“Are you going to come home tonight, or…?”
“I’m wondering if I should expect you tonight. That’s all. Or…”
She kept doing that. Leaving the sentences unfinished, trailing off. The other fragment was so obvious.
“Or?” Missy prompted.
“Will you be seeing your father, instead?”
Missy held back a sigh. By asking she’d given her mother permission to bring it up. “No.”
“Oh good! I had a hard time finding the ingredients to make cake, but Jane gave me a recipe for a three-ingredient cheesecake. I’ll have to put it together this afternoon, because Jane says it doesn’t freeze right…”
Her mom had a gleam of victory in her eyes as she went on. She sat in the driver’s seat, a red wool cap pulled over her black hair to hide the roots. Her hair was graying and hair dye wasn’t really a thing while people were getting re-established.
“…got some chipped beef for gravy pie. How does that sound? I know it’s not your favorite-favorite, but given circumstances, do you think…?”
“That sounds good. I like cheesecake. Gravy pie sounds nice,” Missy said. “But.”
“I’m going to have dinner with my friends. A bunch of the old heroes and people from Brockton Bay. Then work, I think.”
“Work? On your birthday? Is this your boss being ridiculous again?”
Ugh. Missy wasn’t really going to work, but now she had to commit.
“I barely come to your place anymore. My office has more of my stuff than the apartment does. It’s easier, and I’m busy.”
“You can tell her no.”
“My boss is-was Narwhal, mom. And she’s not exactly my boss anymore. I got a promotion. I told you about that.”
“Narwhal,” he mom shook her head. “I still can’t wrap my head around it. Now was she Protectorate or Guild?”
“She was both. A lot of international work. The Guild went all over the place, primarily to tackle human right’s abuses, parahuman warlords, be heroes to places without heroes. Then she did the Protectorate thing too.”
“Does she even sleep?”
“I honestly don’t know,” Missy admitted. She was a bit annoyed with the conversation. She’d had too many ones like it. “Miss Militia doesn’t. Neither do Defiant or Dragon.”
“You can’t be that, Miz,” her mom said.
“I know. Not until I can get an appointment with Defiant and get a chip in my brain like the other team leaders, and make it so I don’t have to sleep ever again.”
“That’s not funny,” her mom said.
Missy smiled, glancing out the window. The car had been stopped for a few minutes now. People were milling around.
“It is a joke?”
“I want you to have a full life. I had so many doubts, when we agreed to send you to the Wards…”
“I know, mom,” Missy replied. She wondered if she could get away with opening the door and escaping now. Lying and saying she was in a rush. She’d heard her mom talk about this a hundred times. The doubts her mom had experienced. The agony her mom had felt. How scared her mom had been. How her mom had waited up at night.
“I feel like you never came back after we left you there.”
“I know, but I’m here. Seven years and one month later.”
“And you got promoted. Does that mean more danger?”
Missy tilted her head to one side, giving her mother a searching look. Her mom didn’t tend to ask about this stuff. She’d glossed over the promotion a minute ago, and Missy had figured that was it.
Her mom prodded her, “You’re not answering.”
“I was there for Leviathan, mom. And the Slaughterhouse Nine. And Scion. And the Titans. And the Simurgh. What do you think I’m going to be doing?”
“I don’t know. But I don’t know about a lot of this stuff. It feels like you’re getting further away.”
“You don’t usually ask about it. You did when I was a kid, but then you made some comments in the W-Div meeting coordinating between the PRT and you and my teachers, saying dad had custody of me and I’d started staying late and working longer and you were worried…”
“That was nothing. It was one comment. If your dad had deigned to attend he could have said something.”
“It was a thing, mom. I wanted to sink down into my seat and scamper under the table to get to the door, I was so embarrassed. Because they have mandatory reporting, and the Youth Guard picked it up. The PRT staff was walking on eggshells and being super careful with me for months after.”
“I can’t understand how they’d be that bothered by you working overtime and then let you suit up and go fight Leviathan.”
“I volunteered, I lied and said you and dad gave your permission. Things were hectic enough they didn’t check. I think they didn’t want to check, because they needed every body on the ground they could get.”
“I wish your dad hadn’t let you go that morning.”
“You let me go too, kinda. The phone call, remember?”
“It’s more that you changed, after. A light went out.”
A light went out in me in the weeks before I got my powers. There were less primary colors in the world after that. But I’ve tried to explain that to you and get you to own up to your part in it and it’s useless.
Problem is, when the light goes out you can get used to it, but then a crisis hits and you’re fumbling for something and that’s when you realize how much you needed that light.
“I lost friends. My first crush,” Missy volunteered.
“Did you know I killed someone?”
A stricken expression crossed her mom’s face.
“That day. Bastion gave the order, to bury him with Leviathan. I always wondered if they passed on word to you.”
“There wasn’t much communication in the weeks and months after. So much happened. What happened? Did they do anything, or… did I miss something?”
Missy shook her head. “No. Yes. It was a thing that happened. One of a lot. I could tell you stories for days. I could show you scars.”
“I tried, but you were… it was uncharted territory. I couldn’t talk to your aunt or Jane or any other parents about this stuff. You didn’t want me talking to the parents of the other Wards. Are you mad? I’m not sure what to say.”
There were a hundred things Missy wanted to say. Some were angry, some were disappointed.
“I’m eighteen. I’m free and clear, and leading my own Warden team. I can tell you stuff. I will. Stuff that would have made you hold me back or play the card where you’re a mom and I was technically a minor.”
“I never wanted to hold you back.”
“When you hear some of the stories, you’d wish you had,” Missy said it with a smile, but her mom wasn’t smiling.
“I don’t know what to say.”
Sorry? Good luck?
“I don’t know what to say either,” Missy admitted. “Except that this is me. It’s been me all along. Hi.”
“Everything about you and me doesn’t have to change all of a sudden just because you’re eighteen.”
“It kinda does?” Missy suggested with a quizzical tone and a shrug. “I’m going to go do my own thing, like I’ve been doing for a while now. Today, that’s hanging out with friends, maybe have a few drinks. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. I have a few of the people in my team coming, I don’t want to embarrass myself in front of them.”
“And then you go to work? That’s… it’s an image I hate. You in a dark office building.”
“Tent, and if I’m being totally honest with you, which I’m trying to be, making sure you have most of the information so you can decide how you want to respond, I hope to be hanging out with my boyfriend.”
“I see,” her mom said with a hint of disapproval in her tone.
“So, y’know, don’t worry. I won’t be alone, I’m going to be a bit of a teenager and celebrate how far we’ve come.”
“If he wasn’t such a nice boy, I’d have something to say. But you can tell him I’m trusting him to be on his best behavior.”
“Sure,” Missy replied. Nope, after a night of being unable to do anything to him at the party, I’m going to use my power to get his clothes off him faster, turn the cot in the corner of my office tent into an ultra-king-size, and keep him busy until sunrise. “Best behavior.”
“I did like his parents. Sweet people. Smart.”
“I’m glad.” They had their reservations about you and dad. But whatever. “I think I should get going in a second. I don’t want to miss her.”
“I do wish he wasn’t such a good match for you.”
“Byron. What you said about killing that man. It answers some of it, but I saw him do something I remember seeing you do. Staring off into space, with a look in his eyes like he could see something that was deeper and darker than a boy his age should be exposed to.”
“I mean, he was still mourning his brother.”
“That’s it, isn’t it? So much death.”
“It is what it is. And I really should-”
“Please.” Her mother’s hand reached out to take hold of her wrist, and with some rearrangement of grip, took Missy’s hand in her own, squeezing. “I do love you.”
“I love you too.”
“That night, when we all thought it might be over. The woman from the Wardens came and told us the decision we had to make. I just knew. Knew you’d be doing that, just like you were walking while you were talking to me on the phone, on your way to fight Leviathan. I remember seeing that dark look in your eyes and I was so scared it would get darker still.”
“This is a really cheery birthday talk, isn’t it?”
“I wanted to let you know we fought hard. I’m not the best public speaker, but I tried to tell them, in the hopes it would make a difference. Your father tried too.”
“Dad was there? With you?”
“We both tried. I don’t know if it mattered. There were people more eloquent than us.”
But they’d been there, and they’d been a ‘both’, an ‘us‘. That was… actually really touching. Missy wasn’t even sure how to process it. There was some resentment in the mix, that they hadn’t been able to do that nine years ago, but… her parents had agreed on this, and they never agreed on anything. They’d never worked together on anything.
“Cool,” she murmured. Which summed it up. Not too excited or grateful when it would’ve felt like a betrayal to the Missy Biron of the last almost-decade to forget all the stuff of the past, but… it was cool.
“I was so mad at those anti-parahuman people that I could have strangled them.”
“It was never about them, mom. Which was part of the problem, but that wasn’t what that night was about.”
“It felt like it.”
“They never had the power or the presence until that night. It was about us. How we’d situated ourselves in regard to you. Our parents, our friends, our nay-sayers. Each of us making the decision whether we’d trust you, after stopping for once and taking stock of everything we’d done up to that point. Were we okay? Had we done enough? Had we made amends for wrongs and were we contributing to something better?”
“I hope that decision was easy for you. You’ve been a hero.”
“I’ve been distant. I’ve been a bit of a cog in the machine. I don’t think a lot of people in Gimel even knew I existed, because I was out following orders and doing stuff where they couldn’t see it. It wasn’t so easy for me. So, um, thanks for reminding them I exist.”
“It was harder for some. We made our individual calls. For those who were okay with where they stood in the grand scheme of it all, it didn’t feel like sacrifice. But even they couldn’t say that. Because the moment they started acting like it was a given they’d be saved, they’d defeat the point of it. For others, it was a sacrifice. Then all of us, together, stood before all of you, together.”
“It feels different. Quieter. There’s some dialogue. Like this, here.”
Missy shrugged. “I hope so.”
“The capes are mostly here in Gimel and most of the rest of us are on the corner worlds, but it feels better? There’s more dialogue, it feels like you’re all more involved than when we shared the city.”
“Less like we’re tyrants who just happen to be acting nice.”
“Maybe. I never saw you as a tyrant. You were always my little girl.”
“Oh god, mom. Gross. No.”
Missy put her hand to the door, pulling the latch and popping it open.
“Dinner tomorrow night? Gravy pie and cheesecake.”
“I don’t want to promise. I’ll flip a coin to decide if it’s you or dad.”
“If your dad wanted to see you more he could have picked a place to live that was closer.”
Missy climbed out, then bent down a bit. She was short, so it didn’t require much bending. She gave her mom a look. “If you get pissy or angry, mom, I’m not going to come over at all. Your issue with dad isn’t my business.”
“I’m not getting pissy, thank you very much for that word choice, I’m just saying…”
Missy pointed at the gearshift. Slowly, it drooped, until it bent in an upside-down ‘u’.
“…that he should have… oh come on, that’s not fair,” her mom said, grabbing the gearshift and giving it a shake.
“That’ll wear off in ten minutes. Sit and think about what you did.”
“Put it back the way it was, Missy.”
“Thank you for the ride,” Missy said, giving the roof of the car an audible pat.
“You’re a tyrant after all.”
“Ha ha,” Missy said, without much humor. She shut the door, giving her mom a smile as she walked away.
The area wasn’t as badly hit as some of the others. One damaged building covered in red tarp with leftover bits of yellow construction tape from yesteryear holding it in place. The vehicles here were mostly trucks, and the people were mostly law enforcement of varying stripes. Some were vigilantes, some were people from Cheit, others were Patrol.
She checked her phone to find the location, saw the time, and picked up her pace. It was hard to resist using her power to speed things up, or to make room when trucks were making their way down the road. There were no crosswalks, no lights. It was controlled chaos, with trucks simultaneously expected to give way and be on the lookout for pedestrians, and, she imagined, having places to be with strict schedules.
She had the impression that people were handling this different than they had Gold Morning. Gold Morning had been followed with a sentiment of fear and fragility. Of silence, like nobody even wanted to speak of it, in case it disturbed something better left untouched.
The people were motivated. There was a determination there, in the officers, the military personnel. The trucks full of people ready to break down a condemned neighborhood for salvage.
A truck stopped, giving her room to cross, and she gave them a grateful wave before jogging across.
Into a building, through a lobby where benches and tables had officers talking, some over work, others over lunch. Into the back, checking the papers taped to doors with more of that yellow construction tape. Everything on this floor was 1-0-something.
On the second floor, she found door 206, figured out what direction she was walking, and opened the door quietly, to let herself in.
Victoria was up at the front, sitting on a desk.
“…is going to be a sensitive topic. If you’re ever going to broach it with a cape in a moment of crisis, you want to give them the impression they have control of the playing field, while keeping control over the situation.”
She glanced at Missy before turning, hand raising to point the remote at the back screen. Changing the slide.
Victoria was wearing a tank top, her arms exposed, old scars to her arm and hand in plain view. Her jacket was tied around her waist, and her pants were tucked into boots. A Patrol uniform.
“Ask open-ended questions, if you have to ask any at all. Try to shape the questions so there isn’t a yes-no answer. Pause. Use breaks in the conversation to vent pressure, and to give them that feeling of control. Keep the encouragers minimal. That’s your ‘go on’s, or your ‘tell me more’s. If they feel pressed, they’ll shut down.”
“Mirror what they’re doing. If they sit down, sit down with them and try to stay on a level with them, instead of looming above or looking up at them. Listen to what they’re saying and repeat it back to them. Don’t be a robot. Try to pick out the emotions. Don’t judge.”
She put the remote down.
“Again, all of this applies only if they give you an in. If it’s a crisis point, or someone out of control, or they open the dialogue about their past. If you do that, if you take the right steps, then dialogue is possible.”
“Can we ask?” a man in the front row asked. “About yours?”
“Mm,” Victoria paused, seeming to consider. “That’s tricky. At the end of the day, a trigger event is rooted in a whole lot of personal history, and I’m not that comfortable laying my soul that bare.”
The man nodded.
“I guess I could sum it up by saying I was the child of superheroes, I wanted to be a heroine, and I wasn’t. I got injured with half my school and my parents watching, and it drove home how far I was from being that heroine. Momentary blackout, then powers.”
“You got what you wished for.”
“Aha,” Victoria said, her smile wry, her head shaking a little. “There’s always irony. A teammate of mine used to say ‘that would be too easy’ when talking about his powers and situation. There’s always a catch, or a hidden struggle, or a parallel between the power and the moment that the powers came out.”
“Can we use that?” a man in the back row asked. A chubby middle-aged guy.
“The trigger. Psychological weakness. Especially if there’s that connection between the power and the moments the power came out.”
“You’ll want to look up the Sechen ranges,” Victoria said. “Put someone in a mindset close where they were at the trigger event, they get stronger. Don’t push that button unless you want to deal with someone who’s going to be more emotional and more in tune with their powers. As a case in point, even talking about my background helps get me to a point where I can bring out my invisible friend here, sending that forcefield that’s meant to protect me out to do other things. A little shaky, but usable.”
The papers beside Victoria moved, all together, all in a mostly tidy pile. As one mass, they flew through the air, toward the desks. Some people leaned back as papers were put on their desks.
“Trust me, Wade, you don’t want any cape you’ve just pissed off pulling new tricks out of their sleeves. Or, to pull on an example from a new cape the Wardens brought in last week, figuring out they can make you permanently blind, deaf, and paralyzed without needing to touch you first.”
“My approach here is focused on information and compassion. Hero or villain, powered or unpowered, everyone has a reason for doing what they’re doing. Everyone’s going through something. Stay mindful of that, especially when dealing with capes.”
The invisible Victoria finished handing out the papers. One was offered to Missy, who waved it off. She saw a smile on Victoria’s face.
“Those pamphlets I just handed out have some of the more critical slides, talking points, and then secondary research. On the topic of Sechen ranges, I know some of you want references from Captain Gaile and I. I have a list of supplementary topics that includes those ranges. You can go to the library, print out any of the articles from the list. Do a write-up on it with the format I outlined. Show you’re engaging with the work, we’ll oblige.”
Missy watched, listening as there were a few final questions.
“Thank you, everyone. I’m available by email if you have questions, and I’ll be sitting with Gaile during her office hours if you want to ask those questions in person or hear battle stories. If you found this useful in any way, please let Gaile know. I’d love to make this temporary lecture series a permanent thing.”
The men and women in the class began getting out of their seats. Pamphlets jammed into bags, or rolled up and held in hand. There seemed to be a good hum to the murmur of conversation.
Missy walked down the aisle, in the opposite direction of the people departing. At least here, her instinct to use her power wasn’t as bad. It never worked quite as well even when people were close to the area she was working on.
“Look at you. I love the dress,” Victoria said. “You’re usually wearing scrubs.”
Missy looked down, hand going to her stomach. She wore a short dress that was green except where the light caught it, where it became gold. She wore a heavy army coat with it, with a keen awareness of the contrast. She’d also done her eyeliner, and her hair was shaggy with texturing clay, to help differentiate it from her cleaner-cut hero persona.
“I’ll ditch the jacket when we get where we’re going.”
“I need to change too,” Victoria said. “Sorry, I know you want to get going.”
“Nah. They’re all going to take a while,” Missy said. “It’s why I came here, first. We can take our time.”
“I’m not even your first choice? I’m stung.”
“Rachel has dibs, if she wants it, but she’s not taking any roads to get there, and my mom offered to drop me off.”
“It was nice, actually. We had a good chat. Some of the usual, but… good. And your lecture was good! People seemed interested. Nobody was falling asleep.”
“The first part was better. I talked about the dreaming death, and where we’re going after that. The last part was more bullet points I couldn’t stick anywhere else.”
“You’re giving adults homework, though. That can’t go over well.”
“It was captain Gaile’s suggestion. People are bored and we can’t give all the references they want, for some of the positions. Mostly I wanted an excuse to make other people print out the old case files and power testing reports. Defray the costs of getting my office stocked up…”
They were at the edge of the city, where the roads had stopped and the grass resumed. Much of the tall grass had either been cut, to give the ticks less room to maneuver, or they had been pushed close to the ground by the passage of trucks and vehicles. The effect was something of a clearing, bounded in on two sides by buildings, which served to limit the wind. There was an expanse of hilly ground to one side, which Vista had flattened out to improve the view, and sparse trees on the other side.
“I’m shit at this,” Victoria muttered, kneeling by the fire site she’d just finished building. “I’d die a cold death in the wilderness.”
“It’s fine,” Missy said. “I see the others.”
“That’s a relief. Let’s not mention how bad we are at starting fires.”
“It’s a bit damp,” Missy said, looking away from the silhouettes on the horizon and looking up at the sky. The sun was setting, and the red of the sky peeked through the bands of dark grey clouds. “Blame that.”
Missy focused, and folded space, drawing the landscape together. Fold, fold again, fold…
Victoria turned, straightening, and wiping her hands free of little bits of wood. She wore a black dress, knee length. Nothing fancy. The dogs huffed and snorted as they closed the distance, traveling over the folded landscape. Rachel, with Chastity, Cassie, and Rain behind.
“Go, get lost,” Rachel told the trio.
“They don’t have to,” Missy said. “I don’t mind the company.”
“I do. Having too many people around is a pain,” Rachel said. “It’s bad enough back at the camp. I don’t need it here.”
“It’s not a problem,” Chastity said. “We’ll go.”
“See?” Rachel asked.
“Hey, happy birthday!” Cassie butted in. “Oh, you’re wearing my jacket.”
“I gave it to her a while ago,” Rachel said.
“It didn’t fit me anymore, it’s okay. I love that it’s getting used,” Cassie said. She kept talking as Chastity guided her away, stopped and twisted around long enough to grab one of the chains for leading the dogs they’d been riding.
“Catch up with you after,” Rain said, to Victoria.
“We’ll take a hike and circle back in a…”
“An hour?” Missy suggested. “It’d be nice to catch up before everything.”
“Bye! Jacket looks good!”
It was a jumble of good-natured conversation and passing remarks, while Rachel loomed, a slight frown on her face.
The three retreated.
Rachel gave Victoria a look, a perpetual frown on her face, then looked at Missy. “I brought rabbit.”
“Rabbit?” Missy asked. She watched as Rachel pulled the rabbit out of a bag. It was skinned and mostly bloodless, sealed in a plastic bag. “Oh, good, they’re butchered already. That’s considerate. It’d be such a scene if a bunch of the others came and there was blood and furry bits everywhere.”
“That’s a lot of rabbits,” Victoria observed. “Great.”
Rachel looked at the one dog who’d remained, it looked like it might have been Bastard, given its size and symmetry. She whistled, pointing, and the dog walked over to the base of one building before lying down, head on its front paws.
“And I brought beer,” Rachel said. She lifted the cases down from the saddlebag. “I didn’t know what to bring for presents, so I brought lots of food.”
“Awesome,” Victoria said. “We have some marinated chicken already, some beer, and some… not great snacks. They’re salty, at least. Food’s hard to come by.”
“I train the dogs to hunt the rabbits. They’re a plague.”
“Are Rain, Chastity, and Cassie still hanging around?” Victoria asked. “I thought they moved on.”
“They did,” Rachel said, taciturn. She began laying the rabbits out on the metal grate that served as their ‘grill’. The wood for the fire was stacked beneath, and bounded by brick that Victoria had stacked.
“Cassie said they’d rendezvous with Rachel. Rachel was going to drop off some food, some dogs, they’d catch up some on the way over here,” Missy explained.
“Do you miss them?” Victoria asked.
“It’s quieter. But quiet is nice, for a little while,” Rachel said. “Matches? I’m going to start cooking. The ride over made me hungry.”
“We had some in a kit, but they were damp.”
“You’ve got all those pockets in that jacket,” Rachel said, her hand going out to paw at Missy’s jacket, pulling it more firmly into place around Missy. She looked down at her with a look that could be construed as a glare. “Keep some necessities in there.”
“I should. I know.”
Rachel had a lighter, in a pocket with various dog treats. Off to the side, Bastard raised his head as the treats came out.
Missy approached, sitting on her heels by the fire.
“You need to let more air in there.”
Missy expanded the gaps between the wood. Some of the wood was still alive, which limited what she could do.
Rachel gave her a look, then reached over to muss up her hair. “I’m trying to teach you something.”
“No, no, don’t do that. Not the hair.”
“It’s already messy.”
“It’s a careful messy. Please, mercy,” Missy protested. She couldn’t keep her balance while sitting on her heels, and tipped over. She reflexively distorted the space between herself and the ground, but it wasn’t fast enough. Her bare knee touched wet, muddy grass.
Rachel let her be, touching the lighter to the drier tinder.
“You good, Rachel?” Missy asked, quiet. “You’re not too lonely with those three gone?”
“Quiet is nice, I already said. The Heartbroken won’t be grounded for too much longer. Some will come for the summer.”
“That’ll be nice,” Missy said, wiping her knee clean with the edge of her jacket’s sleeve. “I liked swimming up there, up until fifty dogs jumped in and filled it with mud again.”
“You can come again sometime,” Rachel said, her eyes on the growing fire. “When the kids aren’t there. They’re a pain sometimes. Especially yours.”
She’d looked at Victoria as she said it.
“She yaps. Constantly.”
“I didn’t think she was invited back.”
Rachel sighed, heavily, grabbing wood by the points the fire hadn’t reached and rearranging it.
Missy glanced at Victoria, behind Rachel’s back. Victoria at least seemed to sense it wasn’t a good idea to push further. Missy avoided asking for clarification. She’d heard parts of it.
“You can’t separate them.” Rachel’s tone was morose. “I won’t leave her unsupervised.”
“She’ll be ecstatic,” Victoria said.
“She’ll be good, or else.”
“It’ll be good for her. It’s been a rough couple of months,” Victoria said.
Missy stood, got her hands wet from condensation on the beer Victoria had brought, and wiped her knee clean. The warmth from the growing fire was already catching up with her, with the heavy coat she was wearing, and the smoke from that fire was scaring off some of the bugs. She pulled it off. She only had her boots and the short dress on, now.
“Muscles?” Rachel asked.
Missy snorted. She flexed.
“Not bad,” Rachel said. Her tone and expression were flat, but Missy knew she meant what she said.
“I thought you were being patronizing, the first time you asked. Like I was a kid, and you’re talking about how I’ve grown.”
“The only reasons people don’t put on some muscle is if they’re lazy, or if they think being weak makes them more desirable.”
Rachel looked at Victoria as she said it.
Rachel gave her a dismissive grunt. “Eh.”
“It’s good. You’re fine.”
“I do physio every day, though. I lift weights twice a week.”
Rachel shrugged. She prodded a roasting rabbit carcass with a stick to turn it. “Better than average. The scars are cool.”
“High praise,” Missy said, butting in, before something could happen. “I think I see company. A car.
She folded the landscape as the cars approached. Off to the side, Bastard started to rise to his feet, wary. Rachel made a ticking sound with her mouth, and he dropped back down into a resting position. His flesh was loose around the bone.
“The red carpet of Vista!” Dennis proclaimed.
Hannah, Dennis, Christopher, and Byron.
“Missy,” Hannah said. She was in the lead of the group, operating by instincts that were long since set. She hesitated, halfway between handshake and hug. Missy hugged her. Christopher, awkward, put out a hand to shake, realized a hug might be appropriate, and froze. She took his hand in both of hers as she broke the hug with Hannah, and squeezed it.
“C’mere,” Dennis said. He hugged her. “You’re all grown up. You made it, and you didn’t even have to die once along the way.”
“Real funny,” she said, before turning her attention to Byron.
“Hi Rachel,” Hannah said, in the background. “Rabbits, amazing.”
“I’m used to talking to you when you want to yell at me, or I want to yell at you,” Rachel answered.
“No yelling today. I don’t suppose you’ve got vegetables?”
“My guys grew some. I brought them, they should be in that saddlebag I put on the ground there. There’s tinfoil to keep everything together, keep the heat in.”
“You’re an expert.”
The conversation continued, but Missy only had eyes for Byron.
Byron was wearing a casual button up shirt with the top button undone, a kind of almost-denim texture, with black slacks. his hair was chin length, but all swept back.
“I love the dress,” he said. “And the hair. You look stunning.”
“The hair’s a mess, Rachel’s fault, but thanks for trying. You look… perfect.”
“I had no idea how casual to dress when you said there were going to be Undersiders with dogs coming, and Cassie or Rain, who I can’t imagine dressing up, maybe your boss…”
“You’re perfect,” she said. She warped ground to have something to step up onto so she could press her lips to his.
“I think Chastity dressed Rain and Cassie up a bit,” Victoria said.
“I didn’t even notice,” Missy said. “They were here and gone so fast.”
Still standing on the hump of raised ground, Missy turned around, her back to his front, took Byron’s hands, and folded his arms around her shoulders, which had only the straps of her dress covering them now.
“Cold?” Byron asked. “I have trouble telling sometimes.”
“Not cold. But this is nice. All of this is nice. You’re staying over, tonight?”
He pressed his face into her hair, kissing the back of her head, and she could feel the nod.
“Perfect,” she said.
There were others arriving. The Undersiders, it seemed. Tattletale did her own driving. There was also Grue, Imp, Flechette- Foil now, she reminded herself. Lily. Sabah.
Meat sizzled. Rachel was manning the grill, and answered the arrival of new people by throwing more meat on. Hannah handled the vegetables, making small talk with the once-warlord.
“Heyy, here we are!” Imp announced herself. “Clockblocker! Kid Win! Vista! We brought gifts, lavish, overcompensating for the awkwardness of the party crash. And paid for with legitimate money!”
“It’s not awkward,” Missy said. “And thank you.”
“You two look absurdly cute together. It’s enough to make a girl jealous.”
“Okay, enough. Go keep Rachel company and be good.”
“You can tell me to be good, but what I’m good at is being a pain in the ass.”
“Go be a pain in the ass somewhere else. It’s my birthday, I get immunity.”
She watched the others mingle. Tattletale talked to Victoria first, out of everyone. Rachel had Imp at one side of her and Hannah at the other.
Bastard, watching everything, was unsettled as Laserdream arrived. Crystal. Her flight was an unannounced drop from straight above.
“Do you want me to bail?” Byron asked. “I can go hunt down Rain.”
“Don’t you dare.”
“I thought, you know, it’s the Brockton Bay reunion. I’m a bit out of place.”
“There’s a bunch of people who are a bit out of place. Don’t worry about it. It’s my birthday and I want you right here.”
“Okay. Glad to be.”
She rubbed his arm through his sleeve, as he still had his arms wrapped around her. Then she broke the hug, ready to join in, talk to people. She held Byron’s hand, aware of how middle school it might seem, and not caring in the slightest.
“Can I borrow Victoria?” Crystal asked. “Short, serious talk.”
“Crisis?” Hannah asked.
Missy didn’t miss that Crystal paused to think for a second before shaking her head.
“Come back, or I’ll be mad at you,” Missy said.
“Got it,” Victoria said. Crystal nodded.
“I hope it’s not anything bad,” Missy said, as she joined the crowd.
Tattletale, with Victoria gone, didn’t have any immediate conversation partners. Her arms folded, she walked away from the fire as Missy and Byron approached it.
“Nothing bad,” Tattletale murmured.
“You know? I don’t want to pry, but-”
“No. Amy Dallon is gone, for good. I have people keeping tabs on powerful figures like her. In this case, an ex-villain who’s a mole in the community Amy was at.”
“She’s gone, she’s…?”
“Off to a hospital on the other side of the ocean. It’s not a quick trip, either. She won’t be coming back. She didn’t have anything here. Even her goblin was fed up with her.”
“Are you sure? Unless it’s permanent incarceration…”
Tattletale’s voice was quiet. “She’s not coming back because there are people who don’t want to let her. Shin just dealt with their Giant Goddess problem, they wanted assurances from your leadership that they didn’t have to worry about her. I helped secure the guarantee. The Wardens got the cooperation from the hospital and the heroes over there.”
“Did you do that for Victoria?” Byron asked.
Tattletale snorted. “I didn’t take the dreaming death, and I’ve got a deep hole of bad reputation to dig myself out of, as a result. This helps. Too many villains who didn’t take the dreaming death have proven uncooperative for what they’re trying to do, now. The blunt ones like Lord of Loss, who jumped straight back into bad habits. Then the ones like Marquis, who schemed and made a plan before doing stuff. Him, Bitter Pill, Midas. They’re having trouble getting traction, which makes them desperate and dangerous. I can’t get lumped in with them.”
“Victoria will be glad you helped,” Byron said.
“Victoria won’t know because I’m not going to tell her. And… damn it. I told them to arrive later. After we’d had our reunion.”
“Kenzie always arrives early,” Byron said.
“It’s fine,” Missy said. “There’s plenty of time to catch up.”
There were more cars, finding random parking spots around the point where the road ended and the grass began. The kids filed out. Heartbroken. Chicken Little. Lookout.
Someone else, with his head almost shaved at the sides, the hair at the top a deep red.
“If this is a joke-” Byron said, barely audible.
“Nah,” Tattletale said. “But-”
Byron was already breaking the hug, with an apologetic look to Missy. Not that that was in any way warranted. Obviously this took priority.
Byron moved to hug his brother, and as he touched Tristan’s shoulder, Tristan fritzed. The camera and the attached prehensile tentacle with the claw at the end was briefly visible.
Tristan laid a hand- the claw hidden within the projection, on Byron’s shoulder.
“It’s only the start,” Kenzie said, as she caught up, all excitement. She was wearing a nice silver dress with black decoration on it. “Um, people I’ve talked to, they think we can do it. Fume Hood and Dauntless might take longer, but in a month or two we might be able to get something going with a projection, and then we can start looking at bodies. Same with some of the others.”
Byron’s head was bowed. He and Tristan were having a fervent exchange of words, inaudible and intense.
Missy held her hands to her heart, watching it.
“Food, food, food,” some of the other kids said, with excitement.
“Load up on the vegetables,” Tattletale ordered.
“They’re good,” Rachel said. “Cassie’s recipe. Lots of butter, lots of salt.”
The kids still sounded reluctant.
Missy turned away from the exchange between the brothers, leaving them their privacy. For now, dinner, which smelled amazing, and- Imp was holding out a beer. Beer, yes.
The excitement had died down, the kids were running out in the field, with a small-ified Bastard, and Rachel and Imp supervising.
Others had come, arriving later. Missy’s squad of kid Wardens were in attendance, drinking soda and chattering away. Bonding. She’d been offered a variety of posts, and she’d asked for this one.
The Major Malfunctions were here, and Finale was tuning and strumming a guitar, humming. The only light was the fire and the headlights of one car, which some people were sitting around and smoking. Rain, Cassie, and Chastity were sharing a blanket for warmth, while dogs slept at their feet. Natalie was talking to Hannah, who looked a bit aggrieved to be talking about work, but was entertaining the woman.
She felt the buzz of the alcohol and the warmth of Byron next to her. Byron looked more relaxed than he’d seemed in a while.
Victoria, who had a sleeping Sveta next to her, nudged Missy with an elbow. She indicated Withdrawal and Tristan. The eighteen year old Withdrawal had a soda in hand, talking to the projected Tristan with a happiness that was outright painful to look at.
“Reminds me of me,” Vista whispered. “With Dean. Maybe one sided?”
“I kind of thought the same on both counts,” Victoria said. “It’s still sweet. It’s good to see Tristan smiling after everything.”
“I saw Dean, back when I dreamed,” Missy admitted.
“I figured you might. Me too.”
“Nothing happened,” Missy assured Byron, rubbing his hand. “Don’t worry.”
“It was closure,” Missy said. “I got to say goodbye. I got to tell him he was loved, then. I hope it sticks with him, in there.”
“I think it might’ve,” Victoria said. “We might need to delve back into that space. Make sure people are okay, or see if they need a break. Now that things at home are stabilizing. A long term project.”
“I’m glad Dean was okay, at least,” Missy said. “I saw Bastion. I saw Aegis. They seemed okay too.”
“Um, while we’re on the topic,” Victoria said. “Tattletale? Can I pick your brain? We haven’t crossed paths much, and it didn’t seem important enough to bring up when we did. You gave an answer before, but it seemed vague.”
Victoria nodded. “If it’s too heavy a subject…”
“Nah. Not heavy.”
“What was it about? What was the point? The Titans collapsed, they could have kept going, or safeguarded things.”
“There were power considerations, but… mostly they wanted to secure what they had.”
“You said she had an answer?”
“They got what they were looking for. That thing that Scion and his kind have been looking for. A key piece of the puzzle, to solve a fundamental problem in the universe. That things come to an end.”
“What was it?” Victoria asked.
Tattletale shrugged. “Beyond our ken, I imagine. But they took our cue. De-escalating. Standing down. She thinks we’ll let them have it if she doesn’t try to end us.”
“What happens in three hundred years, then?”
“I don’t know,” Tattletale said. “It might be the etching keeps things from tipping over, and they’re counting on their kind stumbling on us in thousands and thousands of years. Or that we might get to a point where we can use it. It might be that things turn disastrous in another three centuries, but we have something to barter with, information to take hostage.”
“So that’s it?” Rain asked.
“I’d like to think that’s it,” Tattletale said.
Rain nodded. He looked bewildered, like the idea that things might not end terribly had only just occurred to him.
“It’d be nice to name the city something appropriate,” Missy said. “Something that helps us keep that in mind.”
“Naming the city,” Victoria said. “I almost forgot. What, though?”
“Could call the city forever,” Sveta murmured, her eyes still closed. “Eternal City. Perpetuity.”
“I kind of like Perpetuity, but that might be the beer talking,” Rain said. “Do you think we could push for it, or something like it?”
“I think it’d be good,” Victoria said, smiling a little, her face lit by the fire in what was near total darkness, otherwise. “A reminder that we press on, no matter what. That there’s always a way forward.”