Flare – Interlude 2

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“Long coat, long hair, just got through the door, has a gun,” Crystalclear said, thumb on the button of his walkie-talkie.

The reply from the officers was almost impossible to make out.

The status quo in quiet periods was for there to be two thinkers on duty at all times.  They were meant to be in communication and watching each other’s backs, and they were meant to be cooperating with the officers stationed at the portal.

During the quieter times, it would have been less than perfect for his partner to be in the midst of the crowd, where it took effort for Crystalclear to keep track of him and watch the man’s back.

Relay, one of his new teammates.

It wasn’t a quiet period, as one of the day’s bigger trains had just arrived.  There were supposed to be four people on duty, one shift nearly over, another just beginning, for twice the number of eyes and powers on the scene.

Yes, it could have been an accident that the other two had yet to arrive.  But accidents and coincidences could just as easily be contrivances at the hands of masterminds.  The radios acting up didn’t help matters.

“-ot the gun, good ca-” the voice on the other side of the walkie talkie reported, the static cutting off the very beginning and the ending.

Sure enough, the officers had the woman in the coat.  One of the officers had the gun, now.

Red jacket, jeans, pointed boots, group of three, Relay communicated.  Words and ideas conveyed without being spoken.  Not telepathy, not sound, but impressions.

Crystalclear’s vision didn’t give him color that wasn’t the blurring around the white outlines that defined everything.  Red jacket meant nothing to him.  But he could see the crowd, seeing everyone at once, and he could check the shoes.  It took some focus to narrow things down, to look for the pointed shoes, to observe for another few moments to see who was grouped up.

Three people, all about the same age, all men.  Their heads radiated with distortions.  Their focus- not on anything in particular.  He saw what they were dwelling on as a series of fractures, distorted angles, and breaks that surrounded them.  These things suggested things about what was going on in their heads that were more limited to the moment, covering stresses in every sense of the word.

Stress as in emotional upset, stressing the importance of something, stress as in tension and wear.

He was glad he could use the landline for this.  The little room was separated from the portal and train platforms by two walls, one with a one-way pane of glass set in it.  The third wall was open, so he was free to step outside and be in the thick of things within seconds, without having to worry about doors or counters.  Beside him was a phone and a computer he hadn’t bothered to fiddle with – he couldn’t see the contents of the screen without pulling a crystal from his face.

He hit the button for channel one on the phone, then picked up.

“Relay reports there’s three people incoming.  He got a low-level bad feeling about them.  They seem stressed to me.  Not an imminent danger.  You might want to pull them out of line and have a chat.  One in the lead has a red jacket, pointed shoes.  I’ll give you more information on their positions once they’re settled in line.”

“Got it.  Thank you, Crystalclear.”

“Let us know if you need anyone to sit in,” he said.

“Will do.”

He was aware as heads throughout the crowd turned, their focus shifting to Relay, to the train, to the officers.  For most, the light around them refracted into kaleidoscopic structures, cone or beak shaped, pointed this way and that.  At the ends farthest from the points of focus, the open ends of the cones splayed out into nimbuses, auras, fractures.

He had been one of them, a year ago, a refugee stepping off the train to enter Earth Gimel, finding his luggage, walking up the short set of stairs to the desks, where people clustered in families and groups of friends, rather than in single file.  They would be interviewed, they would be given temporary identification, and they would get their packages with information and resources.

Unlike many  of them, he had waited nearly six months for access, because he’d been open about the fact he had powers.  A mistake, because they had wanted to be careful, it had meant he had needed weeks and months of screens, of interviews and background checks, while other people passed through.

It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened, where he had taken too long to put the pieces together.  All thinkers had their weaknesses and catches – all powers, probably, but thinkers were what he was most familiar with, and thinkers almost always had their issues with the mind.  The problems of the mind were difficult to identify and fix, because they were so invisible, and the tools for diagnosis were often what part of what was broken or altered.

He had taken a considerable length of time to figure out the nuances of his power, too.  The most obvious aspect was that he could see through walls, but he lost the ability to see and understand people, to see their faces or easily grasp the clothes they wore.

There was so much more to it, and he was learning more of it every week and month.  The colors meant things, and he had only worked out the blues and the reds.  Other colors separated from the white at times.  There were a lot of greens in the crowd and along the station, pulling away from the outlines.  He had ideas about what they meant, but he couldn’t say anything with confidence.

The fractures and formations in distortions around people were another part of it.  There were elements to the way things broke up and distorted that had deeper meaning, things he didn’t understand in a way he could explain, but which made it easy for him to relate one personality and personality type to another, familiar one.

The portal took up much of the station in front of him.  His multifaceted senses covered the tract of Gimel surrounding the portal, and the areas of Bet on the far side.  His view encompassed the surroundings on the other side, the people, the terrain, and the different colors that bled out from the sharper white outlines.

You’re in the weeds, Relay communicated.

Crystalclear lifted his walkie-talkie to his mouth.  “Weeds?”

Not entirely with us.  Lost, or in a bit of a daze.

Crystalclear looked out beyond the portal.  At the people amassed around it, human-shaped outlines with the outlines of clothes, blurs smearing around the white lines, their heads replaced with fractured, kaleidoscopic messes.  A large group were in eerie unison.  Singing together, possibly, or chanting.

“Yeah,” he replied, one more word for what others would perceive as a one-sided conversation.

It was his perpetual reality.  To be mundane, or to be lost.  The knowledge out of his reach, there if he could find out how to reach for it or connect it.

He focused more on the crowd.

His difficulty wasn’t in tracking everyone, so much as it was finding the right angles.  He didn’t have eyes with his power deployed like this, and he wasn’t limited to one point of view.  He set about making sure he could investigate everyone and their carry-on baggage without anyone being hidden with their outline closely matching someone they were standing in front of or behind.

He didn’t move his head as he looked back, up the stairs and out at the loosely organized lines of people.  The trio had joined the line.

He used the phone, “The three people Relay wanted you guys to keep an eye out for just joined the line.  They’re behind a shorter, elderly couple.  One of them’s agitated.”

“Thank you, Crystalclear,” the voice on the phone replied.

While more of his focus was dwelling in that direction and area, making sure he was seeing everything from the necessary angles, he became aware of two people who others were paying a great deal of attention to.

One of them was tall, somewhat muscular, but what stood out was the storm of fractures around his head, overlapping without connecting to one another.  A crown of thorns, fashioned from something that looked like especially precise breaks in glass or deep-etched frost.

The other was smaller, hunched over.  She was almost the opposite, the breaks vague, cracking out to reach like a whip, aimed at nothing in particular.

He used the walkie-talkie, “I think our relief just turned up.”

Making my way to you.

Relay and the two individuals reached Crystalclear’s booth at the same time.  Crystalclear stepped out, aware of the number of people who were turning to look.  He tried to keep an eye on the crowd.

Relay made the introductions.  “Crystalclear, this is Big Picture, and this is Ratcatcher.”

“Hello,” Big Picture said.  More tight loops of breakage encircled his head rapidfire as he turned it to look at Crystalclear, and the loops bled like purple watercolor paint.

“Hello,” Crystalclear said.

“Hello.  We’re the reinforthmenth,” Ratcatcher said, with a heavy lisp.

“You’re new to Foresight?” Big Picture asked.

“I am,” Crystalclear said.  “Only positives so far.”

“I thought about joining,” Big Picture said.  “I decided it was better to wait until things settled down.  For now, I get paid for this, I keep it simple.”

“Yeth.  Thimple ith good,” Ratcatcher said.

“I like the costume,” Big Picture said.

Crystalclear touched the tunic portion of his outfit.

It wasn’t anything like he’d worn with the Norfair Neighborhood Heroes.  A single shoulderpad, a piece of cloth forming a kind of shawl or mantle as it extended from one corner of the shoulderpad near his heart, over his shoulder, and around to the back corner of the shoulderpad near his shoulderblade.  The shoulderpad, the armor at his wrists and the armor around his legs had chunks of crystal, closely matched to the crystal that he naturally produced.  Lightweight as armor went, limited to a few pieces that were as decorative as functional, but it was still armor.  A band of metal ran along his chin’s edge, and that took some particular getting used to.

“Appreciated,” Crystalclear said.  It was odd to reply when he was only aware of the outlines of the outfit.  He had seen it in the mirror when he had been getting ready, but that memory felt faint, and he had yet to see how put together he looked with the crystals at the upper half of his face.

“I’m going to go get back to work,” Relay said.  “I’ll be in communication.”

Crystalclear returned to his seat.  Big Picture stood out in the open, his arms folded.

Ratcatcher joined Crystalclear in the booth, sitting on the counter by the phone.

“What do you do, Crythtalclear?” Ratcatcher asked.

“I see through walls.  I can see contraband.”

“I can too,” Ratcatcher said.  “I thee thmall thingth, wherever they are.”

“We might be redundant then.”

“Redundancy can help,” Big Picture said.

“Can you share your power, Big Picture?”

Big picture turned his head.  Crystalclear wished he could see the big guy’s face.  Knowing if the guy was frowning or smiling would help a great deal.

“It’s redundancy,” Big Picture said.  He made a sound, almost a laugh.  “Everything I want to focus on, I clone my brain and my mind.  I can give each and every detail every bit of my attention, and I can slow down my perceptions if I want to study it more.  There are a few other nuances, other things I can do with the parallel takes, sharing, but you don’t need all of the details.”

“You can spend the equivalent of a few minutes studying every possible clue?” Crystalclear asked.

“Weeks.  Months, if I want.”

“Sounds as if it could have its drawbacks.”

“Don’t we all?” Big Picture asked.

Crystalclear was aware that Ratcatcher wasn’t alone.  He turned his head a little, then pointed at the pocket of Ratcatcher’s top.  It was a sleeveless top, tight-fitting in the way a costume was supposed to be, but it had a hoodie-like pouch in the front.  There was a small life form in there, the thing’s perspective fuzzy in a way that suggested it was asleep, in whole or in part.

Ratcatcher made a pleased sound, then reached into the pouch.  The disturbance woke the creature, but she didn’t act like it was upset as she held it in her two hands.

Crystalclear could guess what the thing was from its dimensions and Ratcatcher’s name.  “Does it have a name?”

“Raththputin,” Ratcatcher said.  She picked up a walkie-talkie, “The attractive older gentleman in the peacoat, hairy earth and eyelatheth to die for.  Thomething thown into the coat.  Naughty.”

“…I can see Ratcatcher has joined us…” the walkie talkie buzzed in response.  The buzzing turned into crackling.  “…nimize colorful commenta…”

“Radio’th garbage today,” Ratcatcher observed.

“It is.”

“I’m sorry we’re late,” Big Picture said.  “Feels like we took a step backward, citywide.  There’s word of a potential transportation strike.  Our usual bus driver didn’t show, we had to wait for the next.  Construction sites between NYC and Boston are locked down, they aren’t doing anything except getting in the way.”

“Feels like we should be out there, not here,” Crystalclear said.

“I know that feeling.  It’s often a trap.”

Crystalclear turned toward Big Picture.

“I joined the military, before I got powers.  I was thinking something similar when I did.  That things at home were shit, but I was needed out there.  We didn’t fix anything out there, and we came home to find things were worse.”

Crystalclear was going to reply, but he was interrupted by the lisping young woman.

“Buckthom lady thtepping off the train,” Ratcatcher said.  “Bra that doethn’t fit, run in her thtocking.  Cavity thearch, if you pleathe.”

“This isn’t you being funny again, Rat?” Big Picture asked.

“I’m being good, thank you very mush.”

Crystalclear looked.  There was something suspended in the middle of the blur that was the woman.  He held up his walkie-talkie.  “Seconding Ratcatcher on this one.  She’s got something stowed.”

I see her, Relay communicated.  Noise surrounding her is similar to a few others we spotted earlier.

“I remember,” Crystalclear said, through the walkie talkie.  He’d noticed but he hadn’t been sure how common it was or how much of a thread ran through it all until he’d had it point out.  That weakness of his again.  “There have been one or two of these small-time smugglers on every train, all day.”

Big Picture said, “It might be worth checking what’s going on in Bet.  Could be a gang, strong-arming people into going through, or offering a head start in Gimel if they’ll smuggle something through.”

“It might not go that well,” Crystalclear said.  “Too easy to get sucked in right from the start, not being allowed to leave once you’ve made that delivery.”

“The ugly kid with the runny nothe hath clutter in hith bag.  Thyringeth.”

“…heckin…” the radio crackled.

Big Picture picked up his walkie talkie, “The woman with him isn’t his mother, either.  Better to have them get picked out of line and taken away for an interview.”

The radio crackled with the affirmative.

Slowly, the train and the platform emptied.  They kept an eye out for the drugs, for the violence, for the people who were especially angry or scared.

One of the train cars remained filled.  Crystalclear looked through, and saw the people within sitting, calm, not reaching for their things.

“What’s the status of car five?” he asked.  “There are a few guns in there.”

Ratcatcher pulled the keyboard closer to her, she typed and then responded, “Thpecial cathe.  VIP.”

“They’ve got a case fifty-three in there.”

“Weld, according to the computer.  Ethcorting.”

“Weld,” Crystalclear said.  He was familiar with the name.  “Good to know.”

Crowd is thinning out, Relay communicated.  I’ll go say hi.

Crystalclear watched as people sorted out.  The platform emptied, and the officers on the scene did what they could to get others moving along, helping with bags and pointing people in the right direction.

“You’re bleeding,” Ratcatcher observed.

“Me?” Crystalclear asked.

“At the corner of your eye,” she said.

He checked, touching the spot in question and finding the bead of blood with his sense of touch.  Sure enough, she was right.  “It’s a thing that happens.  Doesn’t mean anything.  Excuse me.”

“Eckthuthed,” she said.

He touched one of the crystals that was sticking up and out of that eye socket, gripped it, and hauled it free.  He could feel the glass edge slide against the inside of his eyelid, the root of it hauling free of the floor of his eye socket, and he could feel the fluids inside his eye stir.

“You jutht made it worth,” she said.

“I’m fine.  I never bleed for long.  I try to be careful, so I don’t scare people, but it doesn’t bother me much.”

“Good to know,” she said.  “I know all about that.”

He pulled it free, a foot-long block of crystal, and laid it carefully down on the counter.  He blinked a few times with his one eye, noticed that Ratcatcher had taken off her mask, gray furred and full-face, and decided to keep his gaze averted, for privacy’s sake, and because looking at her would let her see his face.

He concentrated, and he produced another chunk of glass, feeling it stab from the underside of his eye and out, sliding through everything in the way without doing real damage.  He was careful to shape it in his mind so there wouldn’t be any sharp edges resting against his eyelid or brow.

He turned his face Ratcatcher’s way.  “How do I look?  Symmetrical?”

“Yeth.”

“Thank you,” he said.

“Thank you,” she said, with emphasis on the ‘you’.

“Why?”

“Not many people look me in the fathe when my mathk is off and keep from flinching,” she said.

Crystalclear’s response was cut short.

Weld wants us, Relay said.  Diplomatic thing.

“Weld is asking for me,” Crystalclear said.  “Good luck, guys.”

“We’ll get to know each other, I’m sure,” Big Picture said.

“Good luck,” Ratcatcher said.

Relay was already coordinating the officers.  The path that led from platform to the intake center was being closed off, a metal shuttered door sliding closed.  Another set of doors were being unlocked and opened.

VIPs indeed, it seemed, and from what Crystalclear could see, they were only human.

Crystalclear approached the train car, standing beside Relay.  Weld and Narwhal were standing nearby.

Narwhal looked rather spectacular to Crystalclear’s vision, given the emphasis on outlines, and her having dressed up in very small, outlined objects.

“Look after them,” she said.  “I’ll see the way is clear.”

“Got it,” Weld said.  “You would be Crystalclear?”

“Yes.”

“Good to meet you.  I didn’t think you were one of us.”

“Oh, I’m not.  I can go from this to… not this,” Crystalclear said.  He was suddenly aware he wasn’t sure what terminology was okay or not okay with the C-53s.

“That’s good to hear.  Closer to Narwhal than anything, then.  I’ve heard good things, Crystalclear.  Foresight is lucky to have you.”

“Thank you.  Likewise, with you and the Wardens.”

“Were you around for that broken trigger incident a week and a half ago?”

“I was,” Crystalclear said.  “I wasn’t in a position to do much.”

“This situation here follows from that.  We’ve got visitors, and we want to keep things calm and safe.  Foresight said we should make use of you and Relay to help keep an eye on things.”

“Ah,” Crystalclear said.  “Alright.”

There was a pause.  “Are you okay to do this?”

“Yeah,” Crystalclear said.  He realized he didn’t sound confident, and tried again.  “Yeah.”

He wasn’t sure it was alright.  He’d been volunteered for something and he hadn’t explicitly been told.  It was a level of disconnection from the authority that felt uncomfortably familiar and disconcerting.

It made him think of his aunt.  It also made him think of Big Picture’s statements about it being better to wait.

“We’re bodyguards and protection for the Gimel side of things.  The other guys brought their own protection.”

The other guys? Crystalclear thought.

All thinkers had their weaknesses.  Most hated not knowing things.  Most, by way of how their powers gave them an edge in one respect, had a way of missing other things.  Crystalclear’s vision gave him a lot, but it made some obvious things impossible to grasp.

Crystalclear’s focus broadened as he tried to take in everything necessary to keep an eye on things.  He looked at the crowd, noted who was reacting to the shutters being closed, and tried to keep tabs on them.  He watched the other heroes, tracked the officers, and tried to wrap his head around the fractured messes that were their heads and the ever-shifting contents of those heads.

“Ratcatcher seemed to take to you,” Relay commented.

“Did she?” Crystalclear asked.

“That’s the impression I got.  You didn’t seem too bothered, either.”

“She seemed like a nice kid.  Weird but good.”

Relay made a small sound.  “Don’t, uh, say that around her.  She’s older than you.  Heh.”

Crystalclear smiled, but he felt just a little anxious.  There were things he had liked about the NNH group with Tempera, Longscratch and Fume Hood.  Big Picture had talked about the merits of simplicity.

Thinker issues.  He hated being out of the loop.  It constantly felt like he was.  Even when it was with things that pertained to himself.

“Sorry,” Relay said.  He’d apparently picked something up.

“It’s okay,” Crystalclear said.

The group was departing the train, now.

“We’ll be using the emergency stairwell,” Relay said.  “We go upstairs, we’ll find a vantage point, they’ll have their meeting with the people who are already waiting there, then a few of them are going to go tour Gimel.  Things are out of our hands once they do, they’ve been warned about that.  The newcomers want to see the city they’ve been helping to build.”

“I heard about some of this,” Crystalclear said.  “These are people from an alternate Earth?”

He didn’t get his answer, as the people approached.

Three men, with their entourage, men with guns.  Their heads were interesting.  Leader and soldier, they were very in sync, much like the group that was still gathered outside the Bet portal were of similar minds as they chanted or sang together.  They felt like an odd fit.  Foreign worlders?

Leaders of Earth Cheit.  Abrahamic theocrats.  They’re our guests, here about the people of theirs who died in the broken trigger incident. 

A serious subject.  Crystalclear was aware of a few other things that had come up in regard to the group, until the broken trigger had consumed everyone’s attention.  The discussions in the late-night media had been derailed by the deaths of the ninety-two individuals caught by the broken trigger.

“If you’ll follow us,” Weld said.

They walked up the stairs, with Weld in front, and Relay and Crystalclear toward the rear.  The armed guard trailed even further behind, with one waiting at the base of the stairwell.

They had a bit of a distance to walk to reach the room at the top.  It looked like a ball room, with fancy curtains, a lacquered floor, and lots of empty space.  A table was set to one side, and there were curtains closed that didn’t stop the light from passing through.  Sheers, possibly, to obscure the view of the world outside, or perhaps more importantly, to obscure those on the outside from seeing those within.

People were seated at the table already, paperwork around them.

The one closest to the door was a serious looking woman, slender, in a blouse and a skirt that highlighted how narrow she was.  The belt of her skirt cinched in at the waist, emphasizing her figure.  She had a lot of the anxiety that the refugees departing the train had had, but she didn’t show it in how she sat or how she moved as she stood to greet the men.

Sierra Kiley, Relay communicated.  Board member of Rock Bay Reconstruction Group.  That’s one of the biggest construction firms, with its roots in Brockton Bay.  She’s a candidate for mayor of the Megalopolis, but she’s not expected to win.  Foresight thinks she has her hat in the ring for other reasons.  Access, possibly.  We know she has ties to organized crime, if you couldn’t guess from her background in Brockton Bay.  She doesn’t necessarily know we know.

Next were a couple, male and female.  She wore a nice suit-dress.  He wore a dress shirt, slacks, and carried the paperwork.  Their focus was sharp, they clearly worked well together from how well they coordinated.  As with Big Picture, there was something else going on with the man’s perceptions.  He wasn’t a cone- his perceptions were covering a lot of ground, and his fractures were very different from the norm.  They were closer to being etches.

Jeanne Wynn and her assistant.  CEO of Mortari, second of the large construction groupsJeanne might be too.  She’s a more serious candidate for mayor, she’s running, she and a lot of others think she’ll win.

Crystalclear was bothered that he was getting filled in on things he already had some knowledge of, but felt disconnected in other things.  He’d known about Jeanne.  She had recently put up her proposals online, for how she wanted and expected to run things if she won.

The person who won mayorship of Gimel, if they weren’t killed in an uprising, would likely go on to be leader of Gimel as a whole.

We suspect the assistant is a parahuman. 

He was, Crystalclear knew.  He resolved to communicate that when he could.

Others were named and identified by Relay.  Mr. Nieves, another prospective mayor, though he didn’t have the footing the others did, his chances were better than Ms. Kiley’s.  Mr. Buckner was at the forefront of the burgeoning media enterprise in Gimel, bringing television to the masses.

Stay put and stay silent.

The voice wasn’t Relay’s, but it was easy to imagine as Relay’s, with it being so vivid.

Crystalclear had a confused and fractured memory of his early childhood.  The woman he remembered growing up with was not the woman he’d spent his late childhood and adolescence with.  His aunt had explained the situation for him, saying his mother hadn’t been well, he’d been taken away from her for his safety.

She had said a lot of things over the years.  He had believed most, and because other things had occupied his attention, he hadn’t given the remainder enough focus.

Normally, trigger events emphasizing isolation, loss, cut ties, and betrayal tended to lead to master powers.  Or, rather, master powers tended to go to people who were going to deal with those situations.

Any attachment he had felt to his aunt had faded over the years, long before he had triggered.  She hadn’t cared.  So long as he behaved and didn’t cause a fuss, she had been happy to not have to devote much attention to him.  There was nothing lost, so that aspect of things hadn’t factored in.

So, naturally, he had avoided causing a fuss.

It had only been later that their fragile reality had come crashing down around them.  The police were closing in on him, he was no longer young, and where a young, clean cut white boy had flown under the radar, a teenaged white boy with pimples hadn’t.   It had turned out that his aunt wasn’t his aunt at all.  Her only relation to him was that she had stolen him from his real mother.

The questions had come, hours of interrogation, his lawyer guiding him.  Hadn’t he put the pieces together?  Hadn’t he seen?  Why hadn’t he asked more questions?  He hadn’t looked at what he was delivering to homes even once in the past few years?

No, he’d said.  No, he’d never looked.  He had never really considered.  He had only wanted to exist.

The police had been upset, angry, hostile.  His lawyer had been frustrated, because anything, anything at all could have led to a plea deal or him getting off free.  His ‘aunt’ and her boyfriend were upset, because they blamed him for their being arrested, and they had used a proxy to threaten him.

He had been sufficiently scared and lost to trigger.

Now he stood guard.  He was trying to exist, to do what good he could, and he wanted to pay a little more attention than he once had, even as his power made that very easy on the surface and very difficult when it came to the deeper analysis.

The initial introductions were wrapping up.  The theocrats of Cheit were saying a brief prayer, heads bowed.

People settled into their seats, empty seats between groups, serving as a kind of separation.

“War.”

One word.  It had been said by the lead theocrat, no preamble, and it was enough to be followed by silence.

“I say it not because I believe in it or want it,” he went on, “But because the people at home wanted me to convey it.”

“We’ve had a strong working relationship thus far,” Jeanne said.

“We have,” the theocrat said.

“Forgive me,” Nieves said.  “I’m lost.  It came up before, but things got in the way.  What exactly is the working relationship?”

Jeanne explained, “Cheit has graciously provided Earth Gimel with supplies for reconstruction.  They supplied us with food and other things that enabled us to weather the first winter.  A hard season.”

“I remember,” Nieves said.  “I know this much.  But what exactly did Cheit get in the bargain?”

“Goodwill,” the theocrat said.

“Goodwill?” Nieves asked.

“We have an awful lot of very awful people at our disposal, to put things lightly,” Kiley said.  “We don’t really think anyone wants actual war, do we?”

“As I was instructed, I brought it up,” the theocrat said.  “It is officially on the table.”

Crystalclear was still, listening.  He didn’t miss the glance that Weld and Narwhal shared.  Neither of them budged an inch.

“Goodwill is a matter of faith,” Jeanne said.  “The understanding was that they would share their excess, out of the goodness of their hearts.  We, in turn, would manage our own.”

“Six of Earth Cheit’s citizens are dead.  Five godly men and a woman, all with their families.  By all accounts, they died in a terrible, protracted way.”

“Because of a broken trigger,” Jeanne said.  “Outside of our control.  Surely you understand.”

“These ‘triggers’, as we understand it, are the result of strife and upset.  Your people were upset because of how Mortari and RBR have handled your subordinates.”

Crystalclear watched carefully, his eyes on all of the people present, on the nearby rooftops, and on the area below, to make sure nobody was attempting entry.

Jeanne and the theocrat seemed to be the ones in control over this conversation.  Jeanne had a parahuman with her, and the parahuman was studying the room, but nothing suggested he was communicating with his superior.  Nothing about the way things refracted and moved around his head, nothing about the colors.  Purple here and there, but spotty, brief.

If she was a superior at all, that was.  It was very possible the ‘assistant’ was the one truly in charge.

“What would you have us do?” Kiley asked.

The theocrat answered, “We want you to be in control.  Control your people, organize, avoid similar situations.  We are happy to be generous to our less fortunate neighbors, but we cannot have your troubles become our troubles.”

“We’re working on that,” Kiley said.

“Are you married, Ms. Kiley?” the theocrat asked.

“I don’t see how that’s relevant.”

“That would be a no, then.  I prefer to work with married individuals, like Mrs. Wynn here.  They understand the difficulties of a long term relationship, the compromises and deeper knowledge it takes to make things work.”

“I wouldn’t be where I am if I wasn’t competent.  Trust me, Mr. Aguirre, I’ve earned my place.”

“So I’ve heard,” the theocrat answered.  His tone was such that it was as cutting a response as an outright denial or dismissal.  “Mrs. Wynn, you’re prepared to organize and control things?”

“We’ve already taken steps.  You’ll see measurable change in coming weeks.”

“Good.  Ms. Kiley, you’re welcome to prove me wrong in my judgment about you.  A lot depends on this.  We are happy to keep supplying you with everything you could need, we believe in generosity, but it’s contingent on your successes.  We know which pies each of you have your fingers in.  If one of you succeed, we’ll gladly back you.  If both succeed, we’ll back you both.  If others step up and prove themselves, we’ll back them.”

“Provided we do well enough at making the most of what you provide.”

“Please don’t disappoint,” the theocrat said.  He placed his hand on the paperwork in front of him.  “You know what’s on the table.”

Ms. Kiley said, “I don’t think I’m in your good books, Mr. Aguirre, I think I don’t lower myself any further in your eyes by saying this-”

“What you say or don’t say has little to do with what I feel about you, Ms. Kiley.  I believe in deeds.”

“-You do not want a war with Gimel.  We have so very little to lose, and I can tell you, I know this very well.  We have some very awful people at our disposal.  You can threaten bombs and armies.  We can threaten nightmares come to life and life turned to nightmares.”

“I believe you,” Aguirre said.  “I know the kinds of people you interact with, Ms. Kiley.  Part of the reason I’m here is that I’ve worked directly with some individuals and situations of that breed, who appeared in Cheit.  I wish I could say with confidence that I could make the people I report to believe the same.  They would need to see it with their own eyes, and by then it would be too late.”

“That’s possible,” Kiley said.

“I’ve laid out what the people in charge believe.  I can report your feelings on this and come back another day, but I don’t think this is liable to change.  They want security, you want supply.”

“Succinctly put,” Jeanne said.

“Tell me what you would need, if we were to extend good faith and renew supply for your construction.”

“Construction is stalled.  Transportation is stalling.  Crime is surging,” Nieves said.

“Which are things we’ll get a handle on,” Jeanne said, tersely.  “Yes, please, let’s talk supply.  Concrete, lumber, and food, to start with.”

“Let me see, paperwork, papers, thank you, Charles.”

The discussion continued.

Crystalclear held his tongue, but he could see the way the constructions around the other parahumans’ heads were operating, the cracks that were forming and gathering, and the bleeding of the colors.  Blue-green tints, for many.

“They’ve been giving us supply for nothing?” Nieves asked, raising his voice.  “You idiots.  You’ve profited off of their so-called generosity, but you’ve been selling us out.”

“They were going to look for a foothold, whatever we did,” Jeanne said.  “They wanted security, and that wouldn’t change whatever we did.  Allowing them to help provided some of that security.”

“It provided them leverage and the impression they have a say in how Gimel is run!”

“They do have a say.  They’re our neighbors, and they outnumber us,” Kiley said.  She sounded tired.

The theocrats had departed.  The people had changed seats, to sit closer together.  Jackets had been removed and hung on the backs of chairs, waters and coffees obtained.  The discussion continued, on a different front.  A scattered, small group of people trying to find a way forward against a very large, united group.

The argument continued, heated, terse.  Standing around the edges of the room, the parahumans exchanged looks, then walked over to where the coffee and water was being supplied.

“What do you think?” Weld asked.  Narwhal stood beside him.

“Jeanne has been in contact with Cheit for a long time,” Relay said.  “Since Gold Morning?”

“Her assistant is a parahuman,” Crystalclear said.  “Something about the way his head is put together.  Thinker.  They may have been communicating, maybe not.”

“Kiley was communicating with people throughout.  Earpiece,” Relay said.  “You didn’t see?”

“Heads and surrounding objects get murky,” Crystalclear said, his voice quiet.

“We asked you two here for a reason,” Narwhal said.  “You have strong backgrounds, and people see you as trustworthy.”

“Foresight is taking on a role as Wardens adjunct,” Weld said.  “A… discreet role.”

“You want us to be your watchdogs,” Crystalclear said.

“They’re keeping too close an eye on the Wardens themselves.  We could use observers and more covert operatives.”

“Watching them?” Crystalclear asked, tilting his head toward the window.  He tilted his head toward the table.  “Or watching them?”

“That you asked proves we were right to ask,” Weld said.

Crystalclear bit his tongue.  His instinct was to say Weld was wrong.  That he was the wrong person.  He missed critical things, by consequence of his power being what it was.

He’d joined the NNH to change things, to be a real piece in something greater, rather than a cog in the machine, and that had fallen to pieces.

But by saying all of that that, he would be relegating himself to Big Picture’s small-picture view of the world.  Subsisting, looking after refugees, doing small things, instead of what he’d hoped for with the NNH.  He would be saying he didn’t have what it took.

“I’m in,” Relay said.  “But you already guessed that.”

“Yes,” Narwhal said.  “Crystalclear?”

Crystalclear nodded.  “I will.  One question, though.”

“Ask.”

“If you have us doing this, what do you have Advance Guard and the Attendant doing?”

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Flare – 2.7

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“I felt energized after,” I said.

“Can you elaborate on that?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“My cousin remarked I looked better, more in touch with the world.  Normally, I get these intrusive… non-thoughts.”

“Non-thoughts?” Rain asked.

“Like, not intrusive thoughts, not ideas that I can’t get out of my head, but my mind has these places it tries to go, and I reflexively shut them out.  Like, one thing, I spent two years in the hospital and in the care home, obsessing,” I said.

“I know what you’re talking about,” Sveta said.

“Yeah. And I feel like I’ve devoted enough thought to that.  Two years of time, more than a lifetime’s worth.  So I lock up, mentally, or trip over the subject.  I get that a lot as my mood gets worse.  I have it for things I do, like using my powers.  I had it a lot less after the day at the hospital.”

“Some people have physiological signs, feeling ill, headaches, breathing, when they’re trying to find an outlet for things they can’t otherwise express,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Others have habits, things or people they go back to, they could have needs or cravings.”

“What if the thing you turn to is also the thing that causes stress?” Kenzie asked.

“That is absolutely a thing that happens, Kenzie.  It’s at the root of downward spirals like addiction or overeating.  On a more subtle level, something like a panic disorder can self-reinforce because the panic provides relief, even as it makes the actual situations worse.  I like that Victoria identified something that arrests or controls the downward spiral.”

“It’s the sort of thing I plan to do again,” I said.  “Putting all the other stuff aside, distilling things down to the most basic route of helping people, in a way that’s good and healthy for me, too.  Or-”

Mrs. Yamada had started speaking at the same time I added the ‘or’.  We both stopped.

“Go ahead,” she said.

“Or where there’s bad, the good is enough to outweigh that bad and leave me better off,” I said.  I shrugged.

“Here in the group, we often discuss the issues we’re facing, how we relate to what others bring up, and we talk about solutions.  I’ll periodically try to turn things to more positive topics, but with six people here, it’s common for people to come to the session with something they want to delve into.

“I like that you’re dwelling on the good things, Victoria, and that you’re giving me an excuse to turn things toward a better note as we wrap up.  Does anyone else have something to share?”

Tristan raised one hand a little, and Mrs. Yamada nodded, giving him permission to say.

“It’s not positive,” he said.  “I don’t know if that’s alright.”

“It’s fine.  Go ahead.”

“What Victoria was saying, how she was saying she was happy, seeing the kids happy, and how she felt energized after.  I don’t have that.  I don’t have a way to recharge when I’m not at one hundred percent.”

“You definitely have things you’re passionate about,” Rain said.

“I like people, parties, noise, really letting the walls drop away and having fun.  There are things I’d want to go out and do which I can’t.  Things I’m not comfortable talking about with Kenzie present.”

Kenzie smiled at him.  “Rude stuff.  I’m not that young.”

“I know you probably know, I’m still not comfortable talking about it like this,” Tristan said.

“You say Kenzie but you don’t even mention me,” Chris said.  “I’m perversely pleased by that.  You mean fucking, right?”

“Please, Chris,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I mean stuff,” Tristan said, “Stuff I can’t do because of my situation.  I did some of it back before the trigger.  More like sophomore high schoolers stealing their parents booze and having way too many people in a house while the parents are away, but that was the time of my life.  It was when I was the most excited to be on this- on that planet.  Now I can’t do stuff like that, the pressure release valve is screwed up for the same reasons I’m screwed up.”

“The case seventy stuff,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Now me passing out drunk might mean I screw up the time window for passing back control, however many alarms I set, and I can’t do that to Byron.  I can’t go have a one night stand because the way things are mean I’d be involving him in it as a bystander or voyeur.”

“Can you find new outlets?” Sveta asked.  “One thing I’ve learned over the past little while is that I still had a lot of growing to do.  It’s easy when you’re in a bad place to think ‘this is it, this is me,’ but there’s always more out there.”

“I’m trying,” Tristan said.  “But it sucks to know that the stuff I want to do and the people I want to do are out there and I can’t do that.  I know it’s the same for Byron.  It’s different for him, though, because he’s a quiet guy, he wants to take it easy, but you get the weird conflict where you want to chill out but you can’t because you also want to maximize your use of time, when you only get to live half your life.”

“I’d like to talk about that at a later point, when we’re not a minute away from wrapping up,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’d also like to have a word with Byron and you after the session, make sure everything’s okay.”

“Sure,” Tristan said.

“On a positive note, if nobody minds,” Sveta said, sitting up with the faintest of metal-on-metal sounds.  “I got to recharge too, but it was a big one.”

“Your trip?” Kenzie asked.

“I know we talked about it last week, but we mostly talked about Rain staying safe and the hero team thing.  It wasn’t a little pick me up.  It was big, and I really want to find the chances to go and do stuff like that again.”

“Traveling?” I asked.  Her smile was contagious.

“Traveling.  We had a boat, and when we weren’t around people, I got out of my hamster ball.  We stayed pretty close to the coasts, Weld sailing or driving the boat and me swimming.  It was really, really nice.”

“I can tell you got a lot of sun,” Tristan said.

Sveta smiled.  Her face was so pale that her complexion was borderline impossible for a human.  “I like swimming.  I want to find a way to get out and do it more.  It’s the first time I can remember moving and having there be resistance.  Everything else is too hard or too reflex.”

“Anyone else?” Mrs. Yamada asked.  “Final words?  Thoughts?”

“I’m glad you had a good time,” Kenzie said.

“I really did,” Sveta said.

There was a pause.  No responses, the only sound was a clack as the wind blew the blinds away from the window and they swung back into position.  I wondered how bad the rain was.

Mrs. Yamada looked up at the clock, then said, “Then we should wrap up.  Tristan, a word.  Everyone else, have a good week.  There won’t be a Friday meeting this week, so I will see you next Tuesday.”

“I’d like to exchange people’s contact information, if it’s okay,” I said.  “If you’re wanting to do this.”

“You keep saying that like you’re hoping we won’t,” Ashley said.

“It might make things simpler,” I said.

“The others have my number,” she said.  “I don’t keep track of it.”

“Sure,” I said.

“Do you guys mind giving Victoria my number while you’re at it?” Tristan asked.

“Can do,” Rain said.

People were standing, now.  Tristan gave Sveta a hand in getting to her feet.

The group, Tristan excepted, filed out into the hallway.  A few people had coats draped or hooked on the the stacked plastic chairs along the hallway’s length.  I’d left my bag on the ground.  I pulled my phone out before I slung it over one shoulder.

A message from Crystal, asking if I was coming home for dinner.

“Pass me your number?” Rain asked.  His phone was as battered as he was, with a crack running down the case.

I thumbed through the concentric rings, put my thumb on my phone number and profile information, and then flicked it in Rain’s direction.

“Got it,” he said.

His info appeared on my phone, at the top edge.  It was soon joined by Tristan’s, then Kenzie’s and Ashley’s, near simultaneously.  Kenzie’s name was framed with colorful symbols.  Chris’s and Sveta’s were the last to appear.

Rain had handled sending me Sveta’s, Ashley’s and Tristan’s, it seemed.  Ashley was pulling on a raincoat, and Sveta’s hands were clasped in front of her.

Sveta might have sent me hers without using her hands, now that I thought about it.  It was possible she had a phone in her suit.

I glanced back into the room, to see if Mrs. Yamada had anything she wanted to convey with a look or gesture.  Instead, I saw her talking to someone who wasn’t Tristan.

Byron had black hair, shorter than Tristan’s, slicked back with something that shone in the room’s lights.  He wore a jacket, a black v-neck shirt, and jeans.  The contrast between him and Tristan in everything but facial features were striking- Tristan had been bright haired, his top and shorts all about contrasts with light and dark, color and lack thereof.  He’d brimmed with confidence.

Byron didn’t.  He looked distinctly uncomfortable, his hands in his jacket pockets, shoulders forward, a look of concern on his face.  The muted gray-blue of his jacket, the black v-neck shirt, the jeans, there weren’t any of the intentional contrasts I’d seen in Tristan.

“Are we going to wait for Tristan and try to have a quick chat about things?” Rain asked.

“I have dinner,” Kenzie said.  She looked at me.  “I try to have dinner with my parents every night.  We’re trying to reinforce that normalcy.”

“Is that going alright?” Sveta asked.

“It’s going,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “Which is better than the alternative.”

“I’m all people’d out,” Chris said.  “Most of you guys are better than some, but I’m done for now.”

“That’s a good enough reason to put it off, then,” Rain said.  He gripped the doorframe, leaning into the room a little.  I heard Mrs. Yamada’s voice stop.

“Yes?” she asked.

“Wanted to let Tristan and Byron know we’re heading out.  We’re not meeting today.”

“Okay,” Byron said.  “He’ll have heard you.”

He sounded different, even.  Quieter, in the way people talked if they were sure they’d be heard regardless, if they didn’t care, or, on the other side of things if they knew they wouldn’t be listened to.

“We’ll hang out,” Rain said.  “You and me, we’ll do something soon.”

“Okay.  How’s Erin?”

“She’s good,” Rain said.  “I could invite her to come with.”

“I wouldn’t mind.”

“Yeah, for sure,” Rain said.

Rain was still smiling when he stepped away from the door.

“Let’s go,” Rain said.

I had to pause as Kenzie and Chris got out of my way and turned to head down the hallway, while Rain and Ashley led the way.  I didn’t catch Ashley and Rain’s brief exchange of words.

I glanced back at the room, and saw Byron was looking at me while he was saying something to Mrs. Yamada.  The up-down look, followed by the quick glance away when he realized I’d seen him.

You’re too young for me and you’re not my type, based on what little I’ve seen and heard, I thought.

Sveta took my arm, squeezing it.  My reminder to focus on the others.

“You’re okay,” Sveta said, squeezing harder for a moment.  “You can talk.”

“You seem to be doing okay yourself,” I said.

“I’m great,” she said.  “Today was a good day.”

We walked to catch up, and I could feel Sveta periodically leaning harder on me as she worked to maintain her stride.  For all that she was in there, no doubt pulling on multiple components and relying on intricate machinery, she managed pretty darn well.

A little less so on the stairs to the ground floor, but I gave her my arm and plenty of support, and she did okay.

She hugged me with enthusiasm as we walked the five feet from the stairs to the side door, where the others were waiting under the rectangle of roof that jutted out from the side of the boxy building.

“I’m going,” Chris said.  “Bye.”

“Bye,” Sveta said, amid a few other scattered responses.  I raised one hand in a token wave.

Chris removed his headphones as he walked away, stowing them in one pocket of his cargo shorts.  He didn’t use an umbrella or wear a raincoat.  He seemed content to get rained on.

Kenzie had a blue raincoat with duffle coat toggles on the front, and was standing a bit in the rain, head bent over her phone.  Ashley stood on the sidewalk, her hood up.  Rain had settled for an umbrella, but hadn’t opened it yet.

“I’m walking to the bus station in Webster,” Rain said.  “Normally Tristan, Sveta, and I walk that way.”

“I can head that way,” I said.  “I’ll walk with you guys for a bit.”

“I’ll come,” Kenzie said, not looking up from her phone.  “There’s still time before dinner.”

“You sure?” Sveta asked.

“Yep,” Kenzie looked up from her phone.

“And Ashley?” I asked.

She didn’t reply, turning away to look down the length of the road.  She turned around, looking the other way.  In that moment, a car appeared.

“I’ve got a ride,” she said.

“Spending time with the the ol’ guardians?” Sveta asked.

I didn’t miss the word choice.  The forced cavalier attitude.  Awkward.

“I try to get as many of my appointments into the same day as I can,” Ashley said.  “It’s nuisance enough to have my day disrupted with this inanity, I don’t want it taking over my weeks.”

“We’re inanity, are we?” Rain asked.

“You can be,” Ashley said.  “Checkups and tests, therapy, group therapy, being supervised without it being official supervision, interviews, prosthetics tune-ups, work.  It becomes inane.”

“It’s all for good reasons,” Sveta said.

“I’d do better without all of the distractions,” Ashley said.  She looked at me, and she did the up-down assessment too.  It was something different from what Byron had done.  “I look forward to learning what you have to teach.”

“It was nice to meet you,” I said.  I wasn’t sure if I was lying, but it seemed like the thing to say.

She walked down the little dirt path that extended through the grass from the building’s side door to the road.  A black sedan.  She opened the back door, climbed in, and closed the door with more force than was probably necessary.

“I have so many questions,” I said.

“Weld’s kind-of dad figure was the Director in charge of the Boston PRT,” Sveta said.  “He was also kind of in charge of looking after Ashley, because her town was close to Boston.”

“Making sure she didn’t do too much damage?” I asked.

“Yes.  And gradually trying to get her used to the idea of cooperating with the good guys, making sure she was staying reasonably healthy.  They reached out regularly, letting her know there were better options.  Except that Ashley was a different Ashley.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “She’s going to be on your team?”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.

I didn’t have a response for that.

She squeezed my arm.  “I spent a lot of time with a lot of people who never got a chance, Victoria.  I feel like it’s my duty to give her one.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “I don’t disagree.”

“But you don’t wholly agree, either?” Rain asked.

“I… believe in second chances.  Not necessarily in every circumstance, though, which seems to be the direction a lot of people are going.”

“We should walk,” Rain said.  “The sooner we get where we split off in different directions, the earlier Kenzie can head back to her parents’ and make it on time for dinner.”

“Yes, please,” Kenzie said, still looking down at her phone.

Sveta had an umbrella.  I held it so Sveta could walk while leaning on me, the two of us sharing it.

There weren’t many cars on the road, and even with the overcast sky making it rather dark out for the late afternoon, there weren’t many lights on either.  The route we were walking put us on a long stretch of road with small businesses and restaurants on either side.  Most of the illumination came from store signs in bright colors that were reflected in the puddles.

“I didn’t get a great read on Chris,” I said.  “He’s the other big set of question marks.”

“I like Chris,” Kenzie said, without looking up.  “He’s crazy smart about some things and adorkably stupid about others.  He’s hard to figure out but when he lets you in it makes you feel special.”

She said something like that with no compunctions, no reservations.  I almost envied her.

Sveta reached out and placed a hand on top of Kenzie’s hood.  “It would be unfair to share Chris’ story when he didn’t want to share it himself, Victoria.  I only said what I said about Ashley because she’s open about it.”

“In fairness, I wasn’t asking or prying,” I said.  “I was remarking.”

“Remarking with a question mark at the end?” Rain asked.

“Inviting an answer, but not pressing for one,” I said.  “I can drop it.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  She put her phone away.  “All caught up.  Stir fry for dinner, I’m going to pick up broccoli, and my workshop is warming up for later.”

“You’ve got a workshop, like a proper tinker,” I said.

“Absolutely,” Kenzie said, dead serious.

“Are you hiding a jetpack inside that raincoat, or are those rocket boots?” I asked.

“I wish,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t do that stuff.  I make cameras and inconveniently big boxes.  My best stuff is inconveniently big, box-shaped cameras.”

“Big boxes?” I asked.

“The term in my file is emplacements.  Terminals, tech, and computers big enough they’re hard to move around.  Like turrets, but I can’t really make good weapons or defensive things.”

“I see.  I can see why Watchdog wanted you.”

“Grr, arf.”

And I might be able to see why your supervisors wanted to keep you away from the front lines.

“Out of curiosity,” I said.  “Where are people?  I’m trying to figure out where you guys are situated and what locations might work.”

“I’m from Norwalk Station,” Kenzie said.

Norwalk Station would be off to the west end of Norfair, where we had the community center incident.  The ‘Nor’ part of Norfair.  It was a nice-ish area.  I’d passed through it a few times.  “And you’re in school?  Are you in the morning or afternoon block?”

“Morning.  I joined the study block for afternoons, I keep good grades so they let me, and I have paperwork from before that says they’re not supposed to give me too much homework, so I don’t have too much to do in the afternoons.”

“They might expect you to check in,” I said.

“They might.”

“Weld and I are in Stratford, so is Ashley,” Sveta said.  “Chris lives somewhere around here.  Tristan is close to here.”

Here being Fairfield.

“Bridgeport span, here,” I said.  “I’m closer to you guys in Stratford than not.”

“Of course I’m the furthest out,” Kenzie said.

“Almost,” Rain said.

“Almost,” Kenzie echoed him.

“Where are you situated?” I asked Rain.

“It’s complicated,” he said.

“Uh huh.  That’s starting to sound like a catchphrase.”

“I hate saying it as much as people hate hearing it.  Locationwise, I’ve always liked saying I’m from everywhere that isn’t anywhere.”

I gave him a look.

“Stop being vague and teasing Victoria,” Sveta said.

“I’m not teasing.  I’m in the middle of nowhere, it’s hard to pin down.  North of Greenwich.  It’s a trip to get here.”

That put Tristan, Byron and Chris close to center, Kenzie out west, Rain out to the far northwest, me a bit to the east, and Sveta and Ashley a bit further to the east.  With the trains I was figuring it might take about four or five hours for Kenzie to get to where Sveta and Ashley were situated.  It would take Rain another couple of hours, depending on how far north he was.

“That’s a pretty significant logistics problem,” I said.  “Even in the best case scenario, if we found a place close to here, that’s a two hour or more trip for people to get here?”

“I could build something,” Kenzie said.  “I can’t make promises.”

“How confident are you?” I asked.

“Kind of confident,” she said, sounding anything but.  “I haven’t done teleportation or breaking movement devices before, but if I made it a series of emplacements and built them big, then if I traveled once a week or so to visit the send-receives and make sure they don’t break down, it might work.”

“Tinker stuff breaks,” I said.

“It does,” Kenzie said.

“It would also be liable to break or break down when you needed it to work the most.  During disasters, or times when there aren’t a lot of downtime.”

“That’s very true,” Kenzie said.

“I’m wondering if there’s even a good way to go about this.  I’m not trying to screw you guys up, I’m genuinely wondering.”

“It might not be as complicated as it seems,” Sveta said.  “I can move quickly if I have to, Ashley doesn’t have much occupying her days, when she doesn’t have her appointments, and I don’t think she minds much.  She’s happy to wake up early and read on the train, she even goes to the New York hub a lot, and that’s a full day trip.  As for you, you can fly again-”

She squeezed my arm as she said it, rocking a bit side to side as she did it.  I rocked a bit with her.

“-and the way you were talking about things, this wouldn’t be a full-time thing for you,” Sveta finished.  Her enthusiasm had risen as she talked, and only dropped with that last part.

“Maybe,” I said.  “It seems you’d want a location that was closer to Kenzie and Chris then.  Closer to Rain.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  He was looking around a fair bit.  “I don’t mind the trips, either.”

“You okay?” I asked him.

“Yeah.  Forgot for a short while that I have an attempt out on my life.  I really should dwell on it more, to be safe, especially with Kenzie in tow.”

“I can hold my own,” Kenzie said.

“It’s an attempt on my life,” Rain said.  “Lives could be lost.  I don’t want yours to be one of them.  I would feel insanely shitty if you jumped in to help and you got hurt or killed.”

“Insanely?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

“I’m going to call my ride, I think.  See if she can catch me en route instead of me going to her,” Rain said.

“She?  Erin the lady friend?” Kenzie asked.

“Erin the friendship I’m not going to mess with,” Rain said.   He pulled out the phone and stepped a bit away, walking at the road’s edge instead of on the sidewalk.

We reached an intersection, and Rain stepped away, one hand to his ear while he held the phone to the other.  His eyes roved, looking at nearby rooftops and the dark spaces between buildings.

The building at the corner of the intersection was a bar, and a group of ten or so people were standing outside, smoking.  The place and the people smelled like the cheap alcohol that was barely a step above moonshine, that was being sold on the cheap in a lot of places.  Made to fill a need, now a surplus, with cheap, shitty beer available to fill the need instead.

Their attention was on Sveta.

“Hey,” one called out.

She glanced at them, then set to ignoring them.  I took her cue.

“Hey,” the guy called out again, drawing out the word.  “Hey, you with the paint.”

“Whatever you’re going to say, I’ve heard it before,” Sveta said.

“What the fuck’s going on with you, huh?  What’s wrong with you?” he called out.

I turned my head to look at him.  Sveta squeezed my arm, then shook her head a little.

“Hey, you’re weird,” he called out.  “You’re freaky.”

The light changed.  We crossed, Rain trailing a bit behind, still on the phone, periodically responding.  He shot the guys a dark look.

“I don’t like it when people are mean to you,” Kenzie said.

“Thank you for that,” Sveta said.  “And thank you, Victoria.  I know you probably wanted to say something.  I’m glad we didn’t make it into a thing.”

“Does it happen a lot?” I asked.

“Some.  It beats people running away and screaming, and the running and screaming part beat people dying because of me,” Sveta said.  “This is an improvement.  Things will improve more in the future.  I believe that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Me too.”

“Me too,” Kenzie said.

Sveta put a hand on Kenzie’s hooded head, squeezed my arm.

“My ride’s here,” Rain said, catching up with us, waving at a distant vehicle with its headlights on.  I got a better view of it as it pulled up beside us.  It wasn’t a pretty vehicle – a van with rust around the right headlight.  “We’ve got a good long drive back.  Was good seeing you guys, good to meet you, Victoria.”

“Good to meet you, Rain,” I said.

The driver stuck her hand out, waving.  We moved around to where we could see her through the passenger-side window.

Erin, Rain’s friendship he wasn’t intending to mess with, was not the kind of person I imagined driving a van like that, or spending time with someone of Rain’s somewhat grungy, not-inclined-to-smile presentation.  There were women where someone’s first thought might be ‘they could be a model’ and there were women where the first thought was ‘they have to be a model, it’s not fair if they aren’t’.  She was the latter.  Short black hair with a long swoop at the front, dangly jewelry, more piercings in one ear, and one of the memorial shirts, much like how the dress I was wearing served as a way for me to represent and remember Brockton Bay.  She was from New York, it seemed, or she wanted to represent it.

“Erin, you’ve seen Kenzie and Sveta before.”

“Hi again,” Erin said.

“And this is Victoria.  We were talking about having her be our coach.”

“Hi,” Erin said, leaning toward Rain to get a better view of me, extending her hand in another wave.  Rain looked momentarily like a deer in the headlights with Erin’s face close, with Erin doing a very good job at not noticing or not looking like she’d noticed.  “You look a lot like Glory Girl.”

“I am,” I said.  “I was.”

“Huh,” Erin said.  “That’s really cool.  Maybe I’ll see you around?”

“It’s likely,” I said.

“You guys have a good night.”

“You too,” Kenzie said.  She held up her phone, like she was trying to get a signal.  “Drive safe.”

“We good to go?” Erin asked.

“Yep,” Rain said.  “You want a ride somewhere convenient, Kenz?”

“Sure!”

Kenzie climbed in behind Rain, giving us a wave before the door was closed.

Just Sveta and me left.

We watched as the van pulled away.

“I have a lot of sympathy for Rain,” Sveta said.

“Are you talking about the attempt on his life or the long car trip with the girl he very clearly likes?”

“Oh, yeah, the dangerous thing too,” Sveta said.  “Mostly the long trip.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“But that’s all negative.  We’re going in the same direction, right?  We can catch up?”

“We can definitely catch up.  I want to hear more about that vacation.”

“And you can come over for dinner, right?  Sometime?  You’re not far.  I can’t promise a good dinner, because I’m still trying to find food that Weld can really taste that won’t make the neighbors evacuate their apartments, but there’s takeout!  Or delivery.  I’m sure there’s something we can do.”

“You couldn’t keep me away,” I said.

Sleep eluded me.  I stood on the balcony, I stared out at a city without nearly enough lights or light in it, a jagged and incomplete skyline, and I tried to shake a persistent melancholy I couldn’t put my finger on.

The day had been a good one.  My friendship with Sveta rekindled, with Sveta doing as well as I could hope for, possibilities for the future, interesting puzzles to work out, and I’d been able to do favors for people I cared about.

A part of it was the therapy.  It was strange, to be in a place mentally and emotionally where therapy had a cost to it, in a way.  The voice of Mrs. Yamada and the tone of the conversations reminded me of the darkest period in my life.  Those reminders were probably responsible for the nightmares that had torn me from sleep.

Maybe it would be good if I called the new therapist, a new voice.

It wasn’t the nightmares that kept me from getting back to sleep, but a restless nagging feeling.  I liked problems I could decisively solve, things I could tell myself I had an answer for, something I could handle in the dawn, and then I could go back to sleep.  The feeling that had settled with me wasn’t that sort of answerable question.

It was the restless nagging that had me carefully and slowly open the sliding door of the balcony, step into the living room, and gather some things.  A bag with my wallet and things, fresher clothes, the mask I’d worn for the broken trigger incident.

I went flying, and my destination wasn’t one that would answer the nagging feeling, but one that could answer other, more concrete questions.  With luck, I’d be able to distract myself.

There were cities and areas I’d considered for the therapy group’s expedition.  Ones in need, ones I knew didn’t fall neatly in one jurisdiction or another.  I used the highways and major roadways as my waypoints, so I wouldn’t pass them or find myself flying too far north or south.

The sun was rising by the time I reached the first.  Sherwood span.  Too low a population, I could tell right away.  Too many farms, the houses too spread out.

It took me twenty minutes to reach the next.  The area was slow to wake up, which was a surprise, given the amount of construction sites I could see from above.  Usually the work started first thing.

It was a nice slice of city, with a view of the water, tall buildings, shiny, modern, with nice, large houses, but it was only halfway erected.    There were cars in driveways, but there wasn’t much life.

I flew low, stopping at one of the gates to a construction site for a taller building.

Laminated sheets had been put up on the gates.

Construction suspended until we’re given what we’re owed.

The same was on display in other places, with laminated sheets of paper and graffiti.  Some of it was angrier.

I was reading a very bold, large bit of text about how certain people should be choking on cocks, when I saw I had company, standing in the corner of my field of view.  A cape.

I turned to face them.

Not anyone I recognized.  A man in armor with spikes on it.  Plate mail, and plate armor was hard to get done right, especially in this modern day.  He carried no weapon I could see.  Spiky plate armor wasn’t exactly original or new, either.

He didn’t say anything or do anything, but he was holding a piece of paper.

I approached him, my forcefield up.  He didn’t budge.

When I was in arm’s reach, he put his gauntlet toward me, paper in hand.  I dropped my forcefield to take it.

“What’s this?”

He wasn’t someone who sounded more intimidating from the inside of a helmet.  His voice was very normal as he said, “We saw you fly in, we discussed, we called some people, this is our message to you.”

“Got it,” I said.  I looked around.  “Quiet town.”

When my head was turned, he reached for my throat.

I put my forcefield up, and I knocked his hand aside, forcefully enough I almost put him on his ass.  The sound rang in my ears.

“Our town,” he said.

That said, he trudged off.

I watched him go, and then I walked in the opposite direction.  People were watching from doorsteps with coffee in hand, or standing by cars, now.

I didn’t want to back down or look weak, not if this was possibly a place I might be visiting with any regularity, so I walked slowly, like I wasn’t bothered.

With all that in mind, I still stopped in my tracks when I read the note.

Turn around and fly home, Glory Hole
-TT

They’d asked around, huh?

I folded the paper up, and I held the folded square as I walked, thinking, observing.  A slice of city, paralyzed, a clear villain presence.

The guy with the spikes might have been Cleat.  A low-tier cape with some background in fighting rings and mercenary work.  Unlike most in fighting rings, he’d never found enough success to get traction in other circles.  Ironically.

I’d left Brockton Bay in the middle of a situation, or I’d been taken from the city during.  I’d put in the hours and put heart and soul into trying to combat the badness that was taking over the city, and at the end of the day, I hadn’t ever enjoyed a resolution to that situation.  I’d never felt like I’d made enough of a difference in the end result.

It was tempting, the idea of coming here to a place like this and somehow completing that journey or using a success here to convince myself I could have made a proper difference if I’d been given a chance.

But this wasn’t about me.  It was about those teenagers and kids in Yamada’s group.

A sign was erected by one construction site.  It was covered in graffiti.  ‘Cedar Point Apartments’ was written at the top, but ‘Cedar’ had been covered over in paint, and ‘Hollow’ had been written in its place.

Cute, and from some cursory investigation, the rebranding had been performed elsewhere, throughout the district.  Graffiti and other signs of anger were clear as day, much of it vile and senseless.

Did I really want to pit those kids against this?  They might give it a shot, and if it was insurmountable, Mrs. Yamada might be happy, and if it was surmountable, everyone would be happy.

I wasn’t sure.

I looked at the graffiti, getting a sense of the atmosphere here.  Vulgarity, vulgarity, obscenity, drawing of vulgarity, hate, anger, vulgarity, possible gang tag, ‘hollow point’ appearing again.

I stopped in front of another piece of graffiti.  It wasn’t crowded in with anything else, so it stood out, almost a piece of art in how it was spelled out on a ruined wall, half-toppled.

THIS IS HOW THINGS ARE NOW

I had the paper in my hand, I had my doubts, but the nagging feeling ceased being nagging and became acutely clear as I looked at the statement.

“Fuck that,” I said.

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Flare – 2.6

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“It’s not my intent to change your minds,” I said.  I could see some skeptical looks on some faces as I looked around the circle.  “I’m here to give another perspective, and maybe to equip you guys with knowledge.  If you change your minds because of that- and I think Mrs. Yamada might be hoping for that, then that’s fine.  If not, then I’d hope you were all going into this with your eyes more open about what you’re doing.”

“I’ve  addressed my feelings with the group,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “At the end of the session where the topic first came up, and for a portion of the last session.  We had other things demanding our attention, so we weren’t able to cover it in any depth.”

“That would be me,” Rain said, raising a hand.

Jessica continued, “To abbreviate what I said then, and to reinforce it in the here and now: if you each carried on as you have been until the final group sessions concluded, then moved on from there with the skills and perspective you’ve gained, I think most of you would do fine.  Most of you have reached the points in your journeys where you could continue on your own, without needing the one-on-one therapy or the group sessions.  You could pursue more conventional therapy, I think anyone could, and you would have my number in case of emergencies or backsliding, but most of you would do fine.”

“Ready to be let loose into the urban wilds,” Chris said.

“Not all of us though,” Kenzie said.  “You said most, a few times.”

“Most,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I also had private discussions with several members of the group.  I won’t say what was discussed, or with whom, but no, I don’t think everyone is ready.”

The group was silent. I assumed nobody wanted to speak up because they felt like doing so would out them as one of the people who’d had one of those private conversations.

Mrs. Yamada went on, “More to the point, beyond any and all of that, I don’t think the group would necessarily be healthy, taken outside of this setting and function.”

“You gathered us together so we could support each other,” Sveta said. “I feel like we do a good job of that. We bring out the good sides of one another.”

“In this setting, yes, I have seen that,” Jessica said. “I’m gratified it’s been so positive for most of you. But that’s in a controlled setting, with a mediator to keep things on course and help recognize the sensitive subjects and steer away from them.”

“May I?” I asked.

“Please,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Feel free.”

“To build on what you said, I think the things I’ve noticed on the those fronts are that, well, it’s a big leap from the controlled setting of a place like this to the wild, uncontrolled setting of superheroics. Things will get bad at some point, and when they do, there’s a tendency for the bad to snowball.”

“You lived in Brockton Bay,” Tristan said. “Is it possible your sense of normal is skewed?”

“That’s- that’s honestly hard to respond to,” I said.  I didn’t miss the flicker of a smile on Tristan’s face at hearing that.  “Because there’s an answer that springs to mind that I could give you, but I don’t know where people’s limits are, I don’t want to step on toes or upset anyone by giving an example.”

“I don’t know about the others, but I can’t think of what you’d say that would potentially upset us,” Tristan said.

“I can,” Rain said.

I raised an eyebrow.

Rain leaned forward, elbows on his knees.  “I’m making a pretty big leap here, but it’s the response that jumped to mind for me, too.  I’ve been here from the start, I think I know where everyone’s at.  I think it’s okay to say it, but do you mean Gold Morning?  I could see where it would be sensitive, considering just about everyone lost someone, but I don’t think that’s going to push anyone in particular over the edge, here.”

“Yeah.  That was it, thank you,” I said.  I looked past Sveta to Tristan.  “What happened in Brockton Bay wasn’t a break from the pattern.  It was just the pattern playing out at an accelerated rate.  What I’m talking about, the snowballing, the bad things happening and then compounding each other… they still happened.  A whole lot of individual factors played into the events of that day, and into the engagements and infighting that followed.”

“When they happen more slowly, there’s time to rest,” Sveta said.

“When they happen slowly, there’s time to get used to the bad, to normalize it.  You or people you thought you knew change in reaction to those external factors without anyone realizing it and… things still compound.  The bad days come, and the unresolved stuff from the last bad days catches up or demands resolution.”

“Like Gold Morning, again,” Rain said.  “A lot of things caught up with us around then.  Or a lot of things converged to bring it about, maybe.  I wasn’t there so I don’t know.”

“I was only there for the later parts,” I said.  “But I think you’re right.”

“Things are better this time,” Sveta said.  “We’ve learned from mistakes.  It’s a fresh start.  The Endbringers are dormant, we’re finally building things without them being torn down all the time.”

“I agree with Sveta,” Tristan said.  “I really think there is a lot of work to be done before we get to a good normal, but that’s where I want to be out there doing some of that work in the best way I know how, with people I’ve come to know, like, and respect.”

“I don’t like being on the opposite side of an argument from you, Victoria,” Sveta said.  “It doesn’t feel good.”

I reached out for her hand.  She met me halfway, putting the prosthetic hand in mine.  I squeezed it, realized she might not be able to feel the squeeze, and gave it a waggle.  She smiled.

“No hard feelings, okay?” I said.  “I get it.  You want this.  Believe me when I say I want to get out and do some heroic stuff too.”

“I have a boyfriend I feel like I don’t deserve, and please don’t use that as a launchpad to get into another topic, Mrs. Yamada.”

“I’m keeping my mouth shut for the time being,” Mrs. Yamada said.

Sveta nodded.  She looked back at me.  “I missed out on most of my teenage years, I don’t remember my childhood, and I feel so behind.”

“I know.  Believe me, I get it, not to the same degree, but I share some of those same feelings,” I said.

“I know you do,” she said.  She gave me a waggle back.

“I think more than a few of us get it,” Tristan said.  “Losing years or losing time because we have to deal with shit other people don’t, and falling behind because of it.”

Sveta nodded.  “My boyfriend is out and around and he’s doing great work.  He’s been doing it for a while.  He tried to build something with the Irregulars and it went bad.  But now he’s out there again and he’s with the team, the top team I know about, he’s doing amazing stuff.  I don’t know if I can ever catch up, but I don’t want to not try.  I don’t want to let the gap widen.”

“It can’t be just about him, you know,” I said.  “I think that would be more poison than help for a relationship.”

“It’s not.  Well, I mean, it is, but it’s not about him in a him-and-me romantic sense, it’s about me and him- sorry, I’m not making sense.”

“I’m following okay,” I said.

Mrs. Yamada said, “Just take your time, find the words.”

“Back long before I even knew him, he was my reference point for figuring out where we are.  We being the C-fifty-threes.  If he was popular then we all had a shot at getting more popularity.  That was something I could hope I could have one day.  And I didn’t have a lot of hope, so it was important.”

I reached over, and gave her arm a solid pat.  I was still holding her hand.

“And we spent part of the summer touring other worlds.  We were looking for our places of birth, but mostly we were looking for mine.  I’m one of the only ones who remembers mine.”

She moved one hand over to tap a finger against her forearm.  In dark green, almost invisible as a series of dark green images between dark blue sky and dark blue waves, framed by leaping fish in neon orange, were a series of huts.

“I was waiting for some updates on my body and so we just had me in my hamster ball, and Weld is so great, so patient… but I don’t like being that dependent.  I want to be self-sufficient and I want to do it by being a hero.”

“I think that’s kind of the opposite of the toxic path,” Tristan said.  “You’ve talked about it before, Sveta, how you’re worried about how your world revolves around him.”

Sveta nodded.  “When you’re disabled, and I see myself as disabled, then your world gets smaller.  Things get harder.  It’s easy to become dependent or let down your guard.  Everything’s hard and it’s really easy to stop trying altogether, to rely on people who want to help, to do what Victoria said and normalize that behavior and let the toxicity seep into things, only to have it come to a head during an already bad day.”

“I’m just going to cut in here,” I said.  “I one hundred percent think what you’re saying is cool and good.  It’s a good mindset.  I did catch one thing you said and it made me think.  You said ‘self-sufficient’ and one of the things I was thinking about mentioning was, you know, heroing is hard, and it’s kind of hard in part because it doesn’t pay.  That can lead to self-insufficiency instead.”

“It can pay,” Tristan said.

“It can,” I said.  “But it paid in part because people wanted to put money toward it.  Because the governments backed it and put money into the PRT, which paid the heroes a decent wage with opportunities for more.  I spent my entire life seeing my mom stressing out in front of the computer or in front of the paperwork, from the time I could walk to the time I went to the hospital.”

“It can absolutely pay, though,” Tristan said.  He glanced at Mrs. Yamada and then said, “I was a member of a corporate team, I saw and participated in the fundraising and merchandising, and we did well.  We made a good bit of money.”

“Which team?” I asked.

“Reach.”

“Oh, kudos.  I know Reach,” I said.  “I’m not sure I could list off the roster as of Gold Morning but I’m more than passingly familiar.  Good team.”

“Thank you,” Tristan said.  “I mean, I’m not so worried about the money.  That’s the easy part.”

“I don’t think it’s easy at all,” I said.  “There’s a saying, um, seventy percent of couples break up because of financial issues.  The same number of cape teams break up because of the same.”

“What’s so hard about it?” Sveta asked.

“You’re providing a service, and the fruits of that service aren’t immediately tangible.  If you do everything right, get crime rates down, clean up the neighborhood, then people look at the clean streets and low crime rate and they wonder why they’re paying you.  If the crime rate stays high and things are a mess, then they wonder why they’re paying you.”

“How do you get around that?” Chris asked.

“You show your work,” I said.  “And you show it in a way that makes people believe you’re doing a good job.  Bringing in bad guys, getting on the front page, that’s a big one, but you have to factor in the work of maintaining a relationship with the media, marketing, on top of the work you’re already doing.  You can also get into fights the public is aware of, while not putting that public in danger, because putting people in danger means getting sued.”

“Which detracts from the finances,” Chris said.

“In a big way,” I said.

“Like prison rep,” Ashley said.  “Having to show you’re not to be messed with, without making such a mess that you add to your sentence.”

“Yes,” I said.  “Not an analogy I would have jumped to, but it’s a good one.”

“I wasn’t aware you went to prison,” Sveta said.

“I didn’t,” Ashley said, fixing Sveta with a level stare.  “I watch tv and read books.”

I was going to reply to that, but Tristan was already talking.  He said, “I’m not worried about the money side of things.  P.R., rep, image, media, I had advice and lessons from masters in the field, when it came to that.”

“From what I remember of Reach, I believe you,” I said.  “I do think that there’s a ton of difference between launching a new team and capitalizing on an established brand like Reach had, and between being the man in front of the cameras and the person in the background paying the bills.”

“I have to ask,” Ashley said.  She waited for me to look at her before speaking.  “What are your qualifications exactly?  You were on a struggling team?”

“I don’t want to bully Victoria, please,” Sveta said.

I was feeling the numbers disadvantage, with many things I was saying having two people responding, a number of changes in direction, and the periodic challenging questions.  Mrs. Yamada hadn’t spoken up recently.

“I’m a cape geek,” I said.

“We’re all cape geeks,” Tristan said.  “It comes with the territory of being a cape.”

“Then I’m a cape geek of a tier higher,” I said.  “Listen, my mom and dad were capes and they were talking shop around me since I was born.  My aunt, uncle, cousins- my entire immediate and pretty much my whole extended family, they were all capes.  I was giving interviews about what it was like to grow up with hero parents when I was ten.”

Tristan cut in, “Okay, but that doesn’t-”

“Hold on,” I said.  “I was asked, I’m answering.  I triggered at fourteen, I was patrolling within six months.  I had three years of time as Glory Girl, one Endbringer fight, and-”

I paused.

Sveta squeezed my hand.

“-And one run-in with the Slaughterhouse Nine, followed by almost two years in the hospital.”

I glanced at Ashley.  She hadn’t flinched at the mention of the Nine.

I went on, “I’ve seen some of the worst.  I had the best boyfriend in the world-”

“You had the second best,” Sveta said.  “I’ll fight you on this.”

“I’ll take you up on that another time,” I said.  I smiled.  “Some of my family members were some of the most amazing people, one of those family members is still with me, and I count myself lucky in that.  I was a local celebrity, and I got letters from kids saying they were inspired or I’d improved their lives by reaching out to them, spending a bit of time with them, or helping them off a bad path through nothing more than me existing.  With all of that, I think I can say I’ve experienced some of the best that being a hero has to offer, too.”

“What happened to the others?” Kenzie asked.  “The other family members?”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “It’s best to leave that be.”

“Okay,” Kenzie said.  “I didn’t mean to pry.  I’m really sorry, Victoria, for your losses.  I asked because I’ve lost people too.  I know it hurts, and I think you’re cool and you don’t deserve that hurt.”

“Thank you, Kenzie.  I’ll share, because I think it’s important for context.  We’ve all lost people and that’s a big part of our shared experience here on Earth Gimel.”

I saw people throughout the room nodding, or acknowledging that.  Interesting, to see the lone wolf villainess Ashley nod, too.  Chris, Tristan, Sveta.  Mrs. Yamada.

Rain was hard to read, but he looked introspective.

“My uncle, my cousin, and that awesome boyfriend, Leviathan, twenty-eleven.  My- another family member, you could say she got herself.  Or you could say the team dynamics, all that stuff I was talking about before, they played a role.  I wasn’t paying enough attention, I let things pass by without remark when I should have pressed, pressed when I should have held back.  And now she’s- she’s not family.  My mom, recently, just…”

I sighed.

“I’m not here to be a downer,” I said.  “I’m really not.  I do want to emphasize this isn’t a game.  There’s a chance at greatness and there’s a chance, maybe a higher chance, of disaster.  I experienced both.”

“Not to belittle that, but each and every one of us has gone through shit,” Tristan said.  “If it’s supposed to be one part of good stuff for every ten parts bad, then I think most of us are owed some good stuff.”

“I don’t think it’s supposed to be that way,” I said.  “Ashley asked who I am.  I’m a cape, born, raised, and learned.  I’m a student of capes, I obsessed over them well before I had powers and I stepped up my game in a professional capacity after I got powers.  I had date nights with my cape boyfriend where I studied and read his Wards handbook, because that’s how into it I was.  I’ve followed the trajectories of two hundred cape careers and I’ve been part of a team trying to get off the ground.  I looked seriously into what it would take to start a team back when my boyfriend was getting close to leaving the Wards, because I was worried he’d get moved to another city.”

I looked Ashley in the eyes.  “This is me.  I know cape stuff.  I know what goes into it and I know what comes from it.”

I looked at Tristan.  “The last thing it is, is fair.  You’re not owed anything.  If you roll the dice nine times and get bad results every time, you don’t have a better shot on the tenth roll because of that.”

But,” Tristan said, and he said it with a bit of theatrical emphasis and a light in his eyes that made me really believe he had that experience in being in front of cameras and showing off for crowds.  He was more into things as he continued, “You have a better shot at getting an optimal result if you roll the dice a lot, than you would if you rolled it a couple of times, get bad results, and quit.  You have to get back up after you get knocked down.  You have to.”

“Or stand up in the first place,” Sveta said.

“Or stand up in the first place, yeah,” Tristan said. He glanced at Mrs. Yamada, then back to me.  “What you were talking about earlier, with Sveta and it being toxic to not stretch yourself out enough, it applies here.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Tristan, can I ask why you keep looking to me?  It’s not a usual habit.”

“Oh,” Tristan said.  “I barely noticed.  I think I’m pretty used to you jumping in to tell me to back down or not get so into an argument.”

“I see,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I guess the fact that I’m checking means I’m already aware I’m doing it again, and I should self-moderate.  Back down on my own instead of being told to.”

“Look at that, Pavlov’s dog can ring his own bell now,” Chris said.

“I’m all about the goats, thank you very much,” Tristan said.  He touched a more pronounced lock of his magenta hair.  “See, like the curling horns of a ram, right?”

Chris rolled his eyes.

Team Reach and goats?  “You’re Capricorn?” I asked.

“I am,” Tristan said.  “Bonus point for you.”

Kenzie, though, piped up with,”I like the hair-horns thing, Tristan.  I never got it before now but I think it’s neat.”

“Thank you, Kenzie,” Tristan said.  “This is part of why you’re awesome.”

Kenzie’s expression didn’t change much, but she had one leg crossed over the other, and the free-dangling foot bounced.  Like a dog wagging its tail.

Chris said, “Getting an ‘I like it’ from Kenzie is like getting a participation medal from a school event.  Everyone gets one.”

“That doesn’t make it worthless,” Kenzie said.  She flashed a smile at Chris.  “I never lie, I’m always honest when I say I like something.  What makes me different is that I say it instead of keeping it to myself, because I think the world needs more positivity.”

“I like it,” Rain said.  “I could never do it, because it takes a weird sort of social courage, but I like it.”

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

“I think you lose this round, Chris,” Tristan said.

“How do I lose?  I wasn’t playing.”

“And,” Tristan said.  Again, that one word, almost a pronouncement, volume and emphasis shifted just a bit to get attention.  “On the topic of rounds and games, I feel like Mrs. Yamada is up to something, so I’m going to play this on a meta level and I’m going to shut myself up.  I recognize I’ve been trying to win this conversation with Victoria and I’ve been monopolizing things by jumping in every time there’s an opportunity.  I’m supposed to be listening more and trying to ‘win’ social interactions less, so I’m going to shut myself up.  The others should chime in, I trust them to say what needs to be said.”

“I’m proud of you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.

Tristan nodded.

Rain said, “I’m less proud and more amazed by the fact that your thought process went from ‘I need to try to win social interactions less’ to ‘this is a meta-scenario I can win’ in, what, twenty words?”

“What, did I?”

“And the fact he used so many words to say he was going to shut up,” Chris said.

Tristan frowned at Chris.  “You guys are harsh.”

“It’s what we’re here for, isn’t it?” Sveta asked.  “We moderate each other.  Hopefully while not being too harsh on each other.”

“It’s part of it,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I think the ‘participation award’ comment was a little much, Chris.  You have a tendency, which has been remarked on by others in the past, to think a clever put-down is a good thing because it’s clever, when most people will take away the fact it was a put-down.”

“Alright,” Chris said.  “I didn’t think it was a good or bad thing.  Sorry Kenzie.”

He didn’t sound very sorry, but Kenzie’s dangling foot wiggled, and she nodded, wiggling slightly in her seat a bit between the motions.

Mrs. Yamada said, “The reason I’ve been somewhat quiet, despite my referee role, is more or less what Tristan intuited.  I’ve done this in the past – taking more of a backseat, giving you all more of an opportunity to respond to one another and push back against one another rather than relying on me to keep things under control.  In the early stages, I had to step in rather quickly.  I’m glad that with minimal prompting, Tristan stopped himself before reaching the point where I had to tell him to stop.”

“We’re being toyed with,” Ashley said.

“Not that,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “The end goal is to get you all ready for the real world.  Early on, the rudder needed a firm hand; as time goes on, I’m periodically hands off, seeing how you interact, until I see that you’re faring reasonably well on your own.  It’s a gradual process that requires I give you more and more trust.  Okay?”

Ashley nodded.

“It might be worth pausing to take stock in this moment.  Snapshot the feelings and thoughts you’re experiencing.  Some of you haven’t spoken up much at all.  Depending on how you view the conversation, your participation or nonparticipation, some of you might be feeling frustrated, offended, worried, or even guilty.”

“Is that last one aimed at me?” Tristan asked.  “Oh, wait, sorry, I’m supposed to have shut up.”

“It’s not aimed at you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I want each of you to think about where you stand right now.  What are your feelings and where is your focus?  Have you felt like you’ve had a voice or that you’ve taken things in a positive direction?  Outside of the classroom, in a stressful situation with high stakes, these feelings could be magnified manifold.  As Victoria suggested when she was talking about the slow progression of background negativity, the bad feelings aren’t always resolved or solved, and it would be very easy for a sliver of frustration to carry forward, nettling at you or being joined by other, similar feelings, until you felt compelled to do or say something you regret.”

“Handing that irritation off to someone else,” I said.

“Yes,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “And, as a final comment on the topic from me, I brought Victoria here for several reasons.  One of them is that I do believe she knows what she’s talking about.  Another is that, from my position as a person with a measure of trust and power, with a strong feeling about what you’re committed to doing, it’s very difficult for me to both argue the points and also manage the discussion at the same time.  If I tell Tristan to give others a chance to speak, it could be seen as me trying to shut down his side of the argument.”

“I’m here as a bit of a surrogate,” I said.  “I’m here saying what you can’t.”

“In part.  I think we do disagree on some things.”

“Like the value and importance we place in cape names, to quote a recent example,” I said.  “I like them, you don’t.”

“Yes.  I did, for the record, let Victoria know I would be sitting back more than usual.”

“You did.  I didn’t expect to be ganged up on, though.”

“I’m sorry about that.”

“It was mild,” I said.

“I don’t want to gang up on Victoria.  I’ve done a lot of talking too,” Sveta said.  “But I think that’s because I know Victoria, even if this is our first time really talking properly.  There’s a bit of trust.”

I nodded.  “Yep.”

“For what it’s worth,” Sveta said, “that trust means that much like Mrs. Yamada I do believe Victoria when she says she’s worried or she thinks this could go badly.  I know she knows stuff.  But I do want this.  I want to stand on my own two feet.  Sorry.  I think the ones who’ve been quiet up until now should say stuff.  Ashley, Chris, Kenzie, Rain.  Or, you know, maybe Victoria has more to say.”

“Thank you for coming, by the way, Victoria,” Kenzie said.

“You’re welcome,” I said.  “I do want this to be a chance to share what I know and for you guys to gain, if that’s possible.  Maybe there are places where you might realize there are gaps in your knowledge that you could then take time to brush up on.  There isn’t a rush.”

“There is, kind of,” Rain said.

Heads turned.

“I talked about this last session.  There’s currently some people after me.  I want to be part of a team because it’s backup.  Having a squad of people with me when I’m out and about would throw a wrench into their plans.  It could give me a fighting chance when I wouldn’t have one otherwise.”

“People are after you?” I asked.

Rain held up his fingers in a way that made a rectangle.  “It’s complicated.”

The rectangle was supposed to represent the card.

I smiled despite myself.  “And these guys are okay with taking the risk involved there?”

“I’m not scared,” Ashley said.

“I’m breaking my vow of silence again,” Tristan said, “But I think I’m doing it for the right reasons here.  I like, respect, and/or trust each of these guys who would be my teammates.  But in particular, I consider Rain a friend.  I’m already willing to throw my helmet into the ring and do what it takes to help save his life.  We’ve got some similar garbage going on with… people we can’t get away from, and he’s had my back in the past when it came to my issue.”

“Yes,” Rain said.  He gestured vaguely toward his head.

“People?” I asked.

“Speaking for myself, I’m part of a multitrigger cluster,” Rain said.

“Oh,” I said.  I paused, taking stock of that.  “I can see where that warrants playing the ‘complicated’ card.”

Kenzie spoke up, “Before you got in, Ashley, Victoria was saying we should all get a card saying ‘it’s complicated’ on the one side, and ‘handle with care’ on the other.  I wanted to make sure you got what they were talking about.”

“I like that,” Ashley said.  “It could use rewording.  ‘Do not fuck with’, instead of handling with care.”

“Reminds me of the old wiki entries,” Capricorn said, “The red warning boxes for the scary capes.”

“Did I have one?” Ashley asked.

“You did,” I said.

Ashley nodded.  “Good.”

Was it?  I decided to leave it alone.

“You were motioning toward your head before,” I said, to Rain.  “Are you referring to bleed-over, kiss and kill?  That sort of thing?”

“Huh,” Rain said.  “You weren’t lying when you were saying you’d studied up.”

I’d pulled my hand away from Sveta’s at one point, and I only realized it because she reached out and took my hand again, placing her hand over mine and giving it a congratulatory squeeze.

“Is it part of it?” I asked.

“I don’t know, honest to God,” Rain said.  “When I’m vague and I’m saying it’s complicated, it’s really because I can’t give a one hundred percent clear answer.  I’m still figuring out the rules this works by.  I’ve wondered about the bleeding through.  My personality changed after, but I don’t know how much of that is them and how much is how a trigger event is a wake-up call.”

“We like to give things hard labels, but sometimes they’re blurry around the edges,” I said.

Rain nodded.

“If your own cluster is coming after you, I’d say you could chalk it up to kiss and kill.  Again, blurry, might as well throw it in that bucket.”

“I won’t object,” Rain said.

“And while I’m on that subject, I’d feel compelled to stress that the term uses the word ‘kill’ for a reason.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.

“People die.  Friends of people die.  I’m still figuring out what you guys are doing, but… you want to bring kids into that?” I asked.  I looked over to my right, at Kenzie and Chris.

“Definitely not,” Rain said.  “Tristan is saying he’d help, Ashley is offering a hand, and Sveta might do what she can?  That’s a hell of a lot better, compared to the same circumstance with me alone.”

“There’s more peace of mind in talking to legitimate authorities,” I said.

“There is,” Rain said.  “If things get bad, I’ll go to them.  I’ve tested the waters and asked questions.  It doesn’t seem like they’ll offer help against a nebulous threat with an unclear window of time where it might occur, and villains  I don’t know the names, locations or details of.  It’s more like they want me to call them when I’ve got a claw at my throat.”

“Everyone’s busy,” Tristan said.

“Claw?” I asked.  “Tinker claw?”

That got the room’s attention.

“You’re thinking of the man with the tinker arms you ran into at the community center, Victoria?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

She explained, “Victoria mentioned that she took him for a multi-trigger, given the powers he displayed and the common links to a woman with claws she’d read about.  I was going to bring it up at the end of the session, to avoid the lengthy digression like we had last session, and I hoped to extend it to a discussion in another venue, possibly with less people.”

“I derailed us early, it seems,” I said.

“You ran into a member of my cluster?” Rain asked.

“Big guy, beard, heavy coat.”

“Long hair, hood, rough voice,” Rain said, “And a glare, like if looks could kill.”

“No hood, glare… I don’t know.  He wore a mask with a built in glare, but he seemed like the scowly type.  Definitely on the voice.”

“Of course,” Rain said.  “When did you fight him?”

“When?” I asked.  “Um.  Thirteen days ago.  First Monday of September.  High school had just started.”

Rain held up one hand, counting on his fingers, his lips moving.

“Why?” I asked.

“Timing matters.”  It was Tristan who had replied, while Rain was busy counting.

“He was strong then,” Rain said, finishing his counting and dropping his hands.

“He was a bit of a bastard, if I’m being honest,” I said.  “Not fun to go up against.  He’s one of the ones who was after you?”

Rain nodded.

“Why the counting?”

“It’s complicated,” Rain said.  He must have seen the look on my face, because he added, “The powers wax, wane, and shuffle around.  I try to keep track.  He was loaded to bear on that day, if I’m remembering right.  The only power he didn’t have a lot of was mine, and maybe a little bit less of his own.”

“Right,” I said.  “Which is yours?”

“Uh.  Mine is a blaster power,” Rain said.  “It’s pretty mediocre.  I shoot things or people and they’re vulnerable to being broken for a short while after.  To put it simply.”

“Mediocre is sort of the name of the game when it comes to clusters,” I said.

“I’ve got a tinker power, I make extra arms and hands.  They’re not very good.  Barely above what I’d be able to make on my own, fragile enough that if you grab something wrong they can break, no strength, ugly.  The prosthetic focus is part of why I was introduced to the group, I think.”

“It was,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “We thought there was a chance of insights across designs.”

Sveta would be one, obviously.  Ashley raised a hand, slender, with black-painted nails.

I couldn’t tell that her hand was prosthetic.

“I wasn’t much help, because I’m a really bad tinker,”  Rain said.  “I can also catch my balance or secure my footing more easily, that’s my version of the big guy’s mover power.  It’s handy in a way, lets me turn on a dime or keep from falling over.”

“Wait, his power was the mover power?  The arms and emotion power were his secondaries?” I asked.

“That’s what I’m saying,” Rain said.  “I think he had a bit less of his own power that day, with the way it was sorted.  My last power is an emotion power.  Guilt and doubt, over an area.  It’s pretty tepid.”

“He hit me with it a few times,” Tristan said.  “Tepid is a good word for it.  You can actually not notice you’re being hit by it.”

“And it waxes and wanes, you said?” I asked.

“My blaster power can get a bump some days.  My others, no.  They stay at about that power level.  The others change it up more, they’ll act on days they’re strong.”

“We may be getting distracted,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I might suggest you carry on this discussion later.  Victoria can fill you in on…”

“Snag,” I said.  “Sorry.  This is actually really interesting though.  I’d be happy to talk it over another time.”

“It’s good to have a name for him,” Rain said.  “Uh, okay.  Getting back on topic, I know I’m a little selfish in why I’m doing this.  Wanting people to have my back.”

“We all need people to have our backs,” Kenzie said.

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “It’s still selfish.  It’s messy and I’m not sure I can pull my own weight with all of this.  I do want to help people though.  I’ve been selfish for a long time.  I’m trying to be better.  I know I’m contradicting myself in what I’m doing here, but it makes sense to me, and so few things do.”

“You said-” Kenzie started.  “Oh, are you done, Rain?”

“I’m done.  Pretty much where I’m at.  I’ll buy you a coffee or whatever you drink, Victoria, if you’ll tell me about Snag.”

“Sure.”

“You said you had info about hero teams, Victoria,” Kenzie said.  “And I’m interested in that because I do want to try to be a hero first.”

“First?” I asked.

“I’m saying I’ll try, maybe a few times, and if it doesn’t work out I’ll try other things but if it doesn’t work out then I might try being a mercenary, or a villain.”

“You would be terrifying as shit if you were a villain,” Chris said.

“Would I?  Is that a compliment?” Kenzie asked.

“Yes,” Ashley said.

“No,” Chris said.  “It’s a neutral fact, and I don’t use the word terrifying lightly.”

“Be fair, Chris,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I’m being fair.  This is an objective fact,” Chris said.

“And be gentle, too.  If you must levy a criticism-”

“Fact.”

“-there are nicer ways to say it.”

“Got it,” Chris said.

Kenzie stuck out her tongue at him.

“Terrifying is good,” Ashley said.  “Terrifying slows the other guy down.  It makes them make mistakes.”

“You’re not wrong,” I said.  “I’ve used that to my advantage-”

“And it’s fun,” Ashley said.

“Ah… I used to think that,” I said.  “I’ve come to reconsider that sentiment.  I regret how I employed it, a little, and I regret enjoying it a lot.”

Ashley sighed a little.

“We’ve talked about this at some length,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Here in the group.  The approaches that work.  Fear comes at a cost.”

“It does,” I said.  “Not necessarily in the ways you’d expect, pushing people away or any of that.  It makes a mess.  It makes people unpredictable.  I have an awe-fear aura so I’ve seen this at work.”

“I almost envy you,” Ashley said.  “To have something you can so casually employ.”

“It’s not casual,” I said.  “Because like I said, it’s complicated in terms of the mess it makes of things.  I’ve been trying to be more deliberate about how I use it.”

“See, this excites me,” Kenzie said.  “I want to learn from Ashley because I saw the camcorder footage from the Boston Games- I showed you that one right, Ashley?”

“You did,” Ashley said.

“I’ll get you a copy because you liked it so much.  There’s also a video I don’t think I’ve shown you but it’s mostly you walking through a club with someone and everyone gets out of your way.  That was interesting.”

“Do you want people to get out of your way, Kenzie?” Sveta asked.  “I don’t think it’s good or fun.”

“Definitely no.  It’s still interesting.  But, um, I also want to learn from Victoria because I do want to be on a team, I want to be on this team of course, but whatever happens I want to be on some team.  Then I want to be useful so I stay there.  The more I know the more useful I can be.”

“I am interested in hearing it too,” Sveta said.  “About teams, making heroics work.”

“I looked over my schoolwork and some old projects before I came today,” I said.  “I typed up some bullet points and thought hard about what I wanted to say, and… being here, I’m not sure it’s valid.”

“It’s valid.  I want to hear it,” Kenzie said.

“I would too,” Ashley said.  “It’s why I’m here.”

I was caught a little off guard by that.

I could remember Ashley’s comments when the topic of the cards had come up.  She’d liked the ‘handle with care’ aspect of it, which was illuminating in its own way.  More specifically, she’d liked it while interpreting it as a ‘do not fuck with’ license.

The way it had been framed and what I knew of Ashley and Damsel of Distress made me imagine it as a ‘warning: volatile’ label on her breast, worn much like a nametag.

She’d reacted to me belittling her even in a small way, earlier, when I’d reduced her to a pin on a map.

“It might be worth saying why you think it isn’t valid,” Mrs. Yamada suggested.

I tried to find the words to articulate what I wanted to say without getting on anyone’s bad side, my fingers twirling a lock of hair while I looked down at the floor.  I looked up and looked her in the eyes, then looked at everyone else as I said, “I can come here and I can say, alright, finances.  Being a hero team is tough financially.  I touched on this before.  How do you get funding, one source, many, or is it institutional?  What’s your budget, what can you expect to pay, where are the hidden costs, like medical or needing a headquarters, and what are the potential costs or risks if you decide to save money by trimming the budget somewhere?  And maybe that angle works for some of you.”

“It feels abstract,” Sveta said.  “I have a stipend, I pay rent, I have to budget, but when you talk about things in the big picture like that, I find it hard to imagine.”

“Budgets and money make more sense when you root them in tangible things that are relevant to you.  If you had questions about one area, I might have more to say about it, or I could expand on the idea, if that was a thing that worked for you guys, as a way to wrap your head around what you’re trying to do.  I could do the same for objectives and goals, information gathering, costumes and presentation, allegiances and direction, liaisons, territories, methodology… one or two others I’m not remembering off the top of my head.  But as far as I can tell, you’re approaching this from several different directions, with very different priorities.”

“We definitely are,” Rain said.

“I don’t get the impression Ashley is prioritizing developing herself as a person, becoming independent, or catching up in life, like Sveta is.  I don’t get the impression its about becoming less selfish or wanting or needing backup, like Rain.  I’m not sure what someone of your pedigree would be doing here, Ashley.”

“Pedigree?” Ashley asked.

“It means aristocratic background when used to describe humans,” Chris said.  “She’s not calling you a bred animal.  I’m pretty sure.”

“I’m not bothered.  I like the word choice,” Ashley said.  She had half of a smile on her face.

“It was picked to be liked,” I said.

“I’m here to learn, Victoria,” Ashley said.  Her gaze with the narrow pupils and lack of irises was intense.

“That’s positive,” I said.

“No it’s not,” Chris said.

“I’m here to learn how heroes operate, so I can be more effective against them when I return to being a villain,” Ashley said.

I looked at Sveta and Tristan, then at Mrs. Yamada.

“She’s not lying,” Tristan said.

“It’s positive, really,” Sveta said.  “She’s agreed to stick with us until we crash and burn.”

“Until you fail,” Ashley said.

Until we crash and burn,” Sveta said.  “We went over this.  If you leave at the first sign of failure then you’ll be gone in the first week and you won’t have learned anything, and everyone loses.”

“Irritating,” Ashley said.

“Reality is irritating,” Rain said.

“We’re low-key confident we can get her to stick around on the side of the good guys, with sufficient friendship, ass-kicking of our opponents, and time to convince her of the upsides,” Tristan said, to me.

“You vastly underestimate how much I enjoy being a villain, Tristan.”

“You enjoy being a villain but you don’t like the life that comes with it,” Rain said.

“It had its merits,” Ashley said.

“Sure,” Rain said.  “And a lot of other misery besides that.”

Ashley sighed.  “I’ve already agreed.  I’ll join you.  I’ll defend you from your cluster.  In exchange I learn about heroes, I get information about the cape scene, and I may get training.  If it fails, I’ll go back to what I know and enjoy.  You’ll have your chance to convince me that being a hero is great.  I doubt you’ll succeed.  Most heroes I’ve met have been imbeciles and nuisances.”

“Okay,” I said.  I put a hand to my forehead, closing my eyes.  Capes were so damn weird sometimes.

“You said it was better than the alternative, before everyone arrived,” Kenzie said.  “Being a hero.”

“I did,” I said.  I might be regretting saying that now.  The fact that Kenzie paid attention to what I’d said and was quick enough to bring out the salient points was good, objectively, but it was kind of a pain here.  I could see where some of Mrs. Yamada’s worries were rooted, here.  “You have a strong drive to learn, then, Ashley?”

“What I want hasn’t changed.  I want to be on top.  I want to destroy my enemies and give potential enemies a reason to fear me.  I’m going to do it right this time.”

This time.  There were four different things I wanted to reply to there, and I settled on the easy one.  “Reports were that you died.”

“I did,” she said.  “Now I’m back.  My power isn’t holding me back anymore.”

“You get sparky sometimes,” Kenzie said.

“So long as my hands are maintained, I’m fine.  I have contacts.  I’m eating well, I’m sleeping, I’m studying and I’m training.  I’ll do it right this time.  I won’t die this time.”

“Alright,” I said.  “That pretty much sums up what I’m trying to say here.  You guys have your reasons.  I can’t show you a spreadsheet or make a list that meets your needs because your needs are diverse.  It’s not about hard stats like dollars and viewership.”

“It’s about dollars for me,” Tristan said.

“Right.  I’ll note you do have a very different idea than I do about how much money there may be,” I said.

“Kind of,” Tristan said.  “I don’t know if it’s that different.”

The thing I wanted to say that I couldn’t without offending people was that a lot of them were coming at things from an irrational or emotional perspective, from their self, and not from logic.  To challenge Sveta’s approach on this was to challenge the woman she wanted to be.  Challenging Rain meant putting his mortality at risk.  Damsel was too volatile to push too hard, she had her motivations, and I couldn’t imagine scaring her off would do any good to anyone.  The team would go forward without her, dejected and possibly upset with me or with Mrs. Yamada for inviting me.

My impression was that Tristan was looking at the money from an abstract, emotional perspective as well.

“I barely have a high school education, it’s not like there’s a lot out there for me, and money is tight everywhere,” Tristan said.  “I like the hero stuff.  I like the notoriety, and I like being out there.  We need a fix, and the two ways I see of us getting one would be if we get the money together to pay the right cape, or we chance into meeting the right cape.”

“Fix?” I asked.  “Sorry, I missed something.”

“With how quick you were about cape terms and names, and how you knew Reach, I thought you might have realized.”

“I figured out you’re Capricorn.”

“More to it than that.  You know how two brothers can get in a pissy fight over who gets to have the remote and decide what to watch on TV?  We’re stuck doing that, except it’s way more fucking intense.”

Two brothers and one power?  Or-

Oh, I was an idiot.

“That we are,” Tristan said.

We.  “You’re a case seventy?”

“I can’t tell you how bummed I am that it isn’t case sixty-nine instead, but no, that number went to a bigfoot sighting or something stupid.  A stupid bit of immature humor would’ve been the one good thing in this mess of a thing.”

“Case seventies in North America included Knot, Tandem, Zigzag was one, I think, there was House of Three in Quebec.  And… you, it seems.”

“One or two of them might not be seventies, but they get called seventies because they’re close enough.  Blurred lines, like you said.  When twins trigger, the powers are identical or nearly identical.  When twins trigger and they’re touching one another, like you said to Rain, things get blurry, the agent is too stupid or careless to tell where one starts and the other ends, or it wants to fuck with us, and it jams everything in together.  Two minds, two similar powers, and one body to be shared.”

“Is he asleep?” I asked.

“No.  He’s in here, he’s watching and listening.  He sleeps when I sleep, or I sleep when he sleeps, if he’s in the driver’s seat.  We trade out for two hour shifts.”

“Can he communicate?” I asked.  “Talk to you while it’s your turn?”

“That would be too easy,” Tristan said.  His good humor was gone now.  He just looked sad.  “No.”

No.

Two brothers, and only one of them could be interacting with the world at a time.  For the other, it was- picturing it made me think of being in the hospital again.  Being stuck, immobile, locked in while the world went on around them.

Oppressive, that kind of thinking.  Just as oppressive to be living it.

“I like Byron,” Kenzie said.  “I really wish he would stay for the therapy sessions.”

“I like him too,” Rain said.  He leaned back in his chair, hands at his hair, pushing it away from his face as he stretched.  “I don’t like talking about you like you’re not here, Byron.  We’ll hang out later, okay?  Unwind.”

“It’s been a long and rocky road,” Tristan said, to me.  “He’s not interested in the hero thing either.  He’s on Mrs. Yamada’s side here.  On yours, kind of, Victoria.”

On my side?  I was trying to frame my argument, but it was an uphill battle for logic to win against the heart, and it did seem like their hearts were in this, to varying degrees.

I decided to say as much.

“I might not be winning any points with Mrs. Yamada in this,” I said.  “And I don’t know enough about your individual situations, but you have personal, thought out reasons for wanting to do this.  At this stage, I’m not telling you guys you shouldn’t do this.  I’m definitely, definitely not saying you should.  I think there are a few things to work out.  I’m honestly really concerned about Ashley.”

“As anyone should be,” Ashley said.

“That would be why I’m concerned.  I don’t know if you guys want to sit down as a group at a cafe or something, hammer out some basic plans.  You’d probably want something like an outline or playbook that you can take with you when you’re talking to the Wardens or whoever’s managing the territory closest to you.  I think the hero teams are covering different sections of the city, and you wouldn’t want to step on jurisdictional toes.  If you want to do this.”

“That could be great,” Sveta said.

Kenzie nodded, very enthusiastically, as in most things.

“Chris and Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “You’ve been quiet.”

“I’ve talked about wanting to pick Victoria’s brain and she listed some topics,” Kenzie said.  “I like this whole conversation as a recap, seeing where everyone’s at, instead of trying to think back to previous sessions and think about what people’s reasons are.  I’m glad we’re talking like this and I want to have that meeting and figure things out.”

“Chris?”  Mrs. Yamada prodded.

“Can I just say I don’t want to share with the guest here?”

“You can,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Is it the truth?”

Chris looked annoyed as he looked at her.  “I don’t like talking about stuff.  Digging into my thoughts for answers stresses me out and throws me more out of whack than it helps.”

“You can’t exist purely on the surface level,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I can.  It might or might not be good for me, but something that could be good or could be bad is a lot better than no-win after no-win.”

“No win?” I asked.

“I could say it’s none of your business,” Chris said.

“You could,” I said.  “It’s your right.”

“I don’t see why you’re as defensive as you are,” Sveta said.

“I’m playing defense because paranoia is the only way to survive,” Chris said.  He reached up to adjust his headphones, wincing mid-adjustment.  “How many sessions did it take before I gave you all the basics?”

“Four or five,” Kenzie said.

“Well, this is session one with the new person,” Chris said.  “If you want to drop me from the team because I’m not okay with that, fine.  I’ll figure something else out.”

“Nobody is saying that,” Sveta said.  “You’ve come this far with us, don’t get shy now.”

“I’m not shy, I’m suspicious.  That won’t change,” Chris said.  He sounded irritated, in a way his expression didn’t convey effectively.

“Okay,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I don’t think pressuring Chris will help anything.  Again, however, I would really urge everyone present to periodically take stock.  Pay attention to what you’re feeling, imagine this dialogue extrapolated out to a greater, higher-stakes situation.  How will you handle your feelings, and will you feel have both a voice and the ability to affect the changes you need?”

“You’re worried we’ll get railroaded,” Rain said.

“I’m worried about a number of things, Rain.  I wish you would be willing to put things off for six months or a year, maintain contact, see how you get along as simple friends and acquaintances, let the ties solidify or break as they will, and then move forward if it is what you still want.”

“There are a lot of issues to hammer out,” I said.  “You’re coming at this from so many different directions… how do you even get started in terms of the kind of team you end up being?  In other things?  I’d join my voice to Mrs. Yamada’s and urge you to take your time.”

“Like I said, I’m feeling the pressure,” Rain said.  “My cluster is homing in on me.”

“I can talk to people, if you want.  If you need another cape to back you up, I might be able to help.”

“I mean, that sounds nice,” Rain said.  “But I can’t help but lie in bed some mornings, wondering if this is the day.  If, in the next twenty-four hours, the other three members of my cluster come after me in an organized way, with a lot of money and a lot of resources poured into things.  When I see it playing out in my head, I know they’re organized, and I worry we’re not.  If we’re part of a team, if we’re training, coordinating, then maybe we can work together in an organized way too.”

“There’s a lot that goes into making a team.  You can stay together and watch Rain’s back, meet, talk, and plan.”

“Without getting the practice in?” Tristan asked.  “Sorry to butt in again, but it takes time to learn how to work with teammates.  Some more than  others.”

“What you’re wanting to do on the heroism front is hard enough without added complications.  It’s a bad, bad climate for heroes to try to get started.  That could end up being more distraction than the training is a boon.”

“Imagine how bad the climate would be if nobody new got started,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I won’t deny that.  I just- I have serious reservations, but I also recognize I probably won’t be changing any minds.  Instead of trying to get you to reverse course or stop, I’m saying maybe change trajectories a bit.  Go slow, focus on what needs to be focused on, instead of getting distracted with the many, many side things that go into getting a proper team started.”

“Focusing on keeping Rain safe, as the priority thing?” Sveta asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I can meet you guys at a coffee shop or somewhere, we can make it a regular thing.  I can back you up, I might be able to introduce you to people, and we do what Mrs. Yamada suggested, and take months or a year to get a really good game plan put together.”

“You’re committing to a lot, Victoria,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “It won’t conflict with your other plans?”

“I like doing this sort of thing.  I’ll find a way to work it in.  It gives me an opportunity to stay in touch with Sveta, too.”

I was elbowed, hard, from my left.

“If you think I’m letting you drift away or lose touch now then you need a reality check,” Sveta said.

“Wasn’t planning on it, don’t worry,” I said.

“I don’t like it,” Kenzie said.

It was an abrupt statement, cutting into the dialogue, the serious tone different from the easy back-and-forth.

“We wouldn’t be leaving you out,” Sveta said.  “You said you were interested in what Victoria knew about heroes, and you’d be part of the team when we got started.”

“No I wouldn’t,” Kenzie said.  “Because you all would be doing what you have to do to help Rain, and I’d be on the sidelines.  You said you don’t want to have a kid there in a dangerous situation, so I wouldn’t actually be there when things went down.  And if you thought there would be an attack soon you wouldn’t want me hanging around in case I got caught up in it, so you’d all meet and I’d stay home then, too.”

“It could be over in a couple of weeks,” Rain said.

“It could not be over, too,” Kenzie said.  She smiled.  “Come on.  I’ve done this before.  Again and again.  I did it during the leadership camps and the exercises in San Diego.  I did it during the branding in LA and I kind of did it with the Baltimore Wards.”

“Did what?” I asked.

“Got left behind.  Or sidelined and ignored.  The reasons were good, or maybe I’m a stupid, gullible idiot and the reasons are bad, and I believed them anyway.”

“I liked your contributions to the group, I’d want you to stick around,” I said.

“I know you mean well, Victoria, but this is the way it always goes,” Kenzie said.  She shrugged.  “The compliments, the softening of the blow.  I think you’re nice and you’re trying to do the right thing.  But again and again, because I’m a kid, or because I’m small and weak, or because I’m a girl, or because I’m black, or because I have school, or because I’m vulnerable, or I’m annoying, or because they want to be careful around me because I have problems, or because I’ve said the wrong things because I’m an idiot a lot of the time, or because- because whatever the reason, good or bad, hateful or kind…”

She trailed off there.  She was staring down at the ground, head down where I couldn’t see it.  She huffed out out a small laugh.

Her hands were on either side of her hips, gripping the sides of the plastic chair.

“Articulate what you want, Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Assertive.  Not passive, not passive-aggressive.”

“I don’t want to be left behind,” Kenzie said.  She was speaking more slowly, deliberately.  A dramatic change of pace from her usual output.  “I’m experienced in this, so when I say I think I see things going this way, it would be nice if people believed me.”

“More assertive, Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Trust me,” Kenzie said, with emphasis.  She looked up, flashed a smile at me, then shrugged.  “You say you’re experienced in cape stuff and I think it shows and that’s amazing.  I’m experienced in this and I’m really tired of this song and dance.”

“I understand,” I said.  “I’m sorry to have touched on something that sensitive.  I should have been more considerate.”

“It’s not you,” she said.  “It’s me.  It’s a regular thing.  I don’t blame you.  It’s the way I am, it makes people act this way around me.  And-”

She drew in a deep breath.

“-And I would like to be included from the beginning, in a way where I’m useful and participating and I’m not watching from the sidelines.  I would like to do the team thing from the beginning.  I don’t mind if it’s small or slow but I want to do something with progress.  Or if not that, then tell me upfront so I can have my feelings hurt now right away instead of over a long time.”

“This is really important to you,” I said.

“There have only ever been three times in my life where people acted like they wanted me around.  Not counting the adults who get paid to look after me, sorry Mrs. Yamada.  The first one, it led to my trigger, so you can imagine how well that went.  The second one was the couple of months I spent with the Baltimore Wards, and they don’t want anything to do with me anymore.  The third is here.  These guys.”

“Well gee whiz, Kenzie,” Tristan said.

She smiled, “Sorry.”

“I like to win my arguments, but you can’t bring that kind of weaponry to bear.  It’s just not fair on those guys.”

Kenzie smiled again.

“I’m glad you like us,” Sveta said.  “I do want to include you, and I hope this thing works out the way you want it to.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.

“We?” Ashley asked.

“I was going to say,” Chris said.

“I’m not trying to step on your toes or insinuate myself into things,” I said.  “But if you’ll have me, maybe I could take on a role as coach or something.  If you really want to do this-”

I could see the looks on their faces.  Yeah, they wanted to do this.

“-Then maybe we avoid having you guys go from a mediated discussion in a controlled environment like this to… something more loosely supervised and managed, for the mediation part of things, and we look for a shallower pool to dive into instead, where you can get started in some capacity sooner, we ensure everyone has something to do, but we keep it manageable and small.”

“You’re volunteering?” Tristan asked.

“If Mrs. Yamada is okay with this idea.  I don’t see you guys changing your minds, so…”

“It would bring me some peace of mind,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Mediated,” Rain said.  “You’d be babysitting us?”

“Coaching, giving direction if it’s lacking, give you someone to turn to if you need someone to help resolve a dispute.  I can’t promise you full time hours, it’d be a secondary or minor thing for me, but… I’m trying to think of a good way to tackle this and this is the best idea I’ve got.”

“Yes,” Kenzie said.  “I want to hear more about the heroing stuff.”

“I wouldn’t object,” Ashley said.

“And the shallow end?” Tristan asked.

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.  “I’m thinking of a couple of possible places, we could put feelers out in one that’s close enough for everyone here to get to.  A few of these places have small populations of B-listers, and I think it would be a good, easy place to learn the ropes.”

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Flare – 2.5

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“A mistake?”

“I worry it’s the case.  Time will tell, but I can make educated guesses and I have concerns.”

“I have to admit, I’m not sure how to respond to that,” I said.  “I’d say you’re only human or you’re only mortal, but doesn’t that sound condescending, coming from a parahuman?”

“We’re all mortal, Victoria.  Even Scion was.”

I nodded.

It was strange to hear that name spoken out loud.  Nine out of ten times, people would avoid saying it out loud.  As if they couldn’t reconcile the first hero with the thing that had ended the world.

“I’d like to help,” I said.  “A couple of things are off the table, obviously, but you know what they are, I think.  I wouldn’t be okay if you wanted me to reach out to my sister, or that kind of thing.”

“I wouldn’t ask you to do that, no.  This isn’t anything of that scale, but…” she frowned.  “Given our relationship, with you having been my patient, there’s a power imbalance.  I want to do what I can to ensure I don’t abuse it.  I want to be fair to you.”

“Okay,” I said.  After a pause, I added, “I appreciate the sentiment.”

“Even if this turns out to be minor, it is hard to do without risking a breach of trust and damage to our friendship.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I want to ensure we’re on the same page, when it comes to expectations.  I definitely don’t want you to feel obligated, whether it’s because you feel you owe me something, or because you feel you should.  I know there’s a tendency among heroes to want to step forward and help.  I’ve counseled many a junior hero that they needed to learn to pick their battles.”

“I have no idea what you mean,” I said.  “I pick my battles.  Except for the broken trigger last week, the community center, and, oh, everything else.”

“It is a concern,” she said.  She matched my smile with a small one of her own, but it was fleeting, more an acknowledgement of the joke than anything.  “You’re quick to say you want to help, before you even know what I’m going to ask.”

I nodded.  “I don’t think you’d ask if you hadn’t thought over it.  I trust you.”

“I’d still be concerned, grateful as I am for your trust in me.”

I swished the ice in my iced tea.

“I am sorry,” she said.

“Sorry?”

“If I’ve upset you, approaching this like I have.”

“Did I give you that impression?  That I was upset?”  I was pretty sure my face hadn’t betrayed anything.  I was reasonably sure my power wasn’t leaking, either.

“You did.  And if I’m right about that, please don’t misunderstand me, I am sorry, and I wouldn’t fault you for being upset.  I would like to have meetings like the one I think you were anticipating today.  You and me, staying in touch to a degree, talking over iced tea and ice coffee.  I’d hoped to have one of those meetings before getting around to this topic.”

So it wasn’t too urgent, then.

“Okay,” I said.  I took another careful sip of my iced tea.

She drew in a deep breath, reached back to where the damp, folded paper towel was laying against her neck, and set it within the lid of her iced coffee, which she’d put to one side.  She stared down at it for a moment.

I waited.  I had some ideas about what she was getting around to.  I also had things I might have said, but I was worried that, depending on what she was going to say next, they could be things I’d regret.  If her reasons were good, if they were personal…

I was so fucking done with regrets.  I didn’t want to add more, especially any tied to Jessica.

“I don’t want to compound my mistakes elsewhere with one here.  With that in mind, I want to make it absolutely clear that this isn’t an obligation.  I’d like a bit of help, if you heard me out and were comfortable giving it.  I’d explain the situation as best as I could, but the confidentiality of other patients makes things difficult.”

“What do you need?”

“Before we get into that, touching back on what I said before about wanting to be fair to you, I’ve contacted a colleague.  He’ll be your therapist if you still want one.  He’s waiting for your call and he’ll make an appointment with you.”

“You didn’t have to do that.  I wouldn’t want to burden you guys more.  What’s going on, that you’re going to all this?”

“Maybe it’s necessary, maybe not, but it’s my apology and my thanks to you for having this conversation with me, and for any compromise of the relationship.  It doesn’t mean you have to hear me out, and it absolutely doesn’t mean you have to say yes.  Alright?”

“Alright, but it doesn’t matter,” I said.  “I’ll hear you out.”

“It matters to me,” she said, firm.

“Okay,” I said, a little exasperated.  It was clear Jessica was stubborn when she was bothered by something.  “Fine.  You made a mistake, you want my help.  I’ll phone your colleague and possibly go see him.  I’ll weigh what you’re asking and I’ll try to make an objective decision.  Which may be no.”

“Thank you.”

“What do you need?” I asked, again, holding my iced tea in both hands.

Mrs. Yamada wasn’t ‘Jessica’ anymore, not any more than capes went by their civilian names in costume.  She was in her professional attire, a suit jacket over a blouse, a business skirt, minimal jewelry, minimal and tasteful makeup.  Papers rustled as she paged through files and as the wind blew into the room.

She had told me to dress in a way that was comfortable for me.  It was still hot out and I’d had to travel forty miles to get to a place where Mrs. Yamada could pick me up to drive me the rest of the way.  Even though the heat persisted, the weather had broken, the humidity giving way to a light thunderstorm.  I wore a white dress with a black hood built into it, the Brockton Bay skyline printed in what looked like black and grey watercolors across the breast, the city’s name below and to the side.  There was a scribbling of more watercolor and lettering at the hem.  The white fabric was a thin sweatshirt-like material, so the hood hadn’t been much use against the rain.

The windows were open and the blinds closed, periodically clacking against the windowsills.  The wind wasn’t blowing in a direction that sent the rain into the room, but droplets still beaded the blinds closer to the bottom.  The lights felt artificially bright, in contrast to how dark the clouds and sky were outside.  The room was set up like a high school classroom, minus the ‘class’, no students, no mess, no bulletin board with scraps on it or whiteboard with weeks-old marks that hadn’t been wiped away.  Eight chairs were arranged in a ring at the center, instead of five columns of six desks.

There was a teacher’s desk at the front, and Mrs. Yamada was there, looking over some files.  I’d caught some glimpses of the pictures on the fronts, purely by accident.  I could have pried more, maybe caught a name or a heading by reading upside-down, and I’d decided not to.  She wouldn’t have wanted me to.

“Do I have a file?” I asked.  She startled a little, as if she’d forgotten I was there.

She’d been in the zone, I realized.  She might have needed to be.  She didn’t wear it on her face or in her body language, but there was a reason she was so immersed in what she was reading.

I could relate to that, in a way.  During my hospital stay, I’d delved deep into my studies, struggled with the keyboard as I read everything I could find, while furthering my studies with long-distance education.

“Sorry to interrupt,” I said.

“It’s fine.  You did have a file.  You don’t now, I’m afraid.  Unless it’s somewhere in the rubble.”

I nodded.

She glanced at the clock.  “One of the group’s members tends to arrive early.  She should be here momentarily.”

I looked up at the clock.  One fifty in the afternoon.  From how dark it was outside, I might have thought it was five hours later in the day.  “Good to know.”

“It will be interesting to see how you two get on.”

“Huh.”

I heard the footsteps and glanced at the clock again.  Not even a minute had elapsed.  Was this person that punctual?

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  She wasn’t yet a teenager,  or if she was then she was a late bloomer, but she wasn’t wholly a ‘child’ either.  ‘Tween’.  My first thought was that she was as cute as a button, and not in the pink princess way.

She was black, her arms and legs long and skinny, her eyes large in proportion to her face.  She was studying me with just as much or more intensity than I studied her, as we sized each other up.

She was dressed or had been dressed with an eye for modern fashion, fitting to her age.  She wore a blue corduroy pinafore dress with metal studs forming a star shape at the leg.  Her top was a t-shirt, with an image on it in sequins, the kind that had two different images, depending on the direction the sequins were swept.  The image depicted a blue heart if brushed one way, a yellow star if swept the other; I knew because it was a jumbled mix of both.

The reason I thought that she might have been dressed by someone else was that she was so very precise about how she’d put her outfit together.  It was freshly ironed or fresh off the rack, and it was color matched from her shoes to the pins and ties in her hair.  The star theme too.  Kinky black hair had been fixed into place at the side of her head with a star pin, and carefully arranged into two small, tight buns at the back.  Glossy and taken care of, not a strand out of place.  It would have taken me twenty or thirty minutes to do the same, and my straight hair would have been easier to manage, even being as long as it was.

“Hi,” she said.

“Hi,” I responded.

“Gosh, you’re pretty,” she said.

I was momentarily lost for words.  Very direct.

“Thank you,” I said, glancing back at Mrs. Yamada, hoping for a cue.  She was focusing on her notes.  She briefly met my eye, but communicated nothing.

“I can tell you were a hero.  You have that air about you,” the girl said.

“Thank you,” I said, a little caught off guard.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

She smiled, her enthusiasm renewed, “It’s amazing to meet you.  I’m really interested to hear what you have to say.  I really want to be a hero, so I’m trying to learn all I can.”

“That could be good.  It’s better than the alternative, at least.”

“Isn’t it?  You were probably a good one, weren’t you?  You give me that impression.  You’re stylish, I really like your dress, and you have that posture, back straight, unyielding.  Only the best and the true up-and-comers have that.”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Yes?”

“There’s no pressure.”

Kenzie only smiled in response.

“It’s okay,” I said.  I was glad to have a window to speak.  “I like your outfit too, Kenzie.  Good clothes are so hard to get these days, aren’t they?”

“This outfit was part of a birthday present, but I think it was expensive, yeah.  I wanted to look nicer since we had someone new today.”

“There’s no need to go to extra trouble.  Not for me.”

“No trouble, no trouble,” she said, very cavalier.  She looked at Mrs. Yamada, “How are you today, Mrs. Yamada?”

“I’m doing very well today, Kenzie.  How are you this morning?”

“Can’t complain,” Kenzie said.  “Does it matter where I sit?”

“Nothing’s changed from the prior sessions.  Sit wherever you’re comfortable, it doesn’t matter.”

Kenzie smiled.  “I think it matters.  It means something.  Can I sit here?”

“Sure,” I said.

She seated herself in the chair next to the one I was standing beside.

I snuck a glance at Mrs. Yamada, and I saw concern.  Because of the others who were due to arrive?

“You probably caught my name, I’m Kenzie.”

She was extending a hand for me to shake.  I shook it, then turned the chair a bit as I sat down.  “Victoria.  Some call me Vicky, but I’m using that less these days.  You can use it if it’s easier.”

“And you’re a heroine?”

“I used to be.  I’m on hiatus.”

“That’s the coolest thing,” Kenzie said.  “Costumes, fighting bad guys.”

“It had its ups and downs,” I said.  I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  Her focus was on her notes.

She noticed me looking and asked, “You used to be her patient?”

“I did.”

“She’s the best,” Kenzie said, leaning over and speaking with a voice quiet enough that Mrs. Yamada wouldn’t necessarily hear.

“Yeah,” I said.  Except for her apparent mistake here, which I wasn’t equipped to make a judgment call on.  Not quite yet.

“It’s good here; I always look forward to coming.  Everyone’s pretty neat.  That might not mean a lot coming from me, though.”

“How come?”

“I think everyone’s pretty neat,” she said.

“I see.  That’s admirable.”

The papers rustled.  Mrs. Yamada put the files in a filing cabinet beside the desk at the end of the room, locking them away.  She spoke aloud, “Can I get you two anything?  Water?”

“I’m fine, but thank you,” Kenzie said.

“No thank you,” I said.

“The others may be a bit late, with the weather being what it is.”

“I think we’ll survive the wait,” Kenzie said.  “Right, Victoria?”

“We’ll survive.  Past years have taught me patience, if nothing else,” I said.

“From being a Ward?  Were you a Ward?” Kenzie asked.

That wasn’t where or why, I thought, but I said, “Very briefly.  My family had a team.  Still does, kind of.”

Very kind of.

“Oh, wow, neat.”

I tried to find a diplomatic way to respond to that.

“Or not so neat?” Kenzie said.

“Ups and downs,” I said.

“I was with the PRT, but I wasn’t a Ward exactly,” she said.  “They had trouble sticking me anywhere, and then I went into training, and got to do a lot of really neat camps and exercises and travel, because they had to wait until I was old enough before they could put me where they really wanted to put me.”

“Which was?”

“Watchdog, grrr,” she said.  She’d made a pretty sad attempt at a growl, mischief in her eyes.  “That other branch that worked under the PRT that you almost never hear about.  Oversight and investigation, powers, money, and politics.”

“I know of Watchdog.”

“Cubicle superheroes.”

“They’re actually pretty badass from what I heard, and they do- did a lot of fieldwork and investigations, raiding offices, interrogations, talking to politicians, uncovering conspiracies.”

“That’s true.”

“There’s something about getting organized and going after that thinker or that tinker who’s been working behind the scenes, the guy that’s been subverting society for their own gain, when they’ve probably spent months or years making contingency plans and anticipating the day their world and their plans come crashing down around them.  I think that dynamic is pretty damn cool, the approach and the complexity of it.”

“Hmm, that is cool,” she said.  “Except there aren’t any awesome costumes or monster fighting.”

“Less monster fighting, I’m sure.  I’m not sure about the costumes.  There are probably masks, I guess?”

“And there’s some cublical- bleh.  Cubicle jockeying.”

She spoke so fast she had tripped over the word.

I replied, “Probably a lot, yeah.  But from my short stint in the Wards, there was a lot of paperwork there too.”

“That’s so true.  I was kind of a Ward, so I had to do some.  I think I was good at the paperwork.”

I was starting to feel like she’d been the one who had fussed with her appearance, rather than any parental figure.  Someone so fussy would’ve somehow been mentioned in the life story to this point.  It was very believable, too, to draw a connection between the fastidious appearance and her pride in the paperwork.

“I think I was too.”

She nodded, the conversation momentarily, almost mercifully pausing, then she found her place, enthusiasm returning.  “So yeah.  I was bouncing all over the place.  The Youth Guard stepped in, I’m not sure if you’ve had to deal with them.”

The Youth Guard or the Y.G. were the group that acted like the union that protected minors in Hollywood.  That had protected minors in Hollywood.  They were the group that made sure that Wards’ education and options didn’t suffer as a consequence for them being superheroes, that they didn’t dress provocatively, that they were safe and sane, that nobody took advantage, and other stuff.  They’d reached out to my parents at one point, because they weren’t limited to the PRT.  They were a guillotine that had hung over the heads of any team with under-eighteen heroes or heroines.

“I’ve heard the horror stories,” I said.

“They weren’t a horror story for me.  They said I was being moved around too much and I needed to go somewhere to stay.  Not going to the fun camps and training sucked, but I went back to Baltimore, and I got to set up my workshop, fi-nuh-ly.”

“Workshop, huh?”

“Kenzie,” Mrs. Yamada spoke up.  She still sat at the desk.  “You might want to be mindful of what you reveal.  I’ll get into that more when things get started, but take a moment and think before revealing things that might tie into your cape identity, or identifying parts of your background.”

“Yes, Mrs. Yamada,” Kenzie said.  Then she leaned close to me, whispering, “I took a moment to think and I think I’m safe telling you I’m a tinker.”

“Gotcha,” I said, mimicking her volume and whisper.

“Yep,” she said.  She pitched her voice lower, “The Youth Guard was good to me.  I liked the people who I worked with there, even if the people in charge of me didn’t.  Some of my favorite people next to Mrs. Yamada worked for them.  Not that that lasted for long.  That was only the spring of twenty-thirteen-”

As she talked, I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  It was clear she heard.

“-and then, well…”

“Yeah,” I said.

Gold Morning.

I was a little caught off guard by Kenzie, on a few fronts.  This wasn’t what I’d expected.  I glanced at the other chairs.

I got into a more comfortable position in the little booth, leaning against the window and taking a moment to digest what Mrs. Yamada had shared.  Someone else walked into the dark little shop, going straight to the counter, their eyes on the desserts behind the display.

“Group therapy?” I asked.

“With the full-time position I’m taking with the Wardens, I have the chance to help a lot of critical individuals.  The people I’ll be helping will be people who can help a lot of people in turn.  An incredible number, in some cases.  As attached as I am to my current patient caseload, and as much as I would like to take you on as a patient, it made the most sense to go this route.”

“Okay,” I said.

She frowned a little.

“But?” I asked.

“The role I held between Gold Morning and now was always going to be a transient one.  My patients and everyone else involved knew I was only seeing the patients I’m seeing now in a temporary way.  I’m one of several therapists who are rotating through a patient caseload, and only half were my patients and mine alone.  In making a transition, it is and was still my responsibility to look after those exclusive patients.”

“Okay.”  I connected that thought to how she’d found a therapist for me.  When it was a chore to get therapists to take new patients, it amounted to a pretty meaningful gesture.

“I’m referring the ones I can to other therapists.  I’m in touch with twelve people who work with parahumans and a few who are breaking into that field.  Not a single one of us is working less than seventy hours a week.  Some of my patients didn’t need counseling anymore, and I was only helping them to find their equilibrium after Gold Morning.  Others are on their way to a new facility in this world’s Europe, which they’ve been anticipating for over a year now.  If you were still in the same condition as you were when I first met you, I would be recommending you go there.”

I nodded.  I didn’t like thinking about it.

“I couldn’t find places for everyone, and I’d turn down the job before I abandoned patients in need.  With the remainder, I saw common ground among them.  Not all of them, but enough of them that it seemed like things could be workable.  Some supplied, needed, or were looking into the same kinds of assistance, which is what prompted the line of thinking.  I was going to introduce them regardless, I could see them talking, and I thought it would be best to have the initial and deeper talks in a supervised setting.”

“And from there, it was a short jump to thinking about group therapy.”

“Yes.  Group therapy, interpersonal group therapy, seemed appropriate for what I wanted them to address with each of them.  It meant that in the time before I took on my full-time role with the Wardens, I could devote more time to more of them.  In an ideal world, if there were some who still needed attention by the time I was done, I could call in favors or find places for them.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Was it group therapy like I was a part of?”

“The therapy you were a part of was encounter-driven.  Different.  More involved, more simulations, acting and role-playing, confrontation, learning assertiveness as opposed to, say, aggressive behavior, or overly passive behavior.  Engaging with peers.”

“I didn’t really do anything except sit there.”

“But you wrote the scripts.  You listened to the others, and you visualized ways you wanted the conversations to go.  I got the impression it was pretty intense, even when you were a step removed in your participation.”

“Sure,” I said.  A large part of what I’d contributed to those sessions had played into my last interaction with my mom.

Not that that interaction had gone well, but I could imagine that if I’d found myself in that same situation without the grounding of knowledge from those sessions, I might not have had the words to articulate as much of what I’d wanted to.  It was even possible that, without the conflict resolution skills, I might have hurt someone.

The recollections of the therapy and of my mom were heavy, pressing down on me and my chest.  I took a long sip of my iced tea.  It was cold and sensory, pulling me away from that rabbit hole of dark thoughts.

“This group was intended to be slower-paced, less intense,” she said.

“Even with the time constraint?”

“Yes, even with.  Part of it is that, as I said, it was the most appropriate for what I wanted to address.”

“Part?”

“The other part ties back to what I said about introductions, how the first meetings are the trickiest.  It was a delicate balancing act to begin with, compared to your group, where we added someone new once every few weeks or months, while the rest of the group remained fairly stable.  With this group, having them all meet at once, I thought it would be best to keep things calmer.”

“Makes sense,” I said.

“My colleagues like to say there is a truism with groups of parahumans.  That the larger the group in question, the greater the chance of a schism or disaster.  I’m not sure I like exactly how the idea is presented a lot of the time it comes up, but…”

I thought of my sister.

“Groups of capes get pretty volatile,” I finished the sentence for her.  “Each person you add is another chance for things to go wrong.”

Three more members joined the group.  An unknown boy and two people I knew, male and female.

When I realized who I was looking at, though, my jaw dropped.  I stood from my chair.

She, for her part, was on a similar page.  She stared at me, confused at first.  Then reality dawned for her as well.

She was pale in a way that skin didn’t tend to be, and she had a mane of black hair.  A small black tattoo marked her cheekbone, partially obscured by skin-tone makeup that had streaked in the rain.  For all that she was almost monochrome from the neck up, she was a riot of color from the neck down.  Sveta.

Her hands went to her mouth.

She closed the distance between us with a half-stagger, half-run kind of movement.  I caught a glimpse of her tearing up before she threw her arms around me, colliding with me.  I caught my bearings and hugged her back.

“You’re okay,” she mumbled into my shoulder.

“I’m-” I started, lost for words.  I looked at Weld, who stood in the doorway, smiling as wide as I’d ever seen him smile.

My arms still around her, I reached out with one hand, groping in Weld’s general direction, as if I could get the words that way.

“Fantastic,” Weld said.  “This is perfect.”

He looked a little less neat than he’d been when I’d known him in Brockton Bay, but not as wild or ‘monstrous’ as I’d seen in the pictures online, back when he’d been a member of the Irregulars.  His skin was dark iron, his eyes silver, veins of more silver tracing from the corners of the eyes.  His hair was wire, made to look more free and unruly.  He was wearing a henley shirt, khaki shorts and sandals that looked like they were made of metal and what might’ve been tire rubber.  I couldn’t imagine any other material that would hold up when bearing the weight of someone that was heavy metal from head to toe.

Beside him was a guy, brown-skinned, with the sides and back of his hair cut short.  The hair on top had to have been painted rather than dyed, because it was magenta, and I couldn’t imagine getting black hair dyed magenta without bleaching it to the point of destroying it, and the rolling curls retained their shape despite the droplets of rain that clung to it.  He was smiling, but more because he looked like the type that very much enjoyed others being happy.  The magenta-haired guy’s shirt was form-fitting to his upper body, showing off lean muscle, and looked like a surfer’s rash guard.  He wore black shorts and sandals.

I turned my attention to the girl of the trio.  I couldn’t believe it was Sveta.

Who was practically sobbing now, apparently.

Emotion was welling in my own chest.  I put my hand on the back of her head, and I felt the hair stir, the tissues beneath the wig moving.

“Well, I think this has made my everything,” Weld said.

“Your everything?” the magenta-haired guy asked.

“Saying it made my day, my week, or even my month wouldn’t be enough,” Weld said, still smiling.  “You’re okay, Victoria?”

“Two arms, two legs,” I said.

“That’s great,” he said.  “Sveta was so attached to you, she hated leaving you behind.”

Sveta nodded, head rubbing against my shoulder.

“And we’d thought you’d died,” Weld said.  “When G.M. happened.  Hearing you were alive was amazing on its own, but you’re… you’re back.  Fantastic.

Sveta made a sound, emotions pouring over, before hiccuping with a sob.

I stroked the back of her head, trusting that someone would tell me not to if it was dangerous.

Then again, I didn’t have my forcefield up.

I could have mentioned it.  I didn’t.

“You have a body,” I whispered.  I could feel it.  It was hard, unyielding.  She creaked in places, and the way she’d moved- the colors and textures I’d seen-

None of that mattered.  She had a body.

“It took some doing,” Weld said.  “It took a lot of doing.  It’s been a whole adventure to get even this far.  It’s not even tinkertech.  Regular prosthetics and some inventiveness from some really stellar people.  Arms, legs, body, some stuff to keep it upright, some machine learning systems that adapt to meet her partway, and a lot of practice on her part, to operate everything internal.”

Sveta pulled away.  She looked me in the eye, reaching up to wipe at her tears.  The hands didn’t seem cooperative enough, almost like someone holding a baseball bat by one end was trying to wipe away tears with the other.

I hesitated, before indicating her face.  “Do you want a hand?”

She nodded, and I wiped the tears away with my fingers.  She smiled, even as more welled up.

“You’re such a sneak, Jessica,” Weld said.  “Not telling us?”

“I did tell you Victoria was recovered.”

“I thought you meant she was mobile enough to get to the meeting place on her own.  I didn’t think you meant a complete and total recovery,” Weld said.

I wanted to turn to see Mrs. Yamada’s expression, but it was hard to move with Sveta hugging me.  She was silent, though.

Behind Weld, someone else was ducking into the room.  He looked like he was of a height with Kenzie, but given how boys developed slower, he might’ve been a touch older.  He had a mess of tousled brown hair that would have been over his eyes if he wasn’t wearing large headphones as a kind of hairband.  He had a very flat expression as he walked around the perimeter of the room.  His t-shirt was black with a logo I didn’t recognize, his cargo shorts had stuff packed into the pockets, but he mostly looked like a very average kid.  Only his old fashioned braces really stood out to me- the kind that made it hard for him to put his lips together.

Sveta twisted around, one hand reaching out to me to steady herself.  She looked over at Kenzie, then at the magenta-haired fellow, and then at the new kid.  She failed on her first attempt at speaking, then managed.  “She was my first friend ever, that I can remember.”

“I didn’t know that,” I murmured.

“I didn’t have anyone, and- there was a time where I was cooped up in a sealed room in the hospital and stuff was going on outside, with the PRT and the other case fifty-threes.  They introduced me to people who were harder for me to hurt.  Victoria was one of them.  I liked her, and she knew Weld, and she put up with me for some reason, so we kept talking and meeting.”

I leaned closer, whispering in her ear.  “For some reason?  You helped keep me sane.  You were my friend.

Stop it, dummy.  You’re going to make me cry more,” she whispered back.  “And I can’t believe I’m finally hearing your voice for real.

And with that last statement she was tearing up more.

Since when are you this much of a crier?” I asked.

I’m all emotionally open and shit now,” she whispered.  “Blame Weld.  And blame yourself, being all normal and stuff.

“I’m pretty sure I just caught you saying my name just now,” Weld said.  “Maybe that’s my cue to duck out before you start badmouthing me.”

“I’d never ever badmouth you,” Sveta said, at normal volume.  She’d turned to face him, and I held her arm to steady her as she swayed a bit.  “What would I even say?”

“I hear people coming anyway,” Weld said.  He stopped, looking at Sveta and me, then smiled wide.  “This is fantastic.”

Sveta hugged my arm.

“You’ve said that a lot,” the Magenta-haired boy said.

“I can’t even begin to tell you,” Weld said.  “In more than one way.  I’ll leave it for Victoria to share.”

“Maybe we can chat another time,” the boy said.  “We could hang out.”

“If Sveta, Victoria, and Jessica okay it,” Weld said, clapping a hand on the guy’s shoulder.  “I don’t want to throw any wrenches into the therapy or make anything awkward by blurring lines.”

“Send me an email if you want to discuss it.  It’s always good to see you, Weld,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“I’ll do that, and it’s good to see you too, Jessica.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make the time to sit in.”

“Totally understandable.  Good luck.  We may run into each other if you stick with the Wardens.”

“Excellent,” Weld said.  He glanced at us, delivering a wink probably more meant for Sveta than for me.  “Fantastic.  I’ll text you when I have an idea of what’s happening with my afternoon, Sveta.”

“Good luck,” Sveta said.

With a parting salute, he was gone.

I took my seat, giving my hand to Sveta, as she collapsed into the chair on the other side of me.  Now that she wasn’t bear-hugging me, I could see that a lot of the color on her was that the prosthetic body she wore had been painted.  Bumps and collisions had chipped some of the paint, but from the neck down, everything that wasn’t covered in clothing was painted in rolling waves, in sea serpents, birds and reptiles.  The colors were bright and bold, like graffiti, the living things hot orange, the background cool blues and greens.  Her clothes were relatively plain, a black top and brown pants, and looked to be relatively thick and durable, but the plain-ness was marred by the small streaks and smudges of paint that she’d gotten on it, most of it in long, thin slashes.

The seating arrangement put me between her and Kenzie.  Kenzie, for the time being, was leaning over to the new addition to the group, the boy with braces.  She seemed to be filling him in on what he’d missed.

“Tristan,” the magenta-haired boy said, approaching.  He extended a hand.  I shook it.

“Victoria.”

“Will your brother be joining us today?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“I asked, he didn’t reply,” Tristan said.

“Brother?” I asked.

“Twin,” Tristan said.  He pointed at his hair.  “Part of the reason I make myself so easily identifiable.  He’s Byron, he used to have blue-green hair to match me, but he quit doing that.”

“Good to know,” I said.

Blue hair.

I thought of my youngest cousin. Where Crystal had always had the red-magenta look, Eric had gone with the blue, dying his hair.  It was a sad, wistful thought.  With so many losses in recent memory, so much tumult, it felt very distant.  That distance didn’t make it it feel any less painful.  If I’d been burned on an hourly, daily or weekly basis for the last four years, the death of Eric and Uncle Neil would have been the very first time my hand was shoved down and held to the oven ring.

Alarming and hard to process in how devastating and raw it had been, important, but still a very long time ago.

I changed up my focus, “You all came in together.  Are you friends?”

“No.  Or kind of?” Tristan asked.

“Kind of,” Sveta said.

Tristan explained, “I ran into Weld and Sveta on the way into the first session.  He dropped her off at the front door because he had a place to be, and I offered my arm.  Sveta and I geeked out together over Weld.”

“He’s geek-out worthy,” I said.

Tristan smiled.  “Does the impromptu Weld fan club have another member?”

“Nah,” I said.  “No, I’m just a fan in a very mundane way.  I think he’s a good guy.”

Sveta nodded emphatically.

“At our first meeting, Tristan kept saying he was Weld’s number one fan,” Kenzie joined in.

“Oh, that.  Don’t remind me,” Tristan said.

“I won’t, then,” Kenzie said, deflating a little.

Tristan sighed, glancing at the rest of the room.  “Nah, it’s no good to leave our guest in the lurch, and I’m supposed to be holding myself accountable.  You might as well share, I’ll take my licks.”

“Alright,” Kenzie said, perking up considerably at the same time Tristan withered.  “So Tristan kept saying it, casually mentioning the posters he had before, and he had merchandise.”

“Weld figurine, from his stint in the Boston Wards.  One where he was wearing his first costume, too,” Tristan said.  “I miss that thing.”

“I want one,” Sveta said.  “Would it be weird if I had one?”

Kenzie continued, “So he kept saying all that, because he was so psyched he got to meet Weld.  Then Sveta finally speaks up, and she was very quiet when she said it, but she said ‘I probably have you beat.’”

“I’m competitive,” Tristan said.  “So I was pretty adamant that no, no she didn’t.”

Sveta looked like she was on top of the world, smiling to herself.  She wiped at her face with one prosthetic hand- she still had tracks of tears on her face.  I leaned closer, whispering.  “Want a tissue?”

She nodded.  I stood from my seat while the conversation continued.

“…And she says she’s his girlfriend,” Kenzie said.

Tristan sighed.  “Yep.”

“She’s living with him, and they sleep in the same bed, and they make each other breakfast,” Kenzie said.

I liked the mental image.  I liked that Sveta was smiling as much as she was.

“It’s hard to beat that,” Tristan said.

I collected a tissue from Mrs. Yamada’s desk, glancing at her.  She seemed pretty unbothered by this, so far.

“I don’t think it’s about winning,” Sveta said.

I handed the tissue to Sveta as I retook my seat, and she set about patting her cheeks dry.  A little bit more of the cover-up makeup came away from the tattoo.

“Yeahhhh,” Tristan drew out the word.  He added,  “Easy to say when you’re the clear winner.”

“That’s fair,” Sveta said.

“That’s a joke, by the way.  I’m not being serious here.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “I was wondering there.”

Another person had entered the room.  A boy, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown-blond hair.  He had a cut under one eye and another cut on the bridge of his nose.  His jeans were ripped at the knee and his shirt was baggy, a size too big for him.  The sleeves were long, red where the torso was white, and they had been rolled up to the elbow.  His sneakers had seen a lot of abuse, by the looks of it.  The white parts were brown and grey in a way that made me suspicious that even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t get them purely white again.  He looked sixteen or seventeen.

“But yeah, damn, I don’t look good enough in a dress, so I have to concede.  Hey Rain,” Tristan said.

“Heya,” the boy who was apparently called ‘Rain’ said.  He took the empty seat next to Tristan. “Why are you wearing a dress?”

“Just joking around.”

There were still two empty seats.  One would be Jessica’s.  There’d be one more, then.

“You made it here okay?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah.  I got a ride.”

“How are things?” Kenzie asked Rain.  She gestured at her head in a way I didn’t see, with her head blocking my view of the hand on the other side.

Rain seemed to take a second to ponder it.  He frowned a little.  “Not great.”

“Better or worse than last week?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s save the therapy-relevant stuff for the session,” Mrs. Yamada interrupted.  “Small talk and catching up for now, please.  We don’t want to get started before everyone’s here, and I want to go over ground rules and expectations before we ask anything too personal.”

Kenzie smiled and shrugged, settling back into her seat, hands in her lap.

“Alright,” Rain said.  He turned his attention to me.  “This is the heroine?”

“Ex-, kind of,” I said.  “But yeah.  Victoria.”

“Hi.  I’m Rain.  Spelled like the water that falls from the sky.”

“Cape or civilian name?” I asked.

“I hate that you have to ask.  Civilian.  And before you comment on it, yeah, I know.  It’s unusual, I’ve heard the jokes.”

He’d said it as if his patience on the subject had run short a long time ago.  I threw up my hands in mock surrender, my mouth firmly shut.

He said, “You said ex, but you didn’t sound sure.  Are you taking a break?  Or…?”

“Trying to get back into it after a break, but ended up taking another short break to focus on some background stuff.   Getting a handle on things.”

“Yeah,” he said, as if I’d said something very heavy, and he’d felt part of that weight.  “I feel like I’ve been trying to get a handle on things since I got my powers.”

“For a while now, then?  If I can ask?”

“Just under a year ago,” he said.  “I think, along with Chris, I’m the rookie here.”

Post-Gold Morning.  That helped put things in context.

Chris, too.  By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.

“Family thing.  You said that once,” Kenzie said.  Rain acknowledged that with a nod.

“Second gen?” I asked.  I wondered if I had any kindred on that front.

“There are a lot of questions you can ask about the parahuman stuff,” he said.  “When it comes to me, the answer to most of them is ‘it’s complicated’.”

“That’s fair,” I said.  “For a while now I’ve thought that parahumans should get a membership card, materializing in our hands when we trigger, or arriving in the mail at the first opportunity.  A warning on one side, ‘handle with care’, and then on the other side, ‘shit is complicated, don’t ask’.  Something that we can flash now and again, like a get out of jail free card.”

“Mine would be worn out, both sides,” Rain said.

“I could get good mileage out of the ‘shit is complicated’ side,” Tristan said.

“Now I feel left out,” Kenzie said.  “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored away as a just-in-case.”

“Really?” Tristan asked.  “Really?”

“Ruh-heally,” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes.  Tristan mirrored her pose some.

“I do like the idea,” Rain said.  “The card.”

Rain wasn’t a smiler, by the looks of it, but he’d seemed to relax more as I talked to him.

“By the way, I should have asked, am I allowed to swear?” I asked, twisting around to face Mrs. Yamada.

“Swearing is fine In moderation,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “Being here wouldn’t be nearly as positive if you couldn’t say what you wanted to say.  There’s a point where swearing takes away from the communication and expression I’m hoping to see, where you hide behind the swearing, or where it’s disruptive.  I think you six have a good sense of where that point is.  I may referee if we get close to it.”

“Alright,” I said.

“I remember the group therapy session we had back at the hospital,” Sveta said.

“Yeah,” I said.  Sveta had only been there for the initial sessions.  She’d left, I’d stayed.  “Plenty of swearing.  But it was different, and we didn’t have any kids in the group.”

“Well, not young kids,” Sveta said.

I looked over at Kenzie and Chris.  “Will I be overstepping or bothering you if I call you kids?  I’m not sure where the comfort zones are.”

Kenzie snorted.  “It’s fine.”

“Nah,” Chris said, “Hospital?  You were at the Asylum?”

He’d barely hesitated a second.  He’d been so quiet up until now, and then the moment I’d given him an avenue to join the conversation, he went straight from negation to asking questions.

Not pleasant questions either.

“Oh.  Sorry,” Sveta said, to me.  “I should have thought you might not want to broadcast it.  I’m sorry.  I kind of brought it up earlier, too.”

On its own, it was something I could handle most of the time, but it might have been a return to the group therapy session, the presence of Sveta and Mrs. Yamada, even, and possibly the fact that I’d had a few reminders and it was harder and harder to surface, while it almost felt like Chris was pressing down.

Dark, uncomfortable memories stirred.  Being paralyzed, silent, the interminable restlessness.  The way the things on the television and radio had been almost unbearable to see and listen to, not because of the subject matter, but because of my inability to change the channel or shut it off, even though I’d asked for it to be put on in the first place.

I had to take a second to swallow and remember normal breathing and cadence again, after thinking about it.

“Let’s not put too much pressure on Victoria, please,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I understand that you might feel the need to vet her or figure out if you can trust her, and that makes sense, given the degree of what’s shared here, but let’s be fair.  Let’s keep the small talk small, I’ll outline things as we start, and you can decide if you’re uncomfortable.  If you are, then we’ll figure out a way to move forward.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“If you’re sure.”

“It’s fine,” I said, glad I was able to find and use a normal tone of voice without any giveaway.  I turned back to Chris, “Yeah.  I was there.  Arrived midway through twenty-eleven, year and a half, and then the Asylum-supported housing after.”

“Right,” Chris said.  “Brockton Bay before that?”

“Yeah,” I said.  I wondered for a second at his jumping to the conclusion, before I remembered I had the city and its name on my dress.

“There was a lot of Brockton Bay in the news, before,” he observed.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Not a lot of it good.”

I wasn’t sure how to approach the conversation with Chris.  He was hard to read, in fashion, in expression- I’d glance at his mouth to see if he was smiling or frowning and I’d only see the braces.  He’d been quiet up until now, too, which meant I didn’t have a lot to go on.

Something about him bothered me.  It wasn’t just the slant of his questions or the way it felt like they were pressing at me, but his demeanor, and little things about his appearance I couldn’t put my finger on.  The messiness of his hair was one of those things.  It looked like he had three cowlicks – two at either corner of his hairline and one by his temple.  With his hair pushed back by the headphones he hadn’t taken off, they looked a little like small bald patches with the way the hair splayed out from those points.  He held his hands with his fingers curled in.  It was offputting in a mild way that lined up with how he came hitting me with those uncomfortable, prying questions and comments.

I wondered if he was one of the ones Mrs. Yamada had been worried about, as part of this group.  One of the additions that catalyzed something volatile.

That might have been unfair.

“Weld was there for a lot of it,” Sveta said, backing me up.  “I’ve heard some of what happened.  Things got scary.”

In all fairness, as fond as I was of her, I did find something amusing in how it was Sveta saying that last bit.  “Scary’s a good way to put it.”

“But you’re still wearing the shirt,” Rain observed.  “You’re attached to the city.”

“Sure.  It’s my city.  I grew up there.”

“But you admit it was scary?” Rain asked.

“The city isn’t defined by what happened to it.  Just like we aren’t the bad experiences that happen to us,” I said.

“Aren’t we?” Chris asked, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees.  “We’re the sum of the things that have happened to us, good or bad.”

“We aren’t,” I said, firmly.  Then, on a moment’s reflection, I added, “We can’t be.  There’s a lot of other things going into it.”

“You’re making me think back to science class,” Rain said.  “I sucked at science.  What was it?  Nature or nurture?”

“Nature versus nurture, yeah,” Chris said.

“That’s it,” Rain said.  “I should have remembered that.  Are you all about the nature, then?”

I thought of my family.  I’m not sure that’s much better. 

Amy had agonized over that one.

“We’re getting into territory that’s close to being therapy again,” Mrs. Yamada said, rescuing me from the line of thinking.  “So I’m going to interrupt.  But it’s a good point to keep in mind for our discussions later today.  I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and we’re ready to start.”

Sounds good, I thought.  I glanced at the empty chairs.

She walked around the perimeter of the room, stopping when she stood behind one of the empty chairs.  “Let me recap for our visitor and remind the rest of the group what I said at the start of the first session.  This particular type of group therapy focuses on self-reflection, effective socializing, supporting each other, helping to problem solve, and examining the patterns we fall into, both the constructive and the problematic.  Each of you has spent some time with me working on these things, and this is the platform where we put a lot of that into practice.”

My role in this, Victoria, is to be the referee and the coach.  I’ll try to ensure everyone gets their turn and has a voice.  I’ll try to head off or steer the discussion if it gets into less constructive territory, and to keep things moving if needed.  I’ll be chiming in periodically to ensure that confidentiality is stressed.  I’ve had Victoria review the same materials I gave the rest of you.”

I nodded.

“While I can promise you confidentiality on my part, and while I’ll encourage you all to maintain it, I can’t guarantee it.  If any of you were to pursue villainous activities, the other members of the group could be compelled to testify against you.  ”

The final member of the group entered the room.  She was somewhere between eighteen and twenty, but her height might have been deceiving.  Her white hair was long enough to reach the small of her back, her irises especially pale or similarly white, and she wore a black dress with a dozen straps overlapping in an intricate way at the shoulders and back.  The hem of the dress was damaged at one end.  Threads frayed, polyester melted, with a noticeable hole in it.

“Hi, boss,” Kenzie said, a twinkle of mischief in her eye as Mrs. Yamada gave her a stern look.

“I’m glad you could make it, Ashley,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’ve spent the last minute or two going over the basics, reminding others about the aims of the group and how confidentiality works in a group session.”

“To fill in our guest?” ‘Ashley’ asked.  She went straight to the table at the side of the room where a pitcher of water and paper cups were arranged, pouring herself a glass.

“Yes.  Her name is Victoria.  If you’ll take a seat, I’ll bring you anything else you need, but I’d like for everyone to be seated so I can continue.”

Ashley walked around behind me and circled the perimeter of the group to reach one of the empty seats.  She swept her hand behind her to brush her dress to one side, so it wouldn’t bunch up awkwardly beneath her as she took a seat on one of the two chairs between Rain and Chris.

She stared at me.  Maybe it would have been better to say she stared me down.

I, meanwhile, was left to digest the mistake of Mrs. Yamada’s that I was here to help address.  I was ninety-five percent sure I knew who ‘Ashley’ was when she was in costume, and I was left to take that knowledge and see how it fit together with the issue at hand.

Mrs. Yamada continued, “Use your own discretion when deciding what to share.  You’ve all agreed to participate, knowing the risks and difficulties inherent.  I’m hopeful this will be a positive set of exercises.  I think that more or less sums it up.  I suspect Victoria’s presence and the fact you’ve all had a week to think about what we talked about last session means you’ll have some questions.”

“It’s pretty late to be bringing her in,” Ashley said.  “Is she joining the group?”

“We hadn’t planned on her joining, per se,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I invited her because she’s exceptionally well equipped to address the topics that came up last session. We’ll build on it and you can decide what you’re willing to share here.  During our next and final session, depending on your comfort levels and how much you want to carry on today’s discussion, she may or may not be in attendance, or not for the full duration.”

“Is it really an ‘issue’?” Tristan asked, making air quotes.

“I think it could be.  Victoria can expand on why, shortly.”

“Are we supposed to know who she is?” Ashley asked.

I glanced at Mrs. Yamada.  She was taking her seat between Ashley and Chris.  From the gesture in my direction, and the fact that she wasn’t stepping in, the ‘referee’ was leaving the ball in my court.

“I’m Victoria Dallon.  If you study Parahumans, my family comes up, because it’s a literal textbook case of powers running in families.  I… believe you’ve run into my family, Ashley.”

“Have I?  I’ve met so many capes it’s hard to keep track.”

“Do you know New Wave?” I asked.  “White bodysuits, symbols in colors?”

“I know a few people like that.  I didn’t always pay attention to names.”

“Would’ve been in Boston.  The slang term in the ‘scene’ was the Boston Games.”

Ashley smiled for the first time.

For the rest of the room, I explained, keeping half of an eye on Mrs. Yamada, to make sure I wasn’t overstepping.  “A series of arrests in Boston saw a shift in the power balance of local gangs.  That’s a pretty common thing, but the Protectorate team followed up on it hard, toppling just about every major and most minor gangs and villains in the city, leaving a void that was bigger than usual.  Villains of every power level and stripe flocked to the city, villains in neighboring cities had a vested interest in having a foothold there as a place to retreat to or a place to expand, and it became an entangled nightmare of villain politics and power plays.”

“Time of my life,” Ashley said.

“Heroes, like the PRT, and like my family’s team, followed, to try and keep the peace until things settled.  My family’s team was Lady Photon, Manpower, Flashbang, Brandish, Lightstar and Fleur.”

“The heroes without masks,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I remember them.  I was one of the villains who flocked,” Ashley said.

That confirmed that she was Damsel of Distress then.  B-list villain, chronic headache for the PRT of yesteryear, unpredictable, dangerous, unstable, and fortunately, she’d been more of a problem for herself than for others.  She had been recruited by the Slaughterhouse Nine, to pad their numbers, and had died shortly after.

Her history was one of self-sabotage punctuated by events every two or three years where she was cause for alarm.  She had thrived during the Boston Games, in a sense, enough to get her name out there to capes in Northeastern America as a just in case.

She’d later found a place in the Nine.  She was of a particular brand or species of cape, who somehow rose up when everything else was sinking.  It almost made a degree of sense, then, that in following with that pattern, she’d risen up from the grave at the same time the entire world was plunged into chaos.

Kenzie was saying something, and I was having trouble tuning in.

Slaughterhouse Nine meant Bonesaw.  Crawler.  That in turn led me to think about my last coherent, me moments, the blank in my memories, the aftermath.  It made me think about actual monsters,  and the very real possibility that Ashley was one.

“Were you there?”

It took me a second to connect with Ashley’s question.

“If you’re uncomfortable getting into it, we could change the subject,” Mrs. Yamada said.

“Could I just get some water, actually?  Sorry, you meant Boston, Ashley?”

“Yes.  During the Boston Games,” Ashley said, as Mrs. Yamada stood and went to get the water.

“I was a little too young.  I followed along back at home, where we made the dining room into a kind of headquarters, putting up a few bulletin boards.  I colored in the maps and moved pins as the territories changed hands while doing homework and stuff.  Is it a problem?”

“No,” Ashley said.

“What are your thoughts on the subject, Victoria?”  Mrs. Yamada asked, handing me the water.

I drank before answering.

“It’s fine.  Boston was mostly fine,” I said.  “My family didn’t get hurt.  To me, she was just a pin on the map of Boston we had in the living room-”

I saw Damsel’s expression shift.  A slight narrowing of the eyes.

“-And a few interesting and impressive stories my aunt, uncle, and dad brought home.”

That amended the narrowing.  Lesson learned.

“Good,” Mrs. Yamada said.  “I’m glad to hear that.  Questions, thoughts, observations?  Anyone?”

Ashley wasn’t done with the questions and comments.  The words she spoke next were an accusation, and she was very good at sounding accusatory.  “You brought her here to change our minds.”

Our conversation stalled as a waitress wiped down a table behind Jessica.  I swished the ice around my now mostly empty glass.

“I never liked the codenames,” Jessica said.

“We might be very different people in that.  There’s something fun about them.  They’re revealing.”

“They are, but they often reveal just how badly the patient wants to escape, to leave their humanity behind and dive into something well beyond humanity.  Some don’t surface completely.  Some hurt others on the way down.  Some drown in that vast, incomprehensible sea.”

I drew in a deep breath, then sighed.  “Feeling poetic?”

“My own kind of escapism, maybe.  I think sometimes about a world where all of my patients can go by their real names.”

“I’m not following the train of thought, I’m afraid.”

“I arranged the group therapy.  I thought for a long time about whether any of my patients were a significant danger to the others, or if they’d set the therapy of their peers back.  I took precautions, I pored over the notes, trying to visualize how things might go, or the topics that I could safely broach or go back to.  Like I said, the first meetings are hard.”

“Yeah.  I can imagine that.”

“And while I don’t like the way the idea is often interpreted or the conclusions it’s taken to, there’s the notion of volatility, and the exponentially increasing chance of trouble as the groups of capes grow larger.  With parahumans, things are often exaggerated, both in weak points or the hot button issues they have, or their inclination to push certain buttons.  The more you put in one place, the higher the chance of the wrong button being pushed.  That was another concern of mine.”

I nodded.  “How long has the group been running?”

“Two months and a week, with one or two sessions a week, as situations allow.  We’re not quite at the end, but it’s close.  This was supposed to be the easy middle stretch.”

“Supposed to be?  You let your guard down?”

“In a way.  Maybe from the beginning,” Jessica said.

She looked genuinely bothered.  I held my tongue.

She went on, “I spent so much time anticipating and planning for disaster, that I failed to see the other side of that coin.  I didn’t want to think of them as capes.  I sought out the things that would help them connect and find reasons to listen to one another.”

I realized what had happened.

Jessica was nodding to herself.  “That was my mistake.  We were approaching the end stretch, and I reminded them of the date we would wrap up and finish.  The conversation took a turn, and I was caught flat-footed.  They expressed interest in staying together.  They want to found a team.”

“A team of?”

“Heroes, it sounds like.”

“Is that so bad?” I asked.

“Without going into any particular detail, Victoria, several are troubled, vulnerable, or both.  No, I don’t think it’s good.”

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Flare – 2.4

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“Evacuate!”

One word from the parahuman in charge was all we needed.  The clock was too short for anything more.

Capes fanned out, most of them on foot.  I could leave the parts of the crowd closest to us to them.  I flew, avoiding the sky directly over the group of affected people, circling around the periphery instead.  The wind was cold against my face and legs.

The massed crowd of citizen workers was to my right, the people with powers to my left.  Half of the light sources in and around the clearing had broken, and the only other illumination came from the effects of powers.  A common thread ran through all of it.  Energy spilled out and created matter where it splattered on the road, materials sprouted from nothing, streaked with thin streams of liquid that glowed like fire, and more abstract growths formed suspended in air, their images sticking to the backs of my eyes like the persistent afterimages of sparklers waved in the dark.

People were shouting.  Some were screaming.  I couldn’t make much of it out.

I flew to the far side of the clearing, which also happened to have some of the thickest gatherings of people.  They had been citizen laborers, gathering to make their displeasure known to the construction groups.  They’d been facing the building until the incident, they’d backed up, and there were places where the presence of buildings and parked vehicles made it so they had no place to retreat, leaving them now packed together, shoulder to shoulder, front to back, jostling.

I’d helped to evacuate before.  I had attended the Leviathan attack on my hometown.  I had been around for the majority of the Slaughterhouse Nine crisis.  I’d participated in other, minor incidents, helping with fires and storms, though those had mostly involved helping the elderly and standing around.

The truism was that in a disaster, people were their own worst enemies.

Never this bad.

I’d never seen or imagined a situation where people would do the opposite of evacuating, throwing themselves headlong into the hazard.  They thought the people in the center of the clearing were getting powers, and people were breaking away from the crowd at the clearing’s edge to run toward the affected individuals.

Crystal created a wall to block off a street as she passed it.  She wouldn’t be able to keep it up as she got further away, but it bought time for others to get there.

She raked a laser across the road, a bright and noticeable  distraction, to give people pause.

I dropped to the street, using a pulse of my aura to get people’s attention.  Some stopped to look, while others ducked low, as if instinct drove them to shy away from the perceived threat.

“Run!” I shouted, using my aura to play up my words.  “Other way!”

I saw eyes widen, and turned to look.  A man had opened his mouth, and had something that looked almost as tall and thick as a telephone pole spearing skyward from his mouth.  Blood streamed from the sides of his mouth, his jaw clearly dislocated, and more fluids painted the length of the pole as it continued to rise.  It reached its maximum height, and then forked, the upper half splitting out into two equally thick portions, a giant ‘Y’ shape.  Each branch then forked into two, and forked into two again.

“Go,” I said, sparing only a momentary glance for the people I’d been stopping.  I saw them start to run away.

The man reached up, his fingers dragging along the blood-slick shaft of the trunk of the fractal tree he had vomited up.  Each movement of his hands was slower and weaker than the last.

I flew toward him, to do what I could to help, even though I wasn’t sure what that could possibly be.

The ‘tree’ toppled, and it was only because I was already on my way toward him that I was able to intervene.  I reached out for the falling tree, and my power was quicker to touch it.  Phantom fingers bit into the surface, fracturing the chalky material.  With flight, my bare hands, my power, and my aura pushed out to give people a little more incentive to get out of the way, I controlled the tree’s fall.  It broke into chunks on contact with the ground.  One of the people with new powers was pinned beneath branches, but it didn’t look like he was hurt by the contact.

I flew to the man who’d grown the tree.  Even before I reached his side, I could see the damage that had been done.  Jaw, throat, chest, and stomach had been torn away.  Traces of the same material that had formed the tree had collected in his insides and pelvis, breaking into jagged pieces at some point before or during the tree’s fall.

He had no throat to feel for a pulse.  I wasn’t about to rule anything out, even as I saw the remains of his heart in his splayed-out chest cavity.  I pried one of his eyes open, and I saw no response.

I went from a crouch to airborne in a second.

That particular disaster had been dramatic and visible for a significant portion of the people nearby.  Most were thinking twice about running toward the epicenter.

When was the next wave coming?  The number of people to trigger all at once had seemed to double the last time.  They didn’t look like multi-triggers either.  One power each, some self-destructive.  I could hear the screams and shouts of a lot of unhappy people and I couldn’t see one person who looked particularly happy about their new ability.

I flew to a new location, looking to see where I could get the most people away.  The tree had done my work for me in one spot, Laserdream was standing at the intersection of two streets and walling them off with red-tinted, translucent fields.

I saw another group- people were pulling away from the crowd, which was actively trying to grab them and hold them back.  Young people – older teenagers and twenty-somethings, that might have been a group of friends.  Seven of them.

I shouted, but my voice was drowned out by the dentist-drill scream of a power somewhere nearby, by the hollers, the warnings, a dull explosion.

I used my aura again.  Several people in the group stumbled, so caught up in reacting to my aura that they lost track of where they were going or how to put one foot in front of the other.  Several others paused, helping their friends that had tripped, stopped, or fallen.  The people at the edge of the crowd reacted too, pulling back away from me.

I’d hoped more of them would stop shouting and screaming.  The affected people and the people at the edge of the clearing were making so much noise that it nearly drowned me out as I shouted, “Get back!”

A number of people listened.  The crowd in particular was inclined to take my order, getting away from the scene.  Two of the seven who’d lagged behind the others turned to go too.

Five, however, looked at me and then continued to run toward the scene.

I clenched my fist.

Rationally, I knew that they likely saw this as the simplest thing in the world.  The people over there had powers; all they had to do to get powers was to head over there.  Some might well have no idea what triggers were, or they might have bought into one of the various other theories out there, some intentionally obscuring the truth.  They didn’t know better.

Well, the screaming should have given them pause, but that might have been balanced out by the fact that they felt especially powerless at this time in particular.  Because we were only two years after the most catastrophic and traumatic loss of human life in history.  Because as much as we were recovering, we were far from being where we’d been.  We weren’t okay.  The dispute between the citizen workers and the construction administrations only brought that home.

Rationally, I knew that.

Less rationally, I had a weak point that extended well before the Gold Morning, well before the hospital stay, well before the Slaughterhouse Nine, before the bad days against Empire Eighty-Eight, before my trigger, even.  I’d spent a fair portion of my time post-trigger and especially in the hospital, thinking about it.

I couldn’t fucking stand being ignored.

I flew to intercept.

I hadn’t practiced with this power enough.  Even using it was a hard reminder, with a mental and emotional cost.  I knew I needed to come to terms with it, and my time at the hospital had been an early foray into that.

That had been flight, and my flight was more or less untouched.

I flew low, approaching a car.  As with the tree, all of my powers were up and active as I reached out in the car’s direction.  Phantom hands dug into the metal of the car’s body, invisible fingers stabbing through.  A mass of something pressed down on the hood, caving it in.

If I had any control over those limbs, it wasn’t something that lent itself to fine touches.  It didn’t work well with the careful, methodical, warrior monk approach.  In this, in the instinct and the moment of frustration, I could only hope that what I wanted and what my power wanted were mostly in agreement.

I glanced up to make sure Laserdream wasn’t watching.  I was close enough for my fingertips to brush the car’s paint as I swept my arm to one side, the holes and dents in the car twisting or opening wider as the phantom grip adjusted.  The- the other Victoria, the phantom Victoria that had never left the hospital, the wretch, threw the car.

I canceled my power momentarily, to force it to release its hold, so it wouldn’t fling the car into the people I was trying to stop.  I let it reactivate a half-second later, flying forward in the car’s direction.  My defenses were up and sufficient to let me adjust the car’s trajectory with a sharp kick to the side.  Just to be safe.

It crashed into a parked car, upside down, its roof and windows shearing into the top of the other.  A loud impact, metal scraping metal, a dozen windows on the two vehicles breaking.  It was raucous, chaotic, sudden and surprising, in a stark contrast to the massive, enduring weight that seemed to settle in me.

Harder than flying.  I could tell myself I was helping people, keeping them clear of danger, and it helped much as it had with the flying, but it was still hard.

The fact that a car had flown into another car twenty feet in front of them was enough to stop them in their tracks.  I had their full attention now.

“Get away!  It’s dangerous!”

Some backed away, then ran.  Two backed off but didn’t run.  The last of them was a man about my age, who stepped closer to the cars, intent on climbing over them.

“Get away!”

I was prepared to grab him as he climbed onto the underside of the car I’d thrown.  He continued to ignore me, finding his balance, stepping forward-

The fragment of a trigger vision hit me.  The latest wave.

I saw only a flash of faces, and in seeing those faces, I saw the phantom self that clung to me.  The impression lingered for only a moment before I realized the faces didn’t resemble mine.

The man had been springing forward from the car to the ground when the event had hit.  I saw his legs swing forward, while his head remained in place.  He dangled, suspended in the air.

I picked myself up off the ground, flying to him.

Gone already.  No pulse, no light behind the eyes.  He made a faint gurgling sound, but it was some biological process or symptom of what had happened, not a sign of life.  He was pissing himself and shitting himself in death.

He dropped out of the air, and I caught him.  It hardly mattered, he was gone, but it didn’t feel right to just let him fall.  I eased him to the ground.

“Please help!” I heard a guy shout, amid renewed and nearby whimpers and sobs.

I flew.  The two who had drawn back but hadn’t run- a boy and a girl.  The boy was holding the girl, while she strove to stay on her tiptoes.  Her face was turned skyward.

I flew to them, and I caught her, helping to hold her.

“Hold her steady!” the guy shouted.

I held her as steady as I could.

Another suspension?

“My neck!” the victim shrieked the words.  A single glowing vein stood out on each arm, and glows on her legs suggested more of the same, but she barely seemed to care about it.  Clear fluid was streaming from her nose, thinner than snot, with needle-thin streams of blood joining it.

“We got you,” I said.  “We’re here, we’ll support you.  Stay calm.”

“I can’t move my head!” she cried out.  “Every time- my neck!”

“Don’t try,” I said.  The guy was looking to me for help, and I wasn’t sure what to say or do.

“My head hurts,” she said, sounding very far away.  Her words dissolved into a stream of whimpers and cries of ‘ow’.

I was supporting her weight, but it wasn’t easy to do it from a strength perspective with my feet on the ground, and it wasn’t easy to stay steady while flying.

“Laserdream!” I shouted the words, top of my lungs.

“Headache,” the victim said, her eyes wide.  “My brain.”

The guy looked at me again.  This time I didn’t try to hide my expression.  I knew I looked grim.

Her brain.  The Corona Pollentia, the means by which powers were operated by the parahuman.  Hers had been established, but not as a fluid, functional thing.  It was a nail, taking her brain and fixing it to a specific position in reality.

Laserdream appeared beside me.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Give her something to stand on,” I said.  “She’s stuck.”

The forcefield appeared below.  The girl no longer had to stand on her tiptoes.

“People are evacuating more now,” Laserdream said.  “We need to handle the people toward the center.  The waves are random.”

I turned, looking at the guy.  “Do you know her?”

“Not really.”

“Can you run?  Go tell people to get away, as fast as they can.  This is bad.”

“You don’t want to get caught in it,” Laserdream said.

The guy nodded.

“Bye Anne,” he said.  He let go of the girl, transitioning the grip entirely to me, then turned to run.

Anne.

She was making small sounds, guttural.  One hand came up to touch the side of my face and my hair, clumsy, as if she didn’t have full use of her fingers.

One pat.

“I’m sorry Anne,” I said.

She made another of the gurgling sounds.  She was vomiting, I realized, and with her face fixed in a skyward position, there wasn’t anything I could do.  Anything I did to move her would add to the damage to her brain.

I hugged her, hard.  After a moment, I felt her hug me back, clumsy but fierce.

It was only a moment later that she started to convulse, whole-body.  I moved to try to seize her head and keep it from moving- a second too late.  One wrenching, forced movement of her head and upper body, and the nail ripped through a good share of the material in its vicinity.

I caught her as she fell, and laid her out on the ground, placing her on her side.

“We need to help others, Victoria.”

“Yeah.”

Spooky, to take to the air again.  I’d seen the numbers of people affected double, roughly, and this was another doubling, to look at it.  More artificial sources of light had broken, as space folded in areas, as things grew to obscure them, or as tendrils of energy lashed out like living things, distorting geography with each impact.

Matter creation, matter manipulation, matter distortion.

Over fifty people, if I had to guess.  It could well have been sixty-four.  They were too spread out for me to effectively ballpark.  Many might well have died from their power expression or the ‘nailing down’ of the brain.

There was no being polite, now.  One person hesitating at what could have been the edge of the affected area.  I didn’t even pause as I grabbed him by the wrist, picking him up off the ground, dragging him with me, me barely six feet above the ground, him with toes and shoes scraping the road’s surface.  I didn’t want the fall to be too rough if I was knocked out of the air again.

I half-deposited, half-threw him toward the crowd that still lingered.  I pointed at the largest guy present.  “You.  Make sure these people get away!  Keep an eye on this one!”

He looked spooked, and I wasn’t even using my aura.  He gave me a singular nod.

Another two, two men together.  One of them fought me as I held him, trying to pry my hand free.

“Assholes!” he screamed, twisting my fingers, trying to get leverage to bend one backward.  “Keeping powers to yourselves!”

I didn’t reply.  I tightened my grip to keep him from getting any one of my fingers, and I saved my breath and my focus.

If this was turning out as badly as it looked like it was, the aftermath would be answer enough.

The guy who’d fought me was deposited beside the first vehicle with flashing lights that was waiting at the edges.  A fire truck.

“Don’t let him go back!  And try to get further away, in case it expands!”

I was already leaving before they could answer me.  I heard the shouts, though.  The answers.

Crystal wasn’t using lasers or forcefields much anymore.  Only flight, only manhandling.

I delivered two more armfuls of cargo, getting people clear of the danger.  On my return trip, I saw the geography transforming.  A culmination of everything up to this point.  From matter generation, matter distortion, and matter transformation to… something that made the entire area look as though it was being smudged and smeared around, streets widening, buildings pulling back from the street.

Except- no.  No, this was a familiar smudging and smearing.  One that worked with us.

You made it, little V, I thought.  I felt emotionally numb from the series of events, the deaths I’d seen, my momentary use of my power and how the feelings I’d tapped in that moment weren’t easy to bring back into order.

There was only what needed to be done, the mission that stood front and center.  It was difficult to execute effectively, but simple in how Glory Girl, Victoria, the phantom wretch and the capes I was working with could all agree it should be done.

Get people clear.  Get them safe.

A woman screamed words that barely strung together, the heel of one hand pressed to her forehead.  The other was pointed forward.  She shot something that was only visible by the way light refracted at its edges.  The projectile hit the ground, carrying forward like a cartoon mole and the elongated, humped trail of dirt it left in its wake.  Unlike the mole, the hump was jagged, folded earth.  Road folded up like complex origami.  She was pinning people down, keeping them from exiting a building.

In the words I could make out, she wanted them to come help her, and in her actions she drove them away.

“Stop!” I shouted to her.

She shot one projectile at me.  Barely visible, it cut through the air, wind shrieking.

I didn’t want to kill her, and if her hand at her head was any clue that she was in similar straits to Anne and the other man, a light push could do horrendous damage.

I drew closer to the ground, defenses up.

Work with me, I told my power.  My agent.  My flight wobbled as I experienced the lopsided drag of a hand reaching down at one side, clawing at the ground as I passed it.

It didn’t create nearly enough debris.

I changed angles.  I flew for the hump of origami road, two feet across, two feet tall, jagged and menacing.

I passed within a few feet of it, and let my forcefield hit it.

The hump of ground shattered explosively, blades of road cutting at my legs.  But it did create a cloud of dust and debris.

She shot at me, and I reversed direction, passing the hump again, striking it.

The two passes created enough of a mess to block the view.  I flew to the people the origami road woman had pinned down.  “Go, go, go!”

I stood by with my defenses up, positioned to intercept any incoming projectiles.  They took the chance to run for it.

This whole thing was a clusterfuck.  How many people were caught?  How many were acting irrational?  What options did we have?  What the hell was I supposed to do?

The origami woman didn’t send any attacks through the cloud of shattered road that I’d created.  The moment the group was out of sight and away, I was moving again.

A complete and total clusterfuck.  I flew high, and I looked down, wishing we had more light on the scene.

I could see where the distortions were being utilized.  The space between the people at the edges and the center of the effect was being extended, making the clearing larger.  It made it harder for people to approach, carried fleeing people away.  It meant the effect had to reach further if it wanted to catch anyone.

In the tension and the emotions that gripped me, I felt an isolated point of peace and calm I could grab onto.

Vista was here, Vista had made it through Gold Morning.  She was one of the people I liked.  A reason I was doing what I did.  She was one of the good ones, she was doing good work here, and I wanted to help her on multiple levels.

In that line of thinking, I found both the focus to think beyond mere instinct, and to realize what I could do.  I knew how Vista worked.

“It’s Vista,” Laserdream said.  She’d appeared beside me again.  She had a flying cape with her.

“Come on,” I said.  I flew for where the expansion of space seemed weakest, even pinched.

They weren’t on the streets.  It was people in buildings.

I tore through a door, flew through a house.  Nothing.  I bumped into Laserdream and her PRTCJ friend on the way out.  “Search the buildings.  Vista’s power is weakest when it has people in its area.  There are people near here.”

We spread out.  One building each, searching neighboring houses.  I was midway through my search when I heard a whistle.

I flew to the sound.  Vagrants, or just refugees from Gimel who had decided they’d be more comfortable squatting in unoccupied, recently built houses than they were in the tent cities.

The three of us carried them clear.  We were delivering them to safety when the next pulse hit.  We weren’t hit, but I could see a glowing figure in the sky flicker and drop briefly before they caught themselves.

We took to the sky again, looking for pinched areas where things hadn’t distorted enough.  There were two spots, and both were already being addressed.

The area was clear.  We found our way to where the Warden-affiliated capes had collected.  They had gathered at the edge of the effect.

“I think we’re clear, Rocketround, sir,” Laserdream reported.

“We should be shortly,” the leader said, glancing at a Foresight cape who stood nearby.

“Yes sir,” the cape said.  A girl with a hood and blindfold.

“How many?” Rocketround asked.

“Ninety two, if you include the ones in houses,” she said.

Rocketround paused, staring down the length of the road toward the center of the vastly extended clearing.  He spat.  When he spoke, he managed a tone that pretty perfectly encapsulated what I and probably most of us were feeling, “Fuck me.”

Ninety two.  Ninety two, many like Anne.  Many wanting help.  I wanted to fly in, to do something.

“I want everyone clear of the area.  We wait, we see what happens,” he said.  “We see if it expands in reach with further pulses, but I don’t want to give it anything.  Not even any bounceback from reaching out and finding some of us.  Let me know when the next pulse happens.”

“Yes sir,” the blindfolded girl said.

Something in the distance crashed to ground.  Another fixture like the fractal tree?

Laserdream approached me, and she put an arm around me.  I did the same for her.

There was small talk, people remarking on what they’d seen.  Horrible things.  People buried alive by their own powers.  A few cases like what I’d observed.

“Is Vista around?” I asked.  “That was her, right?”

I hadn’t expected Rocketround to be the one to answer, but he was the one who spoke up, saying, “She is.  Upstairs, top floor.  She said she needed a view and no interruptions.”

No interruptions.  I was disappointed.

“Who’s she with?” I asked.

“Wardens,” he said.

“Good for her,” I said.

“Who are you and who are you with?” he asked.

“Victoria Dallon.  Nobody, yet.  I’ve been interviewing for teams.”

“She did pretty good work,” blindfold girl said.

“Thank you,” I said.

“When you three got the homeless out of the house, Vista said something under her breath.  I think it was ‘thank you’.  They were getting in her way somehow.”

I nodded.  “I’m from her town.  I was briefly her teammate.”

It was so mundane it was chilling and disconcerting, after the chaos we’d just weathered.  A few moments of horrible, of stupidity and damage and madness, and now we waited to see what happened next, waiting to see what the aftermath would be.  We talked about dumb things.

“What do you think?” Rocketround asked.  “Not just asking you, Victoria.  Anyone.”

It was in that question that I saw the first real hint that he was shaken.  He was doubting his own capacity in this.

“This is going to hurt,” another cape said.  “People were already feeling pretty beaten down, and… ninety people?  We lost ninety?”

“We don’t know if all of them are in trouble,” Laserdream said.

“I think they might be,” blindfold girl said.

Laserdream didn’t have a response for that.  She only hugged me tighter with the one arm.

“I think-” I started.  “Just speculation.”

Any clues or guesses about what’s going on would be good,” Rocketround said.  He was gripping his upper arm as he stood with arms folded.  He’d emphasized ‘any’, which only served to emphasize how little a clue he and we had.

“The broken triggers are pretty out there.  Not a lot of consistent points or facts… except that they’re big,” I said.

“Big?” a nearby cape asked.

“They tend to cover a lot of ground.  Shaker stuff.”

“Yeah,” Rocketround said.  “That’s come up in briefings.”

“Location, environment, and position matters a lot,” I said.  “The capes closest to the perimeter were least mobile.  I think the further they got from the center, the less flex there was.  Until their agents wouldn’t let them move at all.”

“Typhlosis pointed that out,” Rocketround said, indicating the girl with the blindfold.

“We might want to make them stay put,” I said.

“Yeah,” Rocketround said.  “We’ll do that.”

Someone else spoke up.  A remark about common thread through the powers they’d seen.  Others chimed in.

I only half-listened.  A lot of images stayed with me.  The faces I’d seen midway through the one fragmented trigger, the indents in the car as the phantom limbs had reached out for it, Anne.  The lingering sensation of Anne clinging to me, hard, the touch on my face.  I didn’t know what she had wanted to communicate.  A last kind gesture?

“There we go,” the blindfolded girl said.  “Pulse.  Nobody else affected.”

“I’m going to approach,” Rocketround said.  “Roadblock?  I’d appreciate it if you came.”

“Of course,” a cape by the side said.  A guy in heavy armor.

“Protect me if we run into any trouble.”

“Only four left,” Typhlosis said.

“Four?” Rocketround sounded surprised.

Laserdream’s head snapped around.  Looking at me, looking at Typhlosis.

Typhlosis continued, “Only four alive, still.  The rest went down.  Eaten by their powers, or they tried to move when they couldn’t, and their brains caved in.”

I squeezed Laserdream’s hand.

I might have been less surprised than her because I’d read up more on how these things tended to go.

“Let’s go,” Rocketround said.  “Anyone comfortable joining me, come.”

They speed-marched toward the center of the effect.  One hand on another cape’s arm for support and guidance, Typhlosis directed us toward the nearest surviving cape.

“Three,” she said, as we got close enough to see him.

He was a man, mid-twenties.  His legs and stomach were buried in a writhing mass of something very similar to the origami road I’d seen earlier, materials made thin, folded many times over, until they didn’t quite seem to be three dimensions anymore.  Some of those materials were the pieces of the twenty or so people in his immediate vicinity.

A lone figure, standing on a hill of the fallen citizen workers, caught up in the broken trigger’s effect.

“Don’t move!” Rocketround shouted.  “Alright!?”

“Not moving,” was the response, quiet.

“No using powers.  Stay put, stay calm.  We’re going to find out a way to help you.”

“I don’t think I can be helped,” the man said.  His head was bowed, and he couldn’t seem to move it.  His hair was long, tied back into a low ponytail, and it covered much of his face.

“We can figure something out,” Rocketround said.

“Two,” Typhlosis said, quiet.

Two parahumans left.

The effect had caught over ninety over what couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes.  Now there were two.

“I’m worried,” the man in the clearing’s center said.  “I can feel all the others.”

He moved his hand.

Every body in the vicinity moved.  A matching movement of hands, limp arms rolling off of sides or fingers digging into powdered sidewalk.

“Don’t move!” Rocketround called out.

“I’m on a brink, and I can’t see it, but I can feel it,” the man said.

“Try not to think about it,” Rocketround said.  “Okay?”

“I can feel it,” the man said.  He wasn’t paying much attention to Rocketround.  “All the way down to this vast well, partially filled with potential energy.  Like I’m on the lip of a volcano and it’s an impossibly long fall with only magma at the bottom.  I don’t know if I’m better off throwing myself down into that or leaving it alone.”

“Leave it alone,” I said, my voice joining more than one other person’s.

“What if my thoughts and brain get made into a part of that?  One piece in that thing’s construction.  What if it makes me immortal, forever a part of this thing?  A recording of me in there, how I think, how I do things.”

“We’ve studied parahumans, powers and power sources a lot,” Roadblock said.  “We’re pretty sure that’s not a thing.”

“Yeah,” the guy in the clearing’s center said.  “But…”

He trailed off.

“It’s not a thing,” Rocketround’s voice joined Roadblock’s.

“But I’m standing closer to it than you are,” the man said.  “And from where I stand, I feel like it might be.”

Nobody had a ready response to that.

“One,” Typhlosis murmured.

“I’m the last one standing on the brink now,” the man said.  “I don’t think I can do this much longer.  Do I embrace it or turn away?  I wish I could see you, to-”

He reached up, to move his hair out of his eyes.

“Don’t!” I called out.  My voice wasn’t the only voice of protest, but it might have been the first.  Perhaps because I was most mindful of arms that weren’t mine, in my immediate vicinity.

The arms of people all around him operated as extensions of him.  A matching, reaching movement, up and out.  Some disintegrated as they moved, but one lying next to him reached up, out, and into the finely spun construction of road that cocooned the man’s legs.

As I’d done to the altered road, the reaching arm broke the construction like it was sugar crystal or a snow globe.  There was a spray of blood, and the man dropped, jerking as his Corona Pollentia remained in place, briefly suspending him.  He was dead in that instant, well before he sprawled to the ground, shattered from the waist down.

My hand held Laserdream’s tight.

I was thankful that Typhlosis didn’t give us an updated count.

Crystal had backed me up for a good while.  She’d been a friend, a support.

She had performed during the event.  She’d been focused, she’d done what she needed to do.  It had been after that she faltered.  Hearing that the people who’d been touched by the broken trigger weren’t doing well, then hearing that only four remained.  Hearing and seeing those four drop away.

It had been that way for Leviathan, too.

It had probably been that way after I went to the hospital.

Fine during, not so fine after.

It had been ten days, now.  Ten days after the broken trigger with the citizen workers.  One of the worst we’d seen for citizen casualties and damage.

I landed on the balcony, letting myself in.  I took the carton out of the plastic bag and popped it into the microwave, lid ajar.  Eighteen seconds.

“Vic?” Crystal called out.

“I’m here.  One second.”

“That had better not be what I think it is.”

“It is.”

Crystal groaned audibly.

I pulled the carton free, grabbed some spoons, and walked over to the living room.  Crystal was sitting in the armchair, watching TV, a blanket on her lap.

She glared at me, but it was a mock glare, and it softened considerably as she saw the carton.

“Slightly melted brownie caramel ice cream,” I said.  I collapsed onto the couch, reaching high overhead to hold the carton and a spoon out to her.  “I’ll share it with you.”

“Well, if you’re sharing it…”

“I’ll exercise with you too, to work it off.  For now, though, it’s comfort food, staying cozy, and keeping each other company.”

“Okay.  You’re mostly forgiven.”

“And a stupid-in-a-good-way movie to watch,” I said, pulling the movie case out of the pocket I’d wedged it into.  “Because it turns out TV sucks after the world ends, and I can’t watch you subject yourself to it.”

“Okay,” she said.  “You’re forgiven.”

I popped the movie in, then settled on the couch, pulling a blanket over my legs, arranging a cushion to sit up against.  I fetched my phone and checked my messages.  A second cancellation from Jessica.

After a disaster like that, too many people needed looking after.

I twisted my head around to look at Crystal, as she ate a spoonful of icecream from the carton.  She passed it to me and I took a bite for myself, from the side she hadn’t dug into.  I passed it back, watching as the movie started.

My turn to look after Crystal.

The lights were off in the coffee shop, though it wasn’t dark with the light coming in through the windows.  The majority of the customers were sitting on the outside patio, and the interior was quiet, empty, and cool.

It was eerie, to go from the disaster to the more or less quiet period after.  To be back on this street, where the car had hit the pillar, and where I’d seen so much grief from one person, and to try and reconcile that with the broken trigger, the ninety dead, the fact that so many were dealing by ignoring it.  Moving on a matter of two weeks after the fact.

“Victoria?” the barista asked me.

My first thought was that she’d recognized me.  “Yes?”

“Your friend stepped into the back.  She said she’d be right out, but she asked us to keep an eye out for you so you didn’t think she was late.”

“Got it.  Thank you.”

“Can I get you anything?”

I looked outside.  Sunny, warm.  The summer and its heat lingered in the daytime.  “I can’t bring myself to drink anything hot when the weather’s like this.  Do you have any suggestions?”

“Ice coffee?  Iced tea?  Pop?”

“Iced tea, please,” I said, noting the use of ‘pop’.  A lot of people from a lot of regions had gathered in the megalopolis.

I didn’t have to sit down and wait for her to bring it to me.  It was in my hands within a matter of seconds, and I took it to the seat furthest from the door, where Jessica and I would have some privacy.

She was out of the washroom before I’d fully settled in.  Her blouse had buttons at the front and a collar, but was sleeveless, tucked into shorts.  I wondered if she looked less at ease in casual clothing because she was a professional at heart, or if it was personal bias and years of knowing her as the therapist in the office that colored my perceptions.  Her hair was damp, and she had what might’ve been a folded paper towel, soaked with water, resting on the back of her neck.  She collected a drink she must have ordered and paid for earlier.

“Doing alright?” I asked.

Jessica smiled.  “I was cooling down.  I’ll be glad when the weather is more comfortably cool.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s not that I mind the heat.  It’s that I worry about how it affects people.  I get antsy when the weather is like this.”

Jessica nodded.  She glanced out the window.  “It doesn’t help.”

“Brockton Bay was always nice, weather-wise.  It didn’t have a lot going for it, but it did have mild weather.  Once upon a time.”

Jessica smiled.  “It’s good to remember the good things.  At the risk of slipping into habit, I’ll ask: how are you doing?  You’re okay, after the broken trigger incident?”

“I’m okay.  My cousin wasn’t, but she’s bounced back.  I think it was a wake-up call.”

“How so?”

“She might be reconsidering if she wants to be with the PRTCJ.  She might aim for something lower-key.  Her mom did, after things went bad in Brockton Bay.”

“I hope she’s happy and comfortable, wherever she ends up.  I did like her, when she and I crossed paths.”

At the hospital.  That fragment went unspoken.

“How’s the girl I found?” I asked.

“She’s managing.  We’re getting her stabilized and figuring out her power.  She wants to meet you at some point, to thank you.”

“She’s good, though?”

“Far better than she was.”

I nodded.

“The broken trigger aside, how have you managed since we last talked?  You talked about joining a team.”

I gave her a one-shoulder shrug.  “Pitched myself to a few.  It didn’t take.  I lost my job, the volunteer stuff feels empty.  I’ll survive in the meantime.”

“I find it very interesting that you asked about Hunter, and you wanted to clarify that she wasn’t just managing, she was good.  Then I ask you, and your response is that you’re surviving.  You’re managing.”

“You’re going therapist mode on me,” I remarked, smiling.

She smiled back.

“How are you?” I asked, before she could ask me the same.

“I’m settling into my new role, trying to wrap things up and make sure there are no loose ends as I transition.  Are you-”

“You said-” I said, inadvertently interrupting her.

“Go ahead.”

“You said you were busy.  Is busy a good thing, in Jessica-Yamada-land?”

It took her a second to answer.  Not our usual one-sided dialogue, this, her talking, me waiting for a chance to communicate, already plotting how I could say what I wanted to say as efficiently as possible.  I smiled at the observation, and I was left pretty sure she caught it, because she smiled again.

She replied, “I’m looking forward to when I have more time.  Right now, it’s balancing out.  Any exhaustion on my part is easier to deal with because the things I’m doing are new, exciting, a little terrifying, but positive overall.”

“Terrifying?  Because of the people you’re dealing with, or…?”

“When working with patients, the first and last meetings are the hardest, with the stakes greatest, and I’m having an awful lot of first and last meetings these days.  Maintaining course after the initial connections have been made is easier.  I know who I’m talking to and what I’m doing, there will be peaks, plateaus and valleys, but I can generally feel like there’s progress being made.  The first meetings and the goodbyes?  They’re critically important.”

“You want to make sure you’re laying good groundwork.”

“It’s not just that.  The wrong kind of connection or break can do a lot of damage.  Failing to realize you’re hurting a patient when you say something or take an approach, failing to be strong enough from the outset with patients who need a hard line, being too hard on patients who need a soft touch…”

I nodded.  I started to think about which I’d been, back then, but thinking back was hard and unpleasant.

“I…”  She’d started to say something, and then stopped.

“You?”

She sighed, leaning back in her seat.

“I’ve put myself in an awkward position here,” she said.  “Actually a few, including you and me sitting here having this conversation.  I want to get right to it so you’re not talking to me under the wrong pretenses, but I’m not sure how to navigate this, either.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“That’s just it,” she said.  She frowned.  “I wanted to have a conversation with you for another reason.”

That stung, in a way.  That we weren’t meeting up for the sake of meeting up.

“Okay,” I said.

“I might have made a mistake,” she said.  “And I was thinking you might be able to help.”

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Flare – 2.3

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It was dark as the boy and I stepped outside.  It was a flipping of perspectives, in a way, that the city lights were going out and the tent villages off in the distance were lighting up with lamps and fires.  The city had only a small fraction of the light it might have had in the old world when power rationing wasn’t in effect, only a tenth the normal number of apartments were lit up.  Only the major roads had light, and that meant far less people were driving, which meant less head and tail lights.

It was cool out, not as cold as it had been last night, thankfully.

It was five minutes before Tempera met us at the door.  She looked a little worn out, but then again, she’d gone to the hospital, gone home, come back to the hospital, and she was juggling something with the messy situation she’d talked to me about.

“Hi Victoria.  Hi Sam.”

“Hi,” Sam said.

“On a scale of one to ten, how serious is your friend’s situation?”

“Uh.  Six?  She’s depressed, she’s scared, she doesn’t know how to use her power, and I can’t get near her to help her.  She’s afraid people are going to take her away.”

“How immediate is the situation?  Does she need help in the next five minutes, next hour, today?  Is she or anyone else in danger?”

“She’s alive, but I’d like to get her help soon.  She’s freaking out and I don’t know what to do.”

“I’m only asking like this because it’s an emergency, and since our talk on the phone it’s escalating.  I’m going to take you to the Wardens headquarters, okay?  I’m going that way already, I can walk you through the security and introduce you to some people, and they’ll have ideas on what to do with your friend.  Sound good?”

“Sounds alright.”

“What’s the emergency?” I asked.

“Citizen labor is going nuts.  They’re massing, pulling in some outside help, a lot of other angry and frustrated citizens.  I don’t have the full picture yet, but it’s all hands on deck.  Wardens are coordinating Advance Guard, Foresight, Shepherds, the Attendant and others.  They’re even bringing in the PRTCJ capes, which haven’t exactly been advertised to the public.”

Crystal’s group.  The situation was bad enough to open the can of worms that was capes serving as a military-adjunct force?  In this climate, no less.

Tempera went on, “I and some of the other prospective Wardens are being asked to go with the Wardens proper, to handle things where they’re getting out of control offworld.”

“Offworld?”

“I recommended you, said you’d help, they’ve given a tentative a-ok on that.  Things are expected to blow up when the city wakes up tomorrow, so it’s up to you if you want to help tonight or first thing tomorrow.  I sent you the address?”

“I got it,” I said.

“I should go.  Sam, with me.”

“Good luck,” I said.  “Sorry to pass the ball like this.”

“It’s fine.  Good luck to you too, Victoria.”

I checked my phone, waiting painful minutes for sites to load.

She’d said I could help tonight or tomorrow.  That things would get bad starting tomorrow.

The news sites already had multiple headlines with the word ‘war’ followed by a question mark.  And things were expected to get worse tomorrow?

No, I’d go tonight.

I’d fly, even.  I messaged Crystal.

 

I let myself into Crystal’s apartment through the balcony, using the key Crystal had given me on the sliding glass door.

“I’m here,” I called out.

I was about to step from the living room to the hallway when a red-tinted forcefield appeared across the path, blocking my way.

“One moment!” Crystal called out.

I turned my back to the forcefield and leaned against it, my arms folded.  “Can I talk to you from here?”

“Yep!”

“The headlines are saying war,” I said.  “And you’re being brought in.”

“Could go that way,” Crystal said.  “It’s wonky.  Two sides are butting heads and we’ve got another world that’s pretty upset.”

“I’ve only heard bits and pieces from some others and the news.  Is it a strike?”

“Not a strike.  I’m dressed now, you can come through,” Crystal said.  The forcefield disappeared, and I used flight to keep from falling, turning myself around before walking down the hallway and around the bend to Crystal’s room.

Crystal had already been in costume and with her group when she’d been ordered to get ready and be at the location within half an hour.  She was using the opportunity to help get me organized.  She’d showered while waiting for me, she’d donned her costume, and she was combing wet hair now.

Her costume was white, with her usual symbol on it, the arrow pointing down and to the side, with a stream of lines flowing from the back of the arrow, over one shoulder.  She wore a jacket with it, a near-black gray, given a faint magenta-red tint.  ‘PRTCJ’ was printed on the back in big white letters.  A lone stylized chevron was on the sleeve.

There were things to be said about it, about the militaristic tilt of the group, the way the PRT and the Protectorate had broken in such a way that the Wardens had sprung up from one large chunk of the image, presentation and ideals.  Crystal’s parahuman miltary thing was crudely forged from another chunk of what the PRT had been: the PRT’s old laws, rules, and discipline.  A military-esque force without a government to serve or a hard and fast system of law to back it up.

But it was Crystal’s call.  Crystal’s thing.  I held my tongue.

“My closet,” she said.  “Black trash bags.  Never throwing things away pays off.  It’s one of the sample batches.”

The bags made the clothes easy to find, even in the jam-packed closet.  The contents were hidden within the trash bags, the hooks of the hangers poking up and through.  Crystal indicated the bed, and I laid them out, peeling the plastic back.  White costumes without icons or decoration, a variety of cuts and styles.

It was a familiar range.  Back in the day, companies had periodically reached out to New Wave, wanting to pitch their product and get us to use them for our costuming.  Mom had handled those talks and periodically singled out a family member to send a bunch of proto-costumes to.  Later she would nag us for feedback that she could send the companies.

I didn’t want to think about mom.

I focused on the costumes, with some attention paid to the situation at hand.  The leotard cut was a ‘never ever’.  The full-body suit was problematic because of how it resembled Scion’s, and I didn’t want to go there.  Those were two I could eliminate right away.  I pulled the black trash bags down over them and set them aside.

Crystal explained, “People have been noting how fast we got back on our feet, and how we have something reasonably stable in currency and economy.  We kind of got our answer.”

“Yeah,” I said, before guessing, “powers?”

“I guess powers, probably,” she said.

I turned to look at Crystal.  She was arranging her damp hair over her eye, a curved swoop that her hairband held in place.  “Only probably?”

“This isn’t about powers,” she said.  “But I wouldn’t rule them out.  They helped and they may be part of this.  The key thing is that a lot of the building materials and resources we used to get started came from other worlds.”

“As in our people working in other worlds or-” I paused as Crystal shook her head.  “Or other, alternate civilizations.  Shit.  You don’t get anything of that scale for free.  What did we have to give them in exchange?”

“I have no idea,” Crystal said.  “I don’t think many people do.  There are two major groups heading the reconstruction that might have an idea but they haven’t shared.  One of those groups was the one who put out the trading dollar a few months after Gold Morning, now our de-facto regular dollar.  Same group that’s now looking at moving up into the greater political arena.”

“And those two groups are the ones butting heads?” I asked.

“No, the two construction groups are banding together, kind of.  The workers who have been doing the actual construction work seem to think they were promised a significant discount and first opportunity to buy the houses they’ve been building.  They’ve been living in a tent village, working long weeks, miserable conditions.”

“And if they think they have dibs on the houses, the work must have been a labor of love.  They’ll have a strong community too.  If they didn’t kill each other working that hard in conditions that bad, they must be close.”

“Yes,” Crystal said.  “One second, be right back.”

I glanced over the remaining outfits.  Three more options.  V-neck, long-sleeved, short skirt.  Not bad, but very reminiscent of ‘Glory Girl’.

Round neck, low enough to have a touch of cleavage, short sleeves, and shorts that cut straight across the upper thigh.  If any length were taken from them at all, they wouldn’t qualify as shorts anymore.  Hard to pull off.  I’d need to accessorize it and I wasn’t sure I could afford the time to dig for boots, belt, or other stuff I’d need, and still get filled in.

The last one had a high collar, a kind of truncated turtleneck, it was sleeveless, with leggings that ended in the mid-low calf.  Not bad but not great, and again, I’d need accessories.

Urg.

“The two construction groups are collaborating, banding together, the areas rezoned, contracts reworked.  They say workers signed and agreed, and there are no longer ‘dibs’, as you put it.”

“For something that matters as much as home and shelter, with that many employees, you’d think someone would have read the contract thoroughly enough to figure that out.”

“I have no idea,” Crystal said.

“Sounds like someone’s not being honest.”

“Again, Victoria, I don’t know,” Crystal said, sounding a little exasperated.  “I’m- we’re, if you’re coming, we’re not going there or being invited there to arbitrate or negotiate.  We’re not solving that particular problem.  We’re there to stand between the two sides, keep the peace.”

I glanced at her jacket.  “Just following orders.”

“Following orders, keeping things simple, letting others handle things,” Crystal said.  “Yeah.”

I nodded.  “Okay.”

I picked up the second costume, with the low neck, short sleeves, and short leggings, and held it up against my front.

“Go for it,” she said.  “You definitely need to dress that up.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m going to go get changed and see if I can find footwear.  If you have a minute, could you find any belts?”

“Utility or regular?”

“Either or.  I like the idea of utility more, I think, for how I think I’ll be dressing up.”

I stepped out of Crystal’s room, pulled the curtain closed by the balcony door and quickly stripped out of my top and the skirt.  I picked both up and put them with my other clothes.

I experienced a brief moment of displaced emotion, as if my head and body were in Crystal’s apartment, and my heart was somewhere in the past.  In an exposed, open area that wasn’t mine, wasn’t comfortable, where someone could happen to step in and see me exposed at any moment.

The latent feeling of the hospital room.  Of being in the care home.

Pulling the costume on helped.  Deep breaths, the pull of the zipper as it closed at my back and pulled material tight against my chest and stomach.  I fixed the legs, checked for bunching and wrinkles, and deemed it satisfactory.  Not perfect in the way a costume made explicitly for me would be, but satisfactory.

I dug in boxes.  I’d packed my things with shoes and boots at the bottom, clothes on top.

“Belts,” Crystal said.  I heard the clatter as the things were tossed onto the couch.  “Masks.  Armband.”

The bag rustled as it bounced off the couch and landed on the floor.  the armband landed on the couch near the belts.  A black band with the Gold Morning symbol on it.

“Good throws,” I said.  Crystal was standing with her back to me.  She’d tossed them over her shoulder.  “You can turn around.”

“Thank you,” she said.  “Don’t spend too much time.  It’s late, it’s dark, people won’t care too much.”

“I won’t.  Where does the other Earth and the war fit into this?” I asked.  I pulled out a pair of white boots.  Shoes meant for a costume might have worked better, but I tended to prefer boots for the fact that they stayed on better with hard landings, kicks, and rough falls.  Fourteen year old Glory Girl had learned that lesson: it was terminally embarrassing to have a petty criminal watch as you flew over to your lost shoe and put it back on.

“The workers called a stop to all work.  They’re holding the houses, equipment, and building materials hostage, with some suggestion they’ll destroy it all before they give up what they’re owed,” Crystal said.  “The last big convoy of materials and trucks were from another Earth, and they’re part of what’s being held hostage.  The delivery folk from Earth-K aren’t budging because they aren’t abandoning their delivery, even though they’ve been told they can go.  The government from United States of K is getting upset because their people aren’t home, That’s where the murmurings of war are coming from.  Workers aren’t conceding anything else, and construction groups aren’t either.”

“And our job is to make sure the stalemate stays stale and mate until people find a resolution,” I said, pulling on the boots.

“Or mitigate the damage if it gets ugly,” Crystal said.

I did up the straps, reached for the belts, all arranged around a metal ring, and found one I was satisfied with almost right away.  Utility-belt style with small pouches.  I tore open the bag of masks.

The masks were ones that were meant to be stuck to the face.  Remove protective tape, stick to face like cosmetic band-aids.  Not my favorite, but I got why they did it when they sent out sample packs.  The glue would wear out quickly, and the real custom masks for long-term wear would then be ordered.  Quality was fine, though.  All in white, again, some with lenses.

I found one that fit around my eyes and covered my eyebrows, with white lenses, and held it up to make sure the white lenses didn’t obscure vision any.  A faint halo when I looked at sources of illumination, but nothing too bad.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think you look more like you than I’ve seen you in a long time,” she said.

“Maybe I’m meant to wear a costume,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said.  “But what I meant, cuz, is that from the moment you stepped into my bedroom, well before you put anything on, you looked more focused and grounded in reality than you have in a while.”

I drew in a deep breath, and glanced at the curtains.  Being told I looked better reminded me that I hadn’t looked well before, which reminded me of why I hadn’t looked well, which in turn made me feel less better.

It was easier if I didn’t focus on it.  “Thanks, I guess.”

“Whatever you were doing, I think you should do more of it.”

“I plan to.  But for now, in the interest of time, since your formation is expecting you to hurry back, I just need to know if the mask makes me look like a dork.”

“It’s good,” Crystal said.  She picked up one article of clothing that I’d put aside while digging for my boots.  A plain white sweatshirt.  “To cover up the road rash?”

I looked at my arms.  I still had the raised red marks where I’d tumbled to the road.

“Or maybe not.  It wouldn’t work with your forcefield,” she said.

It would, but I wasn’t about to explain that whole situation.

“No, actually, it could work,” I said.  “Dress up the upper body some.”

She smiled, enthusiastic that I was playing along.  “Exactly!  I was thinking we could stick a quick heat-transfer design on this.”

The sweatshirt as part of my costume?  It would be playing into that trend of working normal clothes into costumes.  Fume Hood’s group had been big on that.  A few of the villains in Lord of Loss’ group had, too, but some of that might have been them trying to fly under the radar before launching their plan.

The most significant trends in fashion and style were often a symptom of external factors.  It was hard to get good costumes with where things were at.  There was a desire, too, to appear more down to earth, to connect to the people, when sentiment was where it was at.

“Sure,” I said.  I smiled.  “That could work.”

“Question is, do you trust me to do it?” she asked, raising one hand and producing a fan of lasers from her fingertips, shooting at a forcefield she’d created.  “Or do you want to wait for the iron to get hot?”

The battle lines were drawn, so to speak.  At least it was quiet here, the forces gathering in anticipation of the coming day.  At the center of this particular battlefield was a single tall building, lit from bottom floor to top, even in the evening, with the power rationing being what it was.

The masses of construction workers had clustered in groups, the largest mass of them arranged around three sides of the building, kept on the far side of the street by the emergency services and the capes.  Surrounding one of the construction company’s headquarters.

Lights on poles, the lighting of the news crews talking to some key individuals, and the lights the workers were carrying served to illuminate that crowd.

From the bird’s eye view, we could see some of the construction sites around the area, each roughly illuminated by the lights within, that light contained by the fencing that surrounded each building in progress.  Construction vehicles, people, and collections of things cast long shadows with the lights set where they were.  Most had lookouts posted, keeping an eye out for trouble.  A couple of those lookouts turned lights our way as we flew.

Laserdream and I touched ground.

“I’ve missed flying with you,” she said.

I smiled.  My emotions were complicated enough in the moment that I didn’t want to say anything.  I didn’t trust my tone of voice or the words I might choose.

Easier to stick to the shallow, surface response.  It was nice to be around my cousin, nice that she was happy.

We walked down the length of the street, the building on one side, the crowd of workers on the other.  Walking helped to get my blood pumping and my body warmed up, where flying felt like it had frozen my blood and chilled me.  My hands were cold, and I kept them jammed in the pockets of my sweatshirt.

“Laserdream.  You’re cutting it close in getting back in a timely manner.  Who’s this?” a cape in a jacket asked.  He was a heavy guy with a very clean face, a gently curved visor covering his eyes and nose.

“Family,” Laserdream said.  “There was a call for more help, she was invited by someone named, uh…”

“Tempera,” I said.

“Tempera.  Right.  We’re paying for the extra hands on deck?”

“We are,” the man said.  “It’s not a lot.”

“That’s fine,” I said.

He looked skeptical.

“I can second the recommendation if it matters,” Laserdream said.

“It helps,” the guy said.  “If she causes trouble, you know it’s your ass in the fire.”

“Understood, sir,” she said.  “I’ve been doing patrols with her since before I could drive.  I’d trust her with my life.  I’m optimistic my ass will remain room temperature.”

“Don’t get smart.  I don’t want her with the formation.  If she wants in, she needs to apply and train.”

“She doesn’t-” Laserdream said, at the same time I said, “I don’t-”

Laserdream ceded to me.

“No disrespect intended,” I said.  “That isn’t for me.  But I get the gist of the situation, I’ll help keep the peace, I’ll follow any orders.”

“You going to be alright if I send you out to help fill in the gaps at the flanks?”

“It’s why I’m here,” I said.

“South side of the building,” he said, pointing.  “Stand on the dotted line, try not to stare down the crowd or antagonize them.  Be gentle if they get rowdy.”

“Can do,” I said.

“Should be quiet tonight,” he said.  He turned to Laserdream as he said it, but glanced at me.  Including us both in the statement.  “This is one of three locations.  The big demonstrations are supposed to start tomorrow, at another location.  Tonight they’re mainly interested in holding their ground and organizing themselves.  Holding a vigil, giving cameras something to record.  Would be nice if they got over it or got bored before things get started tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

That would be why Tempera had said I could call in the morning.  The workers wanted time and media attention to give their side some weight before they really took action.

“Get yourself in position.  I’ll send someone your way with some cups of coffee in a short while.”

“Alright,” I said.

The parahumans along the road to the south of the building were spaced out along the painted divider in the center of the street.  One parahuman every fifteen or so feet.  There were no barricades, only the lights on tripods, connected to battery packs, helping to illuminate most of the road.  The ambient light from nearby buildings contributed.

The crowd was noisy, but it was a low, constant noise.  Talk, conversation, the occasional raised voice.  There wasn’t a car to be seen on the street.

I could remember what had happened to Fume Hood.  I closed my eyes for a moment, and I put my forcefield up, leaving it up.  It made me uncomfortable, but a bullet would be even worse on that score.

The capes down the street to my left were all wearing Advance Guard icons on their sleeves and costumes.  The stylized man bearing the ‘greater-than’ shaped shield, charging forward.  The color of the icon changed, depending on the costume’s color scheme, but it was always such that it stood out, yellow on a red and orange costume, or purple on a blue-green one.  The thick bold lines of the icon’s design tended to flow into the cape’s individual icon or the rest of the costume, the shield’s lines or the diamond-shaped frame of the icon joining the line running down the seam of the sleeve or the lines running across the chest.

“Who are you with?” the guy standing to my left asked.  He had a face plate, with the thick bold lines and angular edges that Advance Guard tended to have, and the ‘ears’ of the plate swept back to cover his ears, giving them a pointed, elfin cast.  His bodysuit was designed to accent his slim frame, a two -piece jacket and legging combo, with a very pronounced zig-zag at the waist where the upper body met the lower body.  There was a slight curl at the toes.

“I’m independent,” I said.  “For now.”

“We’re Advance Guard,” he said.  “I’m Spright.”

“I’m between names,” I said.  “And between costumes.  Don’t judge me too harshly.”

“Can I see the emblem?”

“Just a design, not an emblem,” I said, turning my back to him to show him the rush job we’d managed with the heat-transferred image, my sweatshirt lightly singed in places.  It was a circle with lines intersecting it, almost like a sun, but with the lines running into the circle.  The image was offset, so the lines were shorter to the left and top of the image.  Crystal’s idea and design, and I’d had no objection.

“Between teams, between names, between costumes?”

“More or less sums it up,” I said.  “If you need to call me anything, you can call me Victoria.”

“I’m honored, Victoria,” Spright said, bowing slightly.  “I’m glad for the company.  We might be here for a while.”

“We probably will,” I said.

“I see you’ve got the armband.  You’ve been around for at least a few years. Do you have any war stories you can share?”

“Yes, a good few,” I said.  And a lot I wouldn’t share.

“You’re experienced, huh?”

“A few years under my belt.  A few years of semi-retirement.”

“I can tell you I’m very experienced,” he said, with a bit of humor in his voice.

I looked at him, one eyebrow arched.

“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours,” he said.

“Is that how we’re doing this?”

“Could be,” he said.  “What I’m offering is long and thoroughly satisfying.  Are you game?”

“Wow,” I said.  I smiled despite myself, looking over the crowd instead of at Spright.  “When they said Advance Guard rushes into things, they weren’t lying.”

“Once you get me going, I go all night.  I might as well get started early.”

“With an audience, though?”

“I’ve got nothing to hide.  I’d say they could join in, but I think that would get a little hectic.”

“It might just,” I said.  “Would be nice to steer clear of hectic for a while.”

“I very much agree, Victoria Between-things,” Spright said.  “You have to find a good fit, strike the right rhythm, the right pace.  Once you’re comfortable, you might be able to vary it up some.”

The woman standing to the left of Spright said something that sounded an awful lot like, “Oh my god, Spright.”

I checked, but it didn’t look like the people on the sidewalk heard us.  The buzz of conversation seemed to drown out our voices.

“Is he always like this?” I asked, raising my voice a bit.

“Yes,” Spright said.

“No,” she said.  “I dare say you’ve inspired him.  Unfortunately.”

Spright sounded almost energized by his teammate’s exasperation.  “I’m intrigued more than inspired.  I’d love to indulge in your, ahem, stories, Victoria with the stylish icon.”

“It’s not that great an icon,” I said.  “Nice try, though.  I appreciate it.”

“I wanted to work in the flattery somehow.  There’s no shortage of things I could say, by the way, and I’m not messing around when I say that.  I chose the icon because I do like it, and because when you say something nice about something like a girl’s hair or something else about their appearance, you tend to get that kneejerk resistance.”

“You do,” I said.  For me, it’s for reasons other than the usual.  It was a shame, but his moment of frankness had brought things home again.  My tone of voice was audibly different even to myself as I said, “I’m flattered, Spright, really.”

“Aw darn.  But?”

“But while I’d be happy to share a few stories, I’m not up for the other stuff you’re driving for.  It’s just not where I’m at.  Wouldn’t be fair to you.  I’ve gotta figure myself out some, first.”

“I can respect that,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I appreciate the wit.  You were pretty snappy with some of that.”

“Thanks for letting me try, I-” Spright stopped as the woman standing to his left made a sound effect with her mouth.  I didn’t hear the preceding sound, but I heard her make a sound like a small crash with her mouth.  Spright switched tacks to say, “I’ll throw things at you, Tandem.”

The woman laughed.

A moment later, another person joined us.  A ripple in the road, and he appeared almost instantly out of the gloom.  The cape I’d met early in the day the community center had been attacked, with the blades jutting from his costume.

He looked at me, sizing me up.

“Hi,” I said.

“Mmh,” he made a sound, not really a response.  “Hey, Spright, swap places with me for a bit.”

The ‘mmh’ bugged me.  “I’m enjoying his company.”

“She’s enjoying my company, Shortcut,” Spright said.  “It’s a good night.”

“It’s going to be a long night,” Shortcut said.  “I think I know her from the other day.”

He paused, glancing back at me.

“Yeah,” I said.

Shortcut turned back to talk to Spright, then paused, glancing back at me.  “What’s that sound?”

I listened, and I heard it.  Scratching.

Without trying to look too much like I was looking down, I looked down.  My forcefield, invisible to everyone present, was scratching at the road.

I took flight, lifting myself up enough that the arms couldn’t reach the ground.  About eight feet up.  From the angle, as I saw the light hit the road at a different angle, I could see the shallow gouges.

The good humor from earlier was spoiled a little at that.

“Everything okay?” Spright asked.

“Yeah, just restless, bit of power quirkery,” I said.  I realized the crowd had noticed me take flight, and the conversation had quieted a bit.

It was mildly surprising that, Spright’s flirting aside, nobody in a large collection of construction employees had called out to me.

I tested my luck, and used the opportunity to call out, “You guys doing okay!?”

“Bit cool out!” someone called back.

“Yeah!” I called back.  “Better than the alternative, isn’t it?”

That got me a fairly mixed response.

“Shoulder to shoulder in the heat, stinking of sweat?  You don’t want that!”

“We’re used to the smell of sweat, hon!” a woman called out.  There were murmurs of agreement.

“Take care of yourselves, okay?”

There were a few murmured and unintelligible responses, but a more emotional cry of, “Give us our homes and we’ll be just fucking fine!” stood out.  Some heads turned in that direction.

“It’s not up to us,” I said.  “Save that energy for tomorrow, alright?  We’re here to keep you safe and keep them safe.”

There were a few mumbled replies.

“Doesn’t help,” Shortcut said.

“I dunno,” I said.  “Letting them know we’re not against them, we care about their well being?  Reaching out and talking can’t hurt, can it?”

“I guess that’s why I’m here,” Shortcut said.

I looked his way.

“Reaching out and talking,” he said.  “I just wanted to make sure there’s no hard feelings.”

“About you not getting into Advance Guard.”

I’d emailed, they’d sent a reply a couple of hours later saying no.

“I didn’t devote a lot of thought to it,” I said.  “Sucks, but you guys have to do what you have to do.  And so does everyone else, apparently.  I’ll figure something out.”

“They didn’t tell you it was me?”

“No,” I said.  I frowned.

“I told them to tell you no and to tell you it was me, and why.”

“Alright,” I said.  “They just told me no.”

“Well fuck that.  I thought you needed to know, what you did back there, it was shitty.”

“Beg pardon?”

“I realized after your face came up on some of the events about the Norfair community center incident.  You went up against Lord of Loss?”

“I don’t see what the issue is,” I said.

“You happen to beat me to the scene, and then you use your secret identity, condescension and anti-parahuman shit to take me down a notch?  And then you want a place on Advance Guard?”

“I happened to be there.  I’m sorry, it was not my intention to come across that way.”  I tried to help you out some.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Right.  I can guess what your intentions were.”

I was pretty darn confident my handling of the situation had been alright.  I was inclined to chalk this one up to the guy having a screw loose or a few bundled up issues.  It still bothered me, and it bothered me more that a nice conversation had been interrupted, and now this guy was apparently intent on keeping me company for the night, telling me how I was responsible for his problems and issues.

I pursed my lips, doing my best to filter what he was saying, tuning out what I could and responding where necessary, so he wouldn’t add me ignoring him to his list of grievances.  He was talking about the community center now.

Voices were raised, a few shouts, both from capes at one of the other streets, and by people in the crowd.  Phones were out.

It was almost a welcome interruption, in that solitary moment between the initial commotion and when I realized that it meant people were hurt.

I rotated myself in the air, looking, trying to figure out what had happened.  I saw Crystal coming, and flew to meet her.

“Come!” she shouted, barely pausing as she flew.  I joined her, wavering as air ripped past my forcefield, lopsided in a way I couldn’t quite detect, moving.

I disabled the forcefield, and in the doing, I could fly straighter, but I flew against cold wind, unprotected.

Crystal didn’t explain.  It was left for me to see.

Our site had been quiet.  At least one of the other places workers were congregating wasn’t.  People were more spread out, and I suspected from their arrangement that some had crossed the street, approaching the building.  There were more emergency vehicles, more capes, and there was a large clearing in the center of the crowd.

Eight people were gathered toward the center of that clearing, with more scattered across the more open area.  Among them, several had eyes that glowed, or glows emanating from their mouths.  Shapes I couldn’t quite make out moved around them.  A power at work, like the outline of something that glowed slightly in the dark, too abstract to make out.

I watched as two people broke from the edge of the clearing and ran toward the center group.  A man and a woman, holding hands.

It hit me like a blow to the head.  An image in my mind’s eye, a feeling, a sense of something greater.  Forgotten in the same instant it occurred.  I dropped out of the air, and I caught myself a moment later.  Crystal did much the same.

“Get back!” someone hollered.

A megaphone blared, “Get away from the center!”

The eight people were sixteen now, including the two that had run toward the center and some of the people that hadn’t retreated to the clearing’s edge.  Eyes glowed, powers wreathed a few hands.  A spike of power-generated material was stabbing skyward in front of a woman.  A man had fallen to his knees, arms spread, and the ground was rippling around them.

People didn’t get away from the center.  Realizing what was happening, or thinking they knew what was happening, others dashed toward the group, joining it.

“Get back,” Crystal said.  “If we get knocked out-”

I retreated, looking for where the defending capes were.  Lit by flashing, noiseless sirens, the capes were clustered not far from the building.  They were getting organized.

“It’s a broken trigger,” I said.

“Is it?” Crystal asked.

I flew straight for the heroes on scene.  I didn’t get the chance to hear two words out of the leader’s mouth before we were hit again.  Every one of us winced and reacted as it hit us.  Too brief to be a trigger vision, incomplete, fractured, it still made itself felt.

The sixteen had become thirty-two.

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Flare – 2.2

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There was something to be said about the fact that the hospital was still in construction while it was running.  There were patients in the waiting room, sitting in the chairs that had been bolted to the floor, and the unhappiness of needing a hospital visit was compounded by the fact that a third of the way across the room, behind a plastic sheet that had been taped to walls, ceiling and floor, a team was using power tools and calling out in loud voices as they built the rest of the room.

The hospital staff looked pretty miserable too, most of them sequestered on the other side of a counter, walled off from the patients by a plexiglass window.  Security guards stood off to one side.

“Can I help you?” a secretary asked.

“I was wondering if it was possible for me to see a patient?”

“Visiting hours are open.  Patient’s name?”

“Fume Hood.  I don’t know her real name.”

The secretary stopped, then looked at the male secretary, who sat at the other end of the counter.  She looked past him at the security guard.

Of course.

“I was one of the people giving her medical attention when the ambulance arrived,” I said.  I knew it wouldn’t matter, that they would assume I’d been lying, but I hoped it would temper the reaction.

“She’s not accepting visitors,” the secretary said.

“One second,” I heard.  A female voice.

Two overlapping sections of the plastic sheet peeled apart.  Tempera ducked through, and put the tacky sides of the plastic back together.  She was dusty from plaster and streaked with paint that wasn’t from her power.  She wore overalls, a black t-shirt for a top, and had a different pattern to the paint she’d applied over her eyes with fingers, more like she had applied it to her fingers and pressed them to her eyes as a series of vertical bars, each bleeding into the one beside it.

“Hi, Victoria,” she said to me.

“Hi.”

She looked at the secretary, “We know her.  Can I take her back to the room?”

“Let me get her information, and I’ll buzz you two through.”

I took the clipboard with the paperwork, and I filled out the information, checking my phone to remind myself of the specifics of Crystal’s address.  She took the clipboard, read it over, and let us through.

We walked down the back halls of the hospital, past individual clinics and their signs and separate waiting areas, past patient rooms and nurse’s stations.  Tempera indicated the turns.  We didn’t rush it, an unspoken agreement that we’d take our time, have a chance to talk.

“There was one attempt on her life.  We were worried there would be another,” Tempera said.

“Are you standing guard?” I asked.

“I am keeping an eye on things, but mostly by accident.  I’ve been helping with the construction.  I like getting my hands dirty,” Tempera said.  She smiled as she held up one hand, which was covered in wet white ‘paint’ down to the elbow, the paint turning black before transitioning to her light brown skin.  “Look at you, though.  You look tidy.”

Tidy.  It was an amusing choice of words, when Tempera looked anything but.  I smiled.  “Looking around to see if any teams are looking to fill positions.”

“And?”

“Only one was actually posting any openings, a corporate team, Auzure.  Foresight and the Attendant were open to interviewing me.  There are two other big teams; one gave me a hard no, and the other is folding into the Attendant and won’t exist soon, they didn’t give me a response yet, and with how the talk with the Attendant went, I don’t think it’d work out.”

“They’re pretty conservative.  In a lot of respects.  A lot of the religious capes went to the Shepherds and will be part of the Attendant.  I’ve been paying close attention to that.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “One or two of the sketchy people from Empire Eighty-Eight, too.”

“Empire Eighty-Eight?  They sound familiar.”

“They had a presence for a while.  A few years back they broke up into two other groups.  The Pure and Fenrir’s Chosen.”

“Ah.  I know the Chosen.  They were linked to the Clans, I think?”

“Yes.  The Clans spread out across multiple cities, and would funnel anyone who got powers over to the Empire Eighty-Eight core group, back before Leviathan broke the group’s back.  They were a background element in my childhood and cape career.”

“Ahh.  Was that a factor in your wanting to join?”

A very carefully neutral question, that.  I wondered if she was prodding me, not declaring a stance while feeling me out.  I was still an unknown, in a way.

“Violent racists on the team?  Definitely a factor, big point against.  Question is, are they ex-violent, ex-racists?  Gets muddier.  Even then, I might draw the line there, and not join.  If they were contrite?  I could roll with that, I think.  Barring one or two especially scummy individuals.  Interview didn’t get far enough for me to raise the subject.”

Tempera nodded, not saying anything.

“I think… maybe I’m being unsubtle, saying it, but I think there’s a big difference between who those guys were and who Fume Hood is.”

“I think so too.”

“How is she?”

“She’s hurt by what happened.  It’s hard, to put yourself out there, face your shortcomings, try to be better, and get shot for it.”

“Partial facing of shortcomings, from what she and I talked about,” I said.

“It’s why I said face, instead of ‘admit’,” Tempera said.  “But I don’t want to quibble.  Change of subject.  You said your meeting went badly.  Can I ask what happened?”

“Fallen,” I said.

“Did you get in another fight?”

“No,” I said.  I sighed.  “No.  They did what they often do, they caused a disruption, and that’s a playing field that suits them well.  I’d call it a draw, but I’m pretty sure they’re still out there recruiting and I’m not out there counteracting that.”

“There will always be bad guys.  They will always be out there.  There will always be murders, there will be theft, there will be drugs.”

I nodded.

“Question is,” Tempera said, “Where do you want to be, in relation to that, as it happens?”

“That is a deceptively tricky question,” I said.

“You definitely put yourself out there, backing us up when things went sideways at the community center.”

“I really appreciate that you see it that way,” I said.

“You put yourself in front of Lord of Loss.  I don’t know how your power works, but it’s obvious you can bleed.  There was some danger there.”

I acknowledged that with a small nod.

“And now you’re interviewing for teams?  So soon after?  It sounds like you want to be out there, helping.”

“I do.  I’m zero for three, though.”

“You don’t want to be independent?  Hold on a second.  We’re nearly at the room, but let’s finish talking before we go in.”

We stopped midway down the hallway.  A nurse’s station was a short distance away.

“I-” I started.  “I think, the way things are going, I might end up going that way.  Teams are a complication of their own.”

“They are,” Tempera said.  “I had a phone call earlier, offering a position.  I can go right there and sign the paperwork if I want to.”

“With?”

“The Attendant, as it happens,” Tempera said.

I was momentarily lost for words.  She’d been doing what I’d thought, inviting me to answer without declaring a position, but from a different angle.

“I want to wait and see how the merger with the Shepherds shakes up, how it feels after, they said not to wait too long.  It’s decent money, decent exposure.  A lot of decency.”

“Don’t let what I said change your mind on anything.  I’m griping, it’s-”

“It’s fine,” she said.  “I invited you to gripe, if we’re going to use your word.  It’s interesting to hear that take on them.  I didn’t know about the racist ex-villains joining.  I’m curious about how they handled the Fallen there, too, in your situation.”

“I think, uh, don’t tell them I said this…”

“Of course.”

“…I think they or the people they’re taking guidance from are approaching that stance of there always being bad guys to deal with, and they’re deciding to conserve their energy.  To not fight that fight.  Maybe it’s right to.”

“You got a draw.  That’s better than a win for the bad guys there.”

“It’s- yeah,” I said.  “I tried to use reason, draw on the stuff I studied, old knowledge I had about the group.  Who they were, how they operate, the families, the names.  Put that information out there, so the potential recruits would know the key facts.  I tried to get them to say who their leader was, pressed the issue, and of course it was the least bad one, so the argument I was gunning for didn’t have much clout, and I lost steam.”

“I picture the Fallen as a group that’s pretty comfortable defying reason.”

“Them, yes.  The recruits, I think they were open to hearing it.  I threw out some more information I remembered at the last second, but the Fallen were getting pretty loud, I didn’t want to start a riot, and that was more or less it.”

“And the Attendant?”

“Weren’t keen on me making a point of things when the word from on high was to let the Fallen be.  I didn’t get my invite to the team.”

Tempera made a face.

“I don’t like ignoring the monsters.  And I do think the Fallen are monstrous, as a collective force.”

“They’re a headache I was always glad I wouldn’t have to deal with,” Tempera said.  She scratched her nose as she scrunched it up, the paint there highlighting the creases.  The scratching deposited more paint on the bridge.  “One I guess I’ll have to prepare myself for dealing with.  Or possibly not dealing with, if I take the Attendant’s offer.”

“Possibly,” I said.  “Don’t give my words too much weight.”

“I’ll try to be sensible about it.  I might end up asking those questions you didn’t get a chance to, if that’s okay.”

I nodded.

“I think I’ll be okay, whatever happens.  The Wardens facilitated Attendant’s contact with me, and from their tone, I think they’d push to get me on another team if I didn’t go with that one.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“I could put in a word for you.”

“I wouldn’t say no,” I said.  “I don’t think I’ll get my hopes up, either.”

Tempera frowned.

“Sorry.  I didn’t mean to sound negative.”

“Are you finding your way, with these setbacks?”

I shrugged.  “Complicated.  Just wanted to check in on Fume Hood, while things are quiet.  When the law or the system fail to outline a process, do what seems right.  When it’s not clear what’s right, go with the law.  When neither is clear, reach out.”

“For perspective?”

I shrugged.  “That too.  More eyes on a problem never hurts.”

“Another point for the team, instead of going independent,” Tempera said.  She looked back down the hall, in the direction we’d been walking to.  “Hold on a moment?  I’ll check if she’s decent.  I wouldn’t mind bringing Fume Hood into it, now that we’re past the semi-confidential stuff about other teams.”

I nodded.

She touched the wall by the door as she rounded the corner, stepping into the room, and she knocked on the door as she entered.

There was a brief pause.  The handprint of paint on the wall dropped to the floor with a splat as Tempera said, “Come in.”

The blob of paint on the door fell to the ground as well.  Both moved along the ground as I entered, spattering against the back of Tempera’s shoes and the back of her overalls.

Fume Hood had donned a mask, but she didn’t wear the hood.  She lay down on the bed, which was angled so she could sit up at an angle.  A blanket had been pulled up to her waist, covering her legs.

Crystalclear sat in the chair between her and the window, the crystal configuration on his head slightly different than before.  He wore a t-shirt and shorts.  There was something odd about a guy with crystals where his eyes and hair would be having very ordinary hairy legs.

“Heya,” Crystalclear said.

“Hi,” I said.

“Hey, patrol girl with a name I can’t remember,” Fume Hood said.

“Victoria,” Tempera volunteered.

“Victoria.  Right.  Thank you for helping to hold my blood in,” Fume Hood said.

“You’re very welcome,” I said.  I noted the flowers and cards sitting beneath the window.  “Sorry I didn’t bring anything.  This is my awkward ‘I was in the neighborhood’ visit.  I saw the hospital name and remembered you were brought out this way.”

“I’ve got too much as it is.  Turns out that the key to popularity and acceptance is to get yourself shot.”

Her tone was light, almost amused.  Tempera had said Fume Hood was hurt on an emotional level, but I didn’t see a sign of it.  I could remember how Tempera had acted on my first meeting with her, how in tune with her team she had been.  I was willing to put a lot of stock in her take on things.

“Victoria, what I was going to say, before deciding I’d rather say it here, was that we’re going our separate ways, yes-”

“Longscratch is already gone,” Crystalclear said.  “But I don’t think he was ever going to stick around on a permanent basis.”

“Yes,” Tempera said.  “Which is a shame.  I do hope he finds what he’s looking for.  My point is, I don’t want to lose touch.  It’s helpful and nice that Crystalclear happened to be here to help illustrate that maintenance of contact.”

“Happy to take credit,” Crystalclear said.

“Victoria said- if you don’t mind me repeating?”

“No.”

“She said that it’s important to reach out, if I’m recalling that right.  I’d like to stay friends with you,” Tempera said.  “Crystalclear, Fume Hood.  Victoria, you too.”

“Why?” Fume Hood asked.

“What do you mean?” Tempera asked.

“We’re very different people,” Fume Hood said.  “I don’t get how that works.  How do you stay in touch with people you have very little in common with?”

“Easy.  Grab a bite sometime,” I said.  “Sandwich, beer or soda, share stories, get different perspectives.  I wouldn’t mind.”

“That’d be nice,” Crystalclear said.

“But-” Fume Hood started.  She frowned.  “Okay, whatever.”

“You should find the words for what you’re trying to say,” I said.  “In case it festers or gets in the way.”

“I dunno.  I don’t get why you’re here.  I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong.  You put pressure on my wound, Tempera gave me first aid and used her paint to keep me from dying.  I probably owe you my lives.  But that whole fiasco was my fault.”

“I blame the attacking villains, not you,” Tempera said.

“Yep,” Crystalclear said.

“Are you trying to be clever and get me to keep being a hero, then?” Fume Hood asked.

“I’m here because I was interested in how you were doing,” I said.  “Obviously I’d prefer it if you stayed a hero, but that’s not the objective.”

“If you guys keep showing up with flowers or to make small talk, you make it awfully hard for me to fuck off and go back to being a villain.”

“That’s a plus,” Tempera said.  “But like Victoria said, it’s not the main point.”

“On the topic of pluses,” I said, “I’m interested in who those guys were.  So if you hear anything, I wouldn’t mind a heads up.”

“The guy who shot me did so of sound mind, no Kingdom Come in play.  Independent, apparently.  No money in his accounts, he didn’t have internet.  He was just pissed off.”

“There were the villains, too,” I said.

“There were.”

“And we don’t know what they were after,” Crystalclear said.

“Multiple conflicting stories,” I said.  “Blindside lied to me when I asked.  It bothers me, and I worry it’ll happen again.”

“Give me your cell phone number,” Tempera said.  “I’ll get in touch.”

There was a brief pause while we sorted things out, me getting the contact information from each of the others, and giving them mine.  They already knew each other.

Reaching out, making and maintaining contact.

A part of me had hoped that Fume Hood was wrong, that the team wouldn’t have dissolved, that they’d be together, willing to give things another try.  That it might have been a team I could join.

“The cards and flowers might have something to do with how you’re the topic of the moment,” I mused aloud.

“I heard something about that,” Fume Hood said, indicating Crystalclear.

“From me,” Crystalclear volunteered unnecessarily.

“If you guys were to try again, there could be more attention, more support,” I said.

“More gunshots?” Fume Hood asked.  “I’m stepping down and going into hiding.  I’ll recuperate, let the heat die down, and then figure out what I’m doing.”

“If it matters, I think more people are siding with you than not,” I said.

Fume Hood nodded a few times, taking that in.  “Weird.”

“It’s good,” Tempera said.  “I think Crystalclear already accepted the offer from Foresight, though.”

“It was a very promising offer.”

“And I’ve been contacted by Attendant.  I don’t know what I’ll do with that.  And Victoria-”

“Is not having much luck,” I said.  “But I want to do something.”

“You were thinking you might go independent?”

“Which doesn’t pay,” I said.  “Not in this environment.”

“How does that work?” Fume Hood asked.  “If you’re a crook, it’s easy, you take jobs at the villain bar, or you rob some place, or any number of things.  You just… go out on patrol?”

“There are a few other things to do,” I said.  “One way is to essentially run a protection racket that isn’t a racket.  It’s easy for that to go wrong.  There’s a higher level effect, which is easier to pull off when, say, a city has a downtown area and the shop owners gather together to pay a wage to the hero that draws attention and has a positive influence on their area…”

“Things have to be stable before that happens,” Tempera said.

“We’re not there yet,” I said.  “There’s training and support.  Offering powers for helping with the rebuilding, which Auzure was doing a bit of.  There’s merchandising, but that’s a dead market right now, I think.”

“We fished in that pond prior to getting underway and we didn’t get any bites,” Crystalclear said.

“I was selling my brain, I know a lot about capes and the community, having grown up with it.  That job’s done, and I don’t know if there’s much more opportunity for that.”

“Tell you what,” Tempera said.  “I’ll put out feelers.  See what people say.”

I nodded.  “Sure.  Thank you.”

I was lost in thought enough that my retracing of my steps on the way out of the hospital turned me in circles.  I approached the same nurse’s station for a second time, and I stopped at the desk, waiting for someone with a spare moment to give me directions.

I wanted to do something.

There weren’t any openings.  I was pretty sure Advance Guard had turned me down because of my background, the two year gap prior to Gold Morning.  Others had their reasons for rejecting me.  As it was, the field was fairly cluttered.  Villains were keeping their heads down.  As much as there was always going to be the bad guys, like Tempera had said, we didn’t have the systems in place to identify them or address them.

No way to make money off of my powers, to pay the rent and get out of Crystal’s borderline uncomfortably cluttered place.

“Yes?” a nurse asked.

I blinked.  I didn’t ask her for directions.  My thoughts went in another direction, spurred to life by my thoughts of the unpaid cape work.

“If I said ‘crisis points’, would that mean anything to you?” I asked.

“It’s been a long time since I heard that.  Yes, it means something.  Do you work with capes?”

“I… kind of am a cape.  Would you be open to me giving you a hand?”

“Let me look into it.  I’m not sure what the usual methods are, and it’s not fresh in my mind.”

“You’d want to identify the key patients, check with any parents, if they’re under eighteen, and they often are.  Then with me, you’d want to check with legal, you can call my references, which I do have on hand…”

The mask wasn’t the quality sort I was used to, more of a Halloween costume.  The top I wore was a men’s small, a little too big in the shoulder, while it simultaneously squashed my chest.

From the ages of the patients in the pediatric wing, I wasn’t sure they would pay much mind to my chest, squashed or not.  Most were twelve or younger.  A few heads turned, people paying cursory attention.

I still wore the skirt I’d worn to the interviews, the belt.

Room 5, bed C.

I entered room five.  There were four beds, one in each corner.  One monitor was beeping, the other kids were lying down, looking bored.

Bed C was a little girl, with a face chock full of freckles, and sandy blonde hair.  The curtains had been partially closed, blocking the views of the boy sitting to her left and the girl sitting across from her.

“Audrey?” I asked, peering in.

I saw only a glimpse of misery on her expression, while she stared off out the window.  Then she raised her head and the expression was gone.  She assessed me, head to toe.

“Great,” she said, after she was done.

“Great?”

“Ooh, yay, it’s Legend, except he’s a girl now,” she said, sarcastic.

The t-shirt I wore was styled after Legend’s costume.  The mask was the same.  Something the staff had kept on hand from the past Halloween.

“The nurses pointed me your way,” I said.

“Well, my day sucked, but now fake Lady Legend is here, so I’m all better.  That’s great.”

“I can take the mask off if you want,” I said.

“Oh, no, you can’t do that, fake Lady Legend.  Your secret identity might be compromised!”

The sarcasm ran strong through this one.

I pulled the curtain closed a bit more, then pulled off the mask, flying a bit as I said, “I never really had the secret identity.”

With that, at least, her eyebrows went up.  No smart retort.  She moved around her hospital bed, craning her head to see my feet, trying to spot the trick.

“I don’t know you,” she said.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.  “The nurses mentioned you’d had an especially bad day.”

Again, that momentary look of misery.

Yeah, I knew that.

“Back before everything turned sour, when I’d come to the hospital, with, um-” I stopped, drew in a breath, and sighed.  “It’s something heroes would do.  Check in on people who had really bad days.  And when I came to the hospital, sometimes I’d do that.”

Crisis points.  More a PRT thing than a New Wave thing, but we’d done a small share.  Looking out for the recent triggers, putting our faces and names out there, staying in touch with the public.

“A nurse sat down with me for a while,” she said.  “No offense, I appreciate it, but I’m kind of talked out.”

“Instead of talking, um,” I said.  I showed her what was in my hand, letting the straps dangle.  “What would you say about going flying?”

I saw her eyes go wide.

“The hospital called your dad’s work.  He said it was okay.”

My feet left the hospital rooftop.  Flying was unwieldy, especially with my burden.  I was untrained.  Having the benefit of my forcefield to protect me in the event of a crash would mean having my forcefield up, and that had other connotations, with my power as distorted as it was, the fact that I couldn’t necessarily control the movements or know what they would do.  Not doable, when I held someone.

There was uncertainty too.  The source of that flight, it had never let me down, but if push came to shove, in a crisis, would my maneuvering be sloppier?  Would I decelerate or accelerate in a different way?  I’d carelessly trusted my power, once, and now I wasn’t sure I could.  I knew what the source of that power was, now, and what its goals were.

It was emotionally heavy, even as I felt almost weightless physically, to be reminded of what had changed so dramatically.

I could feel my charge’s intake of breath, as I held one arm across her lower ribs.  I didn’t trust the harness we’d grabbed from the physio center.  Not enough to hold someone for me.  She was strapped with her back to my front.

The ground was a good ways below us now.  I hadn’t even ascended that fast.  I’d been a little lost in thought.

I felt her laugh, nervous and small, while I turned us around, giving her a view of the area.  Norfair and its community center was off in the distance, one way.  The farms were off in another direction.  From here, it was easy to see the tall buildings of the city, the places that looked like a slice of the old world.  To look to the fringes of those areas, where the tents and shoddily erected structures stretched off, so endless it seemed they reached to the horizon.

“I got you,” I said, in answer to the nervous giggles.  Had I laughed like that, on my first real flight?

“Yeah,” was the response, a small, quiet voice.  Then more giggles.

The giggle became laughter on her part, borderline hysterical.

“You okay?”

She nodded, fast and fierce, then drew in a deep breath.

“Wooooooooo!” she whooped, top of her lungs, loud enough to be heard on the ground.

“Hood up,” I said, reaching up to tug the hood of her hoodie over her head.

“What?  Why?” she asked, panting from the cheer.

“Just in case it’s cold,” I said.

“Cold?  Why-”

Before she could fully catch her breath, I dropped from our position, diving, fast, hard, and surprising enough that even I felt my stomach’s contents lurch.

She didn’t have the ability to cheer, as the drop stole what little breath she had, but her arms went up and out, to either side of my shoulders, fingers spreading to feel the wind, the sun-warmed air.

I smiled, letting the swoop dash all of the other thoughts and feelings from my mind, vicariously enjoying the experience of flying for the first time.  Of flying at all.

“Juan?” I asked.

Juan was younger than the other kids had been.  Eight, if I had to guess, but he wasn’t well, so that might have screwed up my estimation.  He was thin at the arm and wrist, and puffy around the face.

“The first time I came to the hospital, one of the nurses wore that costume,” Juan said.  “He was a guy though.”

“How does it look on me?” I asked.

“I think it looks really nice,” he said.  “You’re very pretty.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “That’s sweet.”

“Some of the others were saying a lady superhero was going around taking people flying.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s the plan.  Your mom and dad said you might enjoy it, and you should be well enough.”

“They had to go to work,” Juan said.

“That’s what I heard.”

“They always have to go.  Even when I have bad days.  And there’s nothing on television.  There’s only three channels and they’re real boring.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I really hate hospitals,” he said.

I took a deep breath.  His words echoed my feelings, which only magnified the feelings.

Yeah.  I really hated hospitals too.

“It’s getting dark,” I said, “But if you want to try flying, maybe that’d be a bit of a break from the boring stuff, and a break from the hospital.”

“Thank you,” Juan said.  “But flying sounds like it’s very tiring.”

“It can be,” I said.  “I can go slow if you like, or we can do something else.  We could talk.”

He nodded at that last bit, then started looking around.  I pulled up a nearby chair, and sat down next to his bed.

“I got a lot of books,” Juan said.  He deposited a stack of kids’ books and comics on the edge of the bed, between me and him.  “Uh, before.  I said I didn’t want to be stuck here and be bored, my mom went and came back with books and comics, and then they both left.”

“That was nice of them,” I said.  I picked up one of the books.

“My eyes are tired today,” he said.  “The letters are blurry.”

“Do you want me to read some out loud?” I asked.

That got me a firm nod, and the first smile I’d seen out of him.

“Good Simon to start, then?” I asked.  Another nod.

There were pictures, so he shuffled over to the edge of the bed, and I sat on the other side, my ass half on the bed’s railing, and I held the book between us, so we could both see it.

Two good Simon books, which were most likely aimed at someone just a bit younger than Juan was, but he didn’t seem to complain.  I moved on to a comic involving the robot prison ship, peeking ahead so I could skip past the scenes which were aimed at someone much older than him, and then, to be safe, moved on to something aimed at a younger age again.  Kids in animal masks getting into trouble.

There wasn’t much likelihood that Juan had powers, but he’d had a bad day, and this was okay.

I was halfway through that book when I saw someone look in at the door, peeking around.  A boy.  He stopped as he spotted me.

I finished the page, then paused, partially closing the book, and checking on Juan.  Fast asleep.  I checked his pulse, because I was paranoid, then fixed his blankets, and eased myself up off the bed with flight, to not disturb him.

I used a notepad by the side of the bed, and wrote a brief farewell:

Nice to meet you, Juan.  The nurses have my number so if you want to go flying sometime, we might be able to arrange something.  🙂
-Victoria

I walked over to the door.  It wasn’t one of the ones I’d taken a flight with.  Older, thirteen or so, with what might have been his first pimples.

I saw the hesitation on his face.

“Come on,” I said.  “Let’s go to the cafeteria.  It’s late, I don’t think many people will be around.”

He nodded.

“Hello?”

“Tempera?  Hi, it’s Victoria.  I’m sorry to call you so late.”

“It’s fine.  I don’t sleep much, and the call is more than welcome.  Why the call?”

“I’m at the hospital, talking to someone-”

“You’re still at the hospital?”

“Yes.  I’ve been talking to a teenager, he’s listening in on my half of the conversation right now.  He’s got a friend with powers, but she’s not doing so hot.  It’s new and it’s scary and neither he nor she know what to do.”

“We’ve been there.”

“We’ve been there.  Yeah.  I know you’re in touch with the Wardens.  They’re decent, they have a lot of resources, they have some good people.”

“Absolutely.”

“He can describe particulars and you can let them know.”

“Not a problem.   Just so you know, it might be hard to get someone on the phone this late, but if it’s a problem, I know some people I can round up and we can go talk to her as a big supportive group.”

“Great.  I’m going to hand you off now.”

“Wait, one second.  Victoria.”

“Yes?”

“Call me back when this is over, or call me first thing in the morning.  I was sounding out some people, it’s not an invite to a team or anything, but with something this messy, we need all the hands we can get.”

“Messy?”

“I’ll explain later.  For now, we help your buddy there.”

I handed the corded phone over.  We stood at an empty nurse’s station in a hallway where the lights had been set dim.  My hands were free, and I’d intentionally used their phone so my own would be free.

There were other calls I needed to make, including one to Crystal to let her know where I was.  I put that one off.  Crystal was easygoing.

I sent one to Mrs. Yamada.

Me:
I know your caseload is full, but found a kid with some power-related troubles.  Contact is reaching out to Wardens soon.  Maybe you can keep an eye out to make sure all goes smooth?

The boy was explaining in a hushed voice about his friend’s circumstance.  An uncontrolled, messy power, and she had no place to go.  He hadn’t given me many details, but I could tell he was scared, and I could infer from that that she must be terrified.

The reply came back.

Jessica:
Absolutely.  I can’t promise I take them as a patient but I can help with initial moves.

I nodded to myself.

The boy was relaxing as he talked on the phone.  A distant, authoritative, kind voice, and the promise of some answers or help.

My phone buzzed again.

Jessica:
A patient canceled for later this week.  Do you want to meet for a late lunch?  There’s something I’d like to talk to you about.

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Flare – 2.1

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“The Wardens are cooperating with seven major cape teams and, last I checked, ten minor teams.  We are not a monolithic entity.  We are not an authority.  We are not the bad guys, Julia.”

I rummaged through a cabinet.  My life was in boxes, from my clothes to my hair and skin stuff to my files.  If it were that alone, it would have been tolerable.  I’d tried using logic and going to the most common sense places.  Not in or among the dirty dishes, not in the various jars and vases of spoons and spatulas on the counter, not behind or under something.  I’d checked the other rooms in the apartment.

“People are worried.  You have Legend as a second in command, and memories aren’t so short that we don’t remember the Alexandria fiasco.”

I moved methodically through the kitchen, left to right, while the television played on a low volume.

“I can tell you this: all we want to do is help.  We want to find the right capes for the major crises and we want to equip the teams out there with information and resources. “

“That’s admirable, but-“

“No, wait, hold on, Julia.  You told me when you asked me to have a chat with you on camera that you wanted to have a conversation.  Let me say this.”

I looked at the little TV in the corner of the kitchen.

“…that people are going to draw on what they know to fill the blanks, when they don’t have enough information.  I understand that the closest parallel that many Americans draw to the Wardens is the PRT.  Give us time to make our impression and show how we operate,” Chevalier said.

“Would you not say there are quite a few of those blanks when it comes to your organization?” the reporter asked.

“I accepted this interview because I want to fill some of those blanks.”

“Are you an open book, then?”

My eyebrows went up.  That was dirty pool from reporter Julia.  There was no way that question wouldn’t be followed by something that Chevalier couldn’t or wouldn’t want to answer, cornering him.

“Some of those blanks,” Chevalier said, stressing the ‘some’.  “We’re still figuring things out, we’re still finding our footing and we’re negotiating a comfortable and healthy position with the public, the various teams under our umbrella, teams that aren’t under our umbrella, and the authorities.  The lack of answers and the number of blanks isn’t me being evasive or underhanded.  It’s that the Wardens and society as a whole have a lot of figuring out to do.”

He was good at what he did, and he did a lot.  I wished I was in a position to study what he was saying and how he was fielding the questions, but I had more hunting to do.

I went back to the drawers I’d already checked, pulling out the cutlery drawer enough that I could check the back, behind the tray that held the forks and knives.  I was too used to drawers having a mechanism that stopped them once they were pulled out to their limit, and I’d expected it to be longer, which led to me pulling the drawer straight out of its housing.

I only barely caught it, sticking my knee out under it and moving my hands to grab the sides.  The cutlery rattled loudly, with a few miscellaneous cheese and holiday themed knives clattering to the floor.

“…would you say about the rumors circulating around Valkyrie, then?”

I put the drawer on the countertop, collected the fallen knives, and sorted through the contents, lifting up the tray to make sure nothing had fallen beneath.  No luck.

I tried to put the drawer back, failed a few times before realizing that the construction wasn’t especially sturdy, and that the back end had pulled a bit loose.  I fixed it, then resumed trying to put it back inside the hole it was meant for.

There was the saying: affordable, nice, or safe and sane.  Pick one.  It was a chronic problem with the speed they were trying to get buildings and houses up.  Shoddy construction, rush jobs, cut corners, mistakes, and general ugliness were pretty normal.  I was hopeful that in a little while we might be able to get to a point where it was ‘pick two’ instead of ‘pick one’, but we had a ways to go.

I tried to squeeze the end together where two pieces didn’t quite meet and simultaneously push it in with my stomach.  It refused to slide in.

“What are you doing to my kitchen?”

Crystal was in the doorway, her hair a mess.  She wore an oversized t-shirt and pyjama shorts, and she still looked half asleep.

“Did I wake you?” I asked.

“Uh huh,” she said, sleepy.  “Don’t tell me you’re a morning person.  That would be a problem.”

“I’m not.  I’m a person who fell asleep early last night-”

“Almost right after eating.  Yep.  And now you’re up, showered, dressed, and you’re dismantling my kitchen.  For reasons.”

“I woke up and thought I’d keep my normal work routine while I figure out what I’m doing.”

“Renovating my kitchen?”

“I’m trying to find scissors,” I said.  “I’d settle for a sharp knife.”

Crystal smiled wide, her eyes still sleepy.  She grabbed a glass from a cabinet, and she half-walked, half-floated across the kitchen.

“Don’t laugh,” I said.

“You’re such a cliche,” she said, as she passed me on her way to the sink.  “Oh my god, Victoria.  You’re that person with super strength that trashes everything she touches.”

“Just help me,” I said.

She reached over and helped me hold the drawer together.  As it slid into the confines of the front of the counter, the framing held it together where the drawer’s own construction wouldn’t.

“I wasn’t using my super strength, for the record,” I said.

“Yeah.  I’ve done that with the drawers before, I’m just making fun of you.  It’s a funny image, to walk into the kitchen and see that.”

“Ah ha,” I said.  “Then can I make fun of you for having two big jars of spatulas, whisks, spaghetti scoops, having two food processors-”

“One was a gift.”

“-And no scissors or shears anywhere I can find?  I’d settle for a sharp knife.  You have those steak knives, but they look nice and I don’t want to use them for the wrong thing and ruin them.”

She reached across the counter to get the package of bacon, holding it up.  It was inside a hard plastic tupperware-like container with a small black and white label stuck to it.  A mark stamped on it had it sourced from another world.  Even without the mark, the pricetag might have given it away.

“Thought I’d treat you to breakfast,” I said.  “Went for a walk to get some stuff.”

Still appearing half asleep, she moved one hand, creating a deep red forcefield behind the bacon, then she produced a thin laser from her fingertip, slicing off the end of the package.

She handed the bacon to me, open end up.

“You don’t have scissors?”

She shook her head, smiling.

I sighed, picking up the bowl where I’d already mixed the dry ingredients.  “Fruit crepes, bacon on the side?”

“Sounds amazing,” she said, leaning against the counter, eyes mostly closed.

“You look beat,” I said.

“It was pretty unforgiving, being there.  I timed everything so I could unwind starting with the barbecue, and unwinding didn’t happen.”

I nodded.  “Sorry.”

“That’s not on you.”

“I’m still sorry it happened.”

“You slept okay though?”

“I slept a solid ten hours.  I just… started sleeping at six thirty or something.  Then I woke up, I started thinking, and I decided to be productive.  I’m talking to some teams today.”

“If you want me to put a good word in with my guys, I’d be happy to.”

“I don’t want to do the quasi-military cape thing,” I said.  “A little bit too intense.”

“Yeah,” Crystal said.  “I’m so physically tired, two days out, that I’m not sure I would be standing if I couldn’t fly.”

I looked down at the ground.  Her feet were barely touching the ground.

It wasn’t the physical intensity that worried me.  It was the mental and emotional cost.  It was the fact that when it came to the military and the military-like stuff, the trend was to beat the individual into shape.  Organization, conformity.

I couldn’t take much more of the harsh lessons on identity or the forced redefining of the self.

“I’m just waking up, so forgive me if I got something wrong, but did you already find a place?”

I shook my head.

“You  took the sheets off the couch.”

I looked over at the living room.  There were boxes stacked around, and only half were mine.

“You said you might have friends over at some point, I thought it’d be weird if you had to navigate around my stuff, so I moved it out of the way.”

“Okay,” she said.  She paused.  “I’m tired, so I want to make sure I say this right.”

I went to the fridge to get the fruit stuff I’d already prepared.

“I don’t care,” she said.  “First of all, I know I have a lot of stuff.  You know I have a lot of stuff.”

I looked at the stuff around the kitchen and adjacent living room.  It was a bit messy, to the point counter space and table space was occupied.

“Just- I really don’t care if you add your stuff to it.  I like my places feeling lived in.  Some of the stuff is a friend’s, and they’ll take it when they get set up.  Some is mom and dad’s.  Some is yours, and that’s fine.  That leads me to my second point.  I want you to be here.  I want you to feel comfortable.”

“Thank you.”

“I know my couch isn’t much, but you need a place that you can kick your shoes off and leave them where they are.”

I might have mentioned that I wasn’t quite that personality type, but I held my tongue.  I understood the sentiment, what she wanted.

“I want you to have a place that’s yours, Vic.”

“I’ll start by asking this: why not be independent?”

Foresight had a strong aesthetic running through their costumes.  Primary among those things was a mask or helmet design where each of the members of the team lacked eyeholes.  Helmets with opaque visors, masks without eyes.  The aesthetic involved lots of paneled body armor and loose fabric elsewhere, with iconography worked into the panels.  It made me think of ninjas from movies, with the mix of lightweight costumes and armor, but without the Eastern style.

Their team symbol was a stylized eye, sans pupil, with a wildly exaggerated ‘4’ struck out in bold lines that extended well past the curved lines of the eye.

I was wearing my best civilian clothes.  I’d opted to leave the mask off.  I sat in a chair.  Two of them sat in chairs in the office, and another two stood at the side.

I gave my answer.  “If I’m being entirely honest, independent doesn’t pay unless you’re really good.  At the risk of sounding arrogant, in another time and place, I think I could scrape by because I do have that experience, I have the knowledge, and I can hold my own.”

“You don’t think you could do it now?” Countenance asked.  He was the second in command and the highest ranking team member in the room.  His outfit was heavier and draped more than the others, both in how the cloth hung loose and how the armor panels were connected so they dangled from the piece above.  The Foresight icon was in the center of his mask, like a cyclopean eye.

“I know who Foresight is and how you operate,” I said.  “I know you want to move forward, you’re interested in helping the little guys, tackling the right issues, and take decisive, needed action in a calculated, smart way.”

“You read our webpage.”

“I’ve been following Foresight since it started,” I said.  “Whatever answer  you give me today, I’ll be following you guys from here on out, because I think it’s important to know the lay of the land.  Which goes back to what I was saying.  Being calculated, being smart.  I’ve been watching and researching you guys, and I’m sure you have the mentality where, from the time I reached out about an interview, you were looking me up and asking questions.  Which means you heard about the incident at the Norfair community center.”

“Yes.  We talked to your reference about it.  I imagine he talked to you?”

“He didn’t, but he’s busy and this interview happened on short notice,” I said.  “Everything that unfolded there and a lot of what I see elsewhere, it suggests that it would be really hard to make it as an independent.  Too many want to blame parahumans for what happened, and both independents and fledgling teams are easily targeted.  Established teams absorb and diffuse that impact.  That aside, being part of a team, cooperating, having the information and sharing that information, it’s too crucial.  That’s why I’m not going independent, given the chance.  I want to help build something.”

Countenance nodded.  He reached over to his friend, who handed over the paperwork he’d been reading.  He looked down.  “Your reference sang your praises.”

“He’s a great guy.  I really respect what he’s trying to do with something as tricky as the patrol block.”

“Our problem, when it comes to assessing any candidate, is that each person we add to our teams is added strength, added power, but they’re also a possible set of complications.  It forces us to strike a balance.  We’re smaller than many of our peers because we’re selective.  We want to make sure anyone we add will be a good fit, with minimal complications.”

“I reached out to Foresight first, to you, because I like how you do things.  It’s what and who I want to be.”

“Then my next question to you would be what you think is going to happen next,” Countenance said.

“What I think is going to happen?  I think trouble is incoming.  We see hints of it, the out-of-control triggers, we hear about some scary monsters and then the big names go and try to handle it, then we have other circumstances where the big names are running off to go handle things that they don’t tell anyone about.  I think those situations might be worse than the monsters.  So far, Gimel is untouched by the worst of it.  We’ve been on top of things.  But sooner or later, something is going to hit us that we aren’t prepared for and can’t neatly handle.”

“What do you think happens then?”

“I think it depends a lot on us having the right information and tools.”

Beside Countenance, Anelace was nodding.  Anelace was a young guy, his costume the opposite of Countenance’s in how it was tighter-fitting, his mask bearing a dark gray dagger illustration on the right side of the white surface in the same exaggerated style the ‘4’ was drawn on the emblem on his chest.  The knotted area where hilt, blade, and the two prongs of the guard all met was located where one of his eyes would be.

“You said you know how we operate?”

“Support work with the megalopolis and police, patrols and events for the day to day.  Several times a week you make calculated, strategic strikes on priority targets.  It’s like what the Wardens are doing with the big, scary threats, but you’re more city-focused than whatever’s going on outside of Gimel.  A lot of your members go on to work with them, which is why you have openings.”

“She does her research,” Anelace said.

“She does,” Countenance said.  He said it in a way that suggested he was admitting it, almost reluctant.

My heart sank.

I looked over my shoulder.  The two at the side of the room were Effervescent and Relay.

Effervescent was an emotion manipulator with an emphasis on stunning people.  Relay was capable of some complex moves with teleportation I wasn’t sure I had a grasp on, most of which seemed to amount to them teleporting to where others were, shunting that person to a random position elsewhere, and he also had some ability to communicate without words, both sending and receiving.

“Can I ask?” I asked.

“Ask?” Countenance asked me.

I indicated the pair.  “I get the impression they’re communicating something to you, and you sound like you’re winding up to tell me no.  Both took some shifts at the portals, watching the refugees as they came in to make sure there was no trouble, which makes me think they’re thinkers, they read people, and they’re reading me.”

Countenance turned his head to fix the cyclopean, drawn eye on the pair.

“I can’t get a consistent read on you emotionally,” Effervescent said.  “It’s repressed.”

“My long-time boyfriend was an emotion manipulator.  He had a hard time getting a read on me too,” I said.

“I’m better than most when it comes to getting reads,” Effervescent said.  “No offense, but it’s what isn’t as repressed that concerns me.”

“Enough you’d say no,” Countenance said.

Effervescent nodded.

“Relay?”

“My read was fine.  Minimal secondary noise.”

“Sorry,” Countenance said.  “For reading you without permission.  It’d be a point in your favor that you caught on, but-”

“But you have to put stock in what the others say.  No hard feelings,” I said.  I made myself smile as I stood from my seat.  Countenance stood too.  He shook my hand.  “I’ll see you around, I hope we can work together then.”

“I hope so too.  Good luck,” Countenance said.

“Let me get the door for you,” Anelace said.  He jumped to his feet and opened the door for me.  His voice was quiet as he said.  “Sorry to see you go.”

The thinkers would have noticed that.

I wondered what Effervescent and Relay would be reporting about my emotional state as I left.

“Mrs. Dallon?”

I stood from my seat in the waiting room.

The cape had a costume that looked like a suit, metallic silver fabric, with a black dress shirt underneath.  His mask consisted of two panels that met and ran down the center of his face, creating an almost beak-like profile with how the two sides swept along the sides of his face and back.   Not bird-like, but as if his entire head was the beak.  The hair I could make out above the ‘v’ where the mask parted was longer and heavily styled.

It reminded me of the Ambassadors from Boston, but I was pretty sure they wouldn’t have worn suits as ostentatious as this, nor such a dramatic full-face mask.

“You didn’t come in costume?” he asked.  He sounded surprised.

“I’m pre-identity adjustment,” I said, caught in trying to find my footing with my rehearsed explanation as I simultaneously crossed to where he was to shake his hand.  “Moving on from the identity and methodology I had as a teenage heroine.  I’m a blank slate, and there’s a lot of room to adjust my brand moving forward.”

“Are you ex-Protectorate?” he asked.  “I might have missed that if it was in your application.”

“No.  Ex-Ward, but only very briefly.”

“I only ask because you went straight to the term ‘brand’.  I’m used to hearing it from people who were in the PRT and people from other corporate teams.  I know I read your file and there was no mention of a corporate background.  I’m Lark.  You’ll meet Dido soon, all going well.”

“It’s nice to meet you, Lark.”

“My office is this way, if you’ll join me,” he said.  He briefly touched the small of my back to guide me in the direction his other hand was indicating.

I was bothered by the contact.  Unsolicited touching, the presumed closeness, and the fact it was a hot day, my back was damp from the walk and he would have felt that.

It was such an unnecessary thing and it made both of us uncomfortable.

“Brockton Bay,” he said.

“Yes.  From birth to Endbringer and immediate aftermath.”

“A mom and pop small town team?”

“Aunt and uncle and cousins too,” I said.  “Extended family.  They passed the fifteen year mark with just donations and small events.  I think that counts for something.”

“It’s better than what Dido and I have managed, but give us time.  We have five parahumans on the team, and we’re already in the black when it comes to the business end of things.”

“I spent most of my childhood watching my mom balance the books, I did the events, the photoshoots, the merchandising as a PRT-acknowledged team.  I have something of a sense of what you’re probably going for.”

“Ah, the merchandising.  I think I have your PRT trading card from that time period in a binder in my office.”

I smiled.  “Which one?  I had one that was holographic, which you could swipe through the controller for the video game to have me as a polygon-rendered helper, and the higher quality one that had the bio on the back.”

“I think it was the second one.  My office is through this door.”

I took a seat opposite the glass-top desk while he closed the door.  He undid the button in his suit jacket before sitting down.

“Typically those of us at Auzure like to work with new parahumans,” he said.  “They’re easier to brand.  When we work with capes with a history, we like that history to be a strong one.”

“I think you get the best of both worlds with me,” I said.  “Most people assumed I was dead when everything happened in Brockton Bay, and nobody corrected that misunderstanding.  If you do dig up information about me, a lot of it is strong.”

“I think that’s where we run into problems,” he said.  “A lot of your history and presence is tied into your family’s group identity.  ‘Glory Girl’ isn’t famous beyond a certain range.  Hometown heroine, yes, with some people in Boston and New York who might know of you, but not famous.”

“Then consider me new.  Untainted by the past.”

“I would, but we use things we term perception turns, or just turns.”

“I know the term,” I said.

“I like that you do.  Branding, turns.  You do seem to know what you’re getting into here.  When we’re tracking someone’s marketability, we map out the turns.  You’re fine, nothing exceptional, for most of your career, with an upturn if you count your disappearance, after the Slaughterhouse Nine.”

I took a deep breath, then nodded.

“But if we include your family, there’s a lot of baggage.”

“You could say that,” I said.

“Downturn, death of Fleur.  Downturn, times when New Wave was subsisting, but not in the eyes of the media.”

“Four adolescents and two couples, there were weeks where school or work took priority.  That got better as my cousins and I got older.”

“Cousins… and your sister?” he asked.

I felt the shock like it was cold water.

He continued, “I think if it were up to the turns and the background alone, it would have to be a no.  At the time you should have been drawing the most attention, given your age and potential, you… died, as you put it.  You were gone for the two years before Gold Morning.”

“Yes,” I said.

“We’re offering cape services for the reconstruction, with Spell offering some massive assistance with the argriculture.  It’s a big part of what’s driving us to the front pages, giving us some upturn in the most general sense, for public perception.  What we really want is the human angle, something where we could have an attractive young lady like yourself in a photo op, or your sister-”

“No,” I said.

“Her and the right person in a photograph?  If you two paired up, Auzure could make you big.”

I winced, and I stood from my seat.

“Victoria?”

They hadn’t accepted the interview to get me for me.  I was just a stepping stone to the person they really wanted.

“Thank you for your time,” I said.

I managed to restrain myself from slamming the door on the way out.

“Thanks for meeting us out here,” Whorl said.  He didn’t shake my hand, but instead reached out to clasp my wrist.  I clasped his.

“Not a problem,” I said.  I looked up at the structure that had been erected around the portal.  It cast a shadow.  “It’s nice to be in the shade, with a decent breeze.”

Whorl wore a blue mask with a white border around the eyes and outermost edge, and his costume was a ‘preppy’ bodysuit, complete with a folded collar, like a polo shirt, a narrow belt, and leggings.  His icon was large on his chest, a circle with angled spokes at the edges.  He had an armband with the gold morning symbol on it, but the colors were the blue and white of his costume.

He grinned, showing off white teeth.  “You should have been here at noon.  It was brutal.”

“The people weren’t too irritable, with the heat?”

All around us, people were coming through the portal, forming lines.  There were buildings to the left and right of the street that people were heading into, to get the instructions and things necessary to start their lives in Gimel.

“I think they were happy for it,” Whorl said. “I’ve been going back and forth, and it’s miserable on the other side.”

“I just realized I got us started on a conversation about the weather,” I said.

“I’m kind of a weather manipulator, not really, but it’s fun to say.  Talking about the weather happens more than you’d think, when it comes to me,” he said.

Again, that smile with those very white teeth.

“I read up on you online,” I said.

“Ah, did you?  Should I be flattered or worried that I’ve been stalked?”

I was reminded of the segment on television, the reporter trying to corner Chevalier by getting him to claim a certain attitude.

“It’s not stalking,” I said.  “I’m doing my homework, is all.”

I had to admit, the preppy look with the wide shoulders, narrow waist, clean cut and nicely taken care of, it appealed to me, and it had always.  Not that I was even remotely thinking of actually moving forward with a relationship.

“I’m probably going to have to duck out and handle some minor crisis or another, but stick around and don’t disappear on me, we’ll find the time and figure out if we can place you with the Attendant.”

“That’d be great.”

“If I get caught up in something, find one of the others.  Chat with them, they’ll tell you what they think of the team.”

There were a few other capes distributed across the crowd.  It was interesting how people seemed so keen on them, even approaching them, happy to see them.  The sentiment of blame hadn’t gripped the refugees here.

A teenager with a moon design on her mask and dress-like costume.

I saw a humanoid mech the size of a car, with a glass tank for the ‘body’, something large and fishlike within the tank.   The mech sat on its ass, feet sticking out, and children were crowding around to tap the glass and climb on the feet.  The tinker, as I took it, was the one sitting on the suit’s shoulder.  Another cape was standing on the end of a rod, three stories above the ground, the end of the rod stuck into the side of the building.  He looked stern as he looked down at the scene, his arms folded, until someone waved up at him and he waved back.

“Is that the whole team?”

“Not even close.   With the teams merging, we’re taking on a lot of others.  We’ll be breaking up into three sub-teams later, but all with the same name and brand.”

“I don’t know if I’m hurting my chances saying this, but I’m kind of crossing my fingers you guys are going with the Shepherd’s name and brand, but the Attendant’s approach.”

Whorl smiled again.  “We might be.”

“I like the approach,” I said.

“How do you interpret it?”

“Giving people security.  Moving slowly, with measured steps, informed by the lessons of the past.  You guys seem pretty focused on taking and holding territories, improving neighborhoods.  After what happened at the Norfair community center, I think giving people time to get used to capes again is key.”

“I think it might be,” Whorl said.

Above, the cape that was standing on the end of the horizontal pole whistled.  As we looked up, he pointed.

“That’s my cue,” Whorl said.  “No pun intended.  I’ll be right back.”

Whorl headed toward the building that the people were filing out of, moving at a light jog, with a fog-like nimbus building at his shoulders and arms.

I looked at the various capes, debating my options.  I worried that flying up to say hello to the one at the end of the pole would spook him and make him fall from his roost, and I wasn’t that keen on flying.

That left two options.  The tinker or the teenage girl with the moon iconography.

I made my way toward the girl, because she had less people around her.  The crowd was a bit of a tide I had to work against.

“Stuck?” I heard a voice.

I turned my head.  It was a man with tattoos, a cleft chin and eyes that looked like he was perpetually squinting, even in the shade of the gate that housed the Bet-Gimel portal.  He was talking to a couple.

“It’s a big decision.  We’re not farmers.”

“It’s hard, getting started again,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “The tent cities are rough, while you wait for an available apartment.  You can work your ass off, earn fake ‘dollars’ that might not have value in a few weeks or months, you sweat, you hurt, and everyone around you is doing the same.  Stinks, when everyone’s working that hard and getting only a few minutes to shower.”

“We’ve heard of things like that.”

“If you want another option, we’ve got a settlement at Canaan.  Small city, even.  Or a big town.  We’ve got extra rooms, food, and dangerously strong alcohol.  We’re still trying to figure that out.”

I heard the rustle of papers.

“Canaan?” I asked.

“Yes.  Have you been?”

“I’ve heard stories,” I said.  I turned to the couple, “I’m ninety percent sure the Canaan area is Fallen territory.  Outskirts of the megalopolis.”

“We’re not really holding fast to all of that anymore,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “We said the world would end, we tried to draw attention to it, the world ended, we were right.  Now we make the best of things.”

“That seems like a pretty skewed take,” I said.

He rolled his eyes as he looked away from me.  He turned back to the couple.  “You have the directions.  Easy to catch a bus to New Haven, catch another bus to the Hartford Stretch.  Go to the address, we almost always have someone with a ride waiting there for the buses, to drive you into Canaan.  The hard work has been done, it’s easier, it’s more fun, and there’s actual community.  It’s one of the things that’s strangely missing from most parts in this city.  You’ll notice that.”

“Maybe,” the guy from the couple said.  “I’ll keep this.”

“McVeay, Crowley, or Mathers?” I asked.

The guy shot me an annoyed look.  “What?”

“Which family branch were or are you?”  I asked.  I turned to the couple.  “Three branches, each loosely themed after one of the Endbringers.  There was a nascent fourth in twenty-thirteen that was based on one or all of the other three, but I missed the memo on that.”

“Crowley,” the guy said.  “We were the jackasses.”

“McVeays were the ultra-religious, more violent ones, loosely themed after Behemoth,” I said.  “Mathers were the ones themed after the Simurgh.  They’re still around too, they did a lot of the kidnappings of kids and capes, with intent to force marriages.  Then you have the Crowleys, who were a little bit more than jackasses.  Stirring panic, scaring people, violence.”

“To draw attention to the imminent end of the world,” the guy with the tattoos said.  “Do you want us to apologize for trying to get people’s attention and failing?  Or should we not have tried?  We were right.

“Is there a problem?”

A woman’s voice.  I thought it was the girl with the moons on her costume.  It wasn’t.  Another woman with tattoos, with friends.  One of the tattoos was of a bat-winged schlong.  Another was of a cartoon character I didn’t recognize getting spit-roasted, in the metal pole, open fire sense.

She had others, but I couldn’t see enough of them to tell what they were.  I could guess they were similarly tasteful.  Her top was tied at the sternum, exposing ribs and stomach.

“Just a bit of one,” I said.  “You guys are openly recruiting from this crowd here?”

“Recruiting is an strange way to put it,” the guy with the tattoos said.

I looked at the couple.  “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  Free rent, free food, drinks, company?”

“Cheap rent,” the woman with the tattoos said.  “A lot of people stay just long enough to make some extra money while commuting to Hartford and paying rent to us.”

“All we ask is that people who decide to go make sure to tell people that hey, we aren’t assholes,” the tattooed guy said.

“We aren’t assholes!” the burly guys who were keeping the woman company cheered in near-unison.

“Which Crowley is in charge?” I asked.

“Hey, bitch,” the woman said.  “Just move on.  Fuck off.”

The cheering had drawn attention.  The teenage girl with the moons on her costume approached, ducking beneath one of the burly guy’s arms.  She spotted me, saw that last exchange, and drew close to me, putting one hand on my shoulder.

“You’re the one Whorl was talking to?” she asked.

“Yeah.”

“Take it from me, it’s not worth it.  Come on.”

The guy with the tattoos smirked.

“You know they’re recruiting here, right?” I asked.

“We know,” she said.  “We’ve drawn attention to it.  We were told to keep out of it, so long as they behave.”

She put pressure on my shoulder, urging me to move.  I took one step back.

I didn’t want to let this go.  I would have more regrets if I walked away.

“Which Crowley?” I asked.  “There were three brothers and one sister, last I heard.”

“Doesn’t matter,” the tattooed guy said.

“Eldest brother was a murderer, got ousted from the family for that, back in twenty-eleven, when the Fallen were still minor.  But around the time their numbers swelled in twenty-twelve, early twenty-thirteen, he got accepted back, head of the Crowley branch.  He killed two of his own family members after that.  I think that matters a lot, since if he’s in charge, you can’t really call yourselves mere jackasses.”

“Not him.”

There were a few more faces appearing in the crowd.  Unfriendly.

The girl with the moon design leaned in close, murmuring in my ear, “They have someone with powers in the crowd.  They send people out to fish for recruits, and if there’s trouble, they have these reinforcements summoned into the middle of the crowd and they’ll shout you down.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Middle brother and the sister were pretty skeevy too.  They didn’t kidnap anyone directly, but they networked with the other families, gave shelter to some McVeays who needed to duck the attention of the law, and they traded a few of their family members for some of the kidnapped minors and capes the Mathers family had.  I’d be concerned about going to that camp.”

“The little brother,” the guy with the tattoos said.

“The party animal,” I said.

“That’s what we’re about!” were the shouts.  There was more of a raucous response from the other reinforcements.  Cries and shouts of ‘party’.  People throughout the crowd were looking.

“He’ll try to steal your girlfriend before he makes you welcome!” I had to raise my voice to be heard.  The people who were pushing forward made it harder for me to see the couple.  “It’s not worth it.  You can look him up at a library.  Jake Crowley!  Four wives, all half his age!”

There were shouts and bellows of denial, a few swears directed my way.  One ‘cunt’, from someone close enough to have punched me if he’d felt the desire.

“Throw away the paper,” I called out.  “It’s not worth it!”

With the press of bodies, I didn’t see the paper get thrown away.  But I saw the guy hugging his girlfriend closer, I saw the fractional nod.

That was all I got.  The moon girl pushed me harder, and I allowed myself to be pushed this time.

I walked backward out of the crowd, looking at the group.  They were still making a lot of noise.

Whorl was waiting for me as I made my exit from the thicker part of the crowd.  The mech tinker was standing on the head of his suit, now, and the suit was standing too, which gave him a decent vantage point overlooking everything.

“It’s going to take an hour before they settle down,” Whorl said.  “What was that about?”

“Fallen recruiters,” I said.

“I know that much.”

“I wanted to make sure the people they were talking to knew,” I said.  “Told them who the family was, how they operated, who the leader was.”

“You think they listened?” Moon girl asked.

“They might have,” I said.  “I didn’t get the impression I was going to start a riot, so I thought I’d be okay trying.”

“Nah,” Whorl said, “Your impression was fine.  No riot.  They know to keep their hands to themselves, and just to be loud.  They stick to the rules so they can keep coming back.  We were told to let them, which sucks, but we have to work with the authorities.”

“I told her that,” Moon girl said.  “That we were supposed to leave it be.”

“Before or after she stirred them up?”

“Before,” I answered for her.  “I knew, I went ahead anyway.”

Whorl frowned.

“I knew it would probably cost me my spot on the team,” I said.

Whorl nodded slowly.

“But if it stops one person from going over to that town of theirs… I guess it’s worth it.”

“It might have worked,” Whorl said, “But they’ve got the reinforcements, they’ll double down.  They’ll try harder, make up for it.”

“You guys are all about learning from the mistakes of the past,” I said.  “Paying respect to the casualties.  You have to know they can’t be allowed to get a foothold.  They’re too monstrous, and the people they’re going after are too vulnerable.”

“They have a foothold already,” he said.  “We’re the guys who failed to stop the end of the world, and they’re the ones who were right about it.  To some people that’s all that matters.  It doesn’t matter that they’re scumbags or that they’re dangerous.  Not everyone, but even one out of every thirty is a lot.”

“We should go calm things down,” Moon girl said.

“Yeah,” Whorl said.  “Distract the people from the tattooed hooligans.”

“Good luck with that,” I said.

“Take care, Victoria.  Keep fighting the good fight, whatever you end up doing.”

I gave him a two finger salute.

I braced myself, both in balance and emotionally, then took to the air, moving slowly.  I raised myself up to the same level as the guy at the end of the pole, staying within his field of vision so I wouldn’t surprise him.

They were using the powers to teleport people in.  I couldn’t see where the fade-in happened or where the teleportation destination was, but as the crowd shuffled, there were more of the people with tattoos, trashy people, and people that didn’t look like refugees.

The guy on the end of the pole pointed.  I moved closer to him, and followed the line of his arm and finger to see.

A man with a daughter, sitting on a blanket at the base of a fence.

“The girl or the man?” I asked.

“The man.  He’s the one bringing them in.  Keeps the kid close as a shield, in case someone catches on.  Different kids, some days.”

I nodded.

“I think every day of going over there and taking him out of the picture.  Letting him know I know.”

“Wouldn’t be worth it,” I said.

The noises of the crowd of Fallen increased, a fresh chant.  Heads were turning and people were smiling, because they didn’t know, and positivity and high energy meant a lot when they were as tired and despondent as they were.  Some would have spent a long time waiting for their chance to come through.

A dangerous and vulnerable thing, to have no place to go.

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