Good,” Amy said, perfunctory. She settled back into the chair.
“Just like that. Your parents, and…?”
“It’s good,” Amy said, and it sounded like she was putting effort into being genuine, into emoting. “She’s not good for him, he’s not good for her, I’m not good for Victoria. It’s a mess. We’re a broken family.”
The words were so bitter.
“Whenever I’m with Carol and Mark, it’s hard to think,” Crystal said. “There are dynamics, there’s things left unsaid. It’s… heavy. I feel like I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“My life from age six to seventeen, pretty much.”
“Yeah,” Crystal said. She wasn’t sure how to sustain this conversation.
They drank tea for a minute.
“I spend half a day talking about myself during those therapy sessions once a week. I’m tired of discussing me. What are you up to?”
“Not much. Helping Aunt Carol with her team, then moving on. Checking on people. Spending time with my mom. We got an apartment together, in this building without stairs or an elevator. It’s awesome and awful in equal measure. Who wants to live with their mom at my age?”
“Any upcoming events?” Amy asked.
“I was wondering if you’d bring up the party for Vista,” Amy said, not making eye contact. “Old Brockton Bay people, Breakthrough, associated friends.”
“Heard about that, huh?”
“It’s mostly capes here. Word gets around. I guess I don’t get an invite. Unless that’s why you’re here?”
Crystal opened her mouth, trying to find words.
“I’m… I know I don’t get an invite. I’m well aware,” Amy said.
“Whenever I get a drive into Gimel proper, I worry I’m going to run into Victoria. I look over my shoulder, and I worry I’m going to be my worst possible self again. Or she’ll make true on her promise to try to drop something on me again, like she did while fighting the Simurgh, or… someone she’s told about me will assume I’m a monster, when I’m just an idiot who’s done something monstrous.”
“She’s spent a lot of time looking over her shoulder too, Ames.”
Amy nodded, staring at the ground. She took a drink from her mug and found it empty. She set it down with more force than necessary.
Crystal broke the silence, venturing, “If you want pity, I don’t know if I can spare it. I don’t… you’re not the victim here, Amy.”
“I have to catch myself when I start thinking that I’m working hard, I’m making sacrifices, I’m spending days getting to and from therapy, while living far enough away from everything because… Gimel’s small right now, you know? There aren’t that many settlements. It’s easy to run into people when it’s mostly just the capes and a couple hundred thousand relatives and friends sticking around.”
“I respect the effort,” Crystal said. “I do mean that. She’d be relieved to know you were taking those steps to stay out of her way.”
“She would be? Not will be?”
“She’d be bothered if I told her we met. She’s told me she doesn’t want to know.”
Amy nodded, expression sullen. Her fingers ran over her tattoos. “I want to do the hospital thing again, but I think I’ve burned that bridge. I’m stable, I’ve practiced on hurt animals. But I can’t go to where patients are.”
She huffed out a laugh.
“What?” Crystal asked.
“The way Victoria’s been getting hurt, it’s inevitable I’d bump into her at a hospital.”
“No injuries recently,” Crystal said.
“No?” Amy asked. She looked up to meet Crystal’s eye.
“I’m not expanding on that. I’d hope you’d get the okay from your therapist before doing anything.”
“I would. Covered that before the animal healing.”
“Good,” Crystal said.
The silence stretched between them. As it did, Amy seemed to draw into herself, fraction by fraction.
Abruptly, Amy stood up, rubbing at her collar. “Looking up at you is giving me a crick in the neck. Um… if you came to check on me, you’ve done your duty. I’m sticking with it, I’m staying out of her way, as much as that leaves me cornered, nowhere to go. I’m sufficiently miserable, so, y’know, people can be happy about that.”
“I don’t think anyone wants you to be miserable, Amy.”
Amy made a face, shrugging, and paced on the rooftop of her apartment. She went to the kettle, and filled it.
Crystal remained where she was, sipping at her tea. There were leaves in the bottom of the mug, so she had to be careful she didn’t drink them.
“You can go, I said.”
Crystal put the mug down.
“Uncle Mark isn’t sure where he wants to end up either.”
“Uh huh,” Amy said. She looked annoyed at this point.
“I told him he should move on. That he needs to break the cycle. He does care about you, and he’s not the worst parent ever when he’s separate from Carol.”
“It didn’t suck, in those years before the barbecue.”
“What if you left? Catch a flight, cross the Ocean. There’s a hospital there. There’s a settlement”
“Would I be going there as a healer or a patient?” Amy asked, her smile wry.
But Amy’s eyes were open wider. She was making eye contact, her gaze searching Crystal’s face.
Crystal shrugged. “Both. Neither. But you and Victoria wouldn’t be looking over your shoulders. It would be a clean break. Away from her, away from Marquis, away from people you knew in the Birdcage.”
“I don’t think I get a break like that.”
“You don’t get a break, no. But you can move on. Not like you did with Shin. Not diving into being your power and just your power. Being Amy. Or Amelia, or…”
“Amy,” Amy said, quiet. She picked up the kettle, and then set it back down.
“Think about it.”
“I mean, over days. There’s no rush.”
“If I wait, I’ll talk myself out of it. I’m really good at deluding myself. So I’m going to say yes. If my therapist says yes.”
“I think he might,” Crystal said. “Provided there’s someone available on the other side of the ocean.”
“She, and I think she will say yes. So maybe you could pass that on to Victoria. Let her know she doesn’t have to watch her back anymore? Because I’ve had a taste of it now and it sucks.”
“I’ll break the nondisclosure rule for her, in that event, so I can tell her,” Crystal promised Amy. In a firmer voice, she added, “Once it’s done.”
Amy nodded, head bobbing, messy curls bouncing. She pushed them out of her face, and paused to look at her hand, as if she were surprised to see the tattoos there.
There was emotion in that look.
Tentatively, Crystal reached out, and put a hand on Amy’s shoulder. She could feel the warmth of Amy’s skin. It felt dangerous, intimidating. But… she believed Amy, in this. “This is good. And I’ll be in touch.”
“Cool,” Amy said, absently. The girl looked out over the horizon, eastwards. It was clear she was already thinking about possibilities. About taking steps.
Withdrawing her hand, Crystal backed away a step, and then took flight. Back to mom, and to discuss things with Uncle Mark.