Blinding – 11.7

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“Make you a deal,” I said.

Lord of Loss shook his head, his ‘face’ a smiling collection of metal strips.  It was overlarge, looming as much as the rest of him.

“We’ve got a big, big bag of money,” I said.  “We want to buy your services.  You’ll get more than you will working for Love Lost, you get to keep your hands clean, and you can steer clear of the clusterfuck surrounding that group.”

“No,” Lord of Loss said.  “That’s not how we operate.”

“You’re mercenaries,” Chastity said.

“We are.”

“That’s the number one thing about mercenaries, you’ll do anything for money!”

“We work for money.  Rules are necessary.”

“Being able to switch sides and do the crazy betrayal thing while getting paid for it has got to be the best part of being a mercenary, and you’re giving that up!?” Chastity asked, aghast, the tension of the small army that was lined up against us adding to the extremes and modulation of her voice.

All around us, the landscape was changing.  Snow was melting, heaps of it by the sides of the road that had been cleared for construction toppling and folding into itself.  The wind continued to whip around us, and the air that carried that air to us made me aware of how stale it was, with something mixed into it, like an oppressive haze of baby powder or shampoos.

“We get hired, we do the job, we do it well.  Rinse, repeat,” Lord of Loss intoned the words, his voice low in the way only Brutes could manage.  “We keep up the rules of the game, we don’t make enemies we don’t have to.”

Others in that mob were looking ready to throw themselves at us.  Nursery in particular looked ready to draw blood.

To stall, I decided to try something.  “I’ll make you another deal.  Talk with us.  Let’s make sure we’re on the same page.  If you still think that this is okay when we’re done, then we pick up where we left off.  In-”

“No,” Lord of Loss said.

“In exchange,” I said.  “We pay you for your time.  We pass you money hand over fist to buy your time.  Nursery gets more control over her area, we get nothing except your consideration.”

“Not your money to give away,” Aroa said, under her breath.

“I’m guessing it’s not yours either,” Lord of Loss said, talking past me to address Aroa.  He chuckled as much as anything as he uttered, “No.”

“Did you hear what happened to the Navigators?” I asked Lord of Loss.  To Nursery, I said, “Are you aware they’re putting kids in the line of fire?”

“If we talk, it’s going to be after we’ve captured you,” Lord of Loss said.

He shifted position, which prompted me to look back.  Past the ground floor of the house, past kitchen, living room, and back stairwell, I could see the rear door, and I could see his bodily mass planted down there.  Whatever form he wore, it was extended enough that he could cover two exits at once, and his oversized head was mobile, free to move where he needed it.

Foil, quiet up until this point, started shooting the crossbow, launching her augmented bolts.  I’d known her as Flechette, back in the days when I’d thought my boyfriend, Eric, and Uncle Neil dying at the hands of an unstoppable giant lizard was the worst life was going to get.  Back then, she’d had something elegant.  Now she had something big.

The skewers were about as long my arm was from elbow to fingertip, tapered at both sides.  They punched through Lord of Loss’ digits, where a hand or clawed foot had just touched ground to give him leverage.

He didn’t react to the pain.  He did try to lift his hand up, only to jerk to a halt.

Our cue to go.  I covered the rear flank as the others charged for the door.  The headless spider with the crossbow strapped to its body was Foil’s mount.  Parian slumped between Foil and the crossbow, leaning hard into Foil.  She was, at least, managing the spider, despite her condition.

“Cut through buildings!” I told them.  “Lord of Loss never seems to go indoors at any point!”

I heard crumbling and looked back.  Through the narrow aperture of the front door, I could see Lord raising an oversized, clawed extremity, shedding debris.  He hadn’t managed to un-impale himself or pull the needles from the stones, but he had managed to pull up the pavement.

Someone ducked underneath the hand, skidding on the ground.  A cape, dressed in an all-covering orange bodysuit, who ran fast enough that they clipped the edge of the doorframe in their crazed run.

I raised my forcefield as I saw them fix their attention on me.  I could fly backward without worrying too much about bumping into anything, so I kept the majority of my focus on them.

I saw them glance to one side.  They aimed to go around me.

Half right.  They leaped, power activating, to throw themselves at the wall.  They collided in a shower of orange and amber light and sparks, and rebounded, no longer human.  A swirling mass of energy.

The impact when he hit the Wretch was violent, the impact carrying through the air to scatter papers, money we hadn’t grabbed, and the washed and dried silverware that had been laid at the edge of the kitchen’s counter.

He recovered, momentum lost, clearly startled that what he’d planned hadn’t worked.

Reminded me of mom, just… bigger and spikier.  Aggressive instead of defensive.

My focus was on him, so I didn’t get to see what was happening at the exit here.  Precipice was stepping in, at the least.

I stared down my opponent.  They were dressed like a hero from one of the old Japanese superteams, covered head to toe, hard helmet with full face coverage, a bodysuit with stretchy material with light decoration.  They did have some padding, though.  Elbow and knee pads-

“Need help, Antares?” Candy interrupted my observations.

“Save your juice,” I said.

Elbow and knee pads, and some chest protection that made it ambiguous if they were flat or if they had pronounced pecs.  Whatever the case, armor could indicate vulnerability, either to bait, as was my case, or by accident.  Theirs was too light, too built for things other than deflecting bullets or stopping knives.

They acted again.  Again, a sharp, high-speed lunge, not aimed at me or at the others, but at a wall.  Again, the impact, sparks and light.  Post-impact, as they rebounded off, they’d become a large, whirling death ball formed of hard energy.

A stray arm of the Wretch blocked the way, deflecting them.  They landed hard, sliding on the floor and bumping into a table.  They wasted no time in using their power again, holding to the pattern, but glancing off of the ceiling instead.  Blocking it meant flying back to get myself thoroughly in the way put me perilously close to the Heartbroken.

They were an air hockey puck.  Not well suited for the direct strike, always bouncing off of something sufficiently hard and flat.

I was ten invisible people superimposed over one another, each wildly swinging sledgehammers around.

The thought, as casual as it was, threw me off.  The natural hazard.  It had made taking care of me at the asylum that much harder, and I hadn’t made it easier.

I drew in a deep breath, throwing myself to one side to intercept again.

The pit of despair was there, waiting for me to get too close before I had that stomach-sinking feeling that anyone felt if standing on a ledge, provided they were unable to fly.  It was easier to deal with and wholly recontextualized now that I didn’t feel like someone was lurking nearby, ready to give me a shove or hem me in.  But easier was different from easy.

The others hadn’t slipped through.

“What’s the holdup?” I called back.

“Spider’s too big for the door!  Moving over to snake, dealing with the big guy!”

I would have provided some assistance, but I couldn’t take my attention off of the air hockey puck.

The puck leaped forward, but dropped like they were tripping over their own feet.  The goal, though, was to make as straight a shot as he was capable of, lunging while close to the ground, striking the floor at a shallow angle and then going directly for our team.

I’d kind of expected it, though.  My mom had done that a few times in sparring, trying to roll between my feet.

Pads meant vulnerability.  The hard bit of plastic or metal at the wrist was meant to help him when post-power, skidding to a stop.  I blocked the impact, mindful that I wasn’t too close to heartbroken, then followed up, chasing.

They weren’t fully recovered when I crashed into them.  I wrapped my arm around them, gathering them up into a full nelson.

They stomped the ground, propelling us both into a lunge, straight for the ceiling.  I used my flight to reorient us in the air, denying them the follow-up contact.  Then I used my aura, my chest pressed hard against their back, the feeling emanating from me and into them point blank.

I wanted to break them, to make their efforts less strategic and more flailing.  I could feel it in how they jerked and kicked, now.

They grazed furniture with a kicking toe, and again, we were propelled away, hard.  I twisted us in the air so it was my back that slid across the ceiling.  The paint and the ceiling’s surface cracked badly with the contact, and something on the other side pushed back.  It was meaty, broader across than my back was, and it slurped.

I didn’t break through that thin layer of ceiling, and neither did the thing on the other side.  Not until my enemy reached up to hit it.  Paint broke, cracks spread out, and we were boosted away from it, the boost no doubt being the original intent.

I was glad it wasn’t a death-ball boost, at least.

Their power had two components.  The dash, the boost, the ‘kick-off’, where they moved four or five times as fast.  If they could bounce off of a solid surface as they did it, then they went full death ball, becoming a whirling sphere as tall as I was.

My goal in the now was to pump them full of emotion without saturating my own team, and to keep them from achieving their move.  I kept us away from the spreading break in the ceiling, with red membrane-covered flesh pressing down against the hole, too wide to penetrate.

“Bring him here!” Chastity called out.

Him, then.  She did say she had a body sense.

Bringing him closer to the ground came with a danger, though.  If he touched the ground, he could kick off of it.  I tangled my legs with his, moving us in the air so those tangled feet weren’t anywhere near the floor.

Chastity stalked closer.  She raised her right hand up over her left shoulder as she advanced, and it glowed nebulously with a dark blue energy.  She had to make a small hop to give herself the height to make contact- a backhand swing that caught the air hockey puck across the face of the helmet.

He was torn from my arms, slapped down against the ground.  He didn’t bounce or rebound.  The floor cracked beneath him, far more fragile than it should have been

My foe groaned, as he slumped down to the ground, hands going to his helmet, so he could hold his head up.  The sound he made was a long groan like every single involuntary utterance I’d made while cringing about middle school me, except with the duration and volume dialed to the maximum.

Chastity raised her hand up near her face, covering the smile she wore.  One of her fingernails was glowing, and a ring at one of her other fingers was catching that light in a way more intense than normal.  “Bitch slap delivered.”

“Not the reaction I expected,” I said, as I floated away from the air hockey puck.  “Distilled defeat, you said?”

“It looks different for everyone, but everyone reaches a point where their body can’t take anymore and shuts down, whatever the mind thinks it wants.  I hurry things along,” she said.  She gave the ceiling a dubious look.  “Let’s get outside.  Outside has to be better.”

I nodded.

“You’re going to need to protect me,” she said, waggling her hand in my general direction, the glowing fingernail in focus.  Then, like she was just now remembering, “And I’m going to need to protect Precipice.”

She hurried back toward Precipice with a kind of urgency.  The bitch slap target was ignored, assumed out of commission.  She had a body sense, too, which apparently mapped out to anyone she’d used her power on, while also helping her aim her attacks by keeping her aware of where her potential slap targets were.

Her ‘bitch slap’ was a dangerous weapon, but a fragile one.  One shot, and if the target wasn’t immune or resistant to emotion powers, then they were out of the fight.  If she was more confident or powerful in her target’s eyes, it hit harder and lasted longer.  The fragility, though, was that the second she was taken down a peg, the effects all broke, everyone she’d slapped down was back in play, and she ate some of the backlash.

It wouldn’t be too bad so long as she only had one foe she’d slapped down.

The others were outside, with only Candy at the door, watching and waiting for her sister’s return.

I flew outside and up to a point where I still had the house to my back but I could see over the others’ heads.  We were surrounded, but they were managing.  Parian had threads going out in every direction, hampering the potential attackers, Lord of Loss was having to pull a clawed extremity from the side of the house where it had been nailed down, and it looked like he was reconfiguring into a form- three giant heads and multiple arms were drawing back into a central mass.

“I wasted juice,” Candy was telling Chastity.  “Lord of Loss doesn’t feel it.”

I could have told you that, I thought.  That was a shame.  “Nursery.  If you can hit Nursery, do it.  Just- nothing permanent.”

Candy looked up at me, then nodded.

As horrifying as that woman is, I thought.  Foil was still assisting Parian, who was hunched over atop a spider.  Her being there made using the large crossbow difficult, but Foil did her best.

The Heartbroken hurried toward Parian and Foil.  Aroa got tangled in threads that Parian was manipulating, and Parian had to devote attention to maneuvering the spider, rotating it so she could see Aroa, and then disentangling her.

With the damage to her throat, it was apparently easier to use cosmic power to telekinetically fill a spider made of fabric, then manipulate that spider to turn around, than it was to twist herself around.

Lord of Loss reached out with a clawed extremity, spikes still embedded in it.  Closer to his main body, that limb was unfurling, but there was still enough anchoring for it to move and manipulate things.

The claw reached, and I flew to put myself between the others and the hand.  I’d block and fend it off-

The length of the arm hid a lance within it.  It passed through a gap in the palm of the claw, thrusting toward me and toward the others.  I used the Wretch to grab it, but the banding of white stone-like or metal-like strips ran along the length from tip to base, twisting it to give it a kind of rifling.  Not something I or the Wretch could get a hold on.

Instead, while it skidded past me, scraping by the Wretch and numerous invisible, super-strong hands, I pushed it off course.

The lance dissolved.  I had to maneuver to keep the strips from catching or slicing at me as they withdrew.

I couldn’t get in close, because that put me in reach of another three claws.  Five claws if I considered the dissolving ones.

He’d been a mass of large faces, thin arms, and large claws.  Everything about reach and perception.  Or I was assuming the extra faces were for perception.  It was possible it was the equivalent of a man in the jungle wearing a mask on the back of his head to confuse the tigers that wanted to pounce on him from behind.

He’d improved over the last little while.  I could remember him being limited to forms.  He’d spent time with Marquis, hadn’t he?  And Marquis was a top tier changer, with inventive, by-the-moment adaptations.

Lord of Loss seemed intent on taking a few lessons from that playbook.  I kept a wary eye out.  This was brute-against-brute standard playbook, unfortunately.

I raised my voice.  “They tore people to pieces and those pieces are still alive!  They took pieces so those people can’t even be put back together!”

“You pulverized Valefor’s jaw,” Lord of Loss said.

“If you don’t see the distinction between Valefor and a plucky band of heroes who made it their life’s mission to stop human trafficking, then something’s really fucking wrong with you, Lord of Loss.”

“I think there are lines,” Lord of Loss said, as he dissolved into more narrow lengths.  Two claws with morasses of white strips joining them to his main body gripped the house to hold him aloft.  “Between Valefor and those heroes, yes.  But playing fair and destroying others?  That’s a clear line too.”

“He’s a monster, Loss, and if that’s what you think, why the fuck are you helping people who butchered heroes?  They crossed your line!”

“My line gets drawn when I’m hired,” he said.  “I can’t quit a job partway through.  I’ll consider things after.”

“The damage is being done now!  They’ll use that weapon or power again!”

“You think,” he said.

I grit my teeth.

I saw the silver blades appear.  Precipice’s power- slicing through the air, to cut at the thickest portion of Lord of Loss’s supports.

I flew, maximum speed, to capitalize on it before the opportunity was lost.  Precipice had to have decided to do it to capitalize on Lord of Loss being distracted with conversation.

Lengths of Lord of Loss’ mummy-wrapped-in-iron-bandages form extended out, encasing the parts that had been marked out with silver lines.  External support.

A clawed extremity reached my way.  I slammed into the palm, hoping to throw him off enough that the silver would snap and the limbs would give way.

No effect.  He didn’t topple.  Clawed digits of a hand larger than I was closed in around me.  I spun, relying on the spinning force combined with the reach of the Wretch to ensure I had enough of a gap to get out.

He laughed.

The music box tune was plinking all around us, and as Precipice and the heartbroken hurried to stay in rough formation with the spider, I could see tracks of footprints where the snow had been pressed down, and the thin red of bodily fluids was leeching up into the compacted snow, through the slats in the road-turned-flooring.

Crimson footprints in white snow.

Snowbanks were moving, not just because they were crumpling to become misty building interior, but because they acted as suitable containers, and Nursery’s power worked by filling up containers.  That included filling up living, people containers, throats, sinuses, ear canals…

Chastity had her whip out, and was using it to repel soldiers.  The cracks were audible and distracting as she cleared a path for the spider to move forward.  The soldiers that weren’t powered were dealing with being tugged and limited in their movements by a thousand fine pieces of thread.

The ones that were powered were the focus of Foil’s crossbow and darts.  One shot aimed at a man wearing armor bands that hugged his muscular physique, with each band connected to the next with short chains.  The bolt passed through armor by the ‘penetrate anything’ effect, grazed the skin, then came back into reality through use of Foil’s enhanced timing.  The bolt was effectively fused to the armor it had been passing through, it retained its momentum, and it threw the the man off balance.  His hand touched the road, and another bolt passed through armor to secure the armor of the forearm and armor of the gauntlet to the floorboards below.

Lord of Loss shifted position on his perch.  He was making himself into the heavy-hitting centaur form, but for now the four legs and one arm were spindly, drawn overlong, to the point it didn’t look like he could support himself.  The arm that wasn’t formed was expanding into a shield to protect him.  At the top of his head, strips were hardening into a position where they formed a crown of braided antlers.

Where one spindle-leg punched through the roof, I could see the red mist rising.  Meaty squelches and growths reached up and wound around his leg, only to break away as he shifted his footing.  Umbilical cord growths reached out, groping for potential targets.

I considered striking at someone else while Lord of Loss was finishing.  How long did I have?  Ten seconds?  Twenty?  How much time to get to another point on the battlefield, eliminate the biggest problem, and still be here if I was needed to protect the others?

He might have read my mind, because he proved why I couldn’t just leave him to his own devices- he reached out with a hand, as if to point.  Again, the lance emerged from within, stabbing out, rotating as it emerged this time.  A hundred feet long, and the tapering point closest to me was still thick enough I could have wrapped my arms around it, if I didn’t have the Wretch to do it for me.

Again, to much less effect than the last time, I deflected the point.  With the Wretch doing the heavy lifting, I was free to look back, seeing what he was aiming for.

The cloth snake flanked our group and kept a good five or six of Lord of Loss’ soldiers from approaching.  It was winding through and among cars.  If I were him, I would have speared the snake and flicked the cars to put them in the others’ way.

For now, I could keep it from being accurate.  It struck ground close to the snake, then swiped to one side.  Cloth tangled around the lance’s point, and the snake tore, losing a quarter of its total length.  The thing started to deflate, and then the tail section twisted itself together, tight enough to offer a seal.

In the movies or comics, sparks would have flown as the Wretch fought the rotation and force of the lance.  Here, it was only movements of cold air, some collected ice and snow shedding and falling as a deceptively gentle rain to the street below.

He drew back, his entire body pulling away to help bring his lance far enough away that I wasn’t embracing its length anymore.

He laughed.  My expression behind my mask could have been stone.

I couldn’t stop it.  The next one would strike home.  Every time he repeated himself, he was more forceful, more consistent.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

That he was being such a gloating asshole about it made me feel worse.

Options.  What are my options?

If I couldn’t deflect, catch, or otherwise influence the hit- predict the target and move them?  Or something else?

Just thinking about my options helped matters, my confidence surging back… and in the wake of that, I was aware that my emotions were jumping all over the place.

Precipice.  Fucking Rain.

He’d hit me with his power, after being explicitly asked not to.  Why?

To signal.  There was no visual indicator he was using his power.

He wanted me to act… and I had an idea what he wanted me to do.  I flew at Lord of Loss.  Another hit, like the one I’d delivered before, only the silver blades weren’t in place.

Even if this didn’t work, it might delay the next telescoping lance from coming out.

I slammed into Lord of Loss, and this time there was an effect.  Far below, two forelegs of his centaur form were breaking.  I was slower than the thrown silver blades, so Precipice had signaled me, then timed the throws to connect just before I did.

Lord of Loss lurched forward, his forward tilt and the falling legs damaging the house as they toppled.  His shield came forward, the end slamming into the ground, which allowed him to avoid a faceplant.  Already, his legs were reforming.

Silver blades hit the shield, and I hit Lord of Loss.  The shield broke, and the broken end skidded on the ground.  Where it skidded, floorboards broke and shattered, and masses beneath the floorboards began to move, disturbing them further.

It was taking two of us just to keep an Endbringer-sized breaker from getting fully put together and building up his momentum.  Our team wasn’t getting away because forward progress was a slog, hampered by Nursery’s power and the soldiers that had to be dealt with one by one.

My ears rang in the wake of a blast somewhere down on the battlefield.  It was one of three shots- lasers that hurt to listen to.  The cape was one of Lord of Loss’s underlings, it seemed, and they were slinging blasts like nobody’s business.  A flaming lob high overhead that forced our guys to scatter, then a volley of green and black spheres, that cracked like eggs and leaked out acid.  Foil turned the spider-mounted crossbow around to fire, and the blaster threw something to their feet- crystal encased them, freezing them immobile within for less than a second.  It was less than a second because Foil’s shot hit the crystal and both the bolt and the crystal shattered.  The cape was free to fire off some more artillery-like lobs.

Foil was running out of ammunition.

Lord of Loss advanced, two of his legs unsteady, forcing him to use the end of the lance or the shield to support his weight.  I circled over his head like a vulture, ready to act, and he was keeping an eye out for me.  The lance moved, swiping out.

The movement of the lance produced a shockwave that threw my flying off course.

Have to be careful, I told myself.  Can’t- can’t repeat the Crawler situation.

With the force that lance was swinging around with, a good hit could destroy the Wretch and produce a residual flurry of wind that would slam me into a hard surface.

Mood, I thought.

Self-doubt and regret was Precipice.  Another signal.

I took the signal for what it was and engaged Lord of Loss.  Again, the lance swiped past me.  The aftermath was worse than it had been, pulling me into the eddy of air that followed after the lance.

I closed the distance, and I landed a solid blow.  Lord of Loss began to crumble.

One-two punches.  I wasn’t even sure it was possible to take Lord of Loss out of commission, but if we could slow him down enough…

The crumbling continued.

Did we kill him?

With each piece that hit the ground, more of the ‘floor’ broke, where the floor was just something interdimensional, a landscape rewrite that produced floorboards about as durable as popsicle sticks, with a whole lot of fertile meat things beneath that surface.

He emerged, a phoenix from its egg.  Bird-form, built like a hawk, but with elaborate, extensive wings, and ‘streamers’ of metal strips that were more rigid than not, with sharp edges.  Each pump of the wings was slow, barely matching the downward pull of gravity.  Each pump was stronger than the last.

He turned human, shedding his breaker exterior, then went breaker again.

I flew to intercept, while it was still largely immobile.  He didn’t try to dodge, and he didn’t fight me.  With the Wretch active, I punched in, and I broke through the exterior.

I saw Lord of Loss himself.  A figure, not that tall for someone who made such chronically large breaker forms.  He wasn’t human, but existed instead as a nimbus of glowing strips that formed a vaguely human silhouette where they intersected most and were brightest.  Where they pulled away, they became solid.

The loose strips and broken ends began to close in around me, like I was now standing in the midst of an giant’s open mouth, fangs on either side of me, fingers curling in to keep me from escaping.  It was still flying, if lopsided, but that wasn’t my immediate concern.

I had to pull away.  He got to keep flying.

Aroa and Chastity were dealing with the blaster of infinite variety.  Aroa’s power was a blast of her own, but not the kind that was easily dodged.  It was as instantaneous as lightning, and it left afterimages more than actual images, and those after images curled instead of zig-zagging, peeled off instead of forking.

She wasn’t one of the strongest Heartbroken, based on what I’d been told.  Not in this kind of situation.  Not with relatively short range.  Her power stung people, whole-body, and it adjusted the pain response to make them like pain, whether it was from her or another source.

In another circumstance, I imagined she could be like Regent, insidious and very dangerous.  Here, it was a way to distract, unnerve, and even condition an unwary foe to not want to get out of the way of danger.

Lord of Loss’s bird form took evasive action to avoid Precipice’s power. One good hit could buy me the chance to get in and take him down, since he would be unable to flap his wings, but he wasn’t inclined to allow that.

As I closed him, I saw his head turn, noting me.  He veered to one side, crashing through the skeleton of a building that was only beams and girders dusted with snow and covered in sheets of ice.  As pieces toppled, I was forced to back off.

We were getting bogged down.  The blaster had been doing something strategic in lobbing that fire and spreading that acid.  The ground had been broken, and one mass had sprouted, less of a tongue and more like a woman stretched out to ten feet in length, hairless and skinny, and wrapped up in a layered straightjacket of her own flesh and translucent, veiny flesh.  Her toothless mouth yawned open as she jerked one way and the other, her attention on Candy.

Escape routes were lost to mist and Nursery’s power.  The enemy’s soldiers that were still in the fight were putting up a good fight.  One had a Foil bolt through the barrel of his gun, but was holding the gun by the barrel with the bolt used as a spear.

I changed direction, swooping in to go after the problem elements.  Broken legs would have to do.

As I veered off, so did Lord of Loss.  One could have seen it as us flying in formation, but it was the opposite.  I made a sharp right turn, Lord of Loss made a sharp left.

I knew what he’d do- there were only so many destinations for him.  I was faster, but he could hit harder and bigger.

He’d flown through the construction sites that littered Love Lost’s neighborhood.  I did the same.

Come on, Wretch.  Don’t fuck with me.  If you go from grabbing shit to refusing to grab anything here, I’m going to be pissed.

The first attempt failed, as I skimmed past a stack of what looked like solar glass panels, rigged up with chains so the crane could lift them up.  The Wretch didn’t touch any of it.

On the second attempt, I veered too close to the mist.  The tarp I grabbed with both my real hands and the Wretch broke away.  Nursery’s power had turned some of it to curtain or some shit like that, and the connection between the two halves wasn’t strong.

I could see something writhing beneath the curtain that fell aside now that the tarp was no longer attached.

My teeth grit, I circled around.  The others were winning their fights but losing the war.  Candy wasn’t using her power, Aroa wasn’t a gamechanger, Chastity had a tightrope to walk, and Foil was doing a damn good job considering she was preoccupied with the injured Parian, but she was still running out of ammunition.

And then there was Precipice.  Rain.  I looked at him, and he turned from looking at Lord of Loss, who was tracing a loose u-turn, to look up at me.

To be sure he could see me, I used my arm to point at the nearby crane.

He fired, striking at the neck of the crane itself.

Again, still flying toward my target, I indicated.

Come on, I thought.  Get this right, and please, don’t let the wind jar the crane and make the neck split, because that’s not what I need.

The silver blade cut into the cable, this time.

I flew into the hook, grabbing it, activated my strength and tore it free.  Multiple cables thinner than my wrist trailed behind me.

Lord of Loss was diving.  He skimmed damaged buildings on his way down, and the ones touched by Nursery’s power broke apart.  More holes in the ground, more meat rising up.

But he was drawing nearer and nearer to the ground now.  He wasn’t going to crush anyone in the group, slamming into them with a bird form the size of a large truck.  He was going to destroy the landscape and let Nursery’s things out.

A loop in the air let me catch the midpoint of the cabling.  From there, it was a question of catching up.  I’d turned right, hit the construction site, and now was charging in.  Lord of Loss was bigger, more ungainly, but powerful, and he’d needed more time and room to turn around.  Now we were roughly the same distance from the group, both flying in like jousting knights, and my teammate and allies were hunkered down near the point where Lord of Loss and I were likely to clash.

Parian was knitting her snake and spider together, forming something else.  Chastity and Aroa fended off the others nearby, with whipcracks and blasts.

Precipice hit Lord of Loss across the wing, and Lord of Loss froze.  He glided, not flapping, not moving, and continued his steady, inexorable descent.  With his course being what it was, he would hit the edge of the road and slide alongside the group, carving out a trench.

That trench would mean no escape.

Precipice’s silver line wore off.  Fresh silver blades hit.  One at the head.  Another at the body.

By virtue of being faster, I passed over the group, veering to one side so I didn’t brain or slash any of them with the trailing ends of the cabling, and flew straight at Lord of Loss.

The giant bird made of calcified metal strips laughed, a booming sound.  Like he was having fucking fun.

I crashed into him, the loops and cabling catching him at the neck- but he wasn’t rigid.  I tried to steer his whole body up, but he angled his wings to force the dive.

Futile.

Leaving the loops where they were, I grabbed the hook.  I had a split second to decide what to do with it, and… there wasn’t a building or landscape feature in reach that I could latch onto.  Given scale and momentum, I doubted it would have mattered.

Instead, using my strength, I impaled the one wing and hauled on it.  He fought me, and it was an arm wrestling contest, with the distinction that neither of us were using our own strength.

I almost faltered, feeling the doubt creep in, knowing that a particularly violent crash with steel cabling whipping around everywhere would be worse.  Then the feeling disappeared.

It wasn’t enough to steer Lord of Loss far enough away to matter.  But Parian had her combined animal, almost shaped like a hand planted on the ground, with the arm extending up and out.  Akin to a spear planted in the ground to stop a charging horse.  Lord of Loss rammed into it and the vibration that ran through him rattled my brain, shaking my senses to the point that I momentarily lost touch with everything.

We spiraled out, and a combination of jarring impact and a cable looped around my arm kept me from flying up and away from the crash site.

I lay where I was, cold and hurting from head to toe, a steel cable draped behind me and two uncomfortably beneath me, and I thought about how I’d need to kick Precipice’s ass, after this.  I knew he was trying to make Lord of Loss hesitate, that I’d caught only the edge of the effect, but he needed to put one and one together.  If the heartbroken’s power wouldn’t work, why would his?

Lord of Loss was pulling himself together.  I was just about as fast as he was, which wasn’t fast at all.

A silver blade hit Lord of Loss in one wing.  He’d been leaning on it for support and balance, and it broke with the pressure.

I backed up, skirting the hole that Parian’s stuffed spidersnake had made as the impact had driven it into the ground.  Mass was rising up, but it was enough competing parts that they were getting jammed up in the hole.

“How’s Parian?” I asked.

“Not good.  We’ve been trying to get out, stick to shaker protocols-”

“Don’t fight them on their turf,” I said.

“But she covers so much ground with that power.”

I nodded, my jaw set.  Fuck, I hurt all over.

There weren’t any good escape routes on foot, and I didn’t trust carrying a whole team by air.  It was one thing if I carried Kenzie’s projection cube with straps.  Another thing if it was a team of people, some injured.

Aroa had a bloody nose, but her eyes glittered.  Chastity had three glowing fingernails.  Candy-

“I still have a shot.  I’m saving it for Nursery, right?”

I nodded.  “Might not end the effect.”

“You could let us be taken prisoner,” Foil said.  “Fly away, get help.”

I shook my head.

“Keep it in mind as a last resort.”

“Last we saw, Nursery was pissed.  If I leave you, you all get the Nursery treatment.”

Chastity’s voice was low, dangerous.  “I told myself I’d never have a baby.  I’ve changed too many diapers, given too many baths, fed smelly food to smellier cousins and whatever.  I’d sooner die.”

“Let’s not let it come to that,” I said.  “And while we’re assessing what to do and what not to do…  Precipice.”

“Sorry,” he said.  “Panic.”

“If it was a gun or a toy I’d take it away from you,” I said.  “It almost fucked me up when I tried to lasso him.”

“Sorry,” he said.

The bulge where the stuffed doll had been driven into the floorboards was opening up now.  The bits of flesh that had been competing for space at the edge of the hole were now rising tall.  One reached out to start pumping seeds into the ear of one of Lord of Loss’s soldiers.  Another started trying to feed on the stuffed animal.  Futile.  The stuffed creation fought and smashed until it was pulled down.

Others were creeping out, trying to seize on fallen soldiers.  All together, they stopped, leaving those soldiers alone.

“She’s here,” I said.  They’ll be controlled instead of acting animal.

“She’s there,” Aroa said.  She grabbed Candy by the shoulders, spinning her around.

Candy blew a kiss.

I couldn’t see a result, aside from a stagger on the distant Nursery’s part, where she stood by a building.  But I felt a general change in the movements of Nursery’s creations.  Some started groping for unconscious and injured soldiers again.

“Two out of ten,” Aroa said.

“I don’t trust your reviews,” Candy said.

“If you want to pose while using your ability you have to do way better than that.”

“You’d lie just to make me feel bad because you get your-”

Focus,” Chastity said.

“Okay.  But I’m out of power, just so you know.  I hit her with a quarter tank of happiness oversaturation.”

The battlefield was Nursery’s, even if she wasn’t in control; she was keeping one hand on her head and looking around in alarm, but she was still creating mist.  Any hard impacts broke the ground and released monsters.

Lord of Loss, immune to those monsters, was stomping around, tearing everything up.  Some of his soldiers were still there at the edges.

I had to digest the flow of events, scouring my brain to think of how we were supposed to get out of this.

I surveyed the battlefield, where Lord of Loss was near the center, standing tall again, not any worse for wear.  The ground was room temperature with stale air, the air above cold, and the two combined to make something that was the worst of both worlds, reeking of blood and bile.  Tentacles, tongues, and skin-straightjacket women were standing out from the ruined landscape, others were moving beneath the cracked floorboards to the point that those floorboards bulged or oozed with meat.  The stuffed animal that was losing its fight against the meat.

“I think I get how your power is really supposed to work,” I said.

“Mine?” Rain asked.

“Who else?” I asked.  “Listen carefully, because whether I’m right or wrong, this is going to suck.”

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Blinding – 11.6

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It had been a long, long time since I’d fought with any musical accompaniment.  Glory Girl had worn headphones for a little while, to fill the silence while she patrolled, and because she hadn’t been one to have a back and forth with the small fries she was taking down.

Mom had put a stop to that.  Situational awareness was too important, she’d said.

Now, the music box chiming came from nowhere, and the dull heartbeat thud was a percussive element overlapping that.  Other sounds creeped in, but it sounded like they were mostly aboveground.  It didn’t quite come together as a complete musical piece, but that gave it more effect, not less.

Situational awareness was in full effect now.

“Don’t touch the walls,” I said, as we hurried down the storm drain’s tunnel.  About two hundred feet ahead of us, there was a section that was open to the air, where the upper half of the drain hadn’t been laid in yet.  The mist that Nursery’s power generated was coming in hard, rose-tinted and distorting the surroundings.  Where it was heaviest, especially around that open air, it was rewriting things.  Curved walls became hallways with straight walls perpendicular to floor.  Water with a paper-thin sheet of ice atop it simply terminated, not flowing into the lower ground where there was no water.  Just stopping.

“It’s not an illusion?” Parian asked.

“No.  Localized reality overwrite.  Reality works differently in her nursery-space.  Don’t touch the walls, don’t touch the floor where it’s fully changed.  And if we run into her, remember that area-effect powers don’t tend to work in the rewritten area.”

“I don’t know if my powers are area-effect,” Precipice said.

“Mine either,” Candy said.

“Let’s not fight her on her turf and hope we don’t have to test it.  Parian, can your snake be a bridge where the effect is most intense?”

“Yeah.  I can handle that… but I’m really wondering what happens if we touch the walls or floor?” Parian asked.

“Hopefully nothing.  But I’ve read reports of bad things happening when people got stuck in her shaker effect when it’s most intense.”

Like?

I looked back at Candy and Aroa.  “I don’t want to scare you guys.”

“Our daddy gave us fear for breakfast,” Candy said.  “I was so young I’m not sure I would have even been in school then-”

“You would have.  Definitely,” Chastity cut in.

“Okay, but I don’t remember much from those days, and I remember getting chocolate frosted fear bombs for breakfast-”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Aroa cut in.

“Stop interrupting!  Sacrament!  It’s metaphor!”

“It’s dumb,” Aroa said.

“What are you saying, and is it important?” I asked.

“Daddy made me scared when he wanted me to stay out of his room, he made me as happy as a little girl getting a puppy on Christmas morning when he needed me to clean up some baby barf tout de suite…”

My skin crawled.

“…I don’t remember much, but I remember those moments.  Don’t look down on me,” the girl finished.  She was still jogging along the side of the column, periodically slipping where the sloped wall on either side of the water was icier or slimy.  Chastity was fully in the water, and whatever contention the sisters had, Chastity was there to support her younger sister and keep her from outright falling into the damp.

“Fine.  As the power saturates a place, containers will fill with her power.  If containers don’t exist, they’ll appear on their own.  One thing that can happen is that you touch a wall and your hand goes through it like it would go through wet paper, and there’s something living on the other side.”

“Or the floor.  You said we have to watch the floor,” Parian said.

“Yeah, but there isn’t much we can do about that,” I said.  “The way powers tend to prioritize things, walls will be a problem before floors are.”

“How do you know that?” Parian asked.

“Studies,” I said.  “PRT research.  Classes.  There’s a whole mess of research into why people like Shadow Stalker from our hometown didn’t fall through the floor to the planet’s core.”

Precipice was typing on his phone while using it for light.  He aimed it at the floor, nearly tripping as he kicked a bit of ice crust on the top of the water that others hadn’t already broken up.  Chastity caught him.

Before straightening, he aimed his phone at the ground.  I could see that he’d modified it, with a chunk of what looked like battery with wire wrapped around it mounted on the top.

“Scanning?” I asked, quiet.

“Trying.  I used Lookout’s numbers as a model.  Our- that other tinker’s scanner we found earlier, I looked at that too.  But it’s mostly noise, I don’t know how to use it yet.”

“Okay,” I said.

“You’re right,” he said.  “Walls are more intense than floor.”

“Good to know,” I said, my expression serious.  I put a hand on Parian’s shoulder as I passed her.  “It’s probably going to be a little while before we need to worry about stepping into a hole.  Let’s get out of here before it’s a real problem.”

“Good plan,” she said.

I nodded.  I flew ahead.  As tense and borderline sick as I felt, my gorge not in my throat but definitely ready to go there, I felt a bit happy that my little bit of cape knowledge from a paper I’d skimmed years ago had been relevant and validated here.

Feeling sick with mixed feelings did provoke another thought.

“Candy talking about emotions is reminding me,” I said, fibbing about the source.  “Precipice?  We need to figure out how you’re handling your power in a fight.  Friendly fire.”

“Ah.  Shit.”

“Last few times, it’s been a problem.  Nothing big enough it’s changed the outcome, but it came close.  Sorry to bring it up here, but-”

“But if you didn’t you might forget, or it might change things now.  It’s fine.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“I can take my lumps.  It’s about all I’m good for, a lot of the time.”

“You’ve got a lot of good points,” I said.  “Don’t undersell yourself.”

“What’s the power?” Chastity asked.

“Shame and regret thing.  I’ve been meaning to figure it out, so I’ve been trying to use it more often.”

The music box sounds were fading, but the thudding was heavier.  I wasn’t sure how to interpret it, but there was enough of a distinction in play that I was pretty sure there was a pattern to be deciphered.

“You used it at the hospital,” Candy said.

“Yeah, on its lowest setting.  I thought it might help make you guys go away,” he said.  He was holding his phone up to the wall as he jogged by it, the top and bottom thirds of the screen filled with numbers, the middle section showing a graph.  “Sorry.”

“Apologize when your power actually does something.  You used that emotion power on us.”

“I’m trying to figure it out,” he said.

“Let’s stay focused,” I said.  “We’re close to the hole, so keep your voices down.”

“Right,” Precipice said.

“We’ll figure your thing out,” I told Precipice.  “When things are calmer.”

“I’m happy to help,” Chastity said.

“Uh, sure.  Thank you,” he replied.

We edged closer to the place where the drain was empty.  The mist was flowing down from the street above, and the entire area had changed.  No ice, no water, just walls with peeling wallpaper, floor that might have been hardwood, and scattered children’s blocks.

Parian’s snake slithered past us, the knotted material sloshing through water and ice on its way to the area, then scraping against the floor, depositing moisture on the surface.

As we drew nearer, ready to move across it, the walls pressed in.  They were wallpapered, but there wasn’t any wall behind the wallpaper.  Something fat and wet like a tongue pressed in, moisture blotting out to color the surface as it bulged.  The thudding from behind the walls was evident in how the fleshy bulge throbbed.

All with one singular heartbeat.

Foil had her rapier out, pointed at it but not penetrating, while the others hurried forward.  Precipice was one of the last to cross.  He held up his scanner, aimed at the bulge, then passed his hand between scanner and bulge.  He startled a bit.

“Go,” I hissed the word.

He wasted no time.

The thudding from behind was mixed up with added impacts as Lord of Loss touched down somewhere not too far away.

We hurried down the drain tunnel, putting the effect behind us.

“Lord of Loss is close,” I whispered, as I floated to catch up with the group  I saw Foil and Chastity look back at me.  “Familiar with him?”

“Shapeshifting breaker,” Foil said.  “Big, brutish.”

“Repeated motions are more effective,” I said.

“That’s always the case,” Chastity said.  “Find what works and keep doing that.”

“It’s more the case for him, I assume,” Precipice said.

“He’s got size on his side too,” Chastity said.

Precipice turned his head, giving her a long look.  Chastity’s face was barely visible, with none of the flashlights aimed directly at it, but I could see the smile.

“We’re close to the first building that we thought might be theirs,” Precipice said.  “If we’re going aboveground, we should do it further down the street here.  There might be a side tunnel.”

“Good,” I said.  “Nice work, keeping an eye on that.”

“Lookout’s stuff, not mine,” he said.

“You did figure something out with your stuff, didn’t you?” I asked.  “Your scanner picked something up.”

He turned to look at me.  He nearly tripped a second later, but Chastity put a hand to his shoulder.

“Yeah,” he said.  He raised his phone, and tapped the screen with his thumb.  The feed of numbers and movement of the graph changed, changing from red on a black background to yellow, instead.  He scrolled, and the readings went backward in time, flowing the opposite way, tinted green as they did.

“Means nothing to me,” I said.

“There’s something haptic in there.  Sense-sharing, binding biology, not all that different from what I do with the tactile feedback pads.”

“Yeah.  Parasites.”

“The tongue in the wall infects you?” he asked, with a note of alarm in his voice.

“Oh my god,” Parian said.

“Yuck,” Candy said.

“Basically infection,” I said, trying to sound as casual as ‘infection’ warranted. “Sure.”

“She’s lying,” Candy said.

Fucking fucker emotion readers.  The ones who weren’t Dean sucked.  I shot Candy a look, and Precipice noticed.

“What the hell, Antares?” Precipice asked.  “I need accurate info for my scans.”

“Fine.  We’ll talk about it later.  Your scans don’t matter until we get back to your workshop anyway, right?  It’s not like you’re calibrating anything in the field.”

He was a grim kind of silent as he jogged along.

The tinkling music box chimes had come to an outright stop.  The thudding persisted, but it was more general and dull than it had been.  Less of a sound like someone banging against the walls, less of a heartbeat, and more of a distant pounding.

Not that we had walls here, per se.  The storm drain was a concrete tube with iced-over water in the bottom tenth of it, and a whole lot of dirt and pavement in the area immediately around it.

“Assimilation?” Precipice asked.

“No,” I said.  “Can we drop it?  Let’s hide out, figure out what we’re doing, figure out which of the teams is being targeted, and then mobilize.  Hopefully without ever having to deal with Nursery again.”

“Is it a lotophage thing?  Pulling people into a specific, themed dream state?”

“Fuck me, Precipice,” I said.  “You can’t let it go?”

“I’m stubborn.  It’s the only thing I really have going for me.  Knowing would help me interpret my scans.  I can potentially use this!”

“Then, again, I’ll explain when we’re back at your workshop.”

Foil cleared her throat.  “I’d like to know.”

“It would help to counter it,” Parian said.

I didn’t want to talk about it because it bothered me.  I didn’t want to picture what it involved.  That gorge was closer to being in my throat now, to the point it hurt to swallow.

“Not assimilate, not exactly infect.  Not… whatever you just said.”

“Lotophage.  Lotus Eaters?  The Odyssey?”  Precipice suggested.

“I never read the Odyssey.  Only got what came up in adaptations,” I said.  I paused.  “Impregnate.”

“Uh what the fuck?” Precipice asked.

“That’s the theme,” I said.  “Close to infect, really, but-”

What the fuck?” he asked.

“I”m not good with the ick,” Foil said.  “The Dolltown victims were almost too much for me.  Parian knows.  I’d always prefer riding Parian’s dolls instead of Bitch’s dogs.”

“Wouldn’t anyone?” I asked.

“Not Bitch.  Not a few other people, believe it or not.”

“You asked, now you know,” I said.  “We won’t let it get that far.”

“How far does it get, worst case?” Precipice asked.

“Surgery,” I said.  “To stop the cycle.  Get everything out of your system.  But she doesn’t like taking things that far so she holds back, I think.  Authorities came after her in her apartment at one point and one guy got it bad.  She got away because people were trying to help him.”

“Fuck me,” Precipice said.

“Absolument,” Chastity added.

“I’m a little scared now, not going to lie,” Candy said.

“We’ll stay clear,” I said.

“We’re close to the house,” Precipice said.  He pointed.

He paused, after pointing, then created a blade of silvery light.

“Problem?”

“No,” he said.  “Just realizing I’m an idiot.  Just realized my blades shed more light than my phone.”

“Not idiotic,” I said.  “There’s always a learning curve.  And you’ve got more powers to figure out than most.”

Precipice led the way, venturing down a side-tunnel with a much steeper incline.  There was no water or ice on the underside of the tunnel, which was a nice upside, but I did have to position myself to keep others from sliding or falling.

Precipice checked his phone, then looked back at me, his blade a hair away from the wall.

Quiet, I asked, “Chastity, can your body sense detect people?”

“Not much further away from arm’s reach,” Chastity whispered.

“Okay,” I said.  “Candy, the lie sense, that doesn’t have any application here, figuring out if anyone’s above us?”

Candy snorted.

“She doesn’t have a lie sense,” Chastity said.  “She has a hallucination power.  We went over our powers.”

“I just called you a liar,” Candy said, gleefully.  “You seemed a bit hesitant so I tried it, and it totally worked.”

Aroa put out a hand and Candy slapped it in a little high five.

I clenched a fist.

“Roll with it,” Foil said.  “You won’t win, it’s not worth the fight.  You can’t discipline them, you just… guide.”

Chastity was nodding, even though she was one of them.

“You got me,” I said.

“Yep,” Candy said.

“Emotion powers usually have some feedback aspect to them, or emotion reading.”

“Often,” she said.  “Not me.”

“Okay.  Because you said yours was emotionally charged hallucinations, if I remember right.”

“I have a certain amount of juice that refills over time.  I can push it into people… can’t dodge it, can’t stop it.  Makes you see, hear, feel, taste what you like most in the world, except it maps to everything.  Makes you sick of it, really fast.  If I push in a lot of juice then it’s a lot of seeing things and hearing things, tasting things and feeling things, and it takes forever to go away.  By the time it does, you’ll never go back to liking that thing.”

“Or person,” Aroa said.  “Or food, or experience.”

“Nathan wouldn’t let me play with his game consoles, said they weren’t for girls and girls should stick to fucking, having babies, cooking, and cleaning.  I hit him with a full tank of juice because.  For five days he was living his video games, and now, after, he can’t even look at a screen or touch a control, even for tv and tv remotes.”

“He can’t do much now,” Aroa said.

“That’s his own fault, and it’s not all me.  But I don’t get to see whatever it is.  I just know they’re juiced and I can tell where they are because I can feel the ‘juice’ while it’s stirring in someone else.”

“Which isn’t actually juice,” Chastity said.  “Energy.”

“Yeah,” Candy said.  “Alien too-much-happy stuff.”

“Don’t use a full tank on anyone here, okay?  No matter how dire the situation is.  No permanent effects,” I said.

“Can’t anyway.  If I’m full up then I start brimming over and affecting people around me.  I wouldn’t do that to my cousins or anyone like Chicken Little or Lookout,” Candy said.  “I find people to dose.”

“Okay,” I said.  I didn’t want to think too much about what that would look like.  “You couldn’t push some juice up into the space above us and see if it hits anyone?”

“Good idea, but no.”

I pulled up the disc, then turned it on.  The distortion wasn’t what it had been.  Less bad.  People were intact and moving.  Both groups were in a hurry.  The image distorted here and there, fluctuating.

My phone had no service.  We checked with Precipice sending me a text.  Again, there was too much distortion.

“Nursery’s effect is still here.  I think that’s why we’re having trouble connecting to the rest of the world,” Precipice said.

“She was here earlier, then,” Foil said.

“Or close by.”  I drew in a breath.  “I can’t imagine them staying put here while the others are on the move.  Three active teams converging on one point.  Let’s get up there and see if there’s anything.  It could be an empty house, the occupants could be out there looking for us.  Let’s go  Let’s make a hole and be ready for a fight.”

“Got it,” Precipice said.

The blade touched the wall.  A square of silver light was marked out.

I punched it, Wretch active, then flew to the side.

It came down in pieces, the concrete pipe wall, then the gravel and compacted dirt above it.  I could see the wood and plastic-covered insulation where the exterior wall of the house was.

I signaled, made sure the other heroes were with me, then flew forward, busting through.  I moved quickly, as soon as I was through.  To wall, then another wall, floor.  Hallway, another room.

The place was occupied.  I saw sleeping bags.  I saw food.  A pile of construction supplies had been made into a makeshift desk.

Footsteps behind me.  Foil.  Precipice was right by her, heading another direction, blades glowing in his hands.

We fanned out through the house.  Empty.

Precipice, Foil and I found ourselves in an upstairs room that had most likely intended to be an office.  We chose it not because it was central, but because it was undeniably Love Lost’s space.

On one of the desks, a series of bars, rods, and blades were arranged, laid out on paper with lines scratched out in something that looked halfway between an engineering blueprint and calligraphy.  The layout made it clear what the assembled package would be.  One of Love Lost’s claws.  It looked like the claws were meant to extend into whips, which would go from razor thin to being fifty or a hundred ring-shaped razor segments compacted together into a covering over each finger.

There were computers, I noted.  There were planners.  I paged through one planner.

“Careful,” Foil said, as Precipice opened one laptop.  “Tinker means traps.”

“It’s true,” I said.

“I can scan,” he said.  “No guarantees, but it might turn up something.”

I nodded.

He slid the laptop closer to me, pulling out his phone.  He attached the bulky scanner over the open socket where the camera had been torn out.

He swept it over the computer.  I watched as he went over the entire room, periodically going back to Love Lost’s gauntlet.  He typed something out, then held out the phone.  It beeped as it swept over the gauntlet.

“How do you distinguish a trap from regular tech?” I asked.

“She’s working from a similar starting place to me,” Precipice said.  “If I see something like what she makes, it should stand out like… a word in English in a jumble of random characters.”

“Traps can be mundane,” Foil said.  She used a dart to penetrate a locked cabinet that was part of the desk, then stood as far away as possible, using her sword to open it.

Empty.

She approached the area with the laptop.  Precipice put out a hand.

He brought his phone to the computer.  As he did, it beeped.

He rummaged for a bit before finding an attachment at the side.  A fake side panel.  When he pulled it away, needles spilled out.  I wasn’t sure exactly how it was supposed to work, but it looked ominous.  They were barbed.

“Oh,” Foil said.

“Seems like the kind of thing she would protect,” he said.

He gave the room a once-over.  Foil fidgeted.

“Let us work here,” Precipice said.  “You focus on downstairs.  Take my phone?  Check for traps.  If it beeps, call me.”

Foil nodded.

I let the laptop Precipice had opened boot up.  It showed a login screen.

“Password protected,” I said.  “Do you have a hacking thing like Lookout does?”

“No,” Precipice said.  “Try… Father’s daughter two-zero-closing parentheses-number-sign.  Chevron instead of space, no apostrophe, capital F, capital D, capitalize all vowels.”

I typed it out.

FAthErs^DAUghtEr20)#

I showed him.  He nodded.  I hit enter… and nothing.

“A checkered scarf for Ever.  Capitalize each word, all vowels.  No spaces this time-”

“Are you sure you don’t want to do this?”

“Let me finish the sweep.  Try in the meantime, if that’s ok.  Or leave it, and I’ll get to the computer.”

“I think this OS sends an alert to your phone if you get a certain number wrong.”

“She sets it to alert her phone if someone gets one wrong.  It’s fine.  If we pull her away from whatever she’s doing and get lost before she turns up, that’s good, right?”

I nodded.

He walked me through the next password.

AChEckErEdScArf4EVER_/#/#/#/=

The computer hung.

The OS came up.  Immediately, I set to work.  I brought up the wheel menu, went to the browser, and opened it up.

“There’s a password vault,” I said.  “I need a single password to get things to auto-fill.”

Rain took over.

“I saw her on this computer in some of the dreams.   Before our trigger.  She still has it.  She doesn’t look at her hands while typing, but I can feel what she types.  After a couple of days of doing research with Erin and getting practice typing myself, it started clicking,” he said.

“Muscle memory.”

“Her muscles.  Kind of.  I could figure out what she was typing, the characters came into my head.  She likes the long ones for things she wants to keep secure.  The checkered scarf one is long, so this might be even longer.  We could bring it with us instead of stumbling through.”

I pointed at the bottom-layer wheel.  There was an icon.

“Location tracker.  That can be worked around,” Precipice said.  “Flip some switches, wrap it in tinfoil…”

“I’d feel better just not worrying about it,” I told him.  “Can you?”

“I can try.”

He tried four variants, using no spaces, then chevrons instead of spaces, then moving on to another phrase.

While he worked, I checked the disc.  The scenes were distorted, but it wasn’t as bad as before.  I could make out figures reasonably well, enough to tell something from body language.

Yellow team was scrambling, but they didn’t look like they were running for their lives.  Nobody limped, nobody was shouting, and when they came to a stop, they did so collectively.  They would be the ones closest to Cradle, if things weren’t more mixed up than I was assuming.  Tattletale was talking, and Chicken Little was nodding, hanging on her every word.  They set to running again.

Red team was looking more stressed out, but they were doing less.  They weren’t running.  If anything, I imagined them hunkered down in a fortified area.  Swansong turned her head to shout something.

The issue was that it was a thirty minute trip to get to either of the other groups, assuming my team drove.  I could fly there in a shorter time.  The question was what I could do to help in the now, that might help them enough that they could last another thirty minutes.

The password manager lit up.  There was a list of everything the password manager had unlocked, except Love Lost used code or a shorthand only she understood.  Leather, leash, quartz, catclaw, pitch, pigeon.

Quartz drew my attention, because it looked like there were six quartzes, running from Quartz00 to Quartz05.

I right-clicked it and found a ‘go to location’ option.  I hit it.

The folder it took me to had a ‘read first’ file, describing the program it was meant to be used with.  The six quartz files were six halves of encryption keys for six drives that were supposed to be plugged in.

I rummaged and I found them.  A case beneath a set of screwdrivers.  Opening it up, I saw a set of small storage drives, each in a brushed aluminum case, with a single cord laid out in the middle of the package, for connecting the drives to a computer.

That wasn’t what was especially important right now.  I put it aside.  Leather… family albums.  Photos.  I didn’t want to browse, this wasn’t a priority either, but I saw one photo highlighted because there was a preview in the sidebar.  A red haired woman with a red haired daughter, an Asian man with a shaved head and a cigarette perched in his mouth.  There were others of her with friends or family members.  Of her on a beach.  Of her in a uniform, receiving an award.

A real person.  A person with a past.  I shivered.

It bothered me more than it should have.  I didn’t want to betray secret identities quite like this.  But lives were at risk.  People were crossing lines, chopping human beings to pieces and letting them suffer.

Leash was the location tracker.  Having the admin password let me open it.  While it was on, I could see where Love Lost’s other tech was.  Her phone was on her person, and her person was… very close to Ashley’s group.

I sent a warning.

“We could pack up,” Precipice said.  “Disable it.”

“It looks like disabling the location tracker means neither device knows where the other is.  There’s no way to control it so we’re off but we can watch her.”

“Still.”

“Let me work a second more.  There has to be something we can do to alleviate the pressure on the others,” I said.

“I trust you,” he said.

Catclaw: tinker notes, scans, files, images.  Villain stuff.  There were communiques there.  Nothing we could use for the current situation.

Pitch.  An online wallet.  Thirteen thousand dollars sat in the account.  A transaction list showed a long list of transactions with nothing identifying the recipients or reasons.  Only amounts.

Just a matter of hours ago, sixty thousand had been moved from her account elsewhere.  Twelve thousand to one account.  Twenty-eight thousand to another.  Ten thousand to one account, ten thousand to the same account the twenty-eight had gone to.

Each entry had a set of options by them.

I moused over, looked over my shoulder, and saw that Foil and Precipice were behind me looking over my shoulder.

“Yes?” I asked.  “Any objection?”

“I don’t know if it’s going to do what you think it will,” Foil said.  “But sure.”

I hit ‘contest’.  A bubble came up with a list of options around the radial.

“Service not rendered,” I said, as I selected the option.

“You think it’s the mercenaries she paid for?” Precipice asked.

“And I’m guessing escrow,” I said.  “To go through when the job is confirmed done.”

“That makes sense,” he said.  He looked at the numbers.  “Being a villain pays.”

“Considering it?” I asked, trying to sound casual, as tense as the overall situation was, as not-casual as the possibility of him turning to the wrong side might be.

“No,” he said.  “It costs too.”

I nodded.

I went down the page and contested everything.  I was twelve options down before I was redirected to another page.

Account suspended.

“That might tie up her ability to act for a bit,” I said.  “And maybe it’ll give mercenaries out there in the field second thoughts.”

“Scary,” Foil said.  “I’m going to go check on Parian and the Heartbroken.  I came up to tell you we already found cash and weapons.”

“Good,” I said, but she was already leaving.  I looked at Precipice.  “I have a guess what pigeon is.”

I opened it up.

An encrypted email client.

There were already three warnings in the inbox about the online wallet.  I looked at the most recent exchanges.

“Ryan,” I said.  I opened it.

A back and forth about mercenaries, apportioning cash.  Who paid what ratio.  Love Lost had done the fundraising, ‘Ryan’ was doing other things behind the scenes.  A ‘Jonathan’ was mentioned in passing.

A lot of talk of ‘nights’.  Whose night it was.  A room.  Precipice.

I looked over at Precipice.

“Yeah,” he said.

Communiques with Lord of Loss.

I am happy to do this level of work because I trust you. A job done is reputation.  \ ._. /
Get the job done get the pay build rapport. (E >_<)E   ~(L o L ~)
My thinker has a good feeling about this :->D

“Wow,” I whispered.  “That’s more horrifying than Nursery’s power.”

“No kidding,” Precipice said.

Nursery was at least somewhat sane.

I sent Lord of Loss and Nursery messages.  I had to check Love Lost’s typing style before crafting it.

JOB COMPLETE.  PAY WITHHELD FOR NOW.  WILL DISCUSS.  VACATE LYME AS WARDENS ARE INVESTIGATING VILLAIN PRESENCE.

There was a pause.

If they called, demanding answers, then there wasn’t much we could do.  But if they didn’t, it was a potential chance to take two capes out of the equation.

There were already two angry emails from mercenaries.  One was Lionwing.  The other was an encrypted handle.  Apparently their accounts had been frozen by my interference with Love Lost’s.

That seemed like an oversight to me, but the economy was a fragile and nascent, and what they were working with looked like a system built upon layers of trust.

A third angry email.  Contender.  My enemy with his personalized, no-powers arena.

I paged through quickly.  I had to go back a week to find it – the anti-parahuman group.  Love Lost had correspondence with them, setting up a meeting.  Twice, she asked them to meet in person, and she was rebuffed.  They didn’t want to meet a dangerous parahuman, even if they were armed.

Which meant the Lyme center, the anti-parahumans having weapons, and a few other terms.

It meant Love Lost told them her objectives.

I HAVE TWO ENEMIES WHO NEED TO DIE.
BOTH PARAHUMANS. THEN I GO.
BORDER WORLD.  WE ARE AT YOUR DISPOSAL IN
TIME OF NEED BUT WE DO NOT INTERFERE.  I REST.
YOU KNOW MY STORY.  WHEN THE FLAME OF MY REVENGE
BURNS OUT I REST.

“She can’t,” Precipice said.  “I don’t see it.  I can’t envision her if she isn’t brimming with rage.”

“Who’s the second parahuman who needs to die?” I asked.

Precipice shook his head, but he didn’t respond.

“Cradle?”

“It’s possible.”

I scrolled down.  From Driskey_Whinker@GIMELNET, a simple question:

How can we trust you will go?

THERE IS NOTHING I CAN SAY TO CONVINCE YOU.
YOU KNOW ME & MY FACE
THE CITY IS LOST ALREADY
IF YOU WANT IT YOU CAN HAVE IT
IF YOU WANT HELP I WILL GRANT IT AT ANY TIME
GIVE ME ARMS TO HOLD AND CLAIM MY CORNER.  TO SECURE MY REST.  I WILL GIVE AND I WILL GRANT IN EXCHANGE
ARMS, AMMUNITION, I SLIT TWO THROATS
THEN YOU ARE RID OF THE WORST OF US

“The city is lost,” I said.  “She said this four days ago?”

Another message from ‘Driskey’.

Why do you think the city is lost?  You sound mad.

MAD AND MADDENED.  YES.
BUT MY PARTNER SNAG TRIES TO COMMUNICATE
I LISTEN
HE IS FAR AWAY AND HE IS CLOSE.  DEAD AND ALIVE
HE SHOUTS AT ME FROM THE BOTTOM OF A WELL FILLED WITH
THE POWER OF A DESTROYED ALIEN WORLD AND I HEAR ECHOES OF WHISPERS
HE SAYS THE CITY IS DOOMED AND HE TRIES TO EXPLAIN WHY AND
I KNOW IT IS TRUE
IS THIS MAD YOU CAN WORK WITH?  WE MEET AND WE TALK.  YOU BRING ALL THE SOLDIERS YOU WANT.  I WILL GIVE YOU NO TROUBLE.  THIS I GUARANTEE.  PHONE ME.

That was all there was.

“Fuck me,” Precipice said.

“You’re saying that a lot.”

“Fuck a lot of this.”

I nodded.

Nothing I could use.  No sign the anti-parahuman groups were  in play – if they were, we’d have to deal with them.

But it was something.

I looked around and I found paper.  I scribbled down a note.

“What are you doing?” Precipice asked.

“A note.  We have her family photos on this computer.  I know you and her are at odds.  I know she’s threatened your life.  But I don’t want to play it that way.  Take illicit money?  Screw up her deals with murderous mercenaries?  Fine.  But if she wants the photos, I’ll send them to her.  They aren’t hostage.  They aren’t part of a deal.”

There was a pause while I scribbled it out.  Precipice was silent.  I underlined ‘not hostage’ on my note.

“Is that okay?” I asked.

Precipice nodded.

I penned out a final line.  I said it out loud as I wrote it, “We want… to talk.  Breakthrough.”

I underlined it.  The willingness to talk, to communicate.  If we couldn’t get there, then there was a very real possibility that Love Lost was on our shortlist of people to trap in an alternate world, not disclosing to anyone what we’d done with her.

Just… too angry.  Too violent.  Even in talking about rest, she talked about guns and claiming her corner.  She talked about being mad.  She thought she could take thugs like Sidepiece and Kitchen Sink and drag them off to a corner world, where they wouldn’t bother anyone, and she could wrangle them there?

I just… didn’t see it.  We’d have to talk it over with others.  Try talking to her first, to see if any middle ground was possible.

I closed the laptop and took the cords.  There was a messenger bag that we could slide it into, along with the other things, including the storage drives.  Precipice took the claw-whip framework that was meant to fit over a hand.

“It’s not set up with location detection?”

“Nothing my scanner sensed.  Maybe there’s a ping it responds to, but for right now I think we’re okay to bring it.  It’ll be useful.”

I nodded.  I’d trust him in this.  This thing with Love Lost, the cluster, and the dynamic, I knew he was well versed in it.

“Are we good to go?” I asked, as we headed down the stairs.  I paused as I saw the cash that was gathered in bags.  The pile covered a countertop that could have had three medium-sized microwaves set side by side.  A mix of currencies.

There were, I noted, three traps. Two had the barbed needles.  The other had something like a spring-coiled version of the claw-lash that Precipice had stolen.  All three had been demolished.  Foil’s power, it looked like, stabbed through and fusing to the internal components, before the shelf or drawer was removed.

“Fuck me, being a villain pays,” Precipice said.

“It really does,” Chastity said, winking at him.

“There are villains who build rep by doing something big,” I said.  “Go after a big hero and win, pull off a major job.  They have ups and downs, but the ups are big.  The Undersiders are an example.”

“Fair,” Parian said.  She was in the kitchen, rooting through cabinets.  There were bricks of drugs wrapped in plastic, most no bigger than a clenched fist.

“Heartbreaker would be one of those,” Chastity said.  She packed up the cash, filling bags.  Precipice went to help her.  “He had some low lows.”

“Yeah,” I answered.  “The other kind of rep is the kind that comes with the record.  Having done fifty jobs and not having any losses under your belt.  Lord of Loss is one of those.  He doesn’t take big jobs, but he doesn’t have anything he’s done that counts as a fuck up.”

“Why not make him fuck up?” Aroa asked.

“Because not everyone can make people do things, hon,” Chastity said.  “We’re kind of unique because most of us can do that.”

“Some heroes specialize in that,” I told Aroa.  “Mouse Protector was an early one that I think stuck in people’s memories.  Ruining perfect records, humiliating villains, knocking them down a peg.  Making their reputation the thing that gets hurt.  She was a good one.”

“Dead?” Candy asked.  I couldn’t even see where she was.

“Disappeared… for a good while.  Turned out the Slaughterhouse Nine got her.”

“Love Lost has that reputation.  She’s good,” Precipice said.  “Commands more pay, I’m guessing.”

“Yeah.  Are we taking all of this?”

“Free money,” Candy said, peering over the pile of cash to look at me.  “And I finally get to try… cocaine?”

“Something opiate,” Chastity said.  “The plastic isn’t like our plastic, either.”

“I get to try opium!”

I looked at Parian, who shook her head.

“Don’t take the bait,” she said.  She was using a roll of cloth at her back as an overlarge arm, raising herself up, moving around, and checking cabinets.  She was finding a good quantity of stuff that had been stored on top shelves, all the way at the back.

Taking the cash and taking the drugs was a way of gutting Love Lost’s revenue stream.

I backed off, pulling up the disc to check the status of the other groups.

Bodies in pieces.  It still made my heart skip a beat.

It was… oddly intense, as far as distortion went.  Why?

As the others worked, I held out my arm, the disc mounted on it like a buckler.  The projected image of team yellow was visible over top, everyone drawn in miniature.

I floated back, and the distortion eased up a fraction.  I could see where disparate pieces were drawing together into something more coherent, between flickers.  I tried to find the place where the signal strength was best.

The others seemed okay, at least.

I heard a beep.  Foil moved Precipice’s phone in front of cabinets, trying to figure out where the trap was.

“Careful,” Precipice said.

Foil raised her rapier, then pointed it at the cabinet.  She let Precipice take his phone and move it around.  When he’d confirmed her target was in the right location, she thrust her sword through.

Five spikes punched through the wood of the cabinet, each a foot long.

Foil’s sword shimmered slightly as she tugged it free.  With a few short swipes up and down, left and right, she demolished the trap.  Spikes that were four feet long tumbled to the counter, then the ground.

The cabinet was open.  There was a miniature filing cabinet inside, partially damaged by the rapier’s swipes.  While Chastity helped Foil take it down, Parian took the phone and started sweeping over the fridge.

I don’t think I’d be comfortable stealing food, I thought.

I was even less comfortable with the distortion.

“Is the distortion in this image not Nursery?” I asked.  I indicated the projected images.

“I thought it was,” Precipice said.

I shook my head.

I moved the disc around more.  This time, my aim was on finding the area with the most distortion.

A triangular closet beneath the stairs.

“Quiet!” I hissed.

All of the rustling and packing up stopped.

There it was.  A dull thud.  Like the heartbeat of someone catatonic, as large as the house.

Precipice raised a hand, touching his ear.  I nodded.

He heard it too.

“Didn’t realize there was a closet there,” Foil said.  “Suddenly glad I didn’t, because I might have opened it.”

“Is she here?” Candy whispered.

No mist, no rose color, no changes to the environment I could see.

“Can’t be,” I said, whispering so I wouldn’t disturb what was inside.  “No, as near as I can figure, the chiming means she’s doing her work, setting her power into an area.  The dull thuds mean the power’s there, active.”

I backed away from the closet.

“So long after she left?” Foil asked.

The door was shut.  Nothing leaked out- no gas, no fluids.

“It’s sealed tight.  The seal is keeping the power inside the containing space,” I said.  “Don’t-”

The fridge door, ajar, opened with enough force that it banged into the wall.  What lunged out was far larger than the space that contained it.  A tongue but with elbows segmenting it.  A length was covered in transparent skin, and the contents looked like a collection of babies, visible as shadows through a translucent skin.

Parian fended it off with cloth.  It grabbed the cloth, then surged- not moving forward, but by growing new segments in a strategic way.  It caught her around the face.

“No!” Foil shrieked.  She leaped over the counter, rapier in hand.  She was slower than Chastity.

Chastity’s hand glowed as she slapped the base of the tongue, close to the fridge.  Nothing.

“It doesn’t feel anything!”

“Then get back!”

I flew in, keeping to the ceiling so I didn’t get in anyone’s way.  Parian was pressed against the wall, her legs kicking, heels skidding against painted surface.  Her cloth and hands found no purchase, pulling away loose tissues like layers of placental sac.

Foil’s weapon severed the creature.  I caught Parian, one arm around her body, the other hand seizing her jaw, hard, because there had to be three hundred pounds of mass latched on, and if that fell to the ground in the wrong way, it would have snapped her neck.

Either way, the landing was violent enough that a trap in a cabinet we hadn’t yet reached snapped to life, punching spikes through a door.

My grip shifted to a two-handed grip on Parian’s head, fighting as the Nursery-beast flopped around violently, like a snake with its head cut off.  It maintained its grip, and Parian’s body was arching under me, fighting violently.

I could have thrown up, just being near this, knowing what was happening.  The fact I couldn’t bring myself to inhale or exhale, or to do anything except strain was maybe the only thing that kept me from vomiting.

Foil slashed the thing that was flopping around, cutting it in half, meaning I no longer had to worry about one wrong flop snapping Parian’s neck or tearing her head off.

I allowed myself to look.  What had Foil been doing?  Dealing with the stump that had been trying to crawl from the fridge.  Rain had that now.

The task at hand changed.  I made room for Rain as we gathered around Parian.  It took two of us to pry it away from her face.  Three to heave it back, to pull out the strings and knots of flesh that filled Parian’s nose and mouth.

At her ear, a tiny umbilical cord threaded to a calloused, quarter-sized lump of flesh with a nascent leg attached.  At her nose, a hand was extended from a nostril, fingers twitching.

Parian’s fingers went to her throat.  Gesturing.  I couldn’t even see her eyes because her mask had been pulled ajar.  I couldn’t use a hand to move, because I barely had a grip on the fleshy growth as it was.

Braided and branching umbilical cords.  Parian gagged as Foil and I pulled.

“I can cut it,” Foil said.

Don’t.  What’s left inside will set root,” I told her.

The gagging got worse.  Parian’s fingers at her own throat curled into claws, and the efforts to pull were getting harder.

There was blood.  We were tearing her throat.

The grub we pulled out had to be four pounds.  Proportioned like a baby.

The others came easier.  A string, seemingly endless.  The children apparently set to grow to size in turn, to emerge in a steady cycle.  Once we had the three largest free, Parian could breathe again.

There was a heavy thud outside.

Lord of Loss.

The tiny hand at Parian’s nostril tried to maintain a grip before it was pulled backward, inside.  Down through sinuses, to the back of her mouth, and out the mouth.  One of the last parts to come out.

Parian flopped over, so her face was aimed at the ground.  Foil held her, fumbling for a short bit of bandage from her belt that Parian could hold to her nose- blood was streaming out.  Every breath came with gags.

She was breathing, but I could barely bring myself to.

“We’d better leave,” Aroa said, weirdly casual and disconnected.

“I can carry her,” I said.

Foil shook her head.  She got in position, and with me giving her a helping hand, lifted up Parian, holding her in both hands.

Around us, the area was filling with the dusky rose gas.  Intense, now.  More than I’d seen it before.

She’d sensed us cutting it up.

Chastity and Precipice hefted bags.  Money and drugs.

“Drop them if they slow us down,” I said.

Precipice nodded.

We hurried to the back door.  We stopped as Lord of Loss touched a limb of overlapping white strips down by the surface.

Other door.

An impact marked him touching down there too.  It was followed by him clawing at the door, pulling it free of the frame.

We backed away, past the closet door.  Toward the center of the house.

“She’s not paying you, you know,” I said.  “Matter of principle for a mercenary, not to work for free.”

He smiled, not giving me a response.  Nothing in him faltered or showed any sign he was second guessing things.  There was only resolve.  Professionalism.

His parahuman allies, that were standing in the background?  From Earth N?  They would follow him.  Nothing there would hesitate.

Nor Nursery, who stood in the background with the other soldiers.  She stared at us from behind the holes in her cloth mask, and the music box plinked the most intense tune I’d heard of it, the dusky rose gas filling our neighborhood.

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Blinding – 11.5

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The ‘joints’ of the spider’s limbs were higher off the ground than I was, the body headless and featureless, an uneven, almost potato-like form in the center.  It was all black, and it moved with a fluidness that stood in stark contrast to the jerky, twitchy way that spiders normally moved.

It flowed more than it walked as it moved to the base of a building, found purchase on windowsills and gutter.  As it carried itself off the ground, Foil skipped up, stepping onto one of the eight limbs, walking up to the next.  She had no handholds, not even the ones another person might have if they were there, because both of her hands were full carrying her crossbow- an entirely different make and model than the one I’d known her to use, once upon a time.  Bigger, heavier, and it would have to be mounted on a surface to be set up and then fired.

Spider legs appeared and disappeared beneath her feet, in what should have been something a third of the way to being stairs and a third of the way to being a ladder, not all of the way to being anything.  The distance between Foil and the ground grew.

“You’re hesitating,” Foil called out.  “If you pause I’m going to miss a step and fall!”

“You’re making me nervous!” Parian called back.  “Talking about you falling makes it worse, not better!”

Trust me!” Foil replied.

“I trust you!  I don’t trust powers!  Not mine, not yours,” Parian answered, but the third utterance wasn’t at a volume meant to reach Foil.

Foil ascended to the roof of a three-story building ducking as the cloth-and-knots spider passed over her head.  Parian visibly relaxed as soon as Foil was on solid ground again.  Past the eyehole of the cracked doll mask, Parian’s eye focused on the spider as it restricted its movements to the visible edge of the building.  What little focus wasn’t for the spider was for Foil.

“The funny thing is, you guys got off easy,” Candy said.  “For trustable powers.”

“None of us got off easy,” Parian said.  “Powers are meant to hurt, cause harm, and foment chaos, according to Tattletale.  The things that handed out the powers wanted to put us in situations where we’d have to use them on each other.  Even the tamer sets, like Foil’s.”

Shots that could penetrate anything, enhanced accuracy, and enhanced timing.

“Foil’s powers did come with a March attached,” I remarked.

Parian nodded, pausing to look around before returning her focus to the rooftop.  “It’s never easy.  There’s always complications.”

“Some got off easier than others, though,” Precipice said.

“True.  Undeniably true,” Parian said.  “But easier still isn’t easy.”

“I like that distinction,” I said.

“If you want easy, you don’t have to look any further than my sister,” Candy said.  “I mean it in the most affectionate way possible.”

“So long as it’s coming from a place of sisterly love,” Chastity said, reaching out for Candy’s cheek to pinch it.  Candy fended her off.

We were walking at a brisk pace.  We’d broken up the groups, and the reasoning for why we’d broken it up had me thinking about my early thoughts in the days of Breakthrough.  Wolves, corn, and chickens.  A man who needed to take all three things across the river, but the wolves couldn’t be left alone with the chickens and the chickens couldn’t be left with the corn.

We’d had concerns that the Undersiders would act in good faith.  Having some of our team in each group meant we could keep an eye on everything.  Breakthrough was a six member team, and we had three bases to cover.  Two Breakthrough members were assigned to each team.

The Heartbroken were more volatile as more of them were gathered into a single unit.  Heartbroken were thus split into three groups, and family dynamics seemed to factor in there.  Siblings were separated and kept together, depending.

From there, it was a series of rules and complicating factors.  Tattletale was insistent that Chicken Little was grounded and shouldn’t be allowed to enjoy hanging out with his new friend Lookout.  That meant Lookout was assigned to another team.  Swansong went with Lookout by apparent default, and the feral child Florence went with Swansong.  Imp went with Florence, because she was the best at handling her, and initial attempts at negotiating this had met with stubbornness.

It was a team with far too many wolves, but those wolves seemed content with the status quo.  That was despite the fact that Swansong was on a team with Imp and pretty goddamn resentful of the fact that her nice home now smelled like gasoline – a smell had soaked into floorboards and furniture.

They’d wanted to go after Love Lost, working on the assumptions that Love Lost didn’t like hurting kids and it was a squad with a lot of kids on it.  Swansong knew the people Love Lost liked to associate with, and Imp had the ability to resolve problems before they started.  The problem was that when things went wrong, they stood to go very wrong.  A single rage scream that hit Swansong was too much of a problem.  Cradle was too much of an unknown, and the Undersiders had wanted Tattletale on that particular unknown, for her limited involvement.

I had a projector disc with me.  I brought it up, tapping on the side.  A group of small holographic figures appeared above the disc, tinted yellow from head to toe.  An arrow at the disc’s edge indicated the direction to them, with a number showing distance.  They were gathered in vehicles, but the vehicles weren’t drawn as thoroughly as the people who sat in them, much like the mercenaries that accompanied them.  Three heartbroken, Chicken Little, Sveta, and Capricorn, with Tattletale along to gather some intel and make sure the kids were alright.  They were tracking down Cradle.

They were mostly silhouettes, but I could make out details like how one of the Heartbroken was resting a head on Chicken Little’s shoulder, apparently asleep.  Chicken Little was moving his hands like there was something in them.  A bird, I assumed.

I ran my finger along the disc’s edge.  The image shifted, and the group of people were tinted red.  Many of them were small.  Imp, ‘Florence’, two heartbroken, Lookout, and Swansong.  They’d watch March, gather surveillance and maybe have Imp take action but they wouldn’t take any direct moves until Hellhound caught up with them.

“They okay?” Parian asked.

“Looks like it,” I said.  The images were stable.  Different groups were talking.  “Calm, no fighting.”

“If you’re talking about my cousins, they’re never ‘okay’,” Chastity said.  She was seventeen or so, with wavy black hair and makeup fully on point.  I’d noticed Precipice noticing her cleavage.  It seemed wholly intentional with her wardrobe choices, a low-cut top worn with a scarf and coat, unzipped enough that a strategic triangle was visible.

Had to be cold, but she endured with an unwavering, teasing smile that made me uncomfortable.

“Relatively,” Parian said, still watching Foil and the spider.

“Relatively?  It’s because they’re relatives that I know they aren’t okay,” Chastity said.

“Such a dork,” Candy said, before switching to French to better articulate that lameness.  Candy was a smaller version of her older sister.  She had a similar teasing demeanor, from what I could tell, but without the flirting aspect.

Chastity retorted with something else, so rapid-fire that I couldn’t even tell where the words started or stopped.

The Kenzie-aged Candy’s response was sharp, and sounded weirdly religious- I wasn’t sure if my mind was seeing faces in clouds, putting meanings to foreign words that weren’t there.

There was enough violence in the words and enough of a glittering look in the young girl’s eye that I felt the need to say something.  “Do we need to step in?”

“Don’t even try,” Parian muttered under her breath.

“No,” Chastity said.  “Not unless you want to wash my sister’s mouth out with soap.”

“Please do,” Aroa said, from the sidelines.  She was similar in appearance to the others, but her hair was straight, and there was no smile on her face- no particular frowning or coldness either.  Her eyes were animated, her glances always sidelong, never direct.  “It would be funny.”

“You can help,” Candy said.  “My dork of a sister needs to get laid.”

“Can’t help you there,” I said, trying not to sound as uncomfortable as I felt.

“Your teammate can.  Precipice!” Candy raised her voice.

“Uh.”

“Please.  She gets more annoying and immature every minute she doesn’t have anyone, and I’m the one who has to deal with it.”

“Uh,” Precipice said, again.  He looked at Chastity.  “Sorry.”

“No need to say sorry,” Chastity said, touching his arm.  “My sister put you on the spot.  But if you did want to say yes, you could count on my discretion and a complete lack of any strings.”

“Just don’t fall in love with her,” Candy said.

“Yeah, don’t fall in love with me,” Chastity said.

“It’s… weird, getting this offer,” Precipice said. “Knowing who you guys are.”

Heartbroken.  Heartbreaker’s.

“I would have thought you were sympathetic, coming from a bad place,” Candy said.

I looked down at Candy.  “Tattletale told you?”

“Uh huh.”

“That’s not great,” I said.

“We don’t mingle with society or have a lot of civilian friends,” Aroa said.  “We aren’t going to leak your secrets because we stick to our own.”

“You haven’t even seen my face,” Precipice was telling Chastity.

“Back out, Precipice,” Parian said.  “Drop the topic, walk away.”

“If she has advice, it’s good to take it,” I advised him, giving him an elbow to the arm.  I bumped the metal under his sleeve.

Precipice nodded.

“I get a sense of people around me,” Chastity told him.  “It’s clear enough for me to know proportions, and I like your proportions.”

I sighed, loud enough to be sure he heard it.  My breath fogged in front of my face.

“Now it’s weirder.  I’m flattered, I think, but also very weirded out,” Precipice said.

“Okay,” Chastity said, sounding like she was having fun, even while being turned down.  “I can tell how flattered you are, same way.  It even makes me stronger.  So this teasing, it’s good battle strategy, you know.”

“Maybe, but just so you know, I have someone I like,” Precipice said.

“Precipice,” Parian said, warning.  She started to turn around, then her spider slipped.  She twisted around and caught it at the building’s edge.

“Someone you like?” Chastity asked, edging in closer, her arm touching his.  They were wearing jackets, but still.

“Love.  I think.”

“Precipice,” I said.  “Don’t tell them that.  Don’t share that information.  Especially when Parian is warning you.”

“Trying to keep my partner from falling off a building,” Parian said, absently.  “You might be in more danger, Precipice.”

“Uh, noted.”

“What if I said that made me more interested?” Chastity asked Precipice, nudging him.  “What if I said I was intrigued, now that you already have someone you like?”

“Sorry,” he said, in a vain attempt to disengage.

“Does that mean sorry, no, or does it mean something completely different?” Chastity asked.

“Can you leave him alone?” I asked her.

“I could, but I’m going to wonder what he meant, and I’m going to end up assuming the worst.”

“Safest bet,” Aroa said.  “Men.”

Precipice, against all sense and sanity, opened his mouth to explain, “I’m flattered, but even if it wasn’t really weird, even though she and I aren’t together and might never be-”

“Stop sharing information about your love life with people who call themselves Heartbroken,” I said.  I turned to the younger Heartbroken.  “No offense.”

“No, no.  You’re totally right,” Candy said.

“-Yeah,” Precipice said.  He managed to stay silent for two fucking seconds before telling Chastity, “I can’t mess around.  At least for now, I’m not doing anything in that neighborhood.”

“Oh.”  Chastity squared her shoulders, eyes forward, in the direction we were walking.

“Sorry.”

“If you’d given me another answer, saying you were willing to betray her or betray those feelings you have for her, then I would have found a way for you to be hurt in any upcoming fights,” Chastity said, her tone still light.  “Really badly hurt.”

I looked at Parian.  She shrugged and nodded.

Great.

“Good to know,” Precipice said, awkwardly.

I fucking told you not to engage.

“Now I’m disappointed,” Aroa said.  “Chastity’s one of the last family members on my bucket list to see go all out.”

Candy poked her cousin.  “You’re such a Juliette.  Wanting our mouths washed out with soap, wanting poor Precipice to get all four arms and both legs mangled, or whatever it is Chastity has in mind…”

“Juliette wouldn’t want anyone’s mouth washed out with soap.  She’d want your mouth washed out with bleach,” Aroa said.

“I don’t think that’s as big a difference as you’re pretending.”

“It’s the biggest difference,” Aroa said, with maximum condescension.  “On and off.  What’s the fun in kicking someone in the tits, pushing them down or setting them on fire if they‘re cold and dead, or if you kill them and that’s the end of it with no potential for the future?”

“True,” Candy responded.

“I’ve got your back,” Chastity was telling Precipice.  “Whatever happens, I’m going to protect you and protect those feelings, now.  We’ll get you back to this girl you like.”

“I don’t know if anything’s going to happen there.  It’s complicated.”

I rolled my eyes.  Maybe he needed to get stuff off his chest, and for some reason was deciding on this venue.

“Unrequited or complicated sorts of love are still love and love is the most important thing,” Chastity said.  “Without it there’s no point to anything.”

It was dawning on me just why Tattletale had looked so damn exhausted when I’d seen her, the last few times.

Above us, Foil whistled.  Parian was making the spider form a bridge.  Foil was halfway across that bridge.  Very deliberately, she put the folded-up crossbow down on top of the spider.  She pointed at it.

The crossbow disappeared as cloth wrapped around it.  Attaching it to the spider.

Foil bowed, flourishing, before skipping up the spider-bridge to the next rooftop.

“She’s such a ham sometimes,” Parian said.

“Ham can be nice,” I said.  I was glad to get away from the other discussion.  “Ham can work.”

“I think she’s happy, hanging around with heroes again.  Old teammates.”

“Good,” I said.

“We need to do this more often.”

“Why not always?  What keeps you with the Undersiders?”

“Resources.  I still have family who need medical attention,” Parian said, quieter.

“Ah.  I remember.  I’m sorry.”

“Sometimes you make deals with the devil because the alternative is not dealing at all,” Parian said.

“You’ve been with them for how many years, now?”

“Four and a half.”

“And you still refer to them as the devil, huh?” I asked.

Parian snorted or sniffed behind her mask – the material distorted the sound and I couldn’t see her face to know which it was.

“Don’t try to convert me,” she said.  “Life’s too complicated as it is.”

“Okay.  No conversion.”

We walked in silence for a minute.  Chastity was still engaging with Precipice, but it seemed a bit safer than before now.  More normal than I’d seen her act, now that she wasn’t aggressively teasing and flirting.

“I like your costume,” Parian said.

“High praise, considering who it’s coming from.”

“I’m nobody special.  Who made it?” she asked.

“Me, teammates.  Weld did the metal decorations.”

There was a pause.  Her head turned, caught between watching out for Foil on the rooftops, managing her spider, and looking at the metalwork.

“Do you think he’d do work for pay?”

“I can always pass on a message if you want to ask.”

“I might.  It would be nice to stay in touch.  Look how much fun she’s having.”

I couldn’t quite read into body language or see what Parian meant.  Maybe if I’d known Foil for longer, I could have seen a difference.  As it was, Foil crouched on the corner of a rooftop.  She held her hand out.

“Stop,” Parian said, quiet.

We collectively stopped.

Foil moved her hand, sweeping motions.  Directing us to one side of the street, until we were at the base of one building, Foil one building ahead of us and five stories up, barely visible in the gloom.

We weren’t that far from Lyme.  In the midst of a criss-crossing of new roads and multiple buildings in progress, there was an area that wasn’t accessible by car.  This was the result putting together the reports we had from other heroes and Tattletale’s knowledge to hone in on the area Love Lost was working from.

“I’m going to talk to Foil,” I said.  When Parian nodded, I flew up to the roof.

“Are the Heartbroken behaving?” Foil asked me.

“Precipice is getting a lot of attention,” I said.  “He can’t keep his mouth shut.  Is that a power one of them is using?”

“Yeah,” Foil said.

“Fuck,” I said.

“Chastity’s pretty,” Foil said.  “He’s red blooded.  That’s the power I mean.”

“Seemed like more than that,” I said.  When that didn’t get me much of a response from Foil, who was scanning the area with her eyes, I asked, “Why did we stop?”

“No man’s land,” Foil indicated.  “See what I mean?”

I did.  We were inside the perimeter where ongoing construction, parked vehicles, and unfinished roads were limiting our access, and within that vague territory, there was a swathe where the buildings were girder and beam, surrounded by fenced-in lots.

“It’s all open space,” I said.  There wasn’t much in the way of cover.  No way to get from A to B without being seen from a block away.  Even the scant lighting to illuminate the road seemed more like it was meant to help highlight any incoming cars or catch people trying to sneak across the road in one of the five to ten times they’d need to do so, to get to the center.

“Three… maybe four buildings that they could be camping out in.”

Foil indicated, a dart in hand, the gleaming point serving to point.

“Do any of the Heartbroken here have the ability to sense emotions?”

“No.  Chastity senses bodies, but not at a distance that helps us.  Aroa has to engage.  Candy doesn’t get anything.”

“Keep an eye out?  I’ll be right back.”

Foil nodded.  I had a glimpse of her face in profile, as she surveyed the area, and I could see an enviable kind of focus and calm there.  Jaw set, eyes slightly narrowed and alert as she looked for hints in a collection of half-built neighborhoods.

I dropped to the ground.

The others were very still and somber, except for Aroa, who looked pleased, and Chastity, who had a hand firmly on Aroa’s shoulder.

“What happened?”

“Aroa happened,” Chastity said.

“I told the truth.  It’s not fair if you’re getting only half the picture.  Love is the most important thing.”

I looked at Precipice, then at Parian.

It was Parian who supplied the details.  “She said the reason Love Lost is so upset is because Precipice killed someone she loved.”

Fuck me.  These girls were such nightmares to wrangle.  I was now in full agreement that having all of the Heartbroken in one place would have been too much.

“It eats me up inside,” Precipice said.  “I didn’t kill them by acting.  I killed them by not acting.”

“Growing up with Fallen?” Chastity asked.  “Do you think that absolves you?”

“No.”

“Good,” she said.  “It doesn’t.  I’ve killed someone by not acting too.  I think.”

“A lot of people, probably,” Candy said.

“The one I’m thinking about is when you were young.  Too young to remember,” Chastity said.

“Mom?”

Chastity nodded.  “Daddy was tired of her, and he thought I was old enough to look after you and Revere.  He pushed feelings into her head.  He didn’t want her sharing evidence, so he made her scared of people.  Any people at all, she wouldn’t be able to speak because she was so freaked out.  He said he made it so she’d be happy so long as she was totally alone and there was no civilization nearby.  I’m not sure if Daddy was saying it to get us to stop crying.”

“Probably,” Aroa said.

“Yeah, and you wouldn’t just say that, right?” Chastity asked Aroa.  “I’ve told you, if you want to nettle people, you have to give them hope once in a while.”

“He probably wasn’t lying,” Candy said.  “He didn’t need to go that far to make us stop crying.  He’d just… make us stop.”

“Yeah,” Chastity said.  To Precipice, she said, “I could have said something or stopped it, I think.  To save my mom from being sent away like some dog in the movies that’s driven out to the wilderness and then left behind while the car speeds off.”

“I remember that day,” Candy said.  “It wasn’t like that.”

“It’s a simile, little sister.”

Candy shrugged.

“My thing was different,” Precipice said.  “I was older, and it was a lot of-”

“Don’t,” I interrupted him.  “Don’t work to convince them to hate you.”

He folded all four of his arms.  Two flesh, and two mechanical.  Was he so reflexive in trying to own up for his mistakes that he’d make enemies by admitting to them?

I wasn’t even sure what the right decision to make there was.

“We’ve got a wide area out there that we won’t be able to cross without being spotted.  Not if we go across.”

“Over?” Precipice guessed.

“Or under,” I said.  “If you look, you can see where the piping is being laid out where the road doesn’t cover it all yet.”

“I see it,” Precipice said.  “I’ll make a hole, then.”

Silver blades appeared in his hands.

“Wait.  We should coordinate,” I said.  “Call first.”

Precipice checked his phone.

I checked the disc with representations of each team.  Tattletale’s team was hunkered down, apparently working on tracking down Cradle.  Tattletale was also supposed to be able to keep an eye out for any pointed dangers or incoming attacks, which meant Capricorn and Sveta should be safe or safer for as long as that activity took.

I really wished I knew the particulars of her power.

A glint caught my eye.

Foil’s dart, embedded on a piece of paper.  There wasn’t anything on the side of the paper I could see, but it was yellow.

“Danger,” Parian said.

“Aroa, Candy,” Chastity said.  “Get back.  Be good until you absolutely need to step in.

Another dart, another slip of paper.  This one was red, so close to the first dart that the two squares of paper that were embedded on the dart seemed to line up.

No need to clarify.

I flew up.  The others dashed to where there was cover nearby- we were only at the fringes of the no-man’s-land, and the buildings here had fences, backyards, and piles of broken-down crating tied together with twine.  The crates had packaged food from offworld.

Below, headlights illuminated the street.  The noise the car’s tires made changed as it shifted from squeaking on contact with snow to grinding against salt and gravel, then near-silence as it touched ice, moving smoothly over the surface the winter tires gripped.

They paused in the street and people inside the car shone flashlights out the windows.

Here we were.  The patrol.

On the rooftop, ten feet from where I floated, Foil was at the spider’s side, setting up the large crossbow so it was mounted on the spider’s back.

“Did they spot us?” she asked.

“Looks like a routine patrol.”

Foil was silent, leaving the crossbow where it was, and heading to the edge of the rooftop to look down.

Below, the car went on its way.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  “I’m going to have them go underground, approach the buildings you pointed.  Give me a minute to text them.”

“Wait,” Foil said.

I waited.

The car that had passed returned.  It stopped somewhere close to where it had the first time.  Again, flashlights shone out the windows.  I could see someone leaning out.

“That’s not a patrol,” Foil said.  “Most people who are doing a perimeter check don’t check and recheck themselves.  They do the bare minimum and then they get on with their nights.  Applies to some heroes that patrol.  Learned that when I overheard some villains, a year back.”

“Doing a single loop, so as soon as the hero has come and gone, the criminals can come out of the woodwork?  That’s really dumb,” I said.

“It really is,” Foil said.  “Back when I was with the New York Wards, we’d mix it up every night, doubling back, doing loops… it helped that we had the bikes and it was an excuse to ride down subway tunnels and around any place without cars.”

I smiled.  “I fly, so… same idea.  It’s easy to cover the same ground if you move fast.”

“Gonna give my spider a pet, so Parian knows I’m alright,” Foil said, backing away from the rooftop’s edge.

I kept an eye out.  Keeping my arm and the glowing projections out of sight of the ground, I checked the others.

Both of the other teams were staying put and doing things, but it didn’t look like they were fighting.

Below, a shift in the light’s movement caught my eye.  I let my fingers drop away from the projection disc and focused on what was happening.  Or in this case, what wasn’t happening.  One beam had stopped moving.

I heard raised voices.

Fuck.  They got caught.

“What’s going on?” Foil whispered.

I mimed for silence.

A car door opened.  A man stood on the seat of the car to better look over the top of the vehicle and into the avenue between two buildings- one of which was the building Foil and I were standing on.  He added the light of his own flashlight.

A woman, the driver, was saying something.  I tried to hear, and I couldn’t make it out.  I could have flown down, but I didn’t want to risk being spotted.

I tapped one ear, while glancing at Foil.  She shook her head.

Below, the car drove away.  The man who was standing on the seat swung back inside.  I could see the gun he held as he did.  The door shut as the car rounded a corner.

The spider helped Foil drop to the street level.  I watched to ensure the coast was clear while she started, then dropped down, getting to the group’s hiding spot at the same time she did.

“He saw Candy,” Precipice said.

“I thought the coast was clear.  Why did they come back?” Candy asked.

“They had some sense that we were here already.  It could be a device or power,” I said.  “Love Lost can detect emotions, but it’s not that long a range, I don’t think.”

“And if he saw me, why didn’t he do something about it then?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “He could have decided to play it safe.  For now, let’s do the same.  We didn’t plan to pick a fight this soon.  The other teams need intel and time to get where they’re going.”

“We run,” Precipice said.  “We can stick to the same plan.  I make a hole, we use the drains and sewers.”

“Ew,” Candy said.

“Once we’re down there, we can decide if we want to go to one of those houses to investigate and see if we can’t spy on Love Lost,” Precipice said.

“Hurry,” I said.

Precipice created silver blades, and drew out a five-sided hole in the ground.  I flew up to make sure there weren’t any more cars full of armed men and women, then flew down, slamming into the pentagon.  Water splashed below.

“Ew,” Candy said.

In the distance, I heard a thud, then a laugh.

Hurry,” I told them.  I had a sense of who that thud belonged to.  “They were willing to pass the buck because they have enforcers.  They’re coming after us with powers.”

They hopped down into the tunnel, Chastity and Precipice helping.

Another thud.

A jovial bellow.

“That’s not Love Lost’s group,” I said, keeping my voice quiet as I talked to the others in the hole.  I moved aside so the spider could slip down beneath.

“Mercenaries,” Precipice said.  “Villains banding together because the heroes are.”

High above us, a shape moved through the air with enough force that it made the air shudder and cheap windows rattle in their frames.

“Lord of Loss,” I said.

I ducked down into the hole.  The Heartbroken already had their phones out, screens glowing and flashes on.  Foil and Parian had flashights they could clip to their costumes.

Precipice’s mask glowed, the red illuminating to become pink.

“That does not work nearly as well as I hoped it would,” he said, and he sounded pissed.  The glow died and he pulled out his phone, doing what the Heartbroken were doing.

Behind us, Parian’s cloth snake slipped into the hole.

“Come on,” I urged.  “Toward the houses.”

To find us, Lord of Loss would have to spot the hole in between two house lots- not impossible, not easy either, given the lighting and the glare of snow contrasted with dark pavement everywhere.  Then he would have to find which way we’d gone.  I was betting he would assume we’d headed away, not deeper into the territory in question, toward Love Lost.

The cloth spider and my flight kept the group from having to wade in freezing, ankle deep drainwater.  We covered good ground too.  There were surprising amounts of materials and piece of construction material to trip up anyone who moved fast enough that they couldn’t react to the fleeting glimpses of whatever the flashlight illuminated.  There weren’t many things that got in our way or that the spider had to slow down for.  A wheelbarrow with a broken handle, a collection of what looked like curtain rods or wooden poles.

I checked the disc.

No whole figures.  Body parts everywhere.  Scattered into air, into terrain.  All tinted yellow.  Tattletale, Sveta, Tristan, Chicken Little.

“What?” I breathed the word.

I checked the other team.

More scattered parts.  Suspended in air, unmoving, flickering like the hologram couldn’t track them.  Imp.  Ashley.  Lookout.

No, it wasn’t possible like that.

Not two teams at once, not so easily or instantaneously.

I checked my phone.  The display was flickering slightly.  I thumbed for a message to Precipice, the alarming picture on the disc still hanging off of the disc at my forearm, mounted like a buckler.

“Check your phone,” I told Precipice.

“A text?” he asked.

“From me,” I said.

He shook his head.

I tried two more times.  I heard the one go through.

He held it up for me.  Gibberish.

“We’re being scrambled.”

“Shit,” he muttered.  Even with the word being scarcely a whisper, the drain carried the sound.  “Could be tinkertech defenses.  Keeping Lookout’s cameras out of it.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Candy’s phone flickered, and then both screen and flash went dark.  The other two phones died simultaneously, plunging us into the darkness.

It was only because of that darkness that we could see the faint hue of pink.  A glow, like light through a curtain, and the sides of the drain were curtains.

In the silence, as none of us spoke, I could hear a dull sound, a hum with no source, and I could hear chiming, discordant, struggling to find its rhythm.

Nursery.

The images on the disc were getting scattered further, blinking in and out, each reiteration putting body parts further and further from the source.  The mode switched, and I could see that there were symbols, large and blunt, that Lookout was trying to transmit.

The noises of Nursery’s power effect were getting louder, and they reverberated down the drain.  The effect was taking hold too, distorting the tunnel.

No slurps and wet noises yet.

On the disc, there was one last projected image I could make out.  Three large arrows, pointing at a single dot.

Three forces converging on one?  I had the impression that it wasn’t the signal to mount our coordinated attack.  No, this was too ’emergency alert’ with the big bold symbols.

The humming and chiming swelled, the chiming finding it stride with more coordination, less discordant, now more disconcerting because the off-notes were spaced far enough away to catch the ear off guard.

One of our teams was being attacked, and we were stuck against a brute strong enough he wouldn’t go down unless he was permanently put down, and a shaker-master nightmare I most definitely did not want to fight on her turf.

The disc was flickering to the point that it was off nine seconds out of every ten, and nonsense the last second.  Even with that, the broken-up models that put heads twenty feet from the associated bodies were an ominous warning of what was at stake.  I had to assume the worst hadn’t happened, because the distorted images I was getting from the disc put body parts in mid-air, and had a computer-glitch kind of logic or arrangement to them.

They knew we were here, they had prepared with stalling tactics and organized assault against one of our groups, they had the device responsible for the Navigators incident, and they had the willingness to use it.

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Blinding – 11.4

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The schism remained.  The Shepherds, Advance Guard, Wayfarers and Kings were absent.  The room would have felt crowded if everyone was present and it felt too empty with the more aggressive heroes gone.

I wondered if there was ever a group size that would feel natural.

We’d wanted to gather information.  We’d asked for six hours, admittedly, and it was well past that deadline, but information was why we were here.

‘Here’ was a room in a library where the lights were off because the grid had failed and power was being conserved, and the morning light from outside was obscured by snow that had piled up against the window, with frost cluttering every inch snow didn’t touch.  The light that came through was diffuse and mottled, dimmed and slightly blue, because the glass was solar glass that reflected the yellow and gold hues.

Relay, Cinereal, Weld, Aleph Wolf from the Lone Wolf Pack, Lark from Auzure, and Caryatid from the Malfunctions were all gathered around the room.  I had Precipice at my right, and Foil to my left.

Mayor Jeanne Wynn was also present.  Her presence in the room felt like a shadow when the room was already dark.  The yellow of her shirt under her suit jacket was more striking than some of the costumes present.

Foil’s hand rested on the table, fingers at the file folder with pictures.  My pictures.  The gasoline had saturated my office to the point that even the copies of my original files had a lingering smell to them.

She turned the file so people could see.  A distant image of Cradle, taken by way of flying camera, saved to a computer.  I’d printed it out when trials had been happening.

“Tattletale says she’s seventy percent confident that the attacks on the Navigators were Cradle, who slipped custody when the prison was emptied,” Foil said.  “He had an unknown hireling use the device by proxy, and that hireling worked alongside Lionwing and two Case Fifty-threes.”

“Those two aren’t ex-Irregulars,” Weld said.  “But they’re tied into the community.  People have seen them.  I’ve put out some feelers, but I can’t promise results.”

“Seventy percent certainty that Cradle is responsible isn’t a hundred percent,” Cinereal said.

“It isn’t,” Foil admitted.

“Can we trust what she’s saying?” Relay asked.

“Are you asking if we can trust Foil or are you asking if we can trust Tattletale?” Weld asked.

“I was asking about Foil, but I’d like to hear your thoughts on both,” Relay said.

Relay was standing in for Foresight, after Brio had caught a bullet and while Countenance was leading elsewhere.  Brio hadn’t gotten back up.  I was a little worried that Relay was closer to the leadership, which was about twenty-five percent personal bias, and twenty-five percent that he knew I had my doubts.  The rest was a blurrier mixture of my not knowing him and my instinct that Relay was driven more by emotion than logic.

If Relay had made the call when the hero teams had split off into two groups, would they have stayed?

I could see Relay’s eyes move, studying me briefly before looking back to Weld.  Foil and Tattletale – where did we stand, and what answer could we give that didn’t cross Relay’s crude mind reading?

“I was her teammate for a short while,” I said.  “I like her.”

The nicest, only truly honest thing I could say.  I had reservations and questions about someone who had heel-turned like she had.

Foil nodded, dropping her eyes, as if to acknowledge what I was thinking.  “Thank you.”

“Antares and Foil were on my team when I was first leading the Wards in Brockton Bay.  I hold Foil in high esteem,” Weld said.

“Thank you,” Foil said, stoic, standing up straight, no longer with a hand at the files.

“Can I ask you why you’re here, Foil?” Relay asked, head tilted so he was looking up at Foil more than at her, his tone the sort that was best suited for quietly asking someone if they had a gun and if they planned to use it.

“The Undersiders felt that if we were sharing information, we should have a representative here.”

“That’s not what I’m asking,” Relay said.

Foil frowned.  Her mask covered most of her face, but the shift in her lips was unmistakable.

“He wants a read on you,” I said.

Relay met my eyes without moving his head, then looked back to Foil.

“I want to help,” Foil said.

“You believe Tattletale’s information is good?”

“Yes,” Foil said.

“But you have doubts… not about the information?” Relay asked.  “About your team.”

“If I was a hundred percent certain, I think that would be more concerning,” Foil said.

“If you were a hundred percent clear you were on the right side, you’d be a Fallen-” Relay retorted.

Precipice didn’t move a muscle at that, but Relay looked at him all the same.

“-But if your head is full of noise and contradiction when it comes to your team, that’s almost as bad,” Relay finished.

“I can do the most good where I am, with the Undersiders,” Foil said.

Relay, head still unmoving, looked down at his hand, where it rested on the table.

“Do we move forward on seventy percent confidence?” Relay asked, without looking up.

“Cradle is a danger and he’s done nothing to earn trust,” Cinereal said.

“He’s done nothing wrong that we can say for certain either,” Relay pointed out.

“He likes to bide his time,” Precipice said.  “But there have been hints that he’s doing business.  I believe it.”

“You’re biased,” Relay said.

“I definitely am,” Precipice replied.

Relay nodded at that, as if it was entirely okay now that the bias was out in front of things.

“He’s cold and focused right now.  I won’t get into how I know, but I have a sense of him, like he probably has a sense of me and how I’m doing.  He’s dangerous.  I could see a world where he’s doing this.  Using tech to torture people like that.”

I cleared my throat.  I had all eyes on me.

“The activities of Cradle seem to be only half of it,” I said.  “It’s a half I’d like to ask you all to please let us tackle.”

“Us being who?” Relay asked.

“What’s the other half?” Weld asked, before I had a chance to answer.

I drew in a deep breath.  “The Undersiders and Breakthrough will tackle the situation with Cradle.  I think we have some sense of his motivations.  Love Lost too.  We plan to keep them separated if we can.  In exchange, we’re helping the Undersiders with a related problem.  But the mercenaries are up to something else and we’d like to ask you to focus some attention on that.”

Cinereal still had that dangerous, intimidating thing going.  She leaned back, looking very casual and very ominous, and she asked, “How bad is this else?”

“We don’t know,” Foil said.  “But Tattletale is pretty certain that their focus is on the time stasis effects in Earth Bet’s Brockton Bay.”

“Tameka Schooley.  Lee Pemberton.  Tom Kahn.  Bakuda’s test run and one use when she was terrorizing the city,” Jeanne Wynne spoke up for the first time.  “Alabaster, Jotun, and Dauntless… Leviathan hurled them into a time stop effect when defenders tried to use one of Bakuda’s leftover tinker weapons to stop him.  Wanda Fowler, Sarah and Patty Martin.  Henry Holmes.  They tried to break into what locals termed ‘The Scar’, an ongoing cataclysm from a bombing run that had been made using more of Bakuda’s leftover technology.  They entered because someone had told them that The Scar had veins of diamond, gold, and other rare materials inside it, where matter had transmuted to different forms.”

“Did it?” Aleph Wolf asked.  “That someone was right?”

“Yes.  Rumors got out while barriers to contain the effect were being put up.  The workers saw things.  Unfortunately, that area also had a lot of active dangers that hadn’t gone off, settled, or stopped.  The four risk-takers tripped an inactive weapon and were trapped by a fourth time-stop effect.”

“Maybe they’re still after that stuff,” Aleph Wolf said.  “Times are tight.  A big chunk of precious metals could go to some other dimension and pay for… a lot of things.  Get a whole city or the city through the winter.”

The Lone Wolf pack was a band of heroes that were taking an especially wild west approach, patrolling the periphery of the city and the surrounding worlds.  They answered problems where problems came up, they teamed up when absolutely essential, which was mainly if there was a bounty to share, but they were otherwise independent.

Aleph Wolf was exemplifying the ‘stick to the basics’ mentality, as well as the group’s ‘heroic mercenary’ streak.

“I think it’s more worrying than a cash grab,” I said.  “Teacher and his mercenaries parted ways.  If it was a question of cash in a really dangerous area… Teacher would put his thinkers and tinkers to solving the problem, he’d succeed, and he’d be in good shape.  I can’t see why he’d back off.”

“The Wardens were looking into those effects, as well as the ongoing Gray Boy loops,” Jeanne said.  “They researched it and decided no.  The same people who petitioned the Wardens then petitioned the government.  It crossed my desk, but I already had some faint knowledge of what it was about.  I considered, researched, and came to the decision that yes, I know a way to undo the effect.  No, I won’t actually do it.”

Using her power, I thought.  She could free people from perpetual torment and she says no.

“Why no?” I asked.

It wasn’t Jeanne who answered.  Cinereal gave me my reply.  “Thinkers say no.  They’re either drawing blanks or they don’t like what they see.”

“Nothing specific?  No details?”

“No,” Cinereal said.  “But if you look at some of the other major thinker blind spots, you’re going to find yourself running into topics like Eidolon, Sleeper, the Endbringers, Valkyrie, the Island-state, the Pastor incident…”

“Concentrations of power,” I said.

Jeanne shook her head.  “Complexity of power, most often.  Whatever thinker powers come into play, with these cases, there’s often too many variables to fully consider, thinkers report that their powers are fuzzy, inconsistent, or blacked out.”

“And it’s not just the time-stop bubbles in Brockton Bay that are an issue?” I asked.

Jeanne shook her head.  “But Brockton Bay is one of the largest collections.  Keep that in mind.”

“And you don’t know why?  The thinkers can’t shed any light on this?” I asked.

“Little.”

“You’re saying you checked, you’re saying no, risky for reasons you can’t disclose.  The Wardens checked, and they’re saying no, the thinkers think it’s volatile somehow…”

“Yes,” Cinereal said.  “Volatile is a good way to put it.  It might not explode.  It might be devastating.”

“Okay,” I said.  “And for the record, I want to stress that Teacher said no.  He broke with his mercenaries from Cheit because they wanted to go after this.  Are the mercenaries after it because so many people are afraid to touch it, or do they know something we don’t?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” Jeanne said.

“Can you send me information on the victims?”

“I will.  Bakuda’s victims, the three heroes-”

“Not all heroes,” I said.  “Alabaster and Jotun were white supremacists.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  Files on those two groups, and the group in the bubble caught the group that snuck into The Scar.  I’ll send you what others sent to me.”

Trying to wrap our heads around a problem that apparently even thinker powers couldn’t tackle without running into blind spots.

Daunting.

I turned to the heroes, my eye mainly on Cinereal and Relay.  This wasn’t an easy ask.  “We can’t get directly involved until we’ve tackled Cradle, Love Lost, or some other peripheral things.  If we can make headway in solving any of those issues, we should be able to converge on the mercenary problem from multiple angles.  In an ideal world, we’ll catch up with them from the flanks while you’re approaching from the front.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Cinereal said.  “But we don’t have many resources.”

More crime and incidents than we had heroes to send to them.  The city was still on fire, and we didn’t have the means to put every single fire out.

“When you say resources, you mean heroes,” Foil spoke up.

“Yes,” Cinereal said.

“Do you have money?”

“Are you hiring yourself out?”

“No,” Foil said.  “But there are a lot of capes out there who are worried about the winter.  Most costumed stuff doesn’t pay.  The guys you’re dealing with are hiring mercenaries.  This Order of Four, the Case Fifty-Threes.  If you’re really pressed for manpower, we can send you a list of people.”

“A mercenary we hire is someone the other guys can’t,” Lark said.  “I can look into that.”

“We’ll send you the list, then.  I can send copies to anyone else who asks.  You can tell us if you know something about the potential hires that means they can solve a problem we have or if they’re going to be a problem.”

“I’ll talk things over with Countenance,” Relay said.  “My gut feeling is that I’m worried you’re getting mired in something personal, while we’re sticking our necks out with something that thinkers can’t vet.”

“If you have any suggestions or alternatives-” I started.

“I’ll talk to Countenance,” Relay stated.  Firm, final.  He did with me what he’d done to Foil, angling his head so he looked up at me more than he looked at me.  The brow and a partial view of his eyes dominated his expression, as a result.  He took notes on the pad in front of him, as if he was leaning forward to write.

But he still studied me.

Nobody else was willing to commit, with the largest and most influential hero team in our group that wasn’t the Wardens being unwilling to do more without checking with the boss.  The Wardens were too caught up in other things to dedicate themselves unless it was something on the scale of the prison or the Fallen camp, but I was reserving hope that Cinereal would talk to others about the time bubbles.

“We’ll touch base again soon?” Weld asked.  “If you’re approaching the same problem from two directions, you’ll want to compare notes.”

I looked at Relay, who nodded.

If we’re getting involved in the time bubble issue,” Relay said.  “But we’ll meet soon regardless.”

“Capricorn Red will represent us for the next meeting,” I said.

That was it.  For lack of a better word, the room dissolved, with everyone shuffling around, splitting up, or leaving the area.

Weld signaled for my attention.

“You good?” I asked Precipice.

He nodded.

“Foil?”

Foil glanced at Jeanne, who was walking toward her.

“You want backup?”

“No.  I know what this is about.  Old alliances and favors owed.  Tattletale told me to expect her to show up and to expect this.  I’m just the middleman.”

“I’ll stick around,” Precipice said.

I had to wonder if Foil was happy like this.  Having to go out of her way to even collaborate with the heroes, and then being questioned when she did.

I kept an eye on her up until I caught up with Weld, who had retreated to a far corner of the room, mostly out of earshot of others.  He seemed mindful of the other people in the room, his mouth shut.

Relay was already gone, teleporting out.  Aleph Wolf was just leaving.  The moment Aleph Wolf was out of the room, Weld finally spoke.

“What do you think?”

“I think if Alabaster is potentially a part of this, it’s worth reaching out to the Shepherds.  Victor and Rune from the Empire are in the Shepherds now, under new names.  They knew Alabaster and they might know something about Jotun.  He was small-time.”

“Okay.”

“Can you handle that?” I asked.  “The Wardens are neutral, so you can talk to the other group without issues, right?”

Weld nodded.

“I hope the division between the heroes isn’t straining things with Sveta.”

“With different bosses it might,” he said.  “We’ve been together for about three years, depending on how you define ‘together’.  You were a big part in that.”

I smiled.

“I think we’re okay there.  Nobody’s demanding that I make any hard decisions yet.”

“Good,” I said.

“I did want to ask something though,” he said.  “I don’t-”

He stopped himself there.  He stood with his back to the wall, the window beside him, and the texture and material of his ‘skin’ made for a striking image.

“What’s going on?”

“I don’t have a lot of friends that I can talk to about certain things,” he said.  “I have teammates, but few who have spent any amount of time around Case Fifty-Threes.”

“Is it about the Fifty-Threes who were doing mercenary work?”

“No.  No- it’s not that.  It’s more awkward.”

With that, I knew just what he was talking about.

“Ah.  I get it now,” I said.

He didn’t reply, and I didn’t press.  More of the heroes filtered out.  Jeanne was talking to Foil, with Precipice standing beside Foil, not really joining in.

“She welcomed me home from my mission away with… affection.  I’m assuming she talked to you about it.”

“Yeah.”

“She brought it up after?”

“She seemed really happy.  I didn’t get details.”

“Can I-” he started.  “I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but I don’t know who to bring it up with.”

“Ask, or share,” I said.  “I get the feeling it’ll do more harm if you don’t.”

“It wasn’t good,” Weld said.

My heart sank.

“I love her, don’t get me wrong.  I was game to experiment and find something that worked.  But none of it worked.  None of it.”

“Fuck,” I said, under my breath.  My fingers dug into my arms.  “Damn it.

“Well put,” Weld told me, sounding just as miserable.

“Can you communicate?  Find a way…?”

I saw Weld already shaking his head.

“I thought I’d play along to make her happy.  Like I do when she wants to experiment with food.  We’ve had some small, tiny successes there.  Maybe there could be a success to be found here.”

“Of course.”

“I spent a while thinking about it.  I think I was wrong, thinking I could do that.  I think each time I try to play along, it’s only pushing me away.  It takes what we can’t have and pushes it into my face.”

I snapped my head around, looking at him.

His forehead was creased, brow knit.  Quicksilver eyes looked back at me.

“I know it’s a fucked thing to say, but I like girls and part of that is liking girls’ bodies.  Sorry if that’s TMI.  I haven’t had one of these conversations with anyone.”

I shook my head.  My heart was pounding in my chest, as calm as I was trying to appear.

“I feel like a traitor, even saying it.  Saying I’ve entertained thoughts about breaking up with-”

I stabbed my finger at his shoulder, using the Wretch to give that finger the power to push his heavy metal body.  I pushed his shoulder into the window’s frame, indenting the metal and damaging the wood.

“Ow,” he said.  He blinked, metal closing over those liquid silver eyes with etched irises.  “Actually pretty close to feeling pain there.  Ow.  That registered.”

“Breaking up?” I asked him, my voice hard.

“It crossed my mind, after the other night.  And the nights since.  I know that makes me the scummiest hypocrite, saying I’m not sure I can date a Case Fifty-Three when that would disqualify me in a lot of people’s eyes.”

I dropped my finger.

“No,” I said.  “You’re not.”

“You don’t have to lie,” he said.

“I’m not.  You don’t have to date a Case Fifty-Three anymore than a black person would have to date another black person.  That’s a screwed-up mentality.”

“It’s different,” Weld said.  “Being black is the most normal thing in the world.  Being me, being Sveta, being Chantilly or Gentle Giant, it comes with complications.”

“If you were disabled, you would not be obligated to only date disabled people.”

Weld shrugged.  With his broad shoulders, decorated with melted fragments of metal, it was a pretty dramatic movement.  “You can say that, but I still feel like a hypocritical scumbag.”

“I don’t think you’re a hypocrite.  I do think you’re a bit of a scumbag, talking about dumping my best friend.”

Weld nodded, with enough fervor that I felt bad for being hard on him.   “I want to do right by her.  I mean it when I say I love her.  But that love gets confused.”

“Confused?”

“It’s there.  But I don’t know if it’s the love I feel for the woman I’m going to marry, a girlfriend, a best friend, or even a-”

He didn’t finish the sentence.

He was being really open.  Maybe more open than he’d been with anyone except Director Armstrong, at least with this stuff.  But he didn’t finish the sentence.

“It’s like trying to compose something and skipping out on the vocals or the strings.”

“Percussion would be a better metaphor,” I said.

I didn’t smile as I said it, and Weld didn’t smile as he heard it.

“There’s no workable physical aspect, and I want that aspect.”

I folded my arms.  Weld did much the same.

Fuck.  Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck.  Fuck.

At the other corner of the long conference room, Jeanne was leaving.  Precipice and Foil hung back, talking with one another.

Fuck it all.  Fuck.  Fucking why did this have to be so hard?

Precipice shot me a curious look.  Foil walked past him, and for a second I thought she was walking around the table to approach us, interrupting the conversation.  She was walking to the window though, still at the far end of the library’s conference room, looking down toward the parking lot, then out at the city.  Precipice indicated a portal in the distance, cutting into the sky.

“I’ll make you a deal,” I told Weld.

“Please.  Anything you can offer.  If I could feel sick, I think I actually would feel sick over this.”

“You tell me before you do anything.  You promise me you will, and you keep that promise.  Because if you do something like break up with her on impulse it’s going to be worse.”

Weld nodded.

“And I swear, if you tell her the actual reason why, I will tear your arms off.”

“How do I do that?” Weld asked.  “I want to communicate, be honest that it’s not all that great, and try more avenues before claiming defeat.  Not that there’s many more, but she’s not stupid.  She can connect dots, if that’s the big issue we’re wrestling with and then I break up with her without explanation.”

He’d talked about feeling sick, but I was the one who felt that way now.

Poor fucking Sveta.

“The deal,” I said, because I couldn’t answer the question that easily if addressing it directly.  “Is that you warn me in advance if you make a decision.  I’ll be there for her with ice cream and my shoulders ready to cry on.”

“Okay,” Weld said.  “I’m not sure I’m there yet.  The decision, I mean.”

“Second part of the deal?  Figure out a way that explains it, okay?  That makes it not about her lack of a body or physical incompatibility.  Because that will annihilate her.”

“Yeah,” Weld said.

“For that, you need to take time, and you need to give me time.  Let me research.  Let me ask questions.”

“We’ve looked at a lot of options and possible power interactions,” Weld said.

“Let me research,” I said, my voice terse to the point that it was almost hostile.

“Then I will,” Weld said.  “Okay.  How long?”

“A month.  Two.”

“Month and a half?”

I shrugged.  Already, I felt more like I was buying time to stave off devastation than I felt any hope that I’d stumble on a solution.

“Victoria,” Precipice called out from the other end of the room.  “We’ll be outside!”

I twisted around, looking down at the parking lot.  “Trouble?”

He shook his head.  “Getting organized.  I’m going to load some stuff into the car.”

“I should go,” I said.

“Thanks for being a friend,” Weld said.

“You know, if you break up with Sveta, meet a gorgeous girl and break Sveta’s heart again, I’m obligated to throw you into the center of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Weld winced.  “Sveta’s dished on my weaknesses, I guess?”

“Hm?  Not really.”

“Fear of mine.”

“Through the stratosphere then, so long as it’s ignorance and not maliciousness, but I don’t think you’re that kind of guy.”

Weld shook his head.

“What you do is your choice.  You don’t have to stay with her.  But you have to be gentle.”

“I don’t even know if I will go through with it,” Weld said.  “It’s just… thinking.  The idea of making her genuinely happy makes me happier than anything.  Even imagining that I might make her sad is making me more miserable than I’ve been in a long time.”

I put my hand on his shoulder.

“Go,” he said.  “I’ll go after the Shepherds, distract myself by talking to some vaguely familiar and probably hostile faces.”

Victor and Rune.

I slid the window open, then flew through, heading for the lot.  I shut the window behind me, and floated down.

Fuck fuck fuck fuck…

Precipice and Foil were just now reaching the ground floor.  I waited for them.  Rain indicated the dumpster at the edge of the street.  Metal for roofs, fencing, and power tools that had been thrown out, because they’d been made cheap in a time of need and they hadn’t been made to last.  He’d spotted all of it when we’d pulled up to the library.

We loaded as much as we could fit into the trunk.  Foil used her power to slice some pieces of corrugated metal into smaller chunks.

We climbed into the car.  The driver turned on the engine, but he didn’t pull out of the parking spot.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

He held up a note.  There was still tape at the top.

I didn’t even get a chance to read it when the passenger door opened.

“Scoot.”

I turned to look.  Rain was shifting to the middle seat.  At the open door, Imp was climbing into the car.

“What were you doing?” I asked, trying to sound more casual than suspicious and unsure if I was succeeding.  I was usually better at that, but- conversation with Weld.

“Went with Mrs. Wynn.  When she was done talking to us, she got on her phone to talk to her hubby and some guy called Balminder.”

“And?”

“This Balminder guy has Cauldron vials.  We talked about how Tats said there were Case-53s at the attacks.  Mercenaries, right?”

“Yes,” Tattletale said.

Both groups were assembled in the hideout, with only Rachel absent.  They’d decided it was time to call her.

Sveta sat beside me, very still as she watched Imp.

“They were talking out loud about whether their vials could be responsible for the new cases.”

“And?” Sveta asked, her voice tight.

“And they think no.”

Both teams and a collection of the Heartbroken were assembled at our headquarters.

I’d thought earlier about how the conference room had felt too empty, but how it would feel too full if everyone was present.

This was that weird middle ground, I decided.  Not a middle ground where the porridge was just right, but one where it was both too hot and too cold.  Fucking uncomfortable.

Chicken Little had a pigeon in his hands, and Kenzie was fitting something around its neck and chest.  One of the Heartbroken- Candy, I was pretty sure, was sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, feet propped up on the back and front edge of Chicken Little’s chair.  Dark hair, braided close to the scalp at one side, the rest left as a tumble.  Darlene knelt on the floor by Chicken Little, holding the cage with more birds inside.

Others were scattered around the room.  Some boys were in Chris’ old corner, having found and started up some of his old games.  One had been given to Kenzie- it wasn’t a video game player, but a scanner.  She would dismantle it later.

Older Heartbroken were scattered in with a trio of mercenaries, and were managing some of the remaining Heartbroken.  A seventeen or eighteen year old with really long, wavy hair was stepping on a leather whip she’d wound around one girl’s hands, keeping the hands pressed to the floor.

Eerie, to think about where they came from and how very dangerous they were.

A hell of a lot of emotional firepower.

On the topic of firepower, Ashley was present, sitting on the floor with her legs tucked under her.  When we hadn’t been sharing info as a group, she had been talking quietly to the little girl that was Kenzie’s age who had her hands bound by the whip.

Parian and Foil sat on plastic cases with perishable foods inside.  Tattletale stood off to one side, a healthy distance from the dangerous little ones, looking at various screens.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Sveta said.

“They have less resources.  And they rule Gimel,” Tattletale said.  “Different mission statement now.  From getting through the end of the world to surviving the aftermath.”

“When you put it that way, you make it sound like they’re on our side,” Precipice said.

“New Cauldron, same as the old Cauldron,” Tattletale said, indicating Sveta, who she’d borrowed the line from.  “Doing things that everyone should be unambiguously on board for and making every enemy possible along the way.”

“Great,” I said.  “Countenance and I exchanged a few texts while we drove back.  Relay gave him a quick recap and he reached out.  He sounds…”

“Undecided?” Byron-as-Capricorn asked.

“On the positive side of undecided.  Agreeable but yet to say he’s sure he’ll do it.  They’ll try to look after and stall any plans for the mercenaries and what they’re planning with the time bubbles.  If we catch up or figure out why while we’re dealing with the mercenaries’ allies, we use that info to help them wrap up.”

“We can’t focus on the mercenaries and stop whatever it is they’re doing?” Foil asked.

“We don’t have leads on them.  We do have some loose leads on Cradle’s business dealings, places Love Lost’s people have been seen, people they’ve hurt, and some last known whereabouts of March.”

“We go after them, then,” Byron-as-Capricorn said.  “All at once, after one target?”

“Coordinated strikes,” Ashley said.

“I dunno,” I said.  “I like the focused attack better.  Our goal is to keep them from achieving their goals or our worst case scenario.  A focused attack guarantees we take the most problematic person out of the picture.”

“March,” Foil said, definitively.

I drew in a slight breath.

“You don’t think so,” she said.  Again, a statement, firm.

“We’re supposed to be cooperating,” I said.  “The best order to remove threats would be to remove one of ours, one of yours, another one of ours.  It gives the best odds that we see this through.”

“Or we coordinate,” Ashley said.  The kid on the ground was inching closer to her while she focused on us, wriggling and twisting until her arms threatened to dislocate, just to get closer, gnashing teeth.  “No need to worry about order if we’re going after all of them at once.”

Capricorn shifted.  From Byron to Tristan.

“I think coordinated,” he said.  “It’s faster, and it means we can support the other groups.  Even if we fail on one front, we have better odds of keeping them from uniting.  Doing what you say, Victoria, and keeping them from achieving any goals and meeting up.”

I glanced at Tattletale.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.  “I’m here to collect information, because it’s warm, and we needed another place to go while March is hunting us.  You have some of my mercenaries.  You can ask me one favor.  I may refuse it.  But I’m not getting involved personally.  I need to conserve strength.”

“You can be-” Foil started.  Parian pulled her back down to her seat.

“I can be such a bitch sometimes?” Tattletale asked.  “At least I’m upfront about it.”

“I think we should split up,” Imp said.  “Coordinate.”

I had my reservations.  Still, sometimes with groups, a mediocre plan that everyone was on board with was much better than a fantastic plan with disgruntled people and people who had no idea what they were doing or why.

I nodded.

“Let’s get organized to hit them all at once, then,” I said.  “Three groups, three raids on March and the two members of the cluster.”

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Interlude – 11.a

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“Ahahahaha,” she fake-laughed.  “My sides!  Oh wait.”

“You need new material, ‘Piece.”

“If I didn’t repeat myself once in a while, I wouldn’t get to hear your dulcet tones telling me how unfunny I am.”

“Ha ha.”

They hiked through the snow and underbrush so thick that it was oftentimes easier to walk on, instead of walking through.

Sidepiece reached out for D.J.’s arm, gripping the forearm, ducked under a branch, and then stepped down to lower ground.

Thirty feet away, he was using a stick to prop himself up.  He only had the one hand, but he could lean heavily on the stick for added balance.  He spared her a glance, withdrew his arm, rotated the forearm, and then flung it out instead of teleporting it.

The hand gripped a branch, and the forearm stuck out at a convenient height and angle for her to grip.

“Masks or no?” D.J. asked.

“Sure.  Can’t hurt.”

“We’re going to be near people.”

“We’ll be lurking in the trees like creeps.  We might as well wear masks.”

“Uh huh.”

She put on her mask, a new one that had been provided by Love Lost.  It was in the shape of a skull, but limited to a cut that only covered the middle third of her face.  The mask attached with glue and stayed stuck where it was.  A mouth portion covered the portion of her face between lips and chin.  The teeth of the mask were modified, as were the shapes of the eye sockets, but it worked.

Damsel had fucked up and bailed when it mattered, but she’d had other things on point.  Sidepiece had a compact filled with black grease paint.  With her thumbs, she applied it to upper and lower lids, with a little curl up at the edges, like exaggerated eyelashes.  Nothing so delicate as Damsel had been, but Sidepiece didn’t consider herself delicate.

D.J. had a similar mask, but it was limited to the lower half of his face, broken into two parts, which he exaggerated by breaking his head into two parts, the upper half suspended over the lower.  He had his own greasepaint, white to contrast with his black skin.  He used his one hand to draw horizontal lines and highlight other gaps he created with his power.

She gave him a thumbs up, smiling.

The lights of civilization glowed beyond the trees, but the footing didn’t get any easier to manage.  The divide between pain-in-the-taint nature and snow-covered concrete was a harsh one, with bushes and piled-up branches standing high enough that she could stand three feet above solid ground with parking lot two paces in front of her.

D.J.’s hand once again provided a hand-hold as she navigated the wood underfoot.  She settled in, leaning against a tree, and tapped on his wrist with one finger.  “Let go for me.”

He let go.  She retained her grip on his arm, cradling his arm in hers.

“I want you to know you’re a proper fucking gentleman, ‘Joint.  It warms a lady’s heart.”

She punctuated the statement by taking his hand and laying it down flat against her chest, where her coat didn’t cover her.

“That’s not your heart, ‘Piece.”

“Is so.”

“I’m not complaining,” he said.  “Not about that.  Keeps my hand warm.”

She laid her hand down over top of his, sandwiching it there, and then pulled her coat around, to cover both of their hands.

“I don’t want to tell you to stop, but can you keep it where I can see it?” he asked.  “I might need it.”

“I’ve got us covered,” she said.  She used her free hand to move her jacket, which was open, showing off her midsection.  There was enough missing that she’d been able to position two holsters so they were strapped around her spine and each other, the guns angled so she could reach down and draw one.  Even when her coat was pulled tight around her body, the matched pistols wouldn’t show.

“Come on,” he said.

“If there’s trouble, I’ll give you back your arm.  Yeah?”

“Fine.”

Considering, she shifted the coat, buckling it at the top, still allowing for both of their arms and hands to be inside the coat, and left the lower half unbuckled, her midsection and the two pistols exposed and in reach.

“This shit is risky,” Disjoint said.

“Aw, buddy.  Are you scared?”

“Aren’t you?” he retorted.

“Nah.  I’m mostly worried we hiked this way for nothing.  What are the odds that they see us in a car while driving here?  If they even show up?  It’s so fuggin’ stupid.  If I’m scared of fucking anything I’m scared of being set up to do fucking stupid things for no fucking good reason.”

“Love hasn’t wronged us once.  She’s smart.”

“Isn’t smarts,” Sidepiece said.  “Smarts is what you learn from a book or teacher.  Street smarts from a street teacher.”

“You don’t need to lecture me about street smarts.”

“I’m more street than you, anyway, I don’t think that’s what she’s about.  She used to be law, before she was lawless.  She’s got a good eye for things, and that’s where she shines, ‘Joint.”

“A good eye even when she’s not looking, which makes me worry.”

“She’s looking.  She’s not telling us about all of it, but she’s looking.  What we’re doing right now?  It’s so she can look.  We’re trustworthy eyes.”

“Uh huh.  Trustworthy.”

“Mostly trustworthy.  But a week ago I saw her talk to this skank, woman was making booze in her bathtub and definitely not using the bathtub for its usual purposes.  She was hanging around Love’s turf, trying to pawn off her bathtub booze, scaring off anyone who had a sense of smell.  Right?”

“Uh huh.”

“Most people would tell the skank queen of stank to take a hike.  Love turned her into an asset.  She still hangs around, she still pawns, but the product’s a bit better, the skank showers once a week now, and she reports in.  Things she’s heard.  Things she’s seen.”

“That’s usually the way it works.”

“Nuh uh.  I’ve known people who ran a neighborhood, expected people to tell them if there was any news, but didn’t care otherwise.  My family was like that.  I’ve known people who ran their blocks like a business, with rules like how you take fifty percent of what you get and reinvest it back into the business.  I’ve even known ones who paid people for information.  But the goal was profit.  Maximizing money in their pockets at the end of the day.”

“She’s different?”

“Her goal is information, ‘Joint.  If you look for it, you’ll see it.  But she’s willing to break even on the business side of things to buy unreliable information.  She’d be willing to send us on a wild goose chase that could go nowhere, and that bothers me.”

Disjoint shook his head.  “You’re off.”

“I think she would, and if she will, that means we’re lower in her eyes.  There’s a class system here, like castes in India or whatever, and stank skank with the bathtub booze is bottom tier.  I don’t want to be at the mothersucking stank skank level.  If this is a shit job then it means she’s not all that and it means I’m not all that to her.”

“Not what I’m saying.  I don’t agree about the information part.”

Really?  You’ve got to pay attention and look, D.J..  See what she’s fucking organizing.”

“I’m looking.  Not always at the same things you are, but I’m looking.  I see the people she’s putting in place, but I don’t think the point is information.  The point is emotional.  She knows that information gets her what she wants.”

Sidepiece considered, then shrugged.  She wasn’t sure he could see her in the gloom, but his hand was in place to feel the shrug.  She smiled at the thought, and spoke through the smile.  “Revenge.”

“Hate and rage.  Revenge means there’s something that can be done and once it’s done then that’s the end of it.  I guarantee you, ‘Piece, she’s going to get what she wants and those emotions she’s feeling won’t change a bit.”

Sidepiece felt uncomfortable, hearing that and kind of agreeing with it.  The playful smile dropped away, and she found herself staring out across the dark parking lot.  There were only six cars in a lot that could have held a hundred, and it wasn’t because the mall was closed- the lights were on, signs lit, and store interiors illuminated.

“She’s still classy as shit,” she decided.

“She is.”

“And pure sex.  If she gave me a clear signal, I’d go to town and I’m only a bit into women.”

He drew in a deep breath, then like a robot, recited the practiced line, “I decline to comment on the grounds that it would self-incriminate.”

“Baby,” she cooed.  She stumbled along the heaped branches and rocks to get close enough, and he caught her, the hand at her front going rigid and providing some of the leverage to keep her from falling.  She leaned hard into the hand and reached up to touch his face.  “There’s no criminating here.  No discrimination, no incrimination, no cremation.  You’re safe from me.”

She felt his hand at her chest move reflexively at the line.

She’d never known a guy like Disjoint, and she had known a lot of guys.  When she had been fourteen she’d dated sixteen year olds.  They’d wanted one thing.  That hadn’t changed when she’d been sixteen and dating eighteen year olds.

It might have continued as a pattern, except shit had gone down when she was eighteen, and she hadn’t come away in one piece.  It had taken her a while to try again.  When she had, she’d been twenty, offering herself to thirty year olds to see if they’d bite.  Some bit.

She hadn’t realized what she’d been looking for until she stumbled into it.  A guy her age, who’d been hurt when she’d been hurt.  She could offer him the sort of thing that other guys wanted, and he liked it, but it wasn’t why he stuck by her.

No.  It was fucked up, but he stuck by her because he liked it when she was nice to him.  It revved his engines and it made him happy in a day to day way.

She wasn’t good at being nice.

“Headlights.”

She saw.  Across the parking lot, vehicles were convening.

“I brought binoculars if you want ’em,” D.J. said.

“I trust you.”

D.J. brought his hand to his face, two fingers at each eye.  He pulled his hand away, and his eyes were each between two fingers.  His own eye sockets were black pits, rimmed with red flesh and the horizontal ‘blindfold’ of white grease paint that he’d applied.

He stuck that hand out in the direction of the headlights.  The eyes fritzed like a bad video tape, then disappeared.

“Breakthrough,” he said.  “Some of them.  No Damsel.  Nobody else.  I’m going to have to put my ears over there to catch what they’re saying.”

“I’ve got you.”

She drew closer to him, supporting him with her body.  He reached up to remove his ears, which was a little more involved than simply removing the exterior portion, then he cast them out as he had the eyeballs.

When he did this, he was blind and deaf, but he also lacked balance.  Sending eyes or ears one at a time while keeping one close by only served to further disorient him, and the eyeballs didn’t come with eyelids, so he couldn’t close his eyes to filter what he was seeing.

This was the dangerous part.  If the ‘heroes’ realized they were being watched, they could retaliate.  If it came to that, D.J. would have to bring back his eyes and ears, and they would have to scram.  A fighting retreat, against people who could fly, do the retractable doll-limb thing, and that shit with the silver blades that had killed Snag from Love’s cluster.

She’d told herself a long time ago she would face danger with a smile.  As her heart beat faster, she told herself it was excitement.  This shit was neat.

She rose up on her tiptoes and kissed his mouth.

He broke the kiss, muttering, “Keep an eye out.”

“I will,” she said, before tracing the letters on his stomach, spelling out what she was saying.

There were more headlights.

Another car, beat from bumper to bumper.  It parked in an empty spot at the edge of the trees, as far away from the mall’s door as was possible.  It put the driver fifty or so feet away from Sidepiece and Disjoint.

An employee of the mall.

Sidepiece drew D.J. in for another kiss.

“You’re distract-” he started.  Her finger on his lips silenced him.

She maintained the kiss while the person walked by, apparently choosing a course where the snow and ice wasn’t as pronounced, which meant walking beneath the overhanging branches of trees, and walking within ten feet of the pair.

Sidepiece watched with one eye, hoping that if the person did see, they’d think it was two people having a ‘snog’, as she’d heard characters in a tv show say.  The masks were a drawback when it came to camouflage, but she could hide some of that with her hand up by D.J.’s face.

“Hello!?” the person called out.

She sighed into D.J.’s face as she broke the kiss.

She looked at the employee, someone wearing an orange shirt with a big blue button featuring a cartoon computer chip with eyes, mouth, arms and legs.  She’d seen it on television.

D.J., too, was looking in the employee’s direction.  An androgyne figure, short-haired and cute despite having lines around the eyes suggesting they were closer to thirty than twenty.

And very wide-eyed, seeing a man without eyes and with cavities instead of ears standing at the wood’s edge.

Sidepiece turned, giving the employee a view of her midsection.  She started to draw her gun, and the person bolted.

She reached past the gun and up into her ribs, digging for the liver and digging into the liver.  Pointed fingernails helped her to sever the connective tissue, and to get her fingernails in and around just enough that she could get a grip on it.  When she tore it out, she felt the damage to nearby parts that were still connected by tatters and webbings of tissue.

A second later, the wounds were puckering up, the liver drawing into itself to close up the damage, hardening around where the damage was worst.

With a practiced throwing motion, she cast the gallbladder out and over the employee’s head.

It exploded outward without much noise, but with a visible puff of smoke and a spray of fluid, with a volume far exceeding what the tiny organ should have held within it spreading out over pavement and ice.

That D.J. didn’t seem to notice suggested it was quiet enough that Breakthrough hadn’t heard.

The person stopped running before she ran into the caustic acid.  They looked back to see what was happening, and Sidepiece aimed a pistol at them.

“Listen carefully,” Sidepiece said.  “That acid’s nothing compared to what I can do to you if I hurl something bigger at you.  And I will.  I’ll throw something at you that will make you a greasy smear.  The only way you live is if you listen.  Nod if you understand.”

The person nodded.

“Take your phone out, drop it.”

The electronics employee did as instructed, pulling the phone from an inner coat pocket.  The phone bounced instead of breaking.  A protective case.

“Kick it into the acid there.”

“Please.”

“Now.”

The person kicked, but the traction of the case was enough that it barely traveled.

“Don’t be fucking stupid,” Sidepiece warned.

“I tried- I’ll…”

It took two more kicks to get it into the puddle.

“You’re going to reach into your car and move very slowly.  You’re going to drop the keys.  You can kick them under the car.  I’m being real fucking nice, because the alternative is to destroy your keys and leave you without your car.”

The person obeyed.

“You’re going to sit.  All lights and engine off.  You put your hands on the dash, and you don’t move until we give the say-so.”

Sidepiece made sure the employee obeyed.

“If you have to piss, piss yourself.  You don’t move a muscle.”

It was another few minutes and another six cars -the new ones parking much closer to the mall- before any cars joined the cluster that were parked in the corner of the lot.

“It’s the Undersiders,” D.J. reported.  “Bunch of kids ran off.  Going shopping I guess.  Adults stayed to talk.”

“Figured,” Sidepiece murmured.

“It’s a meeting about fire… the Undersiders set a fire to burn intel.  Hm.”

Sidepiece waited.

“Tattletale wants to protect sources.  Antares is threatening to leak intel.”

“Sounds like Love’s thing,” Sidepiece murmured.

“They’re sharing info.  Love Lost is going to love this.”

Love Lost screamed.  The scream hit Nailbiter and several members of the Patrol.  That it hit Nailbiter didn’t really matter.  Nails was filled with piss, vinegar, and rabies, and having the dial set to ten on ‘rage’ didn’t change a lot.  It made her more intense, aggressive, and focused, and far less likely to choose any option that wasn’t ‘fight more’.  It did the same to her enemies, but they weren’t going to win that fucking fight.

When they’d reported the meeting over, Sidepiece had messaged Love Lost.  The response had been an address.  This intersection.

No elaboration.  If she’d known it would be a fight like this, she would have hurried.

Sidepiece adjusted her coat, pulling it open so the buckles came undone.  She ran toward the thickest part of the fighting, raising her voice to a harsh pitch, “Give me the word!”

“Get ’em!” Nailbiter shouted.

“That’s two words!”

Nailbiter’s fingers elongated, narrowing into rigid, sharp lengths, which scuffed the road near Sidepiece’s feet.  Sidepiece cackled.

A patrol soldier whipped around, gun raised, and kept spinning, as Disjoint’s hand gripped him and shoved him.  A judo move at long range.  The guy stumbled into another soldier’s way, nearly getting shot.

Sidepiece reached into her coat and reached for another organ, her fingers sliding on slick tissue and the fluids that periodically dripped down from the upper half of her torso to the bottom.  Her kidney- not her right kidney.  That one was still growing back.  Her left kidney was ripe, and the faint, sharp pains told her it was loaded.

The sharp pains became something pronounced as she gripped the kidney and set to tearing it away.  There was a sound like wet cardboard ripping, audible snapping as the congealed and hardened parts around old injuries broke away.  Her right knee trembled with the effort and the pain, to the point she almost fell to the street, but then the last attachments broke, and she had her kidney in hand.

She even gave it a brief shake for good measure, feeling the reactions stirring within, like the fluids within the kidney were coming to a boil, the bubbles pushing out through the solid matter.

“Run!” someone gave the order.  A captain, who twisted around and aimed to open fire with their assault rifle.  Disjoint fucked with their aim.

They were already running, but they were running on a battlefield obstructed by their rage-filled allies, with parked vehicles here and there, and all of the other normal obstacles of a sidewalk, like mailboxes, trash cans, and trees.  Those things funneled them.

It was a question of waiting until they were caught, then aiming for the concentrated mass, favoring the side with captain that had just tried to shoot her.  Aiming wasn’t a guarantee, but her throwing arm was well practiced.

She lobbed it, and her timing was perfect, because it went off while over the heads of the crowd.  On any ordinary day, the kidneys produced a chemical blast, concussive, congealed, and activated- like napalm with something more noxious instead of fire.

That was on an ordinary day.  Her kidneys were packed with kidney stones, which would have better been described as sea urchins that chose to dwell in the kidneys.

Her power translated that quality into a kind of aggressive shrapnel.  Ten people were cut down.  Three of them hadn’t even been in the radius of the initial detonation.

Even on an ordinary day, most of her organs had another effect.  The blood they shed and the bits of flesh they carved out were activated, much like her kidney had been.

A smattering of smaller explosions followed the first detonation.  Where blood had sprayed, it ignited, burning like oil that had been touched with a lighter, brief but hot enough to hurt.

“You assholes are a mess!” she cried out.

“No,” Disjoint said.  “You’re hurting us more than them if you say it.”

“You need to get organ-ized!”

Muscle came away in strips.  Pulling at the stomach muscle near the spine made her thigh tremble.  She flicked the strip out in the direction of a pair of people who were finding their feet.  The explosion was smaller, localized, and put them down.  Muscle was clean- too concussive to tear away chunks and cause a chain reaction.

Nailbiter swatted at the stragglers, sending them sprawling.  Sidepiece quickly pulled away another segment of muscle, nearly losing her footing as nerves got to her, and then flung it out, as best as she could.  Straight into the mass.

“Can’t stomach what I’m dishing out?” she asked.

Stop, please, mercy,” Disjoint cried out, from the distant rear of the fracas.

She smirked.

Three more patrol soldiers remained.  They looked like leadership, and two of them had riot shields.  Nailbiter was playing with her food now that the rage had subsided.  A prod here, a poke, trying to get over, under, and force a continual retreat that put the patrol leaders further from their fallen friends.

Nail-fingers and feet that had been sharpened down into singular points stabbed the ground near the fallen, but by careful positioning or sheer luck, Nailbiter didn’t stab anyone who was lying on icy pavement.

She tugged out a knob of fat, from between organ structures.  Fat burned like blood did.

With index finger and thumb, and a bit of the enhanced strength that her hands and forearms had, to help with the tearing, and throwing, Sidepiece flicked the glob of fat.

The fat made a sharp sound and splatted out into a thin slime, which promptly ignited.  One plexiglass riot shield was on fire now.

She kept one eye out for D.J.’s hands.  She counted both wrestling with the commander’s own hand and foot, a targeted attack that was aimed at the one person without the riot shield.  It served to separate him from the others, which exposed him to Nailbiter.

But Disjoint was occupied, which meant he couldn’t do much as one of the men with the riot shields raised his rifle, aiming it around the shield.  Sidepiece had to run for it, hurling herself to the ground.  There wasn’t much cover there, she was a sitting duck, and she knew she made a better target than some, given her proportions.

But she was near some of the wounded patrol officers, and the man with the rifle wasn’t willing to risk hitting them.

She hadn’t even seen Love Lost start moving, but she saw the middle and end of the movement- a shape along the wall, hair and dress flapping, claws sparking as they hit stone and brick, and then the plunging descent, feet planted squarely on the captain’s shoulders, driving him to the ground.

She leaped forward from there, and her claws scraped the plexiglass riot shields as she slipped between them.

Without turning around, she reached back to scratch both men.  Ragged cuts- one at the side of the leg, the other from thigh to armpit.

Love Lost panted as she turned around, surveying the fallen, her mask dangling with one side attached at the right side of her jaw, the other unclasped.  The pants weren’t normal ones, either- there was a note of something in them.

Almost a whimper, or the pained intake of breath between screams, except the screams had been a minute or two ago, not a second ago.

With the attachment of the mask, she composed herself in posture, straightening to her full height.  Her claws ran through hair, a stroke of the back of the hand smoothed out the dress.

The look in her eyes took longer.  Wild, almost crazed.

Then calmer.  A perpetual glare.

“Would it make your evening better to know we got some really fucking good intel?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost pointed a claw at one of the guns that lay on the ground.  She held up a finger.

“That first.  Got it.”

Sidepiece bent down to grab some of the guns off of the men.  Seeing Nailbiter extend an index finger, threading through multiple rifles by the trigger guards, Sidepiece picked up an assault rifle and flung it into the air.

Nailbiter stabbed out with two fingers.  She caught the gun between them, like she was holding it with chopsticks.

“Don’t be a pain,” Nailbiter said.

Sidepiece winked.

Nailbiter’s index shortened until it could pass through the trigger guard, and then the two elongated ‘chopstick’ fingers withdrew.

“We should call for an ambulance,” D.J. said.  “I’m not sure if you all killed any.”

Love Lost made a motion with one hand, claws glinting where they were mounted on her fingers.

“Calling,” D.J. reported, hesitating as he turned to the others, “what do you think?  Three ambulances?”

“More than that,” Sidepiece replied.  “What happened?”

“They came after us.  We came back at them harder,” Nailbiter said.

“Good thing D.J. and I showed up when we did,” Sidepiece said.

Nailbiter gave her a look.

It wasn’t that Nailbiter disliked her or she disliked Nailbiter, but Nailbiter was a veteran.  Almost a decade under her belt, being a villain.  That shit hardened a woman.  Nailbiter wasn’t one to relax, play around or laugh at jokes until she’d had drinks.

By contrast, D.J. wasn’t hardened enough.  He was here because she was here and if pushed he sometimes collapsed.  He was figuring her out and she was figuring him out.  They made a good team, because she could deal with numbers and he could trip up any one enemy.  But even this shit with gunfire, or shit like the Fallen, it wasn’t as big as some of the shit they could end up getting stuck in.  She wasn’t absolutely sure he was fucked enough in the head to have her back when it counted.

She missed Damsel.  Damsel had been willing to let the facade crack to fucking smile now and then.  Sidepiece had started to think it was all an act, part of the undercover op, but during the interrogation in the shed, she’d still seen those small smiles.

Shit like that fueled Sidepiece.  It was rare she could meet someone and feel like she could take on the world with them at her side.

She kept picking up guns.

She wasn’t done with Damsel, she decided.  If the princess wanted to act proper and heroic, then Sidepiece would find a way to drag her into the muck.  There was a kind of romance in the mental picture of the two of them too beat up to move, bloody and dirty, and the facades cracking.  Emotion pouring out.

There was a romance to the scene, but a purely platonic intent, she decided.   Damsel’s ass was far too skinny for Sidepiece’s tastes.

Speaking of.  They had a report to make.

“How did you know that Tattletale wouldn’t pick up on us?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost looked over one shoulder, peering through red hair at Sidepiece.  The hair had been dyed at one point, when Love Lost had been doing covert missions and had sought something more subtle, and it still lacked its brighter tones as some of the dye was still there.  Blood red, if anything.

Love Lost’s claw moved, tapping out something in the air.  She slashed it to one side, as if it was a kind of punctuation.

Sidepiece’s phone blared with the refrain from an angst pop song as the message came in, “Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”

Other phones went off simultaneously, throughout the group.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SURVEILLANCE.  HER HEAD IS BOWED AND POSTURE STOOPED IF HER POWER IS EXHAUSTED

“Thinker headaches,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost nodded, slightly shrugging one shoulder, still walking at the head of the pack, still without looking back.

“What’s that?” Sidepiece asked.

“If a person with brainy powers uses her powers too much…” Nailbiter hissed the words, lisping the ‘s’s.  “Suffers for it.  Saw it in the Birdcage.  Thinkers can’t get the privacy to hide when they’re hurting, and can’t not use their powers, when they need to hold their own.”

“A weak point,” D.J. said.

Love Lost’s claw moved.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”  The phones rang.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
SHE WILL FAKE IT TO FEINT WHEN SHE REALIZES WE KNOW
FOR NOW WE TIME OUR MOVES

“We weren’t in that much danger, then, surveilling?”

Love Lost made a so-so gesture.  Her claws tapped at the air, poking at an invisible keyboard.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…” the phone’s ring tone sounded.

“Put that on vibrate,” Disjoint said.

Sidepiece snorted.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
CAMERA TINKER A DANGER
WHAT IS NEW INTEL?

“Camera tinker wasn’t moving around much, or using much tech,” Sidepiece said.

Disjoint elaborated, “Half of what they were talking about was smoothing things over between some of the kids.  Either fighting or getting along too well.  Chicken Little and Lookout.”

“Look out, the sky is falling,” Sidepiece said.

Love Lost’s expression had changed.  It always did when kids were involved.  She even changed her attitude when it came to Colt.

“They talked about where the major players are, and who’s involved.  They have a good guess about the attacks that took the Navigators and some of the Advance Globs out, thanks to Tattletale.”

Love Lost nodded, very cavalier about that fact.

“Matter of time, huh?” Sidepiece asked.

Love Lost nodded again.

Love Lost didn’t like using the phones to communicate, which meant that half the time she was leaving things up for others to infer or guess.  If someone could fill in the blanks, then Love Lost allowed it.  Screw up too many times or put the wrong words in her mouth, and that someone would get sent to do a shit errand and kept out of the way.

The inner circle mostly had it figured out, now.  Disjoint stayed quiet rather than guess.  Nailbiter only guessed in the middle of a fight.  She worked well with Love Lost in an all-out fight.

“They’ve been working out who’s who.  Shin’s quiet, Teacher overreached and some of his mercs from Chiet are rebelling, doing their own thing.  Apparently, Bitter Pill isn’t leading the thinkers from the Point,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost typed in the air.

“Follow you, follow you, into the rage…”

Nailbiter’s fingers extended into points, perilously close to Sidepiece’s throat.

The scene remained utterly still for a few seconds.

The phone started up its ringtone again.  “Follow you, Foll-“

The points of Nailbiter’s fingers touched skin.  Sidepiece set her phone to vibrate.

“Yeah,” Disjoint said, looking at his phone.  “That’s their best guess.  Pill is the face, or a partner in leadership.”

Sidepiece looked at the phone to see what the guess was.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
BLUESTOCKING

Love Lost nodded.  She drew to a stop, then looked around.

“Trouble?” Disjoint asked.

“No, not trouble,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost pressed a claw to the fanged mouth that was molded to her lower face, covering nose, mouth, and cheeks.  A single finger to mime ‘silence’.  Her other claw went up in a ‘stop’ position.

The group was quiet and still as Love Lost extended a claw point skyward.  Love Lost tilted her head.

The hand came down, pointing, then motioned again, quick.

Hurry, was the intent.

The group hurried.  Sidepiece’s legs hurt from all the walking, especially the uneven walking through the forest, their shortcut to avoid being seen as they made their way to their vantage point at the edge of the mall parking lot.

“New security measures.  Extending her sensory ranges, and feeling out for tech.  It takes a minute,” Nailbiter hissed.

They entered the hideout.  Love Lost activated the door’s locks, both mechanical and mundane.

“Breakthrough knows you won’t deal with them, so they asked the Undersiders to.   Undersiders know March is prepared for them, so they’re asking Breakthrough to alleviate the pressure.”

Love Lost typed at the air.  Sidepiece couldn’t look at her phone, as she was busy taking off her winter clothes.

Love Lost (is the muthafuckin baws):
WHAT ARE THE UNDERSIDERS GOING TO SAY TO ME?

“Nothing useful, since we know what they’re doing and who they’re working with,” Sidepiece quipped.

Love Lost shrugged slightly, her head moving in acknowledgement of that simple truth.  Even distant friends of the Fallen kid were off limits for alliances.

“They’re supposed to tell you that Cradle is dangerous, he wants to kill you and take your power, and-”

Love Lost moved her hand.

“I know.  They said it before.  They’ll be more insistent, try deals.  They said the worst case scenario is that Cradle allies with March and then takes you out of commission.  Second worst case scenario is you ally with March, Tattletale seemed pretty sure you wouldn’t go after Cradle.”

Love Lost stepped into the living room, claws clicking against the floor- three at the toes, one stabbing down from the heel, her feet encased in thermal stockings that extended up her legs.  The moisture didn’t seem to stick to any of it, wicking off immediately.

Colt was lying on the couch, and sprung to her feet as Love Lost entered.  Love Lost gently pushed her back into her seat.

A knife-finger pointed at Colt, a warning.

“Sorry,” Colt said.  “I tried.”

Disjoint continued, “There was other stuff, Cheit’s mercenaries and some follow-up to the portal or something that they’re planning, but they didn’t talk much about that.  Mostly their focus was on teaming up and trading enemies.  Making sure March doesn’t get in contact with any member of your cluster, and making sure Cradle-”

“-Doesn’t steal the powers of another member of the cluster,” was the response.

Cradle stepped out of the kitchen.

Sidepiece met Disjoint’s eyes.  Her hand moved closer to her midsection.  Shit.  Shitty shit shit shit.

“They don’t understand the most basic and fundamental truth when it comes to the Mall Stampede Cluster,” Cradle said.

Love Lost visibly winced at the mention of the mall.

“Sorry, L.L.  But the fact is, if we were going to kill any member of the cluster, it’s going to be the kid,” Cradle said.  “You don’t need to worry.”

Love Lost nodded.

Cradle, tousle-haired, wearing tinted goggles and a mask, looked as much like a kid as anyone, Sidepiece observed.

But as irreverent as she tried to be in the face of an unjust, grisly world, she could read the tension in the air.  She could shut up when absolutely necessary.

Her stomach was doing flip-flops.  Her pancreas was at that stage in its growth where each tiny growth made it twitch and flip up, then flop down, slapping lightly against the raw meat around it.

“I’m ninety percent done our second version,” Cradle told Love Lost.  “I got peckish, I decided to use the kitchen.  I told your henchman there to sit on the couch and let me tinker together some snacks.  So take that claw away from her throat.”

Love Lost withdrew the claw.  Her eyes narrowed.  She started to type.

“Ninety percent because I want another scan,” Cradle said.  “You gave me one of… his, I think it was.”

He was pointing at Disjoint.

Love Lost nodded.

“I’ll get one of my own.  The data you collect is slightly different from what I get.  Differences in focus.”

Love Lost looked at Disjoint.

“So long as it doesn’t hurt me any,” Disjoint said.

“It won’t,” Cradle said.  His smile was thin, hollow.

Are we pretending that we weren’t just talking about Cradle hurting Love Lost?  He says he won’t and we believe him?  Sidepiece wondered.

“They suspect you, I don’t know if you heard that part,” Disjoint said.  “Hurting the Navigators.”

“Okay,” Cradle said.  “All the more reason to get version two up and running.  And a bit more manpower.”

Love Lost walked over to the coffee table.  Rather than pick up the files there, she speared them with claws, so each file was on a different claw-point.

She planted them on the counter-island that sat in the middle of the kitchen, where Cradle could easily see.

“Kitchen Sink and Hookline.  It’s a start.  Are they forgiven?”

“They can prove themselves worthy of rejoining us,” Nailbiter said.

“Ah.”

“Love Lost and I talked about it before,” Nailbiter clarified.

“It’s a start,” Cradle said.  “The mercenaries we hired before-”

“Money’s tied up,” Nailbiter said.

“I’ll put some forward,” Cradle said.  “It always bugged me in the cartoons, when the villains had a plan that almost worked, and when the next Saturday morning rolled around, they tried something completely new, instead of refining the old idea.”

“Are you a villain, then?” Colt asked, from the couch.

“I’m a planner.  We’ll hire the same people who did the job last time, and we’ll use version two of the weapon.”

Love Lost started typing in the air, claws stabbing at an invisible keyboard.

Cradle seemed to know what was being typed before any phones rang, because he added Love Lost’s line, “And if they don’t want us getting in contact with March… I think that’s exactly what we need to do.”

Love Lost nodded, claws touching her hair to brush it aside as she stood straighter.

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Blinding – 11.3

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“I’ve got it,” Natalie told me.  She squeezed past me to get to the door, took the keys I had in the flat of my hand and opened it, stepping inside to hold it open.

I had Kenzie in my arms.  She was skinny, but her clothes for the cold weather were puffy, and it meant my arms had to go around more.  My arm still twinged from the gunshot wound in the left bicep, and my right hand had bandages around it, inside the glove though the skin was on its way to healing.

Kenzie, meanwhile, was resting her face against my shoulder.  When the cold weather had blustered, she had ducked her head down, and she hadn’t lifted her head back up.

The kettle was already starting to boil in the other room as we kicked off boots and got ourselves sorted in the front hallway.  Ashley took her boots off and stalked off into the kitchen with her coat still on.

Kenzie and I couldn’t take our coats off either, since I was carrying her.  Natalie did help me remove her hat and boots, though.

“Hold on,” Ashley said, as I entered the living room.  She had a sheet in hand.

The couch was quickly stripped of the backing cushions and then made up with a bottom sheet.  It took Ashley, Natalie and me to ease Kenzie down to a sitting position on the couch.  Kenzie had been shot twice and had undergone three surgeries in a thirty-six hour span.

“I’m a bit embarrassed,” Kenzie said.

“You’re fine,” Ashley told her.

“It’s going to change how you guys all see me.”

“We already know you,” Ashley said.  “Nothing to change.”

“It’s one thing if I talk about how I used to be, but if you actually see it then it’s worse.”

“Was that how you used to be?” I asked.

“See!?”

“Volume down.  Keep it at a two or three on the volume knob,” Ashley said.

“See?”

“I’m not saying anything’s changed.  I’m trying to give you a chance to expand on your thoughts there,” I said.

“I remember feeling like I did tonight.  Except it was all the time, and it ended up with me going to the hospital because nobody could get me to stop, even me.”

“You stopped,” Ashley said.  “You aren’t who you are then.”

“But I feel like I did then.”

“We all backslide.  Tomorrow we’ll return to business as usual.  Some people will say apologies.  If it makes you feel better, you can say yours.”

“Apologies are for the other person.”

“We can agree to disagree on that,” Ashley told Kenzie.  “For now, do you want a snack?”

“Yes please,” Kenzie said.

“Some tea to help you get to sleep?”

“Okay.  Whatever works.  I don’t know about that.”

“Get comfortable.  I’ll bring snacks, then I’ll get the rest of your blankets.”

Ashley stepped into the kitchen, past Natalie, who was warily watching Damsel, and then past Damsel, who loomed at the doorway, shadowy, with claws at the frame.

From my vantage point, more used to this kind of scene, I could see Kenzie raise a hand to give Damsel a little wave, and I could see Damsel smile.  When Damsel turned to go help Ashley, I saw the bed-head, a lick of hair at the back and the side that was pressed down.

I was pretty sure Natalie didn’t see that.  That Natalie saw Damsel reach out for Ashley with knife-fingers, touching them to Ashley’s back, and leaned in close- but didn’t see that Ashley was putting away the tea bags that Damsel had taken out of the cupboard, instead getting out the little jars of loose leaf teas and the tea infuser.

“This wasn’t what I expected, when I thought about having a sleepover,” Kenzie admitted.  She smiled.  “I thought it would feel happier.”

“Tomorrow will be brighter,” I said.

“I feel weird, not having my tech.  You said to leave it behind, but I’m used to falling asleep to the glow of the screen.”

“It’ll be good to try and sleep normally,” I told her.  “No late-night tinkering.  Eat, drink, sleep, enjoy your time with Ashley.  Recharge.”

“I recharge by plugging in, though.”

“You’re human.  You’re a mammal.  As much as any dog, cat, mouse or elephant, you should be able to enjoy a good nap, warmth, companionship, and treats.  They’re universal.”

Kenzie drew in a deep breath, then huffed.  “Are you staying, Natalie?”

“I don’t think so.  Even if I was welcome, I think I should really be back at my apartment, getting organized for going back to work.  I’ll stay long enough to make sure you’re comfortable, and then I’ll be by first thing in the morning to pick you up.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

I checked on the Ashleys in the kitchen, and they seemed to be fine.  Ashley had her arms folded while she leaned against the counter, and was inaudible as she talked to her sister.

“Does she need something?” Ashley asked, as she saw me.  “Do you?”

“I’m just going to get sheets and blankets to make up her bed.”

“There’s a nice throw in the drawer under the coffee table.  When you go to the closet for sheets, get the ones from the top shelf.  Someone lacerated the nicer sheets.”

“I bought the nicer sheets,” was the response.

“With our shared money.  If you refuse to fix your hands, you get to sleep in rags like a peasant.”

I rolled my eyes, and headed toward the closet door.  Natalie was talking to Kenzie in a quiet voice, while Kenzie was lying down with her head on a throw pillow.  I stopped to watch for a second.

In the other room, I heard the continued dialogue.  “The hands are not changing, my dear whitewashed clone.  I’m happy with them.  They’ll be needed when I go.”

“Go?  So you’ve decided?”

“It’s crowded.  I’ve deigned to give you free reign, let you have your guests-”

“Guests you like.  Also, this is my apartment.  Paid for with money they gave me for my help in research.”

“That I contributed to as well.  I earned my due, and you’d have nothing without my share of it.”

“I’d have something.  I’m disappointed either way.  You’re better than this.”

“I’m better than this.  This is all very cute.  Your friends are… cute.  But they’re yours.  I’m restless, and you know what this restlessness feels like.”

“I know what it is and what it becomes.”

“I’ve agreed to be good, little clone, because I didn’t want to bring trouble down on your head, and I’m willing to play along with the rules.  I committed crimes, they got me, they were taking care of me, and I didn’t want to spend any more winters hungry.  Fine.  I’ll stay in prison, even if I could easily escape.”

“Of course.”

“But there are no rules, there is no prison, and they’ve forgotten about me.  I’ll make my mark.  I’ll carve out a place for myself, and I’ll build a citadel that makes this cute little hovel feel paltry.”

“You can’t build anything if the energy you’re using is pure ‘restlessness’, if you want to call it that.  You definitely can’t if your judgment is so clouded that you think this apartment is anything but great.”

I stopped eavesdropping and left them to their bickering, relatively confident they’d stop when the tea was done steeping.  I might not have listened in at another time, but the two were volatile on their own and there was that one in a hundred chance that they could be explosively volatile if they clashed.  It was better if I could step in before they got heated enough to disturb Kenzie.

I gathered up the blankets from the closet, stole a pillow from a bed, then took it all to the couch.

Kenzie was already asleep, without blankets or pillow, dozing off to the background noise of Ashley and her clone sniping at each other.

“Are they aware we can hear them?” Natalie asked.  She was sitting by the couch, Kenzie’s colorful backpack resting against her lap.

“Doesn’t matter,” I said.

“Isn’t it concerning if the scary version of your teammate is talking about leaving to be a villain?”

“She makes noise about this now and then.  I’ve tried to convince her and she doesn’t tend to listen.  She’s gradually working her way up to it, but…”

I paused to listen to the back-and-forth.  I couldn’t make out all of the words, but I could definitely make out the tension.

“…Not tonight.  Probably.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  Her forehead creased with lines.

“Something to worry about another day, if our Ashley doesn’t have input or ideas.  For today, I think we’ve worried enough.  Give me a hand?”

Kenzie roused only a bit as we set the sheet and heavier blanket down over top, with the folded throw blanket over her feet.  Her lifting her head up was a chance for me to get the couch pillow out from under her head and put a real pillow there instead.  Somewhere in the midst of it, the Ashleys noticed that Natalie had turned off some of the lights and went quiet.

I said my goodbye to Natalie, collected my tea and crackers, and headed to my room, leaving Ashley watching a television on mute while she had her tea, Kenzie sleeping on the couch behind her, a crossword or something in her lap.  Damsel had gone to her room, or their room.

Glowing screen after all, I supposed.

Kenzie had been too upset to go back to her place, and it wouldn’t have been fair to the staff at the institution to put that on their shoulders.  Ashley and Kenzie balanced out some of the most troubling aspects of each other, and after some debate and some phone calls, we’d agreed that this made the most sense.

I’d spent the last few nights researching, focusing and thinking about the group, and bracing myself for what I knew would be a tough conversation to have.  Now Kenzie was having her turn at the same things, with a bit less research, but she was figuring things out.

In line with that role reversal, I was now taking on the task of building something, putting off sleep and focusing on bigger things.  I flicked the row of switches for my computer, monitor, and peripherals to boot up.

Kenzie’s source had given us some information.  Photos of bulletin boards, with some more photos of notecards, all with Tattletale as the dubious source, I had the PRT data from Dragon, I had my notes from the Patrol, and I had my own notes.

Noontide was the one name I had to work off of, and from there, I could go to Tattletale’s notes to find out a bit more.

Noontide Demon – reference to apathy?
Partners with The Orders, Contender, Griph/Glyph (see 1104.aud)
1104.aud convo partner Griph could be one of Orders
Contender partners with 3rd G post-prison. ?Romantic?

Names to throw around.  I checked The Orders against everything I had.  PRT stuff from before Gold Morning, Patrol notes, and the listings in a ‘who’s who’ subscription that had come out in 2008 that had attempted to track every cape and where they were.  It had been a phone book of information that required far too much effort to maintain and had commanded a niche market of interested people.  At best, it had been the next best thing to an online search to figure out if a cape name or team name was taken.

Three issues had come out.  I had a tattered copy with pages starting to come free of the spine.

No ‘Orders’ under the team names.  While I was looking, I didn’t find a Contender.

Noontide, though.  There had been one, and the name was both in my ‘who’s who’ phone book and available with an online search.  The internet being what it was, my search turned up a positive search result, but clicking through returned a ‘page not found’ result.

The truncated description and single portrait of a mask that the search engine had coughed up from its servers was enough to tell me that they weren’t the same person.  Noontide had had brown skin, and her aesthetic had been entirely different from the woman in the picture that I’d found with the search.

That, and with a second glance, I realized that there was a termination to the old Noontide’s date in the date provided for activity.  Born 1985, dead 2008.

The old Noontide was almost certainly not the one we’d run into.  That was a tidbit of info, because it suggested things about how she’d gone about picking out a name, that she hadn’t used our internet, because she hadn’t been able, or she hadn’t cared enough to.

‘3rd G’ was the next thing that caught my eye.  My first instinct was to think of third generation capes.  Capes with parents that had been the kids of capes.  My second instinct was inspired by the mention of the prison.  Goddess.  I was left with the niggling feeling that more people had disappeared after Goddess had attacked the prison, and very few people had appeared.

Who was involved that hadn’t wanted to go back to Shin?  The third member of Goddess’ cluster, potentially?

If so… the Patrol was working with the Wardens to keep tabs on a limited suite of parahumans.  Because of the danger Goddess had posed, and because her cluster was paranoid about being targets and about being weak, her cluster had asked for protection.  The Wardens hadn’t been able to provide a safehouse and around-the-clock bodyguard, but they had provided some guidance.  Three members of the cluster were gone, Goddess included.  Two had joined the Wardens, becoming employees.  Two more had slipped through the cracks, maintaining a stipend if they would call in or visit on a regular basis.

Just to let the Wardens check that nothing too ugly was happening.

I could search them up, and with the search and the database access I’d been given, I could see some of the notes on the files.

Tori Heflin, NONE (109c)
Classify: Shaker
Power: Telekinetic reel-in, push-out, straight lines only, max 20 lb. weight.
Dispo: NON (Victim)
Age: 25
Appearance: Aboriginal, West Continent, Shin, round face, thick black hair, glasses.  Tattoos, neck, dotwork triangles.
Notes: 109c Sought asylum and refugee status, victimized by Goddess.  Claimed nonaffiliation, no interest in using powers or parahuman activities, but has been contacting other capes.  See MER_CONTENDER, MER_LIONWING, MER_CRETAN.  See attached files 109c_D and 109c_E.
To be monitored further.

I checked the profiles for each of the names.  The link to ‘Contender’ gave me the image of the guy who had sealed me in his personal fighting arena.

Bingo.

The attached images took a minute to come up.  ‘Tori Heflin’ was at a venue too dark to be a bar, sitting with a trio of people in civilian clothes.  Each had a label highlighting them- the extra metadata and labeling was part of why it had taken a minute.  I could click on each to bring up their respective files.

Tori was brown-skinned and round faced, small and of a build that someone might term cute, but she had a mean look on her face in each of the attached files.  The others at the table drank, but Tori didn’t- instead, she apparently smoked up a storm, favoring cigarettes with blue paper and a blue glow at the end.  I’d seen them before- blue flames or something.

In the time it had taken her buddies to finish several beers, she had downed an equivalent number of cigarettes.  Her unlabeled friend was mixing drinks and smoking, coming just shy of her in smoking and a bit shy of his friends in drinking, if I had to judge by the glasses beside him and the butts he’d stubbed out in the ashtray among Tori’s blue flames.  He was unlabeled, but I knew him.  I’d seen him as a civilian in past shoots with the time camera, and I’d fought him.

Kingdom Come.

The light-haired woman next to her was leaning heavily into her personal space, and Tori didn’t seem to either welcome it or hate it.  One photo where the blonde sat with her tattooed arm pressing hard into Tori’s shoulder, and another photo where the woman had an arm around Tori’s shoulders, half leaning into Tori and half onto the table, clearly tipsy.

The woman was Lionwing.  And she, too, had cropped up on the time camera.  When we’d first seen the Pharmacist, Kingdom Come had been there, and so had a strawberry blonde woman with a tattooed arm and cat mask.

I clicked the label, and I brought up a page.  Lionwing, in varying costumes.  She had light armor she wore when in the field, along with a sword and a triangular shield that had decorative arrangements of spikes at each corner.  A bit of a ‘gladiator’ look.

The last person sitting at the table was Cretan.  Muscular, with a shaved head and goatee.  Clicking through produced a blurry picture of him standing in the midst of fires.  He had a helmet with a bull motif, but didn’t even use the bull’s horns as part of the aesthetic- the helmet hugged his head pretty close, and the ‘bull’ arched over top like a mohawk, its eyes lining up with his.  His armor was similar, hugging his body pretty close, with the design etched in or marked out in white metal.

Okay.

Making sense of this- the pharmacist had been allied with Teacher.  Teacher was connected to the hyper-religious nuts from Earth Cheit, with some Fallen and Kingdom Come roped into that.

They or Teacher had hired six mercenaries.  Contender, the one who had created an arena, Noontide, who had tried to put Sveta and I to sleep, and the Order, a quartet of capes we hadn’t seen yet, with only two of them in my pictures here.  Attention had been drawn to them only because Tori had claimed to be a victim in the Goddess debacle, had asked for help as a non-threat, and had then started hanging out with people who hurt others for money.

Why come after us or send the mercenaries after us?  Because… they’d already been caught on camera, and someone had told them they’d need to keep it from happening again?

Noontide’s lack of research for her name was odd, but it made more sense if I reconsidered things from the angle that she wasn’t from Bet.

I looked into her file, and found a series of jobs she had done.  It was stock work for a mercenary, with bodyguard work for a celebrity, theft, and teaming up with another team to rescue a girl that had apparently been kidnapped by some people from the construction worker’s riot that hadn’t been willing to let things go.  She was a mercenary- there hadn’t been any lying about that.  Was this dry resume a cover?  Was she up to something else?

Contender, at least, wasn’t Cheit or Cheit in disguise.  He had a history and had gone by another name before.  He’d been ‘The Pug’, short for Pugilist, and had taken bids on sites to pick fights with capes, prior to Gold Morning.  He’d evolved toward the tail end of that embarrassing debacle, taking more serious money and going after Kill Orders, all the while refining his skill set.  He’d had a break, Gold Morning had happened, and a few months afterward, he’d emerged as Contender.

Then, as I turned my focus to the Order, I found them to be ghosts.  Some jobs, but they hadn’t existed a month ago, and they apparently worked together and socialized as a tight-knit team.  That didn’t happen; not with people who’d appeared so spontaneously and simultaneously.

Cheit, again?

Insidious, if it was the case.  Foreign agents operating as mercenaries, maybe picking and choosing the jobs they did, meeting other capes, sounding them out, and manipulating the ones they saw as vulnerable.

No, it was worse than that.

They’d permanently scarred our horizons, torn up a chunk of our city, and killed a lot of people.  People we cared about.  Jessica was gone.  The cracks that radiated out from that wound and the loss of some of our best Wardens and Warden staff had laid the groundwork for Goddess to take the prison.

They’d done that, and then they’d fucking insinuated themselves into the background of our cape scene, foreign agents acting as mercenaries.

I was left to wonder if Tori was among the scared and vulnerable that they’d positioned themselves to snap up.  A cluster-mate of the Lady in Blue?

I began looking into other jobs they’d done, going back to Noontide’s record, then extrapolating to people she’d worked with.  The patchy notes meant that even if Contender wasn’t listed as being on a job, I could find a note where Cretan was listed as being on that job, with Contender helping.

I was in the middle of a frustration-induced note that I was planning to send to the Wardens about cross-referencing when I heard Ashley using her power.

A sound like ripping, a sound like nails on chalkboards, and a sound like thunder, all rolled into one.

I flew to the living room, narrowly avoiding a collision on the way.  Damsel was exiting her bedroom, and she ducked low as I adjusted by flying high.

The window to the outside was broken, and cold air blew into the living room.  Kenzie was propped up, one hand on her stomach, and Ashley stood in the center of the room.

“What happened?”

Ashley was silent, looking around the room.

“Ashley!”

“Someone grabbed me.”

“Kenz?” I asked.

“I don’t know.  I was sleeping and I got a huge wake-up call.”

The wind whistled as it blew in through the broken glass door.

“This wasn’t a dream thing?” I asked.

Ashley shook her head.

“How sure are you?”

“Seventy.”

“Leaving a thirty percent chance you put a hole in the window for no reason,” Damsel said.  “Scared your little friend, and scared Kenzie too.”

I gave her a roll of my eyes.

“You got scared,” Damsel told Ashley.  “You’ve gotten soft.”

I’m a little scared,” Kenzie said.

“Shh, you’re fine.  All of us are here watching over you,” Damsel replied.  “We won’t let anything happen to you.  Ashley’s imagined monsters won’t hurt you.”

“You’ve become less funny and more of a bully in the time I’ve been in the hospital,” Ashley observed.

She was still turning slowly, checking the room.

“What was it?” I asked.

“A man.  He made noise, I woke up, and he grabbed me before I could react.  I was prepared to use my power to throw us both into the wall, but I didn’t get a chance.  He threw me from the chair, I used my power, and I didn’t connect.”

“Where did he go?”

“I didn’t see.”

I looked at Kenzie.  She shook her head.

“Powers?” I asked.

“Possible,” Kenzie said, her eyes wide.

I drew my phone from my pocket.  The contact screen had different icons by different names.  Most had ‘Zzz’ beside them.

Rain was awake.  Working late on Sveta’s arm- as much as was possible when his tinker power was in its wane period.

Me:
Trouble.  We might need help.

There was a pause.

Rain:
That not good.

Me:
Can you make your way to us if we need backup?

Rain:
No.
No – I have no transpo and time is wrong.  13 minutes until my power knocks me out automatically.  Then I sleep like dead.

I looked at the clock.

Rain:
What is trouble?

Me:
Ashley was grabbed, thrown from bed.  She broke a window.  No idea where the attacker is.

Rain:
Weirdness here too.  K’s projector box is sweating.

“Rain says your projector box is sweating?”

What?

“Is that dangerous?”

“No.  No, it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Talk to our guy,” I told her, putting my phone on the coffee table and sliding it to her.  “I’m going to check the building.”

Ashley stayed with Kenzie, while Damsel came with me.

Front hall clear.  The door was locked.

The kitchen was fine.

Bathroom, first bedroom that included my office with the papers strewn everywhere, the second bedroom that belonged to Ashley, the storage room that still had Ashley’s furniture in it, from where I’d moved it in to make room for my things… all clear.

“Um,” Kenzie said, as Damsel and I returned from the hallway that led to the bedrooms.  “So it’s not just that my projector box  and computer are sitting in a giant puddle.”

“Spit it out,” Damsel said.

“The door was left ajar, so it almost froze.  Rain was hogging space heaters, so it took him a while to notice.

“Didn’t you waterproof it?” I asked, “because you knew Capricorn would be using his power around it?”

Kenzie nodded.

“And proofed it against cold weather?”

“Best as I could, but that has nothing to do with anything, except it means they probably survived the flooding.”

“Why?  How?  Did it malfunction?”

“It wouldn’t ever malfunction like that.  That’s like saying your barbecue is broken, it keeps making salad.”

“Kenzie, please.  Simple answers.”

“It’s the simplest answer!  It’s wet because someone put the water there,” Kenzie said.  “Then, according to Rain, this theoretical person left the door partially open on the way out.”

Why put water on a computer?  Attempted sabotage?  How did one put water on a computer without alerting the guy who was working late on his tinkering?

And if they were active there, and we had strangeness here

“Shit,” I said.  “My computer.”

I took flight, cutting a path through the hallways.

The door to my room and office was closed when I got there- and it had been open when I’d left it a minute ago.  I pushed the door open, and a blast of cold air mingled with choking, blinding fumes to dash my senses.  I couldn’t see, couldn’t smell, and couldn’t taste, and the only noise was the wind from the open window.

My files.  Months and months of effort, of back-and-forth, five hour round trips, to scrounge up papers from the remains of our house.  To dry papers, separate the mildewy and moldy from that which could be preserved, and typing out new versions of any pages that couldn’t be saved, even trying to keep the formatting intact.

The smell was gasoline.  He was setting fire to everything that was mine, from clothes to computer to files.  To the space that was mine.  To Ashley’s apartment.

The others caught up to find me standing there in shock, covering my mouth and trying to avoid the kind of coughing that prompted more coughing.

What the hell?

“He took my feathers.”

I turned back to look at Kenzie.

“They’re important, and they’re not on the coffee table.”

Important.  Priorities.  I shook off the shock and took stock.  The fumes filled my room to the point that it was hard to enter.

“Get to safety!” I called out to the others.  Then I covered my mouth and flew through.

If he went after the projector computer, he’d go after my computer too.  I had to rescue it.  If he was after fire or torching any and all evidence, then I had to deny him that.

A contest of parahuman against parahuman broke down to a game of denial and control.  Even if the power was strength.  When my mom stepped onto the battlefield, her ability to succeed was dependent on getting to where she could hold her weapon near her opponent’s vitals, and her opponents couldn’t respond or react.  That was the endstate.

For Crystal, it was about getting high, dropping forcefields in the right places or using them to protect herself and deny her opponents the ability to hurt her.  So long as she held that high vantage point, any place that was in her field of vision was a place her enemies couldn’t go.

For my dad, a thrown grenade created a radius around it where enemies could do nothing but get away, if they were even afforded the time.  Failing to do so meant they were concussed at the very least.  He essentially maintained a broader circle around him where he could quickly deposit grenades, and the only way to fight him without facing an endless onslaught of light-grenades was to stay out of his range, which extended about far as a strong man could throw a head-sized rubber ball.

For me… especially now, it involved doing a lot of damage, and measuring out how much.

Little things could be fixed or handled later.  I flew up, grabbed a bookcase, and used a pulse of my strength to haul it over.  It crashed down with enough force to create gaps between floorboards where there hadn’t been any.  There were books and papers on it, but the bookcase was metal, and with any luck it would interrupt the flow of fire across the accelerant. It might buy time, if the fire came from the hallway, or if the fire was traveling from here to the hallway.

I flew to the window, my mouth still covered.

No sign of anyone outside, no flame, no lighter being used or match being struck.

I flew to the bookcase.  I’d be sealing myself inside, but if worst came to worst, flying through a wall wouldn’t be making the damage that much worse.

A hand seized me by the throat from behind.  A sharp blow across the back of the head disabled the Wretch before it could even unfold, and I was pulled away from the bookcase.

He’d never even left the room.

I tumbled head over heels, disoriented.  The rush of cold air mingled with the odor of the gasoline vapor.  I found ‘down’ and flew straight to it.  We crashed to the hard floorboards, gasoline soaking the papers that had been scattered across the floor.

MineMine, and you ruined it!

In the wrestling match, each of us exchanged places, one of us on top, the other with back to ground.  I was getting gasoline on me, but so was my shadowy attacker.

I saw the hand reach for a weapon and grabbed his wrist.  A taser.

As quickly as it had been grabbed, it was dropped.  The spark would be a mistake, given our current battlefield.

The computers- black screens.

Hopefully the breaker switch for this room was down or the connection was otherwise a failure.  Because those computers being on meant any number of infinitesimally small ways to ignite the gas.

The computers.  I had to remember my goals.  Even though our attacker was in my hands, it was better to deny the control of the situation, as I’d done before.

I forced my way out of his grip, then barreled straight for the desktop tower that was my at-home computer.  Cables were all still plugged in, keyboard, mouse, and monitor were plugged or even screwed in.

I tore at them, letting the easier ones fall free, forcing the remainder.

The aura was affecting my attacker.  Where he might have swung a meaty fist at me before, he was holding on tight, as if trying to wait out heavy weather in a bad storm.

As I tried to fly away, he clung to me.

There were too many things to focus on, between the computer tower, the damage to property, the gasoline that could easily see the neighborhood go up in smoke, and my own well being.

I shoved my assailant off me, then flew closer to the ceiling, holding the computer tower with its stray wires dangling down.  Winning the fight wasn’t important.  Coming out ahead was.

My notes were everything.

Flying out of reach, near the ceiling, I had a view of the entire room.

Was it over?  Had I won?

Well, won insofar as I’d denied him what he wanted.

I shut the window.

“Two bullets to the back of the head.  The first will take out your forcefield.  The other will end you.  Drop the computer.  Fly away.”

I turned around slowly.

A girl in a black leather bodysuit with a black leather jacket and a scarf around her lower face.  The face I could see was covered in a gray mask, with eyes slanted to match the angle and slant of a woodland animal, each lens an opaque black.

“That’s not flying away,” Imp told me.  “That’s standing your ground.”

She was holding up a lighter.  I was very worried the vapor in the air would ignite.

“Put that out.  We can talk,” I told her.

The lighter flicked closed.  “I’m not here to talk.”

“We had a good working relationship a couple of days ago.”

“That was then,” she said.  “Put the computer down.  You’re going to tear out the hard drive.”

I drew in a deep breath.

“No games,” she said.  “I’ve got to protect the kid I’m looking after.  Your kid baited him into sharing secrets.  In the course of sharing those secrets, he used mundane networks, no encryption.  People have seen.  Some of those people are mentioned in the pictures.”

“Sounds like a failure on your part.”

“It’s a problem for all of us, Glory Girl.  But the kids are most important.”

My volume raised, “It’s a failure on your end, and our home has to burn to the ground?  Fuck that.

“The people who were alerted are going to pay more attention to you, G.G..  If they think you got nothing, if you avoid making specific searches about names, and if there’s a nice fire to assure them that all evidence stops here, the buck stops there.”

“It’s never as simple as that.  This isn’t about protecting us.  This is about protecting you.”

“Us, not me,” Imp said.  “I’m armed, you’re not.  Let go of the computer.  Let it fall to the floor.”

“If it sparks-”

“Just do it,” she said.

I did.  It clunked on landing.  There wasn’t quite enough accelerant or anything on the floor here to allow for a splash.

“I’ve been really nice,” Imp said.  “I could have humiliated you.  Instead, I’m sticking to nonlethal weapons and careful use of fire.”

“Uh huh.”

“Stay where you are,” she said, keeping the pistol on me.

I could use the Wretch, I knew.  It had reach, it was invisible, and if it got her, it would pull her in close and tear her to pieces.

Except I didn’t want to be that kind of person, and the computer by my feet was in the Wretch’s reach too.  I could trust an invisible hand to probably seize her outstretched hand, but I couldn’t trust anything else.

The gender confusion from earlier was resolved as I glanced back and saw how one of her arms was altered.  It was hairy, veins running down the back of the arm, and it was a little longer than her usual arm.  The bodysuit’s fabric didn’t roll past the thickest part of the bicep, so she had rigged some other kind of detachable sleeve to pull over and up to the shoulder.

Her power hadn’t effectively covered it, so it regularly figured into my processing of the scenes, and it lingered in my head even as the rest of her threatened to disappear while my focus was entirely on her.

“I’m going to need you to move the bookcase, G.G.”

I locked eyes with her.  She motioned with the gun, tilting her head so the lenses of her mask caught the light in a different way.

I used flight and a bit of strength to move the thing.  It screeched loudly with the motion.  I wasn’t even done  moving it when Imp pushed the door open.

She immediately leaped back.  I could hear Ashley’s power, almost entirely hidden by the raggedd sound of the bookcase moving over hardwood.

Ashley or Damsel was approaching, and I could hear the sound of it.  The power shredded the door and the surrounding frame as she stalked forward.  It was Damsel, and her claws contained a large sphere of destruction, annihilating everything in front of her, flickering and storming as power ran through it.

“Move a hair,” Imp whispered in Damsel’s ear, “And you’re going to get a bullet in your throat to match the one your sister got.  Except yours will be the last body mod you ever get.”

I wheeled around.  Imp had her gun to Damsel’s throat, her man-hand wrapped in a death-lock around Damsel’s front, pulling her off balance.  Damsel had her hands out to her sides, no power active.

“Pick up the computer, Glory Girl.”

“It’s not my name anymore.”

“I don’t care.  People change names too often.  It’s better to have one good one that you stick to.”

“Imp was taken, you know,” I told her.

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t really have it.”

I don’t care.  Pick up the computer.  Fly it to the ground outside the window.  No games.”

I pushed out with my aura again, but I kept it subtle.  Barely noticeable, like Rain’s often was.  I began feeding it to Imp, with Damsel as an incidental target.

“Now.”

I picked up the computer, stepped over to the open window, and flew down.  I planted the computer case on a stack of firewood.

“If you have any freaky porn that you’re embarrassed about, I promise I’ll only make a little bit of fun of you over it,” Imp said, from the window.  “I’ll only share your browser history with a thousand people tops.”

She beckoned, and I flew over.

I was flying, and I had someone in my arms.

The nose of the gun jabbed into the soft flesh beneath my jaw, forcing my chin up.

I was still tempted to drop her.  Instead, aware I was outputting a bit of my aura, I slowly ramped it up.  If I could do the ‘boiling a frog’ trick…

“Down by the red cloth.  I know it’s hard to see in the dark, but do your best.”

There was a red cloth tied to a post.  I flew to it.

She hopped down the last ten or so feet to the snow.  I chose that opportunity to push out harder with my aura.

“This was fun,” she said.  “We should never ever do it again, understand?  If someone slips you information that’s supposed to be ours, you hand it straight back over, or you’ll run into problems like your house burning down and you not being all the way sure why.”

“The feathers.  You need to give them back.”

“No I do not.  The feathers were a gift from a member of our team to a member of yours.  They don’t need to hang out any longer.  Normally I would encourage friendships, but I’ve read the horror stories, and it’ll just get messy when we’re all on opposite sides.  Trust me, I did that back in Brockton Bay for a bit.  Kid hero and me, bit of romance?  Got awkward when it ended.”

Really.  Who?”

“Not kissing, not telling.  Instead, I am…” she drew a flare gun out of her pocket, and with pistol in her right hand and flare gun in her left, kept the former trained on me and the latter aimed at the window.

“…Delivering my coup de grace,” she said, sounding tired.   Her flare gun was in her right hand.  “And I’ll do it on my first try, like a badass.”

“Damsel is up there.  It’s not badass to kill people.  That’s complete and utter failure for anyone civilized.”

“She’s not up there, not anymore,” Imp said, sounding even more tired.  “She’s at the side, trying to flank me.  Still.”

Imp indicated a corner of the building, about forty feet away.

I ramped up my aura.

“Stop,” she said.

So that was her limit for tolerance.  I pushed harder and I set my jaw.

“If you think that’s going to mess up my aim, you should know I thrive under pressure.”

I heard Damsel using her power.

“Stupid,” Imp muttered.

I heard Ashley using her power.  A little more oomph, more of an eruption of power than a jetting out.  Unpredictable, uneven, but it gave her momentum.

Those forty feet of distance closed fast.  Multiple blasts, and each one carried one of the two in a different direction.

They zig-zagged through the air, one pale shape and one dark one, and converged on Imp with the same timing, each set to collide with her in the same instant.

The two Ashleys landed, one of them clipping a branch from the overhanging foliage on her way down.  They didn’t fly so much as they propelled.

“Are you okay?” Ashley asked me.

I nodded, my eyes searching the battlefield.

Kenzie was still vulnerable, but as I groped for what the threat was, I drew a blank.

Fuck.

“Put up with this if you can,” I said.

I increased the push on my aura until it was at its worst.

“That’s nothing,” Damsel said, even as her face’s microexpressions betrayed what was going on behind the surface.

“Let’s hope our attacker doesn’t think so,” I said.

I closed my eyes, focusing.

I couldn’t sense through my aura, but my aura made it hard to deal.  Ashley and Damsel had talked about restlessness.  I was creating a sort of restlessness in this moment, of a very different sort.

The snow muffled sound, and with this area of the city being where it was and with everything being after hours, I could hear noise.  I started toward it.

We were moving in a direction, and with the weather being what it was, and me not having a coat, it was easier to keep moving.  When I hit my limit, I would loop back.

Just to be sure, I cast a glance backward, and spotted the computer case.

Wouldn’t do to lose track of that and let our enemy run away with it.

The Ashleys were advancing on either side of me, and as we heard a pant, we started forward with more vigor.

“You’re being irritating,” Imp whispered in my ear.

I blinked.

The Ashleys had fanned out a bit more to either side… and Imp had me.  Gun to my throat again.

“I’m trying to be nice.  I’ve been avoiding murder.”

“Me too.”

She whispered, “You try anything, I double-tap you.  And while we’re on the subject of doubling… we’re doubling back.”

From the woods behind Ashley’s place back toward the rows of buildings.

The Ashleys had noticed and were approaching cautiously.  For every one pace Imp and I advanced, they advanced two.

She’d called herself a wolf earlier, and I could see it now.  Pack hunting, stalking, dead serious, and very dangerous.

We found the computer once more.  Imp drew her flare gun.

She stopped when Kenzie stepped out from behind  a tree, wearing all winter clothing, including coat, hat, and earmuffs.

“You’re outnumbered.”

“Doesn’t matter when number one is super awesome,” Imp retorted.  “And when she has a hostage.”

Kenzie drew a gun and pointed it.  It looked like a toy weapon.

Imp shook her head slowly.  “No.  You don’t want to do that.  Hostage.  Use your common sense, kiddo.”

“I spent it all on figuring out my tinkering.  I’ve just got a big empty loneliness inside me right now, with some mad scientist vibes.”

Kenzie smiled, and then she pulled the trigger of her Flash Gun, blinding everyone present that wasn’t her.

Snuff held the door open for Tattletale.  The kids climbed out too, but they weren’t part of the show of force- not directly.  The Heartbroken kids ran around, and headed toward the mall that was at the far end of the parking lot, the older kids who were apparently in charge of them hurrying after.

Herding cats.

Tattletale remained, and so did the two members of Palanquin who were guarding her.  Imp was with her, but Imp was still blind.

It had been a few hours.  I’d had the presence of mind to fly away before more shots could land, so it had been about twenty-five minutes for me, where I hadn’t been able to see anything except hot white spots.

Rain and an unhappily awoken Tristan and Sveta were with me.

Not bringing backup just hadn’t been an option.

Chicken Little seemed to want to go with the Heartbroken, but instead Snuff positioned him at Tattletale’s side.  He had a hangdog look, for someone with a hard full face mask.

A few of the Heartbroken lingered.  Chicken Little’s age.

Parian and Foil lingered too.  I gave Foil a nod, and she nodded back.

Kenzie was with me too, in a sense; she didn’t get out of the vehicle.  She sat in the passenger seat, feet swung out over the side.  She had her costume on.

“Let’s try this again,” Tattletale said.

“Are you sure?  Because your approach of burning everything we cherish and love to ash to protect your info is a great plan.”

“Works for me,” Tattletale said.

I shook my head slowly.

“You gotta scrub it all.  You didn’t get it fair and square, and some of that is stuff only I and my sources know, that the kids don’t pay much attention to.  When people start blabbing about details that only I’m supposed to know, it makes my sources jittery.  Some of them are in very dangerous places.”

“Sounds like you got sloppy,” Tristan said.

“Having a thinker hunting us down and forcing us to relocate regularly is what makes us sloppy, as it would for anyone.  Now, you don’t want to be casualties of that sloppiness.”

“Work with us,” I said.  “I don’t like you, you don’t like me- but I could help you figure something out.”

“You’re making too many enemies.  Profitability-”

Fuck profit,” I interrupted.  “Fuck that.”

“And simple logic!” Tattletale raised her voice.  She stabbed a pointed, painted fingernail in my direction.  “If we spend too much time around you, your enemies become our enemies.  If you have a lot of enemies, which you do, then that fucks us.”

“And if you refuse to cooperate with us and play ball, then we let your intel leak, including that information about sources, and your allies become your enemies.”

“You’re really willing to play hardball?” Tattletale asked.

“Give Kenzie her feathers back.  Let the kids talk.”

“You realize what a monster she is, don’t you?”

I glanced back at Kenzie.  “Nothing resembling a monster, and I’m an expert.”

“Because you spent two years as one.  Of course.”

I looked back at Tristan, who held out my bag for me.  I put it down, and as I reached for it, Snuff tensed.  The Palanquin mercenary who looked like an ordinary person  tensed as well.

“Files,” I said.  I moved slowly as I drew the paperwork from the bag.

Tristan was the one who took the files and handed them out.  Some for Parian, some for Foil, and some for Tattletale.

All of the information on the Order and the mercenaries I’d picked up.  The PRT files.

“Your files are more up to date than mine,” Tattletale said, as she read.  “You found a central network server?”

“I was led to one.  Bargained.”

“The details on ‘Pug’?”

“Old collection of paper files.  Which you guys doused in gasoline but didn’t set on fire.”

“Do you have more?”

“There’s a bit more in there.  We’d have even more if we hadn’t been interrupted.  Again, your teammate tried to set us on fire.”

“You’re building a narrative here,” Tattletale observed.  “It all ties back to Teacher, I see.”

“Yeah,” I replied.  “An awful lot of it.  Fallen, the baiting of Goddess, the portal attacks.”

“I’ll provide you a tidbit of information then.  If we’re going to deal-”

“If we’re going to deal, the feathers first.  They’re important.”

“Fine.  I’ll agree to that.  But Chicken Little is still grounded.  He can’t talk to his friends on the phone.”

Some conversation.”

“I’ll cut twenty percent off his sentence of being grounded forever,” Tattletale said.  She glanced back at Chicken Little, who ducked his head.

“Seriously,” I said.  “At limited times per day.  Or a limited number of messages,” I suggested.

I heard Kenzie groan behind me.

“That would be workable,” Chicken Little muttered, barely audible.

“Feathers and chat.  Some meetings allowed if they’re both on good behavior.  I’ve read her rap sheet, and I want to make sure he’s protected.”

I looked at Tristan, then at Rain.

They looked so exhausted I doubted they were processing.

I looked at Kenzie, who nodded.

“Sure.”

“We’ll negotiate.  You want in bed with us, you’re in bed with us.  Congratulations.  We’ll share resources.”

I nodded.

“Fine,” Tattletale said.  “Let it be known I’m immensely unhappy with this.”

“That’s allowed,” I said.

Behind Tattletale, I saw Chicken Little’s leg jiggle slightly.  Surreptitiously, after he looked left, looked right, and checked that nobody on his team was looking, he turned his hand to one side, extending the smallest of thumbs-ups.

I looked back at Kenzie, who nodded.

Tattletale heaved out a sigh.  She waved Imp forward.

Imp met Rain halfway.  She handed over two feathers, and he took them back to hand to Kenzie.

Important to do this.  She needed a friend.

And I supposed we needed the intel.

“You’re wrong, though,” Tattletale said.

“Wrong?”

“These mercenaries you’re looking at… they’re Cheit, your notes are right.  The Order is a reference to a verse in their texts.  The thousand-eyed beasts, front and back.  Lion, that’s your drunk girl.  The ox.  Your bull guy.  You’ve also got the beast with the face of a man, and the eagle.  They’re tied up in the fours that run through the texts.  Four apostles, four virtues, four whatevers.”

“I think I know the verse,” Rain said.  “We have it too.”

“Good,” Tattletale said.

“Why is that important?” I asked.

“Because it means they’re hardcore Cheit, which you guessed.  You were mostly on the right track and you might have stumbled on the right answer… if you weren’t keeping your eye out for the wrong destination.”

“The wrong destination?”

“Teacher,” Tattletale said.  “He doesn’t have control of his group, so he’s not pulling their strings.  He’s happy doing the prison thing, fucking with Goddess, tearing open holes in reality like the one across Brockton Bay and the ones in the heart of the city, but his people turned their attention to people caught in time loops, stasis, other fuckery like that… and Teacher drew the line there.  These guys here?”

She tapped the paper before continuing, “The mercenaries from another world?  They split from Teacher over it.”

“Are they after Jack?” I asked.  “Worst case scenario.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “They’re not that reckless.  No.  One of the names raised was closer to home than Jack.  And while the shit with March is going on, the Undersiders can’t go home.”

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Blinding – 11.2

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Rain and I worked together to remove Sveta’s rigging.  One attachment to her suit served as a mounting for two arms; she had the larger arm with the feminine hand on the end, and another ‘arm’ with an elbow joint that had the fragment of mask, like a small shield that could pull close to the face or move away.

There was a single second of danger where her tendrils were capable of reaching out into the world, but Sveta was concentrating and the situation was calm.  The metal of her suit’s arm and chest pulled together, and she stood straighter.

The weight of it, as odd as it was, wasn’t a concern to her.  The balance issue, however, was apparently a hassle.

The headquarters felt dark, even with all of the lights on and monitors glowing.  It might have had to do with the weather outside and the late hour, and it might have had to do with the fact that I was bracing myself to deliver hard news.

I’d ridden with the others in an effort to stay connected and keep a thumb on the pulse of the group.  Going from a dark car with only the light of headlights on the road ahead of us to our headquarters, where the light felt insufficient left me feeling like I was underwater and the surface was a ways off.  The world beyond the headquarters and car gave me an ominous vibe.

“I don’t know how long it’s going to be before I have another good tinkering day,” Rain said.  “I can try taking notes, if you have immediate feedback.”

“It works like this,” Sveta said.  “If I had to bring up any issues…”

She didn’t finish the sentence, and as Rain took off his mask and raised his eyebrows, motioning for her to continue, she remained quiet.

“Why are you trailing off?” Rain asked.  “I want to know.”

“Sorry.  I’m already asking for a lot and saying ‘no’ to ideas.  It’s stronger but it doesn’t feel as strong as I’d expect a hand of this size to feel, but I’m not sure if I’m using it at its full strength so that might be bad feedback.  When I use my regular body, I’m pretty strong if I want to be, but I end up holding back because I don’t want to break it.  I might be doing the same thing here.”

“We can’t know until you test its limits and break it,” Rain said.

“Except I can’t do that while I’m in the field.  If I screw something up I have a hundred pounds of dead weight to drag around.”

“Can you do it here?”

I could see the hesitation on Sveta’s face as she turned around, looking at the hand that was planted on the floor, the arm extending up, and over, to where the ‘shoulder’ now rested on a table.

“I get it,” I told her.  “My mom sent me to clinics for testing my powers.  It’s kind of rare that you ever get to get an exact reading on your power’s strength.  Especially when it’s durability.”

“Yeah,” Sveta told me.

“Except one of those things is Victoria talking about her flesh and blood body,” Rain said.  “And- I’m suddenly realizing I sound like an insensitive asshole.”

Sveta swatted his shoulder.  “You’re fine.”

“The arm can be fixed more easily, is what I wanted to say,” he said.

“I dunno,” she said.

“You’re used to holding back,” I observed.

I could see the realization cross her face.  The connecting of two dots.  I could relate it to a lot of moments where I’d missed something that seemed objectively obvious.

We weren’t always obvious.

“That’s true,” she finally said.

“I could try putting together a gauge,” Rain said.  “Something like a visual indicator or audio indicator that measures what you’re putting in, with a max limit if you get to the point that metal starts bending or snapping.”

“That might work.”

“What else?” Rain asked.

“Well, um, this is a really obvious one, but I’d love it if it was more complete.”

I left them to the discussion.  I stopped by the table by my whiteboard and collected my bag and some spare clothes.

In the bathroom, I stripped down and rinsed off, aware of the blood that came away from my hair and skin; I hadn’t been aware it was there.  Not mine.  There was smoke, there was sweat, and there was grime.  My skin was still bruised from my fight with the arena man two days ago, and as much as adrenaline pushed pain into the background, the pain came back.  I ached.

All of that was secondary to the problem of figuring out how to deliver the bad news.

I’d been focused enough on the present and the future that I hadn’t been paying as many visits to memory lane.  I felt unwelcome nostalgia welling now as I pulled on a t-shirt, faced myself in the mirror, and took on the rituals necessary to arm myself.  Damp hair fixed and sorted, combed out and braided.  Teeth brushed, some makeup to take the shine out of my skin, to minimize the dark circles under my eyes, and some tinted chapstick because the cold weather would shred my lips if I let it.

Some of the nostalgia lay in how I was doing up my makeup at a late hour.  The Victoria that had been Glory Girl had done that, knowing that in another few hours she would be taking it all off and going to bed.

That Victoria had, just as I was doing, found injuries she hadn’t been aware of while going through the routine.  Hiding injuries had been important to cultivate the illusion of complete and total invulnerability.

The Victoria of the present put a bandaid on a cut, between jaw and ear.  If I had cause to go out in costume anytime soon, I’d remove the bandage and cover the injury up.

There was another side to the nostalgia.  Darker.  After being turned from Wretch to a Victoria made of stray animals, of rats and dogs, I’d stumbled through the days.  My skin hadn’t felt like my own, and it hadn’t really been my own.  The layers I put over that skin were in my control, and even the most basic of makeup could be the outer layer that worked with the inner turmoil and found reconciliation with the skin and meat in between.

It calmed me, to have something I’d chosen at a store and pull that on over my t-shirt.  In tonight’s case, it was black jeans, and then a sweater, light gray and ribbed, with white laces at the ‘v’ of the collar, pulled through gold-ringed eyelets.  Whatever the crisis, whatever anxieties plagued me, it was important to me that I be able to tell myself that my appearance wasn’t cause for further anxiety.  It had been critical back in those dazed and lost days when I’d been recovering, post-Gold Morning, but it had always been a thing for me.

I could have called it a casualty of growing up with my mom, but even Aunt Sarah, as nice as she was, had made remarks to me as a child when I hadn’t dressed for an occasion, or when I’d tried and failed to dye my hair, or when I’d been ten pounds overweight.  Couched, hinting, even being nice about it, or not saying it to my face, but remarking on it to my mom or dad with me overhearing by chance.  My dad, my uncles, my teachers, my friends… everyone had at one point made remarks that reminded me it was a thing I was supposed to pay attention to.

Even Dean.  I’d thought he was safe, that he got me because he sensed my emotions in a limited way, and that he’d figured out things most others hadn’t because he’d seen the hurt or embarrassment from the sidelines.  Then he’d said something, I couldn’t even remember what it was now, and I’d gone off on him – I’d even stopped talking to him for two weeks, over  a comment that would have probably passed without mention had he said it to a friend.  Had I been asked then, I wouldn’t have been able to put my finger on why.  Poor Dean definitely wouldn’t have.

Easier to be bulletproof.  To figure things out and take care of it.  To make it as much a part of my routine as making sure I had my phone in my right pocket, keys in the little sub-pocket at my left, and wallet in the front pouch of my bag.

Tonight, the anxieties I was wrestling with had little to do with the Wretch.

I could hear noise outside.  I set my jaw, looked at myself in the mirror, and felt that pang of dark nostalgia once more as I forced my eyes away from the reflection, aware of how things weren’t as they should be.

I left the bathroom, collecting my things on the way.  Sveta sat at Rain’s table, while Rain was at the window by the door.

“They’re back from the hospital,” he reported.

I took a look for myself.  There was a taxi below, and Ashley, Kenzie, Natalie, and Tristan were getting out.  Kenzie shuffled more than she walked.  I snatched up my gloves and hat, skipping my coat to be quicker, and stepped outside into the bluster of early winter.

The taxi pulled away as I reached the bottom of the fire escape.

“Hi!”

“Hi Kenzie,” I said.  “Hey Natalie, it’s been a while.”

“I’ve missed a lot,” Natalie admitted.  “A little bit on purpose.”

“It’s fine,” I said.  “You read the emails?”

“I did.  That’s completely different from being here, participating.”

“Nah,” Tristan said.  “It’s not like we needed the legal know-how, exactly.  We haven’t been arresting as much as we’ve been controlling the damage.  Most jails aren’t taking new people.”

“That’s only part of my job, isn’t it?” Natalie asked.

“I guess so,” Tristan said.

“How’s the neck?” I asked him.

“I popped stitches, is all.  No arterial bleed.”

“It looked like an arterial bleed.”

“Doctors said it was probably bleeding for a minute before I realized.”

“Glad you’re okay,” I told him.

He smiled, before heading to the fire escape.

Kenzie and Natalie walked to the fire escape as well, Natalie supporting Kenzie.  I offered a hand, but because the fire escape was only wide enough for two people, I flew at the side, my hand at Kenzie’s armpit to stabilize and support.

“How are you?” I asked Ashley, looking back.

“I’ve been bored out of my skull.  How has it been, living with our roommate without me there?”

“Surreal.  Fine.  We’ve been ignoring each other, except I brought food home a couple of times, and she brings me tea.”

“Perfect,” Ashley said.

“Speaking of,” I said.  “Are you hungry?  I know-”

“Yes,” Tristan cut in, from the top of the fire escape.

“-it’s late, but I figured you might be eager for something better than hospital food.”

“Yes,” he said, again.

“I could eat,” Ashley said.

“You two want to come with?  There’s something I want to bring up.  Natalie, your input would be appreciated too.  That second role of yours you mentioned.”

“I was going to stick with Kenzie and make sure she’s okay.  I don’t know if I’m still a de-facto guardian, because things are so hairy and she’s at the children’s place now, but nobody’s told me to stop.”

“You should go,” Kenzie told her.  “Catch up with the others.  You need a break from me, and I’m going to sit down and spend fifteen minutes getting caught up on my tech and all the data that’s rolled in while I’ve been gone.  I won’t be doing anything.”

“I don’t want you bending over or crawling under the desk,” Natalie warned.

“I won’t.  I’ll make Rain do it.”

“Be nice to Rain,” Tristan said, sounding like a stern mom.

“I am!  He enjoys helping as much as I do.”

Tristan put a hand on the back of Kenzie’s head, steering her inside.  She had two feathers stuck through the single ponytail at the back of her head.  No hairpin, either.

I grabbed my coat, and we got ourselves sorted, with the others changing or organizing their things while I made sure I took down all orders on paper.  Ashley was in for our walk, even though she still hadn’t fully mended.

S.P.I.N.E.  A plan for going about this.  I was pulling from lessons imparted by my family again.  This particular lesson had been from Uncle Neil, and my heart was heavy with the memory of how he’d died, and how it tied into the acronym.

‘S’ stood for schedule, setting the context for the discussion.  It was what I’d spent the most time wrestling with over the past few days.  How to approach this.  All at once?  One at a time?  What was the best venue for it?  Schedule mattered the most because I could do everything else right and screw up here, and group dynamics, interruptions, or the tone of things could spoil it all.

“How was your vacation with your boy?” Tristan asked.  He was asking Natalie.

“He’s not ‘my boy’.  It was nice.”

“Did you tour the sights?” Tristan asked.  “I guess there aren’t many sights, with the city being new.”

“We hung out.  We drank, we completed a one thousand piece puzzle.”

“I hope you did more than that,” Ashley remarked.

“I don’t think I’m going to talk about that, thank you.”

“It sure sounds to me like he’s your boy,” Tristan said.

“Victoriaaa,” Natalie said.

“Yeahhh?” I asked, drawing my voice out in the same way.

“Did you ask me along just so you could throw me to the wolves?”

“I’m not a wolf,” Tristan said.

“A wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Ashley said.

“Goat, not sheep, and it’s not clothing.”

“Keep deluding yourself.  I’m happy to admit to being a wolf.  I’m under no illusions.”

The streets were empty, the snow coming down in drifts as the wind blew it from the rooftops.  A dense sheet or collection here, then another there.

“You said you wanted me here for the other part of my job,” Natalie said, cutting in while there was still room in the back and forth between Ashley and Tristan.  “Is it Kenzie?”

“I was assuming it was,” Ashley said.  “Except you brought Tristan, and he doesn’t connect to Kenzie.”

“I chime in for leadership decisions and things,” Tristan replied.  He looked annoyed.  “Kenzie and I don’t not get along.”

“But you haven’t figured her out,” Ashley said.

“It’s not Kenzie,” I said, before things got any further.  “Not exactly.”

I had their full attention now.

We still walked, but they were quiet, all of them watching me.  Ashley had a reddish tint to her nose and cheekbones, her only headwear was a pair of earmuffs.  Tristan was better bundled up, while Natalie was best prepared, wearing her puffy jacket that was primarily for function.

“Kenzie,” I said.  “If you’re listening in, I’d really appreciate it if you’d stop.  I’m going to talk with these guys and if everything’s good, I’ll talk to the rest of you about it now.”

There was a pause where nobody spoke.

“It’s worrying that you have to do that,” Natalie said.

“What’s going on?” Tristan asked.

“I got the files from Dragon.  I got some other information too.”

“And it impacts the team,” Tristan said.  “Kenzie in particular?”

“Yeah, the team,” I said.  “We talked about this before, back when we were all shopping, but I should go back to it.  What do you know about Chris?”

“Chris,” Tristan said, with a bit of surprise.

P.  Following the scheduling, ‘S’, was perception.  See where others were at, restate the known, and get them in the right frame of mind to think and talk about it.  Forgetting ‘P’ was to risk dropping something on someone right away.

“Nothing we didn’t cover in the shopping trip,” Ashley said.  “He wants to be close to powerful people.  He’s secretive to a fault.  His power is destroying him.  Kenzie defends him fiercely.”

“I don’t know much,” Natalie said.  “I tried to give him some of the same kind of support and help we’ve been trying to give to Kenzie and he refused it.”

“He’s an asshole, but he was our asshole,” Tristan said.  “Then he wasn’t, and it’s getting to me that we don’t know why.  Did you figure out why?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I figured out why.  I think you guys need to know, and I guess the question is how you want to know.  I can dish it all out here, or I can tell you enough that you can give some input on how we approach the others.”

Tristan asking like he had helped to shortcut things.  I didn’t have to figure out how to approach ‘I’ in the acronym.  Invitation.  Asking if they want the information, empowering them to handle the situation.

“This is serious?” Natalie asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “This fills in a lot of the blanks, and it’s not pretty.”

“Tell us,” Ashley said.

Okay.  I took a deep breath.  My breath fogged as I exhaled.

“The file was Ms. Yamada’s.  She wrote about Chris.  A message for colleagues, in case she couldn’t carry on her duties.  For Chris Elman, the very first line was a statement.  Chris lies.”

“No surprise there,” Tristan said.

“I barely talked to him and I’m not exactly shocked,” Natalie said.

No response from Ashley.

In the S.P.I.N.E. acronym, the ‘N’ was for ‘necessary information’.  The meat of things.  Uncle Neil had told me to stick to the facts, to be blunt.

I wasn’t as blunt as I could’ve been, but I was still blunt.

“He’s not a changer,” I said.  “And he didn’t trigger after Gold Morning.  He has a long history.”

“How long?” Tristan asked.

“It goes back a decade,” I said.

“He’s thirteen,” Tristan stated, voice firm, like he could say it with enough authority to make it so.  Then, in a one-eighty in every respect, he said, “He’s not thirteen.”

“No.”

“If he’s not a changer then that thing about him being experimented on…”

Tristan trailed off.  Natalie picked up where he left off.  “…I never heard about him being experimented on.”

“It was the story,” Ashley said, and there was no positivity or humor visible on her face or in her body language.  “A sob story that ensured we wouldn’t push too hard or ask too many questions.”

“He lied about everything,” Tristan spoke the realization aloud.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Something happened.  But it may have been self-inflicted, in a way.  I could get into the nitty-gritty of it, what we know, who he was, and the dots we can connect between the two of those, but I want to leave it up to you guys.”

“Who was he?” Ashley asked.

“Lab Rat,” I said.

“Oh no,” Natalie said.

“That’s a reason to be secretive if I’ve ever heard one,” Ashley said.

I looked at Tristan.  He was frowning, not looking at any of us.

“If you need a refresher on who Lab Rat is, I could go over the bullet points,” I said.

“Fucking asshole,” Tristan said.  He clenched his fist, shaking his head.

“Don’t pop your stitches again,” I warned him.

Tristan shook his head, then winced, reaching up to touch the bandage at the side of his neck.  “Let me think on this.  Bring me out when you have food and things have settled.”

“You’re not going to immediately unsettle things, are you?” I asked.

“Nah,” he said.

He switched, blurring with his eyes flashing.  The blue of the eyes faded, and Tristan became Byron.

Byron’s eyes turned down, looking at the ground as he walked.

“Is he dangerous?” Natalie asked.

“Can’t say anything for sure,” I told her.  “But he disemboweled a tyrant and as far as we can tell, he’s taking over a portion of her world.  If we go by past history, and if we assume nothing’s changed, he’s dangerous.”

“Everyone’s supposed to get a second chance,” Ashley said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “But if it was offered and he didn’t take it, if he decided to hide and operate in secret, does he really get that benefit?”

“I’d say it depends,” Byron said, barely audible.

“Yeah,” I said.

The last letter in ‘S.P.I.N.E.’ was E.  Empathize.  Leave room for others to feel, to process.

We weren’t far from the dingy little restaurant, which had a rotund Japanese-style ogre at the side of the sign, a cow tucked under one arm, beside the stylized letters stating simply, ‘BEEF BOWL’.

Nobody went in, not right away.  I’d taken two days to wrap my head around it, to equip myself with information, and decide on how to go about approaching the others.  I could stand in the cold for five, ten, or twenty minutes while they digested the facts.  I was prepared to answer their questions, if they had any.

“This isn’t easy,” I said, to give them an excuse to express any feelings they were holding back.

They didn’t have questions, and they didn’t want to express whatever it was they were so clearly feeling.  Ashley had gone cold, distant.  Natalie was thinking.  There was only a single quiet comment from Byron.

“This is going to do a number on the others.”

He wasn’t wrong.  Uncle Neil had taught me about the S.P.I.N.E. acronym because as heroes, we were often on the front line for tragedy.  It was a tool for delivering the worst kind of news, and for preparing people to grieve.

The Chris we knew was gone.

The chatter as we got back to the hideout was happy.  I put the paper bag down on the table by the door.

“Victoria!  Hey!” Kenzie greeted me.  She’d shucked off all of the outdoor clothing and was sitting in her chair, everything illuminated.  She wore a new sweatshirt that was at least two sizes too big for her, purple, over a blue shirt with a monster on the front.  Her skirt came down past her knees and she wore leggings beneath.  She’d put on slippers rather than shoes.  She’d also, I noted, put on her hairpin, and tucked the two feathers into it so they swept along the side of her head.

“Hey, good news!  Is everyone back?”

I cracked the door open to poke my head out and check.  “Yeah.  They’ll be here in a second.”

“I got intel,” she said, her eyes glittering.  “I can’t name my source, and the intel comes with stipulations.”

I looked at the feathers in her hair.  “What stipulations?”

Sveta answered me.  “We can’t use the information against the Undersiders, and we need to be discreet.”

“Is that so?” I asked.  I heard the others at the fire escape and opened the door.

“And I agreed to certain special favors,” Kenzie said.

“Don’t say it like that,” Rain told her.  “They want to see your tech.”

“Kind of like how the speedrunners showed Rain’s cluster their tech, except not evil and-”

“And not like that situation at all, really,” he finished.

“I’m showing off my tech, and people are interested,” Kenzie said, legs kicking.

“He sent the information without even bargaining first,” Sveta said.  “The pictures and the requests.  It shows a lot of faith in you.”

“Or he’s an idiot,” Ashley said.

Kenzie spun her chair around, glaring.

“Let’s hope it’s the former,” Ashley said.

“It is the former,” Kenzie replied, trying to sound dangerous.

The others came inside and the door mercifully shut.  Space heaters were buzzing throughout the open space, producing the faint smell of burned dust.

Byron changed out, allowing Tristan free.  I saw Tristan’s expression, the seriousness, and what simmered beneath the surface.

“Do you want to see?” Kenzie asked.  “I was counting the seconds until you guys got back.”

“She wasn’t,” Rain clarified.  “But she is excited.  You guys were gone for longer than usual.  What were you talking about?”

“Heavy stuff,” Tristan said.  He tore open the brown paper bag, taking a bowl of ginger beef and some chopsticks.  “I’m so glad we have food if we’re going to discuss this.  I skipped dinner and I’m running on empty.”

“You have me worried now,” Sveta said.

I got other things out.  I passed Sveta a bowl, then put Kenzie’s request on the table next to her.  Some peanut chicken, a small tray of salad with dressing in packets, and far too many fortune cookies.  She reached for a fortune cookie, and I grabbed her hand, moving it to the salad.

“Is this what you’ve been stewing on?” Sveta asked me.

“Yeah,” I answered.

“How bad, on a scale of one to ten?” Rain asked.

“What’s a ten?” Tristan asked.  He was already eating.

“Gold Morning,” Rain said, dead serious.

“Seven, then,” I said.

“I would have called the Goddess situation a seven, with what happened to the prison,” Rain said.  He was entirely serious now.

I’d wanted to handle this better.  I returned to the acronym.

“Where do you guys stand on the subject of Chris?” I asked.

“Oh,” Rain said.  He looked a little crestfallen at the name.  “That’s ominous.”

“Is he okay?” Kenzie asked.

“I don’t know.  We don’t have any updates on what he’s doing right now, or how he is, but we do have information about him.”

“I always had a bad feeling,” Sveta said.  “It started as a small discomfort when he was in the group.  I could sympathize, turning into a monster, not having control, but… it was always a bad feeling and the little things only added to it, never really making that feeling less intense.”

“I really don’t want to spoil a reuniting of the team with us dumping on Chris,” Kenzie said.

“I’m not,” Sveta said.

“You really kinda are,” Kenzie said.  “And I understand why, he left and that sucks.  It’s easier to deal with if you get angry instead of sad.”

“Kenzie,” Sveta said, and her voice was lower, “I understand that you want to respect Chris and his feelings-”

“And you should want to too!”

“-But please respect me and don’t minimize my feelings to protect his.”

“He’s not here to defend himself, so if I’m being forced to take a side then I’m going to take his.  I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Sveta said.  “I’m sorry too.”

Ashley approached her, sitting on the desk beside Kenzie’s keyboard, a bowl and chopsticks in hand.  She didn’t look like she was having an easy time with the chopsticks.

“We’re not dumping,” I said.  “At least, that’s not the intent.  I respect that Sveta’s instincts were to be uncomfortable around Chris.”

“I don’t like the word instincts,” Sveta said.

“Fair.  Feelings?” I offered.

“Feelings,” Sveta said.

“And I don’t want to condemn him either,” I said.  “But what I’ve found out looks pretty bad.  It’s up to you guys if you want to tackle this in one way or another.  We could raise the subject tomorrow.”

“I won’t sleep all night if I’m busy imagining the worst outcomes,” Rain said.

“I want to know,” Kenzie said, looking stubborn.

“I’m not sure you do,” Ashley told her.

“I do.”

I looked at Sveta.

“You told the others?” Sveta asked.

“A little less loaded.  Easier to bring up,” I replied.

“I’m trusting you on this.  I’m going to be pretty stung if you didn’t have good reasons.”

I nodded.

“What is it?” she asked.

That brought us to the ‘I’ of the S.P.I.N.E., this time around.

“He lied to us,” Tristan said.

My breath caught in my throat.  “Hold up.”

“What did he lie about?” Kenzie asked.

“Everything except his first name, apparently,” Tristan said.  “Everything.

“Tristan,” I said.  “Hold up, okay?  Stop.”

He looked like he was going to say something, then stopped.  He put the bowl down hard, chopsticks laid on top.  Only about half was eaten.

“Sure,” he said.

“Everything?” Rain asked.

I opened my mouth to try to formulate a reply, then closed it and nodded instead.  No way to sum it up.

“Why?” Sveta asked.

“Because he wanted to keep it a secret that he’s a villain with a lot of enemies.”

“A lot?” Kenzie asked.

“He was in the Birdcage,” Ashley said.

“What did he do?” Sveta asked.  “What was so bad that he couldn’t use his old identity, when Bonesaw was walking around free?”

“Semi-free,” Ashley said.

“My point stands.  Valkyrie used to be a dangerous villain,” Sveta said.  She looked at me, and the statement that didn’t follow was telling.

“My sister, too.  She was dangerous,” I said.

“What did he do?” Sveta asked.

“Can I ask that we gloss over that?  We can get into the details tomorrow, after we’ve absorbed the basic info tonight.”

“You know where he is right now, don’t you?  How pressing this is?  He’s on an island in Earth Shin, near their equivalent of New Zealand, with other parahumans and people.  I’m really sorry to bring this up, but your sister and her dad, they’re on an island nearby, they’re having all parahumans come to them.  They’re negotiating with governments.  That’s a lot of people potentially under his thumb.  If he’s dangerous-”

“He’s Chris,” Kenzie said.  She looked to me for her validation, which broke my heart a little.  The smile on her face broke it a bit more; she wore an expression which would read to others like she thought this whole thing was a joke.

“Except he isn’t,” Rain said.  “He has a history?  Who is he?”

“He’s Lab Rat,” I said.

I could see everything go out of Sveta, as she heard that.  I saw Kenzie’s eyes widen just a bit- she recognized the name.

Rain, by contrast, seemed baffled.

“He’s a tinker?” Kenzie asked.  She laughed, a smile creeping across her face.  “That’s hilarious.”

“Who the hell is Lab Rat?” Rain asked.  “Keep in mind, I spent half my life in places without radio and television.  He went to the Birdcage, so it sounds bad, he’s a tinker, so that’s a lot of options for bad, but that’s all I’ve got.”

“He made mutagenic serums.  The transformations,” Sveta said.  “He was dosing himself?  Or did his power change?”

“Dosing himself.  The medicine he kept with him.”

Kenzie banged the table.  “I feel so dumb!”

“Easy,” Ashley told her.

“I didn’t even think!  He asked me not to record him changing and I didn’t because I knew he’d be naked at one part of it, and I’m absolutely not allowed to take those kinds of pictures, accidentally or on purpose.”

“Easy,” Ashley said, again.  “Count to ten.”

“That’s your thing, not mine.”

“Count.”

“He experimented on a lot of people,” Sveta said.  “He turned them into monsters.  Freaks.  You’ve seen the kind of transformations he can manage, except- the ones we saw were uglier.”

She met my eyes as she said it.

I nodded.

“You’ve seen them?” Natalie asked.

“At the hospital,” Sveta said.  “The asylum.  Parahumans who can’t control their powers and victims of parahuman powers get sent there to be taken care of.”

“You’ve talked about it,” Tristan said, uncharacteristically gentle.

“I was there for a month and a half, so I could talk to a therapist every day without worrying about rotations or anything,” Kenzie added.  “I didn’t really see many others.”

“We’ve all- most of us have seen or been the victims of powers,” Sveta said.  “I’m one.  There were a few Case Fifty-Threes there.  Um.  People who lost their minds, one way or another, or who were already struggling with something and who had powers that made it worse.  People who were hurt by tinker experiments, in ways that conventional medicine couldn’t help.”

“Bad situations,” I supplied.

“In the few years that Lab Rat was active, for every one person who went to the Asylum for one reason or another, there was a Lab Rat victim.  He tested his serums on people and not every single one changed all the way back.”

“Did anyone ever ask him why?” Kenzie asked.

Kenzie,” Sveta said, her voice hard.  “Don’t.”

“I’m just saying!  Maybe there was a really important reason, or maybe he couldn’t help it.”

“Kenzie,” I said, before Sveta could get riled up and say something regrettable.  “This is a no-fly zone.”

She giggled in a nervous, bewildered way, “What does that even mean?”

“I hear what you’re saying, but… we can’t extend the benefit of a doubt.  Not about this.  Not until we have a reason to.”

“If we have to have a reason it’s not the benefit of a doubt,” Kenzie replied.

“It’s too close to home,” I said.  I tried to keep my voice level.  “For me, for Sveta.  You can’t make apologies for his actions until we have more information, not when some of us here are unable to forgive people who did the exact same thing to us.”

“But you guys-” Kenzie started.  Ashley put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, and Kenzie slumped back into her seat.  She pulled her feet up onto her seat and hugged her knees.  “Okay.”

“Did they get better?” Rain asked.

I was already shaking my head when Sveta said, “No.  You know how his Screaming Anxiety form kept screaming?  There was a woman like that.  Her mind didn’t exit that state, and she roared out cuss words nonstop.  All day, every day, without ever sleeping.  She had surges of strength that meant she couldn’t be in a regular hospital.  There was a man who boiled alive.  The bubbles would swell-”

“I don’t- I don’t need details,” Rain said.

“They were still there when I arrived at the Asylum, along with a few others that had survived,” Sveta said.  There was a hard edge to her voice, like she could’ve been angry or burst into tears in the same breath.  “When Victoria did.  They were probably still there on Gold Morning.”

“He was my friend,” Rain said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I know he was younger, or-”

“He wasn’t younger,” I said.  “Twice your age.”

“Ah,” Rain said, and he huffed out the word like it had hit him straight in the solar plexus.

“Sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter any to me,” Kenzie said, stubborn.  “It doesn’t change anything.  In fact, I kind of feel validated, because it fits everything in super neat with my seating chart-”

“It should matter,” Ashley said.  “And let’s just let the others talk a moment, no commentary.  Please?”

“I didn’t have many friends, when I first came to group therapy,” Rain said.  “I didn’t even know Erin properly then, everyone at the compound had turned on me.”

“He gave you games and comics,” Tristan said.

Rain nodded.  “And we talked online, whenever I was online.  He helped me research clusters and find details on Love Lost, Cradle, and Snag.  And he’s a complete and utter monster?”

“Apparently,” Sveta said.

“We can’t know one hundred percent,” I said.  “He’s apparently an experiment.  Not a clone, but a malleable housing for the DNA signature for the agent to hook into, I’d have to reread the notes.”

“Ashley was a clone and she turned out okay,” Kenzie said.  “Better than her former self.”

“That’s true,” I said.

“The malleable house stuff,” Rain said.  “That was why he was falling apart?  He was trying to fix something by creating permanent changes?”

I hesitated.

“He lied about that too?”

“He was apparently doing the exact opposite of what he was saying.  Trying to weaken the ‘Chris’ in him to make the changes stick longer.  Intentionally creating changes to break down his old self.”

Rain rose to his feet, and in the same motion, pushed on the table in front of him, sending scrap, food, and his tools to the ground.  The table followed a second later, everything crashing in a sharp, deafening noise, with a short yelp from Natalie.

Natalie, who had been watching from the sidelines.

The bowl rolled around on the floor for a second, the only sound.  The sound wound down as it lost momentum.

Where the sound faded, I heard another.  Kenzie’s nervous giggling.

“Please don’t,” Rain said.

“I can’t help it.”

“Come,” Ashley said.  She winced as she picked Kenzie up out of the chair.  “Slippers off.  We’re going for a walk.  You and me.”

The giggling stopped and started in the minute or so it took for Ashley to get Kenzie to the door and make her put her boots on.  I helped, getting the coat, hat and gloves, with Swansong’s stuff in my other arm.

Rather than put those things on, Ashley just opened the door, stepping out onto the fire escape without winter clothes.  I handed everything over, and she shut the door.  They’d get dressed for the outdoors outdoors.

The door closing mercifully shut out the sound of the nervous giggling.

Rain stood with his eyes up toward the ceiling, fingers knit together behind his head, forearms pressed against his ears.

“I fucked this up,” I said.

“I don’t think there was a good way to do it.”

“I was considering one-on-one, once I’d briefed people I thought were safe,” I said.  “I was seventy-five percent on Ashley, I thought that if she did have an outburst, it would be okay so long as she was away from Kenzie.  She surprised me.”

“She once said her default for every person she meets is to be disappointed in them,” Tristan said.  “There’s never any surprises if they live up to that disappointment.”

Rain was only just now relaxing, lowering his arms.  He looked down at the table he’d overturned.  “I’ll clean up.  I’m sorry.”

“I’ll get it,” Natalie said.  “Please.  It’ll help if I can do something.”

“If you bring the stuff, I’ll help,” Rain said.  “I told myself a long time ago I didn’t want anyone cleaning up for me.  It’s a rule.”

“Okay,” Natalie said.  She was on the other end of the room, so I barely heard her.

“If you’d done Kenzie last, she would have gotten curious and found out, and she would have been hurt,” Sveta told me.  “If you told her first, we would have realized something was wrong, and I would have had a pretty hard time knowing I was last on your list of people to tell.”

“Is it okay that I told you after-” I started.

I stopped because she was already nodding.

Off to the side, Tristan had pulled Rain into a hug.  I looked away.  Rain was kneeling by the mess, separating things from the ginger beef and rice.  I would’ve helped, but I had the instinct that he wanted space.

Sveta- her arms were folded, her head bowed.  Her expression as angry as I’d seen it, as she looked at nothing in particular.

I’d known Sveta would take it hard.  Rain had caught me by surprise.  Kenzie had too, in a way.  I’d prepared myself for the mindset that the others would want to grieve, and I hadn’t anticipated the abject denial, even though it was one of the classic stages of grief.

I didn’t trust myself to approach any of them, so I turned toward the screen that Kenzie had left live.

The images were there on the monitor.  Bulletin boards with notecards stuck to them.  Not so different from what we had in our hideout.

I pretty quickly realized what they were.

Tattletale’s notes.

Scary notes.  They had some starting points on the people who’d attacked us, notes on the portal, and some theorizing on the greater threats in play.

Almost casually, figures like the Bogeyman were name-dropped and discarded.  Amy and Chris were a footnote.

Fucking dangerous information for us to so casually have, and dangerous information to be sending out.

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Blinding – 11.1

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I could remember conversations that Gilpatrick and I had had, back with the patrol group.  Gilpatrick had worked as a PRT squad leader, and he’d had his fair share of bad days.  I’d had my bad days too.  Even ignoring the obvious, I’d grown up in Brockton Bay.  Gilpatrick had wanted to root out all of the ‘powers are cool’ types.  To reduce the roster for his school-peripheral program down to a minimum, to the people who had to be there.  Not every school had done the same.

A half dozen men and women and three dogs now rippled with enough muscle that their skin had split in places and they couldn’t move in straight lines.  Their eyes were bloodshot and their throats produced noises like they were trying to scream while being strangled, and they hurled themselves against doors and windows.  Inside, the members of the area’s patrol block were all gathered together, trying to barricade doors and windows.  Lights moved wildly, because some were using flashlights and others were doing the work, and the way those lights didn’t hold steady told me everything about how they were coping.

Gilpatrick had tried to train his squaddies for a crisis.  To paint pictures and mix up the drudge work with some degree of strategy.  He’d run over the basics, had talked about chains of command, and had drilled the older students on worst case scenarios.

A squad of twenty trying to hold out against nine monsters that had once been ordinary people and animals, when any one of those monsters could rend all twenty individuals limb from limb?  It worked as an example.

One of the smaller dogs fought to get past the others and get a piece of the action, black froth at the corners of its mouth as it lunged, tried to climb over and was hit with one elbow, flying ten feet.

It stopped making its strangled scream sounds as it recovered from the hit, then resumed its strangled scream sounds, I could see the jerky full body contractions and expansions as it worked at breathing.

It didn’t try going back at the main wall of people and animals, who were battering at the front of the building and threatening to pummel their way through the concrete.  Instead, it circled around.

The smaller dog leaped through a window that wasn’t sufficiently barricaded, got halfway through, and scrabbled to get the rest of the way through.  Putting my mask on, I flew after it.

People shot at the animal, and the shooting did nothing to slow it.

I collided with it, smashing it down into the floor, my forward momentum driving it across the floor.  The Wretch hit it once before the forcefield flickered off.  I flew up to the ceiling, back flat against the painted surface, as  the dog scrabbled to get its limbs under it.  The muscles hampered more than anything in the moment.

I used my aura, but it agitated the room more than it bothered the dog.

“Don’t shoot!” I called out.  “Don’t waste your bullets!”

And you’ll hit me.

“What the hell are we supposed to do!?” a young woman shrieked at me.  One guy in the background was audibly sobbing in his panic.

Fuck me.

“Do you have an empty cell!?”  This was supposed to be a jail.

I didn’t get a decisive answer, only a muddle of ten voices talking at once.  The dog was back on its feet now, and the Wretch was active.

I’d fought mutant dogs before.  Those had been a bit bigger, armor plated, with sharper edges, hooks, and decorations.  This was… denser.  It was the only way I could put it.  I flew at its legs, expanding the Wretch out to knock its legs out from under it, then punted it across the floor.

“Which way are the cells!?” I barked the question like an order.

A hand pointed.

“But they’re full!”

“Get over there, move people to another cell, and get yourselves into that same cell if there isn’t an escape route!  Leave me a door open!”

Some people headed that direction.

“You have thirty seconds!” I told them.

The dog didn’t even have all four legs under it when it hurled itself to one side.  The wall partially caved in with the impact, and the dog fell to the ground, slick body sliding on laminated flooring.  It was on its feet again before it finished sliding.  I could see in the background that the patrol block members that hadn’t headed off to the cells were now backing up, or trying to hide behind cover.  They’d been paralyzed by fear and now they were being punished for their fear by being stuck in the main room of the ground floor with me and a beast that I was barely keeping under control.

To my left, at the front door of the building, the drumming of fists against the door was causing the metal door to curve inward.  It wouldn’t break, I was pretty sure- by the spiderwebbing of cracks around the frame, the pressure and the pounding would see the frame come out of the wall first.

To my right, the patrol students were down the hall, presumably at the cells, and from the sounds of it, they weren’t as organized as they could be.

I was being really fucking generous, giving them thirty seconds.

The beast made its strangled squeal at me.  It lunged, and I didn’t retreat.  Instead, I put my arm out for it to bite.

The Wretch expanded out from me, starting at the skin and unfolding into its true shape shortly after.  The mutated dog didn’t catch me by the arm.  My arm caught it by the inside of the mouth.

I used my flight, raising it up so it only had its back legs, and those legs were only barely touching the ground.  Here and there it scratched the surface with claws and found some traction, jerking at me.  I used my flight to correct.

Someone was aiming a gun at it while it was momentarily stuck in position.

“Don’t fucking shoot it,” I growled the words.  “They’re bulletproof like this.  You’ll just draw its attention to you.”

I had very little experience having the Wretch active and a living combatant who wouldn’t be torn to shreds by it.  I flipped myself around, arm and Wretch still in its jaws, holding its mouth open enough that it couldn’t muster the strength to close its jaws and break my forcefield, and I wrapped my legs around the dog’s neck.

It was about as tall at the shoulder as a pony, but it was muscular, and the loose skin that had torn around the expanding muscle made getting any leverage hard, but the placement of the Wretch didn’t obstruct my freedom of movement or my ability to get my legs into place.

As it fought me, scrabbling and periodically losing its footing, I began to drag it into the hallway where the students had gone.

“Coming in!” I hollered the words.  The dog responded to the holler with more struggling, which seemed to shake it more.

The jail cells were a dozen individual cages, each cage with a cot in the center and a cot against the wall, more bars and not walls separating one cell from the next.  Most were so full that people were sitting on the ground, even in a time of crisis.  Some hadn’t risen to their feet, reacting only as I came into view.

“We’re still moving people!”

“There’s a nearly empty cell at the back!” I retorted.

“They’re capes.”

“Get them out!  Get the way clear now!”

They obeyed.  The proximity of the snarling, struggling dog was a good motivator.  People who had been moving between cells with armed people directing them were now backing into one cell or the other.  I had a glimpse of the two capes.  B-listers.  Etna and Crested, moving into a cell with others.  Both of them had shackles that encased their hands entirely.  Crested’s connected to his belt.

Doors were shut with bangs.

The length of the dog was an issue, because the door was too small for it, and as strong as I was, I didn’t have the leverage when it was this lively.  I felt the Wretch’s grip slip, saw how the head moved.  I knew if the forcefield broke that I wouldn’t get a good chance to use it again- the situation would be too chaotic.

The Wretch wasn’t helping, either.  Hands and feet gripped and banged against bars and the floor.

No, if I was going to lose control, I’d do it on my terms.  I shucked off the Wretch, and pulled my arm free in the moment before the jaws shut.

Feet on the ground.  I struck out, activating the Wretch in time to land hits, trying to pummel and push to work it into the doorway.

“Behind!”

Tristan.  He came up behind me, gripping one of the dog’s legs, and threw his weight against it.

Sveta went over our heads, into the cell.  She had an attachment on her suit, an arm with long slender fingers and a face shield.  It made her lopsided, and the landing was harder than it might otherwise be, but it did give her leverage, as the hand gripped bars, tendrils gripped the cot, and the rest of her grabbed onto the dog, pulling it in while Tristan and I pushed.

We got the dog into the cell.  Sveta got out before the dog could recover, with me catching her and helping her to maintain balance as she landed.  The door banged shut.

The dog threw itself against the bars.  I didn’t see any bending or distortion in the bars.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

“Are you asking your team or-”

“You,” I said.  “Prisoners, Patrol.”

“Pretty fucking freaked out,” someone else said.  “What is this?  That used to be one of the jail’s dogs.”

“They came after a team of heroes with the same setup and plan yesterday,” I answered.  I turned around, looking at Etna and Crested, who were being given a wider berth by their new cellmates.  “Past three days, things have been going a bit downhill.”

“A bit,” Tristan said.  He rolled his shoulder, like it was sore.

“You alright, Capricorn?  You’re not healed yet.”  Rain was asking from the doorway that separated the lobby of the station from the hallway with the rows of cells.

“Yeah,” Tristan said, and it wasn’t clear if he was saying he was alright or if he was agreeing he wasn’t healed.  “We needed some muscle.”

“We need you in one piece,” Sveta said.

Tristan pulled off his gauntlet, and shrugged a bit to create a gap he could reach his hand inside, between neck and armor.  It came away rich with blood.

“Shit,” he said.  He immediately switched out to Byron.

“Could really have used his power,” I said. “We’ll get you attention ASAP.”

Byron nodded.

“What’s going on?” a man asked.  He approached the door of one cell.  He had a goatee made more pronounced by a jutting chin, narrow eyes, and styled hair.  By his outfit, which was a Patrol combat uniform that had been stripped down enough for regular wear, I had to assume he was an instructor.

“You’re Harris?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Were you here before or were you called in?”

“Called in.  We arrived and it was chaos.”

“The staff at this jail must have been exposed to the power effect somehow,” I said.

“The food,” Rain said.  “On the desks, everyone ate food from the same place.”

“Good eye,” Byron told him, head bowing a bit.  He had to be anxious about his brother.  And the constant pounding of fists on the front door.  And the dog that was still struggling.  Ineffectually, thankfully.  “They would have had to give food to the dogs.”

“They probably did,” another boy said.  He seemed young to me, which was odd when he was probably older than Rain and definitely older than Lookout.  “There are four K-9s here.  One for contraband, two for regular police work, and one for search and rescue.  One of the regulars is pregnant with a litter, she wouldn’t get food.”

“You pay attention to that stuff, huh?” Sveta asked.

“I come here regularly on my shifts.”

I nodded.  A clearer picture, now.  We’d come in knowing the basics, though, and the basics hadn’t changed.  The basics were bad.

I tried to compose my thoughts.  “Then they might have intercepted or impersonated the delivery person.  They transformed the staff into those things.  Bulletproof tough and strong for as long as the effect lasts.  They must have felt unwell, called for an ambulance, I’m guessing, and got as far as the ambulance before they started changing.  No other reason for them to already be outdoors.”

“Is the ambulance staff okay?” a boy asked.  “We saw them but we couldn’t get to them.”

“They were alive inside the rolled vehicle.  Light injuries.  I evacuated them,” Sveta said.

“Why?” Instructor Harris asked, his eyebrows knit together.  “Why are they doing it like this?”

“To show dominance,” I answered.  “To achieve their goals, which is to hurt the local law enforcement, and to break in, but the reason they’re doing it this way in particular is that they want to show their power.”

On the topic of dominance, even with the main power out and the only power being provided by an emergency generator, I could see how the cells had been divided into prisoner and patrol.

Instructor Harris seemed to notice too.  He pulled out his keys.  No prisoners moved to take him hostage or fight for those same keys.  They were very still, if wide-eyed with alarm.

“You might want to stay,” I told him.  “This is a waiting game.  While you’re in those cells, you’ve got metal bars between you and the attackers.  If we can wait out the transformations, things should settle down.”

“Will the front doors hold?” Instructor Harris asked.

I glanced at Rain.  Rain shook his head.

“No,” I said.

Harris put key to lock.  “Senior students, I’d really appreciate it if you were with me, but I’m not going to make you.  Step forward.”

“I’ll help, whatever you need,” a prisoner said.  He was a guy with hair down to his shoulderblades and a tapered beard that touched collarbone.

“Sorry,” Harris said.  “I don’t know you.”

“You get credit for courage,” I said.  “Good man.”

Byron entered the open front area of the station, stepped up onto a desk, and with his arms folded, began to create his motes of light.

“How much property damage can we get away with?” Rain asked.

“Construction is cheap.  At the Lyme center, I drew the line at damaging people’s cars- it’s too personal, upsets people, sets them against capes.  The power at the center, I uprooted the wiring, but even a threat of a brief blackout is… not as personal?”

“Speaking as someone who’s dealt with having no power for long stretches at a time, it might be more personal than you’re thinking.”

“I became less convinced of what I was saying before I finished saying it,” I said.  “I don’t know, Precipice.  If you’ve got to break stuff to save people, then that’s fine.  I think those things out there are dangerous, and I don’t think people would hold it against us.”

“Don’t underestimate people’s ability to blame others,” Byron said.

“Yeah,” I said.  We’re here right now, aren’t we?  “You can put holes in the ceiling, Precipice.  I think they’ll accept it.”

He looked around.  The smaller length of arm that was attached to his elbow touched a nearby table.  “I was thinking floor.”

“Go for it,” I told him.

I picked up a desk, sliding it over to where the damage was worst.  After a moment’s consideration, I flipped it over, so the legs and struts were pointing up.  It crashed as it landed there.

Sveta and others joined me.

“Why upside-down?” someone asked.

“They’re strong but they aren’t balanced or coordinated,” I said.  “Tripping is better than putting something heavy in their way.”

“What are these blue lights?” a girl in a patrol uniform asked.

“A water gun,” Byron said.

“Are they safe to walk through?”

“They’re safe.”

The pounding continued.  I could see the spread of cracks.

This was going to be bad.

“Do these guys have a firehose, containment foam, nets?  Anything like that?” I asked.

“No,” Instructor Harris said.  He sounded pretty grim, and he looked anxious.  More annoyingly, he wasn’t really helping.

“You sound pretty sure for someone who doesn’t work here,” Rain said.

“It’s the same building layout as the one we operate out of,” Harris answered.  “Except instead of the cells we have a shower room.”

Made sense.  Many of the buildings were prefabricated, arriving on trucks and put together like assemble-it-yourself furniture.

“Besides,” he said.  “Water pressure here isn’t all that.”

“I wasn’t asking for the water.  I was asking because it’d be tough for them to tear, and I could tie them up.”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.  He was watching the cracks expand.  Concrete was coming out of the widening cracks in dribbles and tufts.

“Where were you a squaddie?” I asked, as I used a burst of my strength to send a desk skidding across the floor.

“I wasn’t,” he said.  “I was admin in a PRT office.  Beartown.”

A paper pusher?  The distinction between an office and a department was a pretty big one.  The office would be the kind of place that serviced a town like the one Ashley had come from.  The department was the kind of place that served Brockton Bay, New York, and any other cities that were large enough or in dire need.  There had been sixty-five or so at the time the world had ended.

So not just a paper pusher, but a paper pusher in a workplace that had twenty employees at most.

“How many capes?”

“Two of us, two of them.”

Correction: eight employees at most.  Probably an office with three to five people in it.  Fuck.

“I’m willing to follow orders if you want to lead,” I said.

“Are you?” he asked.  He sounded slightly surprised.

“Yeah.  But I really hope you want to and you’re able,” I said.

“No,” he said.  “I don’t and I’m not.”

“Focus on your kids, then.  Keep them in one piece.  Some are freaking out,” I said.

The pounding continued.  The dribbles were now more like brief waterfalls, contiguous along the long horizontal crack above the door.  It was ready to fall.

Sveta used her modified arm, slender fingers on a feminine hand moving furniture to stack chairs in the cups formed by the struts and legs of desks.  The arm was one piece of a greater project.  She was strong, really, and her ability to pull and constrict was being leveraged into mechanical movement.  The only difficulty was the lack of balance and how she had to brace most of the rest of her body.

Still, she seemed more happy with having a human limb writ large than she’d been with the tentacles.

Or content, if not quite happy.

I looked around.  Side windows had been blocked with rock- Tristan’s work, before he’d joined me and helped at the cell.  I could see the food wrappers and half-eaten dinners.  The ones that were possibly laced.

I added more chairs to the mix, kicked over some garbage bins, and then stepped back.

The pounding was less sharp than before.  The impacts were heavier.

They’d sensed or seen the movement and now they threw their bodies against the wall instead of punching or clawing at it.

“How long since you got the call?” I asked Harris.

“Thirty-”

The wall shifted, the scraping and crunching loud enough to drown out Harris’ reply.

The villains had attacked the Shepherds earlier in the day, and the transformation had lasted for longer than thirty minutes.  They’d estimated close to an hour, after talking to the people who first sighted the changed people.

“If someone gets dosed somehow, we need to get them into a cell before they chage,” I said.  “Harris?”

“We’ll try.  They’re already sardines.”

“Better a sardine than dog food,” I answered him.

“It took a while to change,” Byron said.

“I’ve been reading up on tinker transformations and the kinds of drugs they make,” I replied.  Again, there was an impact that shifted the whole wall.  “They can change it up.  Force a faster change, but weaker or less predictable.  Or more side-effects for the victim.”

“Why are you reading up on tinker transformations?” Sveta asked.

“A topic for another time,” I told her.  “Right now we need to focus on this.  It occurs to me, now that I’m thinking about side effects, if this does wear off, we need to make sure they have medical care.”

Another impact.  I could see where the cracked segment of wall stood apart from the rest of the wall now.

“Nobody shoots,” I ordered.  “Save your bullets.”

The wall came out- I thought it would fall, but it remained suspended.  Everyone in the room tensed.  There was so much floor space where the desks had been.  Our arena.  If they got past that open space, then civilians were in danger.

“I’m gonna-” Rain said.

“Do it.”

“Not the floor yet,” Byron said.

Rain created his blades.  He flung them, and they hit the door, criss-crossing it.

It was a hulk of a man that came tearing through, stumbling when he broke through with more ease than expected.  He was taller than normal, with arms like tree trunks, fingers lost in the mess of muscle, blood streaked his body and the rags he wore.

His stumble carried him into the mess of desk and chair legs.  They caught his legs and feet and as easy as it was for him to get into it, it was hard to extract- hard to do it when barreling forward.  He fell.  Others were following after, and they ran into the same barrier.

Byron didn’t use his power.

The dogs came through, over the bodies of their kin.  A straggler, heavy around the middle with a grossly distorted abdomen, followed through.

The dogs weren’t as hampered.  They stepped on the people and they leaped, one landing a few feet from the desk Byron stood on.

“What are you waiting for?” Rain asked.

The dog reared up, muscular club-limbs raised high, ready to crush Byron.

He used his power.  A geyser of water that could have carried cars away, aimed at the hole.

Two remained, catching on the tangle of furniture by accident or dumb effort.  Sveta and I each went after one.

Getting them back outside only bought us time.  Byron was drawing out more lights, and now Rain was slashing at the floor, the slashes forming ‘x’ shapes.

It didn’t take long for the attackers to bounce back.

“They’re bleeding a lot!” Rain shouted, as he backed up.  “I think the effect is softening!”

A damn good thing he spotted that.  If I’d hit them when they weren’t bulletproof tough it could have been a disaster.

Fucking irresponsible to do this like this.

But it didn’t feel like anyone was being responsible right now.

They came for us, and the first three that came barreling through with feet pounding on the floor of the lobby hit Rain’s trap.  The ground shattered beneath their feet and they fell, chests and collarbones slamming into the edge of the hole.

I winced.  I hoped they’d be okay.  Too much strength without durability could be disastrous.

Byron followed up.  A torrent of water, to slow them down, push them back, and to turn finer debris into mud.

The air was frigid, with moisture heavy in it.

This was a losing battle.  They came at us so hard that there really was no way to even block a hit without causing them harm, we couldn’t even really redirect them.

“Keep destroying their footing!”

Rain did.  My focus was on flying, on short bursts of strength to hit them and make them stagger into one another.  If I could keep them in place long enough, they could tumble into traps.

Sveta wasn’t fighting, but she was managing the ones who’d fallen.  If they started to climb out of the waist-deep holes, then she hauled on them or moved past them to push them back in.  The water helped.

Ambient moisture in the air clung to my mask, the parts of my face the mask didn’t cover, and my hair, beading my costume.  My breath fogged with the cold air that had flooded in.  The others weren’t much better.

They didn’t stop, and the slow loss of their strength and durability was a really fucking slow one.

Rain was using his power again, and I was at the point where I could have snapped at him, cussing him out for catching me in the effect, except I would’ve felt shitty.  I knew he was trying, and he was finding his effectiveness now.  I even felt bad that I was thinking about shouting at him, but I suspected that was the power.

“I think we should have called for backup anyway,” Byron said.

I panted for breath.  It was painful, with the air being as cold as it was.  I shook my head.

“We could have tried.”

“They’ve got their hands full.  It’s all stuff as bad as this,” I said.

A dog that was feigning injury sprung to its feet, leaping.  I flew to intercept and hurled it down into the thickest grouping of enemies.

I could see the fight go out of them.  Where they’d been incessant before, they paused, retreating.  We were one hundred percent willing to let them, just for a chance to recover a bit ourselves.

They retreated further, then backed off, a third of them moving to one side, two thirds to another.

Past them, past the steaming air where the remaining warm air from indoors mingled with the winter air outside, I saw the culprits.

Bitter Pill.  Medical mask only barely visible behind a scarf, white coat, and a short stick with a caduceus.  She wore one of those packs that looked like a fanny pack, that was worn over one shoulder instead.  Tinker stuff was attached to the strap.

Birdbrain.  Bird mask, black coat, and a handgun in each hand, another gun at her back.  She stood with back straight, beak pointing up- no indication she was using her eyes to view her environment.

I saw her gun-hand move.  As she moved it left and right, it moved as a hand normally would.  Up and down, it was nigh-instantaneous, with automatic tracking.  Headshots every time.  The way her head moved around like she was daydreaming or drugged and her hand moved with such precision was jarring.

Foggy Idea. He’d been in Hollow Point but he’d ducked out of the worst of the fighting.  He was a kid, with Einstein hair dyed gray, and a mask that covered too much of the scalp behind the hairline, eyes too far down.  It gave him a creepy, impish look, like he was emulating a baby’s proportions.  His namesake fog seeped out from the collar and sleeves of his costume.

Bluestocking.  Elegant, her trademark indigo blue stockings and opaque blue lenses in glasses stood out amid an otherwise gray ensemble.

A scent like really strong black licorice mixed with gasoline preceded their group.  The mutated people and animals retreated further, heads down, bodies hunched over, subservient.

“Pill!” I raised my voice to be heard.  “What the fuck do you think you’re doing!?”

“I want my teammates.”

Etna and Crested, back in the cells.

“I didn’t think Etna was yours,” I replied.

“Close enough,” Bitter Pill answered, her voice cool.  “Now fuck off and get out of our way.”

“What are our odds?” Rain murmured.  He was situated where he could be heard by Sveta, Byron and I.

“Birdbrain is the big threat.  The muscle is second to that.”

“I’m flattered,” I heard Birdbrain’s ethereal voice.

“She’s halfway to being an all-or-nothing threat.  Like Swansong with her blasts, but with aim.”

I saw Bluestocking turn her head, asking a question.  Birdbrain answered, no doubt passing on what we were saying.

“You’re using that term wrong!” Bluestocking called out.  “All-or-nothing isn’t right!”

Bitter Pill said something, annoyed.  Too far away to be heard.

“If she aims she’s guaranteed a hit if her gun’s at the right point horizontally.  Vertically, doesn’t matter.  All-or-nothings are PRT terminology for anyone who’s strong enough that you can’t defend against their attack unless you defend against anything, can’t dodge unless you can dodge everything.  She’s halfway there and that makes her a good enough shot we can’t afford to get in an engagement.  Headshot every time.”

“I’m a game shooter,” Birdbrain said.  “Even these days.  Killing doesn’t interest me.”

“Game shooter?” I heard Harris behind me.

“Guns are verboten if you’re playing by the rules of cape fights.  Unless you use your power on a gun to augment it, pack tinker guns, or you have a power that helps you not kill what you’re shooting.”

Foil had been all three at one point.

“The term applies, Blue.  At least in part.  She shoots, she kills,” I said, my voice pitched to carry.  “Or…”

“I place the bullet to where it should take a month to heal,” Birdbrain said.  “Don’t mess with us.  Give us what we want.”

“I would have thought the brains of Hollow Point would have kept their noses out of this war that’s unfolding,” I said.

“All of the intel says the time is now,” Bluestocking said.

“Intel is one thing.  Respectability?  Common sense?”

“Are you trying to stall because you hope our steroid soldiers are going to return to normal?” Bitter Pill asked.

“Give us a second?” I asked.  “We have to confer.”

Bluestocking jumped in, asking, “Leave us standing in the cold, too, why don’t you?”

A bit irritable.

“Can we win this?” Byron asked.

“Birdbrain is a massive threat, Pill has tricks up her sleeve, Foggy can distract and stupefy with his gas, and Bluestocking is a thinker of some kind.”

In the background, I saw Birdbrain nod to herself.

Was she aware she did that?

“The last couple of days have been back to back crisis management,” Byron said.  “Yes, this is important.  Keeping the bad guys locked up in jail, especially ones we locked up?  All for that.  But what does it mean tonight, when there’s another issue and we’re all hurt or out of gas?”

I could see Rain nodding.  Better to say that I could see Precipice nodding.  His mask hid his expression, but his added hands allowed for more gestures, which hinted at the emotions in play.  Fidgety, one hand raising, then dropping.

Sveta wasn’t moving nearly as much.  Even her tendrils weren’t that lively.  She stared at the brains of Hollow Point, her expression hard.

They were exhausted.

“We give them what they want?” I asked.

“You sure?” Rain asked.

“They want two capes, fine.  But we can negotiate.”

In the background, Birdbrain nodded again, said something.  Reporting on what we were saying.

“What do you think, Mr. Harris?” Byron asked.

Mr. Harris stared at the villains much as Sveta did.  In a way, it was like standing at the foot of a mountain and seeing just how daunting the ascent was going to be.  There was such a gap to be closed, and getting there was going to be so hard.

Worse, this ‘mountain’ had no interest in making the process any easier.  It was going to do whatever the fuck it wanted.

“I won’t stop you,” he said.  “If I get asked why I let it happen, I’ll tell them it was the right thing to do.   The way that gun moves unnerves me.”

“If we say no to this, we need to take a few hours off,” Sveta said.  “Otherwise I feel like it’s going to end up the same way next time.”

I nodded.  I wasn’t super happy about her mentioning that we were tired or taking a break to people who might pass that on to our enemies, but I wasn’t going to get on her case about it.

“Can we talk!?” I called out.

After they consulted, it was Bluestocking who approached, stepping over rubble.  She had nice boots.  Her approach made the creatures back off.

I floated closer.

What would happen if I decked her and knocked her out right now?  If I took a hostage, and played as ugly and as dirty as they were playing right now?

Bitter Pill approached too, maybe because she wanted to say something.  I looked back and met Harris’s eyes.  Best to connect to the real authorities where possible.

Bluestocking and me, with Bitter Pill and Harris as our seconds, I guessed.

I looked at Bluestocking, and I saw- something in the way she held herself, and what I could see of eyes behind mostly opaque lenses, and in her eyebrows.

A familiar attitude.  I wondered if I was comparing her to anyone I knew, but when I reached for it, I couldn’t place it.

It didn’t help that they stank.  The smell I’d noted before was emanating from them in wafts, worse when they moved.  It was, presumably, what was keeping the mutants docile.

“We’ll give you the two capes you want from the jail.  With stipulations.”

“Which are?” Bitter Pill asked.  She looked pissed, by the way she set her mouth and folded her arms.  Or was it resting bitch face?

Oh.  There’d been a woman at my rehab who’d given me dirty looks.  So that was the answer to my little mystery.

That tiny bit of closure was a note of success in a day that had been hard, bloody, and miserable in large part.

“Nobody gets hurt.  If you have the ability, you need to return these people to normal now, with no injuries.  You can’t take them with you.”

“They’ll be eighty-five percent healed up, unless you’ve punctured a vital organ or something,” Bitter Pill said.

“Not good enough.  You can’t go after civilians.”

“Can and did,” Bitter Pill said.

Bluestocking didn’t agree, but argued the point instead, “Cops.  Cops are fair game.  So are the anti-cape soldiers.”

“We’re not anti-cape,” Harris said.

“And you can’t take them with you.  They’re not your pawns.”

“Couldn’t if we wanted.  They go dormant, that’s all,” Bitter Pill said.  “No need to worry your little head over that one.”

“Fine.  That’s stipulation one, you fix them,” I said.  “Stipulation two, is you need to drop some money on this place.  Make amends, give them what they need to rebuild.”

“Fuck that,” Bluestocking said.

“Stipulation three?  Take a fucking break.  Back off, don’t pick fights, don’t go after heroes, take three days and stop being complete dicks for that long.”

“We’d lose ground,” Bluestocking said.  “Numbers, social map, demos, territory, ratios…  No.”

“You’ll lose ground if some of you get broken bones,” I replied.  “This is a way to do this without fighting.  We benefit, you benefit, civilians can mend and repair.”

“You’re asking for way too much,” Bluestocking said.

“Heal the people you hurt, make amends for what you broke, and back off for three days.  If you want to negotiate down on any of those parts, you can give us some intel on the people who opened fire on us two days ago.”

Bluestocking sniffed with amusement.  “That passed under my nose before I thought to pay attention.  I know some things, but… you hand those two over, we’ll give you the information.  Nothing else.”

“Information, healing-”

“-And that’s it,” she interrupted.

“Not good enough,” I said.

“Fucking deal with it.”

I turned slowly, looking up at Harris.  He gave me a slight shrug and shake of the head.  Resigned.

Fuck no.

I didn’t want to let them win like this.

“Instructor Harris… stuff for Etna and Crested is on the Captain’s desk.  Get them set up and bring them out?”

“Yeah,” he said, voice terse.

He jogged back.

“What’s it going to take to heal them?” I asked.

“I have the stuff.  Healing.  It should get them to ninety, ninety-five percent.  They’ll be hungry.  Good enough?” Bitter Pill asked, a condescending note in her voice, her gaze too casual and distracted.

“Good enough,” I told her.

Bluestocking added, “Small expenditure of resources.  The fixing of this building when you did half the damage?  No.”

“How do you know how much damage we did?” I asked.

She gave me a look, half glare, half disdain.

I hated being ignored, patronized, and looked down on.  I’d triggered because it had been so oppressive.  Now here she was, just pressing that button.

I consoled myself by telling myself that this was handled.  Things were calm.  We could still negotiate.

Maybe Bluestocking had some postcognitive powers.  Past-reading, like the time camera had been able to do.

In the back, Birdbrain perked up.  She raised her voice, alarmed.  “Blue!  Bitter!”

She was running now, catching up with our group.  Bluestocking raised a hand, motioning for her to stop and stay back.  She might have been thinking that this was already a two versus one discussion, and a third person would make it lopsided enough to stop being civil.

But then Birdbrain drew close enough that the alarm in her eyes was visible through the eyeholes of her bird mask.

“What did you do?” Bluestocking asked.

Bitter Pill seemed to connect before Bluestocking did, because she pushed past me, hurrying toward the building.  I motioned for the others to back off and let her through.

The others followed, with Foggy Idea trailing behind.  Birdbrain held out her guns, threatening anyone who threatened to attack while the thinker team was surrounded.

I flew to keep up.  I had to be ready to protect Harris if-

He was already backing up, hands up, when the thinkers arrived at the door to the hallway.  He’d dragged Crested from the cell and shoved the food that had been left on the captain’s desk into Crested’s face.

“Are you stupid?” Bitter Pill asked.

“Did you eat it?” Bluestocking asked.

“He ate enough,” Bitter Pill said, sounding pissed.

“Your call,” I told her.  “You can travel with someone that’s going to go monster and either wreck everything or refuse to budge… or you can let them stay in this cell here.  We’ll wait for our reinforcements, see if they come…”

“Shut up,” Bluestocking said.

“Or you can accept my terms, and we’ll keep this easy for you.”

There was a long pause.

My team was standing beside me.  I could see Bitter Pill holding a bottle so the cap was between her index and middle fingers, ready to drop it.

I wondered if Sveta would be able to catch it.

She hadn’t let herself be surrounded without a trick up her sleeve.  The question was whether she’d throw all sense to the wind and go with that, or if she’d take the other route.

It was Bluestocking who responded.  “Reduced terms.”

“Let’s talk,” I said.  “We give you passage with your prisoners, no fight, no hassle, we’ll hold them and turn them over… you fix the wounded, you pay-”

“-Not the full price.  Two thousand.”

“Pretty paltry.  Twenty thousand minimum.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

“They’re your teammates.  You risked all of this for them.  Are you now saying they aren’t worth ten thousand each?”

“We’re not teammates,” Etna said.

“You’ll fucking do a few jobs with us if we break you out, okay?” Bluestocking snarled.

“Okay,” Etna replied.

“Three day break from all activity,” I said.

“One day.  Twenty thousand.  We fix the injured.  And you fucking pretend we don’t exist while we wait for the steroid soldier drug to run its course.”

I didn’t reply, letting the others take that in.

“Yeah, probably,” Byron said.  I saw Sveta and Rain nod.

“Then fucking leave us alone, and if you try anything we’ll bring hell down on your heads,” Bluestocking said.  “Bitter has stuff.”

“I do.  For a rainy day.”

“It’s a fucking rainy day when-”

We backed off, leaving them to bicker.

Harris looked more resigned than victorious when he emerged.  When I put out my hand, he gripped it firm.

The hole in the wall meant that the snow and moisture were getting in.  The water that Byron had created had frozen so the very top layer formed a paper-thin sheet.

The members of the patrol squads emerged.

“We need help,” I told the instructor.  “We need boots on the ground, not just heroes.  It’s bad right now.”

“I’ll get my grads on board,” he said.  “We’ll see what we can do.”

“We might need seniors too.”

“School-age kids?”

“Seventeen and eighteen year olds?  Older than some of us,” I said, indicating my group.  “The city needs all the help it can get.”

“I’ll talk to parents.  I can’t force anything.”

“And other instructors.  Any friends or superiors you have.”

I saw him nod.  He put a hand on my shoulder as he walked by, going over to talk to the most unhappy and stressed of his patrol block.

I grabbed a desk that had been tossed across the room and righted it, before sitting on it.  Sveta plunked herself down beside me, her giant arm around behind my back and resting on the corner of the desk to my left.

I pulled out my phone, and immediately she pushed it down and away.

“No more,” she said.

I fought her, play-wrestling just a bit, and finally got the phone unlocked.  I closed the chat I’d had open, asking for intel on this specific situation so we knew what we were getting into, and brought up the map.

The city, lit up by icons.  Each icon had a brief bit of text, describing the situation and the report.

Incidents all over.  Nine ongoing situations that didn’t have a team working on them, where the things were was bad enough the police didn’t have them under control, or where capes were involved, or both.

The city was on fire, metaphorically speaking, and we didn’t have what it took to put it out.  When Kenzie had put the application together, she hadn’t seemed to expect that things would get this bad, because a lot of the text was unreadable or offscreen.  Too much at once.

This time, when Sveta pushed my hand and my phone down, I let her.

“We need a break,” she said.  “You need one.”

“I wanted to procrastinate,” I said.  “I told myself that we’d wait until Swansong and Lookout are out of the hospital.  Then Lookout ended up having to stay the extra day.”

“She’s out tonight.”

“I know.  But… I had something to bring up and talk to the group about, and I needed time to digest it.”

“The files from Jeanne Wynn.  You went to see Dragon, you got the files, and you found out something.”

“Mostly right,” I said.  I gave the phone a shake, bringing it to her attention, the map still glowing with its bright yellow icons on a purple cityscape.  “This seemed easier.  A relative distraction from that something.”

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Interlude 10.z

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The hospital was packed with people.  It was late and families, single individuals, people who looked like they worked at the same places and hospital staff were everywhere.  Some were trying to sleep or keep to themselves, with blankets draped over them or jackets used as improvised pillows, and others were trying to make as much noise as they could.

It was a little bit spooky.  Spooky in a way that couldn’t be fixed by the knife he had at the small of his back, beneath his shirt.

There was at least one member of his squad who might be willing to try it, though.  They moved as a unit through the rows and columns of people, had to skip heading down one alley of the waiting room because a family was practically camped out on the floor that they would have had to walk down, and split up for a short bit when a bunch of people were called and rose out of their seats, cutting them off.

As the split-up group reunited, he felt his skin prickle, and then his brain prickled,  awareness of his own body fizzled into place like the bubbles in cola, pressing against his skin and all of his senses.  Where he could normally have paid attention to one part of his body, now he could pay attention to every inch of it.

The fizzling didn’t stop there.  It was like something off to the side that he could see, then something he could feel.  Plumes that expanded out, until there was more skin, more heartbeats, more air pressing against the inside of chests with inhalations, cool as it passed out of noses.  He could feel hairy legs inside jeans and agitation like a constant thing, the heart powerful, the motions of arms and legs strong, deliberate, and imprecise.

A few feet away, he felt clothes that didn’t feel very comfortable at all, cold air wafting up bare legs, the fabric stiff and coarse, a thumb pressed between lips thick with something, teeth biting down on nail, hair tickling neck and face.  Her body was wound and bound tight, tense and ready to spring, though he’d never seen it happen.  He winced at the pain of the nail being bit too forcefully, shivered at the tickle of hair at the back of the neck.  The shiver drew an alarmed kind of attention.  Even though she couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see her, her head turned to face him.

Not sight, not really- but the sensation of touch that bubbled gave him a good idea of where those people were looking, and why this was happening.  He peered past crowd to see the security officer at the end of the hallway.

There were two more members of the group, straggling.  There was no need to say ‘wait!’ or ‘we have to take care of this security officer!’, which was good because it was noisy inside.

Skin that felt smoother than skin should be brushed against silk, and the cloth that wasn’t silk was very soft.  He saw her as much as he felt her.  He could feel where the hair at one side of her head had been braided tight, the braid running along her scalp at the one side of her head, at the smaller side of a part in her hair, and the rest of her hair was big and combed over in a tumble the other way.  He could feel and see the silk of her scarf at her neck and chin, which helped to keep the long hair from tickling.

She bent down to whisper in the ear of the last member of their squad, and he could feel the air go out and feel the air against ear as the sound was received.  Try as he might, he couldn’t make out the words.

Nobody else was stepping in, and he didn’t like the direction this was going, so he hurried forward, straight for the security officer.

“Hold on,” the security officer said, putting a hand out.  “Were you called?”

Aiden shook his head.  “We’re here to visit a classmate of mine.”

“Name?”

“Aiden Tate.”

The officer put one hand up to reaffirm the ‘hold on’ instruction, and used the other to pick up a clipboard with a notepad clipped to it.

“Oh, if you meant their name, it’s, um, Janesha Townes.  I’m bringing her homework.”

The man checked the clipboard.

He was aware of the knife he had holstered at his back.  What if he was searched?  Did that happen?

“She’s not taking visitors.”

“I’d just be dropping this off, saying hi, then I’ll leave her alone,” he said.

He was aware of fizzing.  Amias was with Candy, who was wearing the silk, and Amias was bubbling, concentrating some kind of sensation at his hands.

Please don’t hurt anyone, Aiden thought.

The security man looked down at the notepad, looked up, as if bothered by something, then looked down again.  “No.”

Amias pushed harder.

“We came a long way.  My mom said she really needs some friends right now.”

The security guard’s fingers tapped at the back of the clipboard.  Restless.  Again, he looked around, as if making sure there wasn’t any issue elsewhere.

“No,” the man said, again.  Aiden felt his heart sink.  The man added, “I’d need to check your background, verify details.”

“Okay,” Aiden said, resigned.

“Who is your teacher, and what school do you attend with Janesha?”

Aiden was caught off guard.  What was a good last name?  “Um.  Miss Sparrow.”

Through the awareness of the rest of the group, he could sense the small laugh from the sidelines.

“School?”

He felt even more panicked, now that he’d already messed up once.  “New Brockton Bay Primary School?”

Again, the laugh, and a hand touched face, muffling the laugh.  Aiden felt defensive.

“Stay there,” the man from security said.  He went to the nurse’s station, a short distance away, said something, and then headed down the hallway.  The nurse he’d talked to moved to the edge of the counter, watching the hallway entrance.  Her stare was penetrating as she looked at Aiden.

Aiden fidgeted.

Darlene was biting her thumbnail again.  Aiden could feel the pain as she got to the quick, flinched, and felt her flinch in response.

He looked off to the side, to where Roman was leaning against a wall.  Twelve year old roman with hair on his legs already, who’d been laughing at him.  Aiden stuck out his tongue.  Roman, with his arms folded, moved one finger, giving Aiden the bird.

Was there any point to staying?  He’d almost failed to connect because he’d been more focused on Roman laughing and on the nurse at the counter, but if the guy was going back there and asked, wouldn’t he find out the school was wrong?

Flustered, Aiden turned around, looking for the others.  He started to retreat, heading back toward them.  Darlene and Candy converged on him, Candy towing Amias behind her.

“Where are you going?” Candy asked.  “Chickening out?”

Aiden gave her an annoyed look.  “He quizzed me.  He’s going to check the info I gave and find out I lied.”

“We came this far,” Candy said.  “We’ll find another way.  We could go through a window.”

“None of us can do anything like that,” Aiden said.

“Your eagle is on the roof, isn’t it?”

“Nobody’s willing to let me try flying with it,” Aiden said.  “Besides, breaking a window would cause problems.  I’m sorry I bungled this.”

“I like spending time together, even if we don’t do anything big,” Darlene said, thumb just outside her mouth, thumbnail ragged.  She averted her eyes and moved her hand when Aiden looked at her.

Romeo- Roman was approaching now.  He’d changed his name recently and it still felt weird.

“You could try messaging her,” Roman said.  He either hadn’t heard the discussion and had figured things out, or he was much, much better at understanding speech when his half-sister was using her power.

“I tried twice this afternoon and she didn’t respond.  But she’s invited me before, for a face to face hang-out.  It should be okay.”

“Heads up,” Candy said.

It was the security man.  Aiden turned around, nervous.  He was aware of Roman cracking his knuckles.  Darlene brought her thumb to her mouth, and Aiden reached out to catch it before it got there.  He held her hand, felt the surprise and the pounding of her heart.  He’d spooked her, apparently.  Or she was bothered that he’d moved in a way that showed he was using the power.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

She shook her head, hard.

“Aiden?” the security man asked.  “You can go on in.  Room two-two-one.”

Aiden blinked.  It took Roman giving him a nudge to get him moving.   He turned around.  “Thank you very much, sir.”

“I’m not a proper ‘sir’, but you’re welcome,” the man said.  “If the room is crowded or if the nurses need the space, you should end the conversation and leave, got it?”

Aiden nodded.

He had the Heartbroken children with him as he headed down the hall.  He still held Darlene’s hand, and he felt self-conscious about it, especially when he noticed the others noticing.  Candy and Roman exchanged a look.

“Don’t bite your nails, okay?  It hurts.”

“Oh,” Darlene said.  Her voice became a whisper, “Oh.  Um.  I’m really sorry.  I get weird when I’m using my power.”

“We don’t have to use it,” Aiden said.

“It feels fucked up,” Roman said.  “Mainlining little sisters and little bro, and Aiden here.”

“I thought it would be good for keeping an eye out for trouble,” Darlene said.  “Watch each other’s backs.”

“It’s good,” Aiden reassured.  Darlene was the quietest in a lot of ways.  She was the odd one out, when the others were what Aisha called high octane drama mixed two to one with nightmare fuel.  Whatever that meant.  He’d even defended Darlene when Aisha had said it, which had made Aisha laugh way too hard.

He’d had some tastes of it, but this was the first time he’d really been subject to Darlene’s power for any length of time.  He wondered if this was what his birds felt like when he assumed control.  The interconnection of things, him and them.

That would be more one-way, maybe.

“I can cut you out of the network,” Darlene told Roman.

“Nah,” he said.  “We’re being targeted along with the Undersiders.  The people we’re after are being targeted.  I’ll fucking put up with it.”

“I appreciate you being our chaperone,” Aiden said.  “Thank you, Roman.”

“Nah.  You’re a good fucking kid, Aids.  Keep looking after my sisters.  The ones that are worth looking after.”

You’re a kid too, Aiden thought.  Roman was only a year and a half older than him, but the kids in the Vasil family seemed to make a distinction.  They afforded a certain distinction to the ones who were old enough to remember their dad, to get tested by him, whatever that meant, and disciplined by him… he knew what that meant.  Samuel who was the oldest that hadn’t bailed yet, Chastity, Roman, Juliette, and then Aroa barely making the cut.

Roman was only two years older than Darlene, but he acted like he was four years older.  Unless Juliette was involved.  He looked older too.  Like Juliette, he had straighter hair, which he’d cut and styled, slicking to one side.  The family resemblance was strong, besides that.  Pale face, bigger lower lip, sharp, ‘pretty’ features that didn’t change much between the boys and the girls.

Candy approached from Aiden’s right, seizing his arm and wrapping it in hers.

He rankled.  “I want my right hand free.”

Candy reached out and tapped the knife that had been holstered at the small of his back.  “Because of this?”

She could sense everything about him just like he could sense everything about her, so of course she’d felt the knife there.  The straps went over his shoulders like suspenders with one leather strap running down his spine.

Candy continued, pressing while hugging his arm tighter.  “Why didn’t you put it at your belt like a normal person?”

“Aiden’s the most normal person here,” Darlene said.  He could feel her pulse quickening, feel how genuine that anger she was now feeling was.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said.

“It’s strategically important,” Candy said.

“It shows more if it’s at the belt,” he said.

“We’re wearing warm and heavy clothes for winter.   Well, most of us are,” Candy said.  “Darlene’s wearing a chiffon dress she got in the summer, which is why she’s cold.”

“If you don’t stop interrupting and being a pain I’m going to get mad,” Darlene said.

She was already mad, Aiden was sure.  He could feel it.  The blood in her veins, the heartbeat, the restrained breathing.

“No fighting,” Roman said.  He gave Darlene a light push on one shoulder.  “I don’t want to clean up the mess.”

“It really is because I didn’t want it to show,” Aiden told Candy.  Maybe explaining would cool things down.  She looked like she was going to say something, so he added, in a quiet voice, “And because it was heavy enough it made my pants fall down.”

He could feel the shift in the tension with that.  Roman chuckled, Amias outright giggling.  Darlene’s face got hot, and Candy barely reacted.  Why did she barely react?

“Aww,” Candy said.  “That’s a cute mental picture, isn’t it, Darlene?”

“Shut it, Candy.  I have one nerve left and if you get on it, I’m going to take it and choke you with it.”

“Sure,” Candy said, in a musical, pleased-with-herself way.  She smiled in a way that would have made Aiden want to choke her if he’d been as mad as Darlene felt.  “Aiden?”

“Be good,” Roman warned.

“Don’t push it,” Darlene added.

“Aiden,” Candy said, persisting.  “As an expert in Darlene-”

Aiden shifted position, ready to put himself between the two half-sisters, because Darlene was on the brink now.  He didn’t want to get kicked out of the hospital.

“-she can’t help biting her nails or pulling hair.  It might help if you held her hand more.”

Darlene seethed, but she didn’t start a fight.

Candy was Chastity’s full-sister, and both of the two really liked to tease.  He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to take her seriously, so he looked over at Darlene.  “Do you want me to?  I don’t know if she’s playing a game.”

Darlene didn’t respond, but instead put one hand out, looking away.  He took her hand, holding firm.

She seemed to calm down, which was good, and Candy seemed happy.  He felt like everyone else they walked by was noticing, but he could put up with that.

They had to climb a staircase, as it turned out, and get up to the second floor.  They walked down the hallway, and he was acutely aware of how generally happy Darlene was now.  Girls were so all over the place and rarely made any sense.

As they approached the right room number, he saw a teenager standing by the door.  Black hair, chin scruff, and a leather jacket.  He looked cool as hell, in Aiden’s opinion, and Aiden had spent a lot of time in the company of very cool people like Lisa, Aisha, and Rachel.

“Problem?” the guy asked.

Aiden shook his head.

“I’m going to need more than that.”

There was a sensation that settled over the group.  If Aiden hadn’t been networked to the others, he might have thought it was a sudden shift in his thinking.  A creeping feeling of doubt, so small it was barely a thought crossing through his mind.

“You’re going to have to do better than that,” Roman said.  “Wrong family for that little trick.”

Roman was only barely shorter than the guy in the leather jacket, and there had to be five years of difference between them.

The teenage guy looked around, glancing at the empty nurse’s station, raising himself on his toes to look over the counter and make sure nobody was down low and out of sight behind files and computers.  He lowered himself down.  “Heartbroken?”

“Yeah,” Roman said.

The guy’s eyes moved around, tracking every member of the group, as if he was getting his head around dealing with five people with powers.  “Is Tattletale pulling something?”

“No,” Aiden said.  “Tattletale’s not.  This is me.  Chicken Little.”

“We’re not pulling anything,” Candy jumped in.

“Precipice,” the guy said.  “Why are you here?”

“Because she’s a friend, and I wanted to see how she was.”

There was a voice from inside the hospital room.  Muffled by the door.

“How did you know we were here?”

“She told me,” Aiden said.

Precipice didn’t look too happy about that.

“Can I say hi?” Aiden asked.  “I brought her presents.”

“Show me?”

Aiden pulled his bag off and opened it up.  He pulled out books, handing them over, then a necklace, and some general junk that he was really second guessing now that people were looking.

Precipice turned the books page-side-down and shook them out, riffing through pages, checked the necklace and cord, and searched the other junk.

The voice on the other side of the door piped up again.

“You’re for real?” Precipice asked.

“I guess,” Aiden responded.  Roman nudged him.  “Yeah.”

“You’re a good kid,” Precipice told him.

“No,” Aiden replied, his eyebrows knitting together.  “I’m a bad guy.  I’m an Undersider, which makes me a villain.”

“The people you hang out with don’t define you,” Precipice said.  “It’s the choices you make.  This kind of gesture seems like the right kind of choice to be making.”

“I choose to be an Undersider,” Aiden said.  “I choose to call myself one.”

“You’re a kid.  You haven’t been handed a lot of options.”

“I still choose,” Aiden said, setting his jaw.  “I’m loyal.”

Precipice stacked the things, so the books were on the bottom, and the successive other things were on top, with the necklace resting at the very top.  Aiden let go of Darlene’s hand to take it with a ginger care that kept the stack from toppling, then dumped it into his bag.  It would feel weird to hand over the necklace first and with it being on top it would’ve been necessary.

The voice came through, insistent and muffled by the intervening wall and door.

“You’d better go through, before she pops her stitches,” Precipice said.

Aiden opened the door, heading inside.

“-swear I’ll get my revenge somehow!” Lookout was saying.  She spotted Aiden.  “Oh, hi.  And hi Chicken Little’s friends.”

She was black.  That surprised Aiden, but he wasn’t sure why.  He’d grown up the last few years with Aisha and Aisha was black too.  He’d just… had a slightly different mental image of Lookout.  It made him feel bad and a bit less sure of himself.

She was sitting up in her hospital bed, covers up to her lap, a small smile on her face.  She had her hair tied back into a single messy ponytail that had dislodged a bit because she’d laid her head down at some point.  She looked tired enough that he wondered if he was imposing.  She was wearing a hospital gown, white with green clovers on it, and a tube ran out from the side of the gown near her stomach.  Fluids were running out of the tube, rather than in, which made him feel uneasy.

“Hi,” he said, feeling awkward.

“Hi!” Lookout said, “I’m Lookout.”

Oh, introductions.  “Chicken Little, or Aiden, I guess-”

“Kenzie,” Lookout interurpted.  “If we’re using real names I’m Kenzie.”

“Hi.  It’s not Janesha?”

“Cover name, false identity with a name I made up.  Because we’re in danger.”

He nodded.  He put a hand to the side, indicating-  “This is Darlene, Candy, and…”

He could sense the two boys talking to Precipice outside the door.  He hoped they would get along.  Romeo- Roman was very easily riled up.

“…the others are outside.”

“You’re all so pretty and handsome and dressed nice,” Lookout said.  “And here I am all gross and crusty-eyed after surgery.  I haven’t put my face on or brushed my teeth and my hair is awful.”

“You look fine,” Candy said.

Lookout smiled a little.  “Thank you for saying so.”

Aiden wasn’t sure he looked that nice.  He’d gelled his hair up into a small fauxhawk because it looked dumb however he parted it and it never looked right if he spiked it.  He had a nice ankle-length jacket that Lisa had given him, jeans, boots, and a sweatshirt, which he wore with the hood nestled into the jacket’s.

“What did you say to the man from security?” Aiden asked.

“I said that we had Ms. Sparrow as a teacher and that we attended the New Brockton primary school.”

“How did you know?”

“Cameras.  I had a friend plant some, because it looks like I’m going to be here for at least one day, and some people might have tried to kill us so it’s good to be careful.”

“Like March went after Imp and Tattletale,” he said.

“And us,” Candy said.  “March shot at us at the same time, then.”

“It’s getting scary out there,” Lookout said.

“It was always scary,” Darlene said.

Candy nodded, her face solemna and serious for once.  “Yeah.  Since I can remember.  I think we’re all worse at hiding it now.”

“I wanted to see if you were okay,” Aiden said.  “Um, because I know your team got shot a few times and I’ve seen how Tattletale and Imp are right now.  Tattletale’s being weird and Imp is doing what she can to protect us, which means she’s not always around, even when she is around.”

“So you kind of know what it’s like.”

“Kind of.  Except I didn’t get shot.  Are you okay?”

“Painkillers make the pain very fuzzy more than they kill it, and they make time seem to pass very inconsistently.  Mostly I’m bored.”

“I brought stuff.  Presents,” Aiden said.  He got his bag, “Can I?”

“Yes,” Lookout said.  She looked stricken more than happy, though.

He put the bag at the end of the bed, and he began digging through.  He’d folded one of the covers when dumping the stuff back in the bag, and did what he could to smooth it before pulling it out.  Two books.  He handed them to her.

“Oh wow.  That’s so nice of you.  I haven’t read these.”

“There’s more.  One second.”

He almost didn’t pull the junky stuff out.  Two disposable cameras, and a small pocket kit of tools.

Her eyes lit up.

“I thought maybe if you were bored, you could build something.  I know this isn’t anything major or expensive, but-”

“I would hug you if I wasn’t tied down with tubes,” she said, touching her IV and the tube at her stomach.

“Better not, then,” Darlene said.

“This is great,” Kenzie said.

“It’s not too lame?  It’s basic.”

“You can build a pretty awesome looking house out of kid bricks instead of real bricks and wood and nails and stuff.  It might be a toy or very simple but it’s still fun.  My dad worked in real estate and I know they used model buildings before building the full scale.  This is really nice and thoughtful,” Kenzie said.

Aiden smiled.  “And I remember you liked these when I showed you, and I was doing something for myself.  I had to file at the edges…”

He got out the necklace.  It wasn’t anything fancy- a rawhide string threaded with some feathers, beads, and at the center was a trio of little metal decorations.  Two were the bullets that Shamrock had fired at a target, each one splitting apart into bird shapes.  At the center was a button he’d got from the tailor who handled the team’s costume- a metal disc with an eye in the center.

He held it out and Lookout took it, immediately holding it to her chest, expression very neutral.

“It’s a ‘sorry you got shot’ present, or a ‘get well soon’ present,” he said, feeling like the biggest dork.  “I made one for myself but the feathers fell off, so if yours do the same, don’t worry about it.”

He felt the emotions running through Darlene’s body, and looked back, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

She didn’t feel fine, but-

The connection cut.  He blinked a few times, adjusting as the fizzling stopped.  His body felt numb and yet far more comfortable like this.  It also felt a bit lonely.

“Why?” Kenzie interrupted his thought.

“Why what?”

“Why come here?  Why talk to me?”

“Because you got shot and that sucks,” he said.  “And I see how some of our team members treat each other.  Tattletale and Victoria are nemeses, which is really sad because I bet they could help each other.  It’s always because of stuff that happened in the past.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.  “Most of us have hard stuff, don’t we?”

“Some.  But I’m not thinking of that stuff.  I’m thinking about stuff that doesn’t get looked after, or small grudges that become big ones.  In a couple of years we’re going to be the same age Imp was when she joined the Undersiders and they took over Brockton Bay.  Wouldn’t it be great if we could do it right this time?”

“You’ve been thinking about this a lot, huh?”

“I was at the meeting where all the other villains were talking about what to do, how to protect themselves, where they needed to draw lines, all that stuff.  Tattletale didn’t really want to talk about it, Imp doesn’t- how does she put it?”

“She wants to get out ahead, she doesn’t like being reactive.  Reactive gets you killed,” Candy said.

“Yeah.  So she’s out trying to get ahead of the problem, when the problem is a bunch of people who could be anywhere who want to kidnap Undersiders or hurt other Undersiders to make the one Undersider do what she wants.”

“I think I followed that.  I’m fuzzy with drugs.”

“Sorry, talking about heavy stuff.”

“No.  No.  It’s… kind of the same here.  What were you saying?”

“I couldn’t really talk to anyone.  I don’t know Flechette and Parian well enough to ask them stuff.”

“You could have talked to us,” Darlene said.

“You guys were busy helping Nathan after Nicholas got mad and terror-waved him.”

“Oh.  You still could have asked.”

“I didn’t think I should,” he told her.  He turned back to Kenzie.  “I spent a lot of time thinking.  Everyone I know that’s not a teenager anymore is stuck on the past.”

“Aunt Rachel?” Candy asked.

“She’s special.  But I think she misses the dogs she had before.”

Candy nodded.

“The others are focused on what comes next,” Kenzie said.  “The fighting, the violence, the rule breaking, the plots.”

“Let them,” he said.  “We should focus on the now.  Making sure that things okay when we’re, I dunno, ten years older than we are.  Once I started telling myself that, I started feeling a lot better about the feelings that the meeting stirred up.”

“I’ve had messy feelings too,” Kenzie said.  “But I think some of that is because I got shot twice.”

Candy tittered.

“Yeah,” Aiden said.  “Would it help the feelings if you helped me with my plan?”

“I think my team needs me,” she said.  “I hate to say no, because I like what you say and you’re officially on my top ten neatest people list.”

“I’m not that neat.”

“You are,” Darlene said.

“But they’re focused on the dangers and stuff and I need to help them.  When things are calm-”

“They’re never calm,” Aiden said, interrupting.

Kenzie went quiet.

“That’s not- it’s not me saying that, I didn’t decide that or anything.  It’s what Tattletale and Imp say.  There’s always something, if you’re living this life.  You keep going until you crash into the rocks or you bail out.”

“Then I’ve got to help them until they crash.”

“Okay,” he said.  “Can we agree to not be enemies?  Can we be friends?”

“Um.”

His heart sank, seeing her try to formulate a reply.

“I’m not very good at making friends.  I try.  Every time I try to be nice or build up a relationship, I mess it up.  My current team is the closest thing to good friends I have, and the boy closest to me in age that I was in love with did the bailing out thing.  Or the rock thing.  I’m not sure.”

“You don’t have to do anything.”

“But I do!  Already I’m thinking about what I could do for you guys that’s nice enough to match up to you doing this.”

“You don’t have to.”

“But then what’s the point?  What’s- I want to do something nice.  Isn’t it kind of hollow if I can’t?”

“I don’t know,” he said.  “It doesn’t seem like friendship to me if anyone’s keeping score and trying to keep it balanced.”

“But I want to do something.”

“Then tell me you’ll consider the alliance.  Let’s just make a deal to be good to each other and to all capes around our age.  That’s all it takes.  Tell me you’ll think about it.  I can’t think of anything more I want.”

“Me trying to be good to people leads to disaster.  I get overly invested, especially when I’m not at my best.  Right now I have two bullet holes in me, and I’m fuzzy with drugs, and I’m feeling like my parents are about to yell at me because I’m entertaining guests while I’m a mess-”

“It’s okay,” he said, a little bewildered at the sudden outpouring.  “Um.  I spent the last few years with these guys.  They’re Heartbroken.”

“We’re fucked up,” Candy said.  “We’ve got you beat any day.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Kenzie said.

“I’m really, really good at dealing with these guys now,” Aiden said.

“Super good,” Darlene said, sounding more like Juliette in a monotone than like she usually did.

“I can deal,” he said.  “And I have to.  I want this.  I don’t want to end-”

He stopped himself.

“You don’t want to end what?” Kenzie asked, quiet.

“I don’t want to end up like some of them, I guess,” he said.  “They can be so cool, but…”

“You might have better role models if you joined the heroes,” Kenzie said.  “Wink wink.”

She made exaggerated winks as she said the words.

“I’m loyal,” he said.  “The Undersiders are badass, and the Heartbroken, like these two are-”

He looked at Candy, then at Darlene.  Seeing Darlene chewing on her thumbnail, he took her hand away from her mouth and gripped it tight.

“-some of my favorite people.”

Darlene squeezed his hand.

“Darn,” Kenzie said.

“Is it weird if I say I love Tattletale and Imp and I don’t want to end up like them?”

“No,” Kenzie said.

“You were complaining about your hair,” Candy said.  “Do you want me to fix yours up?”

“Please.”

“I can’t promise I’ll be very good with hair like yours.  I won’t cut anything.”

While the two girls fussed, Aiden looked over at Darlene.  He nudged her.

“What?” Now she sounded irritated.

“All you girls are good at different stuff.  You’re really good with makeup and all that.  Candy takes really good care of her hair and skin-”

“Skin,” Candy said.  She turned to Kenzie, stabbing a finger in her direction.  “Moisturizer?”

“Pretty please.”

He could see her agonizing over it.

“Fine,” Darlene said.  “Okay.”

She got her bag out and began digging stuff out.

It felt a little weird, being in on this scene.  It was girly.  Still, Kenzie seemed happy, and she’d been upset before.

He backed up.  Off to the side, he saw Amais sitting in the hall at Rome-Roman’s feet.  Roman and Precipice seemed to be half-listening in and half-chatting.

“It’s a cool necklace,” Darlene said, as she moved his handmade necklace from Kenzie’s lap to the side table.

“You like it?” Aiden asked, surprised.

“It’s cool.”

“It’s a thing I made out of nowhere.  I didn’t think you’d like it, since you’re always paying so much attention to the clothes you wear.”

Darlene shrugged and nodded.  She seemed relieved, at least?

“She’s paying attention for reasons,” Candy said.

Darlene answered the statement with a death glare.

Between them, Kenzie looked left, then right, then left again, not moving her head or body much.

“Don’t worry, Kenzie,” Aiden said.  “I’m as confused as you are.”

“I’m not confused.  I really do like it, and I’m glad other people do too.  I get being jealous.”

Darlene dropped one of the makeup things.

“Oh, whoops, foot in mouth,” Kenzie said.  “Can I blame the pain drugs?”

“No,” Darlene said.

“You can blame the drugs,” Candy said, giving Kenzie’s lap a pat.

Jealous?  Oh.

“Dar?  Do you want one?” he asked.

She seemed startled.  When she didn’t immediately formulate a reply, Candy threw something at her.

“Yes,” Darlene said, glaring again at Candy.

“I’ll put it together tomorrow.  You can tell me what you want, even.”

She nodded.

Candy threw more things at Darlene.  Darlene, at least, wasn’t blowing up or getting aggressive.  She even seemed happy, now.

And, just as important, Kenzie looked okay.  Not smiling, but he couldn’t blame her.

From the hallway, Roman gave him a thumbs up.  He wasn’t entirely sure why.

But this was the kind of thing they needed.  Alliances, solidifying ties.  When people were hurt, they needed to be taken care of.  He’d learned that sort of thing from Charlotte and Forrest, from Sierra, and from people who had passed more quickly through his life.  Taylor had only been around for a short while, but she had made an impact too.

“Thank you,” Precipice said, as Aiden left the room and entered the hallway.  “The others who know her best are preoccupied right now.”

Aiden shrugged.

“It’s been a day since the villain meeting.  Roman was saying Tattletale hasn’t come around at all?”

Aiden shook his head.  “No.”

“We could really use help.”

“I know,” Aiden said.  He held his tongue instead of talking any more on the subject.  He did want to talk about it, and things had sidetracked a little.  There would be time later.  Maybe with Kenzie.  Maybe with Heartbroken.

“I only caught some of it,” Precipice said.  “Couldn’t help but eavesdrop while we were making sure nobody else heard.”

Aiden shrugged.  Maybe something to be more careful of.  He’d spent the last four years around with villains who all knew each other.  He hadn’t had to be very careful about his own business or secret identity.

“The plan is to do nice things and minimize the regrets you have?” Precipice asked.  “I have a teammate that’s talked about that.  I wish I’d had the mentality.”

“Kind of?  Sort of.  That’s not the main goal.”

“What’s the main goal?” Roman asked.

“Getting everyone working together,” Aiden said.

He liked to think of using his power like a general might have a soldier set a standard down on the battlefield.  The standard could be adjusted and moved around for different sorts of orders.

Attack, go, circle, search.  He was slowly figuring out what kinds of feelings could be pushed out and set to an area or target.

Push out, choose an area, connect… search.  Adjust the size of the area to be searched…

The flag was planted.  All birds within a large, large radius around him started flying toward the destination, a diffuse cloud.  Another flag closer to him kept Chicken Large roosted on a nearby tree.

He wasn’t supposed to call it Chicken Large, on threat of being kicked from the team by Imp, so he only used the name in his own head.

He was dimly aware of them, like he’d be aware of leaves blowing around him.

When ‘search’ was the order, he was more aware of the responses.  He could hear the distant caws as the assorted birds found something living.  He could sense them too.  Just a little brighter, more vibrant, alive.

He was linked in with the others while they were traveling, and now as he stood in the snowy field, no light above and no buildings near enough to cast any discernable light, he could feel where Darlene was lying in the back seat, her head resting on Candy’s shoulder, the younger Amais lying down across passenger and driver’s seat, head on Roman’s lap.

It was spooky out here, but at least he could sense that Roman was looking out for him, power at the ready.  There would be the mercenary too.

He had a bead on the intruder.  The general shape of it – too large to be moose or bear or anything of that sort.

He pushed out with another ‘flag’.  If it were a physical thing, it would be planted right between the eyes of his target.  He unpinned the flag from near Chicken Large and let the great eagle take flight.

It took more effort than it was worth to separate his birds by type or function.  A creature that wasn’t normal or usual, that acted with too much intelligence.  Scaled and drippy, capable of moving fast and hitting like a fast moving car with flailing claw arms.

He could count back from ten.  For those ten seconds, the harassment of smaller birds, crows, owls, and other flying things that were braving the winter would be like an early warning sign.

Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one.

It weighed half of what Aiden did, it descended at two hundred miles an hour, and it could survive the impact that followed, orienting itself and letting its claws do the work.

One second the target was alive, surrounded by a flurry of small birds.  The next it was dead.

He headed back to the car, moving Amais’ feet so he could take the passenger seat.  Roman climbed into the back, and the mercenary that had been standing watch with night vision goggles took the driver’s seat.  Their ride.

It wasn’t that much of a trip to get to the settlement, a logging village focused on gathering wood, with barely anything to do.

Tattletale was up.  She sat in dim lighting, her face in shadow, hiding the expression that came with a migraine.

“Hi,” he said, quiet.

“You asked to go out with the others.  When I said yes, so long as you were careful-”

“We were careful.”

“-I didn’t think you meant a three hour round trip, with barely any firepower.”

“We had five capes and a mercenary.  And my eagle.”

Not enough,” she said.

“You had a migraine and wanted to be left alone in the dark, Imp is trying to catch the people who are after us.”

“We aren’t supervising you enough, is what you’re saying.”

“I don’t need supervision,” Aiden said, setting his jaw.  “I’m an Undersider.

“Junior.”

“You said you would be pretending to be in a coma for the next ten hours.  Imp was gone for the day.  We took precautiouns.  I’m doing my best and we ended up fineLookout doesn’t get flack.”

“Lookout got shot twice.  Bad example, kiddo.”

“I’m working with the Heartbroken-”

“Playing with fire.”

“I had protection!”

“A twelve year old was your best protection.”

“And a mercenary.  I’m making alliances!”

She winced at the volume.

“Sorry,” he muttered.

“Alliances like that are not helping.  If we receive a job to go after Breakthrough, and you’ve made a deal with them, what happens?”

“We shouldn’t go after them.”

He was heated enough that Darlene and Candy roused a bit, paying attention.  He waved a hand in their general direction, and the half-asleep Darlene cut the connection.

“Did she cut it?” Tattletale asked.  “Yes.  Okay.  Listen, we can’t rule out any options.  We may have to go after Breakthrough or these other allies you’re purporting to make.”

Why?

“That, buddy, is a topic for when my head isn’t pounding.”

“I think you’re avoiding the question.”

Because my head is pounding.  Please.  We’ll talk about this tomorrow.  For now, can you put your bird in its cage?”

“Already done.”

“Then get changed and go to sleep.”

“Tattletale?” he asked.

“What?”

“On our way in, I scouted.  Birds were acting funny in the distance.”

“Trouble.”

“One of the lizards that have been homing in on us.”

“It takes them less time to find us each time,” she said.  “I’m not going to get to sleep tonight, am I?”

He felt a small measure of satisfaction as he saw her lurch to her feet, heading to the door where mercenaries were standing guard.

“You’re grounded, by the way,” she said.

He spun around, “You can’t ground me.  I’m not your kid.”

“You’re grounded,” she said, again, rubbing at her temples.  “I’ll tell Charlotte and Forrest.  They’ll agree with me.”

Was it because he’d been smug?  Had she sensed it and decided to get back at him?  It was hard to tell sometimes.

He rankled.  He’d done nothing wrong.

“She wouldn’t have wanted you to do this,” he said.

“Cute, but no cigar,” Tattletale said, half-turning.

“She would have agreed with me.  She would have been disappointed you fought me on this.”

She didn’t respond, opening the door and then closing it behind her.  He could see through the bulletproof glass where she was talking to the mercenary.

He felt frustrated in a way he couldn’t articulate, which was probably by her design.

He’d need to pack up, he knew.  They’d keep moving until the problem was resolved.

The living room of the house they were staying in had been co-opted.  Two computers, one tablet screen, and a lot of papers were scattered around.

There were boards, too.  Bulletin boards that could be picked up and moved from location to location.

Curious about how many more times they’d have to move or how long he’d have to wait until he had real freedom and responsibility again, he looked at the boards.

Valkyrie: scared
Dragon: hid for a while.  Scared
Legend, Chev: staying away on long missions.  Clandestine meetings.

It made no sense.  It didn’t help that her writing got worse as her headaches did.

Bogeyman of Cauldron: captured, weapon kept up sleeve
Dinah Alcott: compromised?  Shift of motives?
Why capture/corner/co-opt precogs?

He knew the name Dinah Alcott.  Eerie to see it now.

What is the threat?  Why scared?

It wasn’t what he was interested in, but now he was paying attention.

Hiding in alternate worlds won’t save us, so why avoid the city?
Who or what is here?

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Interlude 10.y

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The world greeted him with a chitter and a dozen spidery legs prying at his upper body and face.  Legs hooked onto teeth, where he had teeth, and onto gums, where the teeth were absent, bottom and top row, prying his jaw open until it cracked and he wasn’t sure it would close again.  It shoved its face between the legs, into his face and his mouth, and the texture of it was like wet sandpaper on cold, naked skin.

Its head narrowed, a spear or a wedge, and it tried to force its way into his mouth.  Its shell was like scales, oriented so that passage in should be easy, the grit of the sandpaper and the slant of the shells making entry smooth.  To go the opposite way was to have the sandpaper texture scrape and the scales catch.

It couldn’t enter, so it withdrew, and it gouged chunks out of him in the process.  It thrust in again, and he fought it now.  His hand -his only hand- dug for an opening, sliding across scale without finding gaps.  It tried to grasp the spider leg, and found it thorny.

His enemy pulled free again, and the slant of the scales resisted, design resisting the effort.  Scales caught on some of his only teeth and with the creature’s legs and body straining, pried them loose where they weren’t pried out altogether.

He fumbled, searching for eyes to gouge- and found a smooth, slightly convex surface, that small fingernails couldn’t scratch or find purchase on.  He fumbled again, his hand momentarily paralyzed as the creature fought its way forward again and caused him to nearly black out, and found the shoulder of the thing.  A mess of cords and tendons beneath a cupping of shell.  He tore, dug fingers in, and did what damage he could.

He fought a machine of a thing, all instinct, and it wasn’t a machine that learned.  It sought to continue doing what it was doing, but as it fought to open his mouth wide and shove itself within, it tried to use the leg that was now damaged, pulling and throwing its weight to one side.  It lurched, lost some of its hold, scrabbled to retake its prior position, and did it again.  Each time, it scraped, scales dug, legs scrabbled and scratched, and the part of it that he could damage was only in his reach for a second at most- a second where his vision doubled and everything was slick with moisture and fluids.  An acrid, chemical smell flooded his world.

He did enough damage to the shoulder that the limb hung on by a thread.  The shoulder was like a knot and the knot came free, so he started digging within.  To scrape for something vital, in a chest cavity larger around than his own, to scrape at connecting tissue that held shell plates together, and when that failed, to take handfuls of fluid from where they belonged and drag them out.

He found something that bound an upper half of his enemy to the lower half and held on, twisting and wrenching until it broke.  That gave him a chink in the armor that he could consistently use; a gap now ran between head and shoulder, opening and closing like gnashing teeth or two blades as the creature rocked and moved its body, but if he chanced to put his fingers or hands inside he could reach the parts that connected body to head.

His other arm was only a flipper, if it could be called that.  Too broad and rounded to be blade, too hard to be a fin, not long enough to be useful.  Its scrapes to find purchase on the ground beneath him were what told him that he wasn’t just lying there with a monster perched on top of him, but something monstrous lay beneath, dead, a staring and unmoving eye as large as his head staring up at the sky that was depositing so much of the moisture on the scene.

It took three tries to get at the neck-bundle.  The second try saw the two pieces of shell come together and slice at two of his smaller fingers on his hand.

In getting his hand on it and tearing, he killed the monster that had been fighting to get inside of him.  He felt it go still, its legs curling up, releasing his ruined mouth.

In the stillness, moisture splashing down around him, he became aware of other movements.  His eyes weren’t good, and it was hard to make out more than silhouettes in the dark.

There were ten more of the things he had fought, some twice the size.  There were other things.  Dead things like the one he laid on.  There was no ground, only a sea of hostility and death.

He laid there, aware that his fight was one of several he’d have to engage in.  His mouth was open and wouldn’t close and he was glad for it, because it could catch some of that moisture.

Survive, was the imperative.

The imperative gave him the strength to dismantle his attacker further, to work the gap open and to tear what he could free.  Already, another hostile thing was scratching idly at the body of the dead thing he laid on.  It might have been seeking entry.  It might have been seeking him.

Much of his enemy was hollow, the space occupied by fluids that were easily displaced or lost.  He tore what he could and worked his way inside, his hard nub of a limb doing some of the work.  His head was heavy, and following the imperative meant that he had to stop taking that meager water from the sky and put his head within.

It was not an easy fit, and it was one that took some effort.  The roles had been reversed, and it was him that sought ingress.  Him that had to retreat, then try again, fight and scrape away.

He worked most of himself within the shelled carapace, then stopped to rest.  He couldn’t close his mouth, but with his reaching tongue pressing things to the roof of his mouth, he could suckle and pressure.  Dangling bits of meat provided moisture, sustenance.

The world of scales and moisture around him shuddered, and he flipped over, fluids spilling into the cavity he occupied, then quickly draining out.  They tasted as before, chemical, acrid, filling his nose and coating the back of his throat with the smell, leaving his head pounding.

He’d been buried.  Ensconced within a borrowed shell, he couldn’t see the black-gray expanse of sky overhead anymore- only writhing and struggling scale, plant life, and the occasional twitching limb.

Survive.

He gathered his strength.  Time passed, and he remained alert for the scraping of the things like the one that had attacked him.  Now and again they prodded and crawled through the forest of living matter, but they didn’t bother him while he was shelled.

The world turned upside-down again.  Not to add more, but to separate.  There was more noise as they were separated further, and with blurry eyes, he watched while a massive figure brought a weapon down, severing the head of a living, writhing thing.  The action injured the shelled thing that had taken up residence inside, and the weapon killed that.

Through the gap, he watched as other shelled things made their way closer to the monstrous figure.  He watched as the figure stepped on the shelled thing, killing it, then killed another with the weapon- a blade on a pole.

It wasn’t that the figures were large, he realized, but that he was small.  They were covered in protection like he was, but it was made to fit their form, covering every part of them while moving easily.  His protection limited him as much as it walled off the outside world.  This was their world.

Small meant vulnerable.  Vulnerable meant that it was best to stay quiet.  Quiet while they killed.  Quiet when they struck him with the blade, not to kill, but to move.

The dead life and plants were put separate from the living, and the living was steadily killed or taken away.  He’d been taken from the dangerous writhing jungle to a dead one, of shells and smooth, cold scale.

The dead weren’t to be left alone.  Off to the side, a great light burned and consumed, fed regularly with plant life, and it reduced the dead to odors and tastes that made him salivate, before reducing them to char that made his face wrinkle.

He waited, watched, and listened to them communicate in grunting and sibilant sounds.  When the great light illuminated the transparent coverings in front of their heads, he could see their faces, see how those sounds were huffed out and mashed into shapes with lips like his own mangled lips, with teeth that were intact, and with tongues like the one that he used to suckle.

Survive, the imperative demanded.

He played dead, limiting himself to suckling for moisture and then chewing when he felt like he could move his jaw enough.  He watched, saw the pattern, and when he judged he’d waited as long as he could before that blade found its way under him and turned him into a blackness that made others drool, when he judged the way was clear, he pried himself free and crawled his way into the darkness, where plants pressed in on him from every direction.

“You don’t remember anything before your trigger?” Rain asked.  The guy was trying to look disarming, but there was scratch that traced the line of his eye socket and turned his lower eyelid black, just swollen enough to make the eye squint in a suspicious way.

Define ‘trigger’.

The rest of the group was paying attention to him now.  Eyes trying to get past the shell he’d erected around himself, see parts of him he wasn’t comfortable revealing.  He trusted Ashley’s cold, uninterested look more than he trusted Kenzie’s small smile and wide eyes.  He was glad for the eyepatch he wore, because it meant he didn’t see Kenzie staring and studying him.

“Nothing before,” Chris said, shrugging.  He wouldn’t tell them about the bonfire, the bugs, the quarantine crew.

“I don’t remember anything either,” Sveta said.  She was always quiet, trying to sound gentle and nonthreatening.  She said ‘sorry’ a lot, stared at the ground.  She went on, “But I dream.  I’ve tried to paint it, to take those fragments of dreams and put a puzzle together.”

“Do you dream, Chris?” the therapist asked.  Prodded.  Pried.

“No,” Chris said.  He had nightmares regularly, and even though he considered those ‘dreams’, he wouldn’t share that.  It was knowledge that could be used to trace his background.

He saw her scratch words onto the notebook that laid on her lap.  She avoided looking at him as she wrote.

“I dream,” Ashley said.  “Ms. Yamada told me that dreams may be important to parahumans.”

“Do you keep a dream diary?” Sveta asked.

And the conversation moved on.  Chris was aware of the therapist glancing at him more than she glanced at the others.  Her pen rested on the page by the note she’d made.

Second imperative: migrate.

Surviving meant eating, and eating gave him the strength to walk instead of crawling.  He was growing, and the rate of growth made his entire body hurt.

Eating meat was hard, because it required catching that meat, and eating enough vegetation to keep himself going required constant eating, which conflicted with the second imperative.

It also meant that he had to experiment with eating different things.  He’d eaten some shoots last night, and had spent his usual sleeping hours enduring stomach cramps and a forced evacuation of everything he’d eaten and then some.  Now he was delirious, thirsty, and having to stop because his stomach was contracting and cramping so badly.

He needed to keep moving, both because it was imperative and because he needed water and there wasn’t any here.

He found himself slowing, taking more breaks.  To do otherwise would have meant collapse, but stopping and not reaching water or destination meant death or-

Or nothing.  There was no alternative.

Five hundred breaths of walking.  Three hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Then four hundred breaths of walking.  Four hundred breaths of sitting, resting.

Two hundred breaths to walk.  Six hundred breaths to sit.

All measured out.  Forward progress was the only option.  The weather was wet and cold and he felt like the warmth in him had died some time ago.  The plodding forward was monotonous – he no longer looked for danger or for food.  He breathed and he marched.  The breaths were even, in and out, and they were his clock.

Fifty breaths of walking- he had to stop, his stomach cramping.  He lost count of his breathing while gasping in pain.  He imagined it was close to a thousand.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.

A hundred breaths of walking.  A thousand breaths of rest.  He wanted to rest longer, and he couldn’t let himself.

A hundred breaths of walking, not toward his destination now.  His heart hammered in his chest as he took those hundred breaths and the steps that went with them, because he now knew the danger he faced.

He put himself in the most open space he could.  Predators would see him here, but if he didn’t choose this location, then the scavengers would get him.

He collapsed, and the exhaustion and pain that ran through him was enough that the feeling of hitting the dirt didn’t even reach his thoughts.

He faded in and out from there.  Cold and wet, then cold and dry.  Then movement.  Covered in a soft wrapping- too soft to be any protection.  His half-formed left hand gripped the material.

When he came to again, he felt better.  He felt nourished, and he felt rested.  There were few aches and pains, no longing for water.  He moved the material that covered him aside, and found a distance between the soft material he had been resting on and the ground below.

He landed, and he fell, but he made little noise.

Second imperative: migrate.

They caught him before he could get there.  People like the ones that had been killing and burning, but without the coverings that were the same color and material from head to foot.  Bigger people.

He struggled and fought, heard their utterances and knew no meaning in it.  He saw their kin- a long, long line of people all migrating in their own way.  To the wrong place.  People with belongings gathered, moving at a crawl, unwary of the hard-shelled things that traveled along hard surfaces, so close to them.

He tried twice more to get where he needed to be, and on the third try, two of the people decided to confine him, imprisoning him in a large shell, with soft material within.  This shell moved, and once he saw that it moved in the direction he needed to go, he relaxed.  When they stopped he pointed with his fist, insistent.  He knew the destination by heart, even though he knew so little else.

A deserted place, of shelters like the tents, only hard stone.  Some towered high, others were squat and low.

His destination was down stairs.  The grown ones with him tried to stop him, because now they were wary.  He fought his way free, and he ran.

Down the stairs.  A door, and a panel on the wall.  Each bump on the wall produced a note when pressed, and they had to be pressed in the right order.  It was imperative.

The door opened, and a world of manufactured concrete stood out before him.  There were more metal doors, more panels, but all the doors were open.  Shells and guts of metal, crystal-clear containers that housed fluids with things within.  Shells meant to be worn, now draped in a covering of gossamer, courtesy of the tiny shelled things that swarmed them.

The grown ones followed, and they looked scared.  They picked up their pace, to reach him before he could reach the chamber he needed.  They were just in time for the light.

A single light, focused on each of them, blinding, so they all covered their eyes.

When he looked, he saw that the light that shone on him had turned green.  The one that shone on them was the red of bodily fluid, of injury and pain.

He didn’t jump when there was a sound like there had been when people had been doing the killing.  A sharp cracking sound, as boot came down on blade, severing life.

No blade here- it was a series of narrower things, so fast they were invisible.  Both of the grown people collapsed.

He advanced, reaching the destination.  His hand mashed the raised markings there, and the markings depressed as the ones on the panel had.

Things lit up, and the face he saw on the other side of the clear glowing panel  was of a grown man, teeth crowded toward the front, hair brown and tousled into a mop, eyes wide in a dangerous way.  He moved like he was afraid, moving things, putting fluids in things, and making utterances in a quick, nervous way.

What he said didn’t matter.

Migration done.  He instinctively knew what he had to do.  The scene on the panel continued as he found everything that seemed familiar and made sure it was in place.  By the time he was done, the scene was repeating itself.  The same sounds, the same movement.

Third imperative: download.

Feelings were just chemicals in the body and the brain.  On the glowing panel that showed the repeating sequence of events, he could see some of those chemicals.  Running through clear artificial veins, or residing in cases and shells.

Metal tips pressed against his flesh until they pierced through.  He turned the segment, and chemicals flowed into his arm.  From his arm, they traveled through his body.  They were meant to evoke a specific situation, a specific instance.

Something slowly began to shift, his head pounding, and he understood what he was doing.  He understood the chemicals and he understood the machinery around him.  It came in waves, of increasing clarity.

The memories came after.  He could put names to what he was looking at.

He could remember the shape of the the moment he’d ‘triggered’ -the word ‘triggered’ popped into his head amid the stream of memories.  And he could remember everything that had come after.

He had a name for the person on the screen, now.  A name for himself.

PRT’s second most wanted, 2003.  Seventh most wanted if counting international threats.  He’d fought the PRT’s headliner team three times.  One win, two draws- he’d lost both those times, technically, but he’d gotten away, and he counted that as a draw.

Then they’d caught him, found him mid-experiment.  He’d been a prisoner in a regular prison, until they’d grown lax.

Then the Birdcage.  Baumann Parahuman Containment Center.  Seven years of cameras and eyes watching his every move while he was contained.  He could imagine the fingers tapping on the glass.  Dragon handled the announcements, but he could imagine the other staff watching.  No one woman could do all of the watching.  A hundred eyes…

The memories were overwriting and overshadowing the creature he’d been, that had fought so fiercely and wrapped itself in the shell of one of Breed’s spawn.  He’d been dredged up along with them while, presumably, people had been looking for heroes in the wreckage after everything had gone wrong at the oil rig.

He reached out to touch the screen, feeling a kind of dread.  He didn’t want to be thatHim.  Himself.  He’d spent a long, long time not wanting to be himself, but now it was imperative.

As if responding to that thought, the man in the recording turned to face the screen, still talking, chattering.

Lab Rat.

“You lied to the group.”

Chris slumped back in his seat, staring at the therapist with his best ‘are you for real’ face.

“About a lot of things,” she added.

“You said I needed to do this.  You didn’t say how.”

“How are you doing this, then?  I’d love some insight on your approach.”

“I’m protecting myself.”

“I guessed that was the case.  Can you elaborate?”

He let out a long, belabored sigh.  People were so much more trouble than they were worth.

“Name a statement, anything I said, and I’ll explain why.”

“Your background.”

“It can be used to track me.  If they know where I came from, then they know who and what I am.  That matters to people.”

“You think certain people hold grudges?”

“I think certain populations hold grudges.  Riley Grace Davis, imprisoned and made to do work for your organization-”

“I’m not affiliated with them.”

Chris snorted.  “Whatever.  Tom Moss?  Dead.  They didn’t put much effort into investigating that one.  Ricario D’Alleva, imprisoned.  Akemi whatshername?  Imprisoned.”

“She seems reasonably free and happy by all reports I’ve seen.”

“Led around like a dog, watched constantly.”

“That strikes me as the kind of thing that you’re very conscious of.  Being watched, observed, manipulated.”

“Eh,” he said.  “If you haven’t picked up on that already, you don’t deserve your credentials.  Jamie Rinke, imprisoned.  Meadows?  Dead.  I can’t even remember which of the other Slaughterhouse or Class-S threats are alive still, but for most it’s because they’ve been dead or imprisoned for so long that we’ve mostly forgotten about them.  Which is my point.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so, you’re all over the place here.”

I mind,” Chris said, frowning.  He’d let himself get agitated.  “And I’m in one place.  These are the dangerous ones.  The ones they wanted to get rid of but couldn’t.  The lovely Ms. Webb?  Imprisoned-”

He saw her open her mouth, and quickly added, “-until released by Benjamin Terrell.  Who is public enemy number one, and I would guess is either going to die before the year is out or live to be two hundred.”

“Fair assertion.  He has a lot of resources at his disposal.”

“Speaking of?  Your Valkyrie?  Ms. Ciara?  Imprisoned.”

“You have a very loose definition of ‘imprisoned’, Chris.”

“Dog, leash.  Monitored, fretted over, limited in what she can do.  If they could have done better in locking her down I think they would have.”

“She’s free and she’s helping.  I think most have earned and are exercising their second chances, Chris, and she’s more evidence for my belief than evidence against.  Why are you so fixated on this?”

“It’s too dangerous to tell the truth!  Even if they forgave my past, they won’t overlook my potential.  Tinkers get kidnapped.  So I say I’m a Changer.”

“Why Changer?”

“Because it makes sense.  I can sell it.  I can fake it.  And because changers are second to last on the good ol’ PRT priority list.  Everything else being equal, changers get left alone while the thinkers and masters get gunned down first, tinkers are probably next in line if they can’t be disarmed, and then you get rid of the bog-standard break-shit types.  Changers come after all of that.”

“Which is why you lied about that,” she said, and he saw her take her note as she said it.  A mark on the paper, something to keep track of.  A continuing study of him.

“Survival is always going to be my first priority,” he said.  “The way I see it, half of the parahumans out there are doing it wrong.  They aren’t protecting themselves.  They aren’t making the right moves.  They aren’t optimizing, and optimizing has to start with staying alive and keeping from being exploited.  Which they are all really fucking bad at.”

“I have many patients who I wish were still alive right now.  I wouldn’t put it in quite those words, but… it’s a scary world.”

“It is, and those patients were idiots.  Your current sitting-in-a-circle ring of patients that you made me sit with?  Idiots.

She seemed exasperated now.  “We’re all doing our best.  Did you get anything at all out of the group session?”

Chris snorted.

“If you put a little bit more of yourself out there, then maybe you’d get more out of it.”

“I told them enough.  What did I say?  Tinker got me, experiments, abuse, fucking asshole kept me for a while.”

“You didn’t mention that the tinker was you, Chris.”

“Would’ve kind of given away the show, don’t you think?” he asked, as sarcastic as he could manage.

“I get the impression that when you came here, you were irritated,” the therapist said.  “You were already plotting how you would tell me you didn’t want to attend.  Yes?”

“Yes,” he said.  He smirked.  “I like the word plotting.  Fitting.”

“Can I negotiate with you?”

He shrugged.

“Keep attending, and-”

“Why?”

“Because I think there’s value in it.  I think if you give it time, it’ll be easier to talk and to share.”

He snorted again.  “You think that’s going to help?”

“With therapy?  Careful guidance and attention?  Yes.  I believe that.  But you have to want it.”

He reached into his pocket to pull out his phone.  Not nearly enough time had passed.

“Agree to this, and I’ll talk to the institution.  They can relax the disciplinary measures for your outbursts, give you access to your things, and give you the freedom to visit your workshop.  Provided, of course, that you keep it safe, sane, and sensible.”

His fingers drummed on the phone screen.

“What are you thinking?” she asked.

“I don’t need the institution.”

“You’re a young teenager with nowhere to live.”

“I’m a thirty-two year old man in a body that was meant to grow fast, not well.”

“It’s not quite that defined, Chris.  You seem to enjoy that it’s not defined, because if I approach you as a juvenile, you claim you’re a man.   If I approach you as if you were a man, you retreat to being the teenager.  Petulant, sarcastic, immature-”

“So flattering,” he said.

“And clever, independent, with varied interests.  A far cry from the person described in the write-up for Lab Rat.  A distinct, natural personality of its own.”

“We could debate it all session.  Oh wait!  We have!  Multiple times!

“By your choice.  I think you like that you resist labeling as one or the other.  A circular argument is safe ground to retreat to when you don’t want to discuss other things.”

He shook his head.

“When the institution isn’t upset with you, it’s not such a bad place to be, is it?”

“Noisy, chaotic, tons of test subjec- kids running around.”

“Not funny.”

“It sucks.”

“It has food, power, televisions, running water, internet-”

“Crap internet.”

“There are amenities.  I know your supervisors have remarked that you had fun playing video games with peers.”

Supervisors.  He felt a frustration well inside him.  People that tapped on the glass, peered in.  That thought they knew him.

“They are the furthest thing from being my peers.  I outclass them in every way.  They suck at the games, they can barely spell…”

“You had fun,” the therapist said, firm, like there was no room for disagreement.  “It’s easier, isn’t it?”

“…I definitely don’t need the group.”

“I picked members for the circle because you have common focuses.  I can see you perk up whenever tinker-related talk comes up.  Rain, Kenzie.  I know there are parallels between yourself and Ashley, that you aren’t the originals.”

“She’s a legitimate clone.  My predecessor got creative.”

“There are parallels, aren’t there?  If you talked to her about your dreams and she talked to you about hers, I think you could teach each other something about what’s going on and what you’re going through.”

“I’m still not going to share.  Weighing the values, I get more out of keeping it secret than sharing.”

“Optimizing?”

“Exactly.”

“And the side effects of your transformations, and your insistence on transforming yourself?  Is that optimizing too?”

He shook his head.  No snort, no laugh, no dismissal.  In a way, it was as grave a thing as talking about a family member dying.

Not that one more family member dying would have been such a bad thing in his case.

“That stuff’s for fun,” he told her.

The therapist offered no immediate response to that.  But her pen marked it down.  He wondered if she was doing that on purpose, to let him know she knew.

Cortisol, epinephrines, and noradrenaline flooded into his arm along with a mess of acetylcholines.

Third imperative: Download.

Every two to three days, depending on how long he could hold out, he ‘downloaded’.  Powers and agents, as the literature called them, had a way of connecting better to the hosts when the host was in alignment with the moment they triggered.  It was at this time that the agent performed its deepest study of the host, the context around the host, and all necessary things relating to the power.

With a specific feeling derived from a specific balance of neurotransmitters that he pumped into his system, his brain hooked up to a machine to read the various levels, he replicated the feelings of one specific length of time, then the moment that it all came to a head.

A slow ramp up- his finger adjusted the switch, slowly sliding it across the dusty, cracked terminal.  He watched the cortisol levels rise, felt them rise.  Stress.

He could visualize the scene clearly now.  It was the most intact of his memories.  He had been forbidden from entering his sister’s office, which had once been his dad’s workshop.  He’d entered.  He’d seen.  A few seconds of horror, which had sent him spiraling into self-destruction.  Bed wetting, smearing feces on the walls of the school bathroom, and picking fights without realizing why.  Anything to feel like he could make the world make tangible sense again.  Anything to get the image out of his head.

A teenage guy, lying on a table.  She’d removed the gag and the guy had managed a brief yelp before the plastic covered his mouth- part of a hose and tube assembly, connected to a canister.  The contents of the canister had been released, and they’d vented out explosively- so explosively that it erupted from the teenager’s nose, a thick foam.

He’d snorted, failing to get enough foam out to breathe.  He’d struggled, his back arching with the force of his desperate attempt to pull arm from restraint.  The arms had been injured, marked.  There were cuts with blue ink smeared into them and onto the skin around them.  His eyes had rolled back into his skull-

And the boy that would become Lab Rat had fled, feet stomping because he hadn’t thought to be quiet.  His sister didn’t follow or make any mention of what had happened.

He had broken down.  He had tried and failed to make sense of a scene that made none.  He had had nightmare after nightmare and he had sat with his brother and sister at the dining room table, eating the meal his sister had made and trying not to think about that scene and the role she had played in it.

Years later, he summoned the courage to tell his sister he knew.  He’d expected to find some strength in it, to disarm her.  Something.  All he had achieved was to allow her to be less careful about what she did, on those days she found a hitchhiker or homeless kid willing to follow her to her home.

He couldn’t tell anyone, because he was already the delinquent by that point.  She was the angel, the twenty-one year old who had taken custody of her two kid brothers, who put up with him when he’d acted out so much after their parents had died.

He adjusted dials.  More cortisol.  Heavy noradrenaline.  The moment of panic, the culmination-

The memories.  Everything had flowed from that point, and everything that had followed was now clearer.

Every two to three days, he inserted the needles, and he hit the switches.  Imperative.  Half of the rest of the day was spent both reeling and trapping small animals so the requisite hormones and neurotransmitters could be harvested.  Rats, ironically.

It was sheer ego, helped along by the panic of a very limited timespan, that had made the original demand this kind of adherence.  If there was going to be a legacy or an emergency out, then he needed to ensure that the process was repeated until the memories and personality were as close to real as possible.  Except they never could be.

So long as the imperative held, he couldn’t stray far from this bunker.

Chemicals.  He gathered what he could.

Six minutes to rig an extraction gun.

Ten minutes to extract from every animal in the shelter.  His hand was heavy on the top of the cat’s head.  The machine pumped at the back of its skull, extracting.  It died in bliss, which was better than most would get, the way this was going.

The inter-dimensional door opened nearby, and wind whistled in.  He made a face.

“You’re working so small,” String Theory taunted him.

With more force than necessary, he plugged his machine into another cat.  The machine bucked as it kicked in, nearly throwing the cat from the table.

“You’re not working at all.  We barely have time.”

“They found a way to give us time.  Time manipulators have been allotted to each of us.  If we can give a convincing elevator pitch.”

“Our reputations should be pitch enough,” he rasped the words.  In the lead-up to everyone getting out of the Birdcage, he’d spent far too long talking and negotiating, smoothing tensions and ensuring that if there was any hassle, it wouldn’t come from his block.

So long as he was a rat in someone else’s maze, he’d give them what they wanted and he’d get his cheese.

After… was after.  He just had to get there.  He had to get through the next day.

“What are you making?” String Theory asked, sticking her head between his elbow and his body.

He dug his elbow into her back, hard, and she squirmed her way out.

“Let me be your rubber duck,” she said.

“Shouldn’t you be building something impractically large?”

“I set my servos to build.  Tools in motion, engines heating up.  I’ll go back in… two minutes and thirty one seconds.  But I clearly need to make fun of you before then.  What can you even do with that?”

He had no plans.  Or rather, he had a hundred.  He’d spent seven years thinking about what he would do when he had a chance, a real chance that didn’t use food byproducts and what he extracted when he performed procedures on his cell block inmates.  The mentally ill, the suffering.  Take from one, give to another, level out serotonin, reduce aggressive urges.  Now and then their parahuman overseer would get upset at him for building up too much of a collection, demanding he dump it.  Until then, he had some freedom.

He kept a cell block of people quiet, when they were of types who had no reason to be quiet, and in exchange, they left him alone six days out of seven.  Another of the seven days was reserved for dealing with disputes and talking to other block leaders.

Now he was out, all of those notes in his head, and with a hundred ideas to pick from, he had no ideas.

Not that he’d tell this grinning runt of a woman.

“Better seen than heard.”

She smirked, and it was a really punchable smirk.  She slouched and rather than straighten up to smile at him, she twisted her head so her chin craned up, looking up at him with overlarge glasses and a forced smile on her face.

Somehow more irritating than if she’d been looking down at him.  Not that he would punch that punchable face.  Maybe in the right situation, he could do something more creative.  Take the right formula, the right form, and claw that face off.

“I’ll tell you what,” she said.  “Before I go… a bet.”

“What?”

“Which of us makes the biggest difference?”

“What are the stakes?” he asked.

“Existing,” she said.  Her watch beeped, and she turned around.  “Take me back to my lab.”

He watched her saunter off, through the portal that opened.  He could see the scale of what she was building, saw her turn to smirk at him in the moment before the portal closed.

He was left in the animal shelter, the lights dark.

This wouldn’t do.

He was thinking small and he hated that she was right almost as much as he hated her guts in general.  Yet however much he hated her and however much she claimed to detest him, they ended up together, over and over again.

This- it had been her saying goodbye.

Couldn’t think small.  Couldn’t let the runt win.

“Give me a portal in the ceiling… someplace bright.”

The portal opened.  A square of light that illuminated the interior of the shelter.  Animals shuffled in cages and kennels, their cries overlapping.

“So that worked,” he said, his voice a quiet rasp. “Give me a portal to… where the confiscated PRT tech ends up.”

The door opened.

He smiled.  “Stakes are bad enough you’re not even going to say no?”

It would be a start.

Ensuring he had the last laugh would be the next part of it.

It meant surviving.

Imperative: download.

It was instinct and preprogramming that forced his hand, that made the routine of the procedure something that he could stall but not stop.  No more than he could stop from sleeping.

Needle in, dials adjusted, fluids loaded.

Replicating a feeling, then experiencing everything that had flowed from that point.  The him that he’d been, small and stupid as it was, had been him.

Elephants were scared of rodents, or so the story went.  Dogs ate cats, cats ate rats, and rats scared the elephants that terrified everyone.

He knew he was put together weird, as though none of the pieces of his body fit with the other.  If anybody had ever really liked him, his little brother excepted, then they’d never let him know… and his little brother wasn’t around anymore.  The last victim of the so-called ‘angel’, his sister.

Now he was alone.  For a moment, there were only the eyes that watched him, waiting for him to ask for a portal.

He put on his coat, he gathered his crate and a backpack, both full of injectors, the housings procured by way of a portal to a medical supply company, and he grabbed the ball.  His emergency out, quickly cobbled together.

“Portal… to where the fighters who won’t be fighting at this next battlefield are.”

The doorway opened.  There were people gathered.  Some would be friends and allies of the people who were fighting front and center in a matter of minutes.

Quickly, he handed them out.  No time for explanations, and he knew he was untrustworthy enough by reputation and look that explanations wouldn’t help much.  If they wanted one, they could take one.

He’d get as many out as he could.  Maybe one would matter.  Maybe all of them would.

A rat could scare an elephant.  A thousand rats could kill one.

Heroes, villains.  Some stared at him.  He’d never taken off his Birdcage sweats, only put stuff on over it.

“What is it?” someone asked.  A girl in a gray horned mask with slanted eyes, a scarf, and a black bodysuit.

His voice was still a bit of a rasp.  “Wear it.  It activates when you’re hurt.  Maybe keeps you in the fight.  Makes you strong in a desperate moment.”

The girl tossed the small box up in the air, then caught it.  “Okay.”

He handed others to people nearby.

“Can I have one for my dog?” one of them asked.

He looked at the ‘dog’.  Grown large, monstrous, clearly some kind of growth effect in play.

He would have liked to study it.  He would have liked to see the interaction.  Would it fizzle?

It stirred up his tinker brain, and he had to suppress it.  He’d had some experience in suppressing those thoughts, in all his time in the Birdcage.

“Go nuts,” he said.

“Then I want some for other dogs.”

He pushed a handful into her hands.  She nodded, satisfied, and began putting them into the pockets of her baggy jacket.

He considered his next move, who he should approach next, thought twice, and dropped the crate.  “Find someone to hand these out.  I should be there.”

“You’re going huh?” the girl in the gray mask asked.  “You don’t need your badge things?”

“Injectors.  And this bag is full,” he said.  He patted the backpack.  “Give me a portal.  Last stand.”

The portal opened.  He could see the oil rig, and everyone assembled there.

So many strangers, and he didn’t necessarily like the people who weren’t strangers.

“Look after the people there,” the girl with the thing about dogs said.

“That’s the intention.”

That got him a nod.

He was greeted by a man in power armor he couldn’t place by name.  Quizzed.  Then he was handed an assortment of other things to hand out with the injectors.

String Theory, too, greeted him at the door.

“I’ve got you beat,” she said.

“A thousand rats can kill an elephant,” he said.

“What are you even talking about?  Did you snort something, to help you get through this?  I wouldn’t blame you.  I know you’re a coward at heart.”

His voice rasped, “That’s rich, coming from the runt of a woman who keeps her location secret and hides from the authorities while her weapons do the work remotely.  I know you’re not very bright, but put the pieces together.  It’s not a one man show.”

“One woman,” String Theory said.  She looked around.  “Sad, that Lustrum isn’t in earshot for that.  It would have got me points with her.”

“You’re so far into the negatives with her that it doesn’t matter.  We have eighty people with powers here.  Think for once.  I aim to multiply that power, or at least keep it in play.”

“You’re underestimating how big my gun is.  We’re not rats, you know.  We’re ants.  Little winged insects, buzzing around him.”

He handed out devices to the people who were taking the opportunity to file into the portal to the oil rig.  Armbands, earbuds, and injectors.

“My plan, my approach, it acknowledges that we’re ants.  The trick is to realize that because we’re ants, we can operate like termites.  We bring the building down, and we can kill your elephant.  All it takes is the right timing.”

“Termites aren’t ants,” he said.

“Same family, Rat.”

He shook his head slowly.

“When you’re dying, Rat, die knowing I win our bet.  I made a knockout punch, you made knick-knacks.”

He gave her a pat on the head as he passed her.  He knew she hated it.

Onto the platform, where things were mercifully quiet.

He handed out the armbands and earbuds as well as the injectors.  He wove his way through the crowd.

A girl with a bug costume.  Tinted lenses.  Either symbolic, given the recent conversation, or the universe mocking him.

He drew the equipment from his bag, then hesitated.  Something more fitting.  A bug in a box for the girl with the bug costume.  Maybe she would be more comfortable that way.

Imperative: Download.

It pressed on him.  The need to return to memories, refining them to perfection when the agent in his head would never provide a perfectly clear image.  He knew from those memories that he’d intentionally designed the system so he could only break the loop when he was ‘himself’ enough to figure out an escape.

Until then, a kind of torture.

He had other projects in the works, cobbled together from pieces of confiscated PRT tech in this emergency bunker.  As he succumbed to the imperative, dropping what he was doing to head to the station, to inject the needle and set up the emotional state that put him closest to his agent, he left a burner on.  A chemical burned.

Cortisol steadily cranked up, and his knowledge of what was coming made the stress worse.  Even the limiters that were supposed to adapt the incoming dosage to his current stress levels weren’t doing a lot to help.

He was mainlining stress while watching bubbles rise to the surface with an increasing intensity.

The glass detonated, and the contents sprayed across the room.  It aerosolized, and he inhaled it.

Twenty breaths.

The drug found its way into his system.  His cells multiplied, and they multiplied with a design in mind.  Other DNA took over his DNA, and with the change, the tinker knowledge dropped away.

He’d needed to make himself strong, and he’d needed to make himself angry.  Angry enough that it overrode the lesser imperatives.  Not so angry that it overrode the first imperative.

Muscles expanded, and skin stretched.  His hands became more like hooves as the fingers cloyed together.  His face, too, changed.

With fists, he destroyed.  His face was a blunt object as much as his hands were, and his body was simply muscle, and a vehicle for allowing him to smash.

Computer screens, the looped recordings.  Terminals.  Armor that he’d repurposed to scan body parts.  He destroyed, changed further as he drew in breath, panting, and destroyed more.

It was meditative, even freeing.

It was even more freeing as the effect faded, roughly twenty minutes in.  He gradually took his juvenile form again.  The machine was broken, the equipment lost, and even with his memories mostly intact, he’d had no idea if the imperative would still be in effect.  Would he be forced to build and rebuild endlessly?

He felt for it, and he felt nothing.  The only feeling was the pain from the spots all across his body where glass had dug in.  The change had helped to heal, but only partially.

Maybe when he was looking for artistic inspiration, he would do something similar to this form.  No need to tie things down, but if he was going to pretend to be a changer, it would be best to appear like someone who didn’t have all of the choices in the world.

Slowly, steadily, he packed up his things.  Then he set out on his journey to find where people had escaped to, if there were even any left.

I win, he finally allowed himself the thought.  He walked past the bodies of the couple that had taken it on themselves to see if the naked, malnourished boy that they’d found had any people he was so insistently trying to return to.  In the time he’d been here, the bodies had dried up.

Already, instincts were kicking in.  Another imperative.  He was much happier with this one.

Imperative four: Take action, and whatever it is we do, it needs to be big.

He found her crying.

Amelia Claire Lavere.  Marquis’ daughter.  Victoria’s sister.

The Rinke creation sprung to its feet as he drew near, prowling with long legs and a sleek, long body.  It brandished a box-cutter at him.

“Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  She sat up straight and wiped at her eyes.  “You followed me?”

Found you.

Already, he was changing back.  He’d timed his arrival, done one circuit around the area.

“Come.  Let me touch you,” she said, trying to sound steely and failing.  She was still very close to returning to sobs.

He allowed it.  He approached.  The Rinke creation leaped onto his leg, then up to his long neck, where it held the box cutter at an area where the blood pumped hardest.

The hand was warm, with his scaled body soaked with the freezing rain.

He’d called this piece of work ‘Fleeting Memory’.  Fast, thus the fleeting, and Memory because it reminded him of the time he’d been born.  Not reborn as Lab Rat- he’d told the others about that.  But when he’d been birthed onto a bed of scales and Breed’s bugs, dredged from the water beneath the oil rig.  This body was spindly legs and sleek writhing scale, holding the vague profile of a very narrow wolf.

Memory, too, because scent was tied to memory, and this form was a very good tracker.  Less good in the rain, but… good.

Amelia helped him transform faster, and as she did, she removed the compulsion that Goddess had laid on him.  As he lost his humanity, he wrapped the cloth sash around himself, concealing his manhood.  A length of it went over his head, to keep the rain off.  It didn’t really help.

As he fixed the position of everything, he adjusted the boxes that were tucked into pockets.

“How did you know it was me?” he asked.

“You shed.”

“Your power doesn’t work through hair.”

“Not well.  But that body didn’t have hair.  Besides, you resemble him.  You’re not him, though.”

He shrugged.

“What have you done to yourself?” she asked.

He was very aware of the distinction.  It wasn’t ‘what did he do to you’, referring to his creator.  It was what he had done to himself.

She was sharp.  Stupid, so very stupid when it came to some things.  But sharp in some things.

“I’ll let you in on that secret, if you let me ask you a few questions after,” he said.

“I’m not in a mood for riddles, Lab Rat.”

“They think I’m fighting to keep my humanity, while changes wreak havoc on me.”

“They being Victoria?”

“Them.”

“What’s the truth?”

“I can’t be rid of it soon enough,” he said.  “Every change pulls me further away from being this.”

“To become what?”

He reached into one of the pockets in the sash.  He’d told the others that he needed to carry equipment and drugs with him, in case his body started going to pieces.

Not so.

“This,” he held up a syringe, “Is Brooding Anger.  I scanned Nursery during the Fallen fight.  It would be interesting.”

She put out a finger.  He extruded a droplet, let it rest on her fingertip.

She shook it off, then wiped her finger on her clothes.

Fucking rude.  Still… bigger things.

“Maybe another,” he said.  He smiled.  “Maybe they’ll all get a turn.  I’ve collected a few, lurking near powerful capes.”

“What do you even want, Lab Rat?  I’m kind of- I’m dealing with shit.”

“You had a face to face with her, finally?  Despite everyone telling you that you shouldn’t?”

“I don’t understand it.  Or- I understand, I think.  I just don’t want to think about it at all.”

“I could give you something.  You could be mindless for a while.  Peaceful.”

She shook her head.  “I should feel like shit.  I just wish…”

Her face crumpled up.  She looked away, burying her face in a sleeve that draped over one gloved hand.

He looked away too.  Rainwater was streaming down, and it was cold.

He’d dealt with worse.  Lab Rat hadn’t, but he had.

“I told you something I never told that team,” he said.  “You said you’d answer my questions.”

“Lab Rat-”

“You thought you had an answer.  You’d help Goddess, she’d take power, you’d keep her from being a despot somehow, and as for Victoria…”

“Don’t.  No commentary.”

“You thought she’d be so glad to be rid of you that she’d forgive you?”

“Stop.”

“Goddess can’t lead.  She’s too dangerous.  She’s missing necessary tools because she never had to go through the hardship to acquire them.  Survival.  Having to work to get somewhere.  Having to learn things the hard way.”

“That ship has sailed, Lab Rat,” Amelia said.  “If she doesn’t take power, it’s going to be because someone worse beat her.  Teacher is in the running.”

“You said you’d answer my questions,” he said.

“I didn’t say anything like that.”

He shifted position, irritated.

“What questions?” she asked.  She looked tired and resigned, and even in the gloom her eyes were visibly red.

“Shin has a manufactured slave class, doesn’t it?”

“What?”

“She has a servant who can make armies.  Nothing behind the eyes, nothing between the ears.  They follow simple orders and they can use weapons.  Yes?”

“You want an army?”

“No,” he said.

Test subjects, not an army.

He saw the suspicion in her eyes.  Her hands clasped each other now.  She worked by touch- touching her hands together was alike another man resting his hand on the hilt of the knife he had holstered at his belt.  A security thing.

“Would you fight me?” he asked her.  “Would your father?”

“What are you doing, Lab Rat?  What do you want?”

“All I want is for you to do nothing.  She senses danger.  I’m… perpetual danger for her.  But she wants to keep me close.  She likes me.  She thinks she’s safe because she can beat me.  I’m just a changer.”

“And?”

“And when I take the form of Twisted Betrayal…” he said.  He drew a syringe from the case, and he held it out, producing a droplet.  She removed her glove to touch it once again.  “It’ll be a sightly different formula to the one she thinks she can handle.”

“And all you want is for me to do nothing?”

“Do it and I’ll fix this.  I will give you Victoria however you want her.  If you want to talk, I’ll get you there.  If you want to keep her forever-”

Amelia shook her head.

“-I can get you there,” he said, lowering his voice.

“I just want answers.  I need to think about what I’ll do for her.”

“I can give you answers,” he said.  The thirteen year old was gone for the time being.  “All I need…”

He repeated himself to lull her in.  He’d had to do it with the more vulnerable members of his cell block.

“Is nothing?” she asked.

“And if Goddess can’t rule Earth Shin, then you let me help you and your father.”

“And give you slaves?”

“Mindless drones.”

“And you want to be a monster?  And how is it you’re going to get Victoria-”

Her voice rose slightly as she talked, and she shook her head, as if the ‘no’ was already there and she was fighting her way to get to it.

“Amelia,” he interrupted, and his voice was rougher.  “Do you want me to act, here?  Don’t overthink it.  Do you want someone to step in?”

Again, the hands touched.  Insecure.

She nodded.

“I know where the last member of her cluster is.  I found her before I found you.  We had a chat.”

“Like the one you just had with me?”

“Don’t overthink it,” he said.  “Don’t signal anything to her.  Just… work with me.  Accept what comes and don’t get in the way.  Do you want me to give you something, so you seem less dangerous to her?”

“Can I trust what you give me?  I know some of what you’ve done.”

“If I hurt you, your father will have my head.  I’m eliminating problems, not creating them.”

Hands clasped together in front of her, she nodded.

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