Daybreak – Interlude 1

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The truck stopped at the gate, producing the occasional sputter and knocking sound as it sat there.  The driver extended a hand out the window, waving for the camera, and the gate opened by way of remotely operated pulley.

It was another minute to the top of the hill, where the truck rolled to a stop in the parking lot, an expanse of gravel without any defined parking spots.  The three people within remained where they were, warily observing the restaurant from a distance.

It was a log cabin writ large, the cedars stripped of their bark and stained with something that made them almost glossy, a warm yellow under the sun.  The third floor was half the size of the other two, allowing the other half of what would have been the third floor to be a rooftop patio instead.  A series of tables was scattered around the building, some close together and others a considerable distance away, as if they were trying to escape into the woods.  Beyond the building was a cliff, and a vast expanse of forests, hills, mountains, and a small lake.

“Nice view,” Moose said, from the backseat.

Linc was settled in the passenger seat, reclining a bit with his seat angled back and his legs folded under him.  With Moose in the back, he’d had to slide his seat as far forward as it could go, and it didn’t leave him much legroom.  “Just think, past that view there isn’t nothing at all.  If you headed straight ahead and kept going, you might not find any habitation until you ended up on the backside of this settlement here.”

“If you headed straight ahead,” the driver said, pausing to take a swig of the bottle of water she’d wedged into her cup holder, making a face at how warm it was, “You’d put yourself into that lake down there.  Or you’d end up in the ocean.  You’d drown either way.”

Linc smirked.

“People would call you an idiot,” she said.  “Why would you go straight ahead like that?  Are you proving a point?”

“I don’t think that’s what Linc was getting at,” Moose said.

“Harper knows what I’m getting at,” Linc said, turning around in his seat to look at Moose as he said it.

Moose was a big guy, with tousled blond hair.  He’d undone some of the straps of his mask and had the mask laying over one muscular shoulder.  The mask was metal, crude, and Moose wore something cloth under it for padding, which he had on now.  He wore a sleeveless undershirt, jeans, boots, and had two gauntlets sitting next to him on the car seat.  Even with the truck being large and Moose lying down across the length of the seat, he barely fit.  He didn’t seem to mind much.

Behind Moose and the truck was the gravel road that led up the hill, the gate checkpoint, and a ways below that, the simple settlement where most visitors would be made to feel unwelcome.  One to two thousand people would be living there at most.

“They built this place and situated it on the very edge of civilization,” Linc said, to round off his earlier thought.

“You two always seemed like the kind of edge of civilization people to me,” Moose asked.

“We do okay,” Linc said.  “Put us in the middle of a city, we do fine, eh babe?”

“Mm,” Harper made a vaguely affirmative sound.  “This a trap, y’think?”

Linc turned his attention to the building at the top of the hill.  “Nah.  Why would you build a nice place like this and use it for a nefarious purpose.”

“Well, y’know, it’s gonna be nefarious.  That’s why we’re here,” she said.  “It’s a question of if it’s a murderous sort of nefarious.”

“That’s a good question, I admit,” Linc said.

“I knew a guy,” Moose said.  “He had a mansion.  Inherited or somethin’.  Super nice.”

“The guy or the house?” Linc asked.

“Hm?”

“The guy was nice or the house was nice?”

“The house.  That’s what I’m gettin’ at.  The guy was as nefarious as they get.  He renovated the insides.  He wanted to make a whole business of holdin’ people that needed holdin’.  For ransom.  Said he’d deal with ’em and clean up the mess if ransoms weren’t paid.  Wanted to be a contractor for disposin’ of people in horrible ways.”

“You’re supposed to just drop them off at the nice, conspicuous mansion, hand over cash?” Harper asked.

“That was it, I think.  He’d make sure they died slow and horrible for you, clean them up, make sure they weren’t found.”

“Definitely not a nice guy then,” Linc said.

“I dare say he wasn’t,” Moose said.

“That’s a terrible idea for a business,” Harper said.

“It kind of is,” Linc said.

“Might’ve been,” Moose said.  “He didn’t seem in it for the money, gotta say.  I highly suspect he was more focused on the part where he would do horrible things to people.  Guy has a nice place, he wants to do creatively bad things to people, and he wanted a bit of pocket money.  Draw lines between each of those things and you end up with something shaped like his game plan there.”

“A triangle?” Linc asked, looking back at Moose.  At Moose’s shrug, he elaborated, “If you draw straight lines between three things, you get a triangle.”

“Maybe the lines weren’t straight,” Moose said.  “But if you’re wondering if this is a trap, I don’t think it being fancy is ruling anythin’ out.”

“It’s a log building, Moose.  Nothing that fancy.”

“Fancy to me.”

Harper leaned forward against the steering wheel, to get closer to the windshield, squinting against the sun.

“What do you think, babe?” Linc asked.  “Is it a murderous nefarious or a prosperous nefarious.”

“It’s something,” she said.  “The people on the roof are in costume and some of them are looking at us.  I think we better get ourselves inside or they’re going to start laughing at us.”

“They’re going to laugh whatever happens,” Linc said.  “Your truck has seen better days-”

“Don’t go talking about my truck, Linc.”

“And we’ve got Moose with us, no offense Moose.”

“Some offense taken, thank you very much,” Moose said, indignant.

“You call yourself Moose.  People are going to laugh.  That’s when you show your merits and make them stop laughing, is the way it works.”

“People shouldn’t laugh in the first place,” Moose said.  “The Moose is a terrifying and noble creature.  If you wouldn’t fuck with a rhino, you shouldn’t fuck with a moose.  It’s one of the only proper prehistoric, giant animal species to have the grit to last to today.”

Harper turned off the truck.  The truck sputtered, coughed, and died abruptly, in a way that suggested it wouldn’t revive again.

“I know, bud,” Linc said, taking his eye off the truck’s much-abused, dust-caked dash.  “I know that much, I’ve seen one up close.  I’ve seen one run through snow that a normal person couldn’t walk in and hit a car hard enough to roll it.  I have a healthy respect.”

“Damn right,” Moose said.

Harper gave Linc a look, pulling her full mask on and flipping up her hood.

“But they don’t all know it,” Linc said.  “You gotta work with that.  You picked a jokey name, you gotta put up with the jokes.”

“Hope was they’d be laughing with, not laughing at,” Moose said.  “At least I’d hope you weren’t the ones poking fun at me.  It’s unkind, Linc.”

Harper climbed out of the truck.

“I’m not laughing at, bud.  I’m just saying they might be.  That’s all,” Linc said.  He pulled his mask on, fixed his hair and beard with few sweeps of his hand, and climbed out, then hit the lever to flip his seat forward and give Moose room to squeeze out.

Moose kept the cloth mask on over his upper face,  leaving the metal mask on his shoulder.  He stretched, his joints popping audibly, and pulled his fur-lined gauntlets on.

“You’re going to have to take those off again if we end up eating,” Linc said.

“It’s about presentation,” Moose said.  “Besides, the name doesn’t make sense if I don’t got ’em.”

Harper was in costume, though the costume part was mostly a hooded, sleeveless top in her namesake velvet color, lopsided in how it trailed down over one leg in a robe-like aesthetic.  She wore skintight shorts underneath.  A black mask covered her upper face, and had truncated, forking horns that poked out through the top of the hood and kept the hood from falling back.

Linc wore a mask like Velvet’s, but his traced the area around his eye sockets and eyebrows, with the edges tracing back and into his hair, forking as they did.  He wore a bodysuit for the upper body and pants.  His costume had always been meant to be layered, but the heat had forced him to strip down to the base layer, with the pants only because he felt like a clown if he wore only the skintight stuff.

People leaning against and over the railing on the roof watched them as they approached the door.

“This place is a hell of a lot better than the last couple we visited,” Prancer remarked.

“More expensive too,” Velvet said.  She was looking at the blackboard posted by the door, with prices.  “Twenty dollars for a chicken sandwich?”

“Come on,” Prancer said, pushing the door open.

The inside was expansive, with the kitchen as an island in the middle, counters and surrounding it, booths around the edges of the room, and tables in the space in between.  There were only eleven non-staff people within, but the ground floor could have seated a hundred or more.

Prancer approached the kitchen island.  He spoke to a black, twenty-something woman in a tan polo shirt and apron, “Who do I talk to for the rules?”

She jerked a thumb over her shoulder, indicating an elderly black man who was wiping out a glass.  The man was watching, squinting with one eye, as he carried out the routine motion of cleaning the glass.

“He’s in charge?” Prancer asked.

The employee gave Prancer a single nod.

“What can I do for you?” the man asked, as the three approached.

“We’ve been around the block a couple of times, I’m just looking for a primer on customs, and any special rules.”

“Payment up front for what you’re ordering, have the money ready when you order if it’s busy.  Don’t cause trouble, don’t draw weapons, don’t be loud, give us a heads up and use the side door or the patio if your power is going to bother anyone.  Upstairs is the bar, you don’t go upstairs unless you’re invited or you already know you qualify to go upstairs.”

“What kind of qualification?” Velvet asked.

“If you have to ask, you don’t have it,” the old man said.  He put the glass down and picked up another.  “Roof is for more private meetings than you’d have on the second floor.  Don’t go taking yourself up there if you wouldn’t be allowed on the second floor.”

“Noted,” Prancer said.  “Anyone to avoid, watch out for, anything like that?”

“That’s more for you to watch out for than for me to bother with.  If they’re causing a problem or being a bother to others, they’ll get kicked out.  If you help with the kicking out, I’ll give you something on the house.”

“Right,” Prancer said.  “Got it.”

“Do you serve drinks down here?” Moose asked.

“We do.  Anything fancier than beer or wine, we’ll have to send someone upstairs to fetch it.”

“Could I grab a mightyman?” Moose asked.  He pulled off a gauntlet and retrieved a wallet from his pocket.  He held out a twenty.  “Long, hot drive.”

“Name?” the old man asked, gesturing at an employee.  The employee set to getting the beer.  The old man pulled a pad and pen out of his apron.

“Name?  Uh, M.K.,” Moose said.

“No initials,” the man said.

“Just Moose then,” Moose said, sliding the twenty across the bar.  “We can order food at the tables?”

“You can,” the old man said.  He picked up the money, then pulled out a fiver from the pocket of his apron and passed it back to Moose.  He looked at the others.  “Names?”

“Prancer.  She’s Velvet.”

“Do I need to worry about you?”

“Nah.  We’re pretty tame.  We’re here to make contacts and get our names out there for the small stuff.”

“If you do any business, be discreet enough I and my staff don’t see it.  If you use powers, don’t bother the person next to you.”

“Got it.  Can I grab a beer?  What my buddy Moose is having,” Prancer handed over the bills.

“Me too,” Velvet said.

Prancer withdrew a larger bill from his wallet, and set it on the counter, sliding it toward the old man.  “Gratuity?”

“No need,” the old man said.  “Service fees and peace of mind are worked into the food prices.  Order something, if you want to thank me.”

Beers in hand, they briefly considered sitting at the counter before Moose took a seat at one of the tables.

“Where you sit is important,” Prancer said.  “Booth, you’re minding your own business, you’ve got walls around you.  Sitting at the counter, you’re open to people approaching you and joining you, I think.  Not entirely sure how it works here in particular.”

“I hear you,” Moose said, “But I was sittin’ funny the entire drive here, and if I sit on one of those stools then I’m going to have my back spasming the entire way back.  I need a sturdy chair, here.”

“Sure, doesn’t matter that much,” Prancer said.  He twisted around in his seat, one hand on his beer, taking a look at the others who were present.  “Pretty laid back here.”

“Could be a quieter time of the day,” Velvet said.

“Out of the way place, too,” Prancer said.  “You heard what he said about using powers?  How many places have we been to, and how many allowed use of powers at all?”

“Ten.  Ten places,” Velvet said, hunkering down over her beer.  “This is the only one, I think.  Might have been a rule in The Well, but that was more the kind of place where you don’t know the rules until someone’s punching your face in for violating them.”

Prancer watched as a faint speck of dust traveled across his vision, pink-tinted.  He smiled.

Four teenagers in the corner booth.  They wore dark clothes with symbols and designs spray painted on and bleached into the fabric.  One with a bandanna on his head looked their way, and Prancer flashed the guy a smile.

Three in another booth, against a wall.  Tinkers.  There was a cloth strewn out over the table, and parts were laid out.  They ranged from twists of metal to a glass tube housing something that looked like a large, chewed wad of gum.  The wad was throwing itself against the sides of its glass cage.

He wondered how that worked with the ‘no business’ rule.  Were they only talking shop?  Where was the line drawn?

Sitting alone in one booth was a woman with a mask covering her lower face, long black hair, and a long red dress with a slit down one side, exposing a tantalizing bit of leg.  She wore an intricate framework of metal at her arms and hands, a series of bands at the elbow, wrist, knuckles, and rings at the finger, with thin rods of steel extending between each, along the back of each finger, and stopping at each finger and thumbtip.  Each tip was enveloped by an ornate claw.

Her heels were much the same, Prancer noted.  Heels were unusual for someone in costume, and hers were more unusual still.   She wore something similar to her gloves, with the same bands at her leg, ankle, and foot, with the thin metal bars extending between each.  Her toes were covered with the same metal claws, there was a strap of metal below the balls of her feet, and at her heel, one large claw-point served as the ‘heel’ of her heel, stabbing straight down.

When she moved one leg to fold one knee over the other, the claw tips moved on their own, twitching, recalibrating, the heel shifting back to stay pointed at the ground, flick back and away, then flick down.

She undid one side of her mask so it swung toward Prancer, still blocking his view of her mouth, helped by the draping of long hair, and she leaned down, taking a bite of her wrap.  She put one hand to the loose end of her mask while she chewed, and fastened the end as she swallowed.

She saw him looking, turning her head his way.  He smiled at her.

She only stared.

“Someone’s coming,” Moose said.

One of the spray painted kids.  The guy Prancer had smiled at.

“You’re new.”

“Prancer, Velvet, M.K.,” Prancer introduced the group.

“Where are you from?”

“Alaska, believe it or not.”

“Long way,” the teenager said.

“Especially when you’re driving it,” Prancer said.  “Who are you guys?”

“The group’s Ripcord.  I’m Gorgos.  We raid stores and resell, mostly.  We’re nobodies.  It’s the B-listers and small fry down here.  The people with name recognition go upstairs.”

“Meaning the people we want to do business with are upstairs,” Velvet said, still leaning heavily over her beer.

“It’s fine,” Prancer said.  “We’ll work it out.”

“What do you guys do?”

“We wheel and deal,” Prancer said.

“Prancer likes to be clever, but he doesn’t get that sometimes you have to explain why it’s clever, otherwise you only confuse people,” Velvet said.

“It’s why I have you, babe.”

“The wheel part is getaway driving and transporting,” she explained.

The kid leaned forward.  The decoration on his outfit looked like the sort done with a stencil and a spray bottle filled with bleach, strategically bleaching fabric.  Snakes and a woman’s face as a recurring motif.  He had a bandanna over the top of his head and one over his nose and mouth.  “What do you deal?”

“Grass, mostly,” Prancer said.

“You actually have some?”

“Not here, but we have it.  Brand new and in high demand, given the times,” Prancer said.

“Are you looking for resellers?”

“For the right price.  Mostly we’re looking for new friends, and we’re trying to get the lay of the land before we do anything too enterprising.”

“Can I get back to you?” the guy asked.

“You’re welcome to,” Prancer said.  “We wouldn’t mind company either, if you guys wanted to join us.”

“I’d have to get back to you on that too,” the guy said.  “We’re trying to find our way these days.  We agreed in the beginning we wouldn’t have one leader, and that was great then, but right now we’ve got two different leadership styles butting heads.”

Prancer looked over at the table, where those seated were having a very fierce, hushed discussion.

“If you want to just sit and trade stories, we’d be happy to have you,” Prancer said.  “Get away from all that, maybe come away with some fresh perspective.”

“I might take you up on that.  For now I’d better get back and make sure nobody reaches across the table to strangle someone.”

“Question before you go,” Moose said.  “Is it always this quiet?”

“It’s about to get noisier,” Gorgos said.  “Keep an eye on the guy at the end of the kitchen there.  He communicates with people in town.  He was talking to the boss about something and the boss put another cook on the stove.  Wait ten minutes and I bet he’ll hit the button to open the gate.  If he holds it down it’s a lot of people.  My guess is the ferry from NYC hit the shore near the G-N portal twenty minutes ago.”

“Good to know, thanks,” Prancer said.

Gorgos jogged back to his team.

“You’re dwellin’ a lot on going upstairs,” Moose observed.

“Reminds me of being a kid and being told I had to stay downstairs with my cousins and their friends during the holidays.  My cousins were assholes,” Velvet said.  “One good thing about Gold Morning is it took them out of the picture.”

Moose whistled.

“She’s wearing the purple cloak, that’s a sign of royalty, don’t you know?” Prancer plucked at Velvet’s hood.  Velvet batted his hand away.  “And royalty doesn’t not go upstairs.  Royalty doesn’t show mercy.”

“Y’know I went to prison because of you, Prance,” she said, quiet.

“Well, yeah.  I will point out we survived Gold Morning because we weren’t home when Alaska got hit.”

“I went to prison for you,” she said, again.  “That counts for a lot.”

“‘Course.  How does that connect, though?”

“Just sayin’,” she said, her accent thicker as her voice became softer.  “You said things would be different.”

“They will,” he said.  He put a hand around her shoulders and pulled her closer, then kissed the top of her head.  “We’ve got a decent crop, a lot of demand.  We’ll do okay.  We’ll make inroads.”

“I’m optimistic,” Moose said.

“I’m not unoptimistic,” Velvet said.

“You’re not enthused either, doesn’t sound like,” Moose said.

“Just sorta hoping for more, sooner,” she said.

“Yeah,” he said.  There wasn’t much more to say.

Velvet reached out, and the menu flew from the tabletop to her hand.  It was tinted red and dusty, but much of their table and glasses were, now.

Prancer took stock of the other three capes in the room before the newest batch of arrivals reached the front door.

There was one, who might have been a bouncer, who had stepped out the side door momentarily and was now taking a seat by that same door.  He wore a mask of metal bars that looked like they’d been welded to one another, all vertical, but he also wore a black apron.

That left only the couple at the bar.  Matching costumes, white armor with jet black iconography, multiple circles and crescents in various patterns, with the armor sprayed black around each icon, so it looked like the darkness glowed.  The man wore full armor, the woman wore only scattered pieces of armor, with white chainmail to cover the rest of her.

They drank white wine, in the middle of the afternoon.

Capes were strange people, Prancer mused.

“I want to be the kind of person who earns her way upstairs,” Velvet said.  Her head still rested against his shoulder, where he’d pulled her close.

“That’s really stuck in you, huh?”

“It’s stuck,” she said.  Without moving her head, she raised the beer to her lips and took a careful sip.

“You might have to lose the beater of a truck, babe, if you want to dress the part.”

“Don’t go talkin’ about my truck, Prance.”

“Every time you turn it off, it sounds like it’s off for good.  I say a little prayer to myself that it will be, even knowing it’s a long, long walk back to home.  Then I can take the money I’ve got saved up and buy you something nice.  All the bells and whistles.”

“When I got out of prison, I only had two things, babe.  That truck, and you.  I wasn’t feeling especially fond of you at the time, either.  It’s the only thing I’ve had for myself since I was old enough to have anything, that I’ve been able to keep.”

“Counts for somethin’, that,” Moose said.

“It does,” Velvet said, frowning down at her beer.

Prancer frowned at Moose, who only shrugged.  Guy wasn’t making it any easier.

“What if we overhauled the outside, got someone to give the engine a real solid lookin’-at?” Prancer asked.

“So long as it stays my truck.  I don’t want you ship-of-Theseusing it.”

Prancer resisted swearing under his breath.  So that tactic wouldn’t work.

There was more of the pink dust in the air, now.  He gave Velvet a kiss on top of the head, then shrugged slightly.  She moved her head off of his shoulder, sitting upright.

“Things will be better,” he said.

She reached for his hand and squeezed it.  “I’m going to go find the ladies’ room.  Order food before things get hairy.  I’ll have the chicken caesar sandwich and grab a few bottled waters while you’re at it.  For the drive back.”

“You know the markup on those will be insane,” Prancer said.

“Just get me my water,” she said.

She walked away.  Prancer watched her walk away, feeling wistful.

He signaled the waitress.  He made sure to give Velvet’s order while he remembered it, and then gave his own.  Moose put in enough of an order for two people.

When they were alone again, Moose commented, “Sorry, for interjectin’.”

“Interjecting?”

“When you were talking about the truck, and about prison.”

“Ah.  Yep.  Apology accepted.”

“Hard to be the third wheel sometimes.  Especially when things get complicated, relationship-wise.”

“Can’t speak about the third-wheeling.  That’s for you to figure out.  But for the relationship part, it’s the simplest thing in the world, Moose,” Prancer said.  “She’s my girlfriend, I’m her boyfriend.  Sometimes you and she enjoy each other’s company, sometimes I enjoy someone else’s company, but that doesn’t change that it’s me and it’s her as the boyfriend and girlfriend.”

His voice had become progressively more stern as he’d talked.  He paused, meeting Moose’s eyes.

“Makes sense,” Moose said.  Prancer smiled.

“Doesn’t seem like you’ve had anyone but her keeping you company, gotta say,” Moose said.

Prancer looked at the woman with the mask on her lower face and the claw-heels.  “Trying to be better.”

“Good for you,” Moose said, before taking a drink of his beer.

“I’m going to marry that Velvet sometime soon,” Prancer said.  “I’ve just got to make amends for old wrongs first.  Can’t ask her to marry me when the last momentous event in our lives was me being a screwup.”

“The prison thing?”

“Everything before, too.  Trying to be better.”

“I don’t want to step on any toes or get into anythin’ too sensitive here,” Moose said.  “But can I ask?  Would be easier to not step on toes if I can ask.”

“It’s the whole thing.  Get powers as a kid, sixteen years old, make friends with the right people, start dealing.  It’s an elevation in status, y’know?  I was the guy who the cool kids in high school went to for product.  Had money, had girls throwing themselves at me, I was invited to all the parties, and I meet Velvet there.  One of many girls in one of many cities.  But she gets powers and comes back to me, wants in, wants out of her house, especially.  I oblige, and she doesn’t make me regret it.”

Moose nodded.

“Years pass, we find our fit.  She’s got more financial sense, I’ve got the salesmanship.  Most capes, there’s going to be conflict.  She’s got her thing, you know how her power works.  She hangs around somewhere, and this dust collects, and she can telekinetically control stuff, more dust there is on it.  It’s how she gets that fucking truck going again, when it refuses to move.  She makes us sit there for five minutes and then gives it another try, and it works, and she’ll fiddle with it later and get it tuned up just enough it starts going.”

“She must care an awful lot about it,” Moose observed.

“She does.  But that’s her whole psychology.  She wants to settle in, wants to have a place she can call hers, whether it’s that truck cab or, I don’t know, going upstairs.  I get restless.  The mover thing.  That causes friction.  But we work despite it.  We’re as soulmate as you can get when you’ve got… whatever these things are giving us our powers.  Parasites.  You had the visions when we were on the battlefield, that day.”

“Sure,” Moose said.

“As yin-yang soulmate as you can get with these things screwing up the fit,” Prancer said.  “But we got comfortable.  I graduate school, barely, she graduates a year after me, we keep up the routine.  Some wheeling, mostly dealing.  The parties every weekend, tooth and nail fights because we’re both the type to flirt with others, before we realized we were fine just not worrying about it.  Couple more years pass, I’m twenty-one, she’s twenty, still in the routine.”

“A rut?” Moose asked.

“Just the way things were.  Somewhere along the line, you know, I’m twenty-seven, she’s twenty-six, and I’m still boning boys and girls from high school.  Still partying.”

Moose’s eyes had widened.

“Legal, mind you,” Prancer said.  “But… sketchy, in retrospect.”

“More than a little, no offense,” Moose said.

“None taken.  I deserve it.  I didn’t realize until they came after us.  Capes, police.  You get into a groove and you don’t think about things and somehow a decade gets away from you.  You’re not the cool guy people are excited to get to know.  You’re the guy they’re into because they have to be if they want a discount, or if they want someone accessible that’s older.  Sad.  Pathetic.  Slapped me in the face while people were talking to and about me in court.  Forced me to take a long, hard look at who I was and who I wanted to be.”

“That’s good,” Moose said.

A young woman entered the restaurant.  Prancer almost thought it was the first of the influx, but she was alone.  She was an older teenager or twenty-something, with long white hair, wearing a black dress and black makeup, and she took a seat alone at the table.  She rummaged in a bag to find a book.

The waitress approached her, kettle already in hand.  The money was passed across the table, and the tea was poured.  A regular.

Her mask was so simple it might as well have not been there.  Curious, too, that she’d come this far to read a book.  Maybe someone would be joining her.

Prancer watched the new arrival, but he kept talking, “She told me, over and over again, I needed to be better.  That she wanted better.  That we needed to be careful.  I didn’t listen.  We got out of prison, she took me back, and I owe her for that.”

“If your critical flaw was not listening, might be you’ve gotta listen when she’s saying she loves that vehicle out there.”

Prancer nodded slowly.  Then he let his head loll back, and he groaned.  “I’ve put up with that thing for so many damn years.”

Velvet’s glass of beer slid across the table, and Prancer caught it just before it could reach the edge of the table and tip into his lap.

“You’re talking about my truck?” Velvet asked, making her way back from the restroom.

“Moose is telling me to let it go,” Prancer said.  “I’m trying to come to terms with the idea.”

“You’re a good boy, Moose,” Velvet said, taking her seat.  The glass pulled out of Prancer’s hands, sliding across the table to slap into Velvet’s hand.

“Appreciate that, Velvet.”

“Did you order or did you forget?” she asked.

“Remembered,” Prancer said.  “It’s coming soon.”

The front door opened.

A large collection of capes entered and immediately headed off to find their booths and tables.  One of the new arrivals stepped inside and loitered by the door.  She was a woman with a slender figure and a bag over her head, for lack of a better description.  The bag was cloth, with a pink animal pattern on it.  The rest of her form-fitting outfit matched, including the shawl she wore.

Prancer leaned in the direction of the door, putting his mouth near Velvet’s ear.  “I see Nursery.  I wonder if Blindside is around.”

“I hope the kid’s okay,” Velvet said.  She looked at Moose.  “Were you there when we talked to ’em?”

“I was.”

“They were up to something.”

“I remember.”

A man in armor was one of the last to arrive.  The armor was white, and looked like it was fashioned of strips, woven and wound around him, the ends left frayed and sticking out to the sides and behind him.  There was no face to it.  Only a Y-shaped set of ridges.  He stood between Nursery, a man in a black outfit and heavy hood, and a heavyset man with long hair, a dense beard, and a mechanical arm that extended to the ground.

At his arrival, people across the room started applauding, from Ripcord to the people at the counter, to the white haired girl and the woman with the mask.  Even the kitchen staff.  The man in armor laughed, the sound mingling with the general applause.

Moose joined in, and Velvet and Prancer offered their own light, confused applause.

“Thank you.  Thank you.  Is Marquis here?” the man in armor asked.

The old man at the kitchen pointed skyward.  “Roof.”

The man in armor saluted, then ducked back through the door.

Velvet raised her hand to get Nursery’s attention.  The woman’s group was already splitting up.  The man in black joined the people in white armor.  The bearded man with the mechanical arm walked over to the woman with the claws, sitting in her booth.

Nursery approached the table.

“Good to see you,” Prancer said.

“I didn’t think I would see you three all the way out here,” Nursery said.

“We’re trying to see who’s out there.  The other places have been a little seedy.”

“They are.  Seedy can be fun, though,” Nursery said.  “Reminds me of the old days.”

“You keep updating your costume,” Velvet said.

“Silly thing, isn’t it?  It’s easier to make a new one than to wash the blood and slime out.  I feel ridiculous.”

“What was happening with the applause?” Prancer asked.

“Mission success,” Nursery said.  “In a roundabout, unexpected way, but that’s often how these things go.”

“Congratulations,” Moose said.

“Thank you, Moose.  It was a thing.  We took a week to figure out what we were doing, we had to check with a few people, a number of thinkers, make sure we weren’t stepping on toes.  The peace being what it is, we didn’t want to cause too much trouble.”

“Was it a big mission?” Prancer asked.

“Big,” Nursery said.  “Plenty of room for things to go very wrong, with some bad repercussions that could be felt by everyone.”

Prancer’s eyebrows went up.

“But we were careful, we had the right people-”

“You included among those people,” Velvet said.

“Yes,” Nursery said, clasping her hands together.

“What was the job?” Prancer asked.

“To kidnap someone, and have her disappear for long enough that people would get upset about it.”

“Huh,” Prancer said.

“They’re anxious out there.  They feel powerless.  The idea was to pick someone controversial, and take them out of the picture.  Make them the topic of debate.  Is vigilante justice right or wrong?  In this case, where the wrong isn’t so terribly wrong?  Well, that was their idea.  I do think she did something horrible.  It’s why I agreed to the job.”

“What was that?”

“Hurt a woman and made her miscarry.  They say it was a mistake.”

“I can see where that hits close to home.”

“Sorry to hear,” Moose said.

“Thank you.  You’re kind.  The plan was to provoke the debate and raise the issue before things reached a more critical point.  Venting off the steam before things exploded.  The debate seems to be trending that way.”

“Sounds like it needed a fine hand,” Velvet said.  “That’s some good work.”

“I didn’t do it alone,” Nursery said.

“Your first time working with the others?”

“It was.  Lord of Loss is sweet, good at what he does.”

“He went straight to the roof, I’m guessing that means he isn’t the type to work with B-listers like us.”

“No, I suppose not.  He doesn’t like being indoors.  You’re recruiting?  That’s what you’re asking after?”

“Or looking for a spot of work,” Prancer said.

“Snag, sitting over there, is looking to hire people for a project down the road.  He wants to do test runs first, make sure he succeeds on the first try.  Those two hired the same information broker we worked with for that job.”

“You had an information broker?”

“She was ops too.  Talked to us on the earpieces.  A little shaky on some things, surprisingly quick on others.  But I think you run into that with any thinker.”

Prancer nodded.

“Snag is a few months new, a rookie, with a rookie’s mindset, but he has good instincts.  If I can say this in confidence…”

“Of course,” Velvet said.

“…I wouldn’t want to be on a team with him long-term,” Nursery said.  “He’s mean.  Unkind, impatient.  Emotional.  You get that with a lot of the new ones.  Too close to whatever set them off.”

Prancer nodded slowly.  “Old ones have their own problems.  Ruts and routines.”

“They do.  Um, I should hurry.  Blindside has a mouth but I do like them.  They do a decent job, if you can work around the limitations.  They’re outside now, sitting on the patio by the side door.  Can’t come inside without turning a few heads.”

Prancer smiled at the bad joke.

“Kingdom Come likes his bible verses, I earned some considerable brownie points by knowing the names and numbers to go with most of them.  Benefit of bible school until I was eighteen.  He’s a consummate professional.  Very gentle, very efficient.”

“Expensive?” Velvet asked.

“Not too bad, I don’t think.  I don’t know what he was paid, but if it’s close to my own wage, it shouldn’t be horrendous.  He’s very selective about the jobs he’ll accept.”

“What about you?” Prancer asked.

“Me?  I’m boring.  I’m not even a parahuman, not really.”

“Wait, what?” Moose asked.

“I’m not,” Nursery said.  She had a light tone of voice, like she was smiling from the other side of the cloth mask.  “It’s why I feel so out of place in costume.”

Prancer watched as others came through the door.  He recognized Biter but failed to get Biter’s attention with a wave.

“How does that work?” Moose asked.

“Show him the bump,” Velvet said, smiling.

“The bump?” Moose asked.  “Oh.”

Prancer glanced over at Nursery, who was holding her cloth costume tighter against her stomach, showing her slightly protruding belly.

“They’re the parahuman,” Nursery said.  “I’m the ride.”

“Oh,” Moose said.  “Oh wow.  Sorry.”

“No need to be sorry.  It’s a bond unlike any other,” Nursery said.  She gave Moose a pat on the cheek.  “It’s hard sometimes, but I owe it to them.  Making up for mistakes I’ve made.”

“Yeah,” Prancer said, staring at his beer.  He looked from his glass to Nursery.  “Don’t be too hard on yourself, hm?”

“I’ll try,” she said.  “I should go.  Take care and wish me luck.”

“Good luck,” Moose said.  He still looked shell-shocked.

“What’s next?” Velvet asked, smiling.

“What we did yesterday is only one instance.  They’ll have to do it again when the pressure builds.  Sooner or later, however many thinkers they work with, however good the people they hire, there will be a mistake.  Something will happen, it could be too much, too little, and then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.”

“Heavy,” Prancer said.

“But I’ve stayed too long.  My baby and I earned ourselves an invite upstairs, because they might hire me again, and because we showed our stuff, I don’t want the offer to expire,” Nursery said, excited.  “We can’t drink at the bar, but it’s still a chance to meet some of the people running the corner worlds, the major players.  A huge opportunity.”

“That’s amazing,” Moose said, looking down at the bump.  “Congratulations.  Both of you.”

“You’re so sweet.  I should go, excuse me,” Nursery said, leaving.

“We’ll talk again,” Prancer said.

Velvet raised a hand, her smile frozen on her face.  Prancer reached over to squeeze her thigh.

“I think I hate her now,” Velvet said.

He gave her leg another squeeze.

His thoughts turned over as he watched the people enter.  Some headed upstairs.  Ones with nice costumes, scary ones.  He recognized quite a few.

There were also the others.  The B-listers, the dregs, the people who weren’t yet established, filling up the ground floor, ordering their food and drinks.

“Hey Moose,” he said.

Moose stared off into space, in the direction of the stairs.

“Moose,” Velvet said.  “I’m pretty sure she’s a loon.  I wouldn’t worry too much about it.”

“Moose,” Prancer tried again.

Moose frowned, glancing back at the stairs.  “Yeah?”

“Look at the room.  Tell me, who do you know here?”

“Some of the big guys.  Biter, you and I had drinks with him.  Etna, Crested, Beast of Burden, Bitter Pill, Nailbiter, Hookline, Kitchen Sink.”

“Do me a favor?”

“Sure.”

“Round ’em up.  Anyone you get along with, who you think wouldn’t cause a fuss.”

“What are you doing?”

“Still figuring it out,” Prancer said.  “You recognize anyone?”

“Few people.  You want me to gather ’em?”

“Please.  We might have to take it outside.  Actually, let’s definitely take it outside.  By the side door.  So the owner doesn’t complain.”

“You’ve piqued my interest,” Velvet said.

Prancer nodded, still lost in thought.  He watched as she walked away, pausing to feel a moment of fondness for her, and then resumed his thinking.  He made his way to the side door.

“Hey,” Blindside said.

“Hey.  Gathering some people.  Thought we’d come to you, invite you to hear me out.”

“Thanks, Prancer.  What’s this about?”

“Give me a second to think.  I’m a salesman, and I’ve got to figure out exactly what I’m pitching.”

“Sure.”

Prancer stuck his fist out, stopped where Blindside’s power made it stop.  He felt Blindside tap a fist against the side of his hand.

The others assembled.  The people who had been invited, then the people who hadn’t, who were curious.

“I want to organize,” he started.  “I’m not the person to lead it, don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a power play.  I’m not a power player.  But I think, right now, while we’re still at peace, while there aren’t so many people who have beefs with one another, or the beefs have had two years to go quiet, this would be the chance to do it.”

“You wouldn’t be the first person to think about doing this,” Biter said.

“No?”

“No, some other groups, some small, some large.  They’re banding together, a mutual peace.  Forming a set of rules and expectations that aren’t unwritten, that we actually discuss and work out.”

“With the little guys?” Prancer asked.  “B-listers?  Those of us who aren’t being focused on while the big guys are laying out tracts of territory and settlements?”

“Some of them.  Those groups are smaller than you’d be talking, if you’re talking about everyone here.”

Prancer nodded.

He glanced at Velvet, and he saw the way she was looking at him, and he felt like a proper man for the first time.  She reached for his hand and squeezed it, hard.

Then, more alive and excited than he’d seen her in a long, long time, Velvet spoke, “You think they’d be open to talking?”

“I think they might,” Biter said.

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Daybreak – 1.8

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Daylight streamed in at a low angle as I stepped back into my office.  The light was blurred as it came through the condensation on the window, spotted with dots of darkness due to the melted frost that still clung to the window’s surface in lines and constellations of droplets.  Ninety percent of my books were packed up, the boxes that were still here were stacked near the door and the bookshelf, labeled in thick marker, with shorthand notes on the most interesting and essential files within written on the boxes in pen.  I’d left a few of the more interesting files available.  I’d put them in a box on their own, in case I needed something to read.

My phone was plugged into the computer.  I checked it, and made a small and sleepy pump of my fist as it lit up.  Then I saw the red number on the digital-display dial, and let my hand drop.  Missed messages: too many.

It wasn’t that I cared that much about the phone.  It was that the phone being on meant there was power again.  That the power was on again meant I could turn the space heater on.  I flicked the switch, turned on my computer, then lit the candles for what little good heat they offered and wrapped a blanket around me before settling in my computer chair.

I was freshly showered, towel around my hair, and I’d gotten dressed in a slightly musty spare change of clothes.  I had a blanket, candles, and a computer booting up.  I watched as it started the struggle of fighting every other computer out there that was wanting a piece of the web.

There were worse ways to take things easy on myself.

I slid my to-do list across the desk until it was beside my keyboard.  I’d need a car.  Plenty of people were willing to offer the use of theirs in order to pay for fuel.  Food, a place to stay.

Living accommodations might be tricky.  Demand was high, and it was a pretty steep drop in quality from the central areas and the fringes.  Many companies were putting up five or more houses a day or an apartment complex over the course of a week, slapping them together like there was a gun to their heads.  When it came time to find renters, they were more interested in filling the spaces fast.  They had no reason to answer questions or have a potential buyer investigating the nooks and crannies or checking the plumbing if they could turn that person away and have someone else on their doorstep within minutes.

It was a minefield.  Word of mouth, cash, contacts, or luck were required to get a proper house that wouldn’t start falling apart after the fact.  Fume Hood was one of the ones who’d been unlucky.

In more than one way.

My homepage was parahumans online, though.  On top of the missed calls and messages on my phone, I had a slew on the site.

♦  Unread Private Messages from NW_Brandish (2)
♦  Unread Private Messages from Glitzglam (8)

I deleted the messages from my mother.

I opened the second link.

♦  Private Messages from Glitzglam:

Point_Me_@_The_Sky: Staying the night at work.  Don’t fuss about me.  Tell the Dallon parental units if you think it’s necessary to keep them from going on warpath.  I want to be left alone for now

Glitzglam *New Message*: i can field them
Glitzglam *New Message*: I’m *so* sorry that happened i want to explain
Glitzglam *New Message*: I arrived and then Amy did and my eyes must have bugged out of my skull but your mom said it was okay we were trying this and you knew it was a reunion and I was wtf
Glitzglam *New Message*: It didn’t sound like you but I thought ok if you thought you were down I could roll with and back you up
Glitzglam *New Message*: Then Uncle M came and oh man if a man could shit crocodiles and piss bears Uncle M would have been doing that he was so fucking pissed b/c HE wasn’t told and he knew the story from the funerals right?
Glitzglam *New Message*: and he brought his wife/kids there
Glitzglam *New Message*: I knew something was up and tried to call but no answer? & then you didn’t show so I let my guard down. I thought u knew and had cold feet and was relieved
Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly

I marked it as unread and minimized it.  I didn’t want to think about it for the moment.

News.  Inquiry into the circumstances of Lachlan Hund.  Not a trial, but an inquiry, some questions by people with more official standing.  He’d fallen in with some sketchy people, and there were thoughts about there being powers involved.

The inquiry was the story of the hour, it seemed.  Heroes stood by to step in and take him away to get help if officials were suspicious he’d been manipulated, but it was sounding like he would go home with his new family.  That sucked.

Other articles, further down the pages.  Fume Hood was alive, and she was a contentious topic.  The actions on the part of the shooter seemed to have split people into two factions, with the ones supporting Fume Hood slightly edging out the ones who condemned her.  Strange to see.

I wanted more info on her situation, and unfortunately, that was all I got.

I added another note to my to-do list.  I’d reach out to Fume Hood, check in.  I’d satisfy my curiosity and nag her about the name choice, which I’d been meaning to do but hadn’t had the chance to.

My eye traveled up to the unread messages.  Crystal’s responses.

It all felt like I was taking a massive backward step.  Like I was back in the immediate aftermath of Gold Morning.  Two legs, two arms, bewildered, emotional.  I was bothered, upset.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.

I’d been angry at my parents then too.  For various reasons.  Angry at a lot of people and things.

I hadn’t and didn’t want that to define me.

I clicked on Crystal’s account name again.

Glitzglam *New Message*: I am so sorry. I had no part in this. I should have been smarter. I did not know really truly

Point_Me_@_The_Sky: S’okay.
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I know how these things go.
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I saw this sort of thing play out when it wasn’t aimed at me.   I can read between the lines and speak Carol-ese and I picked up on what she was saying about you being skeptical about the situation
Point_Me_@_The_Sky: I absolve you on the condition of one get together where we have some good eating, your treat, and you need to let me know if you hear of any good apartments or things because I am not good going back to my dads

I drummed my fingers on my desk, mused that my motivations might have to do with my being hungry.

More news articles.  Some capes were taking on roles as icons and iconoclasts for the various movements in the civilian sectors.  Four hero teams led the ‘icon’ groups.  Advance Guard, Foresight, the Shepherds and the Attendant.

The first two were aimed at pushing forward.  New approaches, doing things right this time.  The opinions on what that way forward looked like it differed, feeding into the division between the two groups.

Things were changing.  The Shepherds and Attendant had been groups divided along similar lines, but the Shepherds were self-combusting, and the remaining members were folding into the Attendant.  There was some debate over what the name of the resulting team would be.

And then there were three, I thought.

I idly browsed, caught between liking the Shepherd’s aesthetic and icons better while liking the Attendant’s mindset of moving slowly, with caution.  I was suspicious it might end up being the opposite.  As it was, the Attendant’s approach tacked on a bit too much ‘remember what we lost’ for my liking, clinging to the past, being defined by it, but-

There was a knock on the door.

“Come in,” I said.

Gil opened the door.  He had two coffees in a tray in one hand and a bag in the other, and he had to juggle them both as he opened the door.

I rose to my feet.

“Sit,” he said.  He nearly dropped his drink as he saw the boxes.  “Shit on me, you’re packed.”

“I’ll be done in time to be gone before the students turn up,” I said, sitting.

“I’m not so concerned about that right now,” he said.  He put the bag and coffees on the desk.  “How are you?”

I shrugged.

“You look better.”

I had a headache from not sleeping and not eating, and from the post-stress hangover, but I also felt lighter than air in a euphoric, fragile way.  It was as if I’d just gotten over a bad round of the flu, and I was at the point where I was getting over the worst of it, but if I did the wrong thing or tested my body in the wrong way I’d be sick and hurting again.

Better.

I shrugged again.  “Yeah.  That word could apply.”

“Did you sleep at all?”

I snorted air out of my nose.  “I’ll sleep when I’m so tired I have no other choice.”

“But you’re feeling better than you were?”

“Yeah.  Better than I was.  Thanks for letting me stay over,” I said.

He pulled a breakfast burger out of the paper bag, and my eyes must have lit up, because he smiled, passing it to me.

A double-decker English muffin, with bacon, two eggs, lettuce, tomato and very sharp mustard.

I wasn’t normally one to eat egg, but I didn’t let that stop me.

I’d taken too big of a bite.  I swallowed hard.

It was good.  Visceral.  Like Snag’s power, the hit of emotion as I enjoyed it was like a bit of metal, closing an electrical connection.  Rounding off a thought I hadn’t wanted to make.

Feeding tubes.  The insertions, the removals.  The tube being there, one eye watching the beige fluid moving through steadily.  Really wanting something good.  Going almost four months without, because they weren’t sure I could.  Then having it be a chore.  It had been better than the alternative, but a chore, to force myself to eat it right, to chew it thoroughly enough.

I swallowed hard again, not because I had another bite to swallow.

Gilpatrick was looking at my files and notes, his back to me, my English muffin sandwich in my hands.

He glanced at me, saw the blinking, and looked away.  “If you want to talk, I’m all ears.”

“I don’t, thank you,” I said.  “I had a bad day, the part you knew about, then it got worse.  Now I’m trying to get centered.”

He nodded.

“This is really good,” I said.

“They are, I took a bite of mine in the car and then ate it before I got here,” he said.  He bent over a box, looking at the notes.  “Man, I wish I still had access to these files and books.  I’d try bribing you if I could do it in good conscience.”

I swallowed again.  “They’re mine and I’m too straightlaced to be bribed.  You can call me if you want to ask about any of it.”

“Then I owe you more favors, am I right?”

“I thought we weren’t counting anymore,” I said.

He didn’t respond to that.  He picked up a file, paging through it.

“Which one is that?”

“Ossuary.  Why leave it out?”

“They’re back, or they will be soon,” I said.  “Activist villains with a heavy focus on environment.  They wouldn’t call themselves villains, I don’t think.  Long list of really messy executions, longer list of leaders with very short tenures, who try to pull a very disparate group together, fail, and abdicate.”

“Were they the ones who used to call themselves Elephant Graveyard?”

“That’s the one.  One of the early leaders pushed the name change along with a shift away from focusing on animals and animal welfare,” I said.  “I liked Elephant Graveyard more, I think.  Clunky, but clunky in a way that stands out, and it made for really good imagery, when they left a spray painted calling card.”

“I don’t want to pry,” Gilpatrick said.

“About Ossuary?”

“About you.  I spent a while thinking about what to do.  I’ve had some good bosses and bad bosses over the years.  When you throw yourself into the fray like you do when you’re a PRT squaddie, you really need to know that the people above you are looking out for you.  That your back is covered.”

“Yeah,” I said.  Same applied to family, to parents.

“I don’t want to push boundaries or cross any lines, and I don’t want to ask the wrong thing.  When you say you don’t want to talk, can I ask why?  Any answer you gave could help me make sure I’m covering your back as you move on to better things.”

“Because I’d have to fill you in on years of background and that’s not stuff I want to relive,” I said.

“Ah.”

“Because it’s confidential, because it’s messy, because… as cool as a guy as you can be, you can’t make it better.  You can’t give me the answers or guidance I need because there’s a whole ream of things that’s separate and aside from the years of my background that you’d need to get into or know and… I’m going overboard with this.”

“I do want to hear,” he said.  “Anything else?”

“That’s mostly it,” I said.

He nodded.  He rubbed his head for a second, thinking.  “You want company?”

“Nah,” I said.  “I’d just be packing the last few boxes.  I wouldn’t mind a hand getting them out to the car, just to speed things up when the time comes.”

“You have a car?”

“I’ll get someone off of a listing or something.  I’ve got to figure out what I’m doing, so there’s that too.  I wouldn’t be good company, while I’m working through all of that.”

“You don’t have to be packed up and gone today,” he said.

“I kind of need to,” I said.

He nodded, rubbing his head again.  “I’ll cover the car.  I’ll pay the driver.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“You know where to find me.  Place is empty, so you can shout from the stairs and I’ll hear you.”

“Right,” I said.

“I’m going to head to my office.  I’ve got something to do.”

I gave him a little salute.

Energized by food and coffee, still feeling lightweight, I worked on getting my boxes packed up.  Along the way, I slotted my files and folders into the box I’d reserved for the most pertinent factors.  The villains of the area, the heroes, and the villains turned hero.  The hoods.

The day was warming up.  The light from the sun was warm enough to counteract the lower temperature.  By midday, if yesterday was any indication, it would be short-sleeves and shorts weather again.

A message popped up on my screen.

♦  Private Messages from Glitzglam:

Glitzglam: game plan. u situate yourself at my place until you have apartment ur happy with.  u & I raid ur dads place while he at work, get ur stuff.  standard attack formation, I play defense, make sure coast is clear, I support you, u take point and do what u need

I fired off my response.  That worked.  I had a couch to sleep on.

One thing off of my to-do list.  I liked the progress.  Progress was good.  So long as I moved forward, I could stay aloft.

I cleared off the remainder of the bookshelves, stacking the boxes.  I scribbled out my notes on the lid, checking the contents.

There was a knock at the door.

“Come in,” I said.

Gilpatrick.

“Time for me to go?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.  “There’s a bit.  I don’t want to force you out the door like that.”

“Okay,” I said.  I raised an eyebrow.

“I was thinking, over the past twelve hours, if you were my student, I wouldn’t want to let you go with things like this.  Normally I’d contact a guardian.”

My heart skipped a beat at that.  No.

“But you said last night you had a family thing to do.  I can connect dots.”

I nodded.

“I made some phone calls,” he said.

He stepped out of the doorway.

Mrs. Yamada.  Shorter than me, hair tied back in a simple ponytail, wearing a skirt, white top, and jacket, with a simple, short string of pearls at her collarbone.

“Oh wow,” she said.  “Look at you.”

I didn’t have words, so I just lifted my arms to either side and let them fall.

“Is this okay?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I swallowed.  “Yeah.  Just about perfect.”

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.

Jessica blinked a few times, before fanning herself.  “I’m a little misty eyed.  Sorry.”

I was a little misty eyed myself.

“Can I give you a hug?” she asked.  When I nodded, she did so.  I hugged her back.

“You put me down as your emergency contact?” she asked.

“Sorry,” I said.  “I- I honestly forgot I did that.  It was more than a year ago.”

I’d had to name someone, and I hadn’t named my parents because-

Because.

“It’s more than alright,” she said.  “Your boss said he was worried about you.”

I opened my mouth to reply, and then the waterworks started instead.

Jessica slammed the back hatch of her car, most of the boxes settled inside.

“Do you want to walk?” she asked.  “Around the block, maybe?  Or we could step back inside.”

If I was going to start crying again.

Students were just now starting to appear, and I didn’t want to sit still.

“We can walk,” I said.

“It’s been amazing to hear your voice,” she said.  “I know you were often frustrated, trying to communicate with the means you had available.  I was frustrated too, but I wasn’t allowed to say that.”

“I could tell,” I said.

“You were a challenging patient, those first few months-”

I snorted.

“-but much like many teachers say they grow to care most about the class clowns and problem students, I came to hold you close to my heart.  I wanted so badly to give you answers and to hear you out without having to rely on text to speech and letters you wrote between appointments.  I wanted to dialogue, and it was so very hard to do that.”

“It was,” I said.

Why was it so much easier to talk about the things that I couldn’t normally even think about, like this?

“How did you find your way back from that?”

How did I become Victoria again, instead of the wretched thing in the hospital room, or in the home for invalids?

“My sister,” I said, my voice soft.

“Oh.  That’s not an easy thing,” she said.

“No,” I said, my voice even softer.

I’d already filled her in on the details of yesterday and the past few months.  She’d offered a listening ear.  I’d spent all night working out my next few steps, I knew what the situation was, I didn’t really need more angles to view it from.

This, though… if I was going to make the most of the time I had with her here, then I wanted to at least get a handle on this.

“We were all brought to the battlefield during Gold Morning.  There’s… that’s a hard topic to field.”

“There’s an unspoken agreement that the civilians don’t get to know,” she said.

“But you’re not really a civilian,” I said.

“No,” she said.  “I’ve heard reports.  Some from very close to the center of the action.  I know what happened.”

“Body, mind, and heart, you know how that’s a thing?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“I lost my body, two years before Gold Morning.  My heart was… twisted into something unrecognizable.”

“Yes.”

“And… Gold Morning hit.  And the-” I paused.  There were people on the street, walking toward the school gate and the various block buildings as we walked away from it all.  A tide we walked against.  I had to shut up until people were mostly out of earshot.  “And I was controlled in mind.  I didn’t have much, but I could make my decisions.  I could decide to use my power or not.  She took that away from me, for a brief time.”

“I’ve talked to a number of people who had a very hard time with that.”

“You know who she was?”

“I do.”

I nodded to myself.

“Yeah,” I said.  “My sister told me.”

Even if I was free to talk, the words still carried their ugly weight.  The words and associated mental pictures still dragged my mood down.

“She knew me or knew of me, or she knew my sister.  She decided in the end that she’d put my sister right next to me.  She didn’t do that for many people at all, as far as I can tell.”

“And your sister healed you?”

“Gave me a body again.  Um.  She made me seventeen again.  Walked back the clock, as if it… I don’t know.  So she didn’t take two years of my life from me in body, like she did in everything else.  I’m physically nineteen now, apparently.”

“You said body, mind and spirit.  She fixed one of the three.  Did she undo the effect on your emotions?”

I drew in a breath, sighed heavily.  I nodded.  “She actually- she turned off my emotions.  Suppressed them.  Then she asked me what I wanted.”

“What did you want?”

“I remember thinking, you know, it was really possible she wanted me to say that I wanted to go back to liking her.  And if she did think that, then it was unconscionable.  Divorced from all emotion, I thought it was unconscionable.”

“Okay.”

“And divorced from all emotion, I thought I’d be fair.  That I’d give her the benefit of a doubt.  That I’d assume that wasn’t what she meant or wanted.  I told her I wanted to remember.”

“To remember?”

“Those two years,” I said, my voice hollow.  I drew in another deep breath.

Further down the street, a nine or ten year old boy with straight black hair and brown skin looked at Jessica, his eyes widening, then he looked at me.  He raised his hand, extending it toward Jessica as they passed one another.

She gave him a high five, then pushed his head, sending him on his way, toward the school.

“They weren’t good years.”

“Rationally?  Divorced from emotion?  I knew.  I can’t forgive her.  Ever.  I can’t forget what she did, or she might do it again.  To someone else.  To me.  I told her to fix my feelings and leave my brain alone otherwise.”

“It’s a heavy weight to carry,” she said.

“Those two years are really damn heavy,” I said.  “Everything else is.  But I’ve been holding on to that moment.  I hate that I hold onto it, because she did it, but everything is tainted by her, so what can I do?”

“You hold onto it?  How?”

“Being emotionless, putting those feelings away.  My feelings and impulses got me into that whole mess in the first place.  I hurt an awful lot of awful people, you know.”

“We’ve talked about that.  You wrote letters outlining your thoughts and how you wanted to apologize to some of those affected.”

“My entire life leading up to that basketball game, I wanted so horribly badly to be a hero, you know?  It felt like I thought about it every ten minutes.  My parents were heroes, my cousin was, my aunt and uncle were, and everything revolved around it.  I wanted it all so badly it hurt, and I didn’t have it for years.  Then that basketball game, and I wanted to have something where I was the hero, where I got to stand out.  Because sometimes it felt like my parents didn’t see me.”

“That’s been a recurring idea.  You talked about their missed visits.”

“They came a lot,” I said.  “I know that.  My dad more than my mom.  But every missed visit was a horrible thing, and the little things mattered so much when I had nothing else.  Um.  And this basketball game, I know I’ve talked about this before.  But this one girl kicked my freaking ass.  In my face, knocking me over, intercepting every pass, blocking every shot.  She didn’t have any powers or anything, she was just… good.  Better.”

“A lot of things came into focus in that moment.”

“Every time she or one of her teammates beat me, I could see the look of disappointment on my parent’s faces.  In the other moments, they looked so bored.  And it was boring, you know.  No parent wants to go sit through amateurs doing badly at a high school sport.”

“Some do.”

“Anyway, she hit me hard, she said something about me being overrated, and it was the last straw.  Realizing I stood so far from family, that I didn’t want to be there, but I had no other choice, my sternum was hurting where she’d driven her elbow into me.  I got my powers.”

“Years of wanting, leading up to that.”

She’d caught the thread I’d wanted to lay out.  It helped.  “And then just under three years as Victoria-slash-Glory-Girl.  And then… hospital.”

“Which was undeniably horrible.”

“It felt like my life had ended.  No hope or help.  All I had to cling to were those memories of the three years I was Glory Girl.  I could look back, think about every fight, every encounter.  The ones I was proud of.  The ones I wasn’t.  I had so much regret, replaying events out in my head.  It started with me thinking about- that moment when it all went so wrong.  When she messed with my emotions, then going backward.”

Emotions caught me.  I made my expression a scowl, because I was worried what my face might do otherwise.

“I was such a stupid fucking kid,” I said.

“That’s allowed,” she said.

I shook my head.  “Not when you’re as strong as I am.”

“And you want to be emotionless?  I don’t know if that’s healthy.”

“Not emotionless.  But… smarter about it.  The idea I keep coming back to is I want to be a warrior monk.”

“A warrior monk?”

“Just- centered when it counts, I guess?”

“Why the warrior part?  Do you envision yourself fighting?”

“I don’t honestly know.  It never occurred to me.”

Jessica smiled.

“What’s next for Victoria Dallon?” she asked.

“You need to mock me, say Victoria Dallon, warrior monk,” I said.  “I deserve it.”

“I wouldn’t,” she said.  “If everyone in costume could remain centered while doing what they do, it would make a world of difference.  I think it’s good.  I’d think about that more as you take your next steps.”

“I know I want to move forward, because… I dunno.  I feel like I’m a shark that drowns if it stops moving, or a bird that drops out of the air like a stone if I’m not flying forward.  I know I need to get some of the basics of life squared away.  I’m okay for money for a couple of months, but I can’t stay on Crystal’s couch.”

“In my brief interactions with Crystal, I did like her,” Jessica said.

“She’s great.  But not great to live with long-term, I don’t think.  You’d never know it to look at her, she’s beautiful, she’s fashionable, and very well put together, but if you looked at her apartment…”

I trailed off, using my expression to convey a bit of the horror to Jessica.

“Ah,” Jessica said.  She smiled again.

“I don’t know what to do next.”

“Well, I’d think about how to apply the warrior monk role to your day to day life,” she said.  She pulled off her jacket.  The weather had warmed up enough.  “What it means to you, why it’s the first thing or the recurring thing in your thought processes.”

“I just want to… do.”

“You said you regretted yesterday, but Jasper thanked you.  Would you rather have not done it?  Is it the ‘want’ in wanting to do things that’s problematic, or is it the ‘do’?”

I drew in a deep breath.  “That’s… a very complicated question, I think.”

“You don’t have to answer it right now,” she said.

“I think I can, though.  I think… I had to.  And as much as it was hard and cost me my job, I preferred it to the alternative.  I can’t not do things that help out.  I just want to do it in a good, centered way.”

“Could it be a mundane job?  Construction?  Desk work?  Would you want to do something like you were doing with the patrol?”

I thought about it.

I couldn’t see it.  Not long-term.

“What’s the first thing that comes to mind?” she asked.

“I think… fuck me, I think even now, I can’t quite see myself being anything but a hero.  There are good people I’ve gotten to know.  People I want to protect and help.  Like Gilpatrick, like Weld and Vista and my cousin and a couple of the teenagers I was working with in patrol block.  You.  I want good things for them.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “That means a lot to me.”

“I’ve been trying to convince myself there’s some other way, but… I can’t not do anything.”

“There’s worse things.  Especially if you can do it smart and centered.”

“I don’t want to be Glory Girl,” I said.  “Someone remarked yesterday that they’d thought she died and… good.  She can stay dead.”

“Sounds like you have an idea of what you’re doing next.”

“It’s the wrong climate for it,” I said.  “I just watched a team of heroes get eaten alive by the public.  One took a bullet.”

“Figure it out,” she said.

I frowned.

“Again, there’s no rush,” she said.

“I can’t sit still,” I said.  “There’s a bit of a rush.”

“Touch base with me,” she said.  “We’ll go out for coffee, catch up.  I can offer unofficial, more-friend-than-therapist advice.  I think you’ll figure it out, and I can give you a few nudges here and there.”

That gave me pause.

“You’re not a therapist anymore?” I asked.

“Just the opposite,” she said.  “I’m very much a therapist.  Ten hour days, six or seven days a week, and other peripheral obligations.  I’m afraid I’m not in a position to take you on as a patient again, Victoria, as much as I would dearly like to.”

That hurt.  I didn’t want to say it, but it did hurt.

“I just joined the Wardens as a staff psychologist for their junior members and some special cases, and I’m just not equipped, unfortunately.  If you want it, I could try finding a colleague who you could talk to.  Most are as busy as I am, so it might take a bit of time.”

I want you.

I want-

“Sorry to take up your time today, when you’re as busy as you are.”

“It’s more than alright, Victoria,” she said.  She was looking straight ahead as she talked, one hand on her jacket as she walked.  “With the hours I work, I lose objectivity.  It becomes the work, and I lose sight of the patients.  Sometimes it’s hard to see the wins.  Like I said, you were a patient close to my own heart, and I thought you were one of the ones we lost.  Seeing you, hearing you?  It means the world to me.  It gives me a measure of hope.”

I nodded.

She looked over at me.  “I’ll reach out to a colleague.  I’ll see what I can do, if that’s okay.  Give you some reassurance there.”

“I-” I started.

“Yes?”

“It’s okay, but… if you wanted to reassure me-” I said.

It felt a little less like I could talk about certain topics with her, now.

“If it’s within my power, I’ll try anything,” she said.

“My sister,” I said, my voice soft.  “Send someone her way.”

Mrs. Yamada raised one eyebrow.

I knew what she was thinking.  She wondered if it was selflessness, or if I was a surprisingly good person.  I wasn’t.

“She’s the scariest damn person in the world, Jessica,” I said.  “And I don’t think that’s bias.  There’s a chance she’s going to do something bad, and she’s so damn powerful, that when and if it happens, it’s going to be so much worse than what happened to me, and it’s going to affect an awful lot more people.”

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Daybreak – 1.7

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The sun was just starting to set when the police were wrapping up with us.  They’d had to arrive first, of course, the ones who had been on the scene were compromised, victims as much as anything.

Nobody Kingdom Come had affected remembered much of anything.  It was as though they’d fallen asleep – they remembered losing awareness, some reported briefly coming to in the middle of things as the building had shook or they had been knocked around, and they hadn’t really processed or understood much of those glimmers.

A few had reported me as a recurring image.

There was some concern that Kingdom Come might have absconded with someone or that not everyone that had been in the crowd was accounted for, but from what I could tell, it had been an all or nothing thing.  People remembered coming to, many of them dangerously close to a superhero fight in progress, but the recollections were hazy.

I sat on the sidewalk near the front door of the community center, aware that it was very late in the day.  The sky was orange-yellow now, with darkness on the eastern horizon.  The thickest parts of the clouds overhead were cast in shadow, zig-zags of darkness through the amber.

The heat of the day was subsiding, helped by the cloud cover.  Dust and sweat had left my arms mottled with grime and tracks where sweat had wiped it away.  I’d washed my hands after helping Fume Hood, and I’d realized I hadn’t gotten all of Tempera’s paint and the blood on the backs of my hands.  I was painfully conscious of the sweat, grime and blood, yet I couldn’t bring myself to go wash up because that would require attention to it.

Paradoxical, I was well aware.

I turned my attention back to the kids.  Making sure they were okay.  At some point where I had been lost in thought, Gilpatrick had showed up.  I watched until he glanced my way.  He raised a hand, and I raised mine.  Then he turned his attention back to the teenagers.  As it should be.

I’d figured I would be working late.  I’d just thought it would be paperwork and talking to the students.  I’d really liked that part.  It was fascinating stuff when it wasn’t so close to home.

I could relax some, seeing Gilpatrick.  Not because it meant great things, but because it meant I didn’t have to think about finding Gil after, getting the details, putting off hearing the news or delivering the essential details.

I put my hands behind me where I wouldn’t see the blood or the places where the paint had settled into the cracks, oil-black, and I leaned back, eyes closed, trying to focus on the voices and the sounds, on the breezy wind and the ambient warmth.

“I’m sorry,” Gilpatrick said.  He’d approached me.

I kept my eyes closed.  I said, “Are the students okay?  The others?”

“They’re fine.  Some have parents here, I’ve got a bus coming for the others.  Psychologically, emotionally, I don’t know.  It was scary and it was hard to know what was happening.  The staff of the community center are obviously upset about the building, but that’s not on us.”

I opened my eyes.

Gilpatrick wasn’t wearing his vest.  A sleeveless undershirt tucked into black pants, a sweatshirt slung over one shoulder.  Bald, bushy eyebrows, hairy, hairy arms.

“Jasper filled me in on most of it,” he said.  “He’s reliable when it counts, it seems.”

“He’s a good guy,” I agreed.  “There’s a reason I wanted him with me.”

“I get it now, I think.”

“If you want this project to be a positive thing, at least at our school, you’ll want more Jaspers.  You wanted a verdict on the kids you sent with me?  I wouldn’t put them in leadership roles.  Not if there are going to be capes on scene.  What I heard and saw wasn’t very positive, and if there were any who disagreed, they didn’t feel confident enough to say it out loud.”

Gilpatrick ran his hand over the skin of his head, not giving me a response.

My arms were tired from propping myself up.  I leaned forward instead.

“Alright.  Thanks.  Not good to hear, but I appreciate it,” he said.  “I’ll take that under serious advisement.”

“They follow orders, at least.”

“I was really hoping to have more hands to help out,” he said.  “Really unfortunate.”

Some parents were joining students who were talking to the police.  I watched them.  Parent and child side by side, parents concerned as they listened, getting the details at the same time the officers were.

“I am sorry this happened,” Gilpatrick said.  “I meant it when I said it.  I mean it now.”

“I gave my point-by-point retelling of events to the police,” I said.  I stared at my hands.  “Including the part where I was hit by a few emotion-affecting attacks.  It’ll take some of the responsibility off your shoulders, if anyone asks.”

“It’s not that important,” he said.  “Well, it’s important, obviously, thank you, but I don’t want to dwell on that.  If people make an issue out of it, I’ll handle it.  I knew what I was doing when I brought you on board.  That’s not what I want to talk to you about.”

“I stuck around,” I said.  “To be something like a guardian for the students who were acting as witnesses, making sure they weren’t pressed too hard or made uncomfortable.  I stopped when I realized being there was making some things harder, because they didn’t like being around me, or that it looked like I was trying to protect myself by inserting myself into things and influencing their testimony.”

“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.

“I backed off, Jasper and Landon took my cues, I think.”

“That’s good.”

I thought that’d be the time he followed the thread of the conversation and got around to saying what he needed to say.  He didn’t.

There was a break in the convo.  More cars were pulling into spaces along either side of the ‘square’ of grass, sidewalk, and fountain in front of the community center.  Some more parents.

“Did they mention Fume Hood?” I asked.

“Only that she was taken to the hospital and all signs were good when she left.  Tempera was staying close to her.  Something to do with paint?”

No news then.  “Tempera stopped the worst of the blood loss.  She poured paint in the wound, shaped it, and solidified it.  We might have lost Fume Hood in another way, though.  We might not keep her as a hero after this.”

“Did she say that?”

“There was a brief twilight between when the pain meds kicked in and when the meds knocked her out,” I said.  I moved my fingers, felt how unlike skin the backs of my hands felt, stiff with the stuff I hadn’t managed to wash off.  I’d rushed, because I’d wanted to get back to keeping an eye on the students from the patrol group.

“Are you going to finish that thought?” Gilpatrick asked, his voice soft.

I closed my eyes.  “Um.  We chatted.  She said she was staying with a family member already, so she’d have someone to look after her if she needed it.”

Thinking about family pulled my thoughts in a few different directions.  I could have tried picking a safer one, but I wasn’t sure I was that on the ball, being as tired and discouraged as I was.

I went on, “Her brother cut ties with her when she went villain.  She was living in that area where all the building foundations were screwed up because they were rushed, and everyone had to leave the homes they’d just settled in, reached out to her brother, and she’s been staying with him, reconnecting.  It might give me some hope for her, having that positive influence, but she sounded pretty cynical about it all when we had the conversation right after meeting, before everything happened.”

“Cynicism is understandable, to a degree.  That’s where she’s at.  Where are you at, Victoria?”

“Similar to Fume Hood, really.  I wasn’t evicted because of rushed apartment construction, but I’ve been staying with my dad because it means we each pay half the rent, and I want to keep my options open with things being what they are.”

“I wasn’t talking about living accommodations,” Gilpatrick said.  “Your head, your heart.  Are there any lingering effects from the emotion effect?”

“For the last two years,” I whispered.

“Sorry?  I didn’t catch that,” he said.

“It’s gone.  It really sucked while it was in effect, but it’s gone.  Right now I’m in that heavyhearted, almost-blameless-but-guilty ‘morning after’ phase, where I’m reflecting on everything I did when I was under the influence,” I said.

“I know that well enough.  I’ve been hit a few times by those, back when I was a squaddie and squad leader.  And by you, once.”

“You asked me to,” I pointed out, looking up at Gilpatrick, “and this was a bad one.  Snag?  I read about a thing online, keeping tabs on who was out there.  I’m pretty sure he’s part of a new multitrigger cluster.  It might have been amplified by the tinkering, if it wasn’t, then something else was in play.  That didn’t hit me like it was a minor or secondary power.”

“Sorry,” he said.

He wasn’t a bad guy.  I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t justify it.

“I’m sorry it happened like this,” he said.  “It wasn’t supposed to be anything like this.  I thought it’d get a bit nasty with the civilian protesters but I didn’t think it’d be anything like this.  Not the capes, not the gunshot at the end.”

I hadn’t either.

“Jasper said you guessed why I sent those students with you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I climbed to my feet.

“I’m especially sorry for that,” he said.  “If it was up to me, I wouldn’t have ever tested you like that.  It wasn’t wholly up to me.”

“Who?” I asked.

“Everyone,” he said.  “No-one.  It’s complicated.  Wardens and the hero teams are being pressured to be mindful of who is out there, touching base, and they reached out to some of the other patrol groups with concerns.  They wanted to coordinate, so teenagers wouldn’t be out interviewing or exposing themselves to anyone dangerous.  School got to talking, and they got into CYA mode.”

“Cover your ass,” I said.

“They wanted to be able to say that they’d made a reasonable effort to check that the parahumans the students were exposed to were reasonable and safe, in case anything happened down the line.  I could have kept quiet about you, but…”

He trailed off.

“I wouldn’t have asked you to,” I said.

“…I didn’t get the impression you wanted me to, either.  You weren’t being secretive.  I don’t want to operate that way, either.”

“No.  I wouldn’t want you to,” I said.

“You know I can’t keep you on the staff,” he said.

I nodded.

There it was.

Fuck.

I hadn’t been super attached to the job, but… fuck.

“Using power on kids, the contention about possible conflict of interest, undue influence, danger.  I think things will stay at that, I don’t think it’ll follow you.”

I nodded.

“There’s a dim chance of a student claiming emotional distress because of your aura and pursuing things in court, I’ve already talked to one officer to get them on board and we’ll get something in writing.  I’ll vouch for you and for the events as Jasper described them, one hundred percent, if you end up needing someone to stand for you.  None of this was you.”

“Courts are a million years behind as it stands, and getting further behind every day we don’t have an established system of government,” I said.  “By the time things get that far it’ll be forgotten.”

“That is a factor,” Gilpatrick said.

I wasn’t worried about that side of things.  I was hurt, but I wasn’t worried.

“Do you need a hand getting things cleared out of the office?” he asked.

I shook my head.  I didn’t want to think about that.

“Can-” I started.  I cleared my throat.  “Can I get back to you on that?  I’ve- I guess I’ve got a family thing I should go to.”

“For sure,” he said.  “Anytime outside of usual school or work hours.”

I might have flinched in a way that he saw, hearing that.  I knew why he’d said it, but it still sucked to hear.

I started to walk away.

“Victoria,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“Any favor you need, reference letter, intel, if you need Jasper or some other trustworthy faces in uniform to lend a hand with something…”

“Thank you,” I said, my voice lighter and more cheerful than I felt.  “I’ll be in touch.”

I took off.

There was something very human about the desire to gather around a fire.  Power rationing meant every household had only a certain amount, more if there were more people in the house.  Conversely, there was a lot of cheap firewood.  Streetlights flickered on, and many house lights went off.  In back yards there were three other families on the city block that were gathering around fire pits.  Two of the families were playing different kinds of music, but it wasn’t too discordant.  There were trees in each yard, front and back, and that helped to dampen the sound.

The entire street smelled like burning charcoal, and the light from the streetlights was just a little bit hazy with the ambient smoke.

It was a nice neighborhood, even if it had what I felt was the artificial quality.  Houses with character, sufficiently different from one another in style and architecture, but still so new that they looked more like movie sets than lived-in places.  Time and clutter would wear at those crisp edges.  Paint and attention would turn fences of new wood with the occasional edge still frayed from the saw’s touch into something more personal.

This was the flip side to the hostility and the street-wide gap between protester and community center.  Boyfriend and girlfriend sat on an outdoor love seat together, arms around each other, bathed in fire’s warmth.  Friends sat and talked, beers in hand.  Kids in another yard played with their dog.

With the path I’d taken, I reached the backyard first.  The driveway was wider than it was long, crushed gravel, with room for multiple vehicles, and a fence stretched from the house at one corner to the garage at the other.  My mom had invited neighbors, so it was a thing, even if things had reached a more relaxed point.

My dad sat on one of the lawn chairs, fire pit in front of him with the fire having burned down to just glowing coals.  The barbecue was to his right, lid open, tiny bits of meat clinging to the grill.

He was forty-two but looked younger.  The fact that he was as fit as he was played into it- only the white in his beard stubble really gave it away.  His hair, too, was short.  He was the only one who hadn’t put a sweatshirt or jacket on, owing to the proximity of the two heat sources- he was wearing a t-shirt that was form-fitting in a way that showed off his muscles.  Pretty darn gross, given he was a dad,  my dad, and he was supposed to dress his age.  I would have insisted on clothes that hid any sign of muscle at all, really, had I been given a say.

He looked relaxed though.  As relaxed as I’d seen him in a while, really, and I’d seen him passed out on the couch back at the apartment.

I was aware that my mom had seated herself so that two neighbors sat between her and my dad.  Where my dad had dressed in a t-shirt and sports pants for the occasion, she had dressed up.  Just a bit of lipstick, her hair short and styled, a ruffly sort of white blouse and pencil skirt.  She’d kicked off her shoes earlier in the evening, leaving them beneath her chair.

I was aware of the distinction in how they’d dressed, too.  In another time, before everything, there would have been more… connection, I supposed.  Each influencing the other, until they matched more.

She was smiling.  She folded one knee over the other, then a moment later was undoing the position, both feet on the porch again as she leaned forward, laughing at something someone had said.

I smiled.

The lights were on inside the house, too.  The door was open, and people were scattered through the space between the stairs down to the porch, the back hallway, and the kitchen on the other side of the hallway.  The room to the left of the hallway was dark.  The neighbors kids, I presumed, teens to twenty-somethings.  I saw a glimpse of Crystal stepping into the unlit room, tried to catch her eye with a raised hand as she looked toward the window, and failed.

I did get the attention of someone sitting next to my mom, though.  She touched my mom’s arm and pointed.

I remained where I was, arms folded on the top of the wooden-slat fence, chin on my hands, while my mom approached.

“You’re hurt,” she said, touching my arm, where the road rash was.

“Scuffed up.”

“Did you get the other guy?” she asked.  She reached out and touched my hair, fixing it by moving strands to one side.

“No,” I said.  “But there were five of them.”

“Do you want to talk about it?  I’m interested.”

“Not really,” I said.  “Today-”

My breath caught.

“-Kind of not a good day,” I said.

I saw her expression change, even though the light source was behind her.

“What?” I asked.  “Don’t tell me you didn’t save me the dessert you promised.  Looking forward to that is pretty much the only thing keeping me going right now.”

She smiled, touching my cheek, before kissing me on the forehead.  “I saved you dessert with extras to take home, in case you want pie or pastries for breakfast tomorrow.”

“You’ve done your duty then,” I said, with mock seriousness.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve failed a mission,” she said, in the same tone.  She put her hand on the side of my head.  “You missed Uncle Mike, I’m afraid.”

“Oh shoot,” I said.  “I barely remember him.  How is he?”

“He’s Uncle Mike.  He brought his wife and your cousins, and I haven’t child-proofed at all.  It was… something, in the brief time he was here.  A whirlwind of chaos and emotion, and then he was gone.”

“Ah, too bad,” I said.

In the background, my dad was trying to get my attention.  He’d sat up, and didn’t look relaxed anymore.  He offered me a small smile.  I acknowledged him by lifting one hand up from where it sat on my elbow, in a mini-wave.

“Thank you for coming,” my mom said.  “I know the family stuff is hard, after everything, but it means so much to me.  To everyone.”

“I’m here for the desserts,” I said.  I amended it to, “…and a bit for family.”

My mom lightly rapped me on the side of the head before stepping away.  “Come on in, then.  Meet people, I’ll get your pie.”

As she stepped over to the gate by the garage to unlock it, Crystal stepped out into the backyard, joined by a few others in our age group.  She glanced in my direction, saw me, and froze like a deer in the headlights.

Her arms folded, defensive, like something was wrong.

She mouthed words at me, and I couldn’t see her face well enough at a distance to know what the words were, but I could draw conclusions from context.

My dad’s posture, still sitting upright now, both feet planted on the ground.

My mom’s earlier change in expression.  Even the wording-

I backed away from the fence a few steps.  My mom froze, the gate only slightly open.

“You invited her,” I said.  I wasn’t talking about Crystal.

In reaction to that, my mother didn’t look confused, she didn’t negate.  She looked toward the house, to see what I’d seen that had clued me in.

Whirlwind of fucking chaos and emotion indeed.

“You invited her,” I said, again.  More emotional this time.  “She’s in the house?”

My mother rallied, composing herself.  Now she looked confused.  “I told you I invited everyone.”

“She’s actually in the house,” I said.

I backed away again, and my mother threw the gate open, taking several steps on the driveway, stepping on crushed gravel with bare feet.

I raised my hand, indicating for her to stop.  She continued forward.

I threw my aura out, one push.

My mother stopped.  Crystal stopped in her tracks, already at the fence.  People rose from their seats.

“I thought you knew,” she said.  “I very clearly said everyone.  It was supposed to be a family reunion with everyone getting together again for the first time in… in a really long time.”

“You’re a lawyer,” I said.  “You’re too clever with wording to be that fucking stupid.”

“Please,” she said, with a tone like she was the one who needed to exercise patience and restraint here.  “Let’s keep things civil.”

I couldn’t even look at her.  I trembled as my eyes dropped to the ground.

“I’ve made mistakes, as your sister has,” my mother said.  “She’s been doing so well.  I want to make up for past wrongs and be a mother to both of you, like I should have been from the beginning.”

I looked up, staring at her.

The lipstick, the composed outfit, the words, the everything about this all seemed so false now, so forced.  I didn’t even recognize her.

“You’re kind of fucking it up,” I said, in the kind of whisper that was the only tone I could manage that wasn’t outright screaming at her.  My hands were clenched at their sides.

“That’s not fair.”

“You’re kind of really fucking it up,” I said, in the same strangled whisper.

“Victoria-”

“You’re fucking it up, mother,” I said.  “You’re fucking- you’re fucking- did dad play along with this?”

“I told him everyone was coming.  You, your sister, Crystal, Uncle Mike.  He was surprised, but… pleasantly surprised.”

Dad too, then.  There was that heart-wrenched-out feeling again.  I screwed my eyes shut, inadvertently squeezing out tears.  I was aware her neighbors were seeing.

“Don’t- don’t get emotional, Victoria,” my mom said.  “Please, I didn’t do this to hurt you.  The furthest thing from it.”

“You fucked that up too,” I whispered.

“Stop saying that.  Please,” my mother said.  “It’s the age of second chances, she’s worked very hard to get to this point.  I’ve talked to people who worked with her and she’s getting back into her routine in a good way.  I want all of us to have a second shot at this, and do it right this time.”

I shook my head.

“Leaving things as unresolved as they are is doing more harm than good.  To both you and to her.”

“So you thought you’d invite me to dinner and surprise me with her, and you thought there was nothing I could say or do because people are here?”

“You’re putting thoughts and conspiracy in my head,” she said.  “I want you to be sisters again.  I want us to be a family again.”

“That’s not for you to decide,” I said.  “Holy shit.  Holy shit.  Holy shit.”

“Please, don’t wind yourself up.  You’re getting out of breath.  Let’s communicate.  Please.”

I was getting out of breath.  I gulped in a breath of air.  “You’re aware I can’t set foot in that house again, right?  I’ll see her looming in the shadows, potentially another surprise invite.”

“I want you to find reconciliation, so you wouldn’t feel upset even if she did appear by surprise.”

“I can’t accept any invites from you,” I said.  My face started to contort, and I forced it back into something more normal before I lost the ability to see my mother or focus on her altogether.  “I can’t grab dessert from you or do anything with you again because she might be there, surprise.  I can’t trust you.  How can I trust you again?”

“I’m sorry you feel that way.  I did not realize that was where things stood.  You’ve been doing so well, and she’s been doing well.”

“How-” I started.  I gulped in another breath of air.  My voice was a whisper again when I managed to speak again.  “How do you not realize when you saw me at the hospital?  How do you even think rec- how do you think this is ever possible?  How does-”

I closed my eyes.  More tears.

“How does Dad?  How could you see me then, how could you- how- how-”

My chest hurt.

“Crystal-” I said, I looked toward the house.

Crystal was still on the porch.  Standing guard by the back door, red shield up.  She watched me talking with my mom over one shoulder.

“I told Crystal the same thing I told your father.  She was skeptical but she agreed it was for the best.”

I didn’t trust my mom’s version of events on that.  Crystal at least had my back in this moment.

I tried to find words, and I didn’t have the oxygen.

“Catch your breath.  We can talk this out.”

I worked at it, swallowing air.

“I’ll wait,” she said.

The sound of her voice made it harder, not easier.

When I spoke, my voice was very small.  It gained more strength as I went.

“How can you have not been there, missed visits, or come to the visit and spend more time talking to doctors than to me because it was hard to be around me?  How can you have come to see me then, and have had to avert your eyes mid-conversation with me, and found that hard, and not realize that I had to live it for two years, and had that be a million times harder for me?”

“I know it was hard, honey.  I get it, I really do.  But you can’t dwell in the past.  It’s not good for you.  You can’t carry that.”

“You say that, when you still sleep with the lights on,” I said.

It was her turn to not have words.

“That’s different,” she said, finally.  She didn’t say how it was different.

I stared at her.

“I want all of us to conquer our demons,” she said.  “I think you want that too.”

I continued to stare.

Finally, I said, “I want that too.”

“We can talk this out.  We can find things we all want,” she said.  “We can make inroads on this.”

She looked nearly as upset as I felt, even as composed as she was.

But in the end, and I’d known this from very early on, seeing her with- with her, she wasn’t a whole and complete person.  She tried, she put on a good face, but my mother had been broken long, long ago, and with the way she’d put herself together, she retained only sufficient compassion, understanding, and empathy for a very small number of people.  For one daughter, at most.

Second chances.  Second go-around, and I wasn’t that daughter, this time.

“In the interest of putting my demons to rest,” I said.  “I’m going to keep my distance.  Don’t call, because I can’t trust a thing you say.  I’ll figure out what I’ll do about Dad later.”

“Don’t,” she said.  “Nothing gets better if you close off communication.”

There were things I wanted to say to that.

It wasn’t worth it.

I turned to go.

I heard the gravel under her feet as she gave chase, and I pushed out with my aura, hard.

“Do not use your power on me, Victoria Dallon.  That has never been okay, and it doesn’t work anyway.”

I drew in a deep breath.  There were things I wanted to say to that, too.

I settled for, “Let me go.  If you follow me, I’m liable to hit you with something harder than my aura.  I’m pretty sure that would work.”

It might have been a good line, if I hadn’t been choking back emotion as I said it.

I walked away.  I didn’t trust myself to fly when I couldn’t see straight.  Having a panic attack in the air made for an embarrassing moment.

People stood in rows at the fences that bounded their yards, staring and watching.  I wiped away my tears once, then resolved not to shed more, not where people could see.  I set my jaw.

In the background, I could hear my father’s raised voice.

Breathe.  Center yourself.  Move forward.  Plan.

I thought about what I’d need to do next.  I couldn’t go back to the apartment I shared with my dad.

For the time being, I only walked, out in the general direction of the water.  Streetlights lit up in advance of imminent cars and as I stepped onto the streets, turning off otherwise.  Here and there they would turn on for wildlife, illuminating a lost deer or raccoon mid-scurry down the road.  We’d set ourselves up so abruptly that the animals were still confused.

It was getting cooler.  I wore my skirt, my clothes from earlier.  My forcefield shielded against the wind, which kept it from lowering the temperature even further, but it didn’t do a lot to shield me from the ambient heat or lack thereof.

I tensed as I heard running footsteps behind me.  I stopped in my tracks.

Not Crystal.  She would have flown, and she would have set down well in front of me.  She wouldn’t have chased, maybe.

Her, then.

I didn’t want to look.  I didn’t want to speak to her.

I pushed out with my aura, instead.

Another footstep, closer.

Our mother’s daughter.

I threw my arm back and to the side, a backhand swipe.  I tore through lawn, through slabs of sidewalk, and the edge of the road.  Dirt flew across the street alongside clumps of grass and chunks of sidewalk.

A long pause, and then I heard the footsteps again, running.  This time the other way.

Gilpatrick jumped as I appeared in the doorway of his office, nearly knocking over a paper container of noodles in red sauce that rested on a stack of paper.  Paperwork I would have been helping him with, had the day gone differently.

“Victoria?  What’s wrong?” he asked.

So it was that obvious something was wrong.

“I need to call in a favor,” I said.

Okay, hearing my voice, I could get why he’d known.  I sounded like another person entirely.

“If it’s okay,” I said.

“Of course it’s okay,” he said.  “What’s wrong?  Are you cold?  The temperature dropped steeply tonight.  What can I get you?  Sit.”

He stood, circling around his desk.  I backed away a little as he did, which was his cue to stop.

I wasn’t sure how to respond, how to ask.

“By the way,” he said.  “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no need to count.  I consider you a friend, and I feel like a piece of shit for setting you up to fail like that.”

“It’s not that,” I said.  “I just need a place to stay tonight.  While I figure some things out.  I’ll be gone before the students arrive first thing.”

I noted the hesitation before he responded.

“Sure,” he said.

“You paused.”

“Only because it’s not really a great place for staying overnight.  You could come to my apartment, but that’s-”

“I kind of want space to think,” I said.  “Offer’s appreciated.”

“There’s an issue with power rations and temperature is supposed to drop a few more degrees, and this place isn’t insulated well.  It was a bitch last winter.”

“I remember,” I said.

“Of course,” Gilpatrick said.

He kept giving me very deeply concerned looks.  Almost pity.

I really hated those.  I’d had a lifetime’s fill and then some.

“Okay,” he said.  “I’ve got a space heater right by my desk here.  You’ll want to be careful if you’re leaving it running for a while, fire hazard.”

“I’ll be careful,” I said.

“There are blankets we stowed in the locker rooms that you can use if you want to sleep.  You could get something serviceable if you gather a bunch.  I laundered them not too long ago, too.”

“I know where to find them.”

“There are candles too, in case the power runs out.  But again, fire hazard.”

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I’ll be careful.”

“Okay,” he said.  “You sure you don’t want company?  We can talk it out, if you haven’t eaten I can go grab something, or…”

I was already shaking my head.

“Sure,” he said.  “I was needing an excuse to go home, this will do.  Unless maybe I should stay around?  You could settle in upstairs, and I’ll be all the way down here, you can have your space to think and you can still have me to talk to in case you decide you need it.”

“No,” I said.  “Don’t let me keep you.  Go home.  You’ll have angry parents to talk to first thing tomorrow, once they’ve figured out what happened and had time to get angry.”

He frowned.  “Yeah.”

“Please,” I said.  “I know where everything is.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “You sure you’re okay?  You’re not going to…”

He trailed off.

“If I was going to do anything, I’d take someone out with me.”

He scrutinized me.

“I’m worried here, for the record,” he said.

“I’ll manage,” I said.  “I’ve managed this far.”

“You have my number,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“You call if you need anything.”

“Yeah.”

“And you… be here in the morning when I show up.  Which will be well before the kids do.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Okay,” he said.

He gathered up his paper container, a stack of his papers.  He was trying to pick up the remainder when I approached, picking it up myself.

Silent, I walked him to his car, handing over the papers when it was time.  I walked inside and locked the door behind me.  The place was big and it was dark, with the open gymnasium space unlit.

I carted the space heater upstairs, and then I got the blankets.  I got the candles and the matches, and then I found the file boxes, collapsed and gathered in piles.

I situated myself in my office, which wasn’t technically my office anymore, and I set to making the boxes, pulling my things off the shelves, and getting them stowed away.

The space heater hummed and the computer monitor clicked, as I periodically checked something or followed up on something I’d seen on a file.

I made a stack of the things I wanted to read, the files that intrigued or that I’d forgotten about, the magazines I liked.  I was a third of the way through my shelves, twelve boxes filled, when I finally settled down in my chair, pulling blankets over me, and started to read.

I got about two pages read before deciding I didn’t have it in me to read more.

I didn’t have it in me to sit still, when my anxieties were churning.

I stood, dropping blankets on the floor, and walked over to the window.  With the cold, the space heater, and the imperfect seal, moisture and fog had collected on it.

I reached out toward the window, a foot away from touching it.  I turned on my forcefield.

A pause.

Then a handprint on the window, in the condensation.  Then another.

A circular smudge that streaked, a naked breast pressed against the glass, moving.

Then the mark that couldn’t be anything but one half of a face, beneath the circular smudge.

They moved, and I wasn’t asking them to move.  The window rattled a bit as it was pushed against. The prints smudged.

A fingernail dragged against the glass, and produced a high pitched squeal, almost ear-splitting.

I dropped the forcefield.  I sank back into my seat, and it protested the landing.

Not a second trigger.  I was well aware of that.  When I’d first had my forcefield, it hadn’t protected my costume.  I had two theories as to why.

The first theory was that I’d grown, and the boundaries that the forcefield used to define ‘me’ had changed.  I’d breathe out, breathe in, gain a pound here, lose a pound there, and it would adjust for the maximum bounds.  It didn’t explain how my skirt was often protected, but I’d mused on that too, that my legs moved, my hair had been long at one point, I’d been shorter…

I’d been that, the forcefield had adjusted, and that was the new upper bound of what I was, forever with me.

It felt thin, as theories went.

The second theory was that it was the Manton effect, that broad-as-bells term for the built in protections and limitations of the power.  The theory was that the built-in protections of the power only protected what I saw as a part of me, and it had taken some time before the costume was that much a part of my identity.

That that was me, now, as much as the costume I wore.

I couldn’t be that.  I couldn’t sit still and be crushed under the weight of that thing.

I needed to do something, and taking books off the shelves felt like it was moving backward, not forward.

I spun around in my seat, and I loaded up the webpage.  Something to do.  Methodically filling out details on the group I’d seen, researching, filling myself in, and letting others know what they were up against.

Something constructive to keep me occupied until the power ran out, or until I was so tired I had no choice but to sleep.

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Daybreak – 1.6

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Snag’s power hurt, and it hurt in a way that had nothing to do with shedding blood or breaking bones.  Emotion.  My body still reacted, my heart rate picking up, breathing choked, adrenaline churning, hormones shifting.  My thoughts were scattered, thrusting me into a state where I could either only reel or I could grope for a position in familiar ground.

I didn’t want familiar.

Reeling meant trying not to think, letting it wash over me and through me, and not letting my thoughts go where the feelings pointed.  It meant I still had a metal gauntlet on my face and a metal arm pulled against my throat, and I was handling the situation with instinct.  Fight or flight.

Fight-

No.  I only barely stopped myself.  I’d kill him if I fought.

Fly then.

I pushed out with my aura, hard.  The flip side of my observation moments ago was true.  I was supposed to be resistant to hits to my emotions because I could deliver those hits myself.  Snag would be resistant to my aura for similar reasons.

He still let go, arms slipping back through the wall.  I had a moment where I thought about grabbing one of his wrists as it passed me, and I hesitated a moment too long.

I backed away, staggering until I bumped into the window next to the broken one.  My chest hurt as if I’d had my heart ripped out, and thoughts of Dean flickered through my head.  It was a continuation of my thoughts from earlier, one sample in a long, long series of thoughts I hadn’t let myself finish over the past few months and years that the surge of emotion was now filling in and pushing to the surface.

It was loss, if I had to put a name to it.  Nothing to do with the man on the roof.

It was me in the hospital, with Auntie Sarah and Crystal, not knowing what to say because Uncle Neil and Eric had just died.  Crystal had been hurt too, and the place had been so busy and crowded that we’d gathered in the small curtained enclosure where her hospital bed was.  My mom had been gone, trying to get news on my dad’s situation, and my sister-

It was going from that, the horrible feeling of helplessness and hopelessness, to hearing the curtain move.   I’d known it wasn’t my mom – she’d left only a minute ago.  It was as if someone had taken a want, desire, even a need equal to what I’d experienced in my childhood and early teens, when I’d wanted to be a hero, when I’d written letters to Santa and wished it during every birthday candle extinguishing and for every shooting star I’d seen from when I was four to when I was fourteen, if someone had gathered all of that feeling and compressed it into a single, concentrated moment of wanting it to be Dean coming into the enclosure to give me a hug.  And then not getting what I wanted.

The PRT staff member had come in to let me know Gallant had wanted to see me while there was still time.  Dean had.

Heart ripped out of my chest, just like that, just like this feeling here.  Losses, losses, fucking losses.  That ambiguous fucking word they’d used when they’d delivered the mass report.  Not deaths, not the ‘downs’ that were injured just enough they were out of the fight, just losses because they’d needed to be brief with the list of names so long.  Dean’s name had been on that list.

Where?  It had taken me three tries to get the word out.  They’d told me where, but I hadn’t traveled  a straight line to get there.  I’d zig-zagged, from doctor to nurse to PRT staff.  I’d asked people who had no cause or reason to know, tried describing her.  Asking, asking.  Pleading.

Where was she?  Had they seen her?  Where was the last place anyone saw her?  I need-

Where?  I shook my head, trying to rattle my brain and get centered in the present.  Where was Snag?  He’d disappeared into the next room.  I stepped forward, feeling unwieldy, and thrust my hand at the door, taking it off of the hinges, damaging the door’s frame.  Empty room.  Nowhere to be found.

My hand shook from the emotion, extended out in front of me.  I clenched it into a fist.

She’d been nowhere to be found too.

I’d arrived alone, no help to offer.  Too late to say anything or hear anything from him.  I’d choked on my words when it came to saying something to his parents.  There’d been this feeling like I couldn’t react the way I’d wanted and needed to, because his parents were there and they were somehow maintaining their composure.  Upset, yes, but they were wealthy and dignified enough they would do their crying in private.  They had weathered their losses years before and it had been the same then, according to Dean.  Now it was on Dean’s behalf.

What options did that leave me?  Break down into hysterical sobbing and act like I was hurting more than his own family was?  It might have been dismissed as the drama of a teenager and I hadn’t wanted that to be the final note on Dean and me, in their eyes, in the eyes of bystanders.

Like I imagined anyone in a relationship did, I’d wondered if we were in love, and then I’d known we were in love, and I’d grown close enough to him to wonder if he was a soulmate, dismissed the term just as easily as it had come up because it was silly and it didn’t matter either way, did it?  I’d received my answer on the question as I’d felt a part of me die during those long minutes of me trying and failing to say something to his family.

From that to home.  Southwest end of the city, our house mostly untouched by the attack.  To dad being ‘impaired’, mom’s word, and mom being business as usual, emphasis on business, because that was how she dealt.

To… a family member acting like they’d been replaced by a fucking pod person from another planet, gradually realizing that replacement had been a long time ago, and it was only now in context and crisis that I’d seen the alien-ness clearly, in the then-present and in retrospect.

Painful, in its own way, to have nobody to turn to.  The hurt had been there like a block of ice, melting too slowly when I hadn’t had any warmth to reach out for, not any less cold as the water pooled.  Not any less for the time that passed.  Just… more ambient.

This was like that.  Snag’s emotional effect was temporary.  The pain ebbed out, made my fingers feel numb and tingly, made it hard to breathe, and made me feel more physically weak and less coordinated than I should have been.

I stumbled a few steps, and reached out to touch the wall for support as I resumed moving, entering the room Snag had been in when he’d punched his arms through the wall.  It was reminiscent of a hotel room, but rustic enough it could have been a bed and breakfast.  Two small beds, a bedside table, a desk, and a flatscreen television sitting on a dresser.

He had a mover classification, I was pretty sure.  He’d used a trick to jump after the bus.  I made sure to look up, to avoid any ambush in case he jumped at me from the space between the top of the door and the ceiling.

The room was empty.

“Snag?” I asked.

No response.

My emotions were jumping around as I bucked the worst of the effect.  I wanted to have him to talk to, to pull me out of the mire of past feelings and into the present.  It made for a wild, disturbed kind of familiarity, almost a longing, as distorted emotions tried to find reconciliation with my head.  It ended up parsing him as if he was an old friend I was trying to reconnect with.  The same kind of weird emotional fixations that made Stockholm syndrome a thing.  Cult leaders and abusers used it.

When you had nothing, you groped for anything, even if it was the person who’d brought you to that point.

I’d reached out back then, too.  I’d turned to the Wards, because my mom had been the only person doing anything to keep New Wave in motion, the team had been falling apart, and I’d needed something.  Because the tests and briefings made me feel closer to Dean, reminded me of the study sessions.  Because the first time I saw her after the Endbringer attack, Vista had hugged me, because Dean, and it meant something to me that there was someone else properly upset for him.

“Guys,” I said, loud enough to be heard in the next room.

“Victoria?  Are you okay?” the voice was muffled.

I opened my mouth to respond.  My failure to form words reminded me of talking to Dean’s parents again.

I stopped myself, trying to focus and put myself in the present.  I took a deep breath that shook a little on the way in and the way out.

“Step back from the wall,” I said.

“Don’t,” was the immediate response.  “Don’t touch the bomb.”

“I’m not touching the bomb,” I said.  “Get away from the door and the wall to the right of the door.”

Snag had felt secure enough to stick his arms through the wall and not jar the bomb too badly.

I’d take his cue.

I put my arm through the wall, felt my forcefield go down.  I heard the exclamations.  Once I was sure I was good to move, I dragged it to one side, tearing a hole, felt one of the studs, moved it to the other side, and felt another.  About two feet of clearance between the studs.

I saw the faces on the other side.  Worried.  Angry.

The window shattered.  Snag reached through, seizing me by the throat.  He swung by one arm outside the building, dragging his other arm through the windows and slats, shattering them with explosive force, as he drove me toward the wall opposite the hole I’d just made.

I still had my forcefield up.  He hadn’t grabbed me that hard.  Flight and forcefield together helped to stop me in my tracks.  Floorboards shattered under me, and a window beside me broke as the force was transferred out.

Seizing his arm, I swung it like a bat, hurling him into the room.  I maintained my grip on him as I did it.

He touched the ground with one foot, then changed trajectory.  Dust fell from the ceiling as he landed on it, upside-down, his arm still extended my way.

I felt the machinery hum with activity, and tore the hand away, pushing it away from my throat and face.  The emotion effect grazed me, minor, but I hadn’t recovered from the last hit.

A small kind of loss, this.  The hit didn’t do what the first had, rounding out a memory.  It did buzz through other memories.  Ones that were more minor, that I’d never put to rest.

Being in the bus stop with my mom.  Weird, because it had once been a happy memory.  She’d been stitching up a cut on my forehead while I suppressed my forcefield.  The rain had been pouring, streaking the graffiti-covered walls of the bus stop.  A moment for just my mom and me.  She’d paused midway through the first aid to tell me that she was proud of me.  We’d got the guy we were after.  Then we had talked about how I’d have to change my hair for a short while to hide the stitches.  One of my first times officially out in costume.

It was a memory I kept going back to.  One I’d brought up several times in the hospital.  Bittersweet somehow, and it had become more bitter and less sweet over time.

It bothered me, brought me down just a bit, because it was something unresolved that had weighed on me, because I was already down a ways.

Stop,” I said.  I didn’t sound like myself.

His hands freed, he reached back to his boot with one gauntlet.

He threw a trio of fat shurikens at me.  My forcefield blocked them, saw them bounce off, one landing on the bed, two falling to the floor beside me.

I kicked the bed to bring the more solid bedframe to where I could grab it, and rammed the end of the bed at the corner where he was.  The shurikens detonated behind me, and on the bed in front of me.  Something that wasn’t fire or anything of the sort.  Something jumped between them, like electricity but not.  Where it touched me, my heart jumped, my mind stumbled, and feelings welled.

All of the doubts, fears, and hesitations inside me magnified, multiplied.  It paralyzed me for the moment.

This, at least, was something I’d been trying to get a handle on.  Here, my resistance applied.

He’d dropped down to the ground before the bed struck him, landing on both feet, arms spread out, hands planted on the ground.  He sprung back using his mover power, landing with one hand and one boot near the ceiling and another hand and boot beneath and on the window as he clung to the wall.

With the damage I’d done to the bed already by using it as a weapon, the swipe I used to get it out of my way destroyed it, only the mattress surviving.  I still had to pick my way past a slat.

He seemed surprised that I was already moving.  After pausing momentarily in shock, he used the moment of me navigating the wreckage of the bed to spring off to the right, down the hallway.

I passed through the doorway, pursuing, and my head turned against my will.  I heard glass break, saw Snag vault through the window he’d broken.

He was nimble, for a guy that big, but it seemed his mover power was responsible for most of it, his mechanical arms only helping with the legwork.  He was strong in many respects for what I was gathering was a multi-trigger.  Robust tinkerings, what felt like a full-fledged emotion affecting ability, a decent mover power.

My attention was more on the other two further down the hallway.  Blindside, I assumed, and a hint of the pink and grey coloring to the carpet that might have been Nursery.

Blindside’s bat tinked against a solid surface as they loitered there.

“Damn it, Snag,” Blindside muttered.  “Running off and leaving us with this?”

“He’s a character,” Nursery said.

“You’re a character,” Blindside said.

I could hear wet slurping sounds and I couldn’t see what was making them because Blindside was standing close to Nursery.

“Stop this,” I said.  “It doesn’t end anyplace good.”

I didn’t hear the response, because Snag reached up through the floorboards, seized my leg, and hauled me halfway through the floor.  I might have gone further, but I braced myself with flight and forcefield.

It left me kneeling with one leg, the other stuck straight out and down through the floor, my hands on the ground in front of me.

I heard Blindside’s running approach.

Bat in hand, probably.  I pushed out with my aura, hoping to give them a reason to think twice, buy myself a second.

Lurching to my feet, I brought Snag’s arm up above the ground.  I reached down to grab his hand, and then kicked nearer to the elbow.

The mechanical arm broke off.  With a bat of my own, I shifted my grip to the wrist rather than the now-limp hand, and held my weapon out, waving the broken end of the arm in Blindside’s general direction.

No blood.  I’d broken it off far enough down.  That was good.

I was breathing hard, my heart was racing, and old wounds felt fresh again, but I was finding some equilibrium again.  I-

The arm I was holding self-destructed, or the emotional battery within it did.  It stayed in one piece and it dashed me to pieces.

Again, the ripped-out heart feeling.  Again, the heavy sense of despair.  Deeper-seated now, because I hadn’t recovered entirely from either of the other two hits, the big one and the graze.

I saw double, more than double.

Months and years of seeing double.  One eye on the computer screen beside me, watching the time, looking for chat notifications.  One eye on the television.  One eye on the door.

Twenty past two.  Fifteen minutes late.  I counted the minutes.  Twenty one past two.

Twenty two past two.  The sound from the television was almost abrasive, made to be attention-getting.

I wanted to say something, protest, and I didn’t have a voice.  The computer was in arm’s reach, but it was a herculean effort to get a message out.

The door opening and the wrong person being on the other side.  Just like with Dean.  It wasn’t the staff member who came on weekdays at two-oh-five when I had visitors.  It was someone else, with a face I knew, a name I didn’t, and a gentle voice that was telling me that another patient was throwing a tantrum and the facility was on lockdown, they had contacted my visitors.

My visitors, my family, had decided that because they didn’t know how long the lockdown would be, they would come another day.  It was a long trip.

I reached for the laptop, started to type out my message for the text-to-speech speaker, using keys that were oversized and spaced out, with screwholes in the middle of each key for knobs and joysticks to be screwed in for when other patients had their turn.  It was supposed to double as physical therapy for me, coordinating myself, making the effort to reach and reposition.

The staff member had apologized, then turned to go notify other patients, closing the door behind her.  I’d tried to vocalize and of course I’d failed.  It was too long and byzantine a way from lung to mouth.

The message had been left unfinished on my screen, only a few words of what I’d wanted to say.  Even completed, the statement wouldn’t have meant anything to the staff member, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.  All I’d wanted to express was that my family had missed the last two visiting days as well.

My eye had found the clock on the laptop, noted the ‘F’.  Friday.

One eye on the clock, watching the minutes.  One eye on the television.  One eye on the F, counting the days to Monday.  One eye for the email icon on the computer screen, waiting for the apology email that would come.  When it did, I would check the time, comparing it to other apology emails, to try and figure out if they were getting further apart, less.  To see if they would stop entirely, a prelude to the visits ceasing altogether, because it was easier to forget me than to do otherwise.

Something inside of me had broken at that.  I’d known it would cost me privileges.  Maybe even visits.  I’d known it would hamper or hurt other patients and staff across the hospital.  Ones who didn’t deserve it.

But I had nothing else.

I’d pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.

I pushed out with my aura, as hard as I could, as far as I could.

Things had been happening while I was elsewhere.  The building shook.  The villains were gone.

“Victoria!”

Jasper.

He was with others.  I barely recognized them.  The heroes in particular took me a second.  The kid who looked a little bit flamboyant, hair gelled back, wearing what was almost a crop top, a beast’s upper face with fangs pointing down at his chest, the lower jaw and fangs on the belt, with diagonal slashes worked into either side of both parts of the icon, painted on his abs in a faint color that might have been missed in dimmer light.  Tempera with more of the white paint on her, a bit of blood.  Fume Hood was using one hand to press a bandage to her shoulder.  Crystalclear was missing more than a few chunks from his head.  One of his eyes was exposed now, peering from between one chunk that grew from the bridge of his nose and one that grew from his temple, very blue.

They looked frightened of me.

That was what my aura did, really.  Another of those contextual emotional things, like the Stockholm syndrome.  Awe and admiration if they liked me, fear if they didn’t.

Just fear, here.

“S-stop.”

Not my voice this time.  Jasper’s.

I stopped.

I trembled as I made myself get back to my feet.  I wiped my cheeks where they were wet.  My hair was a mess from being thrown around.  I used numb fingers to pry at it, undoing the tie.

“Christ,” Mar said.

For the first time, Jasper didn’t shut him up.

The building shook.  Daylight reached parts of the indoors it wasn’t supposed to.  This would be their plan B.  Property damage indeed.  Lord of Loss was tearing off the roof.

“We need to go,” Tempera said.

I nodded.  I looked back for the hole I’d made.  I saw the teenagers in uniform in the trashed room.  They’d opened the hole the rest of the way and filed out.  Now they stood as far away from me as the room’s boundaries allowed.

They would have seen me throw the bed.

“Yeah,” I said.  My voice sounded hollow.

The partial uniform I wore, still without the vest that I’d left outside, dusty  blood-spotted, it didn’t fit me anymore.  I felt choked by it, because I knew I’d just lost my job.

I led the way down the stairs.  I stumbled in one place where a trace of Nursery’s effect made the stair a different shape, carpeted when it shouldn’t have been.  Flight helped keep me from sprawling.

“You’re Glory Girl,” Landon said.

I’m not, I thought.

“People said you died when the Slaughterhouse Nine attacked Brockton Bay back in twenty-eleven.”

“Landon,” Jasper said.  One word.

The people who had been gathered inside were evacuating.  Kingdom Come wasn’t making it easy, either.  As they reached a safe distance, near where people had been protesting, they were gathering in offset rows, so we would have to move diagonally or zig-zag through their ranks to get past them.  A fence.

It was hard to tell what the villains were doing when Blindside was part of the group and they were already distant, but I could turn my head and see a bit of them out of the corner of one eye.  They were backing up, moving away without actually fleeing the scene.  Nursery was creating her effect.

The kids I’d brought with me were backing away, putting themselves  a distance away from us.

I looked up for the branches overhead and I didn’t see them.

“Watch out for Lord of Loss,” Tempera said, following my line of sight.

Where was he?

“He’s up there,” Crystalclear said.  “He’s changing.  Centaur?”

“That’s his combat form,” I said.  I still didn’t sound like myself.  “One of them.  It’s mobile.”

“I’ll keep the others busy,” Longscratch said.  He swiped one of the weapons he held, the buckler with the three swords mounted on the back, and three deep furrows appeared on the ground, stretching out beneath the feet of the crowd.

“Wait,” Tempera said.

Longscratch flickered, appearing momentarily at two of the points on the far side of the crowd where the furrows ended, before finalizing at the third.

“Help him,” she told Crystalclear, touching his shoulder, leaving white fingerprints.  “Fume Hood, stay close.  They’re still targeting you.”

Tempera moved her hand, and deposited what looked like fifty gallons of the white paint with black edges on the street.   We spread out as it appeared.  She moved her fingers, and it spread out.

“Tempe!” Crystalclear shouted.  He extended one hand out to the side, pointing.

The paint moved, a tidal wave, leaving a streak where it went.

I chased it.

Lord of Loss leaped from the rooftop.  Ten feet tall, a centaur in vague shape only.  His lower body looked more rhino-like, though the legs were longer, and he was plated in those same straps that looked like twists of smoke frozen in place, or wispy bands of metal that peeled away from him at the end.  He carried a heavy shield on one side, cut in a way that let its bottom left edge rest against the shoulder of his foreleg when he held it tilted forward, and he carried a heavy lance in the other hand.

His face was a helmet, the slits for the eyes and lower face were closed up, so the face was only a series of ridges where bands met and poked out, Y-shaped.  His hair was a mane of bands left to flow like smoke.

He landed in the streak of Tempera’s paint, and he lost traction, falling to one side.

The paint rose up and over him, then solidified.  He shattered it, lurched to his feet.  The paint liquified and rose up and over his legs, and he shattered it again.

Was it more easily than he’d shattered it the first time?

Actions he repeated were supposed to be stronger.

To give Tempera a hand, I threw myself forward at Lord of Loss.  Flight, forcefield up.  He twisted around and raised the shield, blocking me.  I still hit him hard enough to cost him footing.  Paint covered him, hardened.

He broke the paint, swung his lance around, hitting me with the broad side.

Forcefield down, impact dampened but not entirely broken.  I hit the ground and it hurt.

He broke through the paint yet again, found his feet, hit me again, this time while my feet were planted on the ground.  My forcefield came back up just in time to be broken again.

Yeah, that hit had been harder.

Fume Hood shot him, hit him in the face.  The paint crawled up to his upper body and joints, hardened there, trying to limit his movement, and he broke it again.

He laughed.  Then he hit me again.  I deflected the hit, swatting at his lance with one hand.

He was advancing, pressing closer to Fume Hood, and as much as I retreated, as much as I was sure Fume Hood was backing up, he had longer legs.

When he hit me yet again, pavement cracked beneath me, around my feet, the forcefield pushing the impact out and around me.  I almost lost my step backing away, with the cracked ground.

Each hit stronger than the last by a significant margin.

This was the point I was supposed to throw my hands up and surrender, or get out of the way.  If he decided to hit me more frequently, or if he lurched forward and kicked me with one of those feet of his after swatting me with his lance-

Crystalclear had turned around, was using his blasts on Lord of Loss now.

Loss, losses, losses, losses.

I threw myself forward, flying, seizing him by one leg, twisting, trying to knock him over.

I got him off balance, and then he hit me.  Only a moment of me holding onto him kept me from getting smacked into the ground with no forcefield.  I fell to the ground and scrambled out of the way of his legs.

I waited until my forcefield was back, then threw myself at him, bowling him over.  I tore at strips, peeling away at him.

In the background, Kingdom Come had abandoned his control over the crowd.  They woke as if from a deep sleep, and they seemed surprised by what was happening around them.  They fled.  Away from the brutes fighting, away from the chaos and the damaged building.

He elbowed me.  It took him long enough to rise to his feet again that I was able to get in front of him again.

I could do this.

I needed to do this.

It-

It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted.  I barely registered the sound.  A crack, coinciding with the noise of the crowd.  Lord of Loss went still.

My back had been turned, so I hadn’t been in a position to see it.

One bullet, from somewhere nearby.  Fume Hood on the ground, Tempera beside her.

It wasn’t my day to get what I wanted.

I’d frozen.  A lot of people had.

“Go to her,” Lord of Loss said.  “Help.  I’ll let you go if you let us go.”

Numb, I nodded.

“Let people know it wasn’t us.  This wasn’t our plan,” he said, behind me.

I flew as much as I walked, and dropped to my knees at Fume Hood’s side.  I put my forcefield up, tried to position myself where I could be a wall for her.

“Put your hands here,” Tempera told me.

I did, pressing down on the stomach wound.  Blood pooled out, covering the backs of my hands.

The crowd had gone still.  There was a murmuring, and people were drawing closer to watch and to see.

Reminiscent of Vikare.

In the background, Longscratch and Crystalclear had already apprehended the suspect.  A protester that had been in a building nearby.  Hunting rifle.  The villains were leaving.

“Not-” Fume Hood grunted.

“Not?” I asked.

“Not a good day,” she muttered, through gasps.

“No,” I agreed.  Very much agreed.

Landon had come closer, and was helping by getting the first aid kit out.  Tempera took the components.

“Not a good day for any of us,” Tempera said, giving the crowd a glance.

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Daybreak – 1.5

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I paused at one of the doors of the kitchen.  I’d come in one door and there were two more.  One led to a hallway with people standing stationary at the end.  Another led to the main room, where everyone had been seated before this had begun.

Crystalclear hadn’t signaled me further, and I took that to mean I was supposed to pause or wait.  People in the main room were moving around.  I peered through a crack in the door to see if there was an opening, a break in the ranks I could use to slip through or get something done.

I saw the people Kingdom Come had controlled had settled in, most finding seats in the folding chairs that had been set up throughout the room.  Some stood around the side or sat with their backs to the wall.  Others stood at the windows, watching outside.

The majority of the crowd was at rest.  The ones who weren’t had guns drawn.  The police officers were among them.

The officer with the sad mustache was at the front of the room, face streaked with blood.  He was talking, and I couldn’t see who he was talking to.

I listened to the conversation, two people talking against a faint background of a chorus of hums and music box sounds.

“You want me to negotiate with terrorists,” a woman said.

“We want you to do what is best for your community,” the police officer said, in a very different voice than he’d used earlier.

“By playing along?”

“This started with civilians, it involves cape on cape violence,” the officer said.  “If you cooperate, we’ll pay for damage done, we’ll extend our protection over your community in a way that keeps capes out of sight and mostly out of mind.”

“A protection racket?”

“Not a racket.  No money or expectations.  We’ll take the woman and we’ll tell you what to do in order to smooth things over.”

“I don’t understand why.  What does this serve?  Fume Hood was upfront about her history.  She wanted to serve her time in this way.”

“If we tell you why, will you cooperate?”

“I can’t promise that,” the woman said.  I was assuming she was the District Rep.  Why had she left the others?

“The City is like a pressure cooker.  The pressure is mounting and has been for a while.  Things inside are heating up and winter is fast approaching.  A number of great thinkers seem to think we need to vent the-”

“Vent the pressure?” the District Rep asked.

“Yes,” the police officer said.  “The-”

There was an explosion overhead.  Another of Crystalclear’s shots.  Two more, leading from one corner of the room and away.

I looked at the crowd, and I saw the person closest to me staring at me.

Kingdom Come knew, he’d seen.

“We’ll continue this conversation shortly.  You’ve got a cape with a gun inside the building.”

I backed away.  Crystalclear created more explosions close to the other door.  The people who had been standing guard at the end of the hallway, probably.

I retreated, ducking behind a counter.

They entered the room simultaneously, doors banging against the wall.

I ducked down, staying behind cover.

“You’re the one who fought Blindside?” the one at the door asked.  The police officer.

I remained silent.

“I don’t want to shed any blood that isn’t mine,” he said.  He was moving deeper into the room.  I heard the door squeak, peeked, and saw the corner of it.  It had been opened and was being held open.  Another person?

“Alright,” he said.

One of the issues of being a parahuman was that there wasn’t a history to build on or a peerage to draw from.  We had powers, yes.  Some of those powers were similar to the powers others had, but there were almost always tricks and caveats, strengths one person had that another didn’t.  I couldn’t copy Alexandria’s old tactics and style because my invincibility worked differently.  Timing was so much more important to me.

I could be shot, if my timing was wrong, or if their timing was especially right.

A person like Jasper could take classes in martial arts and get lessons on the range, and he could use tools and draw on the experience of millions of others who had bodies that worked like his did, a set of capabilities that were virtually identical to his own.

There was only one Victoria Dallon with Victoria Dallon’s powers.  I had to lean heavily on my own experience.  In exercising my abilities, there was a point beyond which I was the only person that could teach myself – nobody resembled me closely enough to be an instructor in how to fight, how to process, or how to or pass on their experience.

But my own experience was a drawback if I was caught in the moment, where I had to rely on instinct but that instinct pointed me right back to my old ways.

These people were innocent.  The officer, the others at the door.  Maybe some had been protesters.  Kingdom Come had no issue in using them, but I couldn’t hurt his pawns.

He could have moved them as a group, but he didn’t.  He moved like a chessmaster played chess.  One person taking a new position, pausing, checking the area, then another person moving.  The police officer in charge -chief or sheriff, I wasn’t sure-  had stopped in the center of the room.  Others were moving around the perimeter.

I caught a glimpse of one by the gun he was holding, and moved around the corner.  They all moved the same way when they moved, pistols held up, gripped in two hands that were dotted in drops of drying blood, pointed at the ceiling.  I saw the gun before I saw the rest of him.

The lullaby continued, faint and distant.  It wasn’t enough to obscure any scuffle I made.  I didn’t want to make noise, and whatever the movies showed, it was hard to crawl around while wearing boots and be sure to not make any sound.

I didn’t like flying.  I wasn’t confident in it like I had been.  Two years had passed in the hospital, and my sense of flight had been as disturbed as the movement of my arm or my attempts at vocalization.  It was supposed to be back, but it was a muscle I hadn’t exercised.

I wanted to fly, but it was tainted.

I raised myself off the ground, still hunched over, staying low enough that the counters would block me from sight, and used flight as much as light pushes on the sides of the cabinet to propel myself away from the advancing gunman.

I had other training to draw on that wasn’t self-taught.  There was what I’d learned and absorbed from time with family, but that whole experience was so full of pitfalls I barely wanted to touch on it.

The Wards.  I hadn’t been with them for long.  I’d absorbed some things from Dean, because I lived the cape stuff and Dean was willing to teach it.  I’d studied up and I’d taken the tests.  I knew the numbers and the labels.  I knew the approach formations for squads.  Simple, making conflict with parahumans as textbook as possible, black ink on white paper, sans serif.

In fighting that perpetual battle of trying to think things through and still act in time, the classifications were a nice shortcut.  Apply the label, assume what worked against most people of one classification, and if it clearly didn’t, it was still a starting point.

He was edging closer.

Kingdom Come was a breaker and a master.  He had a toggled state that changed the rules as they pertained to him.  Shake, blow up, and he was now a horde of people controlled by the bodily fluids on them.  Masters were second highest priority as targets, breakers were targets that required timing, often hitting them when they were in the state that they were weakest.

Kingdom Come made that complicated by not giving me a body to target.

They were closing in.  They’d crossed the length of the room and if I had to guess, four of them were standing within fifteen feet of me, guns held high, where it would be that much harder for me to lunge for the weapon.  He didn’t have perfect coordination of their movements, I had to assume, unless they were all doing the same thing, like when the crowd had turned their heads.

The old me would have dealt with this by blitzing them.  Hit each hard, fast, before they had a chance to react.  Some minor harm would have come to innocents, but the situation would be resolved.

The current me waited, staying silent, letting them get close.  One to my left, one in the middle avenue of the kitchen, between the two rows of counter-islands, and one on the far right, furthest from me.

As I set my boot down on the floor, ready to move, Crystalclear volunteered his help.  An explosion at the ceiling, a few feet behind the guy to my left.

He spun around, looking, and I took advantage, leaping over the counter, reaching for the gun he held aloft.  I seized it and his hands, and pulled both to the ground, where the counters kept us out of sight of the other two.

They started to approach at a run, each around one end of the counter, so they’d catch me on both sides, and Crystalclear offered another blast between me and them.  It took out the light fixture above, and cast the corner of the room into shadow, illuminated by periodic sparks.

It gave me a moment’s pause to think.  I ignored the man I’d brought to the ground, as I held his hands and the gun.  I didn’t even need my strength- only leverage and my body weight.

I couldn’t do anything to him that would put him down for good without risking hurting the real person.  I couldn’t do anything to Kingdom Come, as much as the rule for dealing with masters said I should.  He didn’t have a material body.

I used a burst of strength and tore the gun from the one man’s hands, sliding it along the floor so it went under one of the appliances.  I’d gone high to go after the first one, so I went low as I went after the officer to my left, throwing myself around the counter, using a bit of flight to help keep up my speed as I went around the corner.

I tackled him to the ground, holding him as we went down to keep the impact from being too hard.  I’d managed to get one hand around his wrist, and as he pulled his other hand away, gripping the gun, I seized that wrist too.

That left one in the middle of the room, one unarmed and on the ground and no doubt climbing to his feet, and one coming around the corner, gun ready.

I flew, sliding the police officer along the floor.  I twisted to hit the cabinet with my shoulder as we reached the end of the row.  That would bruise tomorrow.  I flew again, to move another direction, keeping away from the rest.

As we stopped, the officer had enough in the way of bearings to drop the gun.  He drew his knee toward his chest, and then kicked the gun so it would slide on the kitchen floor.

Someone stepped through the doorway, stooping low and catching the gun in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if they hadn’t had a greater awareness.

No, as much as he was a master in execution, he was also a breaker.  I had to be sensible.  It didn’t make sense to fight a breaker like this when he was in his breaker state.

I pushed the police chief away, and then, reorienting, I flew straight up, through the ceiling.  I felt my forcefield go down, bracing myself in case I brushed up against any wiring.

Second floor.  I checked my surroundings.  None of Kingdom Come’s people.  The lullaby music was louder.  The drones would arrive soon.  I moved, hurrying down the hall.

I found the stairwell.  I stepped into it, glancing down.  No sign of an approach.

I peeled some of the metal away from the railing, stepped back into the hallway, and leveraged my strength to twist the metal around the door handle, to seal it shut.  I knew there could be other stairwells, but at least this way I’d hear them if they tried coming this way.

Covering my back.

Priorities.  Blindside was as classic a stranger as I’d ever dealt with.  Out of action or out of consideration for now.

Lord of Loss was a brute.  Textbook answer when faced with a brute was to ignore them as much as they allowed you to.  It would take too much effort and it would take too much time when dealing with someone who couldn’t be decisively dealt with.

I could remember studying the PRT paperwork with Dean, doing the quizzes.  He’d said the rule for brutes had an unofficial second part.  That as much as you might try to put them off, they had a way of making you deal with them.

What had I said in response to that?  I was a brute on paper.

Had that been the study session we’d had in my room?  Dean would have been leaning against a pile of pillows at the head of my bed, Lyo-Leo on his lap, while Dean pretended to have him read the answers.  I’d been sitting at the foot of the bed, papers and books strewn between us.  Real homework and superhero stuff.

The door had been left open, at my dad’s insistence.  One foot tucked under me, I’d snuck my one foot across the bed until I could touch Dean’s knee, trace my toe along his leg.  Seeing if I could break his focus enough to make him mess up while reading aloud.

No, wait, that had been a few days after Dean had reminded me of the brute rule.  I’d been studying it with more interest because Dean was turning eighteen before long, and we were worried he’d get moved to another city, even with his family situation being what it was.  I’d seriously been considering joining the Wards and then the Protectorate, so I could follow him.

But I’d told my stuffed lion that he needed to remind Dean that brutes like me had a way of making you deal with them.  They could only be ignored for so long.

Normally clever Dean had been at a loss for words.  He’d grabbed my toe and squeezed it.  I’d wiggled it in his hand.  We’d been familiar enough with each other that the silence that followed didn’t feel bad.  Awkward in a good way, even.

He’d, after a long pause, found the clever thing to say, but he’d stumbled his way through it.  It would be my pleasure.  Pause.  To deal with you.

It hadn’t been long after that that we’d had our first night together.  It had taken two days of desperate attempts at coordinating schedules and patrols, for me to get out without family wanting to join me, for Dean to avoid the ‘sidekick’ situation and go out in costume without a Protectorate member joining him.

My heart hurt, thinking of Dean.  My knight in shining armor.

Still, I smiled as I remembered some of the emails we’d exchanged, my hands resting on the metal I’d used to lock the door.  Dean, ever the gentleman, had wanted to negotiate and check everything, from my comfort levels about X, Y, and Z to how my personal forcefield would factor into our time together.

I’d laughed at that, which had been the tip-off for Amy to realize something was up.  She’d-

And I’d gone and done it.  Let my guard down, tripped over the stumbling block, stepped on the emotional landmine.  There was only the hurt, now, none of the mixed, warm feeling that came from thinking about Dean.

I pushed it all out of mind.  It wasn’t the time for that anyway.  I was prone to getting lost in thought, even though it sometimes felt like every path led to the same, regrettable destination.

Dry, deliberate classifications.  Moving forward.  Deep breaths, when my chest hurt enough that breathing was hard.  Back to numbers and labels.  Lord of Loss and Kingdom Come had to be ignored, but I could trust that Lord of Loss would come into the picture somewhere along the line.  We still had to get out of here or deal with him.

Nursery was close enough for me to hear the hums and chimes.  Shaker, clearly.  Not dissimilar to Labyrinth from back in Brockton Bay.  The rule for dealing with shakers was to avoid fighting them on their own turf.

Snag was changer or tinker, possibly striker.  Those arms.  He had something mover going on with how he’d gone after the bus Jasper was driving.

Still, there might be another in play.

I ventured down the hallway, still feeling that ache in my chest, feeling acutely aware of my own body, the way clothes constrained me, reaffirmed me, yet every reaffirmation was a reminder that I needed that small reminder in the first place, and why.

My hand brushed against the wall as I walked.  The closer to the north end of the building I got, the more of the lullaby I could hear.  Multiple sources formed the humming, soft around the edges, each slightly out of sync with the others in a way that suggested they all came from different places.

I felt the texture of the wall change.  Smoother.  I felt and saw the difference in texture and color, respectively.  Gray and dusty rose shades, as if seen through a filter.  The wall had become a painted surface that felt as if it had been painted over many times, some droplets having run down the wall and set in place, ridges elsewhere where similar bumps had been painted over and become a faint rise.

I could hear her now.  Nursery.  A human’s hum, joined by all the others.  She was close.

Peering around the corner of the T-shaped junction, I didn’t see her, but I saw the change.  Her turf, as it was.  Dusty rose carpet, picture frames with simple things like animals and boats in grays, blacks, and pale pinks.  A crib, white, covered with a quilt.

I stayed at the edges of it, going further down the hall rather than turning the corner and venturing into her realm.  Only the wall to my right was affected.  A baby carriage draped in a blanket was parked beside a small bookshelf that had been stacked with children’s books and building blocks.  The cloth stuck as if it had been taped down or the sheer amount of time it had been there had nearly fused it to the fabric of the carriage, producing a tearing sound reminiscent of Velcro.  The carriage was empty, except for a vague oblong stain on the seat’s back and the seat itself.

When I left it behind, though, I could tell that there was humming coming from that vicinity, one of the soft, vague hums in the grander chorus.

Fuck me.

Every five or ten feet, there were more.  A car seat removed from the car, handle up, blanket over it.  Another crib, a much-used blanket tangled in the mobile, a child’s wagon.  Toys, clocks, wall decorations, cardboard boxes stuffed of baby clothes, marked for ages zero to three.  A rocking horse and more.

I was forced to venture further into it to get closer to the true sound’s source.

I saw her.  Nursery was a woman with an ankle-length dress, a shawl over her shoulders.  She clutched the shawl and rocked from side to side, speaking the inarticulate sounds rather than humming.

Beside her was Snag.  He was heavyset.  Two hundred and fifty pounds, at least, possibly three hundred pounds, and he wasn’t quite six feet tall.  That mass was made even bulkier by his coat, which was fastened closed, draping down to his ankles, where his boots were.  The sleeves had been modified to be longer, fitting the arms, which reached to the floor.

It was my first chance at seeing his face, though.  He had long black hair and a thick beard, both in the loose heavy-metal take.  His mask looked like he’d taken handfuls of black clay and layered it over the skin his hair and beard didn’t cover.  The mask created a kind of neanderthal brow with a permanent glare built into it; the circles under his eyes were so dark it was hard to tell exactly where the eyeholes of the black clay mask started.  It might have been thick rubber, melted to be in the crude shape needed, the texture left unrefined.

Nursery barely flinched as the door opened.  Fume Hood stuck her head and arm out, and she fired three projectiles.  One hit the slash of white paint that separated Nursery’s realm from the door, exploding into a cloud of gas.  Two hit near where Nursery and Snag were, going to pieces instead of exploding or producing gas.

The gas from the first shot expanded to fill the space between Nursery’s pocket world and the door at the end of the hall.

“Speed it up,” Snag said.

Nursery turned his way.  She wore a cloth mask with holes cut out for the eyes.  The cloth had a floral print and was bound close to her neck with a series of chokers.  She continued to mumble and hum, but she’d stopped rocking in place.

“Come on now,” Snag growled.  “We’re expecting trouble.”

The humming stopped.  The music box chimes that seemed to be plucking and pealing from the light fixtures and behind the walls grew noticeably quieter.

“Every time I have to stop to respond to you, Snag, it slows us down.  Be a good boy and be patient, trust us.  We’re making progress, even if you can’t see it.”

“If we get caught between the new player and Bad Apple’s team-”

Nursery let go of her shawl to reach out, placing her hand flat on Snag’s face, covering eyes, nose and mouth.  He pulled back, and I ducked back behind the corner, so he wouldn’t catch a glimpse of me.

“Hush,” she said.  “We’re safe even if that happens.  This is my sanctuary.”

“I will bite you if you touch my face again.”

“You’re not as scary as you pretend to be, Snag.  I know scary.  You’re just a man that’s dressing up,” Nursery said.  She sounded gentle, calm even after being threatened.

“Try me.”

“Please, hush,” she said.  “Let me do my work.”

“If you take any longer, I’m going to push for plan B.”

Nursery resumed humming.

No more feedback from Crystalclear.  The group at the end of the hall weren’t doing much of anything.

More to the point, I was rather concerned that the area of the building I was in didn’t entirely map to the layout of the building that I’d seen from the outside.  There was just a little too much room to either side of Nursery and Snag.

“Tell me the details,” Snag said, his voice growl-like even when he wasn’t threatening Nursery.  He’d walked a distance away from her and toward me.

A pause, long.  Snag picked up a child’s plush and threw it down the hall, bowling over a stack of thin hardcover books.

“Well, it’s taking plenty of time.  So is Nursery,” he said.  “What’s Kingdom’s status?”

Another pause.

“At this stage I’d settle for plan B,” he said.  “I’d pay for the property damage.”

Pause.

“They’re trying to buy time and it’s working.  Tell Blindside to hurry up.”

Blindside.

I stood with my back to the wall, listening in.  Crystalclear hadn’t communicated, but I wasn’t sure he could.  Fume Hood and Tempera weren’t doing much but holding the fort and delaying.

Nursery continued humming, but she piqued the last hum with an inquisitive note.

“Blindside faked being out.  Should arrive soon.  We’ve got some details on our mystery guest.  Dressed like one of the troopers I stashed in the room back there.  Untouchable but still wary of being hit.  Emotion control.”

The humming stopped.

I expected Snag to complain.  He didn’t.

I chanced a look around the corner.

Nursery had turned around.  She faced me.  Snag was gone.

I stepped out of cover, one hand on my gun, glancing around to see where Snag had disappeared to.

I wasn’t supposed to fight a shaker in her domain.  But here she was, standing with her hands clasped in front of her, defenseless.  She was also the only thing standing between me and the room where Fume Hood was.

“Let me through,” I said.

“No,” she said.

I pushed out my aura, as hard as I could manage.

She didn’t flinch.  It didn’t reach her.

That was what this was.  Her sanctuary was a protection from shaker effects.  She overrode everything by transplanting this screwed up baby decor into the area.

I wondered if I could hit her.  I looked around for Snag and didn’t see him.

“Wake up,” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“Wake up, sweetie.”

The crib, a little red wagon with blankets heaped over it, and a carriage nearby jumped, rattling as if something had moved within.

I heard wet sounds.  Throughout the hazy altered space, the meaty squelching started to overtake the background hums.

I stopped in my tracks.

Things moved beneath the blankets.  She still hadn’t budged.

I turned around and ran.

Fuck this.

I got away as fast as my legs would take me.  I hit the wall at the end of the hallway and stopped myself with my hands rather than slow down with my legs.  I turned right and headed away, past more cribs, more strollers, baby seats and bouncy chairs, all draped in their blankets of varying types and quality.  Some tipped over from the violence of the agitation.

Yeah, no, whatever it was she was doing, I wasn’t going to mess with it.

There had to be other ways.

I escaped the area of Nursery’s shaker effect, stepping back into ordinary community center hallway.  I was in the opposite corner of the second floor from where I’d started.

Looking out the window, I could see the shadows cast by Lord of Loss’ branches.  Was it worth chancing flying outside, then flying into the room where Fume Hood was, when Lord of Loss could try hitting me or grabbing me?

There was another stairwell at the end of the hall- one I hadn’t sealed.

The door opposite it had something hanging on it.  A gauntlet with clawed fingertips, the ‘arm’ something electronic.  The claw’s tips were embedded in the wood of doorframe and door both.

“Hello?” I called out.  I glanced back to make sure Nursery and Snag hadn’t followed me.

“Don’t touch the door!” was the rushed response.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Patrol from the high school, community center staff,” the voice from the other side said.  “Don’t touch the door.  There’s a bomb!”

“I see it,” I said.

“They said they’d disable it when they left.  You said to stay safe, so we cooperated and let them lock us in.”

“That’s- that’s good,” I said.  My heart was still pounding from Nursery’s thing.  I was pretty sure Blindside wasn’t around, because my senses weren’t being affected.  “We’ll get this figured out.”

I wasn’t sure how.  They had a shaker power to override Tempera and Fume Hood.  Potentially Crystalclear and Longscratch as well, depending.  They had Lord of Loss sequestering the outside and they had Nursery taking over the inside.

In the same moment I turned my thoughts to Snag and his disappearance, two mechanical arms stabbed out of the nearest wall as if the wall was paper.  One hand caught me around the neck.  The other across the face.  I was slammed into the window, hard enough to shatter it and take out my forcefield.  Glass tinkled onto my head, into my hair, and all around me.

Before I could get my bearings, he hauled me into the wall.  My head cracked into the drywall and I felt it break with the impact.  His hand gripped my mouth and the length of his long forearm caught me around the throat.

I put my hands on his arms, and I felt the whir as machinery kicked into life.

As someone with the ability to control emotions, I was supposed to be harder to read and affect.  It was why I’d deflected Crystalclear earlier.

It was why Dean and I had gotten along.  Even why we’d been possible.

Maybe that resistance came into play.  Maybe it turned Snag’s power from an emotional uppercut to a mere slap.  Negative emotions poured into me like liquid from a syringe.

But a slap on an open wound could be enough to bring someone to their knees.  The walls came tumbling down, the memories flooding in, and my last coherent, present thought was that I hoped I wouldn’t maim or kill anyone in the meantime.

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Daybreak – 1.4

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There was no way to process the series of collisions that followed me hurling myself down between the logging truck and the school bus.  My focus was on deflecting the impact, clawing at the logging truck with everything I had to try to put it off course, before the bus made contact and hopefully moved it further.  As the two vehicles came together, I extended my whole body, trying to push them apart in a way that would keep the collision from being the head-on sort that might kill Jasper.

In no particular order, the school bus hit the logging truck, the logging truck  hit the school bus and the wall, and I, my forcefields down, hit the ground rolling.

I came to a stop and lay where I was, face down.  I felt the sting of the scrapes where I’d come into contact with the road, and waited for the real pain to start.  I wanted to know where the real damage was before I moved the wrong part and made it worse.  My ears rang from the sharp noises and impacts.  Playing dead helped, too, because the villains were rousing, opening the door of the truck cab, glass tinkling down to the street below.

“What the hell?” someone asked.  They were younger- probably teenager.  I couldn’t pinpoint if they were male or female.

“Are you okay?” a deeper voice asked.  The nature of the voice made me think brute.  “Any injuries?”

“I think I have whiplash,” the teenager said.  “I wasn’t expecting that.  What the hell?”

“You were intercepted before impact.  It looks like teenagers in uniform.  With a bus.”

“I can see that,” the teenager said.

“You missed the side door you were supposed to drive through.”

“I can see that too,” the teenager said.

“I can’t tell what you’re looking at, Blindside.  Let me know if you need help.  Snag?”

“I’m fine,” was the response, a rasp.  I heard metal creak.

“Your arm isn’t,” the teenager said.  They would be Blindside, going by what the Brute had said.

“I’m fine.”

I heard the sound of someone hopping down to land on the street, not all that far away from me.  Metal struck the road shortly after.

I only saw a glimpse of him.  Work boots, a long coat that hung down low enough that it almost looked like his legs were only two feet long, and arms long enough that his wrists made contact with the ground.  The hands rested flat on the road, fingers splayed.  He wore gauntlets.

I wanted to see something more than just his feet, but as I started to raise my eyes, looking through the hair that had come loose from my braid, my eyes were forced down, until they were staring at the road.  I heard the scrape of another person’s feet as they climbed down from the truck to the street.

“My fucking neck,” Blindside said.  The person in question.

Try as I might, I couldn’t look at them.  My eyes and head refused to cooperate and do what was necessary to put them in my field of vision.

“Don’t complain,” said the Brute.

“You weren’t on the truck.  You don’t get to tell me what I can or can’t complain about.  Fuck, I wasn’t expecting that hit.  Did both K.C. and Nursery fuck up?”

“The timing was wrong,” a woman said.  Nursery, I assumed.

There were so many of them.  The Brute, Snag, Blindside, Nursery, and K.C.- I really hoped that K.C. was the mass-master I’d seen in the crowd.  If they weren’t, then there were six of them in total.  Six and the crowd that the exploding parahuman had control of.

We had four capes on the inside, me, and a bunch of high schoolers, some of whom had guns.  None of whom, cape or student, that I wanted involved in this conflict.

The five or six attacking capes wouldn’t be attacking like this if they weren’t sure they could win.

“Don’t be stupid,” Snag said, his voice a rough growl, volume raised.

He wasn’t talking to me.  He was directing that at Jasper and the other two.

Drive away, I thought, willing Jasper to think the same.  Be okay, drive away.  Leave me.

I heard the chugging of the bus, the battered engine protesting as the vehicle started to reverse, pulling away.

At the edge of my Blindside-limited field of vision, Snag’s metal, long-fingered hand lifted from the ground.  He leaped toward the bus without making the movements necessary to jump.  I didn’t want to move my head and risk being seen just to see him land, but I heard the metal-on-metal sound, the impact of a heavy body on the hood.

Every set of eyes, mine excepted, had to be on him and the retreating bus.  It was an opening, and it was an opening our side opted to use.  The side door of the building opened without a sound.  Fume Hood and Crystalclear were in the doorway.

Crystalclear threw a chunk of crystal at the ground, and the chunk passed through without sound or apparent impact.  Fume Hood had six green orbs with her, all around her hand.  She sent one out in the direction of the bus, then, a moment later, sent a second.  Both exploded, off to one side.

Crystalclear’s shot passed through walls.  Tempera had let me know that.  Apparently, it needed to pass through walls, or the ground in this case.  He’d thrown it into the ground, and a moment after Fume had released her two shots, both landing, Crystalclear’s shot emerged from the ground, an explosion of vapor, glass splinters, and fragments of road.

One of the villains, the Brute, only laughed.

Fume Hood paused, her four orbs around her hand.  Her head was turned so she could only see me with one eye- Blindside’s power was limiting them there.

Through the hair that had fallen over my face, I could see Fume Hood look at me.  Making eye contact.

I couldn’t see the villains, so I knew the action was risky.  I had to hope they were more focused on her than on me.

I raised my head up and  motioned for her to go, moving one hand, swiping my fingers toward her.

The pattern was much the same as with her first shot.  One shot, then firing the remaining three all at once.  One to gauge how it would fly, then the rest to deliver the hit.

They slammed the door shut, just before the three near-simultaneous explosions.  The detonations were small and sharp, and produced a wind that blew my hair away from my face.  I held my breath.

The Brute laughed again.

I really didn’t want to pick a fight with four capes at once.  The bus was gone, the door was shut.

“This is going to slow us down,” the Brute said.

“You don’t have to sound so happy about it,” Blindside said.

The Brute chuckled, and climbed down from the roof of the truck, and in the doing, he put himself between me and Blindside.  It blocked my view of Blindside, and it gave me a chance to get a glimpse of him.  The ground smoked around where his boots touched pavement, and the smoke solidified into formations that looked like branches and twists of metal, all in an ashen white-grey.  His entire body was made of the stuff, as if he wore armor made of white-grey bandages made solid and immobile by resin, all of the ends curling up and away from him in horns or branches.

I knew him, even just seeing his legs.  Or I knew of him, to be precise.  Yeah, based on what I knew of Fume Hood’s group, they might be outclassed.

The big guy was the Lord of Loss.  There were two ways a cape could go with a name like that.  The most obvious was to fuck up just once, and forever after have people wondering out loud what he was thinking, taking a name like that.  Being called a loser.

The other way was to succeed and ascend the name, to take that name and make it a title.  The Lord of Loss had managed that.

He had been one of the villains in a big city on the West coast, and now he was one of the villains running a settlement on one of the corner worlds.  Was it Earth-N?  Not far from here, if it was.  He wasn’t top tier, as capes went, but he was A-list.

He was a Brute with Breaker flavor.  He cloaked himself in abstract forms, with a set selection.  I knew one resembled a bird, which he would have been using to fly alongside the truck.  He was versatile, big, strong, and his breaker power multiplied his efforts over time.  That multiplication played into how he flew, how he grew, and back before Gold Morning, a few occasions where he’d been able to slug away at a bank vault until he’d torn it open, or even drag a smaller vault away with him.

He turned his attention toward me, turning around and approaching me as the others backed away from the cloud of gas.  My chin jerked toward my chest as Blindside stepped out to the side, back in my field of view.

I would’ve rather had just about anyone else step close enough for me to get my hands on them.  It had to be the guy I couldn’t take out of the fight.

“Miss,” Lord of Loss said.  “Are you injured?”

I couldn’t pretend to be unconscious- I’d just moved because of Blindside.  I settled for an inarticulate, small moan.

Lord of Loss knelt beside me.  “Can you walk?”

I shook my head, keeping the movement small.

“Is it because your back is hurt?  Can you feel my hand, here?” he asked.

I felt his hand touch my knee.

I nodded, again, small.  I screwed up my face, feigning more pain than I was in.

I didn’t like this.  I didn’t like being so close to the guy, I didn’t like the scrutiny, the eyes on me, the attention.  I didn’t like being treated like I was an invalid.  I didn’t like suppressing my forcefield and aura.

I didn’t like being still.

It was easier to keep my composure if I was moving, doing.

“Blindside,” Lord of Loss said.  “Watch her.”

“What?”

“You were always going to be the lookout, with Kingdom Come helping.  We stick to the plan.  We’re going in, we’ll get our target, you’ll be the lookout, and you’ll look out for this junior soldier while you’re at it.”

“Pain in the ass.”

“Plans change,” Lord of Loss said.  “You’ll learn that sooner or later.  Our clients hired us to capture an ex-villain who made a bystander lose her child.  I don’t think they’d be pleased if we let another bystander get hurt while we carry out the task.”

“Yeah, no, I get it.  Just go.  Let’s get this over with.”

“Keep an eye out for the vehicle with the other soldiers.  They drove in Kingdom’s direction.  If they can’t get through or around, they might come back.”

“I get it.  It’s fine.  Go.  I can handle my shit.”

My eyes had closed, because it kept my head from being jerked around as Blindside kept compelling me to move to avoid seeing them, but I could tell when Lord of Loss moved away, as the bulk of his body ceased blocking the light of the sun above us.

“Snag,” Lord of Loss said.  “Any injury?”

I heard a cough.  “No.”

“Then go with Nursery,” Lord of Loss said.  He paused.  “Kingdom Come?”

Another pause.

“It’s time.  Move in,” Lord of Loss said.  “I can’t go inside, so I’ll take the roof, I’ll watch the other sides of the building, and do what I can to help.”

I cracked my eyes open.  Nursery and Snag were walking up to the door.  Lord of Loss was breaking into pieces, his arms spreading out as the wispy smoke formed into the ‘feathers’ of his wings.  He wasn’t fast at all as he started to flap, lifting off the ground.

That would be the downside of his breaker power.  It let him hit harder every time he hit something, and that included the beats of wing against air, but it took time.

Still, it let him move in the direction of the roof.  He paused, circling, as Snag raised one long arm and pushed at the door.  White paint leaked around the doorframe.

Sealed shut.

“This would be why I’m here,” Nursery said, her voice soft.  She began humming, and it was a lullaby sort of hum.

A music box sort of chiming joined the humming.

“Fuck that shit,” Blindside said.  I was the closest person to them as they stood somewhere near me.   I lay near the butt end of the eighteen wheeler, which had its nose in the wall of the building.  Nursery and Snag were at the door.  I wasn’t sure if Blindside was talking to me.

The humming seemed to be picked up elsewhere, and the music box noises intensified, with new notes and a higher tempo.  The area near the door blurred.  It was a window into another world, what had to be a pocket dimension, but for the most part it seemed unsure if it was our world or the pocket world.

An indoor setting, at a glance.  Beds and walls that didn’t line up with things in our world.

I felt Blindside’s hand on my neck.  They felt for my pulse.

“Asshole is invincible, and so he doesn’t even think to get your gun from you.  You’re lying on it,” Blindside said.  “If I roll you onto your back, will it kill you?”

It was a question I’d heard variants of before, in a tone I’d heard before.  A tone from someone that didn’t really care about me.

We’re going to roll you over now and check for sores.  Is that alright?

We’re going to wash you now.  Can you try to move this arm?

Can I get you anything?  Would you like water, or something to eat?

Condescending, caring more about themselves, feigning concern or consideration.  They just wanted to get on with their day.  Even the ones that did care lost patience sometimes.  Stubborn, aggressive people like me made it easy to lose patience.

I made myself be calm.  I exhaled slowly, and the exhalation came out as a shudder.  It wasn’t because I was hurt, but because the memories were close to the surface.

Blindside eased me onto my back, then I felt them touch my gun.

My eyes snapped open.  My arm lashed out, one swing, mindful that they were probably just a fragile human being.

I didn’t make contact.  Muscles in my arm wrenched, seized, and cramped as the entire arm locked up, just in time to keep me from touching them.

“Aha,” Blindside said.

I felt them grip my gun hard.  My initial fumble to grab the gun ran into the same problem.  My hand hit an imaginary wall.

The gun had a buckle keeping it in the hip holster.  They hadn’t undone the buckle, and they weren’t able to pull the gun free before I jumped up to my feet, backing a short distance away.  The hand pulled free.

I still couldn’t see them.  My head was turned to one side, I had a glare on my face, and I walked slowly, keeping track of them by keeping them at the very edge of my field of view.

I imagined I looked a little feral, pacing as I was, trying to track them with my other senses, being unable to make eye contact.

I moved my hand experimentally.  I hit the wall.

I couldn’t point at them, then.  I couldn’t hit them, based on my earlier issue.

“What do they feed you shits?” Blindside asked.  “You get thrown from a bus mid-impact and you have it in you to pull this?  I’m impressed.”

The dreamy blur was disappearing, the way in closing behind Nursery and Snag.  The background humming and chiming was fading.

I hoped the others were retreating, finding a place in the building they could hunker down until help came.

“Listen,” Blindside said.  “I don’t want trouble.  I don’t want to hurt a civilian.  I’m keeping to the rules.  Lie down, put your hands on your head, let me take the gun.  I’ll give it back when I’m done.”

“You’re going to kidnap Fume Hood.  I can’t stand by and let that happen.”

“You can’t do anything about it,” Blindside said.  “We’re going to borrow them, then we’ll be on our way.”

“Borrow?  You’re giving her back after?  Unharmed?”

“Yep.  Mostly unharmed.  The woman who lost her kid wants to have words with her.  Shout at her, make her feel bad.  She and some others paid a lot of money to make it happen.  Then we drop her back off somewhere near here and drive off.”

“For that, you drive a truck into a building and traumatize a crowd?”

“Intel said we were good to hit the building there, use that as our entry point.  Scaring her was part of the deal, so was fucking her over,” Blindside said.  “Stirring up the crowd, it doesn’t affect us much.  We live in one of the corners.  For her, it keeps her from finding any success.”

“For the sake of the woman who lost her child?”

“Yeah.”

“And she’s personally going to shout at Fume Hood there?”

“Fume Hood, Bad Apple, Horse Apple, Apple Cider, whatever you want to call her.  Yeah.”

I nodded slowly.

“Just lie down.  Let it be.  Give up the gun, stop fighting, we do our cape shit and you carry on with your day.  Police are under our control, nearest capes are half an hour away.  This is the way it is sometimes.”

“The files I got when I accepted this job said the woman in question died,” I said.  “The pregnant lady who lost her child.”

“Really?”

I nodded, my eyes still fixed on the ground, as close to Blindside as I could get.  If they moved into my field of vision, a forced movement of my eye and head would let me know.

“At Gold Morning.  Her home address was one of the cities hit hard.  No sign of her after the fact.  Authorities investigated when the word about this attack first came up.  Which leads me to think you’re lying through your teeth.”

“People visit family, go out of town for work, have stays in the hospital…  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people who narrowly dodged being in the wrong place at that one critical time.”

“Stop,” I said.  “I caught you in one lie, let’s leave it at that.”

Blindside fell silent.

I heard a scuff.  My head turned-was allowed to turn- as Blindside moved around to my side.  I backed away a few paces.

I heard Blindside stop moving.

“Change your stance,” Blindside said.

“My stance?”

“Your head is turned as far to the right as it can go.  If I move to your right, the reflex is going to be to move your head further right.  You could snap your neck.  You’d probably close your eyes first, but I’d rather not risk it.”

I obliged, shifting where my shoulders were, so my left shoulder pointed at them.  I was aware that it made it easier to circle behind me.

“And raise your chin a bit.”

“Why?” I asked.

I heard the sound of Blindside moving too late.  I reached out to block or catch the incoming attack, and hit the wall where I couldn’t move my arm too far toward them.

Something swung at an angle that avoided my arm.  I brought my forcefield up just in time for the thing to hit me on the chin.  An uppercut with a blunt instrument that should have broken my jaw.

Before Blindside could recover or figure out what had happened, I went on the offense.  I couldn’t hit them with my hand, I couldn’t point at them, but if I swung my hand at them, elbow jutting out-

I felt muscles seize, locking up.  Blindside caught my arm, pushing me in the direction I’d already been going, and shoved me to the ground.  Martial art.

The blunt instrument-I saw the tip of a metal bat- struck down toward my shin.

It rebounded off of the forcefield as the field came back.  The metal sang.

“Ah fucking hah,” Blindside said.  “Fuck me.  You’re a cape.”

I lurched to my feet, putting some distance between myself and them.

Elbows didn’t work either.

The muscles in my arm and shoulder twitched with the lingering strain or sprain that had gone with the interruption.

I backed away until my forcefield came back up.  I drew in a deep breath.

“You’re full of surprises,” Blindside said.

I undid a buckle and pulled my armored vest over my head in one smooth motion.

“That’s not very surprising though,” they said.  “I can see where you’re going with this.  I’ve been at this a few years.  Some of the workarounds and tricks are getting old by now.”

I shifted my grip so I held the vest by the shoulder.

“The bus is back.  Are they capes in disguise too?”

The bus was back?  I couldn’t see without looking past Blindside, and I didn’t want to lose my bearings.

They were watching then?

Well, I imagined Blindside made it hard to watch.

I swung, using the vest as a bludgeon.  My arm stopped, but the vest continued.

I felt hands against my back, gripping the back of my top.  Another move, Judo or Aikido, stepping into arm’s reach, too close for the vest to hit me, trusting their power to keep my arm from hitting them, and throwing me to the ground.

I used my forcefield, and I used its strength to arrest the movement, stopping myself.  A bit of my flight.

With Blindside directly behind me, I drew my gun, and I turned to the right this time, swinging out with gun in hand.

“Nope,” Blindside said.  “That won’t-”

I dropped the vest, my hand going to my ear, and I fired the instant my arm stopped moving.  I shot the stone wall of the community center eight times.

The volume of it was such that I only barely heard Blindside’s exclamation of pain.  My ears rang- but the gun had to have been right next to the villain mercenary’s ear.

This was how I operated.  Even if I was trying not to be too blatant with others watching.  I was trying to consider more before I acted and took this route, moderating myself.

Shock.  Shake them on a sensory level.

I stooped low to pick up the vest, then swung it as I had before.   Blindside stumbled forward, much as they had before, into my reach, both forearms pressing against my back.

I’d had to moderate my aura, back at the hospital.  My mood darkened even thinking about that time, much as it had darkened when I saw myself in the mirror and remembered what I had been.

It took all I had to not let that darkness affect how I handled the aura.  I’d told myself, so many times, I wanted to be better.  Regrets weren’t worth anything if I didn’t let them drive me to do it better in the future.

For two months my aura had been one of the only real communication tools that I had, that didn’t require rounds of blinking and interpretation, or fumbling at a special keyboard with hands that didn’t map to how my brain thought my body should move.  I’d had some practice with the nuance of it.

Blindside was pressing against my back, and my aura was stronger the closer people were to me.  I controlled the aura’s expression to keep it small and more concentrated.

Awe.  Catch them on an emotional level.

Blindside stumbled back.

I spun around in the other direction, and bludgeoned them with the weight of my vest, using it like a flail.  They bounced off of the logging truck and collapsed.

Destroy was my usual third step.  I hoped I’d held back enough.  I’d wanted to disable only, but it was hard to know my own strength.

“You conscious?” I asked the villain.  My own voice sounded far away, distorted, hard to hear over the ringing.

I should have heard any response.  I didn’t.  Silence.

Blindside’s power didn’t let me check their condition, visually or otherwise.

I bent over them, fumbling, tracing their outline with the back of my hand, and finding walls even there, somehow.  I found their head, medium length hair, and tried to press the back of my hand against their ear.  My arm muscles seized.

I tried to use my knuckles to get into the ear, since I couldn’t use my fingertips without pointing or driving them toward Blindside, and I still hit the wall.

Blindside had been using something to communicate with others.  If it was a walkie-talkie, phone, or earpiece, it wasn’t anywhere I could access it.  Blindside’s power protected them.

The movement in the corner of my eye caught me off guard.  The bus.  The front corner was badly damaged, but it was chugging along somehow.  I hadn’t heard it approaching.  Where the paint had been black, it had broken away, revealing some of the bright yellow paint that it had once had, when it had been a school bus.

Jasper was waving his arm out the window, pointing.  I could hear his shouts, but the words were muted.

Incoming.

The villains would have heard the shots.

I looked up, and I saw Lord of Loss at the roof’s edge.  He’d turned himself into something resembling a tree.  A static emplacement, less able to move, but with roots that would extend into the building and secure his position so he could leverage his full strength.

He was growing by the second, smoke billowing out and solidifying into branching points.  He might just have the reach to hit us down on the street level, big as he was.

There were two entry points that weren’t windows.  Two courses of action stood out to me.  The first was to simply fly to a window, abandon Jasper.  I’d lose my job, but I would have to trust they would leave and be safe while I did what I could to help Fume Hood.

But I had something I wanted to ask.

I motioned for them to come, to hurry.

There were two doors into the building that I knew about.  The front door was no doubt seized by the mind-controlled army.  The side door had been painted.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to tear my way in and find out that the paint was a problem.

I didn’t want to charge in, only to find that they were securing their retreat.  They’d be looking for trouble coming from either of the entrances after hearing the shots.

There might have been a third way in.

I ran toward the nose of the eighteen wheeled logging truck, and I climbed over the nose of it.  It had collided with the wall, and it had done some damage.

Reaching up, I pulled at the damaged part overhead, and I leveraged the strength my forcefield provided to tear it away.  I pushed at another part, widening the gap.

The bus parked so its nose was tucked into the corner between the nose of the logging truck and the wall.  Jasper, Mar, and Landon climbed out of the bus.

“Are you okay?” Jasper asked.

I liked that it was the first thing he’d asked.  Gilpatrick’s five pound of gun speech taken to heart.  Less than five pounds of weaponry, more than fifteen pounds of protection, twenty five pounds of support and problem solving.  Jasper’s first thoughts were on the latter.  Those were supposed to be the priorities, the ratios.

“A bit of road rash,” I said, examining my arms.  “Too much adrenaline to feel the pain.”

Shadows shifted.  Lord of Loss had decided to detach from the roof, and was pulling himself together enough to start climbing down.

“Come on,” I said.

We ducked in through the gap, into a staff washroom.  I couldn’t see the source of the water, but it pooled on the floor below.  We passed through the door and into the hallway.

“So you’re a cape,” Mar said.  He’d been the kid who’d sat behind me on the bus and made smug insinuations about my name and background.

I gave him a dark look.  It looked like Landon was on his side.

“You’ve got blood on your upper lip,” Mar said.  “It looks like you’ve got a mustache.”

“Fuck off, Mar,” Jasper said.

I rubbed at my upper lip with the side of my hand, looking back to make sure Lord of Loss hadn’t followed us.

I could hear the humming and the music box.  Upstairs somewhere.  I could hear people in the building.

“Jasper,” I said.

“What?”

“I have to ask.  How much of this is setup?”

“Setup?” Mar asked, incredulous.

“I know I sound paranoid,” I said.  “I know if there’s a scenario or something, it’s probably against the rules to ask or answer, but I need the honest truth here, no bullshit.”

“You sound really fucking paranoid,” Mar said.  “Holy fuck, you capes are screwed up in the head.”

“Shut up, Mar,” Jasper said.

“Just answer, please,” I said, my eyes fixed on the end of the hallway, watching for the mind-controlled soldiers.  “Gilpatrick set me up with a bunch of new soldiers I don’t know that he can somehow vouch for, he insisted on them, and he sent me into a situation that was liable to get messy.  It doesn’t make sense unless I somehow imagine I’m being set up to fail.”

“Fuck me,” Mar said.

“It’s not really setup,” Jasper said.  “Gilpatrick explained before I left.”

I nodded to myself.

“They wanted to make sure you could be trusted.  They thought they’d stick you with some objective observers for three, four routine jobs, make sure you stuck to the rules, grade you, leave it at that.”

Objective.  I looked at Mar.

Yeah.  Right.

“And if I didn’t accept the job?  If I’d told Gilpatrick I didn’t want to do this patrol?”

“He really thought you would,” Jasper said.  “He told me that.  He was a bit stuck, caught between superiors saying he had to make you or he couldn’t keep you on, and thinking you wouldn’t.  Then you said yes.”

I frowned.  One impulse.  One spur-of-the-moment decision.

Cause and effect.  Every time I acted on impulse, bad things happened.  Some of the worst things had happened.  People around me got hurt.  I got hurt.  Two years in the hospital.

It was so much of why I’d wanted to slow down.

“I’m pretty fucking glad you said yes,” Jasper said.  “If it had been me in charge here I’m pretty sure most of us would be dead already.”

I exhaled.  Deep breaths.  I couldn’t fall into the mindset of dwelling on the past.

“You’re a good guy, Jasper.”

“I try,” he said.

I paused, thinking for a moment, listening to the noises elsewhere in the building.

I glanced at Landon and Mar.

“I’m a good guy too,” Mar said.

“Stay put,” I said, firm.

“You’re going alone?” Jasper asked.

“Yeah.  Just find a corner of the building to hole up in.  Hide, be safe.”

There was a balance to be struck.  I wanted to think I’d reasoned this through, as much as I could with the time constraint, the enemy no doubt closing in on the capes.  It was too risky to bring these guys with.

Going alone.

“Stay,” I said.  “Be safe.”

I sprinted off, raising my forcefield for good measure.

I entered the kitchen by another door.  Where I’d talked with Fume Hood.

Something exploded overhead.

I looked up.

Vapor, shards of crystal.

A moment later, there were two more small explosions, one after another, in a line.

Crystal clear, Crystalclear.

Not alone, then.  I hurried in the direction indicated.

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Daybreak – 1.3

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This was the point in time that I would have liked to be able to take to the skies.  Information was important, and if I didn’t have surveillance cameras, I would have been pretty content with a bird’s eye view of the scene.

I clenched one fist, cracking my knuckles, before wrapping my other hand around it, cracking them again for good measure.

I turned to look at the people from the patrol.  “Set up around the building.  Watch what’s going on outside, stay in touch, report anything unusual.  Jasper?  Hang back.”

The others turned to go, some looking back at the capes one last time before leaving.  Interest, other things.

“Can’t hurt,” the painted lady said.

“I’m Victoria,” I said.  “That’s Jasper.  I know Fume Hood from the notes we got, and I caught Crystalclear’s name.”

“Longscratch is the one who just left,” the painted lady said.  “I’m Tempera.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “Good to meet you.  Crystalclear, can you fill me in on your power?  What are you getting?”

“I see through everything,” Crystalclear said, tapping the chunk of crystal that stood out from the lower edge of his eye socket.  “As if everything was crystal.  I’ve learned there’s a lot of nuance to it.  A little bit of seeing into the past, a little bit of seeing into the future, a little bit of a sense of people’s focus.”

“He has a blaster power too,” Tempera said.  “Goes through walls and the ground.  Synergy.”

“I really hope it doesn’t come to actually using that.  Right now, I’m more interested in how this points to possible trouble in the future,” I said.

“Uh,” Crystalclear said.  He looked around.  “It’s hard to explain because it’s not a sense anyone else has.  Say I was looking at a wall.  It looks like a chunk of clear glass and the light catches at the edges and corners and they’re highlighted.”

My eye roved over the room.  It was reminiscent of a teacher’s lounge, but it had less of an emphasis on the lounging.  Coffee cups sat on windowsills and there were places where furniture had been stacked once, and the furniture had been moved out into the open room at the front of the building, where all the people were or had been seated.  Glass cases with model buildings had been brought inside and carefully stacked against the wall.  A long table that might have served as a conference table was folded up in one corner.

I tried to imagine it like Crystalclear was describing it.  A sketch in three dimensions, only the lines visible.  “I follow you so far.”

“The edges of walls and floor are usually clear, crisp, and closer to white.  Solid objects don’t change, so there’s no reason for that to change.  It’s blurred.  Blue tinted.”

“Future sight,” Tempera added.  “Past-sight is red, future-sight is blue.  Like the doppler.”

Crystalclear went on, “In the future, that wall vibrates.  Similar effect with people, but they move around more.  I see you all as streaks, shifting around, white-edged where you’re resting in present.  There is refraction and some fractures around people’s heads, representing focus and kind of thinking.”

“That gets blueshifted redshifted?” I asked.  “It’s not displayed as color?”

Crystalclear nodded his head.  It was a motion made more weighty by the heavy growth at the top of his head.  “Not as color.  It’s… edges to the light around them, sharpness and softness, distortions like how you can look at a glass of water with a straw in it and the straw isn’t straight, or you see multiple straws.   The worst breaks in focus look like grooves or outright breaks.  A lot of people here are going to be distorted soon.  Or were.  They’re leaving and they’re clearing up.”

His head turned as he focused on things on the other sides of the walls.

“What about, say, Jasper?”  I asked.

“Hey,” Jasper said.  “Use yourself as an example.”

Crystalclear looked at Jasper.  “Hard to say.  Whatever it is, it’s small or it’s distant.”

Crystalclear glanced over at Tempetera and Fume Hood.  “Not just him either.  It doesn’t give me much to work with.”

He turned his attention to me.

I cut right to asking my next question, before he could comment.  “Do you see the direction of it?  Anything big and blue that’s suggesting a major thing coming in sometime in the future?  One section of the building that gets hit harder?”

He shook his head.  “I’d have to see it before I saw how things were around it, and even then there’s nuance.”

“You’re thinking of a parahuman or weapon?” Tempera asked.

“I have no idea,” I said.  “If I was a civilian with an issue, and I was going after capes, I’d go big or I wouldn’t try at all.  If we’re talking something that shakes this whole community center… bomb?  Parahumans are definitely possible, except I’m not sure how using parahumans squares with the sentiment toward parahumans.”

Fume Hood spoke up from the background.  “Set us against each other, they benefit either way.”

“Could be,” I said.  I paused.  “As soon as the crowd has dispersed enough, I want to get you guys clear of here.  Do you have a decent mover power to use?”

“Longscratch does,” Tempera said.

“Not a mass mover power, is it?” I asked.  At the negation, I turned to Jasper.  “Can you bring the bus close?  If the crowd is thinning out, you should be able to pull right up to the door.  Take someone with you, if we’re delayed, do like I discussed earlier.  Keep an eye out.”

Jasper saluted, turning to go.

The bus wasn’t elegant, but hopefully it would take us away from vulnerable civilians or areas.

“How is Longscratch?” Tempera asked Crystalclear.

“He’s fine.  Stalked off.  He’s keeping an eye out for trouble,” Crystalclear said.  He pointed up and off to one side.  On an upper floor, it seemed, or on the roof.

“That’s how he is.  I won’t bother him.  I’ll go talk to the district representative, instead, if that’s alright,” Tempera said, looking my way.

“If the coast is clear,” I said.

“Most people have cleared out of the main hall,” Crystalclear said.  “The ones who are hanging back seem like the types to be doing it for good reason.  Parents with kids, teenagers hoping to get a glimpse of the heroes they came to see.”

“That’s positive,” Tempera said.  “I’ll give them a glimpse then.  Thank you, Victoria.”

“I’m going to get a glass of water and get my head straight,” Fume Hood said.  “I’ll catch up with the rest of you in a minute.”

“Don’t go running off,” Tempera said.  “Get your water, take a minute, but come back after.  I don’t want you to throw yourselves to the wolves.”

“I won’t,” Fume Hood said.

“Or whatever variant on that plan you might be thinking.  I can see you trying to lead the enemy way from us,” Tempera said.

“I won’t,” Fume Hood said, annoyed.

“It wouldn’t work anyway,” Crystalclear added.

“Your future sight telling you that?” Fume Hood asked, her annoyance becoming something more bitter.

“I don’t see the future like that.  You know that.  But I do know that they’re mad at all of us.  Our fortunes are intertwined, and their hate is- it’s not very targeted.”

“Not hate,” I said.

They looked my way.

“It’s easy to see it as hate, but I’ve been thinking about it a lot,” I said.  “It’s not that.  It’s blame.

“Blame,” Fume Hood said.

“I don’t think it’s a reflection on you.  Humanity is hurt.  It’s hurt in a way that makes it a little bit animal.  Reactive.  They’re snapping at any target that presents itself, because the hurt is fresh.  They’re taking that hurt and they’re looking for anyone they can put it onto.  You…”

I trailed off.

“We presented ourselves,” Tempera said.

“Not in a bad way,” I said.  “This isn’t your fault.”

“I’ll get my water,” Fume Hood said, curt.  She didn’t wait for a response, heading into the adjacent room, further from the front of the building.

Once Fume Hood was gone, Tempera nudged Crystalclear.  “Keep an eye on them?”

Crystalclear nodded.

Tempera gave me a nod before stepping out the door.

“Is Fume Hood going to be okay?” I asked.

“Who knows?” he asked.

“Trouble still isn’t imminent?”

Crystalclear shook his head.  “At least fifteen minutes off.  I’m thinking we should go get a better vantage point, see if I can’t spot any troublemakers.”

“Watch out for my guys,” I said.

“Watch out for what?”

I glanced at the door.  “Blame.”

“Got it,” he said.  “I shouldn’t stick my neck out or draw attention to myself, then?”

“Not unless I’m there.”

“And where will you be?” he asked.

I looked at the other door.  The one Fume Hood had taken.   “I was thinking I’d get a glass of water.  Unless you think that would be overstepping.”

He looked in the direction Fume Hood had gone.  His voice was soft as he said, “I have no fucking idea.”

“I’ll catch up with you,” I said, clapping a hand on his shoulder in passing.

The area adjacent to the conference room was a kitchen, set up with multiple stovetops and long counters.  Catering-focused, at a glance.  The stoves were of different makes and models.  Scavenged.

Fume Hood was standing by the sink, a glass of water in hand.  She looked at me, her eyes barely visible with the surrounding mask and the overhanging hood.

“Can I grab some water?  The bus ride was warm, even with the windows rolled down.”

She filled a glass, then slid it along the counter to me, so it met me halfway as I made my approach.

“What was the plan?” I asked.

“The plan?”

“Corporate?  Sponsored?  Ideology-driven?  There are a lot of those nowadays.  Move forward, rebuild, hold to the past, unity in strength, religion…”

“No ideology,” she said.  “No sponsorship.  No business partnerships.  I’m not even sure what we would have done about the money.”

“That can be hard,” I said.  I drank my water.

“It wasn’t supposed to be easy.”

I finished my water, then approached the sink to get more.  Fume Hood turned around, leaning against the counter just beside me.

She said, “It was community focused.  Serving the area, hometown heroes like the old days.  I thought of it as community service, in more than one way.”

“I like that,” I said.

She shrugged.  “I’m not sure if there’s anything to like about it.”

“It’s a good idea.  It sounds positive.  Maybe it’s worth trying again later.”

“It won’t come together again like this later.  Tempera is pretty good at this whole thing, and she needs to do the cape stuff, so she’ll find a team to join.  Crystalclear will get poached because decent thinker powers are in demand.  Longscratch… I don’t know why he’s even here.  Tempera suggested it to him, for some reason, he accepted for some reason.  He’s upset it fell apart.  Next time, he’ll just say no.  He’ll steer clear so he doesn’t have reason to get upset again.”

“Mover psychology?” I asked.

“I don’t know about that stuff.  I just know he’s a weird mix of wants and needs and he’s really cool when things are good and he’s impossible to understand when they aren’t.  Which they aren’t.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“You wouldn’t be sorry if you knew,” she said.  She stood taller, stretching a bit.  She tossed the empty glass between her hands.  “It’s my fault.”

“You orchestrated this?” I asked.

“I hurt a pregnant lady and she lost her child and I don’t even feel that bad about it,” Fume Hood said.  “I turned myself in, but it was because people thought I’d become a PR problem for capes in general.  I’d run out of friends and places to run to.  It seemed like the only way to get things to cool down.”

The glass smacked against each of her hands as she tossed it back and forth.

I drank my water, still watching her.

“I’m pissed,” she said.  “People are making such a big deal over this, and I can’t bring myself to see it their way.  It was an accident.  I told the civilians to sit and stay put, and this stupid-

She stopped there, clenching her fist.

Fume Hood continued, “-stupid fucking woman.  She ran right to where I was shooting out a display window, gets knocked on her ass, breathes in the gas.”

“I wonder what she was thinking,” I said.

“I’ve wondered that every day since.  I’m mostly caught between thinking she wanted to get hurt and lose the baby, it was so blatant, or that she thought the broken display window was an escape route, even though there were others she could have run for,” Fume Hood said.  “I was so pissed.  I shouted at people to take her outside and get her some fresh air, even though I knew it made everything harder with the robbery.  They’d contact authorities, we’d have to protect ourselves, whatever.  I thought I was pretty fair.  She got medical attention and shit.”

“Could have been worse,” I said.

“I shouldn’t have pulled that robbery at the mall.  I know that.  But it’s not one of my big regrets.  Her being a stupid fucking idiot isn’t one of them either, obviously.”

“You turned yourself in after that.”

“The heat got too much, like I said.  And- and I was tired, you know?”

Her voice had cracked on the ‘tired’.

She sounded tired now.

“It had been years, trying to get by.  A lot of it was fun.  The drugs, the robberies and mercenary work, the adventure, new places and really interesting people.  Some shitty people, lots of scary people, but they were always interesting.  Capes are interesting in a way you probably wouldn’t get if you didn’t know any for real.”

“I grew up with capes,” I said.

She stopped passing the glass from hand to hand, holding it in both instead.  “Did you?  Huh.”

I shrugged.  My glass was empty.  I put it on the counter and, finger on the inside, spun it in a circle, the bottom rattling on the metal countertop.

She continued, “Well, all I know is, the crime stuff started to feel like work.  The drugs stopped feeling like they were a plus and started feeling like they were something I had to do.  I was never addicted, I never craved it, I never had withdrawal after.  This analogy I’ve been thinking of is it’s like I had to go to the bathroom every half hour and who wants to do that, you know?  Who wants to keep interrupting their day for something they aren’t even enjoying anymore?”

“No idea,” I said.  “But I can see what you’re saying.”

“The cool people started dropping away.  A couple dead, others just stopped being cool.  High people are really boring to be around.  So like a genius, I thought hey, let’s just go to prison.  I made a deal.  I wanted a bit of an education, training at some job or another, safety, I didn’t want to be stuck in there too long.”

“How’d it work out?”

“Deal worked out fine.  Judge agreed, heroes agreed, it was one less parahuman on the streets that people were really upset about.  Jail isn’t fun, but it was what I needed, I think.”

“Shows character, I think,” I said.  “Realizing where you were at, where you were headed, and changing course.”

“I don’t have character,” Fume Hood said.  “It was selfish and self-centered.  It was me, me, me, I’m bored, I’m done with the drugs, I’m scared of being caught by angry people, I want this deal, I want some education.  I don’t and I never cared about that pregnant idiot.”

She met my eyes as she said that last bit.

Challenging me.

I spun the glass on the countertop again.  “The community service hero stuff?”

“Me, me, me,” she said, her voice quiet.  “I thought it gave me the best chance of dodging any lingering heat.  Ha.”

I took my finger away from the glass.  It spun in a circle before settling with a rattle.

“I don’t buy it,” I said.

She shrugged, tossing the glass into the air, catching it.

“You said before that you have real regrets,” I said.  “And you can call yourself selfish, but I think the dots connect here.  Your reasons, your regrets.”

She tossed the glass into the air, caught it.

She did it a few more times.

“We should go,” she said.  “Check on the others.  Do our part.”

“We should,” I said.

The water from the faucet we’d used deposited a fat droplet on the metal bottom of the large sink, producing a hollow sound.  Neither of us budged.

“I got friends into the soft drugs and I egged them on instead of stopping them when they got themselves into the harder stuff.  I regret that, I turned myself in for that, even though I was supposed to be serving the punishment for the pregnant woman.  For other stuff, more on that level.  I turned myself in for the” -she took a deep breath, as if to signify magnitude- “years of being a low to mid tier nusiance.  For being tiresome.  And because I was tired of it.”

“I’m not a priest,” I said.  “I don’t have the power to say some words and absolve you.  It’s up to society to decide how angry they are and how they come to terms with it.  It’s up to you to decide how willing you are to face your deeds.  When it comes to me… I can say I respect a lot of what you’re saying.   I definitely think you should own up more to what you did to that woman, stop calling her stupid.  It’s not a point in your favor.”

Fume Hood nodded.

“Honestly,” I said, “I really like the community hero idea.  I’d really like you to try it again, after a bit.  For that to be your way of working through it all, from influencing your friends to hurting that woman.  We’re dealing with blame, not hate, and blame finds a place to roost eventually.  There has to be another shot at making this happen.”

“Blame seems like too small a word for what Crystal was saying.”

“Blame can be big,” I said.  “Blame has led to the ruin of nations.”

She nodded.  “That sort of helps, actually.”

“I’m glad to have sort of helped.”

“Blame can become something else, given time, can’t it?” she asked.

“It can,” I admitted.  “I’m spooked at the idea it will.  For now, just… be a hero,” I said.  “Don’t walk away from this sort of thing for good.”

“You guys keep saying stuff to me, like, don’t run off, don’t sacrifice yourself, be a hero, as if it’s implied I’ve got ideas I haven’t said out loud.”

“You’re a self-described shitty person and an ex-villain.  We’re not allowed to be suspicious?” I asked.

That got a half-smile out of her.

“Come on,” I said.  “I’m getting worried about my guys and I’ll get yelled at by my boss if I leave them to their own devices for too long.”

“This is your thing, then?” she asked.  She followed me as I left, setting her glass next to where I’d left mine.  “You joined the junior-PRT to convince shitty people to be less shitty?”

“On the most basic level, I got into this because capes are what I know,” I said.

“Because you grew up with them.”

“Yeah, but keep that under the lid for now,” I said.  “I’m not broadcasting it to the world.”

“Lips zipped.”

I pushed the door open, stepping back into the now-empty conference room.  “I want to help.  I could have helped with construction or farming or whatever else, but like I said-”

“Capes are what you know.”

“Yeah.  I knew so many great people and I don’t know if all of them made it, but I want to be in a position to help them through whatever comes next.  I want to figure things out, because the lack of answers is what fucks us over, and fucks them over.  I want to talk to people like you, if you happen to be on the fence, so maybe you land on the side where you’re more likely to help out those really cool, great people.”

“I thought you junior-PRT kids were all about training so you can go after the monsters.”

She’d created a hard green sphere, the size of a billiard ball.  She tossed it between her hands as she had the glass.  It smacked against each palm.

I answered her, “Don’t get me wrong, but I have pretty strong feelings when it comes to the monsters.  I’m pretty far from being okay with them.”

She gave me a sidelong glance while opening the door to the main room.

“But I don’t think you’re one of them,” I said.  “Sorry, but you’re safe from me.”

She threw the ball to the right, but instead of smacking into her palm, it curved in the air, orbiting her hand in a long ellipse as a moon might a planet.

“What a relief,” she said.  She was smiling a bit more, now.

The smile faltered a bit more as we faced the situation at hand.

Some of the police had come inside.  My guys were standing near the windows, looking out.  Some were talking to the police.

A share of the crowd had remained behind.  Community leaders, possibly.

Fume Hood hung back as I approached them all.

“You’re in charge?” a police officer asked.  He had a mustache.  It bothered me, because I’d never really got mustaches, barring the truly awesome ones.  This was lip decoration, bristly and at odds with how his hair was combed back and close to his head.

“Yessir.  I’m Victoria, I take my orders from Instructor Gilpatrick at Wayfair High School.”

“They said you told them to follow our orders?”

“Or to keep a lookout for trouble.  There’s still people here?  Is there a problem?”

“No,” the officer said.  He sighed.  “I don’t know what to do with them.  Yours or with the others.  Situation seems to be resolving itself, but the teenagers in uniform are insisting it isn’t.”

“The capes say it isn’t,” I said.  “I’d believe them.”

“Huh,” he said.

I took a deep breath, exhaling slowly, while the officer took a look around at the situation.

“Haven’t you talked to them?” I asked.  “The capes?”

“A little bit,” he said.  “Not recently.  I don’t really know how.”

“They’re people,” I said.  “Capable people who want to help.”

“They’ve got the eye thing, and the masks.  One doesn’t have eyes at all,” he said.  “He has these crystals.  He pulled one out of the top of his head earlier, and it made a wet sound.  It was in so deep it should’ve been inside his brain.”

“They’re people,” I said, again.

“It’s disconcerting,” the man said.

I wanted to say things to that, but I bit my tongue.  I could hardly criticize when I’d been talking to Fume Hood.

I’d just- I’d really hoped for better.

“If you need me to be a liason, let me know,” I said.  He didn’t give me an immediate response, so I called out to the squaddies.  “Get back from the windows, guys!  The working theory is a bomb, heavy impact, cape power, or something like an earthquake, and you don’t want your nose pressed against the glass when it comes!”

They shuffled back.

“Bomb?” the officer asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Can you get everyone here clear of danger?”

“To somewhere inside or further outside?”

I looked around.  Crystalclear and the others hadn’t come to find us, so I was left to imagine the danger wasn’t super imminent.  Inside posed risks.

I didn’t like making the calls, but I said, “Outside, but hurry it up.  If there’s any remaining crowd outside, get them further back or get them to go.”

“Alright,” he said.  “Makes sense.”

He whistled for the attention of his people and the crowd that had gathered closer to the front door.

While he handled that, I looked at the others, “Where’s Jasper?”

“Still out there.  He has Mar and Landon with him.  The crowd is in their way.”

I hurried to approach the window.  I could hear a commotion behind me, as others entered the room, but my focus was on the commotion outside.  My view was briefly blocked by the cops and the people they were leading outside and across the street to our left, away from both the building and the lingering protesters.

“Victoria,” Crystalclear said, behind me.  He was with a small few members of the community center staff, including the district rep, and he had Longscratch and Tempera with him.

He would be here because trouble was imminent.

“How soon?” I asked.

“Two impacts in a couple of minutes.  Six or seven.”

Two.  Six or seven minutes gave us a window to act.

I watched the scene in progress through the window.  Jasper wouldn’t make it to the front door in two or three minutes.  Some of the protest had dispersed, but a lot of it had spread out from the square of grass, sidewalks, fountain and trees just in front of the community center, dotting the streets.  A share of them occupied the street Jasper needed to come down to reach us, and a lot of them had their back to him.  He honked, not for the first time, and one of them gave him the finger.

“I’m going to help Jasper out, get us our bus so we can drive out of here without being mobbed,” I said.  “Is there a side door?”

Crystalclear pointed at what would have been the south side of the building, to my left.

“Go there, stay clear of windows.  Protect my people, keep them clear of danger.  The moment there’s real trouble, they’re just high schoolers and should be treated as such.  High schoolers- you guys protect Fume Hood.  Protect the capes.  Be good.”

“Do you need help?” Tempera asked.

She couldn’t help.  She would cause more problems than she fixed, being in costume.

No.  I shook my head, heading to the front door.

Was this an emergency?  Yes.

Did I like using my power?  No.

I marched toward the bus, glaring at the first person in my way.  I activated my aura.

“Move,” I said, and I pushed out with my power.  Heads turned, noticing.  Maybe they would put their finger on why they’d noticed.  Maybe not.  I was nudging, here.

I could see the man’s reaction.  He took a partial step back.

I stepped it up a notch, not with more use of my power, but by raising the volume of my voice.  “Out of the way!”

He got out of the way.  That and me drawing nearer made it easier for the next person to come through.

“Bus!” I called out to Jasper.  “Get moving!  Side door to the right of the building!  South side!”

People looking back at the bus and back to me had more pressure to deal with.  That was easier.  They got clear of the bus’ path.

The one who had given Jasper the finger, though, he had just a little bit more to prove.  I put my hands on him.  I pushed him, and he resisted.

I pushed him with my aura, small, closer to center, a pulse of intimidation just for him, to break his posture and resolve.  My hands pushed him the rest of the way.  He landed on his ass.

He wasn’t wholly out of the way, but Jasper was able to drive up on the sidewalk.  His door was open and the stairs leading up to his seat were there.  I hopped up, grabbing the bar that the driver used to climb into the seat, hanging off the side.

“Things okay?” he asked.

“They’re about to be not okay,” I said.  “We’ve got four or five minutes, probably.  I want to be gone by-”

Jasper’s two passengers, Mar and Landon, were at the window behind Jasper’s seat.  They were looking out and over my shoulder.

I turned to look.  In the crowd, a man was standing there, shuddering.  People were backing away from him.

He wore a black hooded sweatshirt and black pants, and he stood so the hood hid his face.  His arms were at his side, vibrating.  Head, arms, body and legs all moved like he had a paint shaker wedged up his ass, moving more violently by the second.

Building up to something.

“Take cover!” I shouted the words.

Some people did.  They ran, they sprinted for mailboxes, for trees.  But it was too open an area for everyone to find something.

I threw up my personal forcefield, shielding Jasper, my arm out toward the windows the other two were looking at.

The man in the crowd exploded, showering the crowd with chunks of bone, flesh, and a mist of blood.  More than should have been contained in a human body.  Some of the windows in the bus had cracked, and my forcefield was down.

The people over the square of grass, around the fountain, on the sidewalks and the streets surrounding the explosion all stood, calm.

Streaked with blood, they looked around, every single head turning left, then turning right.  All in unison.

“Drive,” I said.

Jasper stomped on the gas.

Further up the street, the cops that had been evacuating people from the building and across the road were standing near the street.  They’d been touched by the gore-explosion, and now they were drawing their guns.

“Don’t hit them!”

“I’m not going to hit them!” Jasper called out, swerving so the side and then the rear of the bus was between us and them.

It hadn’t been five or six minutes yet.  It couldn’t have been.  The building hadn’t been hit yet.

I climbed up higher, standing on the headrest of Jasper’s seat to reach a higher point on the bus, looking over the roof.

Where?

The worst possible location.

An eighteen wheeled logging truck was coming down the road.  The front had been reinforced with metal braces.  It was coming from the direction of the water, only four hundred or so feet of road between the waterline they’d started near and the community center, but it was going full speed, straight for the side door.

“Fuck me.”  Jasper’s voice.

Even if Crystalclear saw-

“Hit it!” I called out.

“What?  Are you insane?”

“Hit it!  The others are waiting on the other side of the door!”

I scrambled to get in position.

“Trusting you,” Jasper said, and the bus picked up speed.

You shouldn’t, I thought.

I had one partial glimpse of the inside of the truck.

Multiple costumes.

And then the impact.

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Daybreak – 1.2

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I had badly neglected my locker.  I had an office, so my locker in the changing room was more for the things I didn’t use much at all.

Bag.  The backpack was light, but it only had the nonperishables in it.  I’d done a few patrols for Gilpatrick over the winter, visiting some of the settlements that were a little further afield, while many of the students were taking Christmas off.  I’d also used it for my fitness test.

I set it on the table in the center of the room.  Something to weigh when I was done getting outfitted.  For now, I just needed it out of my locker.  The bag took up the bottom half, the armor took up the upper half.

Outfit change.  I couldn’t go out in a skirt and body armor.  I had some self respect.  The pants in my locker were part of an emergency change of clothes, heavier fabric intended for winter and trips to Bet when the weather was bad.

I hadn’t put the pants through the wash since having to shovel snow over the winter, but I hadn’t worn them much either.  There was still salt crusting the heels, white against black fabric.  I walked over to the sink and rinsed the worst of the salt off, then rolled up the cuffs a bit so I wouldn’t have wet pants slapping against my ankle.

I kicked off my shoes and hiked up the pants so they were under my skirt, then unfastened the skirt.

“Victoria,” Gilpatrick said, behind me, a deep male voice in the girl’s change room.  I jumped a little.  “Are you free to talk?”

I turned my head.  There wasn’t a door to the girl’s changing room, but there was a solid wall blocking the view.  I could see the edge of Gilpatrick’s arm – he stood with his back to the wall and the changing room.

Camisola was in the room too, unpacking and repacking her kits for her bag.  She met my eyes.

“I’ll step out,” she said.

“Thank you, Cami,” Gilpatrick said.  I pulled my shoes back on and laced them as Cami left the room.

Belt.  Holster.  I threaded the belt through my belt loops, careful to position the holster.

Cami was apparently out of earshot, because Gil spoke again.  “Thank you, Victoria.”

“Give me Jasper,” I said.  “For my squad.”

“Jasper?” he asked.  “Why?”

Well, that said a lot, didn’t it?

“Because I’m paranoid,” I said.  Paranoid on more than one front, but I wouldn’t tell Gilpatrick that.  I had suspicions and his willingness to give me Jasper would tell me things.  “Is anyone else standing outside the door?”

“This conversation is just you and me.”

“Okay.  I know Jasper, and I’m honestly more worried about the attitudes of the people you gave me than I am about the protest or whatever it is people are going to pull with Bad Apple.”

“Jasper’s attitude isn’t great.”

“Jasper is a joker and he can be immature, but he can give that five pounds of gun speech because he believes it.  He’s in this because he thinks capes are cool, not because he’s pissed.  Give me one person I know will agree with me.”

“I kind of need every senior I can get.  But I’ll give you that.”

I bit my lip, thinking as I worked the combination of the safe at the topmost section of my locker.  I pulled out the pistol and holstered it.  I kept my hand there, reminding myself of the weapon’s weight as I tried to figure out how to word my question, and if I wanted to ask it.

“Then how about you take some of the angry ones?  The new guys you were giving me.”

“That was a quick assessment.”

I gathered the pistol magazines and slotted them into the pouch, before setting to attaching the pouch to my leg and belt.  “I don’t want them.  I don’t want to get some people from elsewhere with their own habits and ways of doing things, and have to train them on top of doing this thing.”

“Take them, Victoria,” Gilpatrick said.  “They came with good recommendations, they know their stuff, and if it does wind up being a protest, you’ll want the extra bodies.  If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t matter.”

“Things are never that simple, Gil,” I said.

“Take them,” he said, firm.

“You owe me for this,” I said.

“I know,” he said.

I sighed.

Armor.  I pulled my vest from the bottom of the locker.  I saved it for last because once it was on, I wouldn’t be able to bend down or move as easily.  The old name and number was still visible by the impression that had been made in the armor when it had been punched in and painted on.  The steel-wool scrubbing I’d given it hadn’t erased the whole impression.

I didn’t know who Cameron was or where they’d ended up, but I wore their armor now.  I tucked the papers in between my chest and the armor, where the straps would help keep them in place.

I spoke, “It’s a cushy job, I get to geek out and show off, and I like my office and the access I get to the portal, I don’t want to take that for granted, but you owe me a few already.  This is one more.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’ll make it up to you.  I’ve got to run.  Kids to torture.  I’ll send Jasper your way.”

“Alright,” I said.  “Do I need my full pack?”

“No,” he said.  “No, I wouldn’t do that to you.  Full pack is a torment I reserve for the newbies.”

I was glad to put my bag back in the locker.  I heard Gilpatrick walking away, raising his voice to shout orders.

I used fingernails to comb my hair back, then began braiding it.  I had to look in the mirror to make sure I’d gotten all of the stray strands.

Hi me, I thought, as I made eye contact.

How to describe that feeling?  Something resembling relief and a sinking feeling at the same time. It was a small feeling but still one that I would carry with me for the rest of the day.  That day would be a little bit worse because of the moment, but it would feel more stable for the reminder, too.

I had a good two years of experience to draw from, in figuring that out.

I’d stopped braiding my hair, I realized, and I’d started holding my breath without realizing it.  I exhaled, closed the safe, spun the dial, closed the locker, and walked out onto the floor of the building, resuming the braiding of my hair.

Forward.  Breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth.  Moving on with the day.

I caught up with Jasper as he joined the group.

“I’m driving, apparently,” Jasper said, wangling the keys in front of me.  “And keeping you company.  Gilpatrick explained the situation.”

“Good,” I said.  I pointed in the direction of the bus.  We started walking.

“You’re friends?” one of the new guys asked.

Still braiding, I looked over at Jasper.  “Enhh.”

“You can tell she’s really diplomatic,” Jasper said.

“Work friends, kind of?” I said.

“We don’t hang out,” Jasper said.  “I’m not sure what we’d do if we did.  We don’t have anything in common.”

“We got stuck together for jobs and errands enough times we became familiar with each other,” I said.  “We get on okay.  Jasper’s cool.  Just don’t ask him about the tattoo.”

“Tattoo?” someone asked.

“I’ll explain when we’re driving,” Jasper said, smiling.

We reached the bus.  It wasn’t pretty.  A half-size school bus, rust had been mostly scrubbed away and it had received a paint job in black with white sides.  The emergency exit at the back had been redone so it was the main way in and out, and a passenger seat had been added at the front.  There was an area for supplies and bags to be stowed between the wheels at the right side.

I wrapped my braid around itself a few times, and tied it there in a slightly messy bun-coil, then climbed up to the passenger seat.  The seniors climbed into the back.  There were a few faces I recognized but couldn’t name, a dozen more that I didn’t recognize and definitely couldn’t name.  I could tell that they were from elsewhere by the fact that the armor they’d brought with them had been painted black, rather than have the white letters scrubbed away.  Twenty-four in all.

Jasper took the driver’s seat, starting up the bus immediately.

Even parked in the shade, even in September, the heat was such that the seats were uncomfortably hot.  I’d thought about removing my armor once my hands were free, and carrying it by hand, but I decided to keep it on for the extra buffer.

Didn’t do anything to spare my ass from the warm faux-leather seat.  I didn’t like being aware of my body to that extent.

“Where to?” Jasper asked, rescuing me from my thoughts.

“Norwalk-Fairfield span,” I said.

“Rural, isn’t that?” Jasper asked.

“Last I heard.”

Jasper had to almost stand up to get the perspective to see through the open back of the bus.  He reversed out of the lot and took us onto the road.

“Maybe you guys can answer.  What’s the deal with stretches and spans?” one of the new guys asked.

I turned sideways in my seat, looking back.  Now that I was sitting and looking back at them, they were older, I noted.  Seventeen at a minimum.  “You guys are from one of the denser parts of the city?”

“New York Central.  Near the Bet-Gimel portal,” a girl said.

One of the two big ones, then.  We’d bled into the areas surrounding the portals.  Brockton Bay had been the first, but we’d had a few in a few major cities and New York was a big one.  The cluster of settlements around the portals in the northeastern US and people’s desire to have ready access to that cluster and the resources, community, information and security it afforded had played a big part in the megalopolis forming.

One blob around New York, one blob around the New Brockton settlement, clusters south of New Brockton, near what would or should be Boston, and everything had spread out or extended from there, mostly hugging the coast and connecting to one another.

I explained, “We’ve got these long narrow bands of mingled city and agriculture connecting the primary settlement points, to the point it’s hard to say where one thing starts and the other ends.  And instead of building five big houses they’d rather build an apartment building that hosts twenty, which makes things fuzzy with the distinctions of urban and rural.  So we get the ever-expanding megalopolis blob and we can’t figure out what to call it, even though it’s already this monster.”

Our progress out of the city center was slow.  Construction.  Endless construction.  Jasper seemed happy to be driving, even at a crawl.

“Yeah,” the first guy spoke.

“In terms of the bands that rope everything in together, we go by the cities and locations that were there beforehand.  If you look at where Norwalk would be on a map, that’s the name for the region we’re heading to.  If it’s east-west it’s a span.  If it’s north-south it’s a stretch.  But it’s all a part of the city.”

“What if it’s both?” someone asked.

“Then it’s neither,” Jasper said.  “You just give it a name.”

“More accurately, you try to give it a name and end up in a heated, months-long debate about what to call the area, with way too many emotions tied up into things,” I said.

The guy from right behind me said, “I don’t see why we can’t just give the individual areas names like they used to have.  If it’s close to Norwalk, then we call it fucking Norwalk.”

“Hey,” I said.  I gave a stern look to the guy who’d said it.  “Swearing’s fine, but not if you’re getting heated.  We’re chatting, not getting up in arms.”

“Right.  Sorry,” the guy said.  He didn’t look particularly sorry.

We picked up speed as we pulled onto a street with less construction.  With the back of the bus open and the windows on either side of Jasper and me rolled all the way down, the wind whipped through the bus.  The city smelled like dust, drywall, and hot pavement.

I dangled one arm out the window, moving my fingers and feeling the air moving against them.

“It gets complicated,” I said.  “Geography’s slightly different, they’re hardly checking longitude and latitude exactly when we settle in one place or another.  They’re doing what the surroundings allow.  Means the Norwalk we’re going to might actually be between two places, or off to one side.”

Jasper chimed in, “I always remember the Norwalk-Fairfield span because it’s close to the portal for Earth N.  N for Norwalk.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess that works.”

“I’ve got a question for you, though,” he said.

“You want to talk about your tattoo idea.”

“Yes,” he said.

I rolled my eyes.  “Do what you want.”

He turned his head so he could talk to the back of the bus while watching the road.  “We’re doing the squad thing, right?  And a lot of us are doing this with the idea we’ll police the capes, or help them out.”

“Police them, mostly,” a guy said.

“Opinions vary,” Jasper said, “But I don’t want to get sidetracked.  What I’m thinking is, what’s better than a good callsign?  We have nicknames to call each other.  The trouble is getting a good one to stick.”

“Opinions on what a good callsign is are going to vary,” I said.

“Quiet you,” Jasper said.  “You and I have talked about this and I’ve determined you have no idea what you’re talking about when it comes to this.  You know the cape stuff, sure, but you clearly don’t get this.”

“You want to decide your own callsign?” the girl from the back asked.

“Jester,” Jasper said.  “And I swear, if people don’t start using it, I’m going to make it happen by getting a tattoo of a jester and ‘fool’ written beneath it, right on my bicep.”

The protests, naturally, started rolling in from the rest of the bus.  He couldn’t decide his own callsign, why would he have it say fool if he wanted the callsign to be Jester, why even have it be Jester?

I tuned it out, sticking my head out the window.  Jasper tried to sell the rest of the bus on his idea and was very thoroughly shot down.  In this, at least, all was right with the world.  It was a bad idea.  Forty year-old Jasper didn’t need to live with the mistakes of seventeen year-old Jasper.

We drove past skyscrapers paneled in gold-tinted glass.  Solar glass, it was supposed to be called.  We drove past parks with the same rough-edged slice of nature that touched the schoolyard back at the high school.  We drove past a lot of construction, and we were lucky that it didn’t slow us down much.

“Victoria Dallon.”

I’d heard my name.  I was broken from my reverie.  How long had we been driving now?  The city was seemingly unending and I didn’t recognize the landmarks enough to nail anything down.

Victoria Dallon.  I looked at myself in the bus’ side view mirror.

“What was that?” Jasper asked, while I remained silent.

“Name sounds familiar,” the voice said, from the back.  It sounded almost smug, knowing.  “Can’t quite place it.”

“That so?” Jasper asked.  “Maybe keep it to yourself, then.”

“Is that how this is?”

“I think it’s how everything is,” Jasper said.  “Not just this.  When you’re bringing up the past, whoever you’re talking to, there are two likely possibilities. First, it’s good, and we miss the shit out of it, or, second, it’s bad and why would you bring up the bad except to be a tool?”

“It could be important,” the guy said.  “It’s good to know who or what we’re dealing with.”

“Could be,” Jasper said.  “But I can tell you this.  Gil trusts her.  I trust her.  If you want to know who you’re dealing with, why don’t you start by taking our cue?”

There was no response from the back.

“Otherwise, if you’re not going to listen to us,” Jasper said, “why are you on our bus?”

Again, no response.

Then, belated, one of the others uttered a quiet, “Leave it.”

Not aimed at Jasper.  My detractor had been about to say something, I took it, and he’d been told to be quiet.  Not the best result, but it seemed to end the line of questioning.

I wondered if there was something nice I could do for Jasper, for sparing me having to handle that.

I fished the papers out from my vest, smoothing them against my lap.  I glanced out the window.  The city had thinned out, and I could see farms and tent cities further out.

We had to be pretty close to our destination now.

I twisted around in my seat again, looking at the people in the back.  I could tell by the way one of them held himself, shoulders square, eye contact forced, that he’d been the one to speak out against me.  He studied me like he would an opponent.

I addressed them, “When we get there, we stay together.  We’ll have a quick chat with the people in charge, all together.  If the police have orders for us, those are the orders we follow.  If not, I’ll tell you guys to get to work.  You head to the crowd, and you say hi.”

“Say hi?”

“Mingle.  Show your faces, let people know we’re around.  Ask how they’re doing.  What do they think?  Look for anyone antsy, especially anyone antsy that we’re there.  Don’t engage if there’s trouble.  Let the police know and let me know, and we’ll figure it out.”

“I like looping through the crowds,” Jasper said.  “We did that once or twice, when Gilpatrick was calling the shots, last year.  People don’t see the face or the hair, only the uniform.  If you loop back, it looks like there are more of us than there are.”

“Give them second thoughts?” the girl from the back asked.

“Something like that,” Jasper said.

I wrapped up.  “When we get settled and things are going to start, we’ll be keeping eyes out or standing guard, probably.  We regroup before then, we’ll figure out what’s up, and see where we’re needed.”

I saw people nod, then turned around in my seat.

“Which street?” Jasper asked.

“Myrtle.”

“I think that’s it down there,” he said.

There were still a lot of tents and cubicle houses hereabouts, it seemed.  On the southern side of the main road, to our left, we had apartment buildings, stores, and something that looked like a brand spanking new swathe of city.  On the other side, it was more construction, tents, farm, and the houses that weren’t real houses- more like mock houses made of panels that had been bolted together, like overlarge tents with hard exteriors.

We turned away from the main road, into the deeper section of the city.  The community center was made of stone, had a squat clock tower situated on top,  and looked stately, even with the tall buildings surrounding it, many at least as tall as the community center was.  A patch of park with a fountain sat squarely in front of it.

School was just getting out, it seemed.  Students were streaming through the area.  They walked through and along the road to the point that we couldn’t get very close.  Many heads turned our way, curious.

Jasper found a parking space a block away from the center, and parked there.  Our people climbed out the back while Jasper and I got organized at the front.

“Jasper,” I said.

“Special orders for me?”

“When and if the rest of them are going through the crowd, stay near the front door.  If anyone gets nervous and ducks out, it might be something.”

“Should I follow?”

“Probably not.  Keep an eye out, let me know if anything happens.”

“And why is this a secret from the others?”

Because I didn’t trust the others.  They’d been foisted on me, they had clear attitudes, and I was worried that if push came to shove, they might let a troublemaker go if it meant fucking with the capes.

“Paranoia,” I said.  I started to climb out of my seat.  “Thanks for the backup back there.  Jester.”

Jasper grinned as my face fell.

“I’m sorry, but it sounds bad,” I said.  “I can’t make this a thing.”

“It sounds bad when you’re saying it as if someone’s pulling your fingernails out while you’re talking.”

“They might as well be,” I said.

“It’s good,” he said.  “It’s cool.”

“It’s against everything I stand for,” I said.  I climbed down from my seat.

“It’s great,” Jasper said, from the other side of the bus.  He tossed the keys into the air and caught them.

Some of the others were pulling on the armor they’d left off while sitting on the bus.  Once we were set, we moved as a group toward the town hall.

The fact that the community center was actually in the center of this neighborhood meant that the foot traffic was heavy.  A lot of it was moving around the crowd that had formed.  A lot of people with signs, but a lot of young and eager eyes.  Kids aged ten to seventeen, all fresh from their first day of school, genuinely interested in their fledgling hero team.

No police parked outside, at a glance.  No barricades, either.

Inside, it was standing room only.  Cheap plastic chairs were arranged in rows and columns, and there were many places where parent and young child shared chairs.

I saw some people up at the front perk up at our appearance, and the crowd parted to let us through.

I identified a woman with gray and black hair and a gray suit-dress that the other people up at the front seemed to be standing around.  I approached her.

“You’re in charge?” I asked.

“I’m the closest thing to someone in charge.  District representative,” she said.  “We don’t have a group like yours here.  You’re all so young.”

I kept still, not letting my emotions show.  I felt the sinking feeling again, without the relief, and without the steadiness that I got from seeing myself in the mirror.

Not a big thing.  It was like treading water and a hand on my forehead pushing me down, before pulling away.  Surfacing again, finding my equilibrium, realizing how tired I was as I resumed treading water.

I was very aware of the eyes on us.

“Do you have more outside?” the representative asked.

“More… of us?” I asked, finding my composure again.

“Yes.”

“No.  No we don’t have more outside.”

She looked spooked.  More spooked after my ‘no’.

“I can’t help but notice that you have no police presence at all,” I said.

“We have some, but not many.  It’s the way it is in Norfair span.”

“Norfair,” I said, noting the coined name.  “It’s not really a presence, is it?”

“No,” she said.  “We didn’t expect this many naysayers.  With this many, they had to have come from outside the community.”

The crowd in the room with us looked eager and happy enough.  A few frowns, but rare.  Had it been just this, overlapping conversations, anticipation, bright eyes and parents with kids, maybe a few people ready to raise some pointed questions if given the opportunity, then all would have been well.

It wasn’t just them.  The protesters outside were audible, even with stone walls between us and them.  Two angry voices outside, for every one quiet, polite person inside.

I didn’t like how much this was stacking up against us.  The police not having much presence, the controversy, the number of protesters.

Paranoia again, that I couldn’t help but wonder about the recruits I’d been given.  Forced to take, as it had turned out.

Too many things together.

“I think we should talk to the capes,” I said.

“Please,” the district rep said.

She led us into the back room, just behind where the de-facto stage was.  The team of heroes was there, anxious, waiting to be announced and to step out in front of the crowd.

Four of them.  Their costumes were close to being clothing, but had just enough stylization to make them something more.  The masks and face-coverings helped to make them more cape-like.

Fume Hood did have a hood, as part of a green hooded coat she wore.  Fans were built into the coat, only partially disguised, each of them much like the ones that were built into the back of a computer, and they made her coat, hair, and hood flap.

There was a man in a deep purple tank top and skinny pants with glass jutting from his skin at the elbows and hands, his upper face only a craggy mass of glass or jewel-like shards sticking out of flesh, just beautiful enough to not be macabre.

A man about my age slouched in a chair, looking dejected.  He had something that looked like small shields over the back of each hand, three large scimitar-like blades jutting from the back of each shield like they were oversize claws.  He wore a top that showed his muscular stomach, with shorts that reached his knees.  A two-part icon was displayed on chest and belt buckle.

The last was a woman in overalls, muscular, with hair shorter than most of the boys in my troupe, something that looked like thick paint slashed across her eyes and nose, and covering her arms up to the elbows.  The paint was black at the very edges, where it was thinner, but pure white elsewhere.  Her eyes were black from corner to corner.

“Great,” the woman with the paint said, sarcastic.  “Just what we needed.”

“We’re here to help,” I said.

“We might need it,” Fume Hood said.

“Do you know who’s after you?” I asked.  “Or what’s going on?”

She shook her head.

“I might be being paranoid, but this feels off,” I said.

“A lot of little things,” Fume Hood said.  “Crystalclear’s getting a bad vibe.”

I nodded.  I looked at the man with the glass chunks where his nose, eyes, brow and scalp should be.

“Have you considered canceling the event?” I asked.

“We were actively debating it before you came in,” the man in purple said.  “We’re split.”

“Can we break the tie?” I asked.

They exchanged glances.

The painted woman scowled, “You can.”

The man with the claws stood abruptly, shoving his chair to the ground in the process, before stalking off.

“Okay,” the painted woman said, again.  She looked at the district rep.  “We’re sorry.  Can you have them disperse?  Tell the protesters they win.”

The rep nodded, hurrying from the room to where the people were seated.

“Death knell for our group,” the painted woman said.

“Maybe.  Probably,” Fume said.  She looked at Crystalclear.  “Feeling better?”

“No,” he said.

Fume nodded at that.

“Would you stick around?” Crystalclear addressed us.  “I wouldn’t mind the backup, if you’re here to help, and I have the sense this is going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Gut feeling sense or… power sense?” I asked.

I could hear the commotion as people started to leave.  I could hear the complaining.  Even before he answered, my gut feeling sense was that he wasn’t wrong.

“The latter,” Crystalclear said, corroborating.

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Daybreak – 1.1

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Ward is the second work in the Parahumans series, and reading Worm first is strongly recommended.  A lot of this won’t make sense otherwise and if you do find yourself a fan of the universe, the spoilers in Ward will affect the reading of the other work.

Ward is not recommended for young or sensitive readers.

It was a second chance for humanity as a whole, and they’d gone and screwed it up from the start by coloring the city gold, of all colors.

The skyline was a half-and-half mix of skyscrapers and buildings in progress.  The latter were skeletons of tall buildings in the process of being filled in and put together, and hazard signs, tarps, the materials that made up the countless cranes and the painted letters on steel girders were all in bright yellows.  The completed skyscrapers were paneled with mirrored or reflective glass that were tinted in that same hue.  All put together, the light that bounced off of the city and reached skyward gave the clouds linings that were gold, not silver.

It was such a fucking shame that it had to be the case, intentional or not.

My phone was buzzing with texts.  I pulled it from my skirt pocket and looked while I walked.

Parental Unit 1:
BBQ tonight with everyone
My house
Can you come?

I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t going to walk into anyone, then stepped off the sidewalk, into a gap between two display windows that bowed out and forward.  In front of me, an assortment of people walked.  People in business clothes walked briskly, while some elderly people meandered.  A whole herd of kids were hurrying off to school.

I typed out my reply.

Me:
That’s short notice

Parental Unit 1:
Michael is swinging by
There has been talk of everyone getting together.
It seemed worth trying to arrange
If you can’t come that’s ok I understand

Me:
If I didn’t come, would be because of work. New semester & lots to do. Might come very late

Parental Unit 1:
Spur of moment thing that is almost pulled together
Only missing you
Not to guilt you ha ha

Ha ha.  She never liked using shorthand like ‘lol’.

No.  No guilt at all, mom.

Parental Unit 1:
Come if you can
Will save you dessert just in case

My typed reply was interrupted by a crash.  The stride of every person on the sidewalk in front of me and every person on the other side of the street was interrupted, as they stopped, heads turning.

I put the phone away, the message half finished.  The impact had been at the nearest intersection, where a smaller road cut through one of the downtown areas.  I had to push through the bystanders closest to the scene to get there, and I could hear the victim’s wail of distress before I was halfway through.

A car accident.  There were no injuries, and I couldn’t see blood.  Nothing suggested that anyone had died.  Not that anyone would have guessed by the sounds the man was making.

A teenager stood outside her car, the front corner and passenger-side mirror trashed.  She’d hit one of the pillars that lined the street.

An older man was doubled over, but he was on the far side of the pillar, not a location that suggested he could have been hit.  He was elderly, with gray hair that still had color in it.  Two people had already drawn close to him, supporting him while he knelt, rocking slightly in place.  The sound he made was the heartbroken, strained sound that people made when they couldn’t even draw in a full breath.

Such shitty, shitty bad luck, that he’d been here when the collision happened.

‘Pillar’ was the wrong word, but the right word felt wrong.  ‘Monument’ implied something huge, but it was barely taller than I was, maybe three feet across at the base, tapering to two feet across at the top.  Plaques were recessed into three of the four faces – the fourth had come free and fallen after the collision.  Each plaque bore an etching of a face, a name, a date of birth, a date of death, a message.

I looked down the length of the one-lane road.  There were as many pillars as there were trees, and there were a lot of trees, enough that the sunlight that peeked past them was dappled.   This pillar was one of what had to be over a thousand that had been set throughout the city by now, punctuating quaint streets and surrounding parks.  Places that were nice.

They were part of an initiative by an independent cape, a hero turned rogue, helping out.

There could easily be a thousand more of these pillars before the year was over, that number repeated every year thereafter, and if that work continued for another fifty or a hundred years, there wouldn’t be a pillar for one percent of the people we’d lost.  Not even if ‘we’ were just the people who hailed from the northeastern U.S..

The girl who’d been driving the car had a thousand-yard stare as she faced down the small crowd.  She looked like she’d just hit a real person and reality was sinking in.

The wailing stopped.  People were consoling the old man, some shooting hard looks at the girl who didn’t seem to be registering much of anything.

“Hey,” I called out.

She didn’t seem to register that I was talking to her, as she stared at the lower portion of the pillar that had crumbled, stone chunks broken away, cracks webbing across the surface.

“Are you okay?” I asked her.

She nodded, said, “I’m so sorry.”

The old man looked up at her.

People in the crowd were staring, apparently angry on the old man’s behalf.  One hapless teenager and thirty or forty very upset people.

“Listen,” I told her.  “Stay close by, okay?  I’m sure someone in the crowd there is calling for help-”

Someone in the crowd raised a hand to get my attention.  They had a phone to their ear.

“-They’re calling for help.  They’ll be here shortly.  Don’t go anywhere, you can explain what happened, alright?”

That seemed to get through to her.  She nodded again, retreating to her car, apparently to sit in the front seat.  Good.  That was handled.

Until she stopped at the door, turned around, and addressed the old man and the crowd, “I’m really goddamn sorry I broke your thing.”

The grieving man rose to his feet, stepping forward at the same time.  He pulled away from the supporting hands of the people around him, his face contorting.

I stepped in his way, my arm out.  He pushed forward, and I caught him in a half-hug with one arm, stopping him.  He reached out and tried to push me aside, and I caught his arm.

He was a guy, but he was an elderly guy.  It wasn’t much of a contest.  The moment he met resistance, he sagged, and I did what I could to keep him from outright collapsing as he slowly sank to his knees again, sobbing openly.

I took the opportunity to turn him a fraction so he wouldn’t be looking at the girl or the pillar as he knelt there.

In the background, that girl seemed to flounder in shock, useless, not sure what to do with herself in the face of this moment of violent grief.   She looked at me, but I didn’t want to say anything that might agitate the man I was dealing with.  She looked to the crowd, and she saw only angry stares.

I wasn’t sure what she’d seen, if it was a motion from someone, a particular emotion on a particular face, but she found the reason to get moving again, getting into the car, slamming the door behind her.  The man I was holding jumped at the sound.

The man stopped resisting altogether.  It had been a fast enough change in attitude that I had to wonder at what he would have done if I hadn’t intervened.  Shouted in her face?  Grabbed her?  Would he have lashed out and struck the girl?  If he would’ve gone so far as to use violence, would it have been relentless, requiring people to pull him off, or would he have stopped the moment he was interrupted?

I gradually relaxed my hold on him.

The crowd, too, seemed to realize that the situation had mostly de-escalated.  The girl was in her car, the old man wasn’t an apparent danger to himself or others so long as I was here.  That was enough for the assembled group to start breaking up.

I stepped back, hands partially raised in case he started forward again, and to enable me to act if he seemed like he might fall.  I couldn’t just say the pillar would get fixed, or that things would be okay.  The old man hadn’t shed tears for the pillar.

I didn’t want to say ‘sorry’, and echo the kid in the car.

I almost asked if there was anyone I could call.  I stopped myself when I realized the answer could be no.

“How about we get away from here?” I asked, keeping my voice soft.  “We can go grab a coffee or tea, and you and I can talk.”

The man looked at me, as if just now realizing there was a person right next to him.

“It’s got to be better than violence,” I said.

“I don’t – I’m not violent,” he said, sounding very small.

The heads of the crowd turned in reaction to something outside my field of view, and the old man’s head turned as well.

Behind me, it seemed.  A man in costume.  It was a good outfit, too, more in the dollars that had been put into it than in terms of looks, but that was personal opinion.  Partial discs of metal seemed to intersect his body, forming a look where he looked like a blender caught mid-whirl, axe blades and metal rings jutting from his breastplate, armguards, leg armor, and even his face, with blades running along one brow and cheekbone to frame one eye.

There were heavier blades at his hands and feet, such that it looked like he shouldn’t be able to walk or even stand without difficulty.  As it was, he had one end of his long-handled axe resting on the ground, the length of it bowing beneath his weight as he perched on it, one arm outstretched to one side, hand gripping the head.  He was crouching on the thing while it rested at a diagonal, in a way that looked like he’d wipe out if the end of the weapon lost traction on the roadtop.

Fuck me.  Not what we needed right now.

The old man started to stand.  I helped him.

“Can I do anything to help?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said.  “Minor accident, we’re just waiting for cops to come and assess things, take numbers.”

I was barely done speaking when someone in the crowd said, “We don’t need you.”

I watched him glance over the small crowd, looking for the person who had spoken.  He kept looking out for the speaker as he told us, “There’s some police on their way.  With all the reconstruction and the lower priority, they’re trying to get through the traffic right now.”

“That’s good to know,” I said.  “Thank you.”

He nodded.  He looked deeply disturbed by the one comment he’d heard.  I caught a glimpse of the emblem on his sleeve.  A badge, not a personal symbol or icon, but part of the team he belonged to.  Advance Guard.  They were a team with an agenda to push.  The world had ended, and they were pushing hard for a better and different tomorrow.

I could respect that.

I could also cringe inwardly at the fact that our superhero here was implicitly sporting a ‘move forward’ ideology when that was the last thing this old man probably wanted to hear with a freshly reopened emotional wound.  Time and place.  Unfortunately, because of the team emblem the cape had on his breast- a stylized figure holding a shield shaped like a greater-than symbol, the guy represented that ideology every time, in every place.

He walked over to the car, still watching the crowd, and he exchanged a few words with the girl in the driver’s seat.  I was glad for that, at least.  I had my hands full with the old guy and nobody else was stepping up to do it.

The cape stepped away from the car, looked at me and the old man.  “He’s okay?”

“The pillar.  It’s for his-” I started, looking at the plate on the pillar for a clue.

“Son.  My son,” the man said.

“My condolences,” the hero said.

The man tensed.  They were words that made it worse, not better, somehow.

Go,” someone in the crowd said.  A different person than the last.  “We’re fine.”

The people that had been splintering away were holding position now.  I could see the hostility.  The summer heat was holding out through the start of September, making things just a little more uncomfortable, tempers a little shorter.

“Yeah,” the hero said, more to himself.

It put me in mind of a scene from the history books and the grainy old news footage of an event from the mid-80s.  Back in the day, when the superheroes could be counted on the fingers of both hands, there had been a riot over a sports match.  The anger and chaos had outweighed the respect the rioters had for the hero that had stepped in.  Someone had struck out with a blunt object and hit the hero.  He’d died before he reached the hospital.  We’d called him the second cape after Scion, but he might well have been the first, after all.

Did I think that would happen here?  No.  Too small a group, the emotions were different, there wasn’t enough chaos.

Still, the general setpieces were here.  The barely restrained emotion.  The lack of care.  The ill-timed intervention of the man in costume.  The lack of respect in particular was in play.  For Vikare, it had been because so many people hadn’t truly believed the powers were real, and he had apparently held back to avoid scaring people.

For this cape from Advance Guard, it was the opposite.  He’d gone all out, we’d gone all out.  Capes still hadn’t been able to stop the world from ending.

We were back at the beginning in so many ways.

“Yeah,” the hero said again.  He seemed to wrestle with what he was going to say next before deciding on, “I’m going to go.”

I wanted there to be people in the crowd who spoke up.  I wanted there to be other things besides this sentiment of hostility and rejection.  For this guy and for all the rest of us.  Were there any people who wanted to say something positive?

Nobody.  Or if there was anyone, they were afraid to speak out against the herd.  I didn’t want to leave it like this.

“Nice response time,” I said.

He turned my way and raised an eyebrow.

“You showed up quick.  It was impressive.”

He nodded, studying me as if trying to find the catch.  “It’s what I do.”

I wanted to say something more, but I didn’t want to push my luck.  It would have been nice if he’d been less dismissive when I was throwing him a bone.

“Take care,” he said.  “Cops are on their way.  I’ll go let them know what’s up.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “You take care too.”

He stepped down from the pole of his battleaxe and set foot on the road.  Pavement splashed as if he’d stepped in a puddle.  More splashed and rippled as he moved his axe in a circle around him.

When he took a step and moved, it was faster than I could track.  I could see the splash that followed behind, a cresting wave that quickly settled, leaving only a faint wavy pattern in the road as it dissipated.

I’d spoken against the herd.  I tried not to pay too much attention to them or give them any excuse to push back against me, instead turning my attention to the old man.

“I’m offering tea or coffee, my treat.  We can talk it out, or talk about something else entirely,” I told him.  “As soon as the police are done.”

He still looked like he was carrying that fresh pain, in expression and posture.  He flinched some as he looked at his son’s memorial pillar.  He gave the girl in the car a hard look, then seemed to let the anger out, sagging.

She was in the driver’s seat, both hands and forehead on the wheel.

“No,” he said.  “You’ll have some place to be.  I shouldn’t keep you more than I have.  I’ll be fine.”

“Work,” I said.  “They wouldn’t fire me, especially if I explained.  I’d get in trouble, maybe, but I wouldn’t mind much.  Job is… a seven out of ten fit.”

“Seventy percent is a lot better than some are getting,” the man said.  “Keep that job.  I’ll manage now.”

I glanced at the girl in the car.  She had barely moved.

“You’ll leave her alone?” I asked.

The old man heaved out a sigh.

“She’s a kid who made a stupid mistake,” I said, in case he was trying to come to a decision.  “You don’t have to forgive her, but you can’t go and hurt her or anything.”

“I wouldn’t have…” he said, and he didn’t finish the sentence.  Because he might have, or because he didn’t know what he wouldn’t have done.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s good.”

“Go.  Work.  Don’t let me keep you,” he said.  “I’ll be straight with the police there.”

“I’ll stick around for the cops and then duck out.”

The police cars had appeared at the edge of the block, but with traffic on the narrow road slowed by the girl’s car, they’d stopped there.  The cars couldn’t progress, but the police were getting out.

One officer went to talk to the girl, another to the old man.  I waited around a minute, then gave a statement and my info.

As in most things having to do with law or bureaucracy, it took longer than it should have, for a relatively simple process.  I hurried to the high school once they were done with me, and I arrived rather late.

High school.

We still weren’t at the point where we had nice lawns and yards.  This schoolyard was no exception.  We had grass and fields, yes, but it was coarse and the ground beneath wasn’t usually landscaped.  The area was large with large trees left untouched in the corners, chain link fence separating the field from the roads on two sides, the grade school formed the third boundary to the west, and the high school formed the fourth boundary to the north.  The ground was uneven, more hilly than flat, and there were still large stones here and there, and a seemingly out of place play structure for the grade schoolers.

It was an odd thing.  So often, nature was transplanted into a city, and it was new and inauthentic, made overly neat.  Trees, lawns, flowers.  Here, the nature was rough and unpolished, the city itself new and somewhat artificial in how overly tidy it was, untouched by time or elements.

A sports field in the middle section separated the grade schoolers’ area from the theater.  It was a stage in the old Roman style, slabs of stone set into the ground like stairs, stepping down as they got closer to the stage, where the platform sat.

Hundreds of students had gathered on the stone seats, and more stood around the top edge of the theater, watching and listening.  They were our survivors, our next generation.  Not so different from the crowd I’d had to deflect earlier.  A third of them still wore the very simple clothes that were handed out with supplies in the tent cities.  Some had even taken to strategically ripping and dressing up those clothes.  I didn’t fault them for it.  It was hot.

A speaker carried the voice to those of us on the top edge.

The teachers of the school were on the stage, but they weren’t speaking.  It was a series of community leaders and volunteers instead.

“…And I make that a guarantee to you,” a man in an orange vest was saying. “If you take those credentials, bring good shoes and work clothes, and if you don’t screw around, you can walk into any lot and you can be working within the hour and get your pay by that day’s end.  Good pay.  You can do whatever you want, after school, but you’ll always have this as a fallback, you’ll have the security of being able to walk into a lot and have a job waiting for you.  We can always use more hands.”

Not enough seats at this school either.  High school was and might well continue to be a half-day thing.  The people on the stage were telling the kids their other options for the other half of the day.

I spotted Gilpatrick on the stage.  He wore a black t-shirt and gray pants with boots, and in the summer heat he was sweating a fair amount.  He had no hair on his head, but he had a five o’clock shadow well before five o’clock, bushy eyebrows and thick hair on thick forearms.  Everyone else looked like they were trying to make their best pitch, in dressing nice and wearing smiles.  Gilpatrick looked like he was trying to scare his prospects away.

Some of the non-prospects were standing around the upper edge, looking down at the new students and the stage.  Most were senior students who’d picked what they’d do with their half-days last year, now waiting to induct the others.  Some were siblings of those seniors, or younger friends.  Others were like me, miscellaneous staff for miscellaneous roles.

I joined them.

“We wondered if you’d bailed,” Jasper said.  He was very much a teenager, with acne, thin chin-hair and black hair that had had product in it, that had turned spiky from sweat.

“Delayed by a car accident.”

“Everyone’s okay?” he asked.

“Yep.”  Insofar as anyone is okay.  “Has Gil done his five pounds of gun thing?  I was kind of looking forward to it, it’s so corny.”

“I think he’s saving it for the deeper explanation later.  He mostly talked about how he was going to make it his objective to make people quit, he isn’t going to pay anyone, job prospects suck, he’s going to make people march in the heat and the cold for miles while carrying unreasonable burdens.  The ‘five pounds’ speech isn’t bad, you know.  It gets through to the kids,” Jasper said.  For all that he was defending the speech, he smirked a bit.

“It gets through to most,” Cubs said.  He was a big guy, tall, broad-shouldered, fit, with his hair cut short.  He thought for a second and then amended his statement, “some.”

“Us,” Jasper said.

“Guess so, yeah,” Cubs said.

I didn’t miss the glance he shot at the girl at the far end of our little sub-group.  Cami wore an expression I might have termed ‘resting angry face’.  Perpetually pissed.

All three of them, and many other members of the group besides, were dressed in similar shades as Gilpatrick.  Blacks and grays.

“I’m going to duck into my office,” I said.  “I want to check my email and make sure it’s nice and neat if anyone stops in.”

“Only a short bit before we migrate over,” Cubs said. “One more speaker.”

“I’ll let Gilpatrick know you’re there,” Jasper said.  He extended a fist.  I rolled my eyes and instead of tapping it with my own, pushed it away.  Jasper smiled.

My destination wasn’t in the high school, but was across the street.  It was an open building with a partial second floor.  The main floor was hardwood, with mats folded and piled up at the side.  A few more senior students were already there- some were just entering or leaving the showers.  It seemed like a good idea for cooling down, but I didn’t have the time.

I waved at some of the seniors in passing and headed up the stairs.  The stairwell ran up one wall, unbounded by barriers, so it offered a view of everything below.

My office was the closest thing I had to a home, in this world.  It was narrow and long, with a bookshelf at the right wall, a desk, computer and chair.  Some boxes were piled up in the corners.

The bookshelf was my accomplishment.  My fingers ran along the spines of books and other texts.  Many of the works were collections of articles or official documents, bound by hand with a three-hole punch, rings, and patience.

Parahuman science.  University textbooks, old workbooks with notes- not all mine.  There were important articles, copied to plain text and printed out, with a lean toward the sciences, the nuances, the big revelations and reveals.

Official files.  Classification documents.  Then there were the notes for case one, case fifteen, case thirty-two, case fifty-three, case ninety.  The ‘cases’ were the events the PRT had deemed of interest.  Riddles both solved and unsolved.  My collection there was incomplete, but some were official enough to be confidential, and I’d never had that access.  Others were closed, the mystery deemed nonexistent or something to be folded into popular knowledge.

I had other files.  There were names on those files.  Whittler, Bilious, King Crow were some of the many on the shelf I’d deemed ‘independents’.  For teams, there were ones like the Ambassadors, Green Tea, N.N., Ossuary, Empire Eighty-Eight, and the Clans.  I’d made it a priority to collect those.  I worried we might need them.

On the bottom shelf, I had my magazines.  Costumes Under Clothes, Gleam, Heroines, Masque, Shine On.  Some of the boxes in the corner had my latest haul.  Much of it would be duplicates.  Maybe I’d give some of them out to seniors.

I could still smell a faint mildewy smell, and promised myself I’d identify the source when I had time.  I’d left the window open, and the weather was warm, which was helping.  A lot of this was what I’d salvaged from the office back home; I’d retrieved it from boxes and filing cabinets and hauled it here over a dozen trips.  I’d rigged up tarps to keep the water off that corner of the house, but some of that moisture had been coming up from below.  I would have to find the source of the smell and transcribe the text before throwing it out.

Maybe I could get Gilpatrick to get a kid who needed punishing to do it for me.

Information was too important.  Even if that information was from the glossy, superficial magazines about superheroines that had been pitched to girls just like me eight to ten years ago.

Faint smells aside, I could draw in a deep breath and feel muscles from shoulder to calf relax.  This was more of that seventy percent part of the seventy percent fit where the job suited me.

That thirty percent, though.  I wouldn’t stay here forever.  I hoped.  It had been a thing that I’d hoped would look good on my college applications.  That hadn’t worked.

I could hear the commotion as the mob of kids started coming in downstairs.

I walked over to my computer and booted it up.  It booted up instantly, but the connection to the internet took a while.  I opened a notebook and began searching through it.

I found the name before the internet succeeded in connecting.  I closed the conversation from the day prior and waited for the internet before composing an email.

To: Deferent.I@Mail
Subject: Damaged pillar
I was a bystander when a car crashed into a pillar on Small St, near Basil Ave.  Thought I’d let you know it’s damaged.  Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help or any info I can provide.

Thanks for what you do.

I sent it, then stood, walking to the window.  I didn’t have much of a view- mostly the side of a building and a bit of the alley.  If I stuck my head out the window, I could see a sliver of the school and some of the street.  Students were milling around, some undecided on where they were going.

My computer chimed.

From: Deferent.I@Mail
Subject: Re: Damaged Pillar
I already heard.  Advance Guard were on the scene and let me know.  Will have it fixed tomorrow.  Thanks.

That would be fixed soon then.  I thought the things were an eyesore, really, but people clearly felt like they were important.

I was caught up in checking recent events online when there was a knock on the door.

Gilpatrick.

“Shouldn’t you be handing out guns to kids?” I asked.  “Or giving a hard-assed speech that sends them running?”

“I wish,” he said.  “Can’t give them guns until later.  Give me a week, we’ll see how many of them I can get rid of.  Can you show your face downstairs for me, so they know who to look for?”

“Sure,” I said.  “Let me get organized and I’ll be right there.”

He didn’t step out of the doorway.  His arms remained folded, and he had paper in one of his hands, held where I might not notice it.

“…Actually,” he said.

“No,” I said.  I gave him a stern look.  “No.  Don’t ‘actually’ me.  Please.”

“Do you know anything about Fume Hood?”

I raised one eyebrow, keeping that stern look otherwise in place.  “Fume Hood?  No.”

“She apparently went by another name, a while back.  Poison Apple?”

“Then I do know stuff.  She went by Bad Apple,” I said.  “And a few other Nom De Pommes.  I know some of her story.  She was controversial.”

“She’s a hero now,” he said.  “She’s getting announced as one member of a new team today.”

I nodded slowly, taking that in.  “That could be bad.”

“It’s looking like it will be,” Gilpatrick said.  He revealed the papers.  “Can you brief my seniors?  Fill them in on who she is?”

“That I can do,” I said.  I approached him and took the papers.

He didn’t let go of them.  He opened his mouth.

“No,” I said.

“I’ve got too many new kids,” he said.

“No, Gilpatrick.”

“My hands are full.  I don’t have enough seniors to manage them all.  I don’t want this to be fun or even tolerable and that requires more supervision.”

I let go of the paper, backing up.  “No.”

“I won’t force you,” he said.  “People connected the new heroine Fume Hood to her old persona.  They’re upset.  Enough that they’re hiring people to kick up a fuss, and we don’t know just who or what’s going to happen.”

I thought of the people who’d been in the crowd when the pillar had been hit.  I could picture it.

“Just that they’re hiring people?” I asked.

“From one of the more distant settlements.  Police know and are taking precautions, hero teams have been notified, but it’s messy.”

“Messy how?” I asked.

“Jurisdictions.  Our apple heroine is on a new team, announcing themselves in a new jurisdiction…”

“…It makes them look bad if they accept outside help or have other teams elbowing in on their big first day.”

“Something like that,” he said.  “Apple girl is getting a lot of serious hate thrown her way online.  If you can tell us anything about how she might react to this situation, or anything else, that’d help.”

“That I can do.”

He went on, “And if you could captain a squad of some new guys I’ve got from another school, let me know if they’re decent and trustworthy, and just do a bit of standing guard, giving advice and information to the officers at the scene, it would be a massive help.”

I gave Gilpatrick my best angry glare, hands on my hips.

“I won’t force you,” he said.  “Superiors are pressuring me to handle this.  If you say no then I’ll figure something else out.”

“You know I’m taking it easy with all this stuff.  I told you on day one I wouldn’t be one of your patrolers.  I’m only here to dispense some advice.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“I’m not frontline.  I can’t be frontline.”

“You’re a natural leader,” he said.

I shook my head.

“I really didn’t want to use Jasper.  He was joking about my speech, so I’m going to make him deliver it to the recruits,” he said.

I smiled, despite myself.  That would be partially my fault, for reminding Jasper.

“Can you do the briefing, at least?” Gilpatrick asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I dropped my hands from my hips. “She really called herself Fume Hood?”

“Yeah,” Gilpatrick said.  “I don’t take many of the names seriously.  This doesn’t seem much worse.”

“It’s really terrible,” I said.  “A heroine calling herself a hood?  As in a gangster?”

“I think she has an actual hood as part of her costume.”

“I really hope so,” I said.  I sighed and looked at my shelves.  “Give me a second to review files?  I’ll be right downstairs.”

“Just one second,” he said.  “I’m going to have Jasper start with the recruits.  Try to be done before I send them scurrying off.”

I checked the papers.  Forum transcripts, some intercepted emails, some notes on Fume Hood.

I had a folder on my shelf.  Notes from home.  She was from Boston, among other places.  Itinerant.

There were a lot of newspaper articles.  She’d drawn a lot of attention once.  Everyone was supposed to be getting a second chance, and it seemed that people’s memories were long enough that she wasn’t necessarily getting hers.

I gathered everything together, and I headed downstairs.

Jasper was in front of an assembly of roughly a hundred kids.  Boys and girls.  Not all were ninth graders, new to high school.  Some would be refugees, their educations interrupted by the rather massive inconvenience of the world ending.

“…mostly long treks into the middle of nowhere to deliver supplies or check on things.  If we’re lucky, we get a car.  It’s not glamorous.  Seriously.  Run away,” he was saying.  He spotted me coming down the stairs, and a smile crossed his face.  “Once you’ve been with us for two years, you get one of these embarrassments and you have to be seen in public with them-”

He held up a gun with slide back and magazine removed, a bright red bike lock threaded through the bottom of the gun and out the top.

Jasper went on, “And you’ll be expected to clean it as well as the gun you use on the range.  You’ll have to treat it like a real, loaded gun.  That means you pretend it’s loaded, you don’t aim it at anything or anyone you wouldn’t want to destroy, you never leave it unattended, and so on.  We’ll drill it into your skull and frankly, we’re really hoping you make a mistake so we can kick you to the curb.”

The other senior students were dressed in their uniforms now.  Black clothes with some body armor worn over them, and the body armor was recognizable.  In places, flakes of the letters and symbols that had once been stenciled onto the armor panels in white were still visible, having survived the steel wool and turpentine scrub.  PRT issue, salvaged.

When they’d been trying to figure out what to do with the high school kids when there weren’t enough schools and seats for all of them, some idiot in the administration had come up with this.  Some teenagers could go help on farms, some could get trained in construction, some would work, the ones who could keep their grades up enough could take afternoon classes too, and so on.  There were sports teams and clubs.  Finally, there was the patrol group.  Us.

Maybe it wasn’t fair to blame it on an idiot in charge.  Maybe it was inevitable.  Some wanted to feel like they had power, when the capes had dropped the ball.  Some wanted answers.  We talked and ran errands pertaining to power stuff.  Some of the kids might go on to police, investigate, or study the power stuff, as more informed police officers.  Possibly.

This was the thirty percent I didn’t like.  The question mark.  The places this could lead, theoretically.  Places we were already starting to edge toward, slowly but surely.

“Less than five pounds of gun, if you even have a gun,” Jasper said, holding up the gun with the bike lock threaded through it.  He caught my eye as he said it and he had a gleam in his eye.  “Fifteen pounds of armor.  It’ll be twenty-five pounds of armor if you’re with us for the long haul.  These backpacks?  They’re heavy.  They’re miserable.  Twenty-five pounds strapped to you.  Food, water, first aid, tools.”

He holstered his gun and lifted up the bag with two hands, grunting a bit.

“Pay attention to those ratios.  Twenty-five pounds of stuff to support and help…”

He dropped the bag and gave it a pat.

“…A good bit of protection…”

He rapped knuckles against the armor he wore on his chest.

“…And possibly a bit of offense.”

He tapped the gun where it was in its holster, the bike lock draped down and resting against his leg

Gilpatrick stepped up beside Jasper.  “Good.”

“Thank you sir.”

“Students, if you’ll turn around to see the young lady on the stairs…”

The students did.

“…She’s our resident cape expert.  If you’re sticking with us here in patrol block, if her door is open, you can go ask her questions.  She knows her stuff.  If you’re not sticking with us and her door is open, you can go ask her questions and we’ll let you cut to the head of the line.  You’ll find her office upstairs and to the left.”

I hadn’t heard that part before.  Priority to people who weren’t part of the club.  I smiled.

We had more kids than we wanted or could use, even though we didn’t pay any wages until they’d been with us at least a year, and we did everything we could to keep them miserable.  Powers were compelling.  Too many had reasons for wanting to be here.

An unfortunate share of the students were here because they were angry.  Because the patrol block had been started up by some ex-PRT folk and Gilpatrick’s speech aside, a lot of people looked at the armor, looked at the guns, looked at how we touched on the power stuff and the portals, and connected the dots.

“You want to go brief my seniors?” he asked me, from the far end of the room, over the heads of hundreds of new students.

I gave him a mock salute, then finished descending the stairs, joining the seniors while he resumed outlining things for the new kids.  I motioned to the door, indicating for the group to follow.

A few of them were new, Gilpatrick had said.  I didn’t like how angry or naturally resentful some of them looked.  Cami was among them.

“New team is having its grand unveiling at one of the community centers,” I said.  “One member is Fume Hood.  She was a B-list villain, once upon a time.  She’s what we term itinerant.  Wandered from city to city, looking for opportunities or teams to join.  Petty robbery, grand larceny, mischief, vandalism, criminal mercenary work.  A lot of the time she was one of the low-rate hangers-on in a group that a bigger villain would hire to pull a bigger job.  You could even call her a professional distraction.  She started when she was sixteen, stopped at twenty-four or so.  She’d be twenty-nine now.”

They were listening intently, even the new guys.  That was good.

“As a villain, she went by Bad Apple, Poison Apple, Pomme De Sang, probably called herself Applesauce, I don’t even know.  I guess she wanted to corner the market on apple-related names so nobody would have something similar.  She spent a lot of time palling around with a biotinker called Blasto.  She kept going back to him to pair up.  Might have been boyfriend-girlfriend, even.  That ended when the Slaughterhouse Nine passed through Boston.  We don’t know what happened to Blasto, but we can guess it wasn’t good.  Poison Apple got a little reckless after that, even though she hadn’t met up with him in over a year at that point.”

I opened my folder and found one of the articles.  I laid it against the front of the folder and held it out so they could read it.

“She pulled together a group of some old teammates and new teenage villains and pulled a shopping spree, hit a mall and took what they wanted.  Heroes showed up, they ran.”

“Miscarriage,” one of the new people in the group said, reading from the article.

“Poison Apple makes globes in her hands.  One of the tricks she can pull with them is send them flying off in straight lines.  They explode on contact with hard surfaces, just enough oomph to knock you to the ground, and they create clouds of gas or splashes of liquid poison.  Usually enough to make you nauseous, a little bit feeble, more if you touch the poison in its liquid form.  Nonlethal and mostly nonviolent, most of the time.  Except this time, a pregnant lady was caught in the gas, or in the explosion.  She lost her baby, and it became a thing in the media.  Poison Apple turned herself in, partially because of the backlash she’d generated.  She was serving time for pled down charges of assault and battery when Gold Morning came around,” I said.

A couple of the angry faces in the group looked a little angrier.

“She did her time,” I said.  “She made a mistake, she paid for it as much as she was able.  We don’t have enough good jails and so she’s free, and it looks like she’s trying to do good.  That’s pretty decent, really.  She’s not the enemy here.”

“Isn’t she?” someone asked.  Their name might have been James.  They’d been around last year.

“The threat is the people targeting her.  They’ve recruited help.  We don’t know how much, but the intel Gilpatrick gave me said money changed hands.  You guys know the basics when it comes to capes, you can inform the cops if something comes up, you know her story, and you’ll be a few more people in uniform keeping the peace and giving protesters a little more reason to hang back.  If it gets bad, any real danger, you back off.”

There were a few nods.

There were also a few looks on a handful of faces that made me concerned.  Too heated, or too cold.  They weren’t the majority, but I wasn’t sure the majority was on Fume Hood’s side, either.

It put me in mind of the crowd and the broken pillar.  If it was just this, I might have been able to let it lie.  I could have accepted that the students here were among the angriest and most invested in the grittier side of the cape stuff.  That it was just them.

Except it wasn’t.  The old man, the girl who couldn’t drive, the crowd there and the response to the visiting cape… there was so much emotion bound up in things, I couldn’t trust that this was an isolated thing.

I couldn’t stand by and let this be the new normal, without any opposing voices.  Even if my voice was a badly biased one.

With the climate, both general and even the fact that it was hot and tempers would be short, it would be so easy for us to see another Vikare.

I glanced over my shoulder and through the door.  I saw Gilpatrick with Jasper and the kids.

Damn it, Gilpatrick.

“I’ll come with you,” I decided.  “We’ll do our part to keep people organized and keep the peace.”

What did it say about the state of things, if I was increasingly the voice of restraint and reason?

I turned my attention back to the squad.

“For those of you who’ve just joined us, my name is Victoria Dallon, and I’ll be your squad captain today.”

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