Glare – 3.2

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“Hey, Victoria, you’re strong right?” Kenzie asked.

“Kind of,” I said.  “I’d be worried about breaking whatever it is I’m handling.”

“It’s pretty durable.”

I thought about my forcefield.  “I totaled the last car I lifted.”

“I brought things, and I thought maybe Chris could lift some or Tristan could, but Tristan doesn’t think he’s strong enough and Chris doesn’t want to.”

She turned stick out her tongue at Chris.

“Limited duration,” Chris said.

“I can take a look, where is this?” I asked Kenzie.

“At the street.  Black van.  I’ll show you.”

“Yeah, that’d help.  I’ll probably have questions.”

I turned to the others, pointing at the treeline.  “If you guys want to head over that way, stop at the rocky outcropping on the hill.  We’ll meet you there.”

Kenzie walked with me.  She was wearing black overalls and a pink tank top, a red apple clip in her hair, and red sneakers.  Her hair was in much the same style as before, but the buns were set higher.

I paid more attention to her fashion choice because so much about it seemed deliberate, from color scheme to running theme.  During the last meeting it had been a star on her dress, partially on her shirt, and in her hair.

“My dad gave me a ride today, because he needs to buy a suit and more work clothes,” Kenzie said.  “Please don’t judge me too harshly if he acts really lame.”

“I won’t,” I said.  “You said Tristan and Chris could have helped.  Tristan has increased strength?”

“Just a little.  Very very little.”

“I guess we’ll find out soon.”

“Sveta could have helped too, we think, she’s really strong if she uses her real body, but it would have meant dragging it and that would have hurt the grass.”

“How big is this thing?”

“I’ll show you,” she said.  She sprinted the last little way to the sleek van that was parked on the street in front of the library, hopping up to the passenger side window, clinging to the bottom edge of the open window so she could stick her head in.  The back door of the van popped open, and Kenzie’s father stepped out, walking around the van to the sidewalk.

He was almost as meticulous in appearance as Kenzie.  He was very lean, with pronounced cheekbones and a long face that was made to look longer by the goatee that extended an inch from his chin.  He wore a short-sleeved work shirt with a pinstripe pattern on it, and slim jeans that looked like they had cost a pretty penny.  Shoes, belt, and watch, all expensive-looking.

The beard and his longer hair weren’t as tidy as Kenzie was, but I was hardly about to judge, given how it was probably a day off for him and he was sitting in the sun.

“Dad, this is Victoria.  She’s the coach I was talking about.  Victoria, this is my dad.”

“Hi, Mr…”  I extended a hand.

“Julien Martin,” he said.  He shook my hand.  Both handshake and his tone were stiff, but it was a different kind of stiffness than I was used to seeing in Dean’s family.  I was well aware of how easily I’d slotted him onto that same mental shelf.

“You can call him Julien,” Kenzie said.

“Nice to meet you.  What do you do?”

“Realty.”

“Dad only got into realty a year and a half ago, but he’s really good at both the buying and selling sides of things.  I don’t really get it all, but his boss seemed pretty happy with him.  You got a promotion, right?”

“I did.”

“He’s doing it ethically, too, which is so important, with so many shady people out there.”

“I’m trying,” he said.

“I can respect that,” I said.  “Thanks for bringing Kenzie out this far, and for bringing her stuff.”

Kenzie rolled her eyes.  “We should go take a look so we don’t keep the others waiting.”

Julien followed us around to the back of the van, standing back while we opened the doors.  A black box that was a bit larger than a washing machine was sitting in there, strapped down ten ways from Sunday, to keep it from sliding around when the vehicle moved.  More boxes were sitting at either side of the van, with straps to keep them flush against the wall, but they weren’t any larger than a backpack or suitcase.

“We got the van because some of my stuff is hard to move,” Kenzie said.

“Okay,” I said.  The box had a metal frame around the edges, with a crossbar running diagonally along each face.  “What do I need to know?”

“Pick it up and move it.”

“It’s tinkertech, right?”

“It is.”

“Is there a chance of a misfire if it’s moved in the wrong way, if something’s crushed or broken?”

“No.”

“Will I hurt anything if it’s turned on its side?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  “Hm.  It’s best if you don’t turn it upside down.”

“Where should I grab it, to best carry it?”

“Geeez,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not going to blow up or anything.  Or if it did, it wouldn’t be a big enough explosion to hurt anyone.  Not unless very specific conditions were met.”

“Right,” I said.  I had an issue with my power, where I wasn’t sure I trusted the forcefield to simply hold the box and not crush or dig into it.  It was only about a minute of flying to get to where I wanted to go, but even if everything went according to plan, I was worried that handling the box for more than a couple of seconds would leave handprints or gouges in it.

While I investigated, Kenzie climbed in beside me, peering at the box and watching me.

“Give me some space?” I asked.

Kenzie grabbed some smaller things on her way out.

It took a few minutes, but I unclipped the straps that were securing the box in place, and laid them across the ground.  I lifted the box, and set it down on the straps.  I connected them, wrapping them around the box, then slid it around so I could reach the ones at the back.  There was a ramp built into the truck, and I could see where the box could slide along the tracks, but it seemed like more of a hassle to use the ramp and unload that way.

“How dangerous is this team business going to be?” Julien asked, behind me.

“Dad,” Kenzie protested.  “Don’t embarrass me.”

“If I thought it was going to be a serious danger, I wouldn’t be helping,” I said, still working on the straps.  “But I can’t guarantee anything.”

I fastened the straps, then hauled the entire thing out, forcefield up, gripping the box.  It thudded against the street.  Dense.

“Is it a problem?” I asked Julien.

“It’s not a problem,” Kenzie said, firm.  “I can handle myself.  I’ve trained more than a lot of heroes, because I did a year going to all the practice events and stuff.”

“I’m more interested in what your dad has to say.  I don’t want to step on toes, and your parents get the last word.”

“It’s fine,” Julien said.  “If it wasn’t this, she would be doing something else.  I prefer this team idea.”

“You should,” Kenzie huffed.

“Do you need to be picked up?”

“Yes, please.  In…?” Kenzie looked at me.

“Two hours?” I asked.  “Is that okay?”

“It’s fine,” her dad said.  He still had that tone, which came across curt, inflexible.  I had a hard time imagining him as a salesman.  Accountant, maybe.

“Before you do anything, can you go to the train station?  Rain had to take the train and he’s running late.  Bring him here?” Kenzie asked.

Her dad frowned.

“Please,” Kenzie said.

“Where am I going?” he asked.

“Give me your phone, I’ll put it in there.”

While they fussed, I checked and fixed the remainder of the straps.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

The straps served to let me hold the box without actually holding it.  I flew, holding the length of straps that I’d wound together and attached at the tail end.  The box made for unwieldy flying, swinging below me.

Could the forcefield potentially claw through them?  Yes.  I hoped I’d be able to see it before it managed to succeed.

I flew in the direction I’d sent the others, leaving Kenzie behind.

My phantom self gripped the length of straps, scratched, squeezed, and twisted it, periodically making the ten foot length of cords bend in unusual shapes.

I hadn’t interacted with it much.  I hadn’t seen the limits of its intelligence or lack thereof.  This one minute of flying might have even been the longest period I’d properly used my strength in two years.

I sighted the others, sitting on the rocks and talking.  I dropped low, and I set the box down on the ground.  Even with the care I was taking, it made a noise on landing.

“Wow,” Tristan said.  “How heavy is that thing?”

“No idea,” I said.  “If I had to guess, maybe three hundred and fifty pounds?”

“I can see why she has a hard time moving those things around.”

“She described them as being bigger,” Chris said.  “Others, I think.  I think they start at that size and get larger.”

“Did her dad leave?” Sveta asked.

“Not yet,” I said.  “They’re figuring out logistics.  He’s going to go pick up Rain at the station.  Be right back.”

I flew over to where Kenzie and her dad were.  Kenzie’s dad was in the driver’s seat, and Kenzie was closing the rear doors.  A series of bags and boxes were unloaded, all packed together.

As I landed, her dad pulled away.  Kenzie raised a hand in a wave.

I was aware of the lack of a wave in response.  From the way she lowered her hand and glanced at me, Kenzie was too.

“Want to fly over?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up with excitement as she nodded.

There were very few people in the world who didn’t like flying.

It was, in a way, almost as much of a pain to bring Kenzie, two cases and two boxes without my strength active, as it had been to move the one cube.  I ended up lifting her by the straps at the back of her overalls, my hand also wrapped around the strap of one bag, while Kenzie held other things.

We arrived at the hill with the rocks.  There was light overgrowth, a fairly loose distribution of trees for the fact that it was untamed wilderness, and thick grass.  A surveying team had passed through at one point, and they had disturbed earth here and there, felled a few trees, and spray painted the face of one of the larger rocks before leaving.

A bit of a shame, but I could understand the need for a quick and easy label.  No minerals or stone of any particular value here.

Chris, wearing his headphones again, was wearing what looked like the same shorts as he had worn at the meeting, and a different t-shirt.  He was examining the box, while keeping at least two feet away from it at all times.  He had a bag with him, a travelers’ backpack that was packed full, but he’d put it down.

“You don’t have to keep your distance,” Kenzie said.  “It’s not dangerous.”

“It’s tinkertech.  It’s science that gets at least some of its functionality from interdimensional fuckery, built by cooperation between you and the unfathomable, menacing thing that chose you as its host.”

“It’s a camera, Chris.  It records and projects.”

“It’s a camera built with collaboration between you and a unknowable, violence-driven multiversal horror.”

“My multiversal horror is pretty tame, I think.  She just likes to build things and gather information,”  Kenzie pressed buttons on the side of the box.  A triangle between reinforcing bars lit up.

A hologram appeared a number of feet away.  A potbellied rat with a crooked nose.

“…And you’re using it to make cartoons,” Chris said.

“Plump Rat King,” Sveta said.  “Some of the kids at the hospital liked that one.”

“It’s okay,” Kenzie said.  “Only the first season was really any good.”

“What’s it good for?” Ashley asked.  She was taking things a step further than Chris’ wearing of the same shorts.  She wore the same dress she had worn at the meeting, the damage at the corner mended imperfectly.  One of the straps, I realized, had been damaged and patched, but her hair masked much of it.  She had a black mask in her hand, but she hadn’t put it on.

“Stuff.  Loads of stuff.  I’ll show you some later,” Kenzie said.  She started opening boxes.

Tristan, much like Kenzie, was unpacking a bag.  His costume was armor.  It struck a balance between function and appearance, but it looked like it was a pretty good quality.  Each segment was framed with goat’s heads and horns, spirals and ridges.  Where it wasn’t brushed metal, things were painted or tinted red or light red.  He saw me looking and smiled.

“Byron is the fish theme, then?” I asked.

“Water as much as fish.  Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You have some kind of superstrength, right?”

“A very small amount.  Helps when you’re wearing armor as heavy as this, or when you’re using a power that can make heavy things.”

“Seems like a good place to get us started,” I said.

Tristan turned around, seating himself firmly on the sloped ground, his armor partially unpacked and arranged beside him.  Some bits were already fastened into place on his arms and legs, over a bodysuit that seemed designed to go between him and his armor.

He held up his hand, and produced three motes of orange-red light.  As each one moved through the air, it left a trail behind it, like the afterimage of a sparkler waved through the darkness.  They traced a circle and as the moving points of light connected to the end of each trail, a shape came to life.  A discus, with a slight peak on one side.

I extended a hand, and he passed it to me.

Dense, heavy, very solid.  Matter creation.

“You can throw it,” he said.

I threw it.  It wasn’t as aerodynamic as a frisbee, but it did catch the air.  It wobbled mid-flight and veered off course, crashing into a tree before disappearing into a patch of grass.

Tristan was already making something else.  Twelve or more motes of light traced the shape.  “Requires a bit of concentration, I can rush it or force it to come into being early, but you get weirdness like… this.”

It materialized.  A hammer or a mace, long-handled.  The weirdness was in how the shape finalized its form, drawing pretty creative curves and hooks.  Spikes, horns, thorns, and other slightly curved growths stood out.  It looked unbalanced.

“Are they permanent?” I asked.

“They can be.  Depends if I keep the sparks alive or not.  I can create a lot of sparks, but it requires more time, more concentration.”

“What’s the difference between keeping it alive or not?” I asked.

“Ah,” he said.  He pushed himself to his feet, shifting his footing to make sure he wouldn’t slide down the hill.  He held out the mace, and started to form the motes for another.  He rushed this one even more than he had the last.  The shape was more unwieldy, less balanced.  “Byron, you want to help with demonstrations today, or do you want to be left alone?”

Tristan blurred, features distorting, his eyes flaring with the same light as the sparks had.  The light turned blue, and then he was Byron, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and jeans.

One of the two maces exploded into a spray of water.  Sveta made a noise of surprise, and Chris, still mostly fixated on examining Kenzie’s cube, jumped back from the cube in surprise.

Byron turned his head so the backspray hit him in the side of the face, rather than right in the center of it.  He dropped the still-intact mace he held with his other hand.

“Hi Byron,” Kenzie said.

“Hi,” I added my greeting to Kenzie’s.  “We haven’t formally met.”

“We haven’t.  I got the basics,” he said.

“So I gathered.”

“This is a terrible idea,” he said.  “Tristan being involved, this team concept, the potential for disaster, and this thing with Tattletale?”

“I don’t see anyone changing their mind.  Mrs. Yamada couldn’t convince them, I don’t think I can.  If they’re going to do this or something like this, isn’t it better that they do it smart and informed?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “But if you’re enabling them, you should know you own a share of what happens.”

“I don’t think that’s fair,” Sveta said.

“It might be fair,” I said.

“My voice doesn’t matter either.  I tried, nobody listens.  Maybe I own a bit of what happens for not trying harder to stop Tristan from going forward with this.”

“You sound pretty certain something bad is going to happen.”

“I was there for all the therapy sessions, even if I didn’t participate,” he said.  He looked at the others.  “Don’t worry, I’m not going to say anything.  But I am going to say, again, this is a trainwreck waiting to happen.”

“We got it,” Chris said.  “Saying it over and over doesn’t change anything.”

“Be kind, Chris,” Sveta said.  “There’s a lot playing into Byron’s concerns.”

Byron shook his head.  He glanced at me.

“You need anything, while we’re talking?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “No.  Um.  You seem alright, so… be safe.  Be wary.  And for the record, since you’re going to ask…”

He showed me his power.  Motes of light, like Tristan’s, blue.  He drew them in the air, two expanding, abstract shapes, not closed like Tristan’s had been.  He positioned them so there was one on either side of him, then clenched his fist.  The lines that were drawn became water, buckets worth, spraying out in the direction the lines had been drawn.  He had drawn them out as expanding spirals, and the resulting water flew out in circular sprays.

“You can use me if you need to clean up, Tristan,” Byron said.  “I’ll do the quick swaps if you need them.”

The water was still spraying when Byron blurred, features distorting and smearing together, the two lighted eyes peering through the shadows between folds and smears, going from blue to orange-red.

One of the sprays of water lost all of its oomph, the remaining water striking the ground to flow through grass and between rocks.  The other diagram became a solid object, a wheel spikier and cruder than what Tristan had made.  It hit the ground and stuck there.

The water that Byron’s power had produced rained down on us for several seconds.

“It’s not going to hurt the box?” Chris asked.

“Nope,” Kenzie said.  “Waterproofed just in case Byron visited.  It was good to see you, Byron, by the way.  I hope to prove you wrong.”

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “That’s a good way of putting it, Kenzie.”

Tristan’s face was at an angle that saw him looking down at the ground.  At first I thought he was trying to keep the water out of his face.  Then, as he changed the angle of his head a little, I saw his face.

“For the record,” Tristan said, “If it’s my two hours and I ask you a question and then pass the baton, I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t take up extra time and use it to try and sabotage me.”

“I did say hi to him,” I said.

Tristan shrugged.  “He didn’t have to say all that.  He’s quick to say there’s a problem but he doesn’t suggest alternatives.  He whines about the circumstances but he won’t attend the therapy and he doesn’t want to work on figuring out better courses of action.  It pisses me off sometimes, especially when he elbows into my time to make what I’m trying to accomplish harder.”

His tone was hard.  Pissed off seemed like an apt description.  I’d seen Tristan, casual and smiling some before he’d changed, and now this felt like a complete, sudden shift.

It was easy to forget that he was in there while Byron was out here, feeling things, thinking, his mood changing during that short conversation.

I could see the expressions of others.  The sympathy on Sveta’s face, the tilt of Chris’ head.

Ashley looked especially focused and attentive, her pacing around the hill having come to a stop.  One of her hands was at her hair, pushing it back out of her face, the water helping it stay there.

“It seems like hard feelings are inevitable,” I said.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He looked away.  “I can keep my shapes ‘alive’.  If they’re still alive when I change, they become water.  If they aren’t, they’re there to stay.  Same for Byron’s water.  It’s effective if he makes water, sloshes it over someone, and then changes, to make it solid.  We’ve tagged a good dozen villains that way.”

“A dozen is a really good number for a teenage hero.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said.

“You’re pretty lucky, getting a name that fitting for a power like that.”

“Constellations forming rock and water?” Tristan asked.  He snorted air through his nostrils.  “Want to know the hilarious thing?”

“I do,” I said.  I wasn’t sure whatever he was going to say was ‘hilarious’, given his tone, but I’d hoped today would be a lighter endeavor, and any humor would help.

“We weren’t even rock and water, originally.  Reach bought the name from the last Capricorn.  She got wounded in battle and she retired.  Win-win.  We got settled into the role, got our name, our armor, our brand, and… power changed to match.”

“That’s really interesting,” I said.  “There’s a lot of potential there.”

“There is.  Absolutely.  And not all of it’s good,” Tristan said.

“But some of it is,” Sveta said.

“Some of it is, yeah,” Tristan said.  He offered her a small smile.

I could see the concerted effort he was making to pull out of the funk.  A few words from his brother and he was upset enough that it showed in his tone and the direction of what he was talking about.

Tricky, that kind of negativity sitting just under the surface.

“Sveta,” I said.  Change of topic.  “I’m guessing you’ve worked on control enough that you feel okay letting loose in limited ways?”

“Kind of,” she said.  “I don’t want to go all-out in a combat situation.  I don’t want to do anything that would risk people getting hurt.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I figured I would mostly stay in the suit.  I can do this…”

She didn’t touch or move anything external, but the joints of her elbow shifted, and the forearm and hand dropped.  Ten or so tendrils extended between elbow and forearm, like a muscle with gaps between strands.

She moved it, tendrils bending, flinging her hand and the attached segment of arm out fifty feet.  She tried to grab a branch, missed it, grabbed another, and seized it, before pulling her body to follow.  I saw her turn her head away as she pulled herself through the intervening twigs and leaves.

She twisted around, pointed a hand, and used tendrils to push her fist out.

She seized the wheel that Byron had left embedded in the earth, and pulled herself to it.

There was a bit of gracelessness to the landing, her pants leg and the side of her body rubbing against the grass, a few clumps of earth flying, but it served to put her in our midst again.  She wobbled as she stood and Tristan and I caught her between us.

She made a small ‘phew’ sound.

“You’re made of grappling hooks, basically,” Chris said.  Kenzie, sitting on her box, stuck out her toe to jab Chris in the shoulder.

“I can get things for my body.  Weld and I were talking about getting a second body for cape things.  If I had hooks I could unfold I could more reliably grab things.  And I’ll get better with practice,” Sveta said.  “And I really want extra shielding for my joints because they’re the easiest part to break, and I don’t want to have to send it out to be repaired and be unable to walk or do things in the meantime.”

“What happens if the suit gets broken?” I asked.  “As in broken enough that it doesn’t keep you contained?”

“Um.  I have a collapsed hamster ball in here.  I can spit it out, unfold it, shove myself in there and bring the lid behind me.  It’s a bit cramped, it’s not the biggest, and it might not always work, but I’ve also been working hard at keeping myself under control.”

I suppressed a wince.  Sveta had worked hard for as long as I’d known her, and I knew that the anxiety was tied into the lack of control in a feedback loop, and that her being so much more confident and happy would mean she had more control, but all it took was one bad incident.

“Workable,” I said.  “We’d have to be really, really careful.”

“Absolutely,” she said, with dead seriousness.  “The way I see it, my body is pretty hardy.  To break containment, it would take something that would maim an ordinary person.”

“Yeah,” I said.  But if they think you’re durable, they might not hold back.

We’d address that when it came to it.

“Alright,” I said.  “So, my line of thinking was that instead of explaining, we’d do a little bit of a team exercise.”

I heard a faint groan from Chris.

“It should be fun, and it should be relatively low-key,” I said.  “We split everyone into teams of three, and we play a small game of capture the flag, here.”

“See, that’s playing dirty,” Tristan said.  “You’re playing into my love for competition, here.”

“It’s fun,” Kenzie said.  “I really like this.”

It seemed Kenzie could be counted on to be positive.  I said, “I’m hoping it’s fun.  Does anyone else need to explain their powers or cover anything before we get into it?  I know what Ashley can do, unless something’s changed.”

Ashley shook her head.

“We’ll see you in action when we have our competition, then.  That leaves Chris and Kenzie, kind of.”

“I’ve got some things,” Kenzie said.  She opened a case.  “Two of these things I had as just-in-case things when I was a Ward.  I got them fixed up recently, and I even made an improvement.  Eye hook-”

She pulled out a coil of metal.  She stuck it on the corner of her cube, then held her phone in one hand, moving her thumb around.  The coil unfurled, prehensile, and its tip unfolded from its teardrop shape.  Three claws, extending from around a circular lens with a pupil.  Kenzie moved her head and body in time with the movements of the thing.

The thing moved closer to me, until it was two feet from my face, the three claw-blades opening and closing a little.  It blinked at me, shutter closing momentarily.

“It was made to look through vents, to start with.  it’s delicate enough it can turn screws and drill holes, and I can swap out the lens for others.  And I’ve got this flash gun too.”

She held up something that looked like a child’s toy, squat, blunt, with a lens on the front.

“It’s for when I had to get closer to the scene when I was with the Baltimore Wards.  They wanted me to be able to protect myself and they wanted nonlethal.”

“What does it do?” I asked.

“Makes light,” she said.  She aimed it off to the side and pulled the trigger.

It looked and sounded like a camera flash going off.

“And the other stuff?”

“Mask with a few settings,” Kenzie said.  She pulled out a high-tech mask, metal around the edges to give a general circular shape to the clear pane for her face, but she didn’t put it on.  She held up a disc, then clipped it to the front of her overalls, so it was directly over the pocket at her chest.  “This is kind of a costume thing I haven’t finalized.”

“Good,” I said.  “Great.”

“I transform,” Chris said.  “Changer.”

I made a motion for him to continue.

He sounded aggrieved, like it was my fault he had to explain at all, “I don’t know what else you want.  I have a few different forms.  They’re inspired by my moods and mental states.”

“You give them names based on what mood or state they’re from,” Kenzie said.  “Like Creeping Anxiety and Wistful Distraction.”

“Yeah,” Chris said.  “Look, the rest of you know.  Explain.  I’m going to go change.”

He grabbed his bag and hefted it over one shoulder, then began trudging uphill.

“These forms reflect the feelings?” I asked.

“Very much so,” Sveta said.

“It sounds like he has more than a few forms,” I said.

“Eight or more, as far as I’ve counted,” Kenzie said.  “He said a few, but I think he loses track.  There’s wiggle room in each form, too.  It depends on a lot of factors.  Diet, time since he last used a form, if he pushes for something in the middle.”

“He’s strong,” Ashley said.

“He might be,” Tristan said.

Kenzie continued to volunteer information.  “The forms tend to come with pretty heavy weakness.  Anxiety is quick but fragile.  That sort of thing.”

“I think I get it,” I said.  “Can I ask why he’s in the group?”

“The drawbacks,” Tristan said.

“The fragility isn’t a drawback?” I asked.

“It’s one.  He doesn’t change all the way back.”

“What?” I asked.

Tristan explained, “He changes to one, he gets a little taller, a little stronger, a little more sluggish.  He changes to another, gets better eyes, ears…”

“Thus the headphones,” Kenzie said.

“…and less responsive in hand-eye coordination to go with it.  He tries to balance, but lately it’s been getting worse.”

“What happens if he doesn’t change?”

“The body stays the same,” Sveta said.  “He doesn’t change physically.”

“Which is good.”

“But he doesn’t change mentally either.  He says he can’t tap those emotions he’s not using, he can’t think as clearly, his thoughts go in circles.”

“Lose-lose,” I said.

“Something like that,” Ashley said.

I could hear Chris’ approach, now.  The sound of branches breaking underfoot, the rustling of under- and over-growth.

He’d grown.  He’d shucked off his clothes and he’d donned what looked like an oversized pair of shorts in a coarse cloth.  They had to have taken up most of the bag’s space.  He was twelve feet tall, with skewed proportions.  Large legs, large around the middle, large hands, all with coarse hair.  His shoulders seemed somewhat narrow, his neck long, his head only a little larger than normal, with faintly pronounced tusks.  His hair, wild before, was just a bit longer than it had been.

“He chose one of the more pleasant looking forms,” Kenzie said, cheerful.  She grabbed her stuff.

How in the fuck was I supposed to make someone like Chris marketable?  How was I supposed to wrangle Ashley or handle Tristan’s issue?

“Twenty minutes,” Tristan said.  “Then he changes back.  We should hurry.”

Capture the flag.  Right.  A part of me wished I hadn’t brought it up.  I could have left things at this, with powers explained and demonstrated in brief, and then I could have taken a few days to think.

I needed a few days to think, so feelings wouldn’t be hurt, damage wouldn’t be done.

I didn’t have it.  I’d lose too much stock with these guys if I changed my mind.  Chris and Ashley especially.

“Who wants to be team leaders?” I asked.

Tristan raised one hand.  Ashley raised another.

“Ashley, you want to pick first?” I asked.

“Kenzie.”

“Woo!” Kenzie cheered.

“Sveta,” Tristan said.  “You’d be my second pick, after Rain.  Weld fan club.”

“Chris,” Ashley said.  She pulled on her mask.  It was v-shaped, covering the nose, ears, and eyes, leaving just a hint of her eyebrows visible above.

“You guys set up over there, opposite side of the hill, then,” I said.  Ashley and the two youngest members of the team.

“You’re filling in for Rain?” Tristan asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m mostly interested in seeing how you guys operate, so I’ll mostly stick to playing defense and keeping an eye on things.”

“Alright.  I don’t think that’ll be a problem,” he said.

I wasn’t so sure.  I could see the way he set his jaw, before he pulled his horned helmet on.  I had an idea of his disposition already.  I could see the look of Ashley’s eyes behind her mask, too.  She wanted to be leader, by the looks of things, and that meant she had something to prove.  I saw Chris as the giant, properly smiling for the first time since I’d met him, as he looked back over one shoulder, lumbering away.  It made me more concerned, rather than less.

Sveta took my hand, squeezing it.  Off to the side, Tristan was drawing something out of motes of light, ten feet tall and twenty feet wide.  A wall.

I’d wanted to test them, to see how they functioned as discrete units, and possibly to highlight difficulties.

The more I saw, the less sure I was that these guys were equipped to handle even a friendly contest.  There were so many messy parts to this.  Above all else, the ones with the power seemed least suited to wield it.

“Believe in us,” Sveta said, her voice soft.

I wanted to.  I really did.

“I think,” I said, and I said it to Tristan, “You should take this opportunity to explain your game plan.”

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