Sundown – 17.3

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“Where the hell do I even start?” Kid Win asked.  “I never was much of a teacher.  There used to be those school events every couple of months where the top students and most improved students would each get one-on-one hang outs with the Protectorate or the Wards for the day, I dunno how much attention you paid to that stuff.”

“Little superhero obsessed Victoria?  A lot.  There was actually an issue when I won the one year.  I was supposed to partner with Challenger but people thought the girl with superhero parents didn’t need the experience.”

Kid Win snorted.  “What happened?  I don’t even remember Challenger.”

“I gave up my spot.  Then I went home and crieeed.”

“Oh no,” he said.

“In my defense, I was eight or nine.”

“I remember wondering what kind of experience Armsmaster gave the kids,” Kid Win said.  “He was always kind of… grumpy.”

“Start out with a ride on the bikes the Protectorate had, including riding on the forcefield bridge out to the island HQ.  Visit the workshop with what I have to imagine was a gruff ‘don’t touch anything I don’t say to‘, trying out a bunch of tinkertech gadgets.  Then patrol, with another member of the team pre-clearing the route, maybe a crisis point if the kid was old enough and the situation minor enough.  Almost always the same formula and routine, but he was good at executing that.”

“Huh.”

“I think they were very selective with who they sent his way.  Kids they thought he could get to.  Serious kids.”

“I have no idea what selection process they used for me.  Probably that Clock would be a bad influence, Aegis and Shadow Stalker were jocks, I think.  Gallant was more sensitive-”

I looked off to the side.

“-Which I’m not.”

“It’s fine.  You were saying?”

Kid Win looked at Vista, who had settled down and sat on a box enclosing a bush of what looked like holly, talking to Dennis.  He dropped his eyes back to the ground.

His eyes were strange, and the way he held himself now, he didn’t embrace the strange.  There was a focus to him that I didn’t remember him having, but a new weakness too, because he wouldn’t meet my eyes and seemed to keep looking down or away, maybe because he was embarrassed of how he looked.  I saw some red-tinted sunglasses in one of his coat breast pockets, but he didn’t wear them here.  How much did he change if he had them on?  Would he more or less look into my eyes?

He answered me, “I think they picked the kids for Vista’s sake, instead of picking Vista for the kid’s sake.  And I got the leftovers.  A lot of the weird kids.”

I smiled.  “The fact you figured out there was a sorting system means you were capable of seeing what the ‘weird kids’ needed.”

“I dunno,” Kid Win told me.  “I wasn’t very good at it.  I had the impression Piggot or Armsmaster or Miss Militia wanted to cultivate something in me, for leadership or whatever, but then the leadership changed around, or the city changed, and expectations changed with.  Nobody ever had the chance to follow through.  Now Valkyrie’s asked me to do this thing, and I don’t know how.”

“Well, you’re kind of touching on it,” I said.  The wind had changed direction, so I pulled up the hood of the plush black sweater, where the material of the hood felt like it was an inch and a half thick.  “So you remember all that stuff.”

“I think because it’s superhero-adjacent.”

“But you don’t consider yourself very… you?”

He shook his head.

“I want to know who and what we’re up against.  I want to know who and what I’m working with.  If you’re… closer to the agents?  Is that a sore point or touchy subject?”

“More for Clock than it is for me,” Kid Win said.

“Let me know if I get insensitive,” I told him.  “What filters through?  What doesn’t?  What matters?”

“Give me a starting point.”

“Day to day.”

“Day to day activities?  I remember daydreaming about tinker stuff in class, the stress of not doing well in my classes.  Actual time at school is a haze, but here and there I had some good ideas or epiphanies and I can remember those.  I can relate back to the school stuff that I used to inspire tinker work.”

“So you don’t remember, say, Math class?”

“The old me didn’t think of math class as anything except a constant feeling like I was struggling to tread water with weights tied to my ankles.”

“But you remember that feeling.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Is it mostly negative?” I asked.  “What about good memories?”

“Hazy recollections of returning to the base after a fight we did okay in.  Camaraderie.  Being promoted.  Legend complimenting me.  That one’s sharper.”

“Are those all when you were around more parahumans?  Stronger parahumans?”

“If you’re trying to gauge by that… Vista kind of skews the results.  She was one of the strongest Wards and she was around a lot of the time.”

I nodded.  “Fair.  Good point.”

“And no.  Some of the hazy good memory is around family.  We did this one, um, it was a crisis point.  No powers involved, but they sent me, Gallant, and Battery to talk to this woman who had been attacked, we were supposed to make sure she was okay, show our faces, give support and make sure no powers were involved.  Not pretty but a bit of a softball for two teenage guys and an experienced hero, right?”

“Sure.”

“It wasn’t a softball.  She was psychotic, vulnerable, broken.  People with mental illnesses get preyed on more than they prey on others, and she said a whole bunch of stuff.  Got to Gallant, feeling what she felt.  Got to me, hearing the things she said, wrestling with what I was wrestling with at the time.  Really scary, really sad.”

“This is a happy memory?” I asked.  I could remember Gallant bringing that scene up back then.  I hadn’t known Kid Win had been there.  “That sounds horrible, I’m sorry, Chris.”

“Yeah, so, I was pretty shaken.  Battery ended our night early, said she’d do the paperwork.  I called home for a ride, and I didn’t sound okay.  I was feeling rock-bottom worthless, scared, and felt a bit like there was no future.  I couldn’t shake the idea that ending up where she was right then would be far more likely than being okay or living a normal life.”

I nodded.  “An unexpected hit, straight to a weak spot, at the worst time.”

“Yup.  So my dad picked me up, I freak out a bit in the car on the drive home.  We get back to the house and… we talk.  Maybe for the first time in my life, my dad was a support, talked to me a like an adult when I started the conversation feeling like such a kid.  We talked until it was ridiculously late, I vented about some of the stuff that was getting to me, school stuff.  He offered me a beer and I said no, and he accepted that.  That’s just the kind of guy he was, the beer thing.  He took off work the next day, I took off school.  We slept in, went out for lunch at a pub and played pool, we went to an arcade and he showed me his pinball skills.  Then I went to the HQ for my evening shift.”

I was a little bit surprised by the strength of my emotional reaction to the little story, especially the late night talk he described.  I blinked a few times in rapid succession.  “That stuck, huh?”

“Gets a little hazy toward the middle of that day off.  What’s your line of thinking?”

“Is it negativity-adjacent?” I asked.  “What stays, what goes?  Why?  What can we pull out, what can we focus on?  How does it connect to what we already know of powers?  They fluctuate, when we’re in certain mental states, can we use new knowledge to control that fluctuation?”

Kid Win nodded, but I could see the slight changes in his expression, tiny creases, small tensions.

I went on, “I ask because last night, I found a new connection to my power.  One I want to hold on to.  And if I need to, I want to be able to intuit and deal with other powers, including any situations resembling last night, or… could be it matters for what the thinkers say is coming today.”

“Ah,” Kid Win replied.

Off to the side, not quite in earshot, Dennis said something, and Vista had a giggle fit.

“That okay?” I asked Kid Win.

“I don’t feel as much like an experiment under the microscope if you’re using it for yourself.”

“Using a good part of it for myself.  Using more of it to just figure out how this all works.  Last night, I was in the midst of it all.  Earlier in this conversation, I used the term… what was it?  Negativity-adjacent?”

“Sure?  Think so.”

“I’m thinking a lot about what’s next to what, how it all maps together.  I had glimpses last night and I’m still digesting that.  I don’t know if it’s like looking at a lot of fine art or listening to a lot of music and getting an intuitive sense of things… but I leaned pretty heavily into intuition when I became…”

I trailed off, not quite sure about the words I was grasping for.

“The greater connection to your power?” he guessed.

“More like I became Victoria-adjacent.  Twice.  I was horribly burned, I found a different facet of me inside that vast program of alien biology, and then I was fine.  I threw myself off of a cliff, and I just about died on landing, except I shifted to another facet of me.”

“You might be more experienced with this stuff than I am,” Kid Win said.

“Might be,” I said.  “But Valkyrie’s been training you guys in this?  Talking to you about it?”

“Having us meditate, having us pay close attention to our powers and what they’re telling us.  Easier for some than others.”

“I don’t know how long you’ve been back, but I’ve been more or less wrestling with this for the last… four hours, it seems.  I’m pretty sure you’ve had more time to digest it.”

Dennis and Vista had stopped chatting and gravitated closer.  I was aware they were listening now.

“You said you became Victoria-adjacent.”

“Which isn’t even the right way of putting it.  It’s like if Victoria lives at three-four-three tower crescent avenue, and Glory Girl lives at three-four-two, and Antares lives at three-four-five, and there are connections tying one to the other.  I’m still me, but the center of who I am is living at a different address.”

“Antares went to that place you describe,” Kid Win said.  “You said you changed twice, using the language of that place.”

“Language?”

“How would you put it?”

“Physics, superpositioning, reflections, facets.”

“I’m so glad I missed the first half of this conversation,” Dennis commented.

“Shhh,” Vista shushed him.

Kid Win barely seemed to notice them, as he thought about what I’d said.  “Sure.  Works.  Question is… is the Victoria who went in the same Victoria who left?”

I had to think about it, considering who I was, and the various aspects of that place.  Did I feel different?

Yes, but not because of that.

“Up until I entered that room, I didn’t have control, and a huge aspect of this world… felt massive, untouchable, out of reach.  I saw a broken trigger where a man described being a small figure at the mouth of a volcano.  You can’t beat the volcano.  It swallows you up and you have no chance.  And sometimes, it’s the next person’s volcano.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t visit you,” Vista said.  “After…”

I shook my head.

“You have control now?” Dennis asked me.

“I think so,” I answered.  I thought about it some more.  “Yeah.  Part of what motivated me to go there last night-”

“Interrupting,” Kid Win said, rushing the word, holding up a hand.

I paused.

“Whatever you say to us is going to be repeated to Valkyrie,” he said.  “Full disclosure.”

“Valkyrie might be ticked you said that,” Dennis pointed out.  In the moment, he seemed more the somber, almost morose Dennis I’d known.

“Let her,” Kid Win answered.

“I’m fine,” I said.  “I wanted to ask her questions.  Now I’m asking you, and if you’re her proxy… same end result.”

“I don’t want to betray your friendship with us, or the people we used to be,” Kid Win told me.

I nodded, taking that in.  How much of my openness was that?  How much was I willing to tell Valkyrie?  I wanted to think I’d be open, trust that she might be the most accessible parahuman to me who knew this world, but would I change what I said in the face of the small changes in expression?  The particular word choice?

“You’re a good guy, Christopher,” Vista said.

“Mm.  I don’t think I am, but thanks.”

“Why don’t you think you are?” Vista asked.  “You’ve been a hero as long as I’ve known you, you’re here and you’re being friendly even though it means potentially upsetting the boss.  The only dick move you’ve pulled was dying on me.”

“We couldn’t help it,” Dennis said, automatically.

Vista snorted.

“I’m not saying I’m not good,” Kid Win said.  “I’m saying… I’m not sure I’m a guy.  Human.  Humans have childhood memories.  One experience layered onto another, with things emerging from that.”

“What are you now?” Vista asked, quiet.

“An end result.  A fabrication.  The only lasting impressions from the past are the essential ones that made me into me.”

I thought about that.

The wind picked up.  I turned my head so the hood would protect me where it was colder.  Vista hunkered down a bit, and Dennis took a step to the side, so the breadth of his upper body blocked the wind for her.

“I feel the same way, I think?” I ventured, not sure of what I was saying as I said it.  “I feel like the bad days left their disproportionately deep marks in me and who I am today.  Too many days of the past few years are a haze.  I’m not going to say it compares, but I don’t think we’re that far apart.”

“I was talking about my dad earlier,” Kid Win told me.  “That one good day.  I’m supposed to meet him later, you know, but I don’t have all of the memories of him.  I don’t remember his face.  I don’t remember his voice.  Whatever part of me he was trying to support or hold onto that day?  I don’t think it’s there.”

“You can salvage it,” Dennis said.  “All the data’s there, except…”

“Sorted differently,” I said.  “Something else’s filing system.  Something else’s priorities.”

“Yeah.”  Eyes in a tinted red metal glanced downward, pupils a gold light that emanated from the inside the orb, the tracery of etchings around the pupil bearing a similar effect.

“I’m sorry, Christopher,” I said.  “I hope it works out ok and that he’s understanding, and that it’s mostly painless.  If nothing else, I can’t imagine he won’t be happy to have you back.”

“A part of me,” Kid Win said.  “And I don’t hope it’s painless.  Painless means I’m not human enough to care.”

I saw Dennis nod a bit.

“Point conceded,” I said.  “Sorry about comparing us.  That’s… pretty damn heavy.”

“I’m not looking for concessions,” Kid Win said.  “I don’t want to make this a competition.  I think we’ve all had to deal with ‘heavy’.

“Dying and coming back,” Dennis said.  “Dealing with everyone else dying.  And…”

He stopped as he looked at me.

“Family stuff.”

“Family stuff.  Yeah,” he said, wrinkling his nose, snorting a bit.

It was meant as a deflection, a little joking acknowledgment, but it felt like a profoundly sad moment, because it wasn’t how the Dennis I knew would have responded.  I resisted the urge to look at Vista to see how she’d taken it.  She’d talked to him long enough to pick up on it, and she’d known him far better than I had.

“That family stuff?” I spoke up, “it get into that control I was talking about.  Having the tools.  Having the knowledge to tackle all of this.  My entire family consists of control freaks and people who have no control, who get swept up in life and powers and everything else.”

“Ugh,” Vista made a sound.  “I can guess your mom’s the control freak.  Your dad’s swept up.”

“Amy’s swept up.  Crystal’s swept up,” I said.  “Distinction being that they’re not totally helpless.  They do have choices.  Crystal made good choices.  My dad’s making pretty neutral ones, or non-choices.  And for the record, I’d say my Uncle Mike is a control freak, strict lines and rules, family disappoints, betrays, or seems problematic?  He cuts contact.”

“That’s present tense.  He’s still around?” Vista asked.

“Alive, retired from cape life.  Yeah.”

“Cool.”

“Given the choice of control versus derailment, I want the control.  I will fight for the control.  Because it feels like it’s a choice between being greedy for that control and having none at all.  Not just for me, not just for my family.  So… I want to move on to asking questions about getting that control, as far as this whole thing goes.”

I saw Kid Win and Dennis exchange glances.

“Is this control motivation why you went where you did last night?” Vista asked.

I shrugged.

“Does it mean you’re going back?” Vista asked, quieter.

“If the Wardens allow it.  If I go back, it’ll be on terms that help the Wardens and help this city… and I think we have to be ready to handle that stuff.”

“That stance won’t win you any brownie points with the Warden leadership,” Dennis said.

“No,” I replied.  I glanced at Vista, who looked noncommittal, but serious.

“But it’ll work for Valkyrie, probably.”

“Good to know,” I said.  I was tense, even hearing the answer I’d been kind of hoping to get to.

If Breakthrough continued on this course, we wouldn’t be entirely alone.

Vista abruptly turned, walking away.

There wasn’t any snow, but there was a lot of wind.  We were on the ‘third floor’ of the base, but considering the scale of the building, each ‘floor’ had areas with ceilings high enough that buildings could be fit within.

Vista walked up to the edge of the balcony, which had guardrails for the vehicles that might travel up and down it in different circumstances.

“Do you know why she-” I started.

The boys didn’t know.  Clear enough on their faces.

“I’ll be back,” I told them.

I walked over to where Missy was, head ducked down so less of her neck was exposed to the cold, wearing her patched jacket, a sweater so dark a blue it was nearly black, that looked like it was cut to show off her shoulders, and rugged, forest green pants with boots.  A stark contrast to the light, airy look she had as ‘Vista’.  She leaned against the railing facing me, watching as I made my approach.  The wind blew wavy blond-brown hair across her face, and she didn’t push it out of the way, instead bringing her hand up to her ear, covering it.

“This okay?” I asked.  “Me coming over?  Little V?”

“Sure.  Big V.”  Her expression cracked slightly.  A faint smile.

I made my way over, leaning against the same railing she did.

“You walked away all of a sudden, I wasn’t sure, I’m still not sure if you want space,” I said.

“You coming over is better than the alternative,” Vista said.

“What’s the alternative?” I asked.

“You staying over there.”

“Okay…” I said.

“Dennis is weird,” she said.

“A bit.  They’re both different.”

“But Dennis in particular.  Christopher is, he says he doesn’t remember everything.  He looked at me when I first walked up and it was like, he was looking at me and trying to remember the particulars, and maybe he failed, because he looked embarrassed when he saw I saw him looking.  He doesn’t remember his dad.  He’s quieter, more introspective.  But he’s… he feels like someone who could fill in the gaps and become the Christopher I knew.”

“Yeah.  I get that.  Could be the tinker power is always running, so it picked up a good grounding from a lot of different places and times.”

“Dennis is weird.  The inner voice that he had, that looked at this fucked up world of ours and laughed at it and called attention to it, that started everything by questioning the situations we were in, being skeptical of people until they proved themselves, that’s his outer voice now.  And his old outer voice, that was cynical and frustrated because he asked those questions, he challenged, and he adapted, he got hurt and tired and heartbroken… that’s the inner voice now.  Like there’s something dejected but stubborn at the core of it all, and that’s where the jokey quips and skepticism come from now.”

I remembered what she’d said about Christopher.  What she wasn’t elaborating on with Dennis.

“Makes you feel like he might not make his way back to being the Dennis you knew?”

Vista shrugged.  “Feels like it.  But who knows?  Maybe they’re talking among themselves and Dennis is telling Chris how little Missy is different.  That I’m bitter, I’m pricklier, I’m more arrogant, I don’t know.”

“People change.  I think that happens.  But from where I stand, first of all, I think you’re great.  I can’t imagine them badmouthing you.  You’re too cool for that.”

“Pshh.”

“I don’t know a single person that doesn’t like you.  Rachel Lindt likes you.”

“But I’m different.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I inhaled.  “We all are.”

“Sucks.”

“In its way.  But I’m optimistic, when it comes to Dennis.  I’ve seen the way things are laid out, how things are set up, the information stores they have, the way they store every detail of our lives, sorting it…”

“Creepy.”

“Yeah.  But comprehensive in the midst of that creepiness.  The individual pieces are all still there.  Give him time to sort it out.”

Vista was very still, staring at a point in the wall above the boys.  I might’ve thought she was using her powers, but we were supposed to avoid powers in this building, which was a bit different from Breakthrough being under a general restriction.  That, and there was no reason for her to use them.

She didn’t seem very reassured, or even like she was listening.

I waited, because I couldn’t think of a way to speak up or approach her that wouldn’t make me sound uncannily like my mom.

There was a nervous energy to how the boys interacted.  Kid Win stretched, and couldn’t stand in one place for long.  Dennis talked.  Both avoided looking our way.

We’re facing the end of the city, possibly with greater ramifications.  We’re ill-equipped.  They know it.  They’re bearing that burden.

“I’ve worked damn hard.”

I looked in Vista’s direction.

“I meditated, practiced with my power, pushed it to the limit.  I did everything the power testers said could make you stronger or more in tune with your ability.  It wasn’t just power either.  I hit the gym three times a week.  I go out for walks.  The bosses need a volunteer?  I put my hand up.”

“Burns you out,” I said.

“I don’t burn out,” Vista said. “I got into this early, you know.  It’s part of how I think, it’s part of how I move.  I wake up in the morning and I’m up.  Force of habit since I was ten.  Girls my age went to dance class or soccer, or they slept in and grumbled.  I was finding things to do because home sucked, so I’d train, I’d read up on stuff.  Then I was doing it because I had a crush on this guy I knew was too old for me and I wanted to impress him.  Then I was doubling down on it because I had teammates, and I didn’t want to be treated like a kid.  Then I tripled down on it.”

“Could you stop if you had to?” I asked.  “Or is it that ingrained by now?”

“Ingrained.  As much a part of me as those mountains on the horizon are a part of this place.  Do you know why I was working that hard, toward the end?”

“To make up for the ones who were gone.  To ensure you wouldn’t lose more.”

Vista sighed.  “I’ve treated you to this rant before, huh?”

“Less of a rant, more of an idle thought.  But you mentioned it, asked me questions.”

“I still lost the people.  Now I’m here.  I almost let myself think the added power and physical training would count for something.  And now you’re talking about a completely different playing field.”

I shook my head.  “No, Missy.  That training matters.  The connection to your agent is something you’ve developed, and it one hundred percent applies.  The physical training is your connection to you.”

“You feel far away, big V.  Like you’re more with them than you’re with me, and you were getting more distant by the second.”

Ah.

So that was it.

“Come with?” I offered.  “I meant what I said.  If this stuff ends up mattering, that work you’ve done will put you head, shoulders, and tail above the rest.”

“Can’t.  Made myself too essential to too many people.”

“It’s not necessarily one or the other.”

“It might be.  Vic, they were talking about reporting to their bosses.  I’ve got to report to mine.  What do I even say?  That you seem eager to dive into this?  That I don’t know if you’ll ignore orders?”

“The truth.  That I think this is pretty darn important.  I have questions I want to ask those guys and I want to piece together some of the puzzle.”

“Important?  Do you mean essential?  Important feels like too weak a word, and if it’s essential, it implies you’re willing to break the rules to go do what you did last night, again.  And if you keep that up, one of the handful of people who I knew before Gold Morning and like might disappear.  I might feel like I’m obligated as a Warden to report it, and I really don’t want to do that as a friend.”

She stared down at the ground, lips pressed together, and I was reminded of the girl who’d disappeared around the time Dean had introduced me to his team as his girlfriend.  To get a handle on her emotions where nobody would see.

And then she’d marched back, expression controlled, and looked me in the eye.  Right now she couldn’t bring herself to look at me, but she had that exact same fierceness combined with the apparent resentment at having to be fierce.

Even then, she’d been working so damn hard to work at becoming a stronger, better person.  Now… if it weren’t for a neutered media apparatus, or if we were back in twenty-thirteen without the end of the world on the horizon, I could believe she’d be one of those capes who could alter the state of conversation in a room, just by being there.

And I was disappointing her.

“Not essential.  Inevitable,” I told her, quiet.

She looked up at me, gaze level.

“I don’t need to break rules because I think this is coming no matter what we do.  It’s happening no matter what we do.  So I don’t need to rush to it.  It’s coming.”

“A breaking down of the walls?  They’re coming through to us, is what the leadership says.”

“A breaking down of everything,” I told her.  “They are us, at least in part.  They’re rooted throughout the city.  There isn’t anything that isn’t touched by them.  They’re here.  We need to figure out how to deal with them.”

Vista heaved out a sigh.

“Do you think I’m wrong?” I asked her.

“No.  I wish I could.  You should go talk to them.  Get the answers you wanted.”

“Come with.  You don’t have to betray your bosses and mentors to come and listen.  And you can tell them everything we’ve talked about.”

I only realized after saying it that Vista might have wanted to hang back for the same reason she’d stepped away after Gallant had introduced me to the Wards.

It was too late to take back my offer.

“I need a promise,” she said.  “Don’t leave.”

“Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Don’t get so far away or disconnect so much in this… whole complicated mess that I don’t see you again.”

“I’ve got people to look after,” I told her.  “Jessica Yamada asked me to look after them.  I’m still working on that.  I have no plans to go anywhere.”

“You stay Victoria Dallon.  You don’t dive so deep into the waters that you emerge out the other side and the inside parts of you are out, and the outside parts of you are in.”

“Dennis is going to be okay, Missy.  I really believe it.”

She gave me a glare of a look, a warning.

“I promise.  At the end of this all, you can call me Big V, and I’ll call you little V.”

She didn’t look convinced.

“It’s part of what I’m after.  I mentioned the volcano.  I want to work around it, use it, without losing myself to it.  Everything I’m doing right now is to avoid losing to this… phenomenal force we’re up against.  I want control of myself and of things in my reach.  I don’t want to be Mark or even Crystal, though I think Crystal might be a little less disorganized and lost after today.  We’ll see.”

“Will we, though?” Vista asked.

“I don’t want to be Amy,” I said.  “I don’t want to be Amy’s monster, either.”

“In the report- I only glanced over it.  They said you destroyed Teacher’s crystal, and it was dangerous?”

“I’m pretty sure it was safe.  The entire thing was reckless.”

“Then aren’t you contradicting yourself?” Vista asked, hostile now.

“Not doing anything felt more reckless.  If Teacher had won, and he was about to, we might have lost control of everything.  Forever.”

Vista nodded.  She cracked her knuckles.

I watched her.

Saw her nod.

“We good?” I asked, again.

“We’re good.  Ninety nine percent of everything else is kind of balls.”

Vista smiled at me, but behind that smile was that faint, vaguely resentful expression.  A smile for me, resentment for ‘everything else’.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “Hold onto that one percent that isn’t, then.”

“I was,” she muttered.  “Until you barged into my room way fucking earlier than I expected.”

I smiled, she looked up at me and smiled a bit too.  Not quite so resentful.

I was a bit jealous, that she had something that could alleviate the pressure, distract, and give her a ‘release valve’, as Clockblocker had put it.

The boys were sitting on the same planter box when we rejoined them.  Kid Win had a tool in his hand, and was working on something that he’d perched on his knee.  He looked up and smiled.  “All good?”

“Yeah,” Vista said.  “Some background stuff.”

“Where were we?” Kid Win asked.

“What stays, what goes, communication,” I said.  “Valkyrie said she talked to you before bringing you back to life.”

“I barely remember,” Dennis said.  “I remember the conversation, vaguely.  She asked for details about who I was, and I had the impression she saw, but she asked too, and it mattered that I told the truth.”

“Did anything else communicate with you?” I asked.  “Teacher had control over agents, in there.  I’m not sure if he’s in a state to report on what he was doing, now.”

“We talked to one another.  Our agents did, too.  It’d be like… being sent as a messenger.  Bringing over a share of myself, my memories.”

“Like flashes of lightning?” I asked.

“Yeah.  That works.  Some were more talkative than others.  There’d be stuff like Kid Win- his agent would reach out to me to verify details or see them from another side.  Everything forming a giant web.”

“When someone triggered, it’d reach out to everything,” Kid Win said.

“Good, okay,” I said.

“My head’s spinning and I’m not seeing where this is going,” Vista admitted.

“I want to open lines of communication,” I said.  “I kind of did, last night.  I called for help, and the Wr- my agent answered.”

“And you said you have more control,” Kid Win said.

“I want that for everyone,” I said.  “Everyone on our side.  Can you tell me anything that would help?  Ways to close the communication gap, so we can reach out?”

The boys exchanged looks.

“What?” I asked.

“Equipping you with some more general information and filling in the blanks is one thing,” Kid Win said, quiet.  He fixed those red eyes with glowing gold pupils on me, where he’d previously held a posture like he didn’t want to meet anyone’s eyes.  “Giving you that kind of information would be… a lot.”

“If that was even a thing,” Dennis cut in.

I didn’t believe him.  There was something.

“What can you tell me?” I asked.

“I’m supposed to tell you that you need anchors,” Clockblocker said.  “You need things to hold onto.  Things from your past.  Your family.  Yourself.”

“Fuck that,” Vista said.

“The others are striving for control,” Kid Win said.  “Teacher’s lost his thrall horde and they apparently took him prisoner, but the tools are out there.  It’s a question of the arrangements he made.  Your sister-”

I winced.

Kid Win blithely continued, “She’s up to something, with Lab Rat.  It looks like a play for control.  We haven’t been briefed on the situation, but leadership looked worried.”

I didn’t want to think about it.  On so many fucking levels, I didn’t want to think about it.

“Valkyrie is on the side of humanity,” Dennis said.

I hated to ask, but, “How sure are we?  I know you’re biased, but…”

Kid Win answered me.  “She had access to monsters like Bakuda and Eidolon.  She hasn’t called them out, hasn’t given them bodies.”

“Only heroes.  Only the people fighting for the right causes,” Vista picked up on the sentiment.

I nodded to myself.

Kid Win pulled his phone out of his pocket.  He showed me.  A list of letter and symbol codes, each with three lights marked beside them.  Green lights most of the way down.  A few yellows.  Mostly consistent.  A number of lights had black circles in the middle.

Amy was orange.

“Is this tinker data, because I can’t-”

“It’s not,” Vista said.  She showed me her phone.  The same display.  “Contessa, Dinah Alcott, and other thinkers are updating with their best guesses about threat levels.”

“Green is good, I hope.”

“Green is good.  Green is saying the threat level is negligible.  Icons suggest if a team is currently handling or suppressing them.  Can you see the distinction between green and lime?”

I had to tilt the phone to view the shades in more nuance, given the ambient light.  “Sort of.”

“Suppressed or temporarily handled.  It’s working,” Vista said.  “What the Wardens are doing is working.”

Kid Win explained, “Smaller threats like Little Midas and the Machine Army are out there and not handled, but they’re yellow. Your sister is the one big threat we haven’t fully dealt with, and the danger she poses is getting worse over time.”

“Holy shit,” Vista said.  She glanced at me.  “When?”

“Last half hour,” Kid Win said.

I was tense.

What the fuck, Amy?

“They might want you to help,” Kid Win told me, his voice quiet.  “If they can trust you.”

I stared down at the phone.

When so many things seemed okay or manageable, when I finally felt like I had control, I might have to deal with the one person who could so easily make me feel like I’d never have control again?

The notion made me feel vaguely nauseous.

“They sent refugees to her,” I said.

Kid Win nodded.  “And something happened in the last half hour that destroyed all trust we had in her.  Classified, apparently.”

I was silent, digesting, interpreting.

My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I almost jumped clean out of my skin.

I pulled it free.  Vista peeked.

Narwhal.

“That would be it,” Vista said.  “Speak of the devil.”

The devil is right, I thought.  This would be about Amy.

I took a few steps away before pressing the phone to my ear.

We need their trust if we’re going to handle this whole thing.

If Breakthrough is to get together, if we’ll have the resources we need, and if Valkyrie’s flock is willing to divulge the tools or communication methods Clock and Win hinted at.

Just needed her trust.

“Hello?”

“What part of do not associate with other members of your team do you not understand, Antares?”

Narwhal was… pretty notoriously hard-nosed.  This was apparently that.  I could see Vista wincing, because she could hear the tone, even though she couldn’t hear the words.

“You’ll have to refresh my memory.”

“Capricorn.  You and he were in the same place, I hear?  He told me one story, I don’t think I believe him.  I’m hoping you’ll be more convincing.”

I shut my eyes.  What was I even supposed to say?

I caught your subordinate sleeping mostly in the nude with my teammate?

“I thought this would be about Amy Dallon,” I said, trying to deflect.

“In a way it is.  Capricorn just lied to me, I think.  I could dig out the truth myself, but that takes time and there are bigger things at stake today.  Tell me, can we trust you?”

I opened my mouth, then shut it.

This felt like a trap.  Or a trick.  Or a prank… no.  Not a prank.

But it felt aggressive and I felt off-balance, and I hated being off balance.

“No?” I ventured, even though I wasn’t sure why.  I just felt like ‘yes’ was the wrong answer, and a delay would be worse than either.

“No?” Narwhal asked.  I saw Vista flinch a bit at the tone again.

The thoughts connected.  Tristan, Amy, trust.  I knew what Tristan had told her and what she was getting at.

“Master-stranger protocols.  I warned my team.”

“He didn’t lie about that, at least.  Would you be willing to come upstairs, help us with the situation?  We’ll work on your master-stranger issue while figuring out how to handle the situation.”

That- it sounded okay?

“I think so,” I said.

“Your mother will be here.  We’ll invite your old and current therapists in to vet you.”

Oh.  Oh fucking great.  That was three people and about ten associated, individual conversations I didn’t want to have, waiting upstairs.

“Will do,” I said, though the wind had gone out of my sails, and my voice felt like it lacked any strength.

“Bring Vista, if you’re still near her.  We’ll want everyone ready.  The Thinkers think this situation will go critical tonight.  We want to be ready when it does.”

“Got it,” I said.

“Thank you,” she said, hanging up as she finished.

Leaving me with what felt like a ringing in my ear, not from her volume, but the sheer stress that I’d taken from that phone.

Fuck.

The thought lingered, as I tried to gather my composure.  Vista touched my arm.

“Stuff’s happening.  They want you too,” I told her.

“Got it.”

We said our brief farewell to the boys.  Something in Vista seemed lighter, walking away from the reunion, as heavy as everything else felt.

What are you doing, Amy?

And why the hell does it feel, deep in my gut, like this isn’t the thing we should all be worried about?  Are we overlooking something or someone in that long row of green and lime-green lights?

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Sundown – 17.2

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What got me was how fucking quiet it all was.  I could look out the window and except for the highway, I couldn’t see the lights of a single car.  Snowfall muted everything, and the city wasn’t quite awake yet.  No work to go to, not enough people around to talk to.  The very real possibility there was no future.

Only the moments, now.  People elsewhere packed up.  They got in their cars.  They drove to some far away place.  They put their life’s possessions away in this new place.  They slept a bit.  They got food in a horrendous lineup.  Their days went on.

I stepped away from the window, still drying my hair.  My finger without the fingernail hurt like fuck.  I got dressed while still in the washroom, then tended to basic don’t-want-to-look-sick makeup and other ministrations.  I passed Crystal, who floated in for her shower.  No sound, no footsteps, even.

Crystal flew, and I floated just enough to keep my steps light, because I’d overdone my physio before my nap, overextending the underside of the foot I’d cut a week ago.

Carol was still working on her hair, which she had been doing before I started my fifteen minute shower, finished post-shower ministrations, dressed, and stepped out.  Golden hair parted, slicked close to the head at one side below the part, a roller removed from the hair at the brow, where it gave her hair some wave as it swept over one corner of her forehead.  Every strand with a place, but the short hairstyle wasn’t the sort of thing that required fifteen minutes.

Her power had nothing to do with steel, but her name and identity kind of did.  Brandish.  Steel out, steel in the spine, steel in the expression.  Unflinching in meeting my eyes, like a swordswoman might not flinch as she crossed swords with someone else in a duel.

No, not a duel.  Not a training session either.

Pure demonstration.  This was for her sake, and it was for mine.  But it wasn’t an exchange.

I had napped, taking forty-five minutes to myself to try to restore what hadn’t been restored by the time in that alien landscape.  Carol hadn’t rested at all, working out with my cousin that we would be going out later, then immediately starting with her wardrobe, hair and makeup.

All in all, Carol had taken an hour to get ready.

My clothes were somewhat rumpled, so I ventured back to the bathroom and called out, “Crystal?”

My voice wasn’t that loud, but it sounded deafening with how quiet it all was.

“-hate being bothered when I’m showering.  Give me a few minutes of peace, damn it.-”

The grumbling continued.

“Can I borrow clothes?”

“Yes!  Go away!”

Crystal wasn’t a morning person.

I stepped away to fish around in her closet, when I heard her talking again, which led to me exiting the bedroom to get closer to the bathroom door and listen.

“-not from the boxes.”

“You don’t want me to grab anything you’ve already packed?” I asked.

“Didn’t you hear me?” she asked.  “You’re interrupting my shower and you’re not even listening.”

“You told me to go away, so I walked away.  Your shower’s in progress and you have water on you, nothing’s interrupted.  Stop being prickly.”

“Stop interrupting my shower and I’ll stop being prickly.”

“I’ll grab something.  Thank you.”

I’d just reached her closet when I heard her talking again, which forced me back out of her room to get to where I could hear her again.

“-can check on Mark.”

What?

“While we’re there at the new headquarters, we can check on Mark.  They should have a link to Shin.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Stop talking.  Shower.  We’ll work it out after.”

I rolled my eyes, looked at Carol, and realized what I was doing when I saw how unflinching she was, not batting an eyelash, not really reacting or reflecting what I was doing or what the external world was doing.

The smile she put on her face was very much the kind of smile that was put on faces.  Nothing wrong with it, but I could tell she was making an effort.

“Doing okay?” I asked, feeling like I’d done something wrong or alien by being natural with Crystal, when it was my mom who was out of place.  Or was it guilt, because the little wrongnesses about my mom were in part due to the head injury, which was in large part my own fault?

“Doing better,” my mom said.  “It warms my heart, seeing you two together.  I’m glad you have each other.”

“I’m glad too,” I said.  My foot hurt, so I picked it up off the ground, drilling the floor with my toe a bit.  I felt like a kid with no idea what to do while being addressed by an adult.

“Coffee?” my mom asked.

“Sure,” I told her.  “Please.”

“Maybe a breakfast sandwich?  English muffin, meat hash patty, no egg?”

“Please.  That’d be great.”

The only sounds as my mom made her way from the mirror in the hallway to the kitchen were the hiss of the shower and my mom’s faintly clunky footsteps.  Trying not to clunk too much, but clunking nonetheless.

I had distinct memories from my childhood of those efforts.  Being up late with Amy, a blanket around us and finished bowls of ice cream on the coffee table, a scary movie in the beta player, when Carol came in wearing her costume.  Giving us a smile that was too ordinary and normal to be anything but a cover-up for the fact that things weren’t okay.

I grabbed a shirt from Crystal’s closet, and paused on seeing a sweater hanging up.  Not my style, but it looked like it hadn’t been worn yet, and it looked a damn sight like it was going to be left behind.  It was zip-up, which I knew Crystal had her kneejerk reactions to, with zipper tags, zipper and the brand-name button at the collar all in blued brass, the fabric transitioned in a smoky pattern from red to black, from left shoulder to right waist.

It was a lot, but it was a lot in a striking way that a superheroine in her known civilian identity could get away with.

I wore my own jeans, pausing to investigate my cramping foot before pulling on socks, then made my way to the kitchen, walking just enough that it wasn’t too apparent I was flying.

I put it on, then set about braiding my wet hair.  I made my way to the kitchen, watched my mom for a minute while I finished the loose braid.

Her process of going about making breakfast was just a bit slower, a bit more measured out.

I pushed up the sleeves, and began helping out my mom with the prep, pouring out the coffee.

“How are you doing?” I asked.  “Honest assessment.”

“Managing,” my mother said.  “Everything’s fine if I concentrate.”

“I’m sorry, you know.”

“I know.  I raised you, I know you.  I will recover, don’t worry.”

I remembered what I’d seen of my mom and Crystal.  My mom not being able to prepare dinner.

“Don’t push yourself too hard.  Save some energy for later in the day.”

“No,” my mother said.

“No?”

“I’ll push myself to the limit, reach the point where I feel like I have nothing to spare, then find a way to dig deeper.”

She cracked some eggs, putting them in the frying pan – for Crystal and herself.  In another pan, english muffins were lying face-down in a little bit of butter, alongside some mystery meat patties that were frying up.  The pan had warped a bit because Crystal had a habit of rushing the heating-up of the pans by lasering them, which concentrated too much heat in one place.  My mom used the fact the pan naturally tilted to manage the way the butter and meat juice pooled.

I cut the lettuce.

We wrapped up.  Bit of mustard, bit of lettuce, meat patties, egg for Crystal and mom, toasted english muffins, coffee in industrial size travel mugs with lids, like I imagined truckers using.

The fact my mom used the travel mugs was maybe the first real tell she had given me about where she was at emotionally since she’d broken down in tears.

Crystal floated in.  “Holy hell, is that sweater mine?  It looks great.”

I turned to face her, eyebrows raised.

“Oh, zipper front.  Huh.  Now I remember it.”

“You got it for your birthday,” I commented.  “One of a few things.”

“I remember now,” she said.

“From me.”

She had the decency to look embarrassed.  “To be fair, that looks way better when worn than it did hanging in my closet.”

“You could have taken my word for it,” I said, looking over my shoulder.  I studied her expression.  “Do you want to wear it?”

“Red’s more my color than yours anyway,” Crystal said, dodging the thrust of what I was saying.

“That’s not an ‘I didn’t even try on the sweater you gave me for my birthday’ apology.”

“It’s as good as you’re going to get.  You’re on probation and you’re technically in my custody.  I can give you orders, can’t I?”

I pulled off the sweater, passing it to Crystal with a roll of my eyes.  She wasn’t trying to be nice, either.

“I see,” she said, “The fabric and texture change a bit when it’s stretched out.”

“Which you’d know if you actually tried it on!” I called back, as I was already halfway to her closet.

Everything close to normal.  Pretend-normal, like the conversation last night hadn’t happened.

In her closet, there was a bulkier black sweater with a deep groove to the fabric and a hood built in.  It had been my first choice to wear, but I’d wanted to make a point with the abandoned birthday present.

I reached out, and on impulse, activated my forcefield.

The Wretch struck the doorframe of the closet.  It was loud, considering the otherwise quiet morning.

“Vic!?” Crystal called out.

“It’s fine!” I called back.

Focus, I thought.  Focus without focusing, calm.

We pulled the sweater from the hanger, lifted it up…

And I caught it, as I dismissed the forcefield.

Clothes had a way of being armor.  Walls erected between skin that was made of stray animals, bugs, and rodents and the outside world where monsters lurked.

I had actual armor now, and it wasn’t what Weld had helped me make for my costume.  It wasn’t quite perfect, and it was bound up in a whole lot of negative emotion, but it was armor.

Which let clothes be more like actual clothes.  I pulled on the sweater and felt its plush warmth against me, hugging my arms around my body.

Good.

“You ready?” Crystal called over.

“Just about,” I said.  I rejoined them.  My mom was already ready with three travel mugs of coffee with lids, and with three sandwiches wrapped in paper towels, each with a little marking on the folded corner of the paper towel that stuck out.  The Brandish icon, the Laserdream icon, and a star with five prongs sticking out the top.

Which was a hilarious way of marking something ‘no egg’.

“Find something?” Crystal asked, trying to find her shoes in the mess of footwear she hadn’t packed up.  She didn’t even walk, half the time.

“I think I found something, yeah,” I decided.  I gave her a look.  “Ready?”

“No,” Crystal said, unnecessarily.  One look told me she wasn’t.

There were easily a hundred heroes in the Warden’s headquarters at ass-crack o’clock in the morning, on their way to and from various missions just like the one my team had gone out for yesterday.  Controlling villains, getting them to stand down, trying to reduce power uses.

There were people who could enter a room, and everyone would stop talking, or the tone of conversation, at the very least, would shift.  Chevalier.  Legend.  Narwhal.  Dragon.  There were people who had impacted world-scale events who didn’t quite have that presence or clout.  I was pretty sure Tattletale was one such person.

Some of those people had become what they’d become because the PRT had helped make them into icons.  Had taken the virtues those capes represented, and sold them, hard.  They’d made it subliminal and liminal, marketed it to kids and the elderly, and made things like strength, courage, nobility, caring, honesty, and justice things that just happened to go hand in hand with the heroes appearing.  The PRT had boosted social media that sold these principles and the presence of these capes, and had provided deft answers for anything that appeared to hurt these notions.

Not that these guys were the type to make those kinds of mistakes.  There were capes who’d come close to being big but didn’t have the underlying character.  Bastion sprung to mind, in the time before his death.

There was another class, though.  Another type.  Eidolon, by all accounts, hadn’t had that underlying character.  A lot of people had instinctively disliked him, even.

People reported coming away from a meeting with Legend feeling like they wanted to be better for the next meeting.

They had reported coming away from meetings with Alexandria feeling like they’d better be better, or else they’d be seeing her again.  Sometimes there would be a smile on their faces as they joked, sometimes not.  The joke was sour to even think about now, when it had been reported her downward turn and violent tendencies had been partially because of Simurgh interference.

But Eidolon?  They came away from meetings with Eidolon feeling like they’d never be good enough, not wanting to see him again.  In some of the files I’d been given in the big file dump I’d negotiated for, I’d read that a lot of people with sensitive or shaky powers had felt like their powers didn’t like Eidolon.  Anecdotal evidence said Scion hadn’t, even.

Thing was, dislike or no, however instinctual or proud or resentful that dislike was, one couldn’t hold onto that after that one video of Eidolon, holding a bridge up during a disaster, too preoccupied to stop a building from falling down nearby… then shore up the bridge, reverse time to save the building and its occupants, shore up the building, and move on, like it was fucking nothing.  Didn’t watch Eidolon taking one shot to execute a supervillain the Kings Men had been trying to keep occupied for an hour, not three seconds after appearing on the scene.  Most of that had been early in his career.  But it counted, he wore the deeds like some wore capes.

Dislike or no, you knew if the man was in the fucking building.

My mother and I were aware of something on that scale, Crystal too preoccupied to be immediately aware.

People left one hallway, glancing behind them.  They made comments to people in passing.  My mother touched Crystal’s arm, indicating.

Crystalclear emerged from the crowd, and some of those eyes followed him.  It wasn’t Crystalclear drawing the fuss, though.  Obviously.  He was just the messenger.

We met him halfway to get the message.

“This way,” he said.

“How’re you doing, ‘Clear?” Crystal asked.  “I hear you’re doing pretty well.  Wardens like you, Foresight likes you.  I keep hearing your name and thinking people are wanting to make sure I’m paying attention.”

Crystalclear rubbed the quartz-like chunks that jutted from his head, smiling.  “Sorry, Laserdream.”

“It’s alright.”

We wove between the groups and individuals of the crowd.  I was noticing, and this was a relatively minor thing, but capes were really bad at getting out of the fucking way when it came to foot traffic.  Like the sidewalk situation where the six foot tall guy in a suit seemed to expect people to get out of his way, talking on the phone and not making eye contact, like he got a fucking half-chub from the miniscule power trip.  Except here, it was a good one in three, and sometimes included the teenagers who didn’t even come up to my collarbone in height.  I helped my mother a bit, steadying her.

I was tempted to fly over, but I was supposed to be avoiding any of my power use, while they were evaluating me.

“You, ah, you nervous?” ‘Clear asked.

“Really nervous.  Terrified.  Do you have any advice?  What to expect?”

“We’re having a lot of these meetings, because we’re thinking this is going to be an ‘all hands on deck’ thing.  Based on what I’ve seen, read with my power, and heard?  Keep expectations low.”

“Okay…” my cousin said, looking like she was going to say something else.  She didn’t, letting the word trail off.

We walked through a bit more of the crowd.

“…Thanks,” she said, instead.

“Here.”

He opened the door.

Valkyrie, that presence that had turned heads when she hadn’t even been in the room, was at the far end.  Wings that could have been projections or creations of light were partially wrapped around her, hiding much of her body, and the shadows of her helmet would have hidden her eyes, but something shone within her eyes and made them apparent.

She knew exactly how those shadows fell on her face as she moved her head slightly, looking up at us.

Aunt Sarah sat in a chair at the end of a long table, and stood as we entered.  Deep purple eyes, younger, wearing a costume that was darker than her old New Wave one, but it was clearly inspired by it.  The starburst icon at her chest had lines that extended out from the icon and around her body, but the lines had more flair to them, and the starburst icon was framed by two faint wings.

“I’m not sure what Crystalclear told you,” Valkyrie spoke with more than one voice, the voices that weren’t hers had an echo quality to them.  “I have been going to some effort to bring back some of those lost in Gold Morning.  The Wardens wanted their families and teammates to meet them and acclimatize to things before they started appearing in a more active capacity.”

“You don’t ask the families for permission?” my mother asked.

“I ask them,” Valkyrie replied in her faint chorus of haunted voices, indicating Sarah.

“She asked me before bringing me back,” Sarah confirmed.

Beside me, Carol folded her arms.

I didn’t miss the slight movements of muscles at the corner of her jaw, the way she looked down and away, back up, clearly fighting her emotions.  Those emotions weren’t her being upset.

“The process isn’t perfect,” Valkyrie warned.

“Victoria forewarned us,” my mother said.

“It’s… the parts and memories of the person the powers were most interested in?” I ventured.  “And then whatever that person has been able to scrounge up, rebuild, connect back to?”

Sarah looked like she was going to say something, looked off to the side, where whiteboards were marked with rows and columns of rectangles, some filled in with color.  The notes suggested it was about refugee allocation within this base.  The silence seemed to draw out a tension in Crystal, like she couldn’t move or breathe.

Sarah nodded.  “Yes.”

Crystal visibly reacted to the voice.  Tension broken, a relief at hearing the voice, a bit of emotional pain at the confirmation.

Valkyrie added, “You’re appraised.  Good.  Some have felt the need to castigate me, ask questions of me, say things.  If you need me for any of that…”

She left the invitation hanging.

“Crystal?” my mom asked.

Crystal shook her head, blinking rapidly.

Sarah put her arms out.  No…

Aunt Sarah put her arms out.  Crystal flew to her, in a hug quick and fierce enough it would have bowled her over, if Sarah hadn’t also been able to fly.

“You must have other things you want or need to be doing,” my mom said, a bit of emotion breaking into the otherwise professional, concise words.  “Don’t let us keep you.”

Crystal was so still, hugging Aunt Sarah, like she thought anything would break the spell.  Aunt Sarah stared out, and I could see the shimmer of moisture in her eyes.  She reached out with a hand, toward my mom.  Her sister.

My mother put one hand on the table to steady herself as she made her way over, clasping that one hand in both of hers.

Aunt Sarah’s other hand pulled away from Crystal to give me a little wave, and the break in that bit of contact broke the spell in Crystal, who moved her head slightly.  She went still again as the hand went back to where it was, hugging her.

I could have gone over, but Aunt Sarah was my aunt.  I’d already reached out, had my reunion of sorts.  My mother and cousin were the ones who this reunion was for.

Valkyrie walked down the length of the room, on the other side of the table.  She stopped next to me.

“Thank you,” I said.

“I should thank you.  Your team went to great lengths, and your teammate Swansong gave her life to save me and other members of my flock.  It’s thanks to her that some of them were able to have their reunions today.”

I nodded.  “Did you…?”

“She didn’t want me to.”

I nodded.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.  I couldn’t imagine making that decision, and yet at the same time, I couldn’t imagine handing over my whole being to be imperfectly translated.

Just the thought stirred up some faint feelings of panic that could have become overwhelming feelings if I was willing to let them.

“How much is she… Sarah Pelham?” I asked, quiet.

“I don’t know.  I would have had to know the real her to have something to measure against,” Valkyrie told me.  There weren’t as many echoes in her voice as she said it.

I nodded.  It made sense.

“Ninety percent, maybe.  Eighty percent?  Seventy?”

I nodded again.  I didn’t trust my voice if I spoke.

“I would tend closer to ninety, now that I think about it,” Valkyrie said.  “When I was talking to her, prior to bringing her back, I remember she talked about flying with her family.  Her heroics were intertwined with her love life, her family, her work, the face she wore every day.  If it’s not ninety percent or more, it’s going to be easier for her to get there than it has been for others.”

I nodded with more vigor this time.

The hug had broken.  They were exchanging words now.  I could have gone over to talk, but it would have felt like I was intruding.

“I do have questions,” I said.  “Do you have ten minutes?”

“I do, but…” Valkyrie let the last of the echoes die away.  When she spoke to me, it was as a singular person.  “I’m suspicious they have to do with what you were up to last night?”

“Yeah.”  The crystal world.  The guts of this alien system.

“If my colleagues asked what I was up to, and I told them I was encouraging what you did by giving you more answers, it wouldn’t earn me any favors.”

“It was suggested that it was either losing the favor and resources of the Wardens or keeping it but being in trouble.  It sounds an awful lot like I’m getting the worst of both worlds.”

Valkyrie smiled behind her helmet.  Only the section of her mouth beneath her nose was visible, but I could see the teeth showing, the crinkle in the eyes that suggested she was closer to my mom’s age than mine.

“I saw some other things,” I said.  I hesitated.  “You were the one that found the Wardens and the people who were lost in the portal attack?”

“Who are you interested in?” she asked.

“Bonesaw,” I said.  I met her glowing eyes.  “Jessica Yamada.”

I could see that there was something in how she reacted, that drew a direct line between those two.  My heart sank, and not because I could guess her answer.

“I can’t give you the answers you want.  It would betray confidences, as well as classified material.  Jessica is around, I think.  If you wanted to ask her, she might be able to tell you.”

“Okay,” I said.  I couldn’t even imagine having that conversation.

“I think you’re very close to where some of us stand.  It’s a dangerous place, when you know too much, but you don’t know enough to keep yourself safe.”

“That’s why I’m asking.  I’m trying to close that gap.”

The halting conversation on the other side of the room had become actual conversation now.  Crystal was crying as she talked, not even trying to wipe away the tears now.  Aunt Sarah reached out to give it a shot, and Crystal stumbled over her words.  Carol rubbed Crystal’s back.

Valkyrie spoke up again, but it was only after my extended family had exchanged three or four questions and answers, with some elaboration.  “I’m told Vista came back from patrol earlier.  Could you find her, bring her to the garden bridge for me, the one on the third floor?  I’d use my powers, but you can understand how concerned we are about power use in fragile areas.”

“I know her phone number?” I suggested, shrugging.

“That works.  I’ll see about giving you some answers, in a way that won’t breach anyone’s trust.”

“Thank you.  That would be great.”

“We’re on the same side, child,” she told me.

Child.  It did not feel like the first, second, third, or anything on the way to the tenth descriptor that I felt suited me.

“I’ll let the Wardens know Vista will temporarily be the one keeping tabs on you.  Don’t detour or they’ll worry.”

“Alright,” I said, still weirded out.

She let herself out of the room.

I let my family know I was stepping out, then made my way into the busy hallway, noting the direction Valkyrie had gone by the reactions that seemed to follow even thirty seconds to a minute after her passage.  I pulled my phone out, messaging Vista.

Me:
Are you available?  Want to meet, Valkyrie sends me

Vista (Little V):
Am kinda
IF Valk sends you then I can make myself available
Dormitories at ex-Teach HQ
WTF you doing talking to Valk?

Me:
Aunt Sarah’s meeting Crystal and Carol

Vista (Little V):
Oh shit!
Dorm room 22-9-19-20.
Catch me up then
If I’m not there wait. Won’t be long

I started walking.

The organization system took a bit of interpretation, but I had the general sense of it from having to find Byron’s hospital room.

People milled this way and that, and as I got closer to the dormitories, I saw more people in civilian clothes, including refugees.

The refugees were easier to walk among, even though they were arguably the group I identified with the least.  Maybe the Victoria who had been part of Patrol block would feel more at home among them, but… that had been a long time ago.  But I got out of their way, they got out of mine.  The urge to fly and expedite the trip was a dull itch, without being a physical pain or outright strain on my patience.

I wanted so badly to experiment, to test my power, to make sure that the control I’d managed to forge wouldn’t slip away from me due to hours of neglect.  I wanted to do more small exercises like the clothes hanger and sweater.  To figure out where I needed to be or the mental state I needed to avoid those impulsive, uncontrolled movements.

But I couldn’t.

So I bit my tongue, and held onto the positives.  That Crystal had the chance to hug her mom, or someone close enough to her mom to count.  To talk to her, to ask questions.

Section 22.  I found row 10.  Close.

22-10… one row over, good.  Then column…

22-9-15…

22-9-18… I carried on down the corridor.  Turned a right at 19.

22-9-19-5…

The intersection was more like an apartment building, rooms marked with their individual number code, with doors facing out.  A ramp led up to the second ‘story’ of dormitory rooms.  The lights in the hallway had been dimmed, and a few screens along the way urged me to be quiet.  Members of the latest patrol were sleeping.

I found the room, and knocked softly.

No answer.

I knocked again, a little firmer.

I let myself in at the lack of a response.  My eyes adjusted to the gloom, and the first thing I recognized was a poster of Gallant on the wall, which was hilarious.  The second thing-

Sudden movement in my peripheral vision, a yelp-

And I had to restrain myself from yelping too, before I turned and fled the room.

Okay!

Wow.

“Fuck,” I heard Vista.  “Shit.  I’ll be right out!”

Her dormitory neighbor banged on the wall at the noise.

I opened my mouth to reply, and words failed me.  I just stayed where I was, back to the wall, door to my left, reflecting on life, the passage of time, and exercising what were now years of experience in not letting thoughts or mental images settle in my mind’s eye.  I’d relax, surrender the scene to the natural flow of thoughts, and refuse to allow the image to be committed to memory.

What felt like an interminably long, silent period of time passed.

I heard laughter.

“Don’t laugh!” Vista snarled.

The laughter got louder.  Tristan emerged from the room.

My eyebrows went up.

“Apparently my brother doesn’t want to do the walk of shame, so he’s given me my turn.”

“He’s doing better, huh?” I asked, my eyebrows still raised.

Vista stuck her head out the door, shoulders bare.  “It’s not a walk of shame if we didn’t do anything!”

How had she not pulled something on by now?  Was she just sitting on her bed, face in her hands or something?

Tristan laughed more.  Vista slammed the sliding door in response.

The neighbor banged on the wall yet again.

“You’re okay with this?” I asked.

“They didn’t do anything,” Tristan said.  “She made a pass at my brother that was awkward but forward enough to get through his thick skull.  They negotiated it with me.”

“He’s doing better then?” I asked.

“Yeah.  If he was a one before, he’s a three or four now.  Not very mobile, but… last night helped.”

I glanced at the door.

“Rain’s dream,” Tristan said, smiling.  “The world beyond it.  And we’ve got cheerleaders encouraging him to put in the effort…”

He pulled out his phone.  Showing me messages from Kenzie, that included input from Darlene, Chicken Little, and Candy.

‘Go get her ice cream’ was the latest message.

I smiled.

“Can I talk to him?” I asked.  “Is he okay to sit or stand or…?”

“Probably,” Tristan said.  He leaned back against the wall, then blurred.

Byron replaced him, slumping down a bit, in part because the strength and coordination weren’t all there.  In part because he’d been caught.

“You good?” I asked him, keeping my voice down for those who were sleeping.

“Mm,” he grunted.  He was naturally quiet, to the extent he didn’t have to change much to account for the sleeping patrolers.  “There’s no answer to that question that doesn’t sound wrong.  If I say ‘better’ it sounds like I’m being clever, and I’m worried you’d hit me.  If I say I’m not feeling good, I’d be lying…”

He trailed off.

She good?”

“Not right this second, but yeah,” Byron said.  “In general I think… good.”

Good,” I said, stern.  “You realize she’s a friend of mine, she deserves all the good things?  You hurt her, you and I aren’t going to be on good terms.”

He nodded.  “I wouldn’t want anything else.”

He looked so weary.  I almost felt bad.

“These things the Chicken Tenders are telling you to do?  These things, at a glance, seem good.  Teasing and obviously weird stuff aside, do them.”

“Vista doesn’t seem like the type to go ga-ga over flowers,” Byron said.

“Would you want flowers?” I asked him.

“I suppose.  I’d be touched.”

“There you go,” I told him.

He ran his hand through his hair, pushing it out of his face.  “Okay.  Sorry, by the way.”

“No apologies, provided everything’s good.  But if it’s not, you’re going to need big apologies, because I’m going to be pissed.”

“Got it,” Byron said.  “But for what it’s worth, I am sorry.  I feel like she’s a friend of yours, I should have asked, but I’m still not one hundred percent there, it was early.”

He mumbled a bit more at the tail end of it.

“Why don’t you swap back to Tristan?”

“Thanks for being cool,” he said.  He paused, “I really like her.”

Then he blurred out.  Like he couldn’t even look me in the eye after admitting that last bit.  Running away.

Tristan just smirked, enjoying himself too much.

“I’ll get going so Vista can come out of hiding,” Tristan said, and in contrast to Byron, even trying to be quiet, the pitch and volume of his voice were on the borderline of what I’d consider tolerable.

“You sure you’re good?” I asked him, stopping him before he could walk off.  “Absolutely sure?”

“My brother deserves good things,” Tristan said.  “If it’s another human being being close, nothing rude?  That’s just human contact.  It’s human contact with someone I like and respect.  He’s willing to extend me the same allowance.  We’ll figure it out.”

I nodded.

“Later today, I’m seeing this guy I knew, Nate.  Catching up.”

“That’s great.”

“We’ll see,” Tristan said.  The smile dropped off his face.  “He disappeared after my attempted murder.  Byron says he’ll put in a good word, reassure Nate, but I don’t think that kind of betrayal and surprise is something a guy just gets over.”

“Good luck.”

“Yeah.  Thanks,” Tristan told me.

He looked back at the door, then smiled again, chuckling under his breath.

He left, and I waited a good minute before the door slid open.  Vista didn’t emerge.

I ventured inside.  The lights were on, now.

“I didn’t think you were close,” Vista said, accusatory.  She had the phone in her hand, like she was trying to decipher the texts and figure out how things had come to this.

“What?”

“You said Photon Mom was seeing your family, not your family seeing her, so I thought you were somewhere else, you’d have to travel here, and you can’t fly because you got in trouble, right?”

“We were in the conference room near the main lobby.”

Fuck,” Vista said.  “I’m so humiliated.  I thought there’d be time to sleep in another ten minutes, take him back to his dorm room while chatting with Tristan, come back and meet you.”

“I knocked.  Twice.”

“They knock constantly, whenever they’re trying to round some of us up for an errand.”

The person next door thumped.

“Let’s go,” she said, quieter.

“Coat,” I pointed out.  “We’re going outside.  Garden balcony, third floor.”

She got her coat.  Bulky and covered in patches.  It made me think of Rachel Lindt, a bit.

“What was the terrible pick-up line you used?” I asked.

“We can’t forget this whole episode happened?” Vista asked.

“Just making conversation,” I told her.  “I’m… backing you two.”

“I know.  I heard some of that.  Thank you for telling him to get me flowers.  That’s the sort of thing so dumb I wouldn’t know how to hint at it.  I’ll look forward to that.”

She was fidgeting a lot.

I walked with my hands in my pockets.

“He said he really likes me,” she said, quiet.  Vista, who was still petite, even after growing most of the way up, who had taken up a vaguely grungy, ‘tough’ look, with the black eyeliner and patched jacket, looked outright bashful.

“You realize what I said to him about not hurting you goes for you too?  He’s recovering, he’s vulnerable.”

“I know.  Tristan’s really helpful there.  He’ll tell me if I’m being dumb.”

I nodded.

“He was getting better and they needed the hospital room.  So he has a dorm room.  We were talking and I suggested, uh, my room’s closer to the hospital room than his new room.  And skinship, skin to skin contact, it’s apparently good for mending.”

“Wow,” I said.  “Wow.  Didn’t actually need the details.”

“Shut up.  And you did, because if I didn’t tell you, you’d wonder or worry.”

“Tristan said you were forward, but-”

“Shut up.  And it wasn’t a dumb pickup line, because it worked.  Tristan even said it was the right line to get through to Byron.  We went to my room instead of his.  We cuddled, we napped.  That’s all it was.  Anything else has to wait until he and Tristan figure it out and Byron gets better.”

She was blushing, and furiously trying to suppress it and hide it, messing with her wavy, dirty-blonde hair by combing it with her fingers, arms up near her face, hiding most of it.  But I could see that her ear was pink.

“Valkyrie said she’d have some answers about the weird interdimensional stuff.  But I had to bring you to her, or whatever?  Just to let you know what’s what.”

“Fill me in?  What even happened last night?”

I filled her in, broad strokes, the general details of what we’d done, why.  What we’d seen and done.

We navigated our way down a floor, then off to the side.  To the garden balcony, which was an extended ramp that stood out from the side of the building, with a number of planters that had bushes, trees, and flower beds on it.  It was covered more in frost than snow, the plant life withering in the cold.  Vista pulled on the coat she’d had under one arm.

Valkyrie wasn’t there.  Two others were.  I belatedly connected to what Valkyrie had intended when she’d said she wanted Vista.  She was still arranging the meetings.

Dennis’s red hair didn’t move in the wind, and there was a faint lensing at the very edges of his face, like they might at the corner of a chandelier, except more dark than light.  He wore a coat over a gray costume with clock faces worked into it, Valkyrie’s ‘wings’ at the clock predominant at the chest.

Chris -Kid Win Chris- had hair that was more gold than blond, and definitely not brown.  There were more changes than I’d seen on either Aunt Sarah or Dennis, and I had no idea if he’d added cyborg parts or if he’d just come across that way.  The back of his neck, the ridges of his ears, and his eyes all looked more like technology than flesh.

Vista barely flinched.

“No shit?” Dennis asked.  “What’d you do, Missy?  Went and grew up on us.”

Vista snorted.  “You went and died on us.  Much ruder.”

Dennis smiled.  He looked at me.  “You’ve barely changed.”

“You hardly know,” I told him.

“I’m glad you’re better,” Kid Win said.  His voice was deeper than I remembered it.  I assumed it was because two years had passed before he’d died, more than anything about his current body.

I shrugged.

“You don’t seem surprised,” Kid Win told Vista.  He indicated me.  “She does, a bit.  I get it, we look a bit weird.”

“A bit surprised,” I said.  “And you don’t look that weird.”

“I looked you up,” Vista said, jamming her hands in her pockets.  “Came to terms with it.  Figured your- whatever Valkyrie is, she’d introduce us when the time was right.”

“Look at you!” Dennis said.  “I can’t get over it.  I remember when you didn’t even have all your adult teeth.  Now you’re… grown.  Kind of!”

Vista glanced at me, like she thought I’d say something.  I pursed my lips together.

“Grown enough to chuck you off this ledge.  I’ve mourned you once, I can do it again.”

“You’re a lieutenant to one of the top Wardens or something?”

“Narwhal.  Sometimes Cinereal.”

“That’s crazy!” Dennis exclaimed.  He took her by the shoulders and shook her.  “Crazy!  You do realize that?”

“Yeah.”

“Congratulations,” Kid Win, who wasn’t even a kid anymore, told her.

“Thanks,” Vista said.  Something in her seemed to relax.  “My parents never even congratulated me.  I don’t think they even really get it.”

“Still living with the parents?” Dennis asked.  “At least-”

He stopped as Vista shook her head.

“You’re living out on your own?”

“Dormitory, now.  But basically.”

“The whole world went and moved on, huh?” Dennis asked.

“That’s what happens when you die, you fucking moron,” Vista told him.

“You’re a lot more abusive than I remember.”

“You guys all left me alone,” Vista shrugged as she said it, like it was a passing comment.  “You deserve the abuse.”

“Well,” Dennis replied.  A full, one-word statement.  “Couldn’t really help it.”

“The mutated hair looks cool, at least,” Vista said.  “I bet it’s a pain in the ass.”

“You have no idea,” Dennis said, touching hair that might as well have been time-stopped, it was so unmoving.  “I can’t wear my usual style of helmet.  But that’s enough about me, and creepy changes.  Let’s talk about you, catch up.  You can explain this whole punk, grunge, angry little Vista-”

“Little?” Vista asked, arch.

“And angry, see?”

“Angry enough to toss you off the edge.  I’m not even kidding, I’m still so mad you went and died on us.”

“Couldn’t help it!  The world ended!”

“I managed it!”

“You’re ridiculously powerful!” Dennis protested.  He looked at me.  “Please tell me that our little Vista found a Gallant to use as a release valve.”

Vista puffed up, pink touching her face and ears again.  She shot me a glare, daring me to comment.

“You do.  That’s amazing.  Who?”

I backed off, staying where I could fly after Dennis if she really did toss him.

Kid Win approached me.

“Was he like that, around Gold Morning?” I asked him.

Kid Win shook his head.

“He was like that at different points.  Jokey, teasing.  On the battlefield, when on the defensive.”

“Yeah.  I remember a bit of that.”

The back-and-forth between Vista and Dennis went on.

“You’re quiet,” I said.  “I know that’s a dick thing to say, but…”

“I’m not very me, not whole,” he admitted.  “Not yet.”

“I won’t hold it against you.”

“Thanks,” he told me.  We watched the arguing continue.  “Valkyrie said you wanted details.”

“Do you have details?  About the agent’s territory?  The crystal landscapes?”

“Some.  Kind of.  We’ve been… talking about stuff.  Doing some training, digging into memories, experiences, stuff from when we were gone.”

I nodded.

“She figures we’re going to have to be prepared to fight on that level, or at least deal with things on that level.”

We.

That we felt different.

Yes we are, I silently agreed.  I wondered if my agent heard me.  The ‘Wretch’.

“Tell me what you can,” I told him.

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Sundown – 17.1

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We’d known we’d have to face the music at some point.  I wished we’d had a chance to talk it over before said music, but… this wasn’t a shock.

Defiant wasn’t in his full armor, much as he hadn’t been when in the Warden’s new headquarters.  But with the boots he wore and the augmentations to back, shoulder, and neck, he was tall enough that the back of his head could have rested against the doorframe behind him.  He didn’t have nearly enough winter wear for how shitty the weather looked outside, but I could see the faint shimmer of heat radiating off of him.

Someone less serious than me might have made a remark or even allowed themselves to think about steam coming out of the man’s ears.  I didn’t allow it to be anything more than a fleeting thought: he was liable to go ballistic if there was even a hint of good humor on my face.

I was still in that alien space, still experiencing the exhilaration of battle, and as I looked out the window into the darkness and the snow that the nearby lights illuminated, my vision warped, in much the way it would if I had been flying at high speed, focusing on the horizon, and came to a quick stop.

“Sorry,” Natalie said.  “When you all passed out-”

“No,” I said.  “No, it was right to go for help.”

“What wasn’t right,” Defiant raised his voice, “was this asinine idea of yours.”

“We can explain,” I said.  “If-”

“No,” he said.

“We can’t explain?” Kenzie asked.

“Not yet,” Defiant said.  “Stay still, be quiet, and be prepared to follow my instructions.”

Kenzie nodded, vigorously, “I’m all for following instructions, but just to be clear, when you say ‘stay still’, does that include-”

“Be still.  Do nothing.  Be silent.”

“Okay, can do,” Kenzie said.  “But does nothing include-”

Candy covered Kenzie’s mouth.  Kenzie managed to worm her way free of the hand, pulling down on her arm, then piped up with, “There are about three exception cases I don’t want to trip over, if you’d just let me go over them-”

Chicken Little joined Candy in working to subdue Kenzie.

“Sorry,” Chicken Little said.  “When she gets going it’s hard to get her to be quiet.”

Quiet,” Defiant growled, clearly on his last nerve, “is the operative word.”

Chicken Little gave the man a salute with his free arm, his other arm hooked around Kenzie’s upper body to pin her arms down.  He dropped the saluting hand to the cone-shaped beak that stuck out of the lower half of his mask, covering it.

Defiant marched out to the center of the room, the center of our group.  I floated to my feet so I could get out of his way if I had to.

By the looks I got from some members of the group, and the way Sveta pulled her arm apart into the flat, zipper-toothed tendrils for just one second, before restoring it to its prior shape, I wasn’t the only person unconsciously noting the fact that my power was still functional.  There wasn’t anything new about it.  A small worry assuaged, knowing the dream room hadn’t knit us all together powerwise.

“You,” he said, pointing at Kenzie.  She jumped like she’d been caught doing something wrong.  “Over there.”

He pointed to Chris’s old corner, paused, and motioned for Damsel to move away.

“They stay,” he indicated Candy and Chicken.  “Ms. Matteson, as someone watching over her welfare, would you please do us all a favor and ensure Lookout is quiet?”

“I will,” Natalie said.

“Sveta Karelia, stand by the computers.  Don’t touch them.”

Sveta stood and went to stand by the computers.

He got halfway through telling people to stand in specific places before giving me my position, standing in the hallway just past the front door we rarely used, near the small bathroom and shower.  It dawned on me just why he was positioning us.  Well, part of it.

Put Kenzie far away from her tech.  Put the least tech-savvy people, Damsel and Sveta, closer to the computer terminals.  Take the leaders, me and Tristan, and put Tristan in the corner where the whiteboard made him hard to see, put me in the hallway.

Separating the kids.  He did put Aiden and Candy on either side of Rain, though.  Not what I would’ve done, and he did put Darlene near the computers, probably to put her further from Tattletale, who was between Tristan and Kenzie, far from the consoles.

When everyone was separated, he began talking to Tristan.  I couldn’t overhear.

From what I could see of the others, they were getting themselves sorted.  They stretched, they looked around, and they looked more alert.  Candy had messy hair from where she’d slept on it, and was combing it with her fingers.  She stopped as Rain set about dabbing at the cut on her forehead with a handkerchief.  The contact elicited a warning sound from Defiant, who relaxed once he investigated.

My mind was a storm of recent events, which did not feel like a dream, and the twenty-five different things I’d seen that could have each been things I sat down and thought about for an hour.  The individual glimpses of triggers and their effects on these people I knew.  The implications of the quirkier rooms or dream-version triggers, like Ashley being in Damsel’s.

And the implications and nuances of the different parts of the dream landscape.  The scholar in me wanted to think on that, discuss with Tattletale, who might have insights, and even take notes.

And Dean.  Who had lied to me.  I could revisit old conversations I’d had with him.  He’d told me once he’d had a trigger event, had closed up without saying exactly what it was, and I’d taken it as a betrayal.  Leaving me reeling now as I remembered those feelings I’d had and how he’d let me think I’d been in the wrong for pushing too hard.  And then he’d caved, he’d told me a story about a home invasion, which had actually happened, but he had lied to me, made it into a trigger event.

Him sharing that with me had made me feel close to him, and I’d tried to initiate a make-out session with him,  only for him to pull away.  He hadn’t wanted to do anything with me that night, and I’d respected it… but it had still played a part in me being willing and wanting to sleep with him, just a little while later.

It had played into the one fight, but now it made me wonder about the context of other ones.  Break-ups and make-ups were part of any relationship, especially teenage ones where school and superheroics had a way of making the remainder of life very limited option-wise, so we’d done that, but now… it was tainted.

And I’d had only the one thing that wasn’t tainted, that I could go back to that was sexy, sweet, and lovely.  Where I’d felt like I was loved and there weren’t ulterior motives.  Where I’d been me and not some mangled, violated mess of stray animals and bugs bound up into a Victoria shape, doing physio every morning because of the accumulated injuries and ugliness.

I’d just wanted the one thing.

And somehow that paled in comparison to the visions.  Jessica.  My mom and Uncle Neil.  Amy.

My skin crawled, and as it crawled, I became aware of my injuries again, of the notion it wasn’t my skin.  I had no right to dictate thoughts, but the notion that she thought of me, that she’d touched herself and when I’d voiced aloud that I didn’t want to know, the crystal had answered my statement with an image of me…

In another situation, if she’d been in reach and I’d been confident in my ability to safely act on her, I might have mangled her hands until they weren’t recognizable as hands and those fucking tattoos would be unrecognizable forever.

Hurt her, tell her never to think of me again, and send her on her way.

Except I knew that was unfair, that it was barbaric when I didn’t want to be barbaric.  She was… ill.  I could hate her, but what she needed was to be removed from people she would hurt and treated with kindness.

And that would absolutely, no-way-in-the-fuck be me.

Fuck.  There were still master-stranger protocols active, there.  Wholly deserved, but I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to revisit that room in the prison.

I should’ve asked about what happened, hard as it was.  Why I had a fingernail I’d distinctly remembered losing.

I couldn’t dwell on it without losing it, and I was aware I needed to wrestle this whole mess of thoughts off to one side so I could focus on Defiant.  Which was a crisis unto itself.

Step one: calming down.  Touch base with where I was.  Locate yourself.

It was technically morning.  Early enough that it wasn’t light out, but morning.  We thought the city might break yesterday, and if it didn’t, it would break today.  Tinkers and thinkers all in agreement.

It didn’t break yesterday.

Meaning that today is the day disaster strikes again, and we see how bad it is.

Rain had complained once that his dreams left him feeling like he hadn’t rested at all.  I could simultaneously agree and disagree.  Physically, I felt rested.  Physically, I felt like my wounds had bound up, muscles tensing, creeping pains having crept all the way in, much as they did any time I slept.  The skin on the back of my hand felt tight, but a lot of that was my body reacting and healing.  The parts of me that weren’t wounded or wound-adjacent felt better.  All like an ordinary night’s sleep.

Mentally, though, that was where I was in full agreement with the guy.  Mentally, I felt like I’d been there, for every trigger, for the fight against a monster so big I couldn’t fathom its scale, for the mental gymnastics, sliding around, and facing down of other fantastical hyperdimensional monsters, horrible realities, and Teacher.

When I didn’t focus, my brain felt like a buzz of television static, and that wasn’t a monumental leap to the twilight state where I felt like I could go to sleep.

When I did focus, my mind went straight back to those twenty five, fifty, or a hundred things that I really wanted to break into and talk to the others about.

Floorboards creaked as Defiant ended his conversation with Tristan.

He paused in the center of the room, head down, looking at nothing in particular, and I was put in mind of Kenzie.  Accessing menus and screens, looking things up.

He turned my way, and he approached me.

Probably with my file fresh in his mind, if he wasn’t looking at it at the same time he looked at me.

“Before we get going,” I said.  “Can I just say a few things?”

He folded his arms.

“First of all, I’m sorry.  I have more to say on that front, but I wanted it to be what I said to you first.”

“Alright,” he said, not flinching or relaxing in the slightest.

“Second of all… the kids.  Lookout in particular.  To start with, it’s best if you outright tell Syndicate not to connect with the others.  Because if she’s connected to Lookout and she’s in arm’s reach of a computer-”

Defiant, filling the doorway, turned.

“Darlene Vasil, are you connected to anybody right now?”

“Tell the truth,” I called out.

Defiant gave me a look over his shoulder.

I didn’t hear Darlene’s response, but I imagined she was pointing.

“Break the connections,” Defiant ordered.  “Keep them broken.”

“I don’t know why we’re in trouble,” Candy said, from near the door to the fire escape.  “We were here for moral support, we got roped in by accident, that’s all.”

“Candice Vasil, I have heard stories about you and your siblings from my colleagues who worked in Brockton Bay.  I’m trying to be fair here, and to put all prejudices aside.  Help me do that.  Follow my orders, sit and rest while I talk to each of you in turn.”

“‘Kay,” I heard Candy.  She sounded more anxious than she normally did.

“Lookout too,” I said, before Defiant had walked all the way back to me.  “Something you should address, while we’re making sure this goes as smoothly as possible.”

“What about her?”

“If she was that insistent on saying something, it was probably for a reason.  Ask her.”

“Lookout,” Defiant called out, without taking his eyes off of me.  “The potential exceptions you talked about.”

“Oh!” I could hear Kenzie.  “Um, first of all, can I move my eyes?”

“Yes,” Defiant said.

I started to move my hand to indicate he should follow up, when he added, “Why would that be a concern?”

“Um, because I’ve got cameras embedded in my eyes, and there are tracking points that let me operate some of my systems remotely.”

“Have you been remotely operating your computer after I told you to do nothing?”

“Um.  Yes?  Just sending some messages and updating some things, and taking notes, and-”

“Stop,” he said.  “Don’t touch your menus.  Don’t operate any tinker technology you or anyone else owns.  Don’t operate any non-tinker technology.  What else?”

“Um.  What about technology that operates itself?  It’s just running in the background but I haven’t been nudging it back onto course and it’s gathering and using some data, and running some defensive routines, and a few offensive ones.  And stuff.”

Defiant didn’t move, except to break eye contact, and to dip his head a bit.

The lights in the building flickered.  I could see some lights of monitors and projected screens at the far end of the room momentarily flicker, glow, or change to a different interface.

With Defiant occupying most of the doorway with his partially-armored bulk, there was only one projected screen near the door that I could sort of see.  I watched as it went black, then flashed, showing Defiant’s dragon-spear logo against a shimmering gold background.

That logo changed to a woman’s face.  Dragon’s.

Dragon the A.I., I had to remind myself.

“I found exception number three,” Dragon said, her voice sounding like it came from Defiant’s right, with a bit of an echo to it.  “Handled.”

“Thank you,” Defiant said, not sounding quite so angry.  He turned his attention back to me.  When he spoke, he sounded upset again.  “Antares.  Victoria.  Anything else?”

“Not on that front.  I just thought I’d warn you so you didn’t have cause to be upset after.”

“We’ll see.”

“Dragon, I’m sorry we’re talking under these circumstances.  Again, Defiant, I’m sorry we’re here.  To give context to why, I hate feeling like I’m in the dark, other members of Breakthrough are similar.  We had what felt like a great way to get a look at the bigger picture, you said no, then pieces fell into place when we crossed paths with Damsel of Distress and Tattletale.  We got carried away, and that’s not me making excuses.”

“Antares,” Defiant said.  “On the whole, I always had a positive impression of you.  I remember hoping that you would join my Wards team, once.  I even remember the moment, after I printed out your grades and I had them by my right hand, my left hand at the keyboard, where I was navigating an arrest report you made.”

I kept my mouth shut, nodding.

“I don’t have the most positive impression of you right this moment.”

Oof.

“I don’t either?” I ventured.  “I- I have to admit I’m still reeling from… that whole thing.  I’m not thinking straight, as much as I’m trying.  But I’m not happy with what we did.  I’m not happy with myself.  I think deep down inside, I expected it to fail, that we wouldn’t get in, or we’d get in but it would be limited, or something, and at least having people like Tattletale and Damsel here would give us some insights we could use… and we really need insights.”

“It didn’t fail.”

“No,” I agreed.  “I thought we’d have Rain do what he has to do, which is visit that dream space, we could try looking around with the tech, have Tattletale interpret, Damsel knows some stuff, but… things went wrong.”

“And you didn’t reach out to us.  You did reach out to Love Lost and her protege to warn them.”

“Some of that was that we were worried if we reached out and you guys mandated certain action, we’d be outright defying you on a bigger level, or we’d be sending Rain in to what would have definitely been his death.”

“I have a lie detector, Antares,” Defiant said.

I fell silent.

“That read as a partial truth.  It’s not the majority or even half of your reasoning.  The remainder?”

“We thought we could handle it, so we focused on handling it.”

“Okay,” he said.  “I’m going to come back in a few minutes for your full explanation and recap.  Organize your thoughts, get to the point where you’re thinking straight.  Be ready, but stay put.”

I drew in a deep breath.  “Okay.”

“I should tell you.  A lot of what you said read as ninety percent honest at best.  I hope that when I come back to get your interpretation of the events, that’s improved.”

I absorbed that.

He walked away, back to the center of the room.

“My turn?” Tattletale asked, off to the side.

“I know you and your power well enough to know you’ll take a shortcut, Tattletale,” Defiant said.  “I’ll talk to you once I’ve talked to everyone, to verify the smaller details.”

“That’s going to be a while,” Tattletale said.

“You have options, Tattletale,” Defiant said.  “We could arrest you as a villain, keeping in mind the theft of the Black Dog IP, the intimidation of the University Road settlers, the Justice Bye case, or the raids on the white hill settlement.”

“I get what you’re doing.  Mention three things I’m a possible suspect for, mention one thing I’m completely unrelated to, get me to say something stupid-”

“The raids on the white hill settlement came from New Brockton Bay, prior to the Dauntless incident.  Either you were ignorant or you were complicit.  Either way, we shouldn’t have trusted you to keep the peace there.”

“The raiders disappeared, didn’t they?  A lion’s share of the funds went back to white hill.”

“But not all.”

“Sue me for not being able to catch up to them before they went on a spending spree.  I did my duty, you can’t pin me on the other stuff-”

“I can try.  I can bring you in, we can see what sticks, and it will be days, weeks, or years before you’re free again.”

“Or I can stay put.  Got it.”

“And be quiet.  Let me ask my questions.  No hints or cues to the others.”

“Lookout has extensive cameras, and I have access,” Dragon said, her voice coming across speakers.

“No winks or nudges, got it,” Tattletale said.

Defiant went to Sveta.

Dragon’s voice came very close to my ear, though there was no apparent source.  “If there is an underlying mistruth you’re holding to, it would be better to let it go.”

“Because of that thing were I’m only apparently telling ninety percent of the truth?” I asked.

“Yes.  Well, a ceiling of ninety percent.”

“I don’t know what I could say that would be one hundred percent the truth,” I admitted.  “I don’t get everything that’s going on, I don’t feel sure about what’s happened in the past.  All I know in the present is that I should be worried.  I could tell you my name, and I’m not sure it would read as one hundred percent confident.”

“Try it?” Dragon asked.

“I am Victoria Dallon,” I told her, and I tried to sound confident, which was my mistake, because I instinctively reached for a foundation for that confidence, and I groped blindly instead.

Uninvited images of a body of strays and bugs flashed through my mind.  I thought of the master-stranger protocol that was technically still in place after the prison.  I thought of the mosaic of identities that I’d analyzed and faced when fighting Lung, before deciding that Victoria Dallon, Glory Girl, and Antares needed to be one.  That warrior monk, wretch, scholar, and everything else needed to fold into that.  How those things had been eminently there when I’d phased into the crystal.  Injured images of me, healed.  Antares and Glory Girl.

“Again?” she asked.

“I am Victoria Dallon,” I told her, and this time I pushed those ideas out of mind.  Tried to.  It was like stuffing the mess of a dirty room into a closet and finding the door couldn’t shut.

“I think you’re right,” she said.  “You can blame the dishonest readings on a lack of personal confidence.  You’re shaken.”

“Not even reading a hundred percent confidence when I say my own name?” I asked.

“No,” Dragon said.

“Ninety percent?” I asked.  I could hear that telling pause.  “Eighty?  Seventy?”

“It could be an outlier.  Can you think of a statement you are more confident about?”

I tried.

“I want to help the people of this city.”

“There we go,” Dragon said.  “Point in your favor.”

“Yeah?  One hundred percent?”

“Yes,” she told me.  “Counts for something.  More than you might realize, considering some of the ongoing concerns.”

I could hear Defiant’s conversation with Sveta.

Even knowing there’s going to be consequences, I thought, I’m glad we did it?  To get out ahead of Teacher, to see what he was really doing, and to understand all of this?

I doubt there’s a single person out there who can fight on this playing field, who isn’t breaking some of the rules.

What do you say, if I say that out loud, Dragon?

One hundred percent confidence in my words?

Definitely not a point in my favor.  Not in your books.

“You broke the crystal,” Defiant said, incredulous.

Some of the others had gathered, the ‘split everyone up so they can be interrogated separately’ thing breaking down as Defiant finished his rounds.  I could see them in the center of the room, peeking around Defiant’s frame.

“I mentioned this before,” I said, trying not to sound like I was exasperated or defensive.  “There’s a lot about navigating that space that’s… intuitive-adjacent.”

Intuitive-adjacent?” Defiant asked, and I had the impression he was holding back from flying off the handle.

“Logic-adjacent, kind of, but you have to start from the heart, not the head, and general, abstracted feelings of being.”

“Logic-adjacent is being illogical,” Defiant stated.  “Come the fuck on, Victoria.”

I didn’t want to back down, because I was fairly certain it would make me look far worse if I didn’t sound confident.

“Teacher’s not Teacher anymore.  If he’s been Teacher for the last couple of years.  The agent is running the show.  I could see how the agent functioned, the structure of it, the way the patterns played out.  I was sure that leaving him alone would be catastrophic.  I was pretty sure breaking that key point to his power wouldn’t be catastrophic, specifically.”

“Because of intuition-adjacent, logic-adjacent understandings you picked up while exploring this space over half an hour?” Defiant asked.

Yes,” I told him, with conviction, while willing that lie detector to register one hundred percent.

“Can I say something?” Rain said, behind Defiant.

Defiant turned, but didn’t say ‘yes’.

“She figured it out.  How to navigate the space, how to interact with it.  How to throw herself off a high cliff while leaping over a ravine, crash through the surface on the other side, and resurface while wearing… I think it was the costume she used to wear when she was Glory Girl.”

“Working with her agent, too,” Sveta volunteered.  “Damsel knew how to handle the space, but she didn’t have that connection to her agent.”

“I could have if I tried,” Damsel chimed in, from a spot that was out of sight, off to the right, near the door to the fire escape, blocked from view by the walls that enclosed the bathroom.

“Enough.  Please,” Defiant said.  “Input appreciated, but I would like to continue this conversation with Victoria, one on one.”

Rain and Sveta obliged.

“Being good at that is not necessarily reassuring,” Defiant told me.

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because that implies a stronger connection to your agent.  And we know for a fact the agents are aggressive and conflict-driven.  If it’s cooperating with you and you’re finding yourself in parallel to it, that’s concerning.”

Which tied back to what Dragon had said to me.   ‘Counts for something.  More than you might realize, considering some of the ongoing concerns.’

“I want to save the people of this city,” I said, repeating the statement that had elicited Dragon’s.

Defiant went silent.

I could imagine him conversing with Dragon.  I glanced past him at Kenzie, who was standing beside Natalie, Natalie’s hand at her shoulder.

I could imagine Kenzie wanting this.  Someone who was there to talk to when she wanted someone.

With Dean no longer in that reassuring spot in my heart, I kind of wanted it too.

It felt especially lonely to be standing here, being interrogated, so soon after a number of people had fallen in my esteem.

Defiant held up one finger for me to wait one second, while walking over to the desk with tech on it.  “I’ll borrow one of your projectors, Lookout.  If I may?”

“Go ahead!  Have fun!”

“It’s not so fun,” Defiant said, but he didn’t say it to her.

He held the microwave-sized cube in both hands, showing his strength with the ease he handled the dense cube of technology.

Images were displayed on the walls, floor, and ceiling nearest me.

Men and women in white coveralls, unconscious, lying in cots, on beds, and on floors.

“Time of death, five fifteen in the morning,” Defiant said.  “For each and every last one of them, with slight discrepancies depending on the doctor and the time the doctors reached them.”

I shook my head.

“He still had control over what we estimate to be roughly four thousand citizens of Earth Gimel and another thousand citizens of Earth Cheit.  Some –many- were unwillingly under his power.  He forced it on them, using parahuman tricks.  Many were capes, some were heroes, retired or otherwise.”

My heartbeat hurt in my chest.  I didn’t dare breathe.  I didn’t take my eyes off of Defiant’s face.

“All brain dead, to the extent their brains ceased regulating breathing and heartbeat.”

“You’re fucking with me,” I said.  “This is some test to verify my convictions.”

“You don’t sound confident.”

“There was a brief period between the time I broke it when I saw the aftermath.  The thralls he had in the crystal space… they turned on him, they were angry.”

“That was there.  Here, lives were lost.”

I shook my head again.

“Are you calling me a liar?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I didn’t kill those people.  I’m not sure I believe they’re dead.”

Defiant turned his back to me, walking across the room to the tables, with the others backing out of his way.  He set the cube down.  He’d carried it like it was empty cardboard, but the folding table we’d had by Rain’s whiteboard creaked.

He didn’t elaborate, didn’t say anything.  Just walked over to Tattletale.

She was his last stop, he’d said.  For clarifying details.

He was keeping an eye on all of us, as was Dragon, so when I ventured into the room and he didn’t take my head off, I figured we were good enough.

“You broke the crystal?” Tristan asked.

“I broke Teacher’s crystal,” I said.  I thought about those images of people lying prone, people standing around their limp bodies.  “I think I broke Teacher.”

“It’s dawning on me,” Rain said.  “I have to go back tonight.  I don’t know if the walls will still be up.  What if they’re permanently down, and each night it’s just those things attacking us, on their rotation?”

“Staying in our sectors seemed to work,” Sveta said.

“Right, but… what if each one has different rules, or different ways of acting?  Love Lost’s is tomorrow.  What if it has emotion control, that reaches through the walls?  What if it’s angry, in a way Cradle’s wasn’t?”

Chicken Little coughed abruptly enough it made Defiant turn his head.  Between coughs, he muttered, “Mr. Hugs.”

“I’m not going to call it that,” Rain said.

“Hecatoncheires,” I suggested.

“That’s way too cool for Cradle,” Rain said.  He added, “I’m spooked.”

“I feel like if we can get through last night, we can get through a lot,” Tristan said.

Rain nodded, sitting up straighter.  “Yeah.  I’m glad you guys were there, if nothing else.  I… haven’t had a lot of times in my life when people were there for the reasons I wished they were.  Sometimes, like the raid at the Fallen fight, because I didn’t let them be.”

Kenzie was sitting on the floor by one of the chairs, with Candy sitting in the chair behind her.  Candy’s knees were over Kenzie’s shoulders, legs helping hold her in place, while Candy’s hands covered Kenzie’s mouth.  Kenzie wriggled a bit, protesting, like she wanted to say something.

“I appreciate the sentiment, Kenzie,” Rain said, responding somberly to Kenzie’s mumbles like she’d said something profound.

Kenzie seemed to relax her protestations at that.

“I won’t say I’m not spooked,” Tristan admitted.  “I’ve got to get back to the hospital.  Switch over to Byron.  See how he’s doing.  I’m… kind of terrified he might be worse.  We messed with a pretty fragile balance, back there.”

“Do you really think those people are dead?” Sveta asked.

“No,” I said, but I would have been lying if I’d said I wasn’t a bit worried.

The conversation seemed to stall.  Many of us weren’t even fully awake.  Alarmed, alert, but not awake.  Not fully put together.

I looked over the room, at the kids, where Darlene sat next to Aiden, her head on his shoulder as she did a bad job of pretending to be dozing off.  Candy with Kenzie, semi-playfully ensuring Kenzie did nothing, as per Defiant’s instructions.

Rain-

“How’s your power?” I asked Rain.

“I’m not about to pull out the silver blades or anything while Defiant’s here, but I’m pretty sure I got nothing.”

“Nothing as in-”

“As in my powers all suck like I got no tokens at all.  I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same for Love Lost and Colt.”

I nodded.

We had messed with the system.  Messed with the thing that was doling out these shares of power.

We’d faced them, looked them in the eye.

I looked over at Damsel, who leaned against the door.  Through the window right next to the door, I could see Snuff on the fire escape, smoking.  No Sidepiece.

“Good showing,” I told Damsel.  “Last few minutes?  Might’ve made the difference.”

“In letting you murder thousands?  Glad to help,” Damsel responded, dry.

I shook my head.  “Stopping Teacher.  Getting past thralls.  All of it.  All of you.  That wasn’t easy.”

But it needed doing, I finished, silent.

“I feel like we need to have five hundred conversations about stuff we saw or experienced in there,” Tristan said.  “And at the exact same time, I feel like we need to never talk about any of it.”

“Amen,” Sveta said, barely audible.

Again, the conversation died.  But on the heels of the ‘never talk about any of it’, none of us picked it up again.

Defiant finished his conversation with Tattletale, stiff and looming while she looked eminently casual, thumbs hooked in her belt, leaning against Chris’s old desk.

He turned to face us.  To face me.

The stare was accusing.

“I don’t believe they’re dead,” I said.

“Victoria, your comment, immediately upon waking up,” he said.  “Joking about the world ending.  You knew it was a consideration.”

“I was phase-shifted or facet-shifted to a version of me that was more Glory-Girl-like, I think.  That’s what others saw.  I was exhilarated, post-panic, I… said something dumb.”

He didn’t respond.

“I’m one hundred percent committed to preventing the world from ending, the city from breaking, whatever else.  Completely and totally.  Taking Teacher’s puppeteer-crystal out was in support of this.  If we left him alone, we’d be counting down the minutes or hours before he initiated the end on his terms.”

Defiant nodded.  A finger that looked flesh but had odd seams to it tapped heavily on a folding table.  “One hundred percent.  I believe you.  I won’t say it was right.”

I nodded.

“But you’re not one hundred percent confident those thralls were alive.  Eighty to ninety percent confident.  But that’s not enough.”

“It wasn’t a decision made in isolation,” I told him.  “And I didn’t have the benefit of minutes or hours to weigh its merits.  Time was short, I had a sense of the risks and the danger if I didn’t take action.  I acted.”

“I understand,” Defiant said.  “But if you take that many lives into your moral calculus, then you open yourself up to being second guessed and challenged.  We don’t want to live in a world where anyone and everyone can make that choice.  Am I right?”

I nodded, before reluctantly venturing, “…Yes.  Can I just say that it felt closer to one hundred percent certainty in the moment?”

“I’m sure it did,” Defiant told me.

“What did happen to the thralls?” Rain asked.

Released, I thought.

“Freed,” Defiant said.  “Some of the beneficial side effects and powers are lingering, but they’re fading by the minute, according to reports, some faster than others.  Teacher no longer has any sway over them.”

“That’s a mean joke,” Darlene said.  “Saying they died.”

“I had to make sure Antares was convinced.  And she wasn’t.  Not quite enough, and that worries us.  With this, with my concerns about Lookout’s approach to the situation and the lack of safeguards, the leaping to assumptions, with the fact I would expect someone with closer ties to the Wardens-”

He looked at Sveta.

“-to cooperate more with us, and everything else in aggregate, big and small… we will be giving you a choice, to be made before I leave to look after other things.”

“What choice?” Tristan asked.

“Either you allow us to impose consequences, you obey our instructions, endure confiscation of assets and further oversight… or you no longer have our help.”

“No longer have…”

“The Warden’s assistance.  Our network, our information, our teams, the ability to call and get our help.  Tattletale, Damsel, and the children can make their independent calls.  If Lookout wanted to consider herself Breakthrough and Breakthrough decided to accept consequences, we would continue working with her.  Same as if the children accepted consequences but Breakthrough did not.”

“You want her tech,” Tattletale guessed.

“We would lose Lookout’s help in managing the access cube and security system, as well as other projects she volunteered her help with, yes.  But that’s not the concern.  She’s young, vulnerable, and caught between two teams.  We don’t want to force your hands.  This is a genuine offer.  Work with the Wardens, within the law, and accept consequences, or carry on doing what you’re doing, beyond the law, without our sanction or help.”

“I feel like there’s more to this,” Tristan said.

“There is.”

“Do you arrest us if we don’t cooperate?”

“No.  But we might if we thought you’d do this again.”

Tristan nodded.

This is a mess.

“You really expect me to believe you’ll work with me?” Damsel asked.

“I don’t expect you to agree to cooperate,” Defiant told her.  “But if you say yes, that can be an inroad.  We can talk, and arrangements can be made.  Talking is better than the alternatives, when things are this fragile.”

Damsel shook her head.

“Can you give us a minute?” Tristan asked.  “No listening ears, no observation?”

“I’ll step outside,” Defiant said.  “Powering down all of Lookout’s systems.”

We waited until he was gone.

“Sorry again,” Natalie said, to my right.

“No.  Really,” I told her.  “You did the right thing.”

“Do you think you did the wrong thing, pursuing this, because…”

She trailed off as I shook my head.

“Stick with the Wardens?” Tristan asked.

I nodded.  Communication and cooperation are too important.

“Warning for the kids.  Lookout in particular,” Tattletale spoke up.  She hadn’t budged from where she sat.  “They’re going to take your stuff.”

“What?” Kenzie sat up, pulling free of Candy’s hands and legs.  “What do you mean?”

“If both Breakthrough and the Tenders cooperate, they’re taking your things.  All tech, including what you have at the institution and Victoria’s apartment.  Confiscated until further notice.”

“No!” Kenzie gasped, looking horrified.  A smile crossed her face.  “This is a test, right?  Like showing Victoria a bunch of dead people, to see if she was really sure what she did wouldn’t kill anyone?”

“Those aren’t equivalent,” Rain said.

“They kind of are!” Kenzie answered.  “My stuff is everything I can do, it’s months of work, and scans, and it’s my contact with everyone, and it’s my everything!  It could make the difference between us saving thousands or thousands dying, couldn’t it?”

“Theoretically,” I said.

“You can cheat your way around it,” Tattletale said.  “Say the Tenders won’t cooperate.  They act outside the law, life gets harder, but you can keep tech at your place.”

Kenzie nodded, looking at the others.

I almost said something to her, then stopped myself.  Best to let Kenzie find her own way to the answer.

“But you shouldn’t,” Tattletale said.

Damn it, I thought.  Tattletale liked to hold the kids’ hands.  Giving them a fish instead of teaching them how to fish.

Frustrating.

“We shouldn’t,” Chicken Little said.

Kenzie looked crestfallen.

“It doesn’t make sense to make enemies,” Darlene said, before walking over to give Kenzie a half-hug.

“I’m out,” Damsel said.  She pulled on her coat, which was a process with the lengthy claw at the end of each finger.  She pretty much had to lay the coat on the ground before picking up the edge with the back of each blade and finding the armholes, shrugging it on.  When she’d lived with Swansong and I, we’d simply helped her.

“Not working with the Wardens?” I asked.

She sniffed.  “What do they have to offer me?”

Then she turned to the door.  A solid second or two passed.

This time, it was Kenzie who covered Candy’s mouth.

Not turning around or looking back at any of us, her eyes fixated on the doorknob, Damsel finally kicked the door three times in quick succession.

Defiant opened the door, and Damsel strode past him, into the winter snowstorm.

“Decided?” He asked.

“Yeah,” Tattletale answered.  “We’re in.  We’ll cooperate.”

He stepped back inside, and the heat of his systems steamed visibly as the cold air was superheated, or the moist air from systems made contact with the air from the cold pre-sunrise outdoors.

“Lookout, Precipice, your tinker technology will be confiscated for the time being.  We will be asking you to vacate your headquarters and, until further judgment can be rendered, you are not to associate with one another.  Each of you will be remanded to the care of an acceptable guardian, someone the Wardens trust…”

This was important.

This was worth it, even like this.

They didn’t take me back to my apartment.  There was tinkertech there.  I felt scuzzy in clothes I’d worn the day prior, my teeth fuzzy, my stomach empty and that emptiness… scoured, for lack of a better word, by the hunger that ate from the emptiness outward.

No powers was the rule.  Good general rule while the city was in this fragile, cracked-ice state, but it was being imposed on us for other reasons.  Judgment pending.  The Warden leadership would meet and they’d assess what we’d done.

No powers meant no flight, so I used the elevator in the building for perhaps the third time.

Slow and painful, my bag heavy at my shoulder, my entire body restless because I hadn’t done my physio yet.  My wounds felt tight and uncomfortable, perpetually reminding me they existed.

My skin prickled from the recent cold and the transition to warmth, and in that prickling, I remembered being burned, and my heart rate picked up, vague feelings of panic making their stealthy approach.

I got my breathing mostly level by the time the elevator stopped.  I exited, walked down the hall, bag over my one shoulder, and knocked on the door.

Mom answered.  Not yet prepped for the day, she’d just woken up maybe half an hour ago, and had a coffee.  She held it out to the side with one hand, and reached out to hug me with the other.  I started to pull back, but she grabbed me, hugging me fiercely, with a lot of strength.

It was surprising to see her without a suit or… well, a suit.  Costume or business wear.  Without hair done up and makeup on.

It had been a long time since I had seen my mother of the morning hours.  Carol before the day began.  More than four years.

I was struck by the mental image of her kissing Uncle Neil, vivid and visceral, deeply uncomfortable.  I looked away, busying myself with finding a spot to put my bag down.

“Crystal’s on the phone.  She was supposed to call when you arrived,” my mom said.

I nodded, stepping into my cousin’s apartment.  My mom’s things were by the couch, but the couch was made up, sheets removed and folded.  Boxes were everywhere, and the apartment looked about two-thirds of the way to being packed up.

“What do you need?” my mom asked.  “Food?”

“Soon,” I said.  “I should do my physio before I go crazy.  If that’s ok?”

“Can I join you?” she asked.  “It couldn’t hurt, I imagine.”

I hesitated.

“Or not.”

I was saved from having to answer by Crystal emerging from the hallway that led to her bedroom, pulling the phone down and away from her ear.  Call done.  She gave me a hug.

As I broke the hug, I saw my mother walking a little unsteadily to the couch, to sit on the armrest.  Small steps, more like she was an old woman than a forty year old.

I was put in mind of dad after his head injury, but this- this was my fault.  In large part.

“What on earth did you get up to?” Crystal asked me.  “You’re on probation?”

“Benched, until they can decide how serious it was.  They’ve broken up Breakthrough, but they may pull us back in later today, depending on how bad things get.”

“And this questionably serious thing was…?”

“Definitely serious, just a question of whether it was catastrophically serious or regular old serious.  It was us diving into the guts of things.  Deeper and faster than we thought we would.  With more danger.  Into the guts of powers.”

“Why?” Crystal asked.

“Because someone had to.  Has to.  The bad guys are already doing it.  It’s like waging a war in the twenty-first century without considering computers as a factor.”

“And?” Crystal asked.

“And I’m tired.  Numb.  Freaked out,” I said.  “I don’t think I could even begin to explain the scale of it.  The Wardens are freaking out because of the scale of it, and I think at best they have blurry interdimensional camera images pulled from Kenzie’s tech.”

“But everyone’s safe?” my mom asked.

“Mostly,” I said.

“That’s good.  It’s something you wanted to prioritize.”

I nodded.

“I’d like-” She stood straighter, but she wavered a bit.  She reached out, and for a moment, I almost pulled away.  Then I caught her, because I wasn’t such a horrible daughter that I’d let my injured mother fall.

The mother I’d injured.

I gripped her arm and I focused on that grip, looking down at my hand at her arm and my hand.

The apartment was still relatively dark, lit only by the hallway light and living room light.  Through the kitchen, the big window showed the snowstorm outside, white snowflakes against black.

“Why are you pulling away?” my mother asked me.

“It’s stupid,” I told her.

“It doesn’t feel stupid.”

“Okay,” Crystal butted in.  “What do you say we get some coffee in us?  Bit of food?”

“Victoria said she wanted to do her physio routine before eating.”

“That’s an option,” Crystal said, artificially cheerful.  “Auntie Carol, maybe you and I could put coffee on and prep some food, Victoria can do her thing?”

“I’d rather Victoria tell me what happened,” my mother said.  “Because I thought we were mending bridges, and all of a sudden-”

She didn’t sound like my mother.  No sternness, no strength, no fierceness.

She’d seemed better when we’d been at the prison, in the company of Amy and Mark.

“It’s dumb,” I said.  “An hour and a half ago I was racing through the guts of the systems that drive our powers, powerless, escaping a bunch of things that looked like- the dauntless titan.  Kronos.  Apparatuses that extend from powers.”

I’d almost said they looked like Endbringers,  but Endbringer was a heavy word when one Endbringer had killed Eric and…

And Neil.

Whoever Neil was to me.

“Scary,” Crystal said, her voice still a bit artificial, like she was trying to carry the weight of managing the tone of the three-person conversation.

“I saw things,” I said.  “I saw things about my team, but that was at a different point, more the thing that can draw people together instead of driving them apart.”

“Some of it drove you apart?”  Crystal asked.

“Not me and my team.  Amy.  Amy’s sickness, the depths of it.  The fact she’s helping refugees.  Hints about Teacher.  Stuff about my therapist.”

“Amy is… a good reason to be touch-wary,” Crystal said, ever the diplomat.

My mom, though, the lawyer, the heroine who could patrol and spot trouble from blocks away in the gloom… her study of me was sharp.

“You didn’t shy away from Crystal,” my mom said.

“Can we drop it?” I asked.

My mom reached over.  I didn’t pull away as she touched my upper arm, rubbing it.

“Apparently you can’t drop it,” she told me.

“What?  I didn’t pull back.”

“But you tensed.  You watched, wary, instead of making eye contact.  You didn’t ease up as you normally might.”

“It’s been a while since I eased up when someone wanted to touch me,” I answered.

“You saw something about me?” she asked.  “Hurting a villain more badly than necessary?  Making a deal to give a scumbag a pass?  What sort of things did these images or figures play-act for you?  If you tell me, then at least I can defend myself.”

“Or, you know, we could respect that Victoria’s not ready to talk about it,” Crystal said.

“That seems like the cowardly way out,” my mother said.

Cowardly?” I asked.  I was ready to lash out, to say something, to retort.  Not least because it felt it was my mom who was saying something she had been keeping inside for the last few years.  Filters down, defenses down, the brain injury bringing things to the surface, without the poised, perfect, perfectly made-up Carol Dallon crafting every response.

Like she was calling the me that had struggled during and since the hospital a coward.

I shook my head, fierce, “Not getting into this.  Sorry, Crystal.”

Crystal looked legitimately scared, seeing the feelings that were flaring up.

“There is too much going on these days,” my mother said.  “We can’t have more more thing hanging over our heads.  If this is about my actions as a heroine, I fully admit I haven’t been perfect.”

I shook my head.

“My civilian life?” she asked.

“Yeah.  Can we just leave it at that?”

“My time as a lawyer?  It would have to be,” she said.  “Because, believe me, I’ve spent the last two years coming to terms with how badly I failed as a mother.”

I tensed.

“Victoria,” my mom said.  “Every time I think of you, I feel pride.  I love the woman you became, as brave as you are.  I worry desperately for you, but that’s worry borne of love.  If you want me to tell you that you’re right about your sister, I will.  She was ill, and I contributed to that illness by treating her as I did, when she was vulnerable and lost.  We went to Shin to help her and guide her and as much as I spend every hour of every day feeling pride for you, I’m afraid for her, because she won’t accept guidance.”

“Mom,” I said.  One word, to break the flow, to interrupt the stream of consciousness.

“Would you stiffen if I hugged you now?” she asked.  “Or if I reached out?”

I didn’t respond.

“Why?” she asked.

“If-” I started.  And then I couldn’t stop.  “If I asked you… sorry Crystal.”

“Sorry?” Crystal asked.

“If I asked if Neil Pelham might be my dad…?” I asked.  I looked at my mom.  Carol Dallon, lawyer, fierce veteran superheroine, Carol who had survived three Endbringer fights.  Brandish.

Tears appeared in her eyes.

“What?” Crystal asked.

“Twenty-one years ago, they…”

“My parents were together back then,” Crystal said, sounding horrified.  “And you were with Uncle Mark.”

“Sorry,” I said again.

Tears ran down my mothers cheeks, and she wiped them away, seemingly angry they’d appeared.  I found myself hoping in the moment that the emotional outpouring was out of anger that I’d thought of something so unlikely or impossible.

“Not your father,” Carol said.  “But I thought once that he might be.”

“He might be,” I echoed her.

“You had so much of him in you, and your power… for pretty much the entire year before your sister triggered, I was in dread.  Neil was too.  You-” she looked at Crystal, “-Understand, please, it was that I spent so long unable to trust anyone.  It took me years to warm up to anyone.  Years to get close to Mark.  But we had our rough patches, and then there was Neil, and I could trust him more easily because Sarah trusted him-”

It hurt to listen to.

Hurt because it hurt Crystal too.  If it had been any hour except ass o’clock in the morning, the pre-dawn hours between the crystal hellscape and this conversation, I wouldn’t have said anything.

But I knew my mom.  Knew she’d read through me, that she wouldn’t let this go.

“You never told any of us?”  I asked.  “Did it impact how you treated Amy?  Did you think-”

“For a brief while I thought.  Early on, when she had powers.  I pulled away.  She gave me looks and I thought she knew something certain.  But she didn’t.  And over time I let myself forget.  Something I would think about once in a while, with a lot of regret.  Less as-”

She stopped herself.  Wiped at her eyes again.

“So you think I’m Mark’s?”

“I can’t talk about this,” she said.  “Not like this, not right now-”

“You can’t give me the one answer?” I pressed her.  “The important one?”

“I can’t,” she said, tensing up.  “I can’t.”

“Mom,” I said.  “Carol.  Don’t dodge this.”

The word seemed to sting her.

“Victoria,” Crystal’s voice was gentle, the false emotion no longer there.  “She can’t.”

I looked at Crystal, saw the hurt and apology on her face.

“The head injury,” Crystal said.  “She really might not be able to.”

That’s not fair, I thought.

“I’m going to step outside,” I said.

“Okay,” Crystal said.

“Sorry for… dropping this on you.  For dredging this up.”

“Okay,” Crystal said.

“Mark’s your father,” my mother said, to my back.  I paused, then headed through the kitchen.

I escaped to the balcony, opening the door.  I hadn’t removed my coat or boots, so I was going to be warm enough, for the most part.  Snow was almost knee deep, where it had piled against the sliding door.  It formed little hills atop the balcony railing.

It was so cold my nostrils instantly froze, the moisture in my eyes threatening to do the same.

I could see the distant portals from this high ground.  The weather patterns.  The sliver of heat on the horizon, where the sun was starting to rise and battle its way past the cloud cover of the snowstorm.

Verifying one piece of data gave evidence to the rest, and too many of the rest made my skin crawl.  My fingernails dug into my sleeves, but found the jacket and the bandages that were still there too impenetrable.

Fingernails.  Fingernail.  I pulled my hand back, and undid the bandage.  I looked at the fingernail with the black of gathered blood beneath it.

I gripped the railing with the one hand that had been partially degloved.  The hand with the fingernail that wasn’t supposed to be there, that marked a violation I had no clue about.

Digging my fingernails into the wood of the railing-top, I pressed down until pain stabbed its way across my hand, transformed in shape and intensity, redoubling, as I pressed down more and more, with the nail that wasn’t supposed to be there.

Until the nail cracked, broke, and tore at the bed.  I continued pressing down until the last of the nail gave, and my first knuckle scraped against ice-crusted wood, raw nail bed scraping against the flat of the wood, singing with pain.

There wasn’t any exhilaration in it.  No relief in the dopamine hit.  It hurt in the fucking worst way, to the point tears came to my eyes.

But I didn’t have that sign, that mark, that wrongness.

My entire body trembled.  Blood dripped from fingertip to white snow.

I floated up onto the railing, and I moved far enough away that all was clear.

Thank you for helping me back there, I thought.  I activated the Wretch.

The snow blew around me, gathering on the Wretch’s surface.  Tracing outlines, forming a shape.

I could hear my mom talking to Crystal with a raised voice inside, muffled by the intervening door.

The Wretch didn’t grasp, writhe, or swing blindly.  The faces it wore weren’t contorted or angry.

I lifted my hand, and it moved nearby limbs.  I turned my hand over, and it mimed me.

My hand trembled.  The Wretch’s invisible hand was as steady as a rock.

Time to face the day, I thought.  At least you’re with me.

It’s going to be a rough one.

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From Within – 16.z

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Now

I’ve surrounded myself with lunatics and the mentally ill.

Hunter, in her ‘powered’ state, had control over her power but less control over herself.  Her eyes were too wide, revealing the whites, and she had almost stepped outside without the proper clothing, before they’d brought her back and made her pick something better.  As much as regret chewed at Amy’s middle and false hopes stabbed and tugged at her heart, having Hunter close was reassuring.  She’d had to put measures into place to ensure that Hunter wouldn’t attack her if an attempt at healing her personality rebounded, and it meant Hunter was loyal, reliable in her own way.  The silhouette of Hunter, the shape of the face and color of her hair, it allowed Amy to have the periodic moment of feeling like she was still in the old days, Victoria just a few paces away.

Like Victoria but shorter, narrower, more of an elfin frame than an athlete’s.  Like Victoria, but a Victoria that could disappear in a wave of snowflakes if that snow around them blew any harder.  She was constantly moving, getting ahead of the group, turning to face them while walking backwards, turning forward and creating those black razor-lines, then hopping up onto them, to try walking them like one might walk a tightrope, until her attempts saw her fall behind, at which point she bounded forward again.

Like Victoria when Victoria had been ten and playing at being superheroes, but wearing a body like Victoria at thirteen or fourteen, if she’d never gotten into basketball or running.

Amy walked with her head down, only her eyes visible above her scarf, which she’d pulled up to protect her ears.  The positioning of the scarf was helped by the fact that Dot was curled up against her neck, upper body at one side, thighs against the other, and the little goblin had the scarf pulled around her like a blanket, adjusting every time the cold seeped in.  The walk hadn’t been long, but Dot was already asleep in the warmth, snoring softly.  The little goblin put out its tongue to lick unconsciously at Amy’s neck, and sensations of its being, physical makeup, and overall health leaped into her awareness.

The fact Dot was sleeping meant she had stopped gabbling.  The goblin’s voice was comforting in how there was an omnipresent voice, less comforting if Amy focused too much on the words.  Was it more concerning that if the words were said by a human, they’d sound monstrous, or that the words were said by a monster but sounded so human?

Amy touched her scarf, touching Dot’s head through it.  Dot curled up tighter against Amy in unconscious response.

Mark walked beside her, but he was off in his own world.  Tired, disheartened.

Because I’ve surrounded myself with villains, too.  He can’t come to terms with that.

Marquis was talking about weapons and danger with Chris.  They’d never gotten along in the Birdcage, and they didn’t get along now, but they could cooperate.  It wasn’t just that they were villainous, but that they were villainous with that insane edge around them.

Marquis wore a coat in Shin’s style, and Amy had to admit he wore it well.  She only knew what she knew about fashion because Victoria had rubbed off on her, but she had the sense her father had picked the coat well.  Long, bone white, and decorated at the seams.  He carried a cane though he didn’t need it, and wore no hat.

Chris, for his part, had transitioned to something between a shaggy junkyard dog and a chimpanzee, seven feet tall at the shoulder.  Long-limbed, long-faced, vaguely humanoid, muscle visible beneath the shaggy fur, with no clothes but for a sash around the lower body and that collar around his neck, with syringes poised to plunge home.  He loped more than he walked.

“I like Gosling,” Marquis said.  “Elegant little murderer.”

“I’ll be your elegant little murderer,” Hunter said, eager, skipping forward with snow flying.

“You could be if we wanted that, but I think it’s best for you to stay near Amelia.  I’m negotiating for my personal team, if we reach the point where we need to defend ourselves.”

Chris rumbled while he padded through the snow with shaggy, furred claws.  “It’s not negotiating if nobody wants what you’re picking.”

“Gosling?” Marquis sounded surprised.  “That’s a vehement reaction.”

“She’s weak.”

“Weak isn’t a concern.  Any parahuman has their strengths and those strengths can be nurtured, made to bloom.  My concern is having a team where every member can stand in close proximity and be natural among one another.”

“We’re the two kids who’re picking our teams for gym class and you’re taking the girl who lost a fight against, essentially, an unpowered person with an improvised weapon, not even a good improvised weapon, because you want the team that looks good if they’re asked to take a picture together?”

“Yes!” Marquis said.  “Not that I care about pictures.  Personality, style, expectations.  If I have a wide pool of people to choose from, I’ll pick people who can be in the same room without looking critically at the person next to them and wondering why they’re there.  People who, if I’m offering them something to drink, won’t put in twenty different orders for tea, beer, wine, soda pop, or whatever else.  People I give an order to, who won’t immediately start fighting over how to carry it out.  From my perspective you’re playing the losing game.”

“You’re deluded,” Chris growled.  “Drink preferences don’t have anything to do with how they’re going to kill the guy you’re pointing at.”

“Of course not, but I have a wide pool to choose from.  I’ve been paying attention and earmarking the ones I like for a little while now.  I’ll pick a core team where I believe they’ll be in alignment, then pick the ones I think could be swept up into that alignment, and then pick the ones who won’t cause too much fuss, in that order.”

“Assuming you get that many picks.”

“Assuming I do,” Marquis said, smiling.  “I still want Gosling.”

“You can have her.  Free pick, as I see it.  Johnny.”

“Which one?”

“There’s two?”

“One goes by Johnny in his civilian identity, and then you have Johnny Shambles, who is, I believe, in quarantine.”

“The second one.”

“As I see it, you’re playing the losing game, Lab Rat.  You did this in the Birdcage.  You picked people because they and their powers were resources.  You forgot they were people, too.  Who’s your next pick?  Go ahead.”

“Adze.”

“Exactly the opposite approach to my own.  If I had to pick the three people least likely to find a mutual rhythm, I wouldn’t pick Shambles, Adze, and you, but it would be close.”

“I don’t care, because I’m not looking for rhythm.  I’m looking for people I can send to go do something, with expectations they manage.  Who’s your pick?”

“Screwdriver,” Marquis replied.

“I like her,” Hunter chimed in.  She turned on the spot, walking backward, hands going to her face.  “No mask.  Not really.”

Chris fell silent, and it was a judgmental silence.

“There is a method to my madness,” Marquis said, sounding pleased with himself.

“This method, it involves preaching about team unity, then picking, in order, the murderer who was stabbed with a screwdriver, and the torturer who did the stabbing?”

“Yes.  I’ll let you take your pick,” Marquis said.  “We should keep it to five or six each, leave some behind to defend.”

Amy looked at Mark, her ‘dad’, though it had been a long time since he’d ever felt like a proper dad.  That he was here really helped, if only just for the being there.  He cast the occasional sidelong glance at the pair, but didn’t comment, his head down, hat pulled low against the cold flurry.  He wore his costume as a sub-layer, with pants, hooded sweatshirt, and coat pulled over it, so it was there but only barely.  He looked like a civilian.

“Do you want to join in?  Lead a squadron, Flashbang?” Marquis had a way of sounding taunting in the course of casual conversation, especially when it was with Carol or Mark.  Amy almost said something.

“No.  I’ll stay by Amy’s side,” Mark said.

“Perfect.  That simplifies things,” Marquis said.

They continued making their way through the snowstorm.  In the distance, Amy could see the throughway, the wide-laned, raised road that cut straight through the center of the capitol.  It was meant for heavy trucks and public transportation, but with the influx of refugees, it was being used to move everyone into Shin.  It was dark out, still the early hours of morning before sunrise, and some of those people had been on the road when it had last been daylight.  Shin didn’t use a lot of gasoline, and had only really started producing and refining it for Gimel at Goddess’s behest, as part of deals struck before Gold Morning.  Cauldron, Chris had said.

People milled around the stalled traffic on that raised throughway that took cars over three-story buildings and hills.  Those people were Shin service workers with shovels and brooms, weaving between cars to get snow off of the roadway.  With the platform being raised, lacking railings or dividers between the edge and the city below, it produced a constant plume of white.  A slash of the dull red of taillights captured by the thick snowfall, plumes of white turned dark gray by darkness.

“A slash of human misery and desperation,” Marquis said.  Amy jumped a bit, realizing he was beside her.  “White snow flowing down and out like pus from the wound.  All of it surrounded by warning, alarming red, like blood.”

“Poetic,” she said, “uncomfortable.”

“Always,” Marquis answered, smiling.  His long brown hair had collected enough wet snow to make a snowball.  Her own hair probably had too, she realized.  They had the same hair, especially now that he had gone into exhaustive depth about how she should manage her hair so it wouldn’t be a mass of dull brown frizz.

“It sounds so dark, the way you put it.”

“It is,” Marquis said.  He touched her hair, hand running down the back of her head.  “It’s dark before dawn.  Sometimes we need to take a scalpel to the wounds.  A transplant requires a bit of tough medicine, to prevent rejection, doesn’t it?”

“I don’t want to be the tough medicine,” Amy’s voice came out more unsure than she meant it to.

“If it comes down to it, my daughter,” Marquis murmured, his voice just for her.  “I’ll be the tough, you can be the medicine.”

Amy nodded, noncommittal, not wanting to say anything that might prolong the uncomfortable part of the conversation.

Mark was looking.  She looked at him, and felt Marquis’s hand pull away.  He walked over to Chris again.

Whichever one she talked to or favored in the moment, it felt like she was betraying the other, and yet she had no loyalty to either of them.  They had both let her down when it counted.  Neither had been there.  Now they were here but they weren’t-

Amy stopped herself.  The anger she felt stirred in her chest and she pressed her hand over her heart, as she fought to quell it.

There were a few others on the street, but it was ten to seven, and it was cold enough people were taking their time to get where they wanted to be.  Shin tended to be very informal when formality wasn’t stipulated, and that included roads without lanes or signage, that trusted people to fend for themselves and watch where they were going.  It meant the work week was often a flexible thing.  Obviously someone couldn’t not go to work at all, but arriving a few hours late, staying an extra few hours?  That was fine.

A girl, who couldn’t have been more than eleven, stepped back in alarm as Chris’s shaggy gray form emerged from the flurry of snow.  Instinctively, reactively, she bowed into a kind of curtsy.  The mother seemed paralyzed, caught between getting the child to straighten and not wanting to offend, and ended up bowing as well, head down, as the group passed.  The smaller children simply looked bewildered.

Until Hunter approached, energetic, and bowed too, hands extending forward as part of the bow.  Nervous, they took her hands, and Hunter straightened, lifting their hands and pulling them to a standing-straight position again.

If they’d been reassured by the gentleness of the action, it didn’t show.  It was easily possible the manic look in Hunter’s eyes unnerved them.

Hunter half-skipped, half danced away from the family.  Catching up with the rest of the group for the twelfth time.

Marquis caught her, with his own bit of flourish and reaching hand.  Hunter accepted, and Marquis drew the girl closer, one hand on her shoulder, steadying her, bending low to say something.

And for another instant, Amy could fuzz her eyes, look past Hunter but still see her, snow in blonde hair, snow in eyelashes, a smile on her face, no care in the world.

Just about everyone recharged in their own separate ways, Amy mused.

Hunter wasn’t one of those people.  In this state, she had no recharge or need to recharge, drawing energy from a bottomless well.  It made her hard to deal with, because they had to take shifts to keep an eye on her. Most often, it was Amy and someone else.  Amy and Marquis.  Amy and Mark.  Amy and Chris.  Each came with their own anxieties.  Marquis was the bad influence.  Chris the worse one.  Mark was too good an influence, which made Amy think he’d turn Hunter against her.  She hadn’t wanted to brainwash the girl, that wasn’t how she operated.  She’d kept it at the minimum possible level to keep Hunter in a place where she could help her, and that level was a place where Mark could say the wrong thing or stir doubts.  Too much time with Dot would make this new Hunter even more unhinged.  Too much time with Marquis would make the girl a villain.  Too much time with Chris would make her a monster.  Too much time with Mark would lead to a day Amy got the alert Hunter had run away or gone back home.

Easier to take care of it herself, to take as much time as she could supervising and trying to fix her damn power’s mess.  Amy would never say it out loud, but she was the closest thing to a sane person here, just about the closest thing to a good person when all of her good deeds were taken in aggregate.  The most human, in all her flaws.  And she was steadfast, she didn’t run, she stuck to her commitments.

Hunter needed her.

Dot slept, and she slept a lot, and she burned that energy in fits and bursts.  Amy envied that life, in a way.  She would have liked to be able to sleep easily.  To not spend nights battling her thoughts and doubts, fighting to find that one thing to cling to that would let her get through the night, so she could get through the next day.  Because if she couldn’t get through the next day, it implied mistakes, it implied the world had beaten her down enough, harangued and harassed her, to the point that she stumbled.  And a stumble meant more nights wrestling with her thoughts.  It meant more nights spent having to find that one thing she could say to herself that would let her rest easy.

Chris needed time alone.  Simple enough.  Amy could kind of understand that.  Maybe in another universe, that would be her.  Not now, not when anxiety swelled with every second spent on her own.  She had spent very little time alone over the years, going from being with her biological mother to Marquis to the Dallons, to being with Victoria much of the time.  The times she’d first been truly alone had been when Victoria had been starting to date Dean, the next logical step in Carol’s 1001-step plan to train Victoria to be a classic superheroine.

Having Dot around helped.  It meant she was rarely truly alone, even if her company was someone who could be sucking on a lollipop big enough to fill the entire interior of her mouth in one moment, and sitting in a corner crunching the bones and chewing on the gristle of some mouse she’d just killed in the next.

Marquis, for lack of a better way of getting it right in her head, luxuriated.  Tea, a nice drink at a nice establishment, an evening with a refined woman or spent refining one, or sitting and reading fine literature, which all seemed more exhausting than recharging to Amy.  Shin was a new place with new things for the foreign aesthete to explore.  Clothing was the most recent area of study, and he had a new article of clothing every time she saw him.  One in three times she saw him, he would have a gift for her.  The coat and scarf she wore now were his gifts to her.  He could give her those gifts and gently worded support and reassurance, but he couldn’t help her find a way to recharge.  They were similar in so many ways, but not in that.

Mark fought an uphill battle, with exercise, time alone and time with others seeming to carry him two steps forward, one step back.  He seemed better about it when he was with Carol, but he wasn’t always a better person with Carol.  She could kind of understand and empathize with that.  He didn’t give her any answers, but he gave her reassurance that at least someone else was struggling.

No.  Recharging wasn’t easy.  Different for everyone, hard to impossible for some.  Amy had it hard.

Like Mark, Amy had a few things that could help in small ways, but in isolation, it a two steps forward, one step back thing.  That might have sounded like it was still progress, but it wasn’t.  Not when the rest of the world dragged her down, when things went wrong, like they had with Hunter, like political shifts, Goddess getting more aggressive, and Teacher’s maneuvering.  Breakthrough coming for a visit.

So it became one step forward, two steps back, in the end.  Decline, pressure, misery, those fucking disappointed looks that people gave her, whether they were her own family, professionals, or the party leaders of Shin who had talked to Miss Militia.  A forced downward spiral that took away her focus at a critical moment, or made her slip in her word choice.  Not that she’d ever been ‘gifted with gab’, as Marquis put it.

Amy pressed her hand over her heart, looking at that image of Hunter, still enough in this moment she could be looked at from behind and mistaken for Victoria.

If all she had were glimpses and pretending, then that was what she would nourish herself with.  To recharge, to fight back against that losing battle where the world fought so hard against her.

Chris had had his laboratory moved to the capitol, to be closer to the portal in case something happened.  In response, a lot of the capitol had moved away.  It left some room for Gimel’s population to settle, but for the most part, buildings were being emptied and left empty.  Dark in the gloom of pre-sunrise.

Well, by the look of it, the sunrise was starting.

They had been given a few buildings, and one of those buildings was the dormitory, for lack of a better way of putting it.  It was an apartment, a building brutal in how its architecture had been carved out, like much of the rock had been left raw.  The opposite face was refined, decorated with the faint relief of one quarter of a stone face, a wide-open eye, brow, forehead, and part of a nose.

Adjacent, squat and low to the ground, was Chris’s lab. Atop it was a disproportionately large woman, kneeling with head bowed, hair hiding her face, hands clutched to her chest.

Amy hadn’t asked for it and hadn’t ever said anything about it, but for that statue alone, she was secretly glad that this was their starting point for what came next.

They filed into the lab, pausing in the lobby to shake off the worst of the snow.  The shaking stirred Dot awake.  Amy was brushing away the snow that had collected at the tops of her boots when Dot stretched, side of her body against the nape of Amy’s neck, entire body trembling with the force of the stretch.  She wormed her way out of the scarf.

“Nothing important’s happening,” Amy told the girl.  Her own heartbeat betrayed the lie.  She clarified, “Not just yet.”

The lobby was dark, with desks meant to be staffed by receptionists, were the building serving its original purpose.  They walked past them to the stairwells, which led up to the second floor, and down into the more expansive basement.

Chris tapped a button with a monstrous paw.  Lights flared dark orange, then changed to a softer glow.

The lab had people in pods.  Not many- ten.  All of the people were nearly identical.  Androgyne, with features, skin color, and proportions that looked like they had been pulled from the average of the world’s population.  The stock had been from a slave class created at Bianca’s instruction.  Easily trained, docile, and expendable.  They looked human, but Amy had investigated, and she had verified, they had less emotional intelligence and less self than even a dog.  Intelligence in other, necessary ways, yes.

All short haired, all fairly tan by default, all wearing what looked like white t-shirts and boxers, with a stripe of red down the center of each shirt, down the sides of each set of boxers.

As part of her negotiation with Chris, she had made the treatment of these creatures a major point.  For the most part, they were kept warm, happy, entertained, and safe.  If Chris wanted to experiment on one, he had to ask.

Which served a double purpose of ensuring Chris didn’t disappear into his labs altogether, never emerging again.  He had to maintain connections.

Chris loped over, opening four pods.  “Four to start?”

He was already in the midst of the lab, but Amy had stopped halfway down the stairwell, with an overview of it all.

“I don’t-” Amy started.  She stopped herself, glancing up at Marquis, who had just stepped through the threshold to the .  “Okay.  Four to start.”

Assertiveness.

Two boys, two girls.  One woke at the sound of Chris’s voice.  The rest woke when he opened the tinted glass pods.  Temperature controlled, with airflow.

Then he opened another.  Waking a girl.  He cast a glance up in Amy’s direction, challenging.  Like he was testing something, checking something.

“Why that one?” she asked.

“Just in case,” he said.  The four he’d already woken looked wary at how large he was, but when he pointed, they ducked their heads down and hurried

“You’re being cagey again, Lab Rat,” Marquis commented, from the top of the stairwell.

“I’m always cagey.”

“You’re always cagey when you’re the subject of a conversation, but you’re aggressive when someone else is.  If you’re being cagey, that means this is about you.”

“Mistakes happen.  If we need to do a quick replacement of one that goes to pieces, I’d rather have a fifth prepped and waiting.  If you think this is about me, it’s about me knowing I’m not perfect.”

“No,” Marquis said.  “That’s not it.”

“Well, if you’re not going to put your finger on what it is, can I get to work?”

Amy had wanted to come to look at the would-be patients.  The slave stock.  To make sure she was a part of this, and do what vain little she could to keep it on a good course.

“What can I do?” she asked.

Chris rumbled, “Nothing.  Right now, I have to turn on the generators.  Prep them, load up the programs.   I’ll be half an hour.”

“I’m worried about you doing things in secret.”

“Trust me,” Chris said.  “There’s nothing I can do in twenty minutes that’s even close to the scale we’re talking about.”

Amy glanced at Marquis, who smiled.  “I believe him.”

“I like how you check with your father,” Chris taunted. “You told me once it was you in charge.”

“A second opinion from a trusted party is smart.  I wouldn’t think less of her,” Marquis said.

“Do you know what’s smarter?” Chris asked.  “Trust nobody.”

“Perhaps.  But for now, I’ll check on our soldiers.  Let’s see if they woke up when called.  If this works, spies and telltale cameras will tell our opposition what we’re up to, and they may react.  Let’s ensure we’re ready if they come for us.”

“Don’t stir up anything with my picks.”

“I’ll tell them to get ready and stand by, nothing else,” Marquis said.  “If I say anything else, Flashbang can handle it.”

Again, it sounded taunting, aimed at Chris, aimed at Mark.

Mark, unresponsive, turned around and left, going the way he’d come.

Amy watched for a few minutes longer.

Doing what Riley had done, prior to Gold Morning.  Which had led into Valkyrie’s flock in the second attempt.

Just… with less of a mind to preserving the masks, as Hunter had termed them.

“Hunter and I are stepping outside,” Marquis said.  “We need to have a conversation.”

“Do I need to be a part of this conversation?”

“No,” he said.

Amy nodded, stiff.  That anxiety crept its way in, taking hold.  She had no legitimate reason to mistrust him, but…

“I’ll come.  Can I come?” Dot piped up.  “I want to hang with Hunter.”

“It shouldn’t be a problem,” Marquis said.

Dot leaped across to the highest stair she could reach, crossing about four or five stairs at once.  Once she landed, though, climbing was hard.  There was no railing, and each stair was almost as tall as Dot was.  She bounced up, stair by stair, until reaching Hunter’s foot, at which point she scrambled up Hunter’s side, into Hunter’s coat.

Marquis and Hunter left.  The last glimpse Amy had of Hunter was of her smiling, laughing, as Dot sprang up from her coat collar.

Leaving Amy alone, for the most part.

She watched as Chris did his thing, efficient in his movements despite his monstrous form.  Typing, adjusting chemicals and pumps, then typing more.

“The fifth one is for you,” Chris intoned.

Amy stiffened.  She looked at the one patient who was still sitting in her pod.  The others were drinking medication Chris had given them.  Preparation.  He’d walked her through a mock version of the process a week ago.

“You’ve thought about it,” Chris said.  “Marquis thought this was a selfish move for me.  It might be.  This is important and I don’t trust you to not get in the way when it counts.  You have selfish moves you want to make, too.  Make them.”

Amy felt her balance shift, like she might fall into or down the stairs, or over the railing-less edge onto the hard floor below.

She twisted, touching the wall for stability, and headed up the stairs.

“Amy,” he said.

She stopped, setting her jaw, not looking at Chris or the patients.  “How many more minutes?  Twenty?”

“There are very few people who know how this all fits together.  Who know what it might look like in twenty-four hours.  The world is going to end again.  Again, you know what’s coming.  This time you’re in a position to get in front of it.”

“I won’t get in the way,”she said.  Too quiet for an ordinary person to hear, but the shape he wore had good ears.

She felt so fucking alone.  Dot’s absence, Hunter’s presence, Marquis and Mark as two people each with maybe forty percent of a functional father in them.

“Breakthrough will be there.  You will run into Antares.  You won’t get in the way at this stage, but what happens then?”

Amy clutched at her chest with the one hand, fingernails digging into breast and collarbone, short as they were.

“If you think there’s some kind of disaster looming, I could call this off,” Amy said.  She looked down at Chris.  “You need me for the last step, don’t you?”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about.  Thanks for bringing it to surface.  Hunter’s not wrong, about her talk of masks, and what happens when someone like you takes the mask off.”

He was going to say something else, but Amy fled.

Upstairs, into the lobby.  She had no warm little goblin to keep her scarf snug against her neck or around her ears, and as she stepped out into the cold, lonely snowstorm, she couldn’t get her scarf to a good position.

She saw the army.  Men and women with masks, wearing winter clothing.  The ones who’d stepped outside had done so to smoke.  They were awake after all, ready if they were needed.  No sign of Marquis or Hunter.

Dot would tell her what Marquis and Hunter had talked about.  Dot couldn’t keep secrets to save her life.  Not unless those secrets pertained to her Queen or her King.

Amy ventured toward the villains, but she wasn’t sure she trusted herself.  She didn’t trust them, and she’d placed biological imperatives in each of them, to quiet bloodlust and regulate emotion.  The last week had been her final push to get that done.

But Chris’s words chased her, bothered her more than they should have.

The idea that Breakthrough was out there and Breakthrough was involved was enough that she worried she might panic.  Deadlines, pressure, and a pressing need to be better, before she saw Victoria again.  Because Victoria would see anything, anything as an excuse.

And as that idea and deadline took hold, Chris’s words, she felt, were tugging her the opposite way.

It had been a little while since she’d felt this way during the daylight hours.  Pre-Birdcage, Gold Morning.  The family barbecue.  Visiting Antares in prison.  Like she felt in the small and lonely hours of night, alone with thoughts she didn’t like, desperately trying to penetrate that horrible, confused mess, to gather ideas around herself that made it make sense and made it something she could handle.

The alternative, when those moments came, was that she didn’t find the magic answer.  That her body or her power would do something on impulse.  That she’d force something when precision was needed, or instinct would take over, and she’d find herself behind an angry Victoria that wouldn’t even look at her.  And the prison-

She shook her head.

She could handle it.  Because there was no other choice.

I’m not crazy, she told herself.  Where was Hunter, where was Dot?

I’m a good person, she thought.  Where was Mark?

I can manage this.  Where was Marquis?

She found herself heading toward the villains, but that in itself was anxiety-inducing, especially when she didn’t feel like herself.

“Amy!” the voice was distant.

Her dad’s voice.

And she didn’t think of Mark as being her dad often.  Only when she needed the label, and only when she was in need, like a desperate child reaching out for a parent.

Mark was outside another building, talking to a gray-haired woman who was smoking a cigarette.  He was smoking too, Amy realized, and that kind of surprised her.

Just a block away, past snowfall too heavy to see anything distinct in, Amy could see the dull red haze of traffic.

“What’s this?” Amy asked.  She sounded nothing like a Red Queen, entirely like an Amy.

This is a woman from Gimel’s government,” Mark said.  “She’s managing the influx of refugees.  It was Elizabeth Bagley, I think?”

The woman nodded.  Amy still felt bewildered.  The woman held out a hand.  “Directions, gas, medication, keeping traffic clear-”

Amy took hold of the hand.  Elizabeth Bagley’s biology, top to bottom, even vague brain structure, cell life, the cultures in her gut, all flooded into Amy’s awareness.

“-But none of that would be possible without your help.”

“I didn’t really do much,” Amy said.  She felt like she hadn’t changed an iota from when she’d been Panacea.

How many others heard their superhero name, past or present, and cringed, thinking of how weak they had been?

“The medication was your doing, wasn’t it?  We’re handing out one pill to everyone waiting to come through.  They won’t get sick for a year, we’re told?”

“The monoculture,” Amy murmured.  “They won’t get sick for a year, maybe two years.  When they do, they should already have some antibodies against local pathogens.”

“It’s a lifesaver.  You’re a lifesaver,” the woman said.  She held Amy’s hand in both of hers.  “I know someone in the Wardens, I know most of what they do passes without comment or congratulations.  I didn’t want that to be the case here.”

Amy nodded.  The words meant so much more than the woman could have known.

Closing her eyes for a moment, she focused on that point of contact.  She cleared the woman of pre-cancerous lesions she could see in the brain and gut, stemming from a parasite that had come cross-portal in the wake of the portal attacks.  It was something authorities had already begun warning people to get checked for, before other distractions had mandated the evacuation.  A month or two of chemotherapy or radiation would have probably done the trick, but they would have been miserable, pain-filled months.  The brain cancer in particular could have caused permanent damage.

They exchanged a few more words, Mark asking about the process, the refugees, and the settlement.  Elizabeth was staying in one of the evacuated buildings close to the portal, to better manage those passing through.

“Thank you again,” Elizabeth Bagley told Amy.

Amy nodded.  “It’s the least I could do.”

“Then I look forward to seeing what you can do if this is what you consider ‘least’,” Elizabeth said, smiling.

Don’t say that, Amy thought, and the thought was strong enough that it overrode any attempt to put words in her own mouth, or to come up with a civil response.

And Elizabeth was already going, heading over to other staff managing refugees.

“I thought you needed that,” Mark said.  Quieter, he said, “It’s why I’m here.  Making sure you have those reminders.”

She wondered how much he was having to remind himself of why he was here.

But she didn’t voice that wondering.

Hunter had been talking about masks, and Amy was starting to see why it was important.  This… this did nothing to nourish that numbness deep inside her, the cold loneliness.  A goblin could warm the back of her neck, a father’s hand on one shoulder could support and have its own warmth, a dad’s hand on the other…

But the mask helped in other ways.  It let her be the healer again, the heroine, when she’d been so close to having nothing between the uncomfortable inner self and the uncompromising outside world.  To have a mask was to have a barrier.  Not thin kevlar and cloth, no hardened ceramics or steel, no decoration.  More like a witch doctor’s mask in the movies, inch-thick at the very least, more like a shield with eyeholes, or an animal skull she could wear while peering through the eyeholes.

Protection.  Defense.

Not just protecting the inside from the out, but the other way around too.

“I want to be a healer, for… just the next twenty minutes.  Take my mind off things.”

“It’s been a little while.  You lost your confidence.  You feel confident again?”

No.

“Yes.  And I need this.”

“I think we can arrange it,” Mark said.  “This way.”

Merciful distraction.  It took her mind off the deadline Chris had implied.  The imminent meeting she wasn’t ready for.

Only once in recent memory had it gone anywhere close to the way she wanted it to.  A fleeting moment, like the stars had aligned.

And when the only people willing to give her any benefit of a doubt were villains and lunatics, when even Victoria insisted on treating her like she’d done the worst thing imaginable, she was left with the simple question: if she was going to be treated like the worst person imaginable whatever she did, and she was strong enough that if she really cut loose, nobody would stand in her way…

What was really stopping her from forcing those moments?  From making it so life was just a continuous flow of those moments, one after another, the stars permanently aligned?

Except for the fact that she was a good person.

One Week Ago

“You misunderstood,” Amy said, her voice tense.

“My English is quite good, Red Queen,” the Doctor replied.  “Both you and the Lab Rat were clear in your expectations.  I faced a risk, being so close to someone this powerful and unpredictable, doing what I did.”

“She’s going to be so mad,” Amy said, quiet.  “You misunderstood.”

The doctor looked like he was getting incensed.  But he stopped short of yelling at her.

“Would you leave us alone?”

“So you do want this?” the doctor asked.  “At least don’t pretend you didn’t, or that-”

“Please,” Amy said, firmer.

The doctor went silent.

And then he left.

The door banged closed.

Amy turned to look at Victoria, who slept on the cot.  Unconscious.

Dot clambered up Amy’s neck, peering over her shoulder.

And Amy reached up, touching Dot’s face, finding Dot’s lips, where there wasn’t as much fur to reach past with her power.

Dot playfully bit Amy’s finger, and the contact with tongue was sufficient for Amy to tranquilize the goblin.

She set Dot aside, on the tray of medical instruments, gently, tugging the little goblin’s colorful dress into place, so it wouldn’t ride up or cut off circulation.

“I just wanted a moment with you where you weren’t being unreasonable or glaring.  Being accusatory, holding on to old grudges.  Carol still hates Marquis, you know?  You got the grudge thing from her.  And he never really hurt her.  Never attacked her.  He did what he needed to do in the moment, ran his gang like a business in a time period when violent criminals like the Teeth and Slaughterhouse Nine had kind of been the norm.  He gets a bit of credit for bringing a measure of civility to Brockton Bay.”

Victoria was utterly still in repose.  This moment was the eye of the storm, the stars aligning, all thanks to a doctor who hadn’t listened to her, or who had taken a suggestion from Lab Rat.  Preceded by Victoria barging into the prison, and sure to be followed by more rage, more grudges.  Maybe.

But for the moment?  She could force everything out of mind and she could exist in the now.  For the first time in four years she didn’t feel like half a person.

She hadn’t wanted this, after all.

But she’d needed it.

“From the way Carol detests him, you’d think he was worse than the Slaughterhouse Nine.  He wasn’t anything close to perfect, but he wasn’t as bad as them.  Daughter and daughter, we’re playing out the exact same storyline.  The insane thing is, if you took away artificial barriers, heroine and villain, they would get along, I think.  It would be an antagonistic friendship, I think that’s just who my father is, but…”

Amy sat on the edge of the bed.  She looked down at Victoria’s arm, which was limp, marred with so many individual scars, wounds.  The more injured hand was bandaged.

Each one of them a rebuke to Amy.  A lasting pain that could have been healed.  Amy held her hand out, tattooed, marked with strands of gold, like the hair draped over the pillow.

“…It’d be exactly the same for us.  We’d get along again, given a real chance.”

Amy touched Victoria’s arm.  A furrow of scar tissue.  Victoria’s image leaped into her mind, top to bottom.  The fatigue, the injuries, the muscles and the muscle memory.  She could tell Victoria had been in physio, that Victoria was taking medication before bed to make it easier to sleep.  Small, controlled amounts.

Amy removed the gouges in Victoria’s right arm.  The muscle damage.  The tears.  Scuffing at the knuckles where Victoria had thrown a few too many punches.  Knitting skin together with care and tenderness.

Bruising at the ribs.  Lung damage from inhaling smoke, a few weeks ago.

Amy touched the side of Victoria’s face.  Eye damage from too many bright lights or flares.  Victoria didn’t have Carol’s resistance to flashes.  The eye was a complex machine.  Amy fixed it.

Then the other arm.  A bullet wound in the bicep.  Healed over, but the muscle would never be as strong as it had once been.  And the most recent wound, the skinning of the back of Victoria’s hand.  The degloving of two fingers.  The skin wouldn’t heal.  Too much abuse, too recently.

Amy unwrapped the bandage as she regrew skin.  She pulled stitches free, and took the skin that was being pushed free by the new growth.  She paused, noting the missing fingernail, and picked through sheets for a few seconds, trying to find where it had fallen.

Didn’t matter.  If Amy couldn’t find it, Victoria wouldn’t either.

What mattered was that lying there, sedated, Victoria seemed to rest just a little bit easier.

Amy gave Victoria love again.  She reached for the brain and she took down walls with more care than she had the last time.

She stared down at Victoria’s face, burning it into memory.  She wanted to think it looked just a bit more at ease than it had been when the pain and the tension had been lifted, and the body wasn’t working so hard on the little things.  That the micro-adjustments in Victoria’s face were because a girl with love in her heart slept better than one without.

Leaning over, hesitating for one second, she bent down, and kissed Victoria on the lips.  Letting go of Victoria’s arm, she made the kiss the single point of contact, through which she kissed Victoria’s whole being.

She lay down on the cot, her face inches from Victoria’s, her hand at the side of Victoria’s face.

If she took too long, she knew, Victoria would wonder and suspect.

So she gave herself fifty-nine seconds like this.  Shy of a minute, because a minute felt like a milestone, and a milestone felt like an excuse to take more seconds, a second minute.

Her hand found Victoria’s arm, and as she sat up, pulled away, her fingers traced a line from elbow to fingertip.  And in the course of that journey, she restored Victoria’s internal barriers and grudges, she let the artificial healing dissolve, and the wounds return.  The wound at Victoria’s hand slurped up the stitches, which swam through skin like they might through water, finding their place.

“See?” Amy asked, her voice a whisper.  “I’m in control.”

A flicker of Hunter passed through her mind’s eye.  The manic look in the child’s eye.

She pushed it out of mind.  Too dangerous to dwell on.  Small mercies it hadn’t happened while she’d been going through the motions of proving to herself and to Victoria’s body that there wouldn’t be any repeat occurances, which was-

Her hand trembled slightly.  She rubbed it with the other, thumb hard as it massaged the hand, rubbing along the golden portions of the tattoos.

-not even a factor.  With this personal victory, this triumph, she had all the confidence in the world that the next time she saw Hunter, she would be able to mend what was broken.

“I’m in control.  So there’s no need to be afraid.”

Now

“Don’t be afraid.  Be calm,” Amy murmured.

She was working blind, in a way.  A monitor to the left showed one series of waves and numbers.  A monitor to the right showed another.  Strings of A, G, C, T.

One adjustment, and the screen to the left shifted, flaring red, or shifted, flaring green.

Step by step, getting the measures and recordings to match the ones on the right.

She did other work.  Altering the body, helping it on its way.  Altering the mind.  Bringing it up to speed.  This figure had been dumber than a dog, before, less personality, and now… very close to human.  A man, now.

“We’re close enough,” Chris said, so close behind her that she could feel his hot breath on her neck.  Her skin crawled.

“Personal space, Chris.”

He snorted, which was pronounced, because his form was anteater-like, with a pronounced snout.  Large ears, and narrow eyes.  Its torso, however, was cadaverous, ribs exposed, organs and other sacs floating in a clear blob that the ribcage and pelvis held.

He stepped away, and he picked up a syringe, which was attached to a hose.

“Do what you can to steer,” he said.  “But control is paramount.”

Amy looked back over her shoulder.  Mark wasn’t there.  He was looking after Hunter.  Marquis was there.  Which was fitting, considering this didn’t feel like something a good person would be pulling.

The sound of machines chugging to life drew her attention back to what she was doing.  Fluids were flowing in…

And she was suddenly working in a flowing river.  Form became mutable, less something solid she was changing, and more something fluid she was trying to hold on to.

Control was paramount, as Chris had said.  Control meant the brain, the blocks, the loyalty and obedience.

The figure grew.  Not so unusual for what Lab Rat usually did.

But this growth… it was an unmasking.  As Hunter had implied, these were people with nothing but the powers and the meat to hold those powers in this world.

Where Hunter had gone wrong was that Amy had been in charge of the girl, had altered the mind to alter the power, and let something in by accident.  Removing it was too hard, because what had opened could not be closed.

Now they did the same thing, but with form.  They did it intentionally.

“Who is it?” Amy belatedly asked, as the figure grew so tall she could touch only the leg.

“Chevalier.  Courtesy of one trip Breakthrough made to the Warden’s Headquarters.  I had my ‘gaming device’ with me.  Stole a scan of the big man.”

The man moved.  A giant, now.  And as he moved, she could feel how he existed in three places at once.  Overlapping, shifting qualities between forms.  She could feel through him how he touched the floor and sensed its qualities, reached out for the wall-

“Don’t!” she called out.  She pulled away, stepping back.

The giant obeyed.  Second by second, however, it continued to come apart.  She worried it would collapse into constituent parts, but it didn’t.  A storm of overlapping identities and bodies.  And one piercing eye, as it focused its gaze and looked down at her.

With every step she took backwards, the figure seemed to clarify.  She took a step forward, and saw it separate apart again.

Not wholly of this world’s rules.  Closer to Chevalier’s power than Chevalier himself.

One giant leap closer to having their hands in the meat and gristle of this alien biology.  When she looked at Chris, the man was smiling.  Her own heart pounded, and she didn’t not feel like smiling, herself.

It was a victory.  She laid her hand over her heart, fingers digging in.

We did it.

Did you want me to do this, Princess Shaper? she asked, knowing her power would never answer.  Was that why it was easier than fixing my sister’s body?

Of course there was silence.

“Three more,” Chris said.  “Then we break for lunch.  Seven more by the end of the day.”

Amy nodded, exhaling.

“Shin’s leadership will be happy.  Tools and weapons like these.”

Amy nodded.

“I’ll pass on the good news,” Marquis said.  “I’m sure they’re anxious.”

“Thank you, Marquis,” Chris said, sounding too formal, simultaneously almost jovial, even though the eye contact he made with Amy was level, cold.

The door closed above them.  Amy stared up at the shifting giant.

It had to be Endbringer strong.

They would have nine more by the day’s end.

“If you wanted to treat yourself, I wouldn’t begrudge you,” Chris said.

“I don’t-” Amy started.  “No idea what you mean.”

He lunged, moving closer, and she backed up.  She gave a thought to asking the shifting giant for help, and then thought twice of it.  If it was as strong as she suspected, it would destroy everything in the course of saving her.

She backed up until she hit a wall.  The bestial Chris planted a hairy paw to the right of her head, another paw to the left.

“Personal space,” she said, and the words were tense.  No words came out as Chris moved his prehensile nose to her shirt collar, pushing it aside.

Pushing past bra strap-

She jolted, hand lunging forward, to his mouth.  To lip-

The prehensile nose caught her arm, twisting her fingers back.  Too hairy to use her power through.  Her knees bent.

“Don’t be stupid,” he said.  “This is a friendly gesture from me.”

“Don’t touch her,” Amy hissed.  She was as ready to use her power to harm as she had ever been.

He pulled at her collar, moving it aside, then moved her bra strap, so it crossed the bridge of her shoulder.  There was nothing sexual to the action.

Just… exposing that little section of skin that Amy had picked up a week ago, pulsing softly as it breathed, resting at the space over her heart.  It hugged her skin, drinking the nutrients off of her skin, and eating the bacteria.

“If you haven’t corrupted the DNA, you could use it.  I’ve looked over Bonesaw’s work with the clones, I could try implanting memories.  You can have Victoria, with all the memories you want her to have, or none of the memories you don’t want to have.  Guilt free.”

“No,” Amy said.

“Why not?”

“Because this is enough.”

“Is it?” he pressed her, his monstrous face too close to hers.

It wasn’t.

“It’ll have to be,” she said.

“If you tell me no now, if you won’t turn our tidy little human-shaped package of human-derived cells over there into a Victoria that satisfies you, I don’t want you to go off the deep end when the other Victoria Dallon shows up.  Because she will.”

“I’ll manage.”

“I don’t think you will.”

“Being near me makes her miserable.  Being near her makes me miserable, because she’s so fucked up, she’s surrounded by all the wrong influences, and I can’t fix that without outright kidnapping her.”

“So kidnap her.”

“And have the Wardens after me?  The rest of Breakthrough?”

“You’re strong enough.”

“I’m- maybe.  But I’m not good enough, not from a skill standpoint.  I’m not a natural heroine.  But I think I am good.  I am capable of saying… it would make too many people too unhappy.”

“My opinion?” Chris asked, his voice a growl.  “You’re lying to yourself.  Same as when you said you could fix Hunter.  Same as when you said you could fix the politician with an ear taking up half his head.  Same as when you failed to fix Victoria, and embarrassed just about every biology-manipulator, doctor, and tinker in the western hemisphere.  You’re telling yourself one thing, living in the latest daydream, but the moment you turn around and face reality… you’re going to mess up.”

He was provoking her.  Baiting her.

“You set rules for yourself,” he hissed each word.  “But your rules exist for nothing… except to be broken.”

She stared him down, still angry.  This- This had been just for her.  The one time in her life that she’d allowed herself to be selfish.

“The politicians from Shin are going to want to see our handiwork,” she said.  “It would be best if you let me get decent.”

He let go, releasing her, and he walked away.  A needle plunged into his neck, prompting the start of a change to another form.  He’d wanted the prehensile nose, she imagined, to sniff out Victoria’s location.

“Fuck reality,” Amy said, to his back.  Chris stopped.

I have no mask, not for the moment.

She fixed her bra strap, being careful to put it where it helped support that small trace of Victoria she kept with her without pinching anything, then began buttoning up her top again.  “We’re making interdimensional weapons of war.  Let’s put this reality as far behind us as we can.”

Chris rumbled, a sound that could have been a chuckle or a rueful sound.

“Next subject,” he growled out the words.  “It’s someone you know.”

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From Within – 16.y

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Months Ago

She stopped at the door, peering through the glass pane, and exhaled slowly, trying to calm her nerves.

She was surrounded by people who were so good at this.  She had always been surrounded by people who were so good at this.  But whatever genes were supposed to be imparted, whatever lessons were meant to be instilled, she still had to gather her composure before entering a room with people in it.

One person, in this case.  The Warden’s Headquarters had some massive statues in the lobby, several stories tall, and this part of the second and third floors was essentially a series of catwalks forming half-circles around the statues, with a view of the lobby below.  At this hour, long after most employees had gone home, there were only a half dozen people visible on the catwalks above and the floors below.

It made her think of the hospitals, doing her rounds.

She pressed her hand against the door but didn’t push, stopping to look at the tattoos, the clone-grown fingertips Riley had made for her.  Bold black lines and spaces filled in with crimson.  Gold tracery, far more fine, subtle but omnipresent, extending from the sun further up her arm.  It was bolder than an ordinary tattoo might be, the gold close to actual gold.

A reminder.  It still hurt every time.  It still brought back memories of her lowest point.

Another breath.  She’d been struck by the thought, one night in the Birdcage, that if it wasn’t her biological father or the Dallons that she’d gotten this anxiety and quiet nature from, it had to be her biological mother.  It had been a relief, a piece falling into place, and in one fell swoop, the anxiety had seemed… easier?

She had brought it up with her father, not excited, but calm, a bit assured in a way she usually wasn’t.  And he had smiled.  Just a smile, no words, careful and arranged.  She’d known him well enough to know that it was because words would betray and a smile let her keep believing.  From that smile onward, she hadn’t kept believing.  She took the details she knew and the things he had told her already and picked apart the notion.  Her mother had been a cape groupie, with more of a sense of adventure than common sense.  Bold and brave enough to raise her for the five or so years before returning to face Marquis, show him the ropes, and get them used to each other.  Hardly someone who hesitated before walking into a room with one person in it.

This wasn’t quite like usual, she told herself.  The stakes were higher.

She pushed on the door, stepping out onto the pathway that looked out over the lobby.

The space always looked like it was the twilight of earliest morning or cusp of evening.  The dark statues were lit by soft floodlights and similar lights shone down from the ceiling, though the catwalks above blocked the direct glare.  The windows that did exist were partially shuttered, as a defensive precaution, and didn’t account for how big, imposing, and conservatively lit the space was.

One person was on the second floor, that she could see, leaning over the railing, nursing a cup of coffee.  Shorter than average, Asian, with a simple haircut, and clothing choices that were as conservative as could be, while still being very summer-appropriate.  Khaki skirt that extended to the knees with a pleat at each side, a white, short-sleeved blouse with a high collar and no adornments.  The fact she wore a watch suggested she was old fashioned.  Studs for earrings.

The woman -Jessica- straightened, leaving the coffee perched on the railing, workbag on the floor below it.

“Thank you for coming.  I’m Jessica Yamada, in case you didn’t read the email closely,” Jessica said.  “I should ask before we get underway, do you have a name you prefer going by?”

Amy shook her head unconsciously before realizing she was doing it.

People kept asking that.

What was she supposed to even say?

She had her guess as to why she’d been contacted, and if she went by that, then wasn’t ‘Amy’ the best name for the occasion?  “Amy.”

On impulse, starting the action and then feeling there was no option except to follow through, she put her hand out.

Jessica didn’t hesitate.

Jessica’s hand was cool to the touch.  With the skin contact, Amy became instantly aware of every cell in Jessica’s body, every process, every measure and composition of hormone, protein, and lipid chain.  Of bacteria cultures, of viruses trying to assail the greater structure and losing that battle.  She could feel the warmth of the body’s interior, the electricity of nerves firing, from the ones in the brain and what those suggested to the micro-firings that Jessica wasn’t even consciously aware of, that shifted her position by small fractions to keep her balance.

They shook hands.  Amy broke the contact.

“Sorry,” Amy said, looking away and down.  Two women in business wear were talking while looking at the contents of the same file folder, one holding it, the other pointing at a graphic.  Their upper arms touched.

Amy wasn’t looking directly at Jessica, but she didn’t miss that Jessica looked down at her hand, palm turning upward, before asking, “For what?”

“That was a very Marquis thing to do, offering the handshake, putting you on the spot,” Amy said.  “A part of me wanted to see if you were scared.  If you’d flinch before taking my hand, or if you wouldn’t shake it at all.”

“Should I have?” Jessica asked.

“No.  I didn’t do anything, either, if you’re worrying about that.”

Jessica shook her head, walking over to the railing to pick up her coffee.  She leaned against the railing, her back to it.

Amy remained where she was.  Leaning against the same railing seemed too casual, and she didn’t feel casual.  She didn’t have any pockets to slip her hands into, but she didn’t want to clasp her hands or anything.  She focused on adjusting her hair by her ear instead.  It only gave her a few seconds of not looking like she didn’t know how to be human, standing unnaturally in place.

“Can I ask how James and Riley are?” Jessica asked.

“They’re fine, I think.  Usual.  James might be a little bit depressed but I don’t really ever see him, they keep us separated.  Riley is… hard to interpret.  But you didn’t ask to meet me so you could talk about them.”

“I didn’t,” Jessica said.  “But I’m trying not to treat you like a patient, and I thought I might approach you as a colleague.  I am interested, and I thought I’d ask.”

“Okay,” Amy said.  Jessica had walked back a few steps to retrieve her coffee, and Amy wondered if the five or so feet of distance that separated them had been calculated.  It was the kind of chessmaster type move her father might have done.  Having an excuse to retreat.  Which-

“Um,” Amy said.  “My throat’s dry.  Do you mind?  I’ll be right back.”

“Not at all.  Do you need change?”

Amy shook her head.

Vending machine.

She took the time of feeding in the change from her jacket’s inner pocket and collecting her iced tea to sort out her head.  Not her thoughts, but to get to where she could have coherent thoughts in the first place.

She approached the railing, stopping short of leaning up against it.  A noise below gave her an excuse to move closer to the railing and look down.  The same women from earlier.  One of them had thrown something into one of the big stylized trash cans in the lobby.

“Colleagues,” Amy reminded herself by saying it out loud.

“If that’s alright?”

She had no idea if she was being manipulated.  She didn’t have the skillset to even begin figuring it out, or to know what to do if she’d been able to put her finger on it.

If she could re-listen to this conversation with her father, with Marquis, then he could no doubt tell her if the ‘colleague’ thing was a trap, something to get her to let her guard down, or to feign equality when they weren’t equal, when she was being tracked and closely watched by the same people who no doubt paid Jessica.

“It’s alright,” Amy said.  “How are you?  It’s late.  Was it a long day, or-?”

“It was a very long day.  Always is,” Jessica said.  “But I enjoy the work I do.”

“I was wondering if you’d stayed late just to talk to me.  I’m glad if you didn’t.”

“You work long hours too?”

“For a certain meaning of work.  Babysitting, checking work.  Some hospital work.  Some research stuff.  A few initiatives, like seeing if my power can engineer something to their specifications, that will curb the Machine Army’s approach.”

“How did that go?”

“I could.  But they didn’t trust it.  The thinkers reviewed the plan and thought it was a bad idea.  It’s possible the Machine Army incorporates it or adapts to it.  Or there’s something out there that would mutate or twist the pathogen.”

“That’s too bad,” Jessica said, sounding very casual about it.

“I never know what I’m going to do on one day or another.  I wake up, check my emails, figure out if I can sleep in.  Usually I can’t because Riley is a morning person and she wants to start the day.  I’ll have ten emails and five or six will be things people want to talk to me about, and I block out the day.  I get more by lunchtime and more by four.  By the time I’m done, it’s eight o’clock at night.”

“You could say no, if it’s too much.”

“It’s not,” Amy said.  “Like… it’s that, or I go home at five and most of the time I just stay home watching shows with episodes missing, or new shows that seem off because production values haven’t caught up, and new or old, I’ll watch something with a story and it’s just…”

Amy made a frustrated movement with her hands, clenching them.

Jessica looked at her.

“…Dull,” Amy said.  It wasn’t the word she wanted, but she couldn’t think of the word she wanted.

“Not my thing either,” Jessica said.  “It’s very hard for me to find television to watch.  I’d like crime procedurals, but they tend to get too close to home.  I find the dramas dull.”

“Dull’s the wrong word,” Amy said.  “…Numb?”

“Numb?” Jessica asked, propping chin on hand, elbow on railing.  Casual, removed from the professional.

“The emotional moments don’t land.  I’ve seen and lived more intense things than anything I could watch.”

“No other hobbies you could pick up, nobody to meet?  Just… say yes to all the emails?”

“I mean, I say no sometimes.  I’m dating, you know.  Kind of.”

“Are you?”

Amy nodded.  She rested her forearms on the railing and her fingers rubbed at the tension in her hands, like they were trying to follow the lines of the tattoos and wipe them off with enough pressure and repetition.  “That was a whole thing.  I was upfront, let them know I was seeing someone with powers.    They were worried about security, and grilled me about who she was.  I thought… I don’t have a mask, no costume.  Most people who know about cape stuff know who I am.  It wouldn’t be fair to her, because I see her when she’s in civilian clothes.”

“How did they take it?”

“Not well, I guess.  But I’ve stacked up a lot of brownie points, I’ve stuck to their rules, and the amnesty technically applies.  I’m betting they know who she is, but they couldn’t say no to me without admitting the amnesty doesn’t apply equally to everyone.  I pointed out that yes, I did go to the Birdcage, but I went voluntarily.  If I didn’t have any powers at all and I checked myself into the loony bin, wouldn’t I be able to check myself out?”

“Not usually,” Jessica said.

“That’s moronic,” Amy said, more bitterly than she intended.  “It was a temporary thing.”

“Going to the Birdcage could have been a permanent transition.”

Amy drank her iced tea, and the flavor and coldness of it shocked her.  She’d held it this long and hadn’t actually had any of it.  She watched the two women in the lobby leave.  They looked close.

“They shouldn’t have let me demand to go there,” she said, quiet.

“That was then.  Today is today.  How’s the dating going?” Jessica asked.  “If you don’t mind my asking?  I have to live vicariously.”

“Can we like…” Amy clenched her hands again.  “Stop pretending?”

“Pretending?” Jessica asked.

“Or dodging around the big elephant in the room?  Victoria.  I saw her for the first time in a while last night, and now you reach out?  I’ve been talking to Carol and she mentioned you were Victoria’s therapist.  I’d know even if it wasn’t her, so don’t get her in trouble.”

“That’s not what I’m here to do.  I don’t intend to get her into trouble.”

“But you are here because of Victoria.  She hasn’t even talked to me or looked me in the eye, but I got an invitation to the same barbecue she did, and she flipped out.  So… so much that I’m sure she turned around and went to the Wardens and told them how scary and dangerous I am, and made demands.  And maybe you all know it’s ridiculous, but you have to do your due diligence.”

“I can’t talk to you about her.  She’s a former patient and it would be breaching her boundaries.”

“If I sound angry,” Amy said, shrinking down a bit, arms folded over one another on the railing.  “I’m not angry at you.  Just… all of this.  And that’s probably dangerous to say, because you’ll have paper-pushers go over every word of this conversation with a fine toothed comb, highlighting every word that suggests I’m dangerous.  Angry’s gotta be a big one.”

“That’s not what I’m doing.  If there are any recording devices, they’re as big a surprise to me as they are to you.”

“Passing on a message then?” Amy asked, her voice hollow.  “Go away, stay away, I’m a terrible, horrible monster?  I couldn’t hear all of it, but I heard bits.  She treated Carol like a monster for just associating with me.”

“No messages,” Jessica said.  “I think she has made it clear she doesn’t want any contact or relationship, sisterly or otherwise.   That extends to sending or receiving messages through middlemen.”

“Right,” Amy said, her voice terse.

“I think she has gone to great effort to keep her distance from you, to avoid the same events, associated people, and places.  Drawing only from my own conclusions, I think that is incredibly hard on her.  The kindest thing you might be able to do is put in a similar degree of effort, to maintain that distance and separation of your respective lives.”

“You asked about my dating life earlier.  As a colleague?”

“I did.  But as a colleague, I’m hoping you’ll at least acknowledge what I just said.”

“I will, but… let me say stuff first.”

Jessica nodded, sipping her coffee.

“This woman I’m dating is… she’s beautiful, she’s smart, not- not educated, but she’s had to learn about a lot of things, and she picked it up fast.  She’s passionate and stylish, she’s interesting, and… it’s like those television dramas.”

“Numb, you said,” Jessica interjected.

“It’s enjoyable, it has its moments, don’t get me wrong.  But those moments pass, and… it feels like there’s a bit less of everything to everything.  We started it off as an experiment, I was upfront about things, and maybe we’ll taper it off, I don’t know.  I think we could remain friends.”

“I don’t think anyone could know the context of what happened and fault you for taking some time, finding your way back to a comfortable place.”

“I don’t want to take time,” Amy said, a little bit emotional now.  “I don’t want- I don’t want to work from nine until nine every day, and I don’t want to work from nine to five or nine until noon either, with half my day or my evening spent on dates.  I’m not really interested in the… dating part of it.  I want to skip forward.”

“Wanting to skip forward to the part where you’re situated and comfortable is very common, I think.  I’ve heard similar sentiments from people I know, especially introverts.”

“I want to skip forward to the point where I’ve known her for ten years.  Where we’ve been there for each other’s trigger events, where we went to high school, middle school, and most of elementary school together.  And I had that.  I almost had that.”

“I don’t think that’s possible, short of using time travel.  I don’t think you could one hundred percent rule that out, but I think even if you did travel back in time and rewrite history to contrive those scenarios with your new girlfriend in mind… I don’t think you’d have what you really want.”

“No.”

“Can you broaden your hopes and expectations?”

“I tried.  I tried seeing this one girl in the Birdcage.  Ex-mechanic, smaller than me but strong, short black hair, funny, tender.  I didn’t really believe her story about what she did that got her into the Birdcage, but I didn’t really care.  I asked my dad if it was safe to try seeing her and he said yes and…”

Amy trailed off, aware she was rambling.

“…She was my first kiss,” Amy said.  “And it was pretty wow.”

Jessica’s expression changed, and Amy caught it.  She’d had to catch a lot of those little expressions to navigate the household of Carol and Mark.

“What?” she asked.

“I shouldn’t remark, but… I find that surprising.”

“You mean Victoria.”

“I shouldn’t have commented.  I apologize.”

Amy tensed, fists balling up, tattoos tight around her bones.  “I wasn’t me.  I was fresh off of having my fingers eaten, my home destroyed, my life overturned.  Bonesaw tried to break me.  She tried to break Mark.  I wasn’t me.  Victoria wasn’t Victoria.”

Jessica didn’t interject.

“What we did together doesn’t count,” Amy’s words were more a plea than a statement.  “Not when we weren’t ourselves.”

She really wanted Jessica to sympathize.  Needed it.

When the woman didn’t say anything, Amy went on, asserting her voice, trying to sound confident, “It was my first kiss, with Paroxysm, and a few first other things, but that numbness, knowing it wasn’t what I really wanted?  We broke it off about as amicably as you can, when you’re stuck in the same place.  I saw a girl after Gold Morning, too, but that was… not fun.  She was still mourning, I couldn’t help her through it.”

“Okay,” Jessica said.  “I don’t want to lose sight of my suggestion from earlier.  It doesn’t change that you and Victoria would be better off if you both tried to avoid each other.”

Amy could have hit something with the frustration she felt.  “I’m getting back to that.  Listen, I… I can’t be expected to spend the rest of my life alone.”

She felt so lonely, just saying that out loud, and she willed Jessica to see it.  Her chest hurt with it, like physical pain.

“I don’t think anyone is expecting that of you,” Jessica said, her voice quiet.

“I’m being punished, but I’m a victim too.”

“If that were so, I’d still stand by my recommendation of striving to maintain the distance.  You gain nothing by engaging with her.”

“My sister?  My- not being alone anymore?” Amy asked.  How did this woman not get this?

“You have your mother, your father, Marquis.  You’re on speaking terms with Crystal.  I know you have colleagues here.  You’re taking initial steps toward figuring out the kind of relationship you want, and that will take time, and it will be hard, but that’s only natural.  If you need help finding your way there, I have a colleague who would be willing to talk to you.  He opened up one patient slot, he specialized in working with traumatized emergency service workers.  Cops, paramedics, doctors, firefighters.”

Amy felt stung.  “I’m not nuts.  I’m not crazy.”

“You don’t have to be to talk to someone, and it sounds to me like you need to talk to someone.”

“I already am, I get mental fitness checkups with the Wardens, because I spend my time around Riley and people.”

“That’s different.  This would be time set aside for you to talk through those feelings of numbness, your frustration, your fears.  It wouldn’t cost you anything except a couple of hours out of every week, I got permission from the Wardens, they’ll cover it if I say it’s needed.”

“Great!” Amy exclaimed.  “Hey!  That’s fantastic, knowing the guys at the top are signing the papers saying I’m crazy and I need enough help they’ll pay money for it.  Everyone seems to think this, apparently.”

“They don’t have your name.  You talked about brownie points earlier.  I used mine.  That’s all this is.”

“I’m not crazy,” Amy said.  “Really.  I’m lonely.  I had a bad day years ago, I freaked out, and I wasn’t myself for a while.  Now nobody’s willing to forgive me, even people I don’t even know.  And the most fucked up thing about it- excuse me.  I shouldn’t swear here.”

“It’s not a church, Amy.  Some swearing is fine.  But if you’re finding yourself using swear words when you usually wouldn’t, it might be a good indicator we should pause the conversation and calm down.”

Amy drank more of her iced tea.  She pulled the bottle away from her mouth and indicated the statue in the center of the lobby, the motion forceful enough the bottle almost slopped over, despite being only a third full.  “Heroes, right?

“They are,” Jessica said.

You’re a hero,” Amy said.

“I don’t have powers.”

“You don’t need powers to be a hero.  You’re a hero, I think.  I don’t know if you’re a good therapist-” Amy stopped short of saying she suspected Jessica wasn’t a good therapist, given how little Amy felt she was being listened to, but it wouldn’t help anything if she voiced that out loud, “-But you’re a therapist.  You chose that career.  You put a lot of energy and time into helping people who need that help.  Doctors, nurses, I spent a lot of time around them as Panacea.  All heroes.”

“I like that,” Jessica said.

“You’d think heroes, powers or not, would be more forgiving.  You’d think people who have had trigger events would be more forgiving of other people’s traumatic events, where that other person isn’t thinking straight.”

“What happens in the past is the past,” Jessica told her.

“Bull-!” Amy started.  Her expression twisted.  Quieter, she finished, “-shit.”

“It’s what you do moving forward that matters.  Talking to my colleague and taking extra care with boundaries would be a good start.”

“You’re not listening,” Amy muttered.  She wasn’t good enough at playing games to hide the hurt on her face.  She’d wanted Jessica to listen.  “You came here with these things you wanted to recommend because you think it’ll help Victoria, and no interest in hearing out my side.”

“I am absolutely listening, Amy.  I do think you’re a good person.  A hero, even.”

Amy fell silent, staring down into the empty lobby.

“These things I brought up, they’re for your sake, not Victoria’s.  She benefits, sure, but that’s more because we all benefit when we’re all taking care of ourselves.  Victoria as a subject clearly makes you profoundly unhappy.  Distance or a severing of ties is good.”

Amy finished her iced tea, the speed at which she tossed the bottle back made it clink against her teeth.  She was conscious of the minute amounts of pathogens in it.  She could even run her hands down its length and get a sense of where the man who had fed the bottle into the machine had touched it, because he’d left bacteria behind with the faint oils of his hands.

Moving suddenly, Amy passed behind Jessica, giving the woman’s back a sidelong look.

Jessica leaned over the railing, and didn’t even flinch.

Another Marquis sort of move.  Another test.  Either Jessica was very good at bluffing, or she really did think Amy was heroic enough to not worry about the dangerous parahuman with a touch-based power passing within arm’s reach.

Amy dunked the bottle into the recycling bin.

“Thank you for the offer,” Amy said.  “But I’m not crazy, I don’t need your colleague.”

“Again, it’s not for the mentally ill alone.”

“The stuff that isn’t mental illness is the kind of thing they can’t help with.”

“What about coping mechanisms?”

“I’m coping,” Amy said, shrugging.  “I’m going to the mental fitness checkups.  That’s what they pay attention to, isn’t it?  Whether or not I’m coping?”

“It is.”

“I’m not happy, I’m lonely, but coping just means you’re dealing with some difficult stuff.  That’s the difficult, and I’m dealing, according to the people who do the checkups.  Yes?”

“I talked to them before talking to you.”

Great.  More rumors about me losing it.  “And?”

“And they sounded satisfied.”

“And you believe in them?  Your colleagues?  Because oh man, I’ve worked with Riley, I’ve heard about James Rinke, I’ve checked on a few of the others, and if you’re not confident that these guys checking on the guards and staff aren’t really good at what they do, then holy shit, we are fucked.”

“Okay,” Jessica said, hands raised.  “For what it’s worth, I do believe them.  And I believe you.  You say you’re coping well enough, alright.”

They were words Amy hadn’t heard enough.  ‘I believe you’.

“But wouldn’t it be nice to have an established relationship with someone who understands you, in case a day comes tomorrow where you aren’t coping?  I get the sense you regret the last period of time where that happened.  Therapists are very hard to come by in the present era.”

“Are you seeing someone?” Amy asked.

“Can’t we focus on you for the moment?”

“Don’t… dodge me,” Amy told her.  “You said we were colleagues.  As a colleague, are you seeing a therapist?”

“For what it’s worth, I really wish I was.  But like I said, therapists are hard to come by, and I have no time.  I’ve tried, and I’ve seen one or two for one-off events, to make sure I’m approaching them in the right ways.”

“Yeah,” Amy said.  “So maybe, uh, you use your therapist friend?  Keep him and that time slot available for when you have time?”

“Can’t.  We know each other too well.”

“Then give the spot to Victoria,” Amy said.  “Because she’s not coping.  Can- can we talk about her for a second?”

“No,” Jessica’s voice was soft.

“Can I- I’ll talk at you about her, for just a bit.  You don’t have to interject.  You don’t have to do anything.  Just let me say my piece, use it if you think it’s right.”

Not that you will, since you’re a shitty therapist who can’t even hear what I’m saying, Amy thought.

Jessica didn’t budge, didn’t say a word.

“Carol neglected me.  Mark, in his way, neglected me more.  I’ve been thinking about it, and I think that was the kindest thing they could have done for me.  I think that family isn’t healthy, I think they pressured Victoria and that pressure did a number on her.  And the sad, sick thing is, they pressured her to be exactly what she should have been.  Does that make sense?”

Jessica didn’t move or respond.

Amy turned, leaning over the railing, not looking at Jessica.  Easier than trying to talk without any cues to go by.  It was like talking into an answering machine, stumbling over words because the pauses and exchanges weren’t there.

“If she’d been meant to be a basketball player and they pressured her to be a hero, she could have found her way to basketball, I think.  But since they pressured her to be a heroine and she was born to be a heroine, I think, it’s all tangled up.  The lessons, warnings, the conditional love as much as they probably didn’t intend to make it conditional… the complicated feelings, the family, the relationships… I don’t think it’s bias that Gallant was so bad for her.  She didn’t love him.  She just felt like she had to be with him because expectations.  They didn’t let her hide her identity, not that it was really possible.  They made the decision when she was seven and she was brought on talk shows and put in front of cameras to talk about what it was like having superheroes for parents.  I had too much stage fright to do it.  We were local celebrities.”

Her hands rubbed at her tattoos again.  It felt like there was just tattoo, meat, and bone.  No skin.

“Our aunt Fleur- she wasn’t officially our aunt, there was never a wedding, but I really liked her.  She was kind of an outsider like me.  Her body wasn’t even cold when people were putting microphones in front of us.  We were kids.  Not even in middle school.  That fucks you up.”

Amy checked Jessica’s expression.  Nothing.

“Victoria did this thing at the community center and that tells me she still needs to be a hero.  But she’s angry.  If you saw her last night…” Amy said, trailing off.  “Carol says she’s not putting on her costume, she’s doing some thing volunteering with teenagers, helping out around the portals.  Teaching them about capes.  But that’s not enough.  She’s in stasis like that.  She won’t grow, she won’t heal… because she’s not herself.  What I said earlier, about me not being entirely me, and her not being her?  She’s still not herself.  And I admit I played a role in that.”

Fingers rubbed against tattoo.  It always felt like the gold ink should smear.

“She needs to be a hero in a way that doesn’t put that anger front and center.  That doesn’t involve Carol and Mark.  In a way that involves healing and supporting.  Not heroics for justice, not heroics for power.  Not revenge, not monster slaying.  Because that all feeds back into the anger.  I’m not a doctor, I’m not a therapist, but I know her.  I analyzed her enough over the years, believe me.”

Jessica’s empty cup tapped against the railing.  When Amy looked, the woman seemed to be lost in thought.

“Do you want me to take your cup?” she asked.

Jessica handed it over.  Amy deposited it into the recycling bin to her right.

Still no flinch.  That was reassuring.

Even Crystal had flinched at the barbeque last night, and Amy had taken baths with Crystal, once upon a time.

Still hurt.

“Sorry for taking up your time,” Amy said.

“Not at all.  I did invite you to talk.  I just can’t comment, as I said.”

Amy nodded, looking down at her hands.  She’d wanted to maintain a connection to Victoria.  Sun for the past on one arm, for Glory Girl.  The then-present at her hands, red.   And then the future on the other arm, the golden-haired girl.  The fall, the rise, a promise to herself.  A promise to herself, that she would make things right, and that things would be alright again.  Touching Glaistig Uaine had been a moment that had convinced her there was no way that she would remain in the Birdcage.  Not if things came to a head in her lifetime.  And they had.

“Mark Dallon, on one of his visits, made a remark to me that I made a note of.  It’s in a file in a cabinet somewhere on Earth Bet somewhere, no doubt half-buried and soaked in water,” Jessica said.

Amy glanced at the woman.

“He said he didn’t like therapy.  That it hadn’t done anything for him.”

Amy found herself nodding in acknowledgement before she caught herself.

“Carol, if I remember right, was made to attend therapy for a time but abandoned it once she was eighteen.”

“I see what you’re getting at.  She abandoned it because she had Victoria, just for context.”

“You talked about the influence they had on Victoria.  Didn’t they influence you?  Is it at all possible you picked up prejudices as a consequence of how you were raised?”

“Not when they were barely parents to me,” Amy replied, her voice harder.

Jessica nodded, her expression momentarily sad.

Because pity.  Amy wished that pity was for the right reasons.  She felt the urge to make her final appeal, a hail-mary attempt to convince this woman that Carol had described as so important to Victoria.  Because even if Jessica Yamada was a bad therapist, and Amy wasn’t sure now, she was important for other reasons.

“I’m not a bad person.”

“If this is another appeal to tell Victoria anything-”

“No,” Amy said.  “It’s not.  Me to you.”

“Okay.”

“If I was a bad person, this would have all been… so much easier,” Amy explained.  “You know, it’s like conspiracy theories, where someone’s on the street corner, and they’re telling you the government’s after them, CIA, FBI, PRT, there are agendas there’s these convoluted reasons… and you just want to ask, ‘why are you so important they’d focus on you’?”

“I’m sure they would be able to give you reasons.  It’s not so simple as that, Amy.”

“Frustrating,” Amy said, softly.  “Sad.”

“It really is.  It’s a hard reality.  I’m not sure I follow your train of thought, though.”

“I’m saying… you know, there’s this really simple, easy way to decide this.”

“Decide what?”

“Whether I’m a bad person.”

“I told you earlier, I think you’re a hero, doing what you do, by your own standards.  I think you’re a good person at heart, you just need some guidance to be a great person.”

“You-” Amy couldn’t help but huff out a laugh.  “You just really sounded like Carol for a second there.  My hair stood on end.”

“Not my intention,” Jessica said, and the woman allowed herself a smile.

“Others don’t think I’m good.  I know I’ll sound crazy if I say there’s at least one person in my building who watches my comings and goings and keeps an eye on me, but really.”

“Really, I suspect you may be right.  I know they do the same for some others.”

Emboldened, Amy continued, “It makes me want to shake them, and poke a hole in their logic.  If I was a bad person, I wouldn’t have done what I did.  If I was a bad person, I’d have every last thing I wanted, and the world would be better off as a whole.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’d have just used my power on Victoria.  Done.  Break down artificial barriers between two people who aren’t even blood related.  I’d use my power on Carol and Mark, and they’d love me.  Mark wouldn’t be depressed.  They’d accept the relationship.  No need for me to run away from home, we’re all strong against the Slaughterhouse Nine.  I’m free to develop my power and figure things out before Gold Morning.  I face the end of the world with Victoria at my side.”

“That may be romanticized.”

“Of course it is.  But it’s not wrong either.  The bullet points are the same.  It’s romanticized because I fantasize about it a lot.  How things would have gone.  How things could go.  There are weeks I work twelve hours every day and when I’m not working I dream of what could have been.  There’s more life and feeling in that than in anything else.  Than in B- In B, the woman I’m dating.”

“That doesn’t sound healthy.”

“Don’t suggest therapy at me again,” Amy warned.

“Okay.  But if you’ll allow it, I’ll talk to people-”

“No,” Amy said.

“Not about particulars, but about cutting back on your work hours.”

“No,” Amy said.  “Permission not granted.”

Jessica drew in a deep breath, then nodded.

This wasn’t what Amy had wanted.  How had it gone the opposite direction?

“The point is,” she said, insistent, annoyed.  “I could, very easily, but I haven’t.  You know how bad I was at my lowest point.  You should have a sense of how I’ve been doing since.  But I didn’t.  I fantasize about it, because of course I do, when I’d rather have Victoria back in her inhuman shape than not have her in my life at all.  I love her.  More than Carol.  More than Mark.  More than Crystal.  And I know she doesn’t have anyone else.  But I don’t do anything.  That’s what’s important.”

“What worries me,” Jessica ventured, picking her words carefully.

“You don’t need to worry.”

“Is the fact that you seem to be telling me that you have very little going for you in your day to day.”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Please correct me if I’m wrong on any of these points: there’s no color in your love life, your days are rote and directionless, you have connections to family but you consider yourself alone.  And you want this connection to Victoria very, very much.”

“That’s what I said.”

“It seems like a recipe for problems.”

“No, listen, it’s cherry picked from what I said, but it’s absolutely missing the heart of what I’m trying to say!”

Amy moved her hand to tap on the railing to punctuate, a Carol sort of thing, actually.  She only realized as she did it.  She saw the flinch.

Minute, but Jessica Yamada pulled her hand back as Amy brought her hand forward.

It would have been so easy to reach forward, to touch that hand, to make that contact.  And Jessica Yamada would be on her side.

But I don’t, because I am not a bad personI spent far too long coming to terms with that, healing, recovering, and making up for what Carol convinced me of on a fundamental level.

The anger left Amy, and there was only a deep sadness left.

“I’ll go,” Amy said her voice sounding almost artificial, as she fought to keep it free of emotion.  “I am very sorry to have taken up so much of your time, Jessica.”

“Could I convince you-” Jessica started.

Amy shook her head.  She would have said something, but she wasn’t sure she could do it with the feeling in her upper chest.

“Then I wish you the best,” Jessica said.  “I’m at your disposal if you need me, any hour of the day.  If you’re not comfortable talking to me, I can give you any number of contacts.  They’re busy but I’ll ask them to make time.  You don’t have to call, but keep them on your phone.”

Amy nodded.  Fuck this.

“I wasn’t able to get a straight response out of you before.  Will you tell me that you’ll keep your distance from her?  Contrive to stay out of her way, much as she’s doing the same?”

The words hurt.

Amy nodded.  “Yes.  But if she calls, I’ll go to her.  And I reserve the right to say goodbye.”

“Goodbye?  Amy-”

“Listen.  Listen!  I’m not going to kill myself.  You can have the mental fitness people check.  But I might leave.  Go to another Earth.  I’ll see if they can find a replacement to check Riley’s work before I go, I won’t do it suddenly.  But I’ve been thinking it might be better if I go.  Nobody here seems to believe in me, but there are places where they could use my help.  It’ll be far from Victoria.”

“That would be an admirable direction to go.”

Amy’s expression twisted a bit as she shook her head.  She fixed her hair some, then turned to go.  Admirable directions and all.  She could have spat, she was so pissed.  She’d wanted-

She stopped, and she turned around.  The woman was walking toward the elevators.

“Jessica,” Amy said.

Jessica turned.

A pretty good distance separated them.  Her voice barely carried all of the way.

“Do you know why I wanted to convince you as badly as I did, that I’m a good person?”

Jessica, post-flinch, didn’t rebut that last part.  “I have only inklings.  My connection to Victoria, I imagine.”

“You’re me, Jessica.”

“I’m sorry?”  Jessica approached a few feet.

“Maybe it’s crass to say this-” ‘Crass’ would be a Marquis-ism, as the finger tap had been a Carol-ism.  “-But when I shook your hand, I got a sense of you.  I know how tired you are.  The hours you’re putting in.  I know you haven’t had a sexual partner in recent memory-”

Jessica stiffened, “That’s a line crossed, Amy.  An uncomfortable and inappropriate one.”

“I know the tension in your shoulders.  I know how your eyes are so fatigued you probably can’t read the print above the elevators.  I know that you have a sense of awareness of yourself, the hum of your own body, the nimbus of feelings you’re not aware of… I tend to think of it as the soul, even though it isn’t.  Yours is weary.”

“I consider this a violation,” Jessica said.

“And I consider this a warning,” Amy retorted.  “Your heart?  Not your actual heart, but your feelings?  The edges are blunted.  The goodness in you is still there.  But you’ve worked so hard you’ve hit the point you don’t always care.  If I’m guessing right, you’re probably at the point where you can do the day to day stuff, but when that late night phone call comes and they ask for extra effort or a needy patient needs you extra, you resent them a little.  Because you’ve given your all for weeks now, but maybe not once ever in your life has someone else given you their all.  Or it’s one person, one sister.”

Jessica was silent.

“You felt obligated to check on the scary healer and you don’t have the energy or focus to really hear what she’s saying.  You’re going to hit a point, couple of weeks, a month, where you come to resent the day to day work.  And around that same time, support structures fall through.  If they existed at all.  You’ll hit your lowest point, and either you’re alone or the one person you counted on is preoccupied.  Understandable, but it… it’ll still hurt.”

Jessica looked off to one side.

“I think you know I’m not wrong.  I think you recognize you’re so close to that point that shaking the boat by reaching out for help might upset it.  Um, as a colleague?”

Jessica met her eyes.

“Lighten the load.  Go easy on yourself.  It’s going to feel wrong, no matter what you decide to do, but I’m telling you right now, as someone who knows, the course you’re on right now is worse.  You’re not a bad person.  It’s because you’re a good person that you’ve brought yourself to this point.  You’re one small crisis or weak moment away from hurting a patient or someone you care about, standing where I stand now, wishing the person you’d just talked to had listened to you.”

Jessica folded her arms.  Amy remained where she was, facing the woman.

Lifting a hand from her elbow, Jessica rubbed at one eye.  Wiping at moisture that threatened to well out.

She seemed to realize what she was doing, and dropped her hand.  She nodded.

“Thank you,” Jessica said, her voice barely carrying.

“I will see you around, I suppose,” Amy said.  She turned to go, so the woman didn’t have to be the one to walk away.  Let her have her pride. 

Amy didn’t feel the least bit like a good person, as she made her way to the front door, stepping outside into early fall weather, in a dark city that smelled like new wood, heavy machinery, and dust from construction.

Now

The girl was beautiful, blonde, more slight than Victoria had been at that age, but with some of the same traits.  Poised with back straight, even though her hands were trembling as they rested on top of Amy’s own.  In another reality, she could have been Victoria’s sister, more inclined to ballet than any competitive sport.  Amy could sense the girl’s toes, the damage her feet had taken, months ago, before the girl’s emergent power had spoiled things.  Ballet could be hard on the body.  Even months after abandoning the sport, Hunter’s muscle tone was strong, her heartbeat confident.  Her proprioception was top notch.

The second child that Carol no doubt would have loved to have, who could have been another natural superheroine in the right circumstance.

Mentally?  Internally?  An entirely different person.  If Amy had to guess, there might have been a common ancestor seven generations back.  But that was a reach.

Everything sorted, set in its place.  The corona was buried, disconnected by small stages, buried more.  Made small.  Amy was put in mind of welders working in deep pressure environments.  The right conditions could produce a vacuum that would suck a man through a baseball-sized hole.

There was no danger to Amy herself, probably, but it was delicate work in a hostile environment, and her work could easily be undone by the wrong conditions.

“Could you make me a boyfriend?” Dot asked.

“Shh, hush,” Marquis said.  His voice was soothing in a way that seemed to affect Hunter.

“Actually, father, would you keep talking to her?” Amy asked.

“To?” Marquis asked.

“Hunter.  Same tone.”

“As you wish.  Dot will be quiet, and we will figure out something fun to do this afternoon to thank her for being quiet, yes?  Mouth closed.  Nod.”

Amy glanced up.  Both Dot and Hunter nodded.

“And Hunter, my dear, is maintaining excellent sitting posture.  Did they beat you with a cane to train your posture?”

“No,” Hunter said, smiling, her eyes still closed.

Amy felt the Corona shift.  Portions of the brain that had been tranquil now flared to life.

“You’ll lose your vision or hearing for one second,” Amy said.  “Don’t panic, it will come back.”

“Understood,” Hunter reported.  Her hands wanted to shake more, Amy was aware, but were too flat against Amy’s own.  There was more flaring, more flickering.  The house of cards threatened to topple.

Amy deafened Hunter.

“No talk of violence, please.”

“Understood,” Marquis said.

“Your voice reminds her of a grandfather.  Talk of old things or tell stories.  Nice stories.”

“I will.  Happy to help,” Marquis said.

Off at the other end of the room, Mark sat with a phone resting on his knee, looking tense.  He had asked yesterday if she would heal his lingering mental issues.  Dysthymia and lingering effects of a concussion he’d had as a teen.

She’d said no, and he wasn’t happy about it.  He was less happy about Hunter, given the parallels to Victoria.

Which meant the stakes were higher.

Hard, to glance at Mark, to see Hunter in her peripheral vision, and imagine it was Victoria.  It made her heart leap, and that was dangerous given how cell-level precise some of this work was.

She gave Hunter her hearing back.

“My father was a physician, you know,” Marquis said.  “When he was practicing, they were only just introducing anesthesia for surgery.  One in ten died on the table-”

Amy gave her father a hard look.

“Raises the question,” Chris said, from behind Amy.  He’d seated himself at the end of the room furthest from Mark.  “Would you rather have no anesthesia or roll those dice?”

Amy deafened Hunter, made her close her eyes, and kept Hunter’s eyes closed, calmed her, and forced a lingering sensation of Amy’s hands against her own while Amy stood up and stepped away.  “If you’re not going to be helpful, you need to leave.  This matters.”

Chris was all shaggy hair, a vaguely yeti-shape.  All of his forms had long hair now.  Which boded ill, as far as she was concerned.  Either he knew she knew what he was doing, which suggested he was trying to intimidate her, or he didn’t, in which case he was being overly defensive.  Her power didn’t work past hair, fur, and body hair.

“It’s so interesting though,” Chris said, his voice low, too deep.  “He can’t raise a topic like that and not expect me to say something.”

“And you,” Amy turned on her father.  “Death?  Really?”

“The most interesting stories, unfortunately, have death and violence in them.  I gravitate toward them like your father gravitates toward the funnier, more human stories.”

“I should have known better,” Amy said.  “Would you take Dot, go find her something fun to eat?”

“Yay!” Dot exclaimed.

“My apologies, dear Amelia,” Marquis said, bending down to kiss the top of her head.  Then he left, closing the door.

Amy sat back down, setting her hands in place, and removed the phantom sensations, calm, the forced closure of the eyes, and the deafness.

“A bit scary,” Hunter breathed.

“Sorry.  We’re almost done.”

Mark approached, stopping by a table, which he leaned against.  “I remember, Amy, you hated to sit still for haircuts.”

“I was a terrible child.  I get it,” Amy muttered.

“No, you were a wonder of a child next to the unholy terror that was Victoria,” Mark told her.  “And you’re a fine woman now.  I wish it wasn’t such a hard journey to get from there to here, but I’m glad to be here with you in the present moment.”

The words seemed to calm Hunter more than they affected Amy.

“You’re trying to butter me up.”

“You can touch me if you want to tell if I’m sincere.”

“Can’t.  Focusing on Hunter.”

“After then.”

“No,” Amy said.  She was pacified, calmer.  “No need.”

She worked her way through Hunter’s brain.  There were triggers and flags everywhere.  Certain perceptions, certain emotions, attitudes.

Hunter’s power was involuntary.

“We’d give you candies to suck on so you couldn’t complain while sitting in the chair,” Mark said.  “And on one particular visit, the last one with the candy, as you’ll recall…”

Amy groaned.

“A new hairdresser came up, and she hugged you from behind, looked over your shoulder in the mirror, and she said something to the effect of, ‘what would you like us to do, cutie?’  She surprised the hell out of you-”

“That wasn’t surprise.”

“No?” Mark asked.  And she could hear the change of tone.  He rallied, “But you choked.”

“I did choke.”

“And you gagged,” Mark said, his tone warm.  “While you were trying to dislodge the candy.  I was thumping your back.  And then you threw up, onto the barber’s bib, and it wicked straight down onto your shoes.”

“I can’t believe the world ended and I’m still hearing about it.”

“You were inconsolable.”

Victoria was there, crying too

That part of the story was left unsaid.  The thought of Victoria and the young blonde girl’s presence in front of Amy almost derailed it all.  Regret, flashbacks to moments she’d been doing work not so dissimilar to this, errors-

She forced her head back into the right place.  Dismissed the thoughts.

The good humor and general calm Hunter felt as she visualized the scene served to let Amy button up her work, set everything firmly into place, make sure there were no loose ends, and then slowly pulled her hands away.

“I feel like a new person,” Hunter said, quiet.

“I want you to let that sit for a bit.  Keep your thoughts on pleasant things, let your mind wander.  If it helps, talk out loud so we can steer you or distract you.  If this lasts sixty seconds it’ll probably last a week.  If it lasts a week it’ll probably last a month.”

“Sure,” Hunter said.  “I used to be into ballet.  That’s where the posture Marquis was complimenting me on came from.”

“Yes,” Amy said.  “I noticed.  You’re still very fit.”

“My friends never knew.  Sam- the boy who brought me here, he had no idea.  I was ashamed, it was weird.  I was so proud when it was certain people, but if you’d told Sam then, I would have wanted to die.  My teacher knew and said something about me doing something for the talent show.  I gave her a look and she seemed to clue in, didn’t say anything else.”

“That’s nice of her,” Mark commented.  “Not all teachers would care.”

“She was sweet.  I saw her outside of class once… totally different person.  Hanging out with a bunch of guys.”

“Nothing wrong with that,” Amy said.

“No,” Hunter agreed.  “But I would have pictured her as someone who knit.  She wasn’t even that old.  The masks we wear, right?”

“I suppose so,” Amy said, just to keep the conversation going.

“I was thinking, powers and heroics and the stuff we do, if we ever got this thing of mine under control-”

“We will,” Amy interrupted.  “And when we do, you’ll go back to school?”

“Do I have to, though?” Hunter asked.  “I have powers.  My life’s pretty set, you know?”

“There’s lots of options.  Going back to ballet-” Amy started.

But Hunter was talking over her.  Amy’s heart sank.

“Hunter by day-” Hunter intoned, hand flicking her hair out of her face.  Her hands covered her face.  Amy jumped to her feet, and it was Mark who hauled her back over the back of the cloth-layered lounging couch Amy had been sitting on.

Hunter’s hand dropped, exposing one eye, too much of the whites showing,  “Mincemaid by night!”

The couch detonated, an explosive going off beneath- Amy hadn’t even seen Mark drop it.  It lifted up the couch, and Mark, still with an arm around Amy, caught it and oriented it in the air, using it for cover.

The scene looked like a window cracking.  Black lines speared up, down, from one another, all around Hunter.  Threads, hair-thin, spiderwebbing out to make contact with everything within thirty feet of Hunter, which included most of the furniture.  The couch was almost lifted up, and Mark hauled it down, using his back to keep it in position.

“You done?” Chris asked.

Amy looked.  Chris had been at the edge of the effect.  His arm and part of his upper body were mangled, shredded by the wires.

“I’m done,” Hunter said.

The wires began retracting.  Once all visible wires were gone, Mark grunted and shifted position, letting it fall to one side.

A webwork of bones blocked the way too.  It seemed Marquis hadn’t left the spot just beyond the door.

“Thank you,” Mark told her father.

“Of course,” Marquis said, eyes narrowing.  He smiled.

“The masks we wear,” Hunter said, eyes wide, both showing too much white, her smile macabre.  She laughed.  “In all the television shows and movies, they’ve got to have that episode with the guest starring hero, don’t they?  And there’s always the mystery, and there’s always an unmasking.”

“With the convenient stunt double,” Marquis said, sounding way calmer than Amy or Mark were.

“What happens when you don’t wear a mask?” Hunter asked.  She smiled, hands going to her face.  “Nobody here does.  A lot of heroes don’t.  Your old team-”

“Terrible secret identity discipline,” Chris said.  He was acting very cavalier about his mangled arm.

“What happens when the maskless get unmasked?” Hunter asked.  She made an amused sound.  Black lines stabbed out at diagonals, forming a diamond just in front of her face.  She stuck her face through them, and stray hairs were severed on contact.

“That,” Chris said, “Is what we’re focusing on, in our own way.  On that topic, Red Queen, if you’re not getting right back to work-”

He sounded so sarcastic when he called her that.

“I’m not,” Amy said.  I might not be able to do it.

“I’ve been keeping track of our tasks.”

“The refugees?  A problem?”

He waved a mangled limb in the air.  “No.  No problem.  Your hapless rescues are getting settled and fed without trouble…”

“Stop dragging it out,” Mark said, annoyed.

“Patience, my friend,” Marquis said, calm.  “Interruptions only delay things.”

Mark gave the man an annoyed look.  He had to be almost as dejected at this failure as Amy was.  She hated this.  Hated that Hunter was a link to Victoria, and she’d spoiled it, had ruined her.  That she couldn’t fix her.

Hunter just snickered to herself, amused at Mark’s annoyance.  “You gotta explain for me.  I’m dumb.”

“We’ve been focused on the people who are playing this game at the top level.  Focusing on the interdimensional aliens, at a time when not enough people are dwelling on the big revelation of where our power comes from.  Wardens, Dragon, Teacher, Mortari, a few others, all paying close attention, all getting our hands dirty trying to steer the unsteerable.”

“And?” Mark asked.

“Teacher’s out of the running.  His thralls all got their brains back.  According to a very talkative little kid who insists on sending me updates after we’ve parted ways, Breakthrough -that’s ah, my old team, The Red Queen’s sister- are now fully in.”

Amy’s heart sank and soared in equal measure.  She knew everyone was watching, and kept her voice level.  “We adapt.  We promised Shin we’d protect their world.”

“It’s about to need a lot of protecting,” Chris said, coming as close as he ever did to outright agreement or solidarity.  “Give me the okay to get my production line going.”

Amy made a face.  She felt Mark’s hand grip her shoulder.

It didn’t feel like the move a good person would make.  She’d seen the labs, dark and poised to be powered and set into motion.  Chris had unveiled them, and she’d told him no.  Not unless it was absolutely necessary.

At least five different groups were trying to save the world.  Victoria’s was now among them.  She and Chris, Lab Rat, were chasing down the bloody road of biology and transcending earth and humanity both, more as an emergency clause than anything else.  If she had any say in it at all, she wanted to at least preserve the good and healthy parts of humans and humanity, whether they used the emergency measure or not.

And that preservation necessitated that she have a handle on what ‘good’ and ‘healthy’ were.  Failing with Hunter made her less confident in that regard.

Saying yes elicited many of the same doubts.

“Yes,” she said it, quiet.  She felt the slight change in Mark’s grip as his faith faltered as well.  She indicated the door, where Marquis and Dot were standing.  “But I’m coming.  This is going to be messy.”

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From Within – 16.12

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Lights flickered, dancing from the feet of agent to person, person to person, and off to the distance, neurons in a larger system striking like lightning.  But in this too-bright corner of a dark, living landscape, these lightning strikes could only travel so far.

This world was like a broken window, the landscape cracked, and the fact the light didn’t travel to where it needed to go served as a suggestion of just how broken it was.

The others approached, and I motioned for them to duck their heads down as they peered over the cliff’s edge at the group on the other side of the ravine.  Three agents and fifty people dressed in Teacher’s pristine white garage-worker coveralls.

The workers were just numerous enough that in an ordinary situation I wasn’t sure one wouldn’t look in our general direction and make out the masks, helmets, and heads of hair that stood out against the consistently dark background and landscape.  But these weren’t regular workers, they were thralls, and they were wholly wrapped up in what they were doing.

The agents were the really scary thing, and as much as they seemed fixated on picking at and adjusting the edges of the portal, the notion that they might turn and give us their full attention was a hell of a lot scarier.

We didn’t make a sound, aside from the occasional scratch of armor on crystal or harder than normal exhalation.

Off to the side, Tattletale motioned, indicating something to Sveta.  I saw her hold up five fingers.  Then six.

I could count the flashes and where those flashes were traveling.  Six flashes moving from the group to a specific point in the distance.  Our flashes had a consistency too, messages transferred along these neurons, dancing along the hard edges of the crystal, always to the same destination.

But these guys… they didn’t have powers.  By all rights, they shouldn’t have had a common source.  Except for Teacher.

Except we couldn’t get over there.  A canyon separated our section from theirs, and the failures of lights to find any means of connecting suggested we were on an island.

Scenes of the city in winter painted many of the crystals, growing fainter for those scenes appearing on crystals further from the tear in reality.  I watched as they worked, and I saw as they reached out to touch crystals as certain images came up, which seemed to highlight related images on other crystals.  Through a relay, they selected certain things, bringing up selections a few feet away, which the next person chose from, until they were affecting what was being managed on crystal faces well away from the aperture.

Others were setting up tech, with monitors showing data that was way too far away to make out.  But those monitors were plugged into crystals around the edges.

I watched as crystals rearranged near the portal, and cracks widened.

A chasm separated us from them.  Ability and capacity to understand and work in this system separated us further.  If we wanted to change anything from the inside, we’d need a system at least as good at that.

We had no powers and we were up against fifty thralls in very much the same boat.  If knowing how to function in this world offered us any advantage, then it offered their side a hundred times the same advantage, because it was pretty clear Teacher had granted them some natural ability and awareness.

Frustration seized me, and it came with a panicky feeling that I was not expecting.  Not like that, not like this.  I was used to danger, used to that fight or flight drive.  I could fly, and I was pretty good at using it to deliver the fight part of things.

But this- it didn’t come from facing down a cape with an unknown power.  It didn’t come from memories of Crawler and acid, or the idea of Amy coming when I didn’t expect her.  Those were people, they were things I could stand against.

The panicky feeling delivered a sensation of being paralyzed, of not just being unable to breathe, but being unwilling to.

Paralysis wasn’t a stranger to me.  I had to remind myself of that.  Suffocating, too.  Had to find my way to the right line of thinking.  Thinking of flying so high that the air was thinner.  Tricking my brain to think of coming down from that high place.  Easier if I thought of this blackness as the night sky.

I resumed breathing, resumed moving, turning my head away from that situation while I processed.  Why?  Another power?  Were they doing something?

I hadn’t seen a flash from them.  I was pretty sure it wasn’t Rain’s power and it wasn’t Darlene, who was the most active of all of us.

Just me.  Wholly internal.  The light flickered beneath me and darted off to the distance, in a near-continuous stream.  We were fortunate that the group over there wasn’t in a position to see, as the lip of the canyon rose up and blocked their view.

Being burned, being that hurt, it had left its traces behind.  I hadn’t forgotten it, and remembering it was very easy when tied into the deep feeling of frustration.

Sveta touched my arm, jarring me back to reality.  Had I been making a noise or acting strange?  No.  Staring off into space, thinking hard?  Yes.

She motioned to Tristan, who repeated a gesture he’d no doubt made earlier.  I nodded.

Go.

Retreat.  We gained nothing by watching too much longer.

We pulled back from the canyon’s lip, sliding down the hill and finding a recess to gather in.  Breakthrough at one side, kids further down, Love Lost, Damsel, and Tattletale sitting around the periphery, on higher ground.

I was breathing harder than necessary, even a minute later, and controlling my breath took focus.  I didn’t want this latest bit of trauma to be yet another thing that sneak-attacked me when I didn’t expect it, another arrangement of mines in the minefield that I had to navigate.

The idea frankly terrified me, and the anger and bitterness that gripped me as I bit the inside of my cheek was bad enough I didn’t want to be the first one to speak, in case it colored my tone.

“Ideas?” Tristan asked.

I didn’t answer.

I handled my shit.  I made my peace in that moment.  What’s a little pain?  I’ve been hurt before.

“I can take a stab at this,” Tattletale said.

Please distract me.

“Caveat,” she went on.  “This isn’t me using my power.  This is just me using my head, a bit of educated guessing from earlier uses of my power, and the fact I was one of the first handful of people to really cotton on to… this.”

She indicated the valley around us.

“Anything you can give us.”  I tried to keep my voice normal.

She gave me a funny look.  Normal voice failed, I supposed.

“Syndicate is firing zaps back the way we came.  That nexus or… landing between slopes that we passed through, people, relationships, wants?  The faces of people you’d all lost?  I think some combination of that and the cluster are serving as our current hub, connecting us.”

“That was the principle of it,” Kenzie said.  “I think.  I don’t really have access to the mental blueprints while I’m in here.  Which is weird.”

Tattletale continued like Kenzie hadn’t spoken, “Syndicate hubs us up, and it’s why our little territory here is bigger than some of the others nearby.  The big golden asshole died, individual areas with individual focuses all got broken apart.  Or… when he was around there was something more active, bridging things here on a permission basis.  Dunno.”

“I thought of them as islands,” I remarked.

“Sure, if you want to be pedantic, go ahead.”

“So it might be possible to make connections,” I said.  “To connect one of the islands to another one.”

Tattletale shook her head.  “The connections we know about were set up outside of this space.  To create a bridge over there like we have here, we would probably need Darlene to wake up, find Teacher, and use her power on him.”

“Other ideas, then,” Tristan said.  “There has to be a way.”

“Can we hack it?” Rain asked.  “Form a connection from within?  If we can use crystals to access functions, isn’t it possible to get one of these areas or things to form a bridge?”

“Could,” Tattletale said.  “Or it could be a safety measure that says sections can’t be bridged without the big golden guy handling it.”

“Put a pin in that.  Other options,” Tristan said.  “You motioned toward the lights.  Teacher?”

“If it’s about connections, and finding a bridge, we need to figure out a place to cross over that’s reaching out outwardly,” I said.  Focusing on the abstract theorizing helped.  “My power has an aura.  I could see that radiating out and connecting to others.”

“But it’s not on, and they aren’t nearby,” Tattletale said.  “Love Lost, Colt, and Rain are out, we’ve been to their… I dunno, their centers of power, the key processing units that handle their powers, as those powers have currently manifested?  Yes?”

“Yes,” Rain said, looking back.

“Yeah,” Colt said.

“Capricorn twins are structural, no reaching out there.  Sveta reaches out but not in the sense we want, with continuous, lasting connections to other parahumans and their power sources.  Chicken Little… same idea, I don’t think it bridges any gap between him and another parahuman.  Lookout would bridge to her tech.  Darlene we’ve seen.  Damsel’s focused on destruction.  From a pure, shard-focused perspective, that leaves… me?”

“Does it though?” I asked.  “I know you’ve given up some details, but I don’t know specifically what you do.”

“I get information, I pick up extra info, abstractly related.  I can aim it, both at people and at certain topics I want to fill in.  It’s constant and ongoing, which is what we want.”

“I’m worried that isn’t a strong enough connection.  I’d rather pick Decadent,” I said, indicating Candy.  “You’ve used your power on capes?  You oversaturate them with happiness and hallucinated sensory inputs, but there’s a lasting suppression effect, right?”

“Yeah.  I’ve used it on family, non-family,” Candy answered.  She clasped her hands together, looking less secure than I’d seen her in a long while.  “Bunch of people.  Bunch of capes.”

“Has your power hit them… in the powers?  Taken away their joy of-”

“Of being artificially beautiful, yeah.  Of running, for one super fast guy.  Um-”

“You hit that Gammarod dork,” Darlene said.  “Who got hard-ons while irradiating people and giving them probable cancer.”

“What.” Chicken Little said.

“-And that other one Papa worked with sometimes,” Darlene went on.

“I barely remember that one,” Candy said.

“He slid between people’s skin and muscles and took over their bodies.  He always had to have an eye appear in a hidden spot, like, so he could see, because he didn’t control the eyes.”

“I- yeah.”

“He was going to take over me.  I was so scared Papa hit me with calming emotions and it didn’t even make me stop freaking out.  Some of that was calming emotion, but-”

“Yeah,” Candy said.  “I remember.  We weren’t that old.”

“You stopped him and it was the first time I remember you being a real sister to me.  And it was only a week after I pushed your plate of spaghetti into your lap because we were fighting.”

Candy nodded.  “We don’t know if they’re all alive.”

“Gammadoc is,” Tattletale said.  “But that particular incident happened in Brockton Bay and I’ve kept tabs on our old enemies.  Unless he bit it in the last week or so, there’s an active link to the guy.  And, last I checked, the guy was pulled out of retirement to work for Teacher in the facility.  That’s the good.”

“The good?” I asked.

“If we go over there to Candy’s thing,” Tattletale said, pointing back in the general the way we came, maybe a bit to the right.  “There’s probably a good bridge, or a few of them.  Can’t say how intact it’ll be, but it’s a good bet.”

“What’s the bad?” Byron asked.

“The bad is Candy’s area is way back over there… and Teacher’s is way over there.”

Tattletale pointed in two different directions.

“Travel’s deceptively fast here,” I noted.  “It’s our best bet.  We go over there, we circle around, we go for Teacher.”

“Other option,” Tattletale said.  “My territory, count on links seeking information to form bridges.”

“Even while you’re here?” I asked.

“Even while I’m here.”

“We don’t have time to argue,” Tristan said.  “I vote Tattletale’s.”

“Antares’s,” Byron said.  Tristan looked annoyed.

“Tattletale’s,” Chicken Little said.  “I’m mad at her but I know she knows some of this stuff.”

“With her power,” Darlene said.

“Even with.”

“Ok, then I vote Tattletale,” Darlene added.

“Tattletale,” Sveta said.  “Sorry.  I get the reasoning, but-”

“No, no need to apologize,” I said.

“-We need to do this fast.  We don’t have long.”

In this bizarro world with a pitch black sky and a floor of something alive, something we were technically inside, as we dwelt within the crystal’s interior as simulations, I was advocating for the conservative, sure route.  Tattletale preached the direct, unreliable route.

“Antares,” Rain said.

“Antares,” Kenzie joined her voice to his.

“Tattletale,” Candy said.

“I assume we’re going to be working together, if we get out of this in one piece,” Damsel told Tattletale.  “I’ll make my token effort to build something by giving you a small, miniscule amount of my faith.”

“That’s a bad basis for-”

“It’s more than I give others, Tattletale.  Don’t be greedy.”

“Sure,” Tattletale said, sighing.

Everyone else made their quick vote, Love Lost pointing a claw at Tattletale to make hers.

Byron, Rain, and Kenzie were the only ones in favor of my path.

We started off.

Have to find a way over, have to see if we can’t work something out with these panels and getting into the guts of this system.  Have to see if we can’t slow Teacher down or at least figure out what he’s doing here.

Easy enough, right?

The panicked, frustrated feeling hadn’t quite been extinguished, and the tension of the moment sat uneasily within me.

I didn’t like that this was the second time we’d voted, and that I had to reconcile that I’d hated that I’d gone along with the decision to split up when I’d known deep down inside that it wasn’t the way to go… and now I was accepting another lost vote.

Did I believe this to be wrong?

No.

Not exactly.  I could think of supporting arguments.

But I didn’t trust Tattletale.  I’d seen a glimpse of who she really was, and I’d seen how very real that glimpse of her still was, when the first sign of anyone sympathizing or trying to connect with her over it had seen her go straight for the jugular.

Blaming me for what Amy had done to me.

Shitty, but understandable.  And only minimally to do with my lack of trust for her.

Take this ‘Livsey’ kid out of the equation, and all that was left was the power and the identity the power had helped build up.

And we were rushing toward it.

There had to be other options, and I focused on sorting them out.

“Damsel,” I said, a little out of breath.  We couldn’t slide downhill in the direction we wanted to go.

“What?”

“When you do the transition, from injured to healed, you did your own, right?”

“So?”

“So… how do you control it?”

“Be less incompetent.”

Damsel,” I said, my voice hard, serious.  “Don’t fuck around.  You’re the expert, somehow.  Strut your fucking stuff.”

“You’re all of the choices, already.  Find the face you want, move toward it, let it move toward you.  Pass each other.”

“That’s…”

“Instinct,” she said.  “When we die, we all end up in a place like this.  Images in crystal, flickering memories.  But it wasn’t this broken up before.  The next death will be worse.  Shallower, more intense.  Lonelier.”

“Swansong’s death is worse than it was before?” Kenzie asked.

“Who cares?” Damsel asked.

“Me, duh,” Kenzie said.  “All of us.  You.”

Damsel shook her head, only visible from behind, and picked up the pace in a way that was sure to tire her legs out.

It didn’t help that we were getting into thickets of crystal.  Spikes that soon appeared often enough that we’d take two steps, find a crystal in front of us, have to circle around it to get past, and find another crystal in our way, if the way wasn’t blocked.  With a black sky and crystal faces that were black if they didn’t have any light coming from directly behind them, it was easy to not see them until they were in arm’s reach.

It was Sveta and Love Lost who had the most luck navigating, and they became our guides, the rest of us taking the paths they chose, as the crystals grew taller and came to rest at diagonals and horizontals, forcing us to duck and crawl.

The images that popped up, at least, were vague, with no coherency.  Closer to watching a television show with someone who was endlessly channel surfing, but the scenes were from our lives.  Sitting in a car.  Getting up from our seats in class.  Opening the fridge to find the contents.  Lacing up a bit of armor.

Tattletale’s next flicker gave us further guidance, then picked up in intermittency.

We emerged from the worst of the thicket to a spot where a tear across the landscape had felled most of the crystals and sent them somewhere else.  And to our left, head the size of a house, was the thin, tall woman, with spikes radiating from her head to infinity in each direction, empty eye sockets staring us down.

One of the kids shrieked on seeing her.  One of the guys said something to the tune of ‘hofuc’ in a short exhalation.

Shit.  We did absolutely not see her coming.  Is she that fast?  Something else?

We scrambled back, as she reached out and over the chasm.  Ducking into the thicket of crystals slowed us down.

“Hello there, you shitty bitch,” Tattletale said, her voice low, angry.

I looked over, and I could see that past the tear in the landscape, Tattletale’s agent was an extension of the landscape, built almost like a cone poised on another cone, except it was a person’s body in a toga-cut dress, twisting and rotating in jerks, like every movement snapped its own spine.

It had an abstract, eyeless, mouthless head bearing a full head of thick cords that could have been wires, that trailed down to the crystal below her.  Each jerky rotation suggested a different number of arms, as she interacted with the forest around her, bringing up images just by facing each crystal.  Each image that was brought up sparked off transmissions for elsewhere.

And, I could see now that we were closer, there were more, small, almost imperceptible sparks traveling from each spike to elsewhere.  It was barely visible, but with a thousand spikes all together…

Sharp fingertips scraped the already damaged section of crystal.  It got Tattletale’s agent to pay attention, upper body and main head craning over in the direction of the spike-headed woman.

Lowering her face to be almost on the same level as the spike-headed woman’s.

They began communicating, clumsy and at range, bringing up disparate images.

Tattletale motioned.

We used the distraction.

Into the forest, that was alive with the arms.

A crystal lit up to my left.  Slaughterhouse Nine.

Like a punch to the gut.

Mama Mathers, throwing herself in Rain’s direction, like an animal at the zoo hurling itself against the glass.  Then, when I passed that same crystal, it was Crawler, puking.

Kenzie, a few steps behind me, saw a black woman with a serious expression.  Not her mother.  Hand reached out- bandage pulled away.

I looked back because looking forward was to wade into a storm.

Into Leviathan.  Into the hospital room.

Many-sided crystals where every side was a different image and every image was the hospital.

And then not the hospital, but flesh.  My flesh, my features, my belly with gaps on either side so it was still my torso and my silhouette, but the armpits webbed out to more torso and to arms and to legs, and the slope of belly meant to connect to pelvis bridged out to another torso instead, like the queen of spades in a deck of cards, joined to her other half at the ribcage.

Sad eyes, without hope.

It got my guard down, made my heart sink.  More images around me flared to life, so visceral and visual they seemed to have sounds to them.  Violence, being drenched with acid.  Violence, having my arm shredded.  Over and over again, injuries, my body being torn apart with battle wounds, until I felt like I might look down and find myself in tatters.

That paralyzed, frustrating feeling was building up, and with it came the terror that if I couldn’t push through, if I lost strength now, then that feeling would be with me forever.

And at the same time, if I pushed forward, then it would mean risking doing something reckless and stupid.

The violent images shifted, as Kenzie became the closest person to that cluster of crystals.  Kenzie, viewed from across a dinner table, as her face was smashed into a plate.

I’d seen that, captured in still image, on the projector box in her workshop.

Candy took her hand, and Kenzie looked over, gratitude clear on her face, even though she didn’t smile.  But the image changed, to an Asian woman holding a dark-haired girl down, fingers hooked into the child’s ear, twisting.  The child wasn’t even of an age to attend kindergarten, but the woman’s face was contorted as she shrieked and wrenched the child’s ear enough it bled.

It was Love Lost who jumped to the rescue, before I could backtrack.  Love Lost’s arrival coincided with a shift to images filling the area as if viewed by a dozen different sets of eyes.  Every angle, every detail.  Mother holding daughter in the midst of a stampede that threatened to tear her child from her arms.  The little girl leaned heavily on a bunch of tables that were folded up and resting on their sides, flush to the wall.  One slipped from its position, and with it, she went down like she’d been pulled or thrown down.  Her face collided with the edge of the next table.

Love Lost faltered, then wrapped her arms around the two girls’ heads, claw-less hands covering their eyes.

Rain helped Darlene, who might have slipped or fallen behind when we’d dodged the reaching hand.  The images became a jumble of ramshackle accommodations, a little boy being thrashed.  Corporal punishment in ten different forms.  A small Darlene fighting a boy she had to be related to, like her life depended on it, scratching, biting.  Legs of adults were visible, standing around unmoving, more like the fenceposts of an arena than anything human.

“Your idea fucking sucks, Tattletale!” Tristan bellowed.

“Shut up!  It’ll hear you!”

“It can see us!” Sveta called out.  “Everything’s lighting up around us while we run!”

I heard Tattletale mutter, “Shit.”

We were closer to Tattletale’s agent now.  Precarious, teetering, ever-examining.  As we got closer, though, the functionality seemed to change, much as the many-handed ‘Mr. Hugs’ had seemed to multiply the number of hands and the amount of tinkertech it could produce.

Building false crystals that looked like smoke but held a crystal-like shape, propping them up.  Moving crystals.  All while facing down the other creature, which I could track because it was close enough its spikes seemed to extend out as far as the eye could see to sky, to either horizon, and downward at angles, raking the landscape.

The way it sets up crystals and moves them.  That’s how it builds bridges.

“Get to the edge!” I called out.  “Don’t get spotted by spike-head!”

The images around me changed.  A woman in white, standing dangerously close to the portal.  One of Teacher’s flunkies.  Two more flunkies were standing nearby.  Nobody I recognized.

I let Love Lost and the kids pass me.

“Teacher,” I said.

The images changed.  I took one step to the side to see better, as I realized which ones were responding.  Flickering, vague images showed a doorway, thralls standing at the ready.  Then a scene before that, Teacher stepping through the door.

He’s here.

“Amelia Lavere,” I said.

My sister, talking to two members of the Shin council, emphatic, while Chris wore a monstrous form and prowled behind her.  It was pretty clear that what she was talking about was important.

“Mark Dallon.  Is he okay?”

My dad facing down Amy, both of them in civilian clothes.  He looked so much like he had when I’d stayed with him.  He asked a question, and Amy’s face turned to fear, her mouth moving as she shook her head.

My dad looked as disappointed as Amy looked scared.

I had a good sense of what he’d asked, and my disappointment was for entirely different reasons.  I knew he still had depression.  Amy had never fixed it.  It was a kind of hell, especially when he was so capable, but…

He shouldn’t have asked her to do anything to his brain.  Not if he knew and understood everything about the situation.

“Amy Dallon,” I tried again.

Amy, wearing Earth Shin nightclothes, lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling, her hand flat on her stomach.  It traveled southward, to the waistband, passing beneath.

I looked away, but not before I saw a sudden movement from her.  She lay on her side now, hand trapped and unmoving between her thighs, expression angry.

“Yeah, I know who you were fantasizing about,” I muttered, disgusted.

The image changed.  Me, sitting on the cot in the little cell in Earth Shin.  Amy sitting across from me.

I didn’t- I’d known, but I hadn’t wanted to know.

This wasn’t some crystal ball I could rub, ask my question, and get a happy answer.  Not with the names and questions I wanted to bring up.

I prepared to walk away.

“We can’t get down!” Tristan called out.  “Look for another way!”

The images changed.  Dancing from scene to scene, showing this place.

With no way down, only the sheer drops if one were to jump across the narrowest parts of the gap.  Hundred foot falls.  I had an idea as to how to handle that, but…

I stayed.

“Panacea,” I tried, again.

Dot, clambering up her arm, excited, cheerful.  Amy pulling her hand away from a young girl, a blonde, who was chattering madly, as excited as Dot.

Amy looked at the boy who stood on the far side of the room, flinching every time Hunter gestured too wildly.

That was there.  Here, spike-headed woman was still out there, struggling to reach across the chasm.  Barring our way.  In the background, I could hear another scrape, the raking claws of the giant woman with spikes that extended to infinity.

And here, beneath my feet, the lights flickered.

“The Red Queen,” I said.

It was Amy, in full battle dress, such as it was.  Marquis stood beside her, and Dot perched on her shoulder.

A long, long line of Earth Bet and Earth Gimel cars were making their way in through the portal, bumper to bumper, the snow nearby red from all of the brake lights.

Refugees.  I knew what she’d been arguing for, now.

And she would save so many lives by having won that argument, by having made the promises she’d made.

I hated that I couldn’t hate her for it.

“Carol Dallon,” the words left my lips.

My mom, startling in how she was younger than I was now, less tight and precise in her movements than I’d ever known her to be.  Even with the brain injury, she moved with more control and less abandon.

Her hand reached up, fingers running through beard.  And my dad had never had a beard.  An Uncle Neil that was Tristan’s age pushed young Carol up against the wall, kissing her.

“It’s lies you know,” Tattletale said.  “Inconsistent information, jumping to conclusions, filling in blanks wrong.  Start from a faulty premise.  In this case, I think I thought of all of you heroes in suits with way too much white in the design as being oversexed and deranged.  I was right on one count.”

The image became Amy again, wearing her Panacea costume for warmth, working furtively in a room too dark to even see what she was doing, arms wet with blood up to the elbows.  She wiped her hand over the gore and there was only pink skin streaked with blood after the hand moved away.

A hand, my hand, gripped hers.

That frustrated, panicked feeling felt like it was swelling, reaching out to grab all of the other emotions that had gotten tangled up, too dangerous to even think about, like the sun was too bright to stare directly into.

At least, I thought, and the words were meant to be humor, a way of shrugging off this bad feeling.  At least I don’t have to see my mom and uncle Neil fucking.

It didn’t work as humor, didn’t put a smile on my face or ease the weight that felt like it had settled directly onto my heart, suppressing each beat.

“It’s lies,” Tattletale said, standing between me and the biggest crystal.

Off to the side, claws longer than I was raked crystal with a nails-on-blackboard sound.

“Aren’t the guesses those crystals made of smoke?” I asked, indicating the nearest one.

Tattletale sighed, but she didn’t correct me or convince me otherwise.

My mom and Uncle Neil.  Twenty-one years ago, if I had to guess.

It was all so shitty.  The number of people I could count on-

I looked down at the ground.  The flashing light was almost continuous, on for nine tenths of the time, flickering out for that last one-tenth.

“Crystal,” I said.

Crystal and my mom in Crystal’s kitchen, a surprising number of things boxed up and stored off to the side.  Clutter reduced by… maybe twenty percent.  Crystal was washing something in the sink.  My mom was at the cutting board.  I’d seen her cook before, and this wasn’t her usual self.  Moving with deliberation, care, and still not getting carrots to coins of equal thickness.

She said something, and backed away from the cutting board.

Crystal used lasers, and finished the job in a jiff, before returning to the washing.  I could see her expression, sad, and my mom, lost in thought as she hung back, no longer helping to make dinner.

Not so bad.

No deep betrayals.  No horrifying weaknesses.  Crystal was good.

“Did you ever figure out what Contessa’s failure states were, specifically?” I asked.  “What was option A?  One member of Breakthrough, suffering eternally?”

The scenes changed.

“If you ask here-” Tattletale said.

It was the room where the Wardens had confronted Teacher.

Rain pulling away from our group to stride into the door, silver blades in hand, and driving those blades into the door’s edges.

Second by second, Rain was overtaken by the portal energy, consumed by the silver blades that could set anything up to be sliced through.

“I think if you ask and find out specific answers, you’ll screw up Contessa’s odds and spoil things.  Don’t ask for…” Tattletale trailed off.

For the particulars about the option we took?

Dinah was unreliable, Contessa was… if she was on the up and up she was playing with big moving pieces in a way that was awfully scary and hard to extend any trust to.

My family was a mess.  Physically, mentally, emotionally.

We faced the end of the world, and… I wasn’t sure I trusted we.

We… Breakthrough?

I thought of the different names I could invoke.

Tristan and Byron?  I had seen Tristan’s mad stabbing, in the trigger analogue.

Kenzie?  I already knew she’d done some sketchy things before she knew better, and that the well of loneliness inside her was profound.  She had never been dishonest about who or what she was.

Rain?  I’d already seen that ugliness he would’ve wanted to hide.  The maniacal laugh, as we’d reached the final stage of the dream.  That made it so easy to understand how Love Lost could hate him, even now.

Sveta?  I’d had glimpses, and I had ideas.  Where she came from had always been important to her.  I had seen her hometown, the black rocks.  The place her art came from.  Her original self, in a way, through the trigger analogues, run through a translation program from the original footage to ‘mall’.

She’d told me that her body felt like it was hers for the first time ever, after Orchard had finished with her.  That she could breathe for the first time ever.  I could see why.  She’d want to bring it up once she’d digested it.  I wouldn’t push her and I wouldn’t pry.

No, I wouldn’t raise her name.

“Chris Elman,” I said.

The scene had the same impact as the aggressive visions.  Chris in a bestial form, as big as car, quadrupedal, with a human face that over-enunciated, by the way it seemed to move as it uttered words.  It faced down Amy, pressuring her, barking words at her.

She backed away one step.  The beast that was Chris Elmann, that was Lab Rat, advanced five steps, traveling a quarter circle around her, ending with his face inside Amy’s personal space, scowling.

She hung her head.

“It always gives the worst details,” Tattletale told me.  “Stuff that cuts right to what’s most important, what’s most visceral.  Hard details, weaknesses, the key elements that make us us, that would be hardest to uncover otherwise.  Stuff you’d never want to admit or let out of the box.”

I had a chance to get answers, as ugly as those answers were, to face down those people who were most incomprehensible and get that key insight.

“You could ask it a million questions and understand everything, I bet.  There are less filters while we’re in here, probably,” Tattletale told me.

“I always thought of myself as an answer-seeker,” I said.

“Yeah, sure.  Absolutely,” Tattletale said, quiet.  “Here’s the deal, though.  By the time you’re done asking a million questions, I guarantee you that you’re going to hate everyone and everything.  You’ll abhor them, despise them, be afraid of them.”

I looked away from the crystals, which had gone dim.  Tattletale’s expression was sad.

“Sometimes you gotta just pick a few promising runts out of the litter, and just plug in that one big assumption,” she told me.  “Start with the assumption they’re good people and build on that belief.  Sometimes they step it up and live up to what you think of them.”

“What if I did that, and they disappointed me, and I need to know why?”

For every fucking name I’d brought up so far.

Tattletale shot me an apologetic look.  “Kiddo, you could go down that rabbit hole forever.  Do you want to go there, or do you want to do what you came here to do?  Help us find a way down.”

“I have an idea,” I said.  “Lead the way to the safest part of the ledge?”

The crystals around us shifted, showing a few example sites.  Tattletale took a second to absorb it and track it, then took off.

I started to follow, then hesitated by a small fraction.

“Jessica,” I murmured.

I’d thought the scene with Chris had been high impact.  This- a whirl of intensity, Jessica reaching out with a bleeding arm, grabbing a thin wrist, slamming it down into rocky ground until the attacker dropped the blade.  Frantic, even though it meant losing traction, Jessica reached out and swiped the knife, sending it flying ten or fifteen feet.

The hands that grabbed her arms were small.  Fingernails dug into forearm, and came away with fine white lines caught beneath small fingernails that had been painted pink.

Jessica knelt on the offending hand, pinning it down, and strangled-

Strangled Bonesaw.

The pressure in my chest felt like it squashed my heart flat.  No beat, only hurt.

Yeah.

I turned away from the scene.  I chased Tattletale, following her route.

The white light beneath my feet was solid now, ten units of time out of ten.  A hundred out of a hundred.  Zero out of zero.

I reached the cliff’s edge.  Rain, Kenzie, Love Lost and Colt were at crystals, fiddling.  Trying to decipher the system.

I doubted they’d be making any bridges appear, but it was good they were doing that.  The other kids were staying safe, Chicken Little holding Darlene’s hand, talking constantly, like he couldn’t stop.

The others were huddled.  Hiding.  The spike-headed woman was approaching, navigating cracks that forked off from the rest.

I looked down, and saw a darkness with no bottom.  A bottomless canyon.    The other side of the chasm was fifty feet down and twenty feet away.

“How long do you think you’d fall before something terrible happened to you?” I asked.

“A good while,” Tattletale said.  She looked up at me.  “I’m just guessing.  My word isn’t gospel.”

“It’s never gospel,” Chicken Little piped up.

I nodded.

“How long do you think we have?” I asked.

“Minutes,” Tattletale said.

“So you figure… maybe a two minute fall?” I guessed.  I sounded like a far away person.

“It could be ten seconds and it could be ten thousand years,” Tattletale said.

“That’s even better,” I said.

“What are you doing?” Sveta asked.

“She’s acting unhinged because she got to see some family stuff she probably shouldn’t have,” Tattletale said.

“What stuff?” Sveta asked.  She touched my arm.  I looked at her, and saw her looking down at the bolt of lightning that was firing off to one side.  “Hey.”

“Mom stuff.  A lot of Amy stuff.  I knew I shouldn’t have looked,” I said.

Bonesaw never came back.  Jessica quit being a therapist. 

“I told her she shouldn’t have looked,” Tattletale said.

“Talk us through this?” Sveta said.  “Why even talk about falling?”

“Because… we need to get down there,” I said.  “If we go by the median, five thousand years is a pretty good bet, isn’t it?”

I pulled away from her hand, walking away from the chasm.

“For what?”

“You’re insane,” Byron said.  “You can’t-”

The spike-headed woman was getting too close.  Past this point, the window of opportunity threatened to close.

I used the steps I’d walked away from the ledge to get a running start.  Sveta tried to grab me, and if she’d still had her powers, she might have succeeded.

Arms out in front of me, legs behind, flying without flying.

Over a chasm that might have been bottomless.

If I didn’t clear the chasm, then the odds were in my favor, probably.  I’d fall into the darkness below, and I was betting the chances were pretty good I’d still be falling in a few minutes, when we woke up from the dream.

I cleared the chasm.

Meaning only hard crystal lay below me.

I twisted, angling my body, saw my reflection-

And I slammed hard into the crystal, terminal velocity.  I felt bones break.

I brushed past her, she brushed past me.

I slipped away into oblivion.  She knelt with one knee on hard crystal, hand balled into a fist, fist flat against the surface.

She was me and I was her.  Switching places.  Thankfully with no momentum conserved between the two selves.

I looked back in time to see Damsel jumping.  I smiled.

The spike-headed titan gave chase, and I ran.  To lead it away from Damsel, and to have any chance of getting where I needed to be in time.

The titan was like a cyclone behind me, tearing everything up, but it was the spikes that radiated down, the claws that extended into crystal, and she didn’t whirl.  She only charged my way, picking up speed as she went.

I saw her claws bite deep, her body reflected across the path in front of me, and I followed that reflection, looking up again, to see she stood in my way.

Operating by different rules.  Spikes and claws of infinite length and that seemed to extend to weird rules about reflections and placement.

I barely slowed, only heading left, because Damsel had landed, emerged in a tattered black dress and gnarled black mask across the eyes, and she was running to the right.

Because she was competitive enough she wouldn’t let me succeed while she stood back.

I had that competitive streak too.  I’d had it as a basketball player.  The drive to prove myself.

The spike woman extended hands to either side.  Spikes plunged down, directly for me.  I twisted mid-stride, knowing I’d fall, but her accuracy was good, and a claw as wide across as my hand was plunged into that hand.  Bones shattered, and flesh became a ring of meat no wider across at any point than a pencil was, fingers barely hanging off of the wreckage of it.

Pinned to the crystal floor.

Why was Teacher afraid to let me in here?  Why had he backed down, at the end of the raid on his base?

Because I’d been in tune with the Wretch.

Come, I thought.

I twisted my thinking and my every sense of where my hand was, which was strangely easy to do when my hand was in about five different places at once, in mutilated tatters.

I pushed my hand into, through, and pulled it out in another interpretation.  Another side of the same die, another facet of the same me.  Buckler attached.

The spike woman reared for another attack, turning her head so the spike that stuck down at an angle would sweep my way.  A pillar so wide across I couldn’t have wrapped my arms around it tore its way toward me with surprising swiftness.

And a figure of what could only be described as glass, gold, and glory crashed into her.  Golden lights and outlines, a fragile shell with nothing within, all radiating out like light through a prism or a lens flare, except what radiated out had some substance to it.

She broke like a christmas ornament might when hit with a sledgehammer, when the spike woman hit her.

And then she was back, moments later.

I picked myself up, and I ran.

Damsel, off to the side, ran too.

They’d noticed us, or the spike woman had tipped them off.  Some of the same fifty were in our way.

And behind them was Teacher.  Teacher… broken.  Teacher if Teacher had been caught in a lawnmower and the substance of him wrapped around the blades.  But the blades were a figure, and the figure was many-spoked.  Black and radiating dark lines that stabbed into the ground at an angle, and traced webworks between crystals and thralls.

The figure moved thralls around it like puppets, using the spokes, the threads, the lines.

How long has this agent been in control?  I wondered.  Because what you’ve been doing makes a kind of sense if I imagine it wasn’t you, but it.

The thralls weren’t fighters, but they didn’t need to be.  They just needed to buy a minute or two.  Maybe less than a minute.

The edge of my buckler smashed into one nose, the flat of the shield struck someone in the ear.

Behind us, the Wretch was losing its fight against the spike woman.  She advanced, and she swiped out.

I threw myself to the side, shield up.  It helped with the debris of shattered crystal, but not the general impact of it.

But she’d stopped short of hurting Teacher’s thralls.  She turned her focus to Ashley, who was attacking the ground.  Clawing at the lines, maybe.  Scratching the crystal?  I doubted she could get deep enough, but they seemed to care.

I turned, looking the other way, while I still had a distraction.

To take it in.  This pillar of a being, this controller.

To see the lines, the systems by which it operated.

The tech that had been carted in and arranged around it.

I broke into a sprint, staggering because my right leg was more hurt than I’d thought, and didn’t like having my full weight on it.

But in a minute, that wouldn’t matter.

Thralls grabbed me, struck at me, tried to tackle me.  The shield helped, but only a little.

Anger helped a lot.  Anger at Teacher, at Amy, at my dad, at my mom.

I punched the shield into wires, and I felt the electricity run up my arms like snakes writhing through my tissues.

And tech all around us went dark.

The woman with spikes stopped what she was doing.  Thralls turned to face her.  Some began climbing up to Teacher, to help extricate him, when he looked much like my hand had a minute ago.  The more they pulled, the more human his shape became.

It’s the agent.  They’re organizing, and Teacher’s a prime organizer, I thought.

At least I broke his hold over his pet.  What had that been, a generator?  Tech to carry his power outside the bounds of the portal?

Whatever it was, it was a distraction.  Only ten thralls were focusing on me now, because there was something way more threatening in play.

She reached out for me- I’d freed her from control but I was still the enemy, but I could put Teacher’s apparatus and agent between myself and her.  She scratched at the ground and severed more wires.

I stumbled, my leg still hurting, and walked a half-circle around the apparatus, keeping a healthy distance from everything.

Watching the lines of power and control that didn’t require any tech, because they were operating from here to here.

I decided on a crystal that seemed to be doing a lot of heavy lifting.

Damsel was climbing Teacher’s apparatus, clawing her way up as thralls fought to get in her way.  She reached a band of flesh that was Teacher, and stuck her claws into it.

But as his head was pulled free by thralls, Teacher looked my way, not toward the wound.

“No!” he hollered.

I was in the midst of charging toward the crystal, buckler raised high.

Was that a no, the world will end?

He was someone who wanted the world to end, because he wasn’t a man anymore.  He might not have been for a while.  He’d gone down the same path as Khepri.

Was it a no, my plans, then?

My whole life was fucked and had been fucked from the beginning.  My mom was… not even disappointing.  I was angry at her, but most of all I pitied her, and that was so much worse than just about any other feeling.

But she’d taught me from the start that I should take away what the bad guys wanted most.

I smashed the buckler’s edge into a crack in the crystal.

Then I took a few steps back, and used the twenty seconds or so that were left to watch the fallout.

I stirred, and phantom pains danced around my body before mercifully fading.

“Everyone okay?” I asked.

I looked, quickly checking.  Nobody was brain-dead, by the looks of it.

Candy had a cut on her forehead, but it was apparently from falling from where she’d been sitting on the desk.

A thousand horrible images danced in my mind in the span of a second.  The dreams, the horrible insights.  The agents, and the magnitude of what we were attached to.

Because the agents were only one small part of a much bigger system, the crimson landscape had been the real system, and the smaller agents had been capable of reaching to what I could well believe was close to infinity.

It was dizzying to consider the implications.

“World didn’t end because of us?” I asked.

“No,” was the deep, vaguely digitized growl from the door behind me, as angry as if the world had ended.  I looked, and I saw Defiant standing next to a very alarmed looking Natalie.

“That’s good,” I said, quiet, with a calm I didn’t feel.

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From Within – 16.11

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I watched as Damsel re-positioned Byron.  He was propped up to be kneeling, and she held his face with the tops and flat sides of her fingers, which were blunt, like the tops of kitchen knives.  Her face remained close to his, her hair swept over one of her shoulders so it wouldn’t drape him.

By small measures, she changed the angle of his face, her eye watching as the reflected scene changed.  Byron, hospital room.  Byron, injured.  Byron, staring off into space with tears trailing down his cheeks.  Byron looking grim, in what might have been the Shin prison.

Tristan watched, his arms folded, his expression serious.

Damsel reached out with one hand, bladed fingertips touching the crystal pane that she was using as the mirror.  It was like looking at a drawing of a cube, sans shading.  From one angle, the cube could be seen as exterior walls, point facing out.  From another, it could be seen as interior walls, point facing in.  The bladed fingertips pulled away, then touched down again.  Switching between the two with each time she tapped them.

Byron, with a bloody nose.  Byron talking, with a haunted look in his eyes.

Damsel pushed him, with enough force it looked like he would smack into the pane of crystal.  Her bladed fingertips tapped.  He hit the interior wall, rather than the exterior one, bounced at a less violent angle than he would have if it had been the latter, a half-dozen reflections around him moving in sync, sliding out of view as Byron moved out of their frame of reference.

The Byron Damsel had just been handling slid out of the frame too, for that matter.  It was another one who moved to the edge of its particular facet of crystal and kept moving beyond it.  Damsel put her foot out, toe against crystal, her leg keeping him from falling too violently.  I saw a flash of light appear at her foot, before racing off to the distance by a lightning bolt of a path.

“Wuh,” he said.

She didn’t bend down to help steady him, only keeping her leg where it could brace him until Tristan knelt by his brother’s side.

Byron looked up, then around.  The sky was pitch black above us.  The ground was like any other landscape, except with a bit more twist to it.  Rolling hills that tilted a bit too far to the left or right with each roll.  All in red crystal that trended toward black, with faint red glows where the two planes of crystal met, highlighting edges and cracks.

“Uhh,” Byron said.  He looked at his brother, then seemed to realize who he was looking at.  “The fuck?”

“That’s the last of us,” Rain said.

“Now that I’ve seen it done, and now that it’s too late, I’m really feeling super uneasy about this,” I murmured.

Damsel sniffed.

“Also really freaked out you’re that good at doing that,” I said.

“Good,” Damsel said.  “Freaked out is a compliment.”

Byron and Tristan talked, exchanging words in murmurs.

“Where did that Byron come from?” I asked.  “Where did the sleeping Byron go?  Kenzie didn’t get hurt, is Kenzie the Kenzie I know?”

“No,” Kenzie said.  She touched her pinafore dress, then hair.  “I don’t think I ever wore this combination of stuff.”

I hadn’t either, for that matter.  Costume top, the Brockton Bay watercolor remembrance dress.

I was pretty sure I’d been more okay with my fate back there against ‘Mr. Hugs’ than I was with the present state of existential horror.  A few others in the group had some degree of uneasiness clear in their expressions and postures too.

“If it helps,” Tattletale said, “Don’t think of it as us being out here in the open air, mountains and pits all around us.  Think of it as us being on the other side of the glass.  Each crystal is a computer, each pane is a single area of focus, we’re things one program set into motion that are now poring through the file system until our program runs out and we wake up again.”

I thought about it, trying to put my thoughts to words.

“That makes it worse,” Sveta said, before I could manage.

“That,” I said.  “What Sveta said.”

“Most of this is happening through the Corona thingy,” Kenzie said.  “Um, Byron?”

“What?” Byron asked.  He was getting to his feet with Tristan’s help.

“That means you’ll probably go back to… not being okay,” Kenzie said.

“Oh,” he said.  I could see his eyes move, see his lips press together.

He didn’t volunteer anything more.

“It might help kickstart things,” Kenzie said, with some enthusiasm.  “Like getting a running start, might stir things up.”

“Maybe,” Byron said.  “Stirrings sounds right.”

“Vista has been stopping by a lot.  You seemed to notice her,” Tristan commented.  “If you need any motivation.”

I could hear Candy cooing, jostling Darlene and Kenzie, who joined in, and reaching past Darlene to push Chicken Little, who rolled his eyes.

“Ah,” Byron said.  “Maybe.  Let me finish processing the… overwhelming information I have right here, before getting into that?”

“Sure,” Tristan said.

I looked away, turning my attention to the crystals around us.  Each facet of crystal was its own area of focus.  Every time I thought I understood the logic behind a particular facet, I’d see an image that was out of place or ill-fit.

Maybe it did make sense, but the things that linked those out of place images were things like thoughts or associations.

Me, at various ages.  Kid Victoria, often viewed in the mirror, or in videos, or in photographs.  Then me after Gold Morning, in a Patrol uniform, watching a bunch of eighteen year old guys in similar uniforms spar.  Then more Victorias from childhood, broken up by an out of place scene of me in my Antares costume washing my face with one hand while holding a tissue to my nose to stem the blood with another.  That one was immediately followed by a scene of me in Gilpatrick’s office, the Wretch reaching for the glass, getting canceled before it could break that glass and inconvenience Gilpatrick.

Was the connective tissue between those things something to do with youth or my past, with that sparring and bloody nose outliers being a moment I’d already forgotten, where I reminisced about being young or studying?

Was it a kind of education instead?  Each thing connected by a theme of me learning things?  Learning things about myself?  In that case, the photos and videos were a kind of study of my past self.  The sparring exercise and bloody nose something tangential to that?  Coming to terms?

My life, facets of me, arranged by something else’s sorting system.

Sveta walked up behind me, her face sharing the image.  The images became incoherent, choppy, with the wrong lighting, like a television screen with the darkness cranked all the way up.  A lot of the scenes seemed to be from the dream she’d just had.

A fleeting image appeared, disappearing before I could even open my mouth to remark on it.  A fishing village surrounded by tall trees, perched on an outcropping of black rock that had been scratched or painted with swirls in white.  It moved like the viewpoint was swimming or in a boat.

“My sibling and I were like Tristan and Byron,” Sveta said.  “I got mad, went to work on my own, draw.”

“Even then, huh?”

Sveta shook her head.  “I dreamed about drawing on blackness when I was in the hospital, I mentioned it to Jessica.  It’s why I picked up the painting.”

I remembered something like that.  I knew she’d dreamed about things and wanted to paint them, but I hadn’t known the painting had been in the dream.

She indicated the pane, which was showing more images from my memories, now.  “I slipped and fell.  It wasn’t from some tree onto the parking lot.  It was from black rock onto black rock.  We both got taken away.  We both got vials after that, but I was the one to survive.”

“Are you remembering this now?”

“More or less,” Sveta said.

It showed more blurry, fractured images from Sveta’s memories.  Darkened, incomplete, stuttering.

“I’m so… so angry, all over again,” she whispered.  “Like when I first heard about Cauldron and what they were doing.”

I thought of my own fit of fury directed at Amy, in Rain’s dream room.  “They’re monsters.  Depending on how this goes, maybe they’re monsters we can vanquish once and for all.”

“It’s not that simple,” Sveta said.  “You’re thinking of Teacher?”

“Yeah.  Maybe Citrine and the Harbingers, depending on their perspective.”

Sveta nodded, watching the scenes.  She stepped a bit to the side, to see what other facets were revealing.  “It’s not so simple.”

I nodded.

“I’m really glad you’re okay,” Sveta told me.

“I’m… more or less there,” I replied.

She touched my arm, then walked away.  I glanced at the reflection, and saw a storm in that too-dark, too-distorted image that seemed to follow Sveta.  Then it was Victoria at a birthday party, classmates around her, sister beside her, cousins Eric and Crystal off to one side, a little too old and too young to be hanging around with her.

Candles out, the lights turned on a little too quickly.

I wish I was a superhero.  I knew the wish because I’d made the same one every year.

I looked away.

The group was exploring, but at this stage in things, it was a rather tentative exploration.  Fanning out, until we were no more than fifteen feet away from the next person.  Peering into crystals, trying to figure things out.

I decided to break pattern, because there was no way we’d find Teacher if we didn’t get moving with a bit more speed and distance covered.  I walked away, not briskly, but not dawdling either, thumb of my right hand scratching at the edges of the bandaging at my left hand.  Bandages with blood on them for an injury that wasn’t there.

“What’s our goal?  Finding Teacher?” Byron asked.

“Essentially,” Tristan said.  “Man is it weird to talk to you.”

“We have other objectives,” I said.  “The original Earth N portal.  It was that way?”

I pointed.

Kenzie corrected, reaching up, moving my arm a few inches to one side.

I looked down at her.  “You sure?”

“I have a good sense of space, and I remember which direction the room was oriented,” she said.

“Good enough.”

“You want to see it from this side?” Tristan asked.

“Let’s see what we’re dealing with, yeah.”

He nodded.

It ended up being Damsel who led the way.  She approached a rising hill to our left and walked over to one slice of it, waiting for our group.  She put a foot down, experimentally, and stepped onto a downward slope.

I couldn’t quite figure out the how or why of it until I’d walked another five steps and saw the hill in a fresh context.

“What keeps you from doing the paradigm shift that you used to heal us?” I asked.

“Me,” Damsel said.

She stepped onto the downward slope and shifted her footing, until her feet slid on the dark, glass-like surface, hands out for balance, claws pointing back.

That’s real helpful,” I muttered.  I did my best to follow suit.  The kids were right behind me, with Chicken Little going down the slope in a sitting position, feet bracing him, Candy trying but landing on her ass, and Kenzie and Darlene managing it.

Every surface existed in multiple contexts.  As I slid down, not hurtling, but moving fast enough my braid was picked up by the air, I could see glimmers and flickers of other things, painted in reds and blacks on the black crystal with red highlights.  A forest.  Campfires.  A boat in water.  The Fallen Camp.

“Damsel!” I called out.  I ducked low to reduce my profile and reduce air resistance, even though I wasn’t sure this place even had any.  I did what I could to catch up to her.  “Can we-”

She glanced at me, then did much the same as I was doing, and her shoes were better for it.  Pulling ahead.

Turning my body more, ducking lower, I tried to close the gap.

And… she seemed insistent on maintaining the lead.  Fine, whatever.

“Any tips?” I called to her back.  “To avoid any accidents?”

“It’s as Tattletale says,” Damsel said.  She bent her knees more, then hopped up to a flatter plane of crystal, running a few steps until the momentum had been eaten up.  She turned, not even glancing at me, just looking at the rest of the group.  “We’re just bundles of code encapsulating our selves, written in a language we’ll never understand.  When this ends our brains will be translated back, we’ll wake up, and all will be normal.  The ‘trick’-”

I hopped up to the platform she was on, leaning my upper body back as she made giant air-quotes with her claws.

“-is that there is no trick.  All of these versions of ourselves, hurt, crying, laughing, young, present-day, costumed… they exist simultaneously.  You choose the face you want to present.”

I felt simultaneously frustrated at that, and at the same time, I was pretty sure I had a good idea as to why she was so good at managing this side of things.

The kids were next to arrive, Chicken Little putting his feet out to stop himself, kicking at the side of the platform, catching Candy.  Darlene and Kenzie reached the platform and flopped over it, feet still on the slope, upper bodies on the slope itself.  I bent down to pick both of them up, then again to help Chicken Little and Candy up.

“The storm is chasing you more,” Kenzie remarked, pointing down.

I looked, and I could see the flashes of light, some brighter than others.  Ashley was the brightest, producing more flares of light that traced their way along neurons on the other side or surface of the crystal plain, traveling their zig-zag, forking lines as they raced to places unknown.

Darlene was second-most, but it took me a moment to notice, because her flares of light were less intense.  Each time she flared, there would be a brief, stuttering light between her feet and Candy’s.

And, I had to watch for it to see it, but as Darlene smiled at something, she produced another stutter, another light that raced off the same way.

“Sending messages home, I guess,” I noted.  “I bet if you chased that, you could find your power’s source.”

“Mmm,” Damsel made a sound.  She raised a hand, claws extended my way.

As if to make that moment more dramatic, the stuttering light appeared between us, before we each sent our individual lights racing off to different points at the horizon.

She dropped her claw.

“I don’t suppose you could trace a line to Teacher that way, huh?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “You try.”

The others had all arrived now.  Rain, Sveta, Tristan, Byron, Colt, Love Lost, and Tattletale.  Damsel stalked off as everyone got together, talking among one another.

Alone, disconnected.

I saw her turn her head, and light flashed beneath her feet, before jumping over to a distant figure.  Something lurked on a distant slope, not dissimilar to what ‘Mr. Hugs’ had looked like.  A burning torch of a figure, tall and ladderlike.  The more I looked up the taller it seemed to get.  The light touched him, then raced off to Damsel’s usual spot.

It turned our way.

“Let’s go,” I called out.

Damsel, unfazed, walked to another slope I couldn’t help but see as uphill, before stepping down and sliding down it.

“This is hard on the legs,” Darlene complained.

“Let’s go,” I said, still watching the distant thing.

“Easier than walking,” Sveta said, giving me and the distant figure a worried look.

“Sit,” Chicken Little suggested.  “It’s fun.”

“But sitting is a kid thing to do,” Candy told him.

“Is it?” he asked.

He walked up ahead and stood at the edge of the platform, swaying slightly, before hopping down.  He followed behind Damsel, standing this time.  He looked back, his expression serious until he turned his attention back to where he was going.

The other kids stuck with him, with only a couple of nervous glances back before sliding down.  Candy kept her balance this time.

I approached the edge, and I could see reflections all around me.  My mom and Uncle Neil.  Amy.

We’re all the summation of the faces we wear and where we come from, I thought, interpreting Damsel’s words.

Vicky, Victoria, Glory Girl, Wretch, Scholar, Warrior monk, Antares…

Whatever I was these days, that was so willing to come here, to break rules, to callously suggest we kill Cradle, and to feel nothing but mild relief when that shelf fell on him, taking his life.

Whatever I was this moment, trying to be stoic when there was a not-impossible chance that we’d have another fight like we’d just barely survived if we didn’t get moving.

“Come on!” I raised my voice, hardening it.

They came, finally.  Love Lost approached the slope at a run, going full velocity this time, looking as serious as I’d seen her.

We all stepped down, following the leaders in sliding down the slope.

The group that was already at the bottom looked stricken, stunned, or distracted.

“Careful!” I called out.  “Something’s up!”

I braced myself, eyes to the sky as I coasted onto the platform.  If there was something problematic, I didn’t want to be caught by it.

“What’s going on?” I asked, walking forward.  I kept my head angled so I wasn’t looking at the crystal protrusions.  Around the largest protrusion, I could see our way forward.  The distortion that was probably the Earth N portal.  But that wasn’t their focus.  “Problem?”

“Just the opposite,” Darlene said.

I looked.  Darlene had her arms around Chicken Little’s shoulders, hugging him from behind.  He seemed as oblivious as ever, his attention on the crystal.

A red haired woman loomed in the image, viewed at a weird angle.  Red haired with freckles, and wide hips that seemed wider because the image made her head seem small and her legs seem large.  The clothes looked very 2000’s.

If I unfocused my eyes, looked at the image that was almost too blurry to see, superimposed over hers… I walked to one side so I wouldn’t mess up Chicken Little getting to see his mom, and I saw Uncle Neil pick up a younger Eric by the suspenders of his overalls.  Manpower and the little boy that would become Shielder.

Tattletale reached the platform.  I saw the glimpse, looking past her at the image, the closet I’d seen in the dream, her body blocking the silhouette of the figure within.  She didn’t look.

Sveta’s image was almost clear as she walked by one pane, showing the Case Fifty-Threes.  Dark as it showed people huddled indoors at night, illuminated by a small fire.

For Tristan and Byron, it was old teammates.  Two of those teammates were distorted, like so many of Sveta’s scenes were.  Too dark, too fast or too slow, inconsistent, stuttering, seeming to show something and then skipping away.

For Love Lost, a man, Asian, with scraggly stubble.  For Colt, it was her mom and dad.  People I’d seen in a video, once upon a time.

The panes that Kenzie walked by were green text against a black screen, lines of chat in a chat room.

I turned away, because there were expressions and reactions that weren’t for me to see.  In turning, I came face to face with another image.  Black, the lights almost out, the image distorted, stuttering.

What I could make out suggested it was Dean.

“You didn’t tell me,” I murmured.

The light flashed from my feet, through the crystal pylon, and sputtered out.  The scenes changed.  Dean in a dozen contexts, all choppy, pieces missing or too dark to see.  Then Eric and Sarah and Uncle Neil, with Crystal out of focus.  Then Dean again, shirtless, wearing jeans, his face practically scratched out.

“You were the one person who didn’t let me down, if I forgave the whole dying thing,” I whispered.  “And I think I could’ve.  Especially with today’s close call.”

Dean, sitting by the window in a classroom, staring outside.  Except a blot of darkness smack dab in the center of the image blocked most of the view of him.

“You couldn’t confide in me?  You couldn’t say ‘hey, I bought my powers’?” I asked.  “You had to lie about triggering, and dealing with that?  Did it even happen?”

The images gave way.  It as the Pelham backyard, Erik, Aunt Sarah and Uncle Neil in the pool.  Crystal was in the pool too, but only visible as shadows as she swam underwater.

The Dean images didn’t come back, like I’d scared them away.

Not that I really waited.

I turned away, feeling anxious and hurt to a level I didn’t really want to dwell on, and found myself glancing at and trying to understand a bloody scene.

Damsel’s.

The boy that was dying looked like he was eighteen or so.  The scene was dark, black, distorted, stuttering.

Even though it was an event that happened earlier in the chronology, the stutter gave me a glimpse of a hand, Ashley’s hand, reaching for his arm and obliterating it with a burst of darkness.  The stump gushed blood.  The other arm was already in the same state.

Damsel turned her head and saw me looking.  She turned to face me, as the scene behind her changed to something more illicit, Ashley straddling the same teenager’s face, dress draped over the top of his head.  Hands -not claws- reached up to run fingers through her hair, to stretch her arms, even cross her wrists at her chest, but never to put her hands near him.  Much of it was obscured by more stutters, darkness, and distortion.

I didn’t want to see that part of it.  It was eerie, personal.  But-

There.  The image turned back to blood, annihilation.  A mute rendition of a scene where the boy sat in a chair, both of his arms bleeding.

And Ashley, the point of view for that particular scene, stared down at him.  Put a foot out to keep him in the chair when he tried to stand.

“The Jewel of Boston,” Damsel said.  “‘J’.  Accord’s.  He had powers but he only ever showed me the one.  He could mold himself to be anyone’s perfect person.”

Kenzie approached, and I took two swift steps before putting my arm out, stopping her from getting far enough around the corner to see the image that was playing out.

“Perfect person?” I asked.

“In personality.  He was someone who could fill the lonely void in any of our hearts, and we all have one, hm?” Damsel asked.

“Yeah,” Darlene said, off to the side.

“He intended to betray me.  He’d killed four others already, made them love him, broke their hearts, broke them, humiliated what remained, then killed them.  I got out unscathed.”

From her tone of voice, tense, too controlled, it didn’t sound like she had.

“Love and caring makes you weak,” Damsel said.  “I annihilated that love and caring and I watched it bleed out.  I didn’t even know the particulars.  I had an inkling something was up, not about him, just… something.  So I murdered him.”

“Oh,” Kenzie said, very quiet.  “Swansong mentioned-”

“I know what Swansong mentioned!” Damsel raised her voice and her claw at the same time.

Kenzie, meanwhile, dropped her head, and moved obediently when I pushed her back and behind me.

Damsel met my eyes.

“We should get going.  You’ve been… impressively helpful so far,” I told her.

“Picking your words carefully to appeal to the arrogant supervillain,” Damsel said.  “Working that ‘impressively’ in there, hm?  Swansong knew what you were doing and accepted the words like a dog accepts scratches behind the ear.  Servile, weak, disgusting.

“I think it takes a certain kind of strength to know how to receive affection,” Kenzie said, her voice small.  “And give it.”

“I didn’t really know, you know?” Damsel said, ignoring the comment.  “About the Jewel.  Armstrong would tell me later.  But right then?  He was just a boy.  All I had was an instinct, and I still maimed him.  That’s how little a perfect affection means.”

I frowned, and Damsel locked her eyes to mine.

“Don’t look past the surface if you can’t accept what you see,” she said.  “It was the same for your Swansong.  Same feelings, same ideas, same decision to kill a boy she was fond of when she wasn’t sure, because power is that much more important than love.  She made that call, same as I remember, and you think she wasn’t using you, Lookout?”

Behind her, the boy from the chair sat on a desk, wearing only a bathrobe.  He had a piece of meat on a fork.

I spoke up, “You’re making yourself look small, Damsel, picking the most vulnerable person here and picking at the sorest sore spot.”

Damsel sniffed, dismissive.

“I’m not the most vulnerable,” Kenzie said, looking up at me.  “That’d be Byron or something.  He’s in the hospital.”

“Uh, sure,” Byron said, poking his head around the corner.

“You don’t even know a cute, super awesome heroine is visiting you,” Candy said, mischievous.  “Vista is Aunt Rachel’s friend, which means she’s not just kickass, she’s kickass with cool friends.  She visits Aunt Rachel’s, Byron, and she likes dogs.  If you get better and come along with her, you can sit in the puppy bucket.  That’s where you get put in one of the great honking big laundry buckets and they put a whole litter of puppies in with you.  It’s great.”

“It sure sounds great,” Byron said, with just about as much enthusiasm as Byron showed for anything, which was about two bars below Tristan’s baseline.

“Except when they pee on you,” Chicken Little said.  “That happens.”

“It’s an excuse to swim,” Candy said, jostling him, tugging on his arm.

Chicken Little shot one last look at the woman in the one crystal, looked at other crystals but found them too narrow to provide a coherent picture.  He gave Candy his full attention, as Darlene butted in to break Candy’s grip on his arm.  He asked, “Swimming in winter?”

The conversation had turned, and I was keeping an eye on Damsel, who had gone very still, and on Kenzie, who hadn’t stopped looking at Damsel.

“Let’s keep moving,” I said.  “We don’t have a ton of time and we have a lot of ground to cover.”

“Yeah,” Kenzie said.

So many of us, we had a couple of people.  People we’d loved and lost, that were reflected in crystals here.  In one crystal, a few friends I’d known in school that I’d called best friends once, who had drifted away.  In another, Sveta… possibly because she’d left the hospital to go with Weld.

I could see that for Kenzie, it was like every crystal had a dozen faces, and each face had a different person.

“Damsel,” Kenzie said.

“Let’s not engage,” I said, my hand at Kenzie’s back to keep her moving.  I was aware of how stiff Damsel was.  She’d been ignored, her provocations hadn’t worked.

Kenzie looked back at Candy, who was jogging over to catch up with her.  “I think you’re great, Damsel.  You’re stylish and beautiful and intimidating and badass and awesome and you’re a kickass villain who’s only going to kick more and more ass as time goes on.”

If Damsel attacked, what was I even supposed to do?  One knife had done enough damage to Tattletale, who was actually the one who’d gone ahead now, and Damsel had ten.

No powers here, nothing in the environment to salvage as an improvised weapon.  I had my buckler, at least, but everything put together, I gave better odds to Damsel.

“And?” Damsel asked, her voice sharp as she penetrated the hanging silence after Kenzie’s statement, as though a sentence had been left unfinished.

“That’s all,” Kenzie said, and she smiled at Damsel.

Damsel, for her part, smiled back, “And here I thought you’d be clever.”

She was, I thought to myself, but I didn’t want to poke the bear by mentioning it.  Seeing Damsel mirroring Kenzie’s smile was unnerving enough.

Tattletale was standing on a ridge, staring off into the distance while avoiding looking at the crystals.

The others were catching up.  There were too many spots that reflected into deeper parts of ourselves and our world, and a region where the people we’d loved dwelt was… it was captivating.

Devastating.  Chicken Little kept looking back.  Darlene flinched as she walked past a crystal and an unkempt man walked beside her, black haired and lanky.  And her mood had darkened afterward.

Is this place aware we’re in it?  Does it care?  Is it throwing these things at us to screw with us?

My instinct was no.  That this was just happenstance, and that this was the kind of analysis and digging into our beings that the overarching system was doing as a matter of course.

“What are you looking at?” I asked Tattletale.

Kenzie broke away from me to go to the other kids.

“Looking back the way we came.  We covered a lot of ground.  More than you’d think.”

I looked, and I tried to interpret the landscape that shifted like an optical illusion, tracing the slopes we’d come down, finding the starting point.

“Yeah,” I said.

“There’s something over there,” Tattletale said.

Over the horizon.  The sky wasn’t entirely black.

“I’ll go on ahead,” I told her.

“We’re not letting Damsel have the lead anymore, hm?” Tattletale asked.

“We don’t care who has the lead,” I said, rolling my eyes slightly.  “And I do care about figuring out how to navigate and work with this place.  If we’re going to beat Teacher at his own game, then we need to learn how to mess with this system, get our fingers into the works.”

“Don’t let me stop you,” she said.

“Watch Kenz?” I asked.

“I don’t need watching!” Kenzie raised her voice.

You already sound like a teenager, Kenz.  Hurling yourself down that path?

I put my foot out, finding the slope before us.  It wasn’t really angled though, just… awkward to walk on, nothing flat, everything at ankle-twisting angles.

I could shift my head to adapt to the perspective I wanted, but putting my foot out still found resistance.

It’s not about my head, it’s about me, I told myself.

Damsel had pushed us when she’d wanted us to go from one representation to another.  I’d flown enough to be familiar with that stomach-jarring perspective shift, the dips and dives that one associated with roller coasters.  I’d experienced just a bit of it when taking that one step to follow after Damsel, when she’d gone down the slope.

I tried to capture it, forcing that feeling as I took that precarious step forward, my entire body following after with the sensation in my gut moving out to the rest of me.

My foot found flat ground.  What had been a plain of ground like a folding fan stretched partially out was now closer to a somewhat precarious staircase, though nothing had changed visually.  I climbed it with one hand and both feet, moving at an angle as I went.

I put Dean behind me, as best as I could, but doubt clawed at me.  The blurry image had marked him as Cauldron.  Which made sense. His parents were rich.

Which just… I didn’t fault him exactly.  I didn’t blame him for going to them, not when it had probably been his dad who’d bought the powers or something.  But he’d lied to me.

Why did the list of people I could absolutely trust or look on with fondness seem to grow so short?  Especially when those people went and died on me?

I crested the top, and then dropped low.  A patch of daylight, spreading out into the faces and facets of crystal, captured in veins.

The landscape here looked like the landscape I’d seen when flying from my Patrol assignments to the ruins of Brockton Bay.  Cracked, with ravines where there shouldn’t be ravines.  Images that were supposed to be writ large were broken up, out of sync.

And white lights that danced across the landscape hit the ravine and stopped, stuttered, or shook the ground, causing more schisms to form.

Three things like we’d seen in the room of dormant guardians stood there, by a tear in reality.  A great white schism in this landscape.  The area reflected around it was terrain from the city, captured and folded into the crystal or just there but not visible from my present vantage point.

Images all around me were animating, picking up on what they could glean from me that was relevant.  Empire Eighty-eight, Leviathan, the Slaughterhouse Nine, the Fallen.  Violence.  Deaths.  That was just the nature of the routines and subroutines of this particular neighborhood.

Three agents, interacting with this tear and the cracked sky and ground around it.  One looked like a neckless giant crossed with a puddle of oil, shimmering in rainbow hues, features nonexistent.  Another like a tall, slender woman in a dress, with a headdress of spikes radiating out for fifty feet around her.  The last was barely there, insubstantial, a wisp of pale yellow in a vague centaur shape, with a broad slash of black instead of a face.

And fifty of Teacher’s goons, dressed in white, carting in technology, working to build something connected to this tear.  Working with the agents.

I watched as light flickered, dancing across the landscape, across the sky, and to the great black fissure.  Stuttering lights connected to everything nearby, like a blinding flash of lightning, utterly silent, that left ghostly images of planet-sized monstrosities dancing amid the spots in my eyes.

Each of the three gargantuan agents turned to look, in near-synchronicity with the goons in white.  Anticipating.

The flickering stopped, the lights going out, everything returning to the way it had been.  Collectively, they returned to their nearly silent work.  Preparing, I was sure, for the moment that flickering started and didn’t ever stop.

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From Within – 16.10

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The tinker device the thing above us made was spinning up, producing a metal-on-metal sound that grew louder by the second.

Too much of me was numb, and the rest of me felt like it was still on fire, the skin still bearing residual heat that hadn’t faded.  When I moved, most often involuntarily, I found myself in contact with grit, pushing it into the wounds.  Every breath was a labor, and that labor was made worse by the fact the rest of my body was struggling too, offloading issues to body parts I needed to breathe.  Gorge rose in my throat, interrupting a breath in process, and receded just as quickly, leaving only acid in a windpipe that had already been in a sorry fucking state.  I coughed, and that made everything else hurt.

We come full circle, I found myself thinking.  Shitty circle when it starts and ends in burns across most of my body.  Acid from Crawler, now burns from… this.

Acid in the throat, burns on the body, acid on the body…

If I’d been on the way to a coherent thought or deeper understanding, which I probably hadn’t, the pain that seized me derailed all thinking.

Sveta grabbed me, pulling me into a hug, with emphasis on pulling.  I could feel her hands drag across skin that might as well have been attached by mere threads.  I grunted, guttural, my thoughts dissolving into incoherent animal panic and-

I felt the impact.  She’d been pulling me out of the way of danger.  As she let go of me, I landed on my back, facing this creature that was as vast as the sky, and what looked like a faint blue glow in the center of a flower made of quicksilver.  The flower expanded outward, rotating madly with that metal-on-metal sound, and it touched the creature’s arms, painting, augmenting, and decorating them.

It splashed into an arm, then congealed into armor with a technological component to it, covering up joints, adding spikes, arms that branched off, and faint blue plumes that might have been rockets, to accelerate the arm’s movements.

An arm crashed down amid shelving units near the bulk of the group.  The quicksilver that coated it splashed out, mechanical limbs in a dozen varieties appearing around the impact site, reaching out, groping, clawing and tearing.  The metal receded, arms shrinking and dragging components with them, and then those blue jets fired down, torching the surroundings, and hauling the arm and the shelving units it and the smaller arms held into the sky with the speed of an elastic band’s snap.

Three more plunged down, aimed at my teammates.  Some came down as fast as the other had gone up, but the force of it seemed to damage the underlying arms.

Fuck, I could barely think.

It wasn’t like this thing was going to run out of arms anytime soon.  Hundreds of arms.  We’d only damaged a few.

“Get Cradle,” I said.  Had I said it earlier?

“I can’t leave you here,” Sveta said.  “I have to pick you up.”

I wanted to say no, but then she was grabbing me again, and my skin wasn’t in good enough shape to be grabbed.  I started to black out, and forced my way back to consciousness.

Have to help if I can.  Even if it’s-

Pain distracted, broke up the flow of thoughts.  I had to get my thoughts back on course, and this time I could.  Perhaps I could credit the mental agility of not thinking about certain topics, dodging around the thought of them constantly, or thinking despite factors.

I wanted to think I’d gleaned something from it.  I felt victorious as I remained conscious and finished the thought with, advice.  Lend them my eyes.

Except time had passed.  Nearly blacking out and coming to felt like it took a couple of seconds.  Sveta had hauled me across the white beach to the shelving units in what had probably taken at least two minutes.

Most of the others were there, or were here.  Scattered around us, amid various pieces of cover.

And above us- the many-handed monstrosity was trying to find its balance.  I had to twist to look, despite the pain twisting caused.

Damsel slashed at the hands that were resting on the ground, aiming for wires.  More and more of the hands that appeared around her didn’t have any, with the living metal coating protecting the joints.  She looked like a fencer, favoring one arm.

Focus, I thought.

Same thing I’d been doing.  And it had a similar effect.  This thing was ungainly, lopsided, ill-fit to the space it occupied.  When a hand came down and incredible amounts of weight came to rest on that hand, it suggested a needed support.  Weight-bearing.

With a metal-on-metal scream, the hands around Damsel lifted up.  The thing had stopped for a moment, repositioning to put its hands out of the way of us, hands planted on the far end of the room, and against the wall on our end.

And I saw Damsel cradle her arm against her chest, claws curled in to almost touch her elbow.  Four claws.  Her thumb was gone, along with a whole strip of her forearm, with strings of blood, strips of muscle, or tendons dangling from the wound.

She saw me looking and pulled her arm away from her chest, leaving a slick mark diagonal across it.  She let her arm hang at her side, finger-claws almost touching the ground.  She raised her chin and looked up at the monster.

Choose, I remembered.  That had been our Ashley standing there beside her in the dream.

You don’t have to hide that you’re hurt, Damsel.

I knew Ashley, and I had a good sense of how she thought and processed things.  Seeing the dream, I knew what was on her mind.  She thought, given the chance, we’d get rid of her and get Swansong back.

I wasn’t so sure we would, but it didn’t matter, because she was convinced.  I could tell.

The way the thing was getting further away from us de-multiplied the number of arms around us.  With more arms pulling up and finding positions elsewhere, the room was distorting again.  I could see the process of how the room distorted in reverse this time, see the distant distortion as Tatttletale’s distant area bloated and smeared around.

Put two arms fifteen feet apart, and the space increased to twenty feet, with everything around accommodating.  Put two arms ten feet apart, and it increased to twelve or thirteen feet.  More arms, more distortion.

In the distance, it placed limbs to expand and stretch out my room.  When it tore up and removed panes of glass and those solar panels that were black except where they caught direct light and reflected gold, those things remained expanded, distorted in dimensions.  Arms hauled them up to the core, feeding them into that quicksilver flower that it had teched up.

The metal-on-metal scream was joined with the sound of glass scraping and breaking, churned up by a blender.  The quicksilver flower was soon decorated, gilded with gold-tinted glass and the black panes of the solar panels.

The noise set my nerves on edge.  Good thing I have less nerves than I had when I entered this fucking place.  I smiled at the dark thought.

“Hey, hey,” Sveta said.  Her hand was very cool against my cheek, sparking pain while being welcome at the same time.  “Stay with us.”

“With you,” I said, before trying again.  “I’m with you.”

“She okay?” Tattletale asked.

“Victoria wants us to go after Cradle,” Sveta said, not answering the question.

“I want to go after Cradle.”  I identified the voice as Darlene.  “He hurt Candy and Precipice.”

I heard Chicken Little but didn’t make out the words.  He might have been talking to Rain.

“What’s the logic?” Tattletale.  “It means going the opposite way we’ve been headed, chasing down a guy who doesn’t want to be found.”

“He’s this thing’s host,” I managed.  I started to cough and stopped myself, because I knew it’d make my whole body move and I wouldn’t be able to stop.  I choked on the next word I intended to say instead.  “Cut him off and maybe we cut off the power?”

“Might kick us out of the dream,” Tattletale said.

“Wouldn’t object,” I grunted out the words, suppressing another cough.  My throat still burned with acid.  “This dream sucks.  Can’t believe Rain had to come here every night.”

“Precipice,” Sveta said, quiet.

“The way looks clear,” Tristan said.  “We could make a run for it.”

“It won’t look that clear when you get there,” I said.  “It’s a feint.  It can hear us.  Everything in this room.”

“You know this?” Tattletale asked.

I shook my head slowly, feeling skin at my neck crack.  “But it makes sense.”

“Come here,” Tristan said, as he settled beside me.  I saw Kenzie just a short distance away, her back to shelving, her attention divided between me and the sky above.  Tristan muttered, “I don’t know enough medical stuff, but…”

“Get Cradle,” I said.  “Take him out and this might all stop.”

He touched a finger to my throat.  “Your heart is hammering.  I can’t even count this fast.”

I winced at the shock of crushing pain through my left arm as he leaned in.  “Makes some sense.  Just… go?  Stop kneeling on my elbow and shit while you’re at it.”

“I’m not,” he said.

I looked.  Sure enough, he was nowhere near the blackened mess where what remained of sleeve and skin were indistinguishable just from the residual heat that had come through the shield, and where the metal of the buckler was slag.

The pressure swelled with the realization there was no source.  Like the Wretch had me by the bone and was squeezing hard enough to crush me.  It was one of… too many things that were going wrong or giving way.  I kept the sounds that I made small, to minimize the chances that I’d scare the kids.

Every part of my body felt like it was defaulting to wrong inputs or wrong outputs.  A brain to not process, to not dwell.  An arm that didn’t move where every sensation it did have was a false one.  A throat meant more for holding the acid of puke I’d swallowed again before it could leave my mouth, for holding the feeling of being burned, and a knot at the base of it like the Wretch had her fist there, right behind the collarbone, stretching it out.  A hummingbird heartbeat that was beating so fast it felt like I had no heartbeat at all.  Skin that was more a gaping, massive vulnerability than a wall between the inside of me and the world outside.

“Get Cradle,” I said, wincing at the pain in my arm.  “You’re a natural superhero, Trist-.”

I winced.

“Not your first rodeo,” I tried again.  “Maybe your first dream-zone fight.”

“Second,” Tristan said, looking up.  He looked like such a superhero in that moment.  Square jaw, intense.  A giddy and delirious part of me wanted to kiss him, hug him, embrace that as much as the handsomeness of him.  Which would probably traumatize him on a few levels.

It scared me that my emotions were so out there, so far out of bounds, when I’d prized and fought so fucking hard to establish my bounds.

Maybe- yeah.

The outcome looked and felt grim enough that I was finding a whole lot of stuff I’d been holding onto didn’t matter.  There was a very real chance I’d never see my parents again.  Amy.

Things I needed to come to terms with.

“I’m not using my power or anything,” Tattletale’s voice cut through my thoughts, forcing me to focus my thoughts like I might try to focus my eyes in a moment of double-vision.  “But now would be the time to go if we were going to go.”

Focus, I told myself.

“Go kick some ass,” I said, reaching over and across my body for Tristan’s arm and missing it entirely.  I pointed instead.

“I don’t want to be the guy who charges in and leaves his friends vulnerable behind him.  Not anymore.”

“You have my permission.  Go.  Vamos.”

He stood at that.

The relief that hit me came with another momentary blackout.  Sveta’s cool hand on my forehead stirred me to awareness again.

Tristan was talking to Kenzie.  “-don’t want to see this.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

“That-.  Okay.  Keep talking to her.  Keep her alert and aware.  If she needs something, give it to her.”

“Can we move her closer to Precipice?  Chicken’s watching him and-”

“Can’t move her,” Tristan said.

“Okay.”

“Sveta,” Tristan said.

Sveta lurched to her feet.

“Eyes on the sky, Kenz.  Same rule we gave to Chicken.  If it comes for you guys, you run.  Leave the wounded behind.”

Kenzie looked down at me, her eyes large in the gloom.

I nodded.

“I mean it,” Tristan said, sounding as intense and almost angry at Kenzie as I’d ever heard.  “You run.”

“I’ll run,” Kenzie said.  “If you start running now.  The sooner the better.”

“Look after Victoria, Kenz.  Tattletale, look after these guys?”

“I will.”

“Love Lost?  Colt?”

I heard Love Lost’s footsteps.  Obviously, she wasn’t one to reply.

“I’ll stay,” Colt said.  “I’m too slow like this.”

“Okay.  Damsel!” Tristan called out, his voice booming.  “Want to help kill an asshole!?  Might end this!”

The thing was moving, and all I could do was lay there, focusing on breathing, while Kenzie crept closer.

Darlene and Candy kept even more of a distance.  Candy had both of her hands pressed to the side of her head, and Darlene had one hand pressed there as well.  They hunkered down by a shelf, hiding, their position apparently chosen to keep an eye on me and Kenzie, and on Chicken Little and Rain.

I could see the blood that streaked down Candy’s arms, into her sleeves and to her elbows, seeping through the cloth in blobs.

Darlene looked hurt too.  Her ear and eye were bleeding, the eye closed, but she was using her hands for Candy’s sake.  She might have been hit by shrapnel at one point.

“Put pressure on that,” I said, too quiet for them to hear.

“Are you putting enough pressure on it?” Kenzie asked.

“Yeah,” Darlene said.

The thing made its next move.  Arms were augmented with metal and glass now, and when arm plunged like a thrown spear, the impact site where it penetrated was a dozen arms of metal and glass.  The glass exploded, and the arms ripped and tore.

The resulting cloud of dust concealed the scene.  Shards of the glass glinted in the dim light.  I had to imagine it’d be nigh-impassable.  Blocking the other group’s path.

God, my arm hurt.  Like the bone, muscle, and everything else was being crushed endlessly, but never actually broke.

Tattletale walked over to stand over Darlene and Candy, pulling medical stuff from her bag.  She looked over at me.

We’d seen each other’s worst moments, or interpretations of those moments.  That… it kicked down doors.  More boundaries gone.

Three more arms plunged into different points in Cradle’s territory.  The first arm receded.  The remainder were working on maneuvering the large body closer, so more arms could reach.

Protecting Cradle.  Looking between shelves and through the gap between two pieces of sheet metal that backed two shelves, I could see the silhouettes of the others.  Charging in nonetheless.

“Thanks Tats,” I said.

“What’s she saying?” Tattletale asked.

“Thank you,” Kenzie said.

“For shooting the thing.”

“For-”

“I heard that one.  What were you doing charging in like that?  You reckless idiot.”

“Had to distract it.  Stick to the game plan.”

“Brute mentality, no brute powers.  See where it gets you?” Tattletale asked.  “You-”

She stopped as more hands plunged down.  Four, at my best guess.  All aimed for the other group.

I had a sinking feeling, watching.  The onslaught was increasing in intensity as the thing drew nearer to them.

“Any insights?” I asked.

“No power,” Tattletale said.  She sounded bored, detached.

“Still,” I said.  “You don’t cape for… years without figuring some shit out.”

“Are you trying to be nice, Antares?” Tattletale asked.  “You saw where I come from, you feel bad?”

“Let’s not fight,” Kenzie said.

“You feel sorry for me?” Tattletale asked.

More crashes.  It had to be ten arms, though I couldn’t see the entirety of it.  Some speared down, some raked their individual paths.  One after another.

It was so hard to breathe, and the pain when impacts shook me interrupted the process.  My heart was still aflutter and it was probably contributing to my thoughts being a little… lightweight.  Shallow thinking, like the twilight before sleep, that I could steer only with constant attention.

“You don’t know anything about me, okay?” Tattletale asked.  “You don’t get any points if you end our relationship with some well-intentioned questions.  You triggered because mommy and daddy didn’t love you because you were normal, then proceeded to show you were the last person who ever deserved powers, maiming people and using your sister to dodge the consequences when you hit them a little too hard.”

“Stop,” Kenzie said.

“Hey,” Colt said.

The silence was maybe the heaviest silence that I’d ever heard.  Heavier than the times after my family had left during visiting hours.  Heavier than the rooftop after Dean had died, when I’d flown up there to cry on my own because I couldn’t cry in front of his family and everyone else in the hospital.  Heavier than the silence after I’d been fouled in basketball, in the before and after of my own pained cry.

Heavy because the hands had made an all-out attack on the other group.  Ten hands, all together.

And then they’d stopped.

I could taste the dust and the glass particulate in the air.

Tattletale’s voice picked up, starting slow, then building in speed, “I bet you knew she liked you, you knew she was in a bad place, but it was convenient to keep using the girl instead of getting her help.  Bit you in the ass, huh?  I bet what gets you is that you know you deserved those years in the asylum.”

I focused on breathing.

Kenzie reached for and took my hand.  She held it in two of hers, clenching harder than was necessary.  “Tattletale-”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“Is it, Victoria?  Is it really?  You’re dying.  You’re not going to last the… thirty-one minutes that remain, here.  This is it, we’re probably going with you, and I’m not going to mince words or tell you some convenient things that help you go without regrets.”

She didn’t address me further.  Darlene stared up at her, and Tattletale reached down to push a lock of hair from Darlene’s forehead.  Darlene pulled hear head away, then hugged her cousin.

Regrets.  Things I needed to come to terms with.  I’d been dwelling on it earlier, a tangent.

I felt like I could let my mind touch on the subject of my mom and dad and how they’d betrayed me in their individual ways, and I could make a kind of peace with that.  I could touch on the things they’d said and done and ways they’d let me down and a kind of tension that had been there since I could remember was released.

Amy.

The thought didn’t provoke fear or defense reactions in the same way.  A deep sadness and feeling of loss, yes.  A small stab of alarm, worry, like a primal part of me had to cover the bases in case she could somehow reach out and find me here.

But I was out of her reach, and a growing part of me was feeling like I didn’t need to worry because the chances of me seeing her again were getting a lot closer to nil.

My breathing was hoarse, more because of the fuckery in my throat than anything.  Every breath hurt.

I was free to make peace with… I wasn’t sure I was coherent enough to summarize what that whole thing with Amy was.  In a state where all the edges were rounded off and thoughts could glide from one to another, if I didn’t think or pry too much, I could extend a measure of understanding, see where she had been coming from and why.  Maybe.  I could forgive her, probably, find that internal compromise.  Forgive her for myself, at the very least.

But like hell was I ever going to do that.  Like hell was I going to forgive her for anything, even my own peace of mind.  Like fucking hell was I going to compromise.  Understand?  Yes, but only as a defensive measure, like I tried to understand this many-handed fucker.  Fuck no, hell no, fuck.  If there was a chance she could find out how I’d felt about her in the end, and powers meant there was always a chance, I wanted the answer to be bitter and hurtful.  Because she’d remained too much of a coward to own up to it in reality and totality.  Because fuck her.

Anger made my blood pump and woke up the pain, bringing me back to reality.  My parting throughts on the subject, as I labored to breathe, were simply that I could make peace with my lack of peace on this one subject.

“I don’t need your words to help me get there,” I said, my voice soft.  Probably too soft for Tattletale to hear.

“Antares said-” Kenzie piped up.

“I don’t care,” Tattletale said.

The thing was gravitating more our way.  It hadn’t attacked since that burst of ten attacks all at once, aimed at the others.

“I’m pretty spooked,” Colt’s voice could be heard.

“Me too,” Chicken Little said.

“Not me,” Candy said.  “Nope.  Ate fear for breakfast the first six years I was alive, sometimes for real.  Can’t touch this.”

“Braver than me,” Darlene said.

“Way braver than me,” Chicken Little could be heard.  “Mr. Hugs sucks.”

I laughed.  Out of sync with the tone of the situation, fed by a little deliriousness and released frustration.  It wasn’t a happy laugh, but it was a mighty one, full-body, in a way that made me hurt in twenty different ways, made me cough between laughs.

“Antares thinks you’re terrible at names, Chicken,” Kenzie said.

“I’m not that terrible,” Chicken Little said.

“You kind of are,” Tattletale said.  “But it’s one of your many good points.”

“Uh huh?”

Hands crashed through something distant with a sound so sharp it made my ears ring.

I looked at our exit, and there were overly long, mechanical hands near and above it, barring the way, along with dropped pieces of concrete and rubble that had been picked up elsewhere and brought to that pitch black wall we were supposed to run through.  Even if we sent the kids, there was no way they’d get past.

“Hey Tattletale,” Candy said.  “Hey.”

“What?  If you want to tear me down because I gave Antares a reality check, you can save it.  That thing is on its way, as soon as it can find a hand to stand on that Damsel didn’t hack at.”

“I gotta, though,” Candy said.  “Reality check.  You helped give us the best years we ever had.  I know Imp went to you for money now and again and you paid, even though we were more hers than yours.  I know you found the tutors and you found the fashion people and junk.  I know you found Aroa’s mom and I know that didn’t go well but it was real nice you tried.  Um-”

I heard a sniffle.  From her or Darlene.

“Chicken Little, you’re one of the best guys I know, and I don’t really like being around guys, especially ones that seem nice.  But you’re cool enough and nice enough that you kind of won me over and I think you helped fix a little bit of a part of me that’s broken, just by being you.  I know you think you’re a scaredy-cat and I want you to know you’re braver than anyone because you step up despite being that afraid… I don’t really know how to start and end these little speeches, except, um… if you somehow get out of this and I don’t, marry a Heartbroken your age and become an official member of this family.”

I heard Darlene hiss something.

“If you were gone, then the only Heartbroken his age would be Flor and Darlene,” Kenzie said.

“Well, I guess that makes it simple, doesn’t it?” Candy asked, her voice artificially bright.  “Flor it is.  If I made it out I’d volunteer myself, but-”

“I will kill you,” Darlene said, audible this time.

“I think we beat him, Dar,” Candy said.  Harder to make out, because she was talking to someone sitting next to her.  “We made some of the coolest friends, we figured out how to like each other again, after he turned us all against each other.  We had a family and homes and puppy piles and swimming and shopping and crushes and schools… terminally boring catch-up classes.  Everything he tried to take away from us we got back in spades.  Yeah?”

Darlene’s answer was broken up.  She cleared her throat.  “I messed up tonight.”

“Yeah.  But that’s ok.  It doesn’t change things.  Nobody’s holding it against you, right Kenz?”

“Right,” Kenzie said, right next to me.  Holding my hand.

I felt hands strike the ground, supporting the greater whole.  It loomed larger over us, the loser it got.  More hands, emerging from that swirling tinkertech core.

“You’re the most beautiful person I know, Kenz,” Candy said.  “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that your hair right now is a hairstyle I gave you.  I know we grumble, I know we gripe, but I would spend every day with you if we could get away with it.  Okay?  Maybe that doesn’t sound as fancy but-”

Kenzie gripped my hand, harder.

“I would too!” Chicken Little piped up.  “I didn’t get to say anything earlier tonight but I really didn’t mean things I said and I want to make it up to you.”

He yelped at an impact.  A sweep of a hand, crashing through a metal shelf, mostly sheet metal.  The crash spread the living metal and living glass, with reaching arms that tore at other cabinets.  I peeked around the corner and I could see another two shelves get torn to pieces.

It reached all the way back toward the concrete, the hand in question hovering, then picked up a broken piece of slab.  It threw it in our general direction, bowling through a few more shelves.

Gonna be a minute now.

“Yeah,” Candy said.  “I’m sorry if we didn’t get that far.  I would’ve wanted sleepovers and adventures and for-real visits to Aunt Rachel’s until you were sick of us.”

“That’s not possible,” Kenzie said.  Ms. Talkative, reduced to three and a half words.

I gave her hand a squeeze.

I didn’t have it in me to stand, let alone fight.  No flight, no powers, no connection to the shard.  Just me.

I heard a distant shout.  An instruction.

A female voice.

Someone in that group was okay.  And they were… way over there.  Trying to communicate with us.  Too far away, muffled.

I sat up, and immediately regretted it because it meant my senses were on full alert as a hand swept through an empty glass display.  Loud as shit.

Something had happened, or they were doing something.

“Help me up,” I grunted.

“I don’t think you’re in any shape to get up,” Kenzie whispered.

I could feel my heart now, but it was in the nauseous imminent-heart-attack sense.  Adrenaline surged, giving me the energy to perk up, pay attention to my surroundings.

“Go,” I whispered.  “Run.  Toward the others.  If they’re safe and it’s not after them, you need to figure out why.  Go.”

She held my hand, and I could remember the scene I’d seen in the dream.

She wasn’t about to let go.

“Darlene!  Candy!  Chicken!  Tattletale!  Colt!  Take Kenzie and run!  Someone’s still alive over there, go to them!”

Kenzie gripped my hand.

But Candy and Darlene, leaning on each other, were there in a flash.  Chicken Little stood at the end of the haphazard aisle, looking.

“We won’t make it,” he said, looking up.

“We will,” Tattletale said.

The Heartbroken girls hauled on Kenzie’s arm.  Tattletale hauled on Chicken Little.

Colt lingered, looking back toward Rain.

“Antares- Precipice!” Kenzie called out.

“No goodbyes,” Tattletale said.  “I should have drawn the line earlier.  No goodbyes.  Run.”

The hands came down.  Between them and their destination.  Through shelves.

The pump of adrenaline and the rush that was dulling the pain served to put me straight into cape-thinking mode.  There was a logic or a rhythm to how it went on the offense.  We just hadn’t figured it out.  There was a good chance we wouldn’t, still.

But we could try.

“Hey!” I bellowed.  I banged my hand against metal shelves.  “Here!”

It loomed over me, hands plunging down to support its weight.

The dust of its attacks swept over us, obscuring every last thing, bringing a rain of glass fragments that pattered off of the metal shelves, fallen and otherwise.  A sweeping limb dashed it just as fast, turned the precipitating shards into a barrage.

It had stopped its attack again.

As the scene cleared, I could see why.  Tattletale stood there, kids behind her, Colt beside her, gun raised, pointing.

Cradle stood in the way.  He looked so young, and he stood there with glasses scratched up to the point they looked unusable, wearing bloodstained clothes.

It had stopped attacking because any attack against Tattletale risked hurting Cradle.

“I heard you earlier.  No bullets,” Cradle said.

“Did you also hear us say that your shard-buddy can probably hear everything in this room?  Gotta keep some tricks up our sleeves, and I gotta tell you, it’s really satisfying to successfully bluff an extradimensional monster like this.”

Cradle moved his arm, and it was apparent he carried a large combat knife.  He’d perhaps brought it into the dream the same way Tattletale had brought her gun.

They stood a mere ten feet apart.  Tattletale in the area with the shelves.  Cradle in the area with the concrete slabs.

“You brought a knife to a gunfight?” Tattletale asked.

“I don’t think you have much fight in you,” Cradle said.  “I dare you to pull the trigger.”

“Cradle.  Ryan,” Colt said.  “Hey.  Things were going so well.  The dreams were getting better, I could at least control them on my nights, and give tips to the others to make them less bad.  We weren’t all screaming at each other or getting mad.”

“And then you pull this,” Cradle said.  “It wasn’t ‘better’ for me.  Not really.”

“Wasn’t it?  You can’t have enjoyed that?”

“I’m supposed to enjoy being stuck?  Being trapped in the wilderness, only two people to keep me company?  No way to get home, no way to tinker, my agent slowly pressing in on me, demanding I build when I can’t?”

“I’m talking about the dreams.  You and me, we’re in prison because we hurt a lot of people.  Some of these people.  But we can at least keep the dreams peaceful.”

“I don’t want peace,” Cradle said.  “I want revenge.  You all intruded on my life, my deal, my space, my dreams.  Now I’m really, really hoping that when my agent here tears you to shreds, it puts you all in comas where you have nightmares every damn moment you’re under.”

“You’re kind of a terrible person,” Chicken Little said.

“So why doesn’t she shoot me?” Cradle asked.

Tattletale kept the gun leveled at him.

“Thought so,” he said, barely audible.

Cradle started forward, marching her way.  She swung the pistol, aiming to pistol-whip him, but he had the knife, and the knife gave him more effective range.

The cuts were deep, the slashes painting sprayed arcs of blood momentarily into the air.  Forehand and backhead swing, into Tattletale’s forearms.

The many-handed thing creaked, hands picking up and orienting, ready to plunge.  Cradle barely seemed to care, one eye on the hands, the rest of his attention on the attack.

Hands came down.  Aimed at distant points.  The others.

“Can’t get me from behind,” Cradle said.  “And in front of me-”

Tattletale attempted to back up, and in the doing, she nearly tripped over Chicken Little, dropping to a crouch in the process of catching her balance.  Colt rushed in, and Colt got stabbed- twice, her punches and grabs ineffectual.  She wasn’t combat trained.

The kids were backing up, the hands finding position as the main ‘body’ of the thing reoriented.  Cradle, too, backed up, until his back was to a fallen concrete slab.

“Heads up!” Chicken Little called out, voice high.

The hands came down.  Three of them.  I had to turn my face away.

It was like Cradle anticipated it.  Or he understands how it works.  He-

And I could connect some of the dots.  Why Cradle was safe, why the others hadn’t been attacked and why the many-handed thing had drifted our way instead.

I drew in a deep breath, the skin of my chest cracking and oozing.

“It isn’t avoiding just Cradle!” I called out, with every bit of volume I could manage.  “It’s avoiding killing anyone that’s in their own room!”

Meaning if they could get to their own rooms, they’d be safe.  By leaving our boundaries, we invited attack.  And here- in the room with the empty shelves and displays-

It kept hesitating.  Avoiding striking home.  Waiting.

Snag’s influence at work.  Maybe he was here, in a fashion.  There was some other logic at work too, maybe a desire to emulate Cradle and maim or corner us to torment us as much as possible.  But for right now, this knowledge of the safe spaces was all we needed.

“Get closer to Cradle!”  I called out, my voice straining around attempted coughs.  “Try to kick him out of his room!”

A man with a knife was less threatening than that thing, and the entire group that was over there seemed to agree.

Darlene picked up a piece of fallen shelving, a long bit of sheet metal.  Unwieldy, inconvenient, floppy, she held it up at an angle with the bottom end dragging on the floor, the rest of it aimed at Cradle.

Pushing it aside took focus, time, and movements he didn’t have in excess, when the rest were getting closer.

When he had a moment, he aimed for Chicken Little, knife out, and lunged.

Tattletale threw herself in the way.  She’d dropped her gun, so she only had her hands.

He sliced her, again and again.  Back, back, shoulder, arm- she looked up, trying to get a sense of him, and he caught her above the ear and near the eye.

Darlene threw something, and Tattletale found a moment to get a grip on his shirt, trying to drag him around, closer to the other room.  Colt was there, kneeling, too badly hurt to move from where she was.

Knife fights were ugly, and Cradle seemed to know that.  There weren’t good moves to defend oneself from a knife user who was aware of the full potential of the weapon, and any move that was anything less than good meant horrific damage, often going past skin and into muscle, if not organs.

Tattletale took the brunt of it, because the alternative was that the kids would do the same.

Hands plunged down around us, but they didn’t come down directly at that little fracas.  They were aimed at Damsel, Love Lost, Sveta, and Tristan.

Keeping it busy was good.  It forced it to stay at a certain orientation, a certain height and position where it could reach them at the edges of their territories, should they step out.

I heard a cry, a roar that was so filled with anger and emotion that I honestly mistook it for Love Lost’s scream.  I didn’t even take it for a word at first, and it was guttural and filled with pain.

Cradle’s name, turned into a ragged cry.  Cradle turned to look, because the volume of the shout no doubt made it sound like the source was close.

But it was Rain, injured and unable to move.

Providing Tattletale an opportunity to stagger to one side and pull at Cradle’s sleeve, slinging him around in a quarter-circle.

Cradle staggered back, banging against shelving.  A piece of rubble the size of a fist bounced off of his arm.  Darlene’s continued ranged offense.

His expression twisting, Cradle started forward- and his shirt snagged on the shelving.

“Go,” Tattletale said, talking to the kids.  “Back to your rooms until we come for you.  Go.”

They went.

And the others came.  The cavalry was there.

And the many-armed thing had more targets it could attack, all in close proximity.

Tristan had his shield, protecting Sveta and Damsel from the flack, but it bowled him over in the process, living metal arms reaching for his shield and dragging him across rubble.  Sveta and Damsel carried on.  Love Lost was just really athletic, even in this world, and managed to avoid the worst of it.

“Get Cradle!” I called out.  Unnecessarily.

It was Damsel who reached him first, spearing him before he could unsnag himself from the twisted metal of the empty shelf unit.

Spearing him through the shoulder.

“No killer instinct,” Cradle snarled at her.

“You really want to tempt-” she started replying.

He hacked at her already damaged hand with the combat knife.  The injury brought her to her knees, interrupting the retaliatory swing with her other hand.

Sveta reached the shelf, and kept her distance from Damsel and Cradle both.  Instead, she leaped onto the shelf itself, one foot and both hands finding purchase near the top.

It wobbled, and it wobbled more as a hand plunged down right behind where Sveta had been.  Glass arms, liquid metal arms, and floorboards went flying all around us.

And it crashed down, impossibly loud.

The dust cleared, the glass stopped raining down.

Love Lost had joined Sveta in bowling over the shelf.  Bringing it down on top of Cradle.

And without the host, there was no agent in this space.  No light source in Cradle’s portion.  No monster looming over and around us.

“Where are you going?” Tristan asked.   He was injured himself, badly enough I’d be sending him to the hospital in any other circumstance.  The shield was a mess now.

The question was directed at Damsel.

“Out,” she pointed at the far wall.  “These are simulated bodies, aren’t they?  I don’t know about you, but I want to move to a simulation where I’m not so scratched up.”

She swayed as she stood.  She was missing a thumb, and had a deep notch in her forearm, more damage along that arm.  The limb trembled where she held it against her chest, to try to stem the bleeding.

‘Scratched up’.

There were more injured than able bodied.  It was Sveta who picked me up, sweating and grunting as she dragged me, putting in enough effort there weren’t words.

Tattletale limped about halfway.  Love Lost helped Colt.  Tristan helped Byron.  The kids stayed with Rain while waiting for escorts.

We passed through the wall of darkness.  Into a room like the one we’d just left.  More stark, barren… and with three more things like the one we’d just left behind.  One made of blades that flowed in and out of themselves while having no individual substance beyond what they kicked up from the ground and carried up into their own mass.  One was sleek, cat-like, and multicolored, quadrupedal, with a pattern like flames along its pale length, starting pale blue at the shoulders and reaching a pink-red at the hindquarters.  Another existed as a mess of geometry, suspended in air, dark and still.

And all were still.

I could imagine this room rotating, the gates opening, the guardians taking their turns.

We carried on.  out of the mutable rooms, and onto a plain of carmine crystal, with veins that could have been cracks, ore, or blood vessels.  Above, just darkness.  Below, more darkness, with flashes here and there.

We weren’t healed by the transition between spaces, and too many of us were dying.

Tristan didn’t speak as he laid his brother down, then went back for Rain and the kids, but I could see how stiff he was.

I looked into a spike of crystal to my right, and I saw my reflections.  Faint, so fleeting I could barely make them out.  They seemed to go blacker, illuminate again, then dim, and then I realized that was my own vision suffering.  Each face had something different.  A fixation on mouths.  A fixation on- I could only interpret it as similarities to my parents, if I wasn’t seeing memories of them in the crystal too.

“How?” Sveta asked.

I looked.

Damsel was in one piece.

“Offer me something and I’ll show you how,” she told Sveta.

“Accolades,” I managed, my eyes not focusing well enough.  “Awe.  Admiration.  When and if we figure out anything about this space, we’ll have to admit it was you who pioneered it, you who figured it out first.  We’ll even have to tell the Wardens, eventually, and your name will come up.”

“Laying it on a little thick,” Damsel said.

“Is that even possible?” I asked her, managing a faltering smile.  My lip cracked.

She approached, and motioned for Sveta to move with a sweep of the claw.  She reached for me with clawed fingers, and I went stiff.

The blades didn’t touch me, but the lengths and backs of the fingers did.  She caught me around the head and throat.

“Can’t replace me if I’m this good at this,” she said, forcing my head around so I looked at the spike of crystal.  I could see myself, in various dimensions and aspects.  And I could see her.

I could see Swansong, prominent among those jumbled images.

She pulled me off balance, accidentally scraping me with a finger, then pushed me.

I fell into and across the recess, that looked like a spike from a certain angle.  Or that was both.  I could see just how bad the injuries were in the faces and facets, magnified large by the broadest, flattest planes.

I came to a stop, panting for breath.  I reached for my shoulder where I’d been scratched- and found my shoulder intact.

My hands explored my face and arms.  No burns.  No wounds.

“I was being tongue-in-cheek before, about the awe and admiration,” I said.  “But now it’s for real.  You’re… scarily good at that.”

“No shit,” Sveta said.

“I’ve been here before,” Damsel said, as she headed over toward Tattletale.  “Spent a while here when I was dead.  You learn your way around.”

The light danced around like a subsurface lightning bolt.  Images were illuminated.

And I could see others.  Reflections that weren’t me and weren’t us.  Glimpses of the real world, pale in the midst of those flashes.

This was it.  The system.  The source of powers.

As vast as Earth was.  Maybe more so, if each piece of the landscape had multiple interpretations and variations, depending on how you approached it.

How the hell do we find Teacher in all of this?

The able-bodied joined Sveta and I.  The kids all holding each other’s hands, clinging to one another.  Love Lost.  The injured awaited Damsel’s attention.

Everyone a little haunted, traumatized a few times over.

We’d… we’d revisited our starting points.  The traumas that plunged us into this world.  And by Candy’s words to the others, I was pretty sure there had been a point or two there where just about all of us had resigned ourselves to our deaths.  We’d faced the visceral ends of our journeys.  The end of the vast majority of parahumans- death at the hands of powers.

Starts and endings, all faced together.

And this…  I looked out at the landscape.  Is everything that was in between.

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From Within – 16.9

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The entire ‘room’ shook as the many-handed beast reached to its right and tore a concrete slab out of the ground, reached to its left, and grabbed a chair and a fistful of floorboards from Rain’s room.  Cradle and Rain were almost mirrors to one another in how they moved away from the respective damage.  Difference was, Rain kept running.

Cradle only moved as far as he needed to get out of the way of any immediate hazards.  He maintained a kind of eerie calm, finding a position on another slanted concrete block that was  like a massive tombstone with no epitah, that had been tilted to a thirty degree angle.

I had the impulse to fly and I couldn’t, and feeling that lack while facing down something as big and intimidating as this many-handed thing was suffocating.  I’d never been especially afraid of spiders, but this thing was like three spiders of varying sizes all overlapping one another, each limb ending in a hand.  It was fluid enough in its arrangement that it could be as tall as a two story building, then sweep out to be barely any taller than I was, but with limbs reaching out to every surface across a twenty foot span.

No eyes to look into, but the glowing cords in gaps and joints drew the eye, and gave suggestions of slanted eyes or opening apertures, that weren’t actually there.

It was hard to convince myself to breathe, to move.  The thought that broke the paralysis, fleeting as it was, was that I’d seen and been frustrated with civilians in the midst of the Endbringer attack and the broken trigger.  It’d be hypocritical to cast aside all self preservation now.

“Up,” I spoke to myself as much as the people around me, my voice gaining volume as I continued,  “Focus, process later!  Survive now!”

Sveta was already getting to her feet.  She was wholly human, tattooed from the fingertips to her shoulders and up her neck, with the tattoos clearly aimed at covering up deep seams in her arms.  I saw her wince as she moved her foot and cut the outer edge of it on what looked like a bed of obsidian and igneous rock that was nearly invisible with the black coloring and the gloom of the room.

“Watch your step!” I called out.  This was a time for punchy orders that got everyone on the same page, communicated necessary, lean information with no ‘fat’.  “Rooms can have hazards!”

“You’re all idiots!” Tattletale growled.

Exactly what I was just thinking we shouldn’t do.  Pure fat, no lean.

Rain was getting to his feet to my right.  A ways to my left, Tristan had hurried over to Byron’s side, and Kenzie was near him but unable to really help.  The other three kids gravitated toward that end of the patchwork room. Tristan and Byron’s areas looked like concrete floor with spilled paint on it in ‘their’ colors, narrow metal pillars inset in concrete stumps making the entire area like a forest.  Byron’s area had blue-green paint and was tinted like it was night-time, Tristan’s area was reds and yellows with traces of orange, and shone like there was a window with sunlight shining in from outside, though the window was nowhere to be seen.

Damsel stood, her expression hard and cold.  I’d noted before how she seemed to freeze up or go still when angriest and most dangerous, and she was pretty much there.  Difference was, she had to get to her feet first.  Her area backed on Rain’s and one of the Heartbroken’s, and looked like a derelict apartment, with lighting like it was nighttime and the only light came from the moon through windows, even though the windows weren’t actually there.  The hand she placed up against a partially intact wall for balance had long bladed fingers.  She kept those, I supposed.  I wondered what the distinction was, that made it matter.

I could see varying degrees of animation and emotion among the others.  For most, the many-handed monster didn’t seem to even register, because the specters of their past chased them.  Ashley, the Heartbroken.  Tristan barely flinched because his concern was wholly for Byron.

Love Lost and Colt just looked bewildered.  Bewilderment became alarm as the many-handed thing crushed the concrete slab it held with two arms, then swiped the partially crushed mess in their direction.  The result was a hail of rubble.

This is a fucking mess, I thought.

“The kids,” Sveta said.

We needed a battle plan.

“Colt, Love Lost!” I called out.  “Look after the kids and Capricorn Blue!  Be prepared to carry him!  Cap Red, we need you!”

“But-”

“Don’t be stubborn!  You have armor!”

I saw him hesitate, then he turned toward his brother, his back to me.  I thought for a moment he was rejecting me, but he was unstrapping Byron’s chestpiece, pulling it free.  Once they saw what he was doing, Kenzie and Chicken Little helped with the strap at the other side.

The many-handed thing didn’t come after us, and the rationale could have been that it didn’t want to go too far into the room and leave us room to slip behind it.

But it was tearing up the floor and tearing up the terrain.  Where the ground wasn’t rendered almost impassable, it was littered with enough debris that we’d have to be careful where we put our feet.

And it was gathering materials.  Rebar, wood.

I wasn’t sure armor counted against a threat like this, but I had seen Tristan fight, I knew he had experience.  If we were going to make it through that forest of limbs and get past the guard dog and into the darkness behind it, we needed some experience and we needed to organize by some metric.

“Precipice,” I called out.

“I’m fighting,” he said.  He had a length of floorboard that he held like a spear.  I didn’t think it would matter, but…

“Grab me one?” I asked.  That got me a sharp nod.

Tristan jogged over, Byron’s scale-mail breastplate loosely strapped to one arm, his hand gripping loose straps at the other end.  He stood beside me, Sveta just behind me.

Love Lost and Colt were in the jungle of rusty iron beams and concrete, that was the Twins’ portion of the room.

I looked back at my section.  Panels of tinted glass and what might have been the texture of solar panels, cracked but not broken.  Though they were gold, with the more solid solar panel texture having a backing of black beneath that surface level, there was no warmth to it at all.

I turned back to the threat, pushing away the idle wondering as to whether the others were subtly bothered by their own spaces like I was by mine.

Rain tossed me one short spear of wood, and it hit me in the ribs as I caught it.  The sensation startled me, and as I looked down, I could see I didn’t have my breastplate.  I wore the black hooded top from my costume over the white dress with the watercolor skyline of Brockton Bay across the front.  My hair was braided, and it had been… a long-as-fuck time since I’d done that with any regularity.

He handed more wood to Sveta and to Tristan.

“I can’t unfurl,” Sveta said.

“No traumatic forcefield for me, either,” I said.

She met my eyes, and in the gloom of the room, I knew that our sentiments were very much the same.  For her to actually have a body with no associations to her power.  For me to not have that shadow hanging over me.

I reached out to squeeze her upper arm.

“Tristan and I will distract it, fend it off,” I said, turning to the thing we were up against.  I watched as it moved, continuing to tear concrete apart and harvest the rebar.  Slow, methodical, I felt like its mannerisms were defined by it keeping three-quarters of its attention on us and one-quarter on what it was doing.

It shook more concrete free of the rebar.  Damsel had to step behind a damaged wall, and still got plaster dust on her when the concrete punched through one portion of it.

“Sveta, Rain, focus more on distraction,” I said.

“Okay.  Harry, harass?” Rain asked.

“Just… bait it to attack and move.  Circle around.”

Cradle, off to one side, was watching everything.  He didn’t move, didn’t try anything.

Is this thing like Cradle?  Lurking in the background, before stepping in to do some horrific violence? 

“Damsel,” I said.

“Don’t you dare give me orders,” she snapped.  Her claw cut light furrows into the ruined wall it was still touching.

“Tattletale, then?” I asked.  “Can you help Love Lost and Colt with the kids and Byron?”

Tattletale had stood but hadn’t moved from her starting position in her room, which was the furthest from the monster.  Her dream was furthest removed from the mall, too.  Her area, despite being so far back, was bright like a room with a window open and the sun shining directly in, with a stretch of plush white carpet and a white wall cutting it almost in half.  Wall and carpet were stained with large blotches of bodily fluids.

“You were going to ask Damsel to try to hurt it,” Tattletale said.

“Yeah,” I said.

She reached to her hip and drew a handgun.  She still wore an expression like she hadn’t quite left the dream behind.  Sad, a little lost, not looking at us or the many-handed thing.  “I’ll do what I can.”

“Ah.  Okay.”

“How?” Rain asked.  “How’d you bring the gun?”

“Every day since I started working for Coil, back in Brockton Bay.  Even before Leviathan, I had it with me.”

“She shot me with it once,” I remarked.

“If I’d known you’d be dragging me into this, I would have shot you with it twice.  I thought the worst thing I’d have to deal with was maybe consoling your tinker if none of you came back.  No, I get dragged into this.”

“Power didn’t predict this?”

“My power didn’t,” she said, her voice tense.  “That niggling little voice in the back of my head did, but I ignored it.”

I looked back at her, studying her.  Costume, gun, all was cohesive, complete.  Tristan didn’t have his helmet, Rain had a hooded jacket on with no mask, no costume elements except for the solid pads along his jacket sleeves which the mechanical arms he built could normally be mounted on.

Love Lost was in costume, Colt in civilian clothes, still with that massive mane of dirty-blonde hair that frizzed and puffed out to either side.  Kenzie wore a black pinafore dress over a t-shirt, but she had sneakers, Chicken Little and Candy wore civilian clothes.  Darlene, I noted, had a nightdress on, a bit old fashioned.

This is us, I thought.  I pulled up my hoods, the hood built into my dress nestled inside the hood from my costume top.  Protection from any debris.

The many-handed thing had been tall, initially, almost wispy with how drawn out it was, how thin the arms were in comparison to how long they were, then it had flattened out, to cover and guard more ground, and to reach more things it could pull apart and scatter around as debris.

Now it drew in together.  Small enough in how each limb folded in or hid others from view, with more of the orange wiring and joints exposed to plain view than any of the hands were.  Mere seconds had passed and I was already having trouble tracking just how far those hands had reached when arms were fully extended.

That is… that, I thought to myself.  And that’s a deceptively open path to the exit it very much wants to guard.

“Look, near the shoulder bulge,” Sveta said.

The ‘shoulder bulge’ was one extended part of the ‘body’ where all of the hands seemed to reach out from, a lump toward the upper left part of its mass.  There, illuminated only by the general orange-yellow glow from the wires connecting arm pieces together, a hand as big around as my upper body was from crotch to throat gripped rebar, bent it neatly to a right angle.

I could see other machinations now.  Six hands closer to the core of the body were doing their individual parts, taking components that unseen hands passed to them, each performing specific actions that were methodical, sure, exact in the spacing of everything.  Like it was a machine.

My eyes widened.  Is it tinkering?

“Go!” I shouted.  “Right now!  Before it can finish building!  Love Lost, Colt, get ready to go!”

It was so big, and it hung there, partially in the darkness, like there could be more behind it that I hadn’t yet seen.  It didn’t breathe, didn’t make noise, and only the shuffling of the sleek material of arms and hands against itself was really audible.

“Go!” If I hadn’t been shouting, I might not have had it in me to take that first, involuntary-at-the-outset deep breath.  If I hadn’t been able to take the deep breath, I might not have been able to lean forward, when all I wanted to do was step back and hope it wouldn’t do anything until the forty minute timer ran down.

If I hadn’t leaned forward, I wasn’t sure I would have been courageous enough to run forward.  And if I hadn’t done that, then the others might not have budged, not when Sveta and Rain were following Tristan and I, and Tristan was distracted.

My foot hit black stone, and I avoided stepping on the almost invisible outcroppings.  One step, then another, legs moving to push my weight more forward than up.

With the third step, the timing not quite coinciding with my footfall, I heard the heavier step of Tristan’s boot.

Be mindful of the arm’s range, any weapons it might have, deflect if you absolutely have to, I thought, trying to visualize the upcoming situation, trying not to think about how my mom had drilled ‘visualize’ into me back when I’d played basketball.  It’s okay to get hurt, so long as we all get through the door.  Watch for anything it might push into us.

The arm unfolded, pulling free of the shuffle of forty or more limbs that were folded into one central area -No weapon- and swung backhanded.  It couldn’t reach me.  Nothing in its path to throw.

Others slowed.  I was dimly aware of them behind and beside me.  I didn’t slow down.  I was confident of my estimation.

The hand dipped low, striking the damaged section of floorboards.  It carved out a furrow, turning a hole into a ditch, a gap in the room with only ruined wood below, like it was broken floorboards or rafters with foot-wide gaps between pieces of wood, all the way down to fucking infinity.

Which meant that when I shifted course to favor the smallest portion of the gap leaped the ditch, I was simultaneously going weak kneed, my mind wrestling with the idea that it might really be infinity, that what happened here could really be forever.

Muscle memory saved me, if nothing else.  I landed on all fours, scooted one foot forward to be sure I could spring to one side if I had to, and twisted around to look up.

Just seconds ago, I’d estimated the number of limbs at forty.  How long before that had I called it three spiders- three times eight?

Now I was closer, within reach of the longest arms, which were thin, tendril-like, and immensely strong.  I could see it pulling more limbs free of the jumble, revealing something that looked like a disc, suspended in lightning that had been frozen in time.  The disc barely concerned me, because I could have put the number of limbs I was seeing at anywhere from eighty to one hundred.

“It’s multiplying its arms!” I called out.

“No,” Sveta said, and the statement was punctuated by one arm high above me stabbing in my direction.  It might have sounded like a sad, resigned thing, even an acknowledgement that I was well and truly fucked.

The hand was slender, considering the arm was about as wide as I was and the hand was disproportionately narrow and long-fingered for the arm.  It speared down wrist-deep into floorboards, then moved, tearing another trench.

I had to back up and to the side, mindful of where I set my feet.  There was a bottomless ditch behind me, a trench in front of me, the floorboards starting to fall away, with a loose precipitation of pine needles and leaves that had dried out a long time ago.

“-It’s not three-dimensional,” Sveta finished her statement.

Four dimensional?

The closer we got, the bigger it was, and the more its arms multiplied.  More joints existed in more shades of color, and the color that radiated out from those joints was mild, less than a candle might shed, but so numerous collectively that they made something brighter.  They were the source of the seemingly sourceless illumination that made it possible to see in the rest of the room.  I could map it from room to room, including that cold golden light that was apparently meant for me.

As it moved again, I jogged over to one side, so I was further from the trenches, and so a third strike wouldn’t see me fall into the abyss.

Rain’s space was a shack that had been left exposed to the elements, and it was my battlefield for the moment.  The hand altered course, coming right for me.  I saw a work bench, jumped up, and planted my foot on the top.  I looked up, saw the hand, and let myself fall back, kicking backward from the edge of the desk to throw myself onto my back.

The desk was- not even obliterated.  Smashed down and through floorboards into whatever oblivion lay beneath.  The arm seemed to continue plunging down forever, while the body barely moved in accordance with it.

I lay there, on my back, arms out to either side, floorboard plank as a spear or tool gripped in my right hand, held against my chest.  I remained where I was because the thing was above me, and being on my back made it easier to see what it was doing.

I turned my head to look to my left.  At the others.

The room had once been five-sided, maybe a hundred feet across, like the ground floor of a house in Brockton Bay.  The damage to Rain’s section took maybe a quarter of the space we had available to maneuver away from us.  Twenty or thirty of that hundred feet of breadth gone.  Maybe five feet at the far edge, closest to the back wall.

Another two quarters weren’t so doable, because they were a mess of concrete slabs, some a dozen feet long and five feet across.  Slabs that had to be climbed, climbed beneath, which was more difficult because they were littered with crushed concrete and stray rebar.

And because Cradle was there, staring us down, acting like the many-handed power that loomed high above me was a non-threat.  One small push or kick at the right time, and he could end anyone’s attempt to get over any one of three different concrete slabs.

The additions had been stacked onto one end, Tristan and Byron’s maze of rusty support pillars and paint, Sveta’s black rock.  Darlene’s stark room with a table and bed overturned, food and cloth strewn so densely on the floor there wasn’t anything visible.  Candy’s- it looked like a car interior, with barely enough room to squeeze through.  Aiden’s looked like a rooftop with building faces pressing in on either side.  Kenzie’s- a bedroom, almost utterly black.  One of the few that was illuminated by any discernable source – panels like the glowing screen of a phone or monitor, like they were turned on but displaying black, with that natural, cold glow.

The kids were hanging back, Love Lost’s unadorned hand held out in that universal sign for ‘stop’.  Colt was a little further ahead.

And the thing, it was there above me.  A hundred feet tall and a hundred feet across, with more than a hundred thin reaching limbs holding it up, gripping things, or reaching inside itself to fiddle, to grasp, to take snatched-up materials from the room and feed them into the center.

When it moved a few feet this way or a few feet that way, I could see the loss or addition of arms, as though quantity and distance were inversely correlated.

The bulk of its body was directly over the wall we wanted to get to, and even from my current vantage point, it looked like there were more arms occupying that space than there was empty space.

“Tattletale-!” I called out.

I saw arms move, reacting to the noise I’d made.  It was simultaneously attacking the others.

“-Don’t shoot it!”

Three arms, three hands almost as long as I was tall.  By how slim the hands and fingers were, and how hard the floor should have been, I could picture them shattering as they hit the ground.  But they were tough.

They didn’t come for me.  They went after the floor around me.  Three separate points, with the very start of the most recent ditch between the two of those points I would have most liked to run between to get to the door.

I rolled to my feet, stumbling as the floor sloped beneath me.  A sick feeling gripped me, like the plunge of a roller coaster, with zero thrill, only a feeling of despair.

We wanted to distract it?  It could hit all of us at once if we were in reach and it would have eighty more arms to spare.

Dark floorboards an infinity below me on three sides were illuminated only by the many green-tinted joints and digits that the endlessly long arm had at irregular intervals.  I moved to back up, ready to leap again and retreat toward the back of the room, and an arm moved to block me.  I turned another way, and an arm swept across that exit to sweep out and destroy floorboards between two of the penetration points.

Nothing to grab onto, no handholds with the nearest joints  a couple of feet below my own two feet, and higher above me than I could have jumped or easily climbed to access.

The floor dipped precipitously again.  My feet began sliding on dusty, pine-needle covered floorboards, and that horrible rollercoaster-drop feeling became an ongoing thing.

Too wide a gap to jump, no footholds.

I adjusted my grip on the spear, stabbing down at the joint below, driving the tip into the mess of faint green wires.  It penetrated, doing some damage, and remained jammed in.

The arm dipped another foot, and the bottom end of the floorboard was pulled out of my hands.  I backed away, not because of fear or immediate threat, but because I was one more shift of the floor’s angle from sliding down into oblivion, and I wanted a chance to be able to think and react before I did anything there.  With hands and feet, I could move back three or four feet, and I would summarily slide two feet back toward the edge.

I wasn’t even breathing, and I had to force myself to start, because I could not afford for my muscles to be oxygen starved at a moment like this.

Tinker, I thought.  It’s a tinker and it’s a shaker and it’s a changer, for all intents and purposes. 

There were rules for engaging with tinkers, changers and and shakers.  Tinker especially, you deprived them of their stuff and blitzed them where possible.  The rule for shakers was to avoid fighting on their turf.

I couldn’t stay put.  The two ideas were half-formed and they combined into one notion, that I put into motion before even being able to fully visualize it.  My mom had dropped the ‘visualize’ part of her general encouragement when I’d become a hero.

Like the basketball was always a thing of dreams, fancy, and imagination, and the hero stuff, that was what required practical advice and attention.

I pushed myself forward, rising to a standing position and running down the slope, to plant my foot on the very end of that floorboard.  It bowed and splintered under my weight, and I dropped toward the infinity below.

My other foot came to rest on the angled surface, scraping down it as I sought to push the bowed part straight more than I sought to find any balance or extra traction.  My right foot remained on the floorboard and my right knee hit my chest painfully as I dropped.

The hard edge that separated the front portion of my boot tread from the heel portion caught on the floorboard, giving me control and a semblance of awareness over the position of the piece of wood.

Maybe steadying it that tiny fraction I needed to keep it from bowing further.  When I kicked off, I used one leg to launch my full body weight, and the board didn’t spring or fall away from me.  My belly hit broken floorboards, and my legs and hips dangled.  The buckler and armguard were more hindrance than help as I fought to get a grip.

A hand smashed, palm flat, into the ground about ten feet away from me, floorboards crowning up around the impact site, and I lost an inch of ground.  The hand was added traction for whatever heavy lifting it was doing elsewhere.

I wobbled left and right, trying not to make sound or alert it to my presence, gaining quarter inches of progress as I wormed my way forward.  I scraped my thighs bloody in the process of getting them over the shattered row of floorboards.

I crawled forward, hands and knees, then shifted to a kneeling position.  I was almost directly beneath it.

I looked up, and I saw what I could imagine another planet might look like, if it were separated from our world by only a few hundred miles.  A tangle of reaching limbs, recesses, never repeating, not a funhouse mirror or kaleidoscope, but wholly unique when I looked at any portion.  Its dimensions distorted the dark portion of the room in retrospect, making it seem like the distance to the gate was miles, and those miles were punctuated by hundreds of arms that were planted on ground that had ceased to be floorboards and was now a plain of what looked like hard, packed salt, granular against my scraped knees and palms.

I felt like my body was nonexistent between my ribcage and my knees, after having my stomach drop so much and so intensely across those frantic minutes.  Standing was an exercise in convincing myself not to flop over like Torso had.

Blitz it, I thought.  It’s a tinker, supposedly.  Let’s hit it before it can hit us.

Moving forward was disorienting.  Normal rules for perceiving this thing didn’t seem to apply, as things moved at the wrong speeds in my peripheral vision when I moved past them.

I found the arm that looked like it was straining to bear the most weight and I punched at the purple-tinted cordage with my buckler’s hard edge.  Light danced with blinding brightness from the damage I’d done, so I hit it again, my eyes averted.  Every muscle in my shoulder, arm, and forearm hurt, and the old bullet wound in my bicep was shot through with a feeling like I’d been stabbed.  Because of course it was turned into a part of me.

Four hands came plunging down, one for me, three to provide support that this many-handed monster wasn’t getting from the one I’d punched.

I backed out of the way of the one, and used my hood to shield my face from the cloud of granules and dust that exploded around the impact site.

I could see phantom images in that dust.  Traces of writing hanging in the air in three dimensions with diagrams.  Shadowy figures, like people who were too stooped over, almost bean-shaped, their faces lost in a puckered mess I couldn’t interpret.  They even wore clothes.  Three large and one small, as they placed a limb on the small one’s side, where no limb had existed before.  As the dust got thinner, the clarity of the images gave way to lines and numbers, like some vast over-blueprint written throughout this space.

As I moved away from the scene, it changed.  Distance correlated to other things.  Or perhaps correlated to quantity, still, but the memories took on another, fuller form when viewed in aggregate.  Written behind the air here to be uncovered like pencil rubbings on a sketchpad.

You fought the same fights we’re fighting now, I thought to myself.  And if they moved on, that means they got you.

I couldn’t stop moving, so I ran like I normally flew, straining my legs, seeking any opportunity to reverse course, feint, and make my path hard to predict.  It swiped at me, brought hands down, tried to bar my way by laying one arm flat to the ground.

When it didn’t come for me specifically, and when there were joints in plain sight, I punched the buckler into the vulnerable spots.  Here and there, it cut.  In other places, it bent rigid filaments and components.

It pulled entirely away from the others.  They were fighting their own uphill battle, and as it twisted, facing me more than anything, they were given a reprieve.  Time to get an injured Colt to her feet, to run forward unmolested, to find their equilibrium.

The entire room groaned as the many-handed, planet-sized guardian shifted its ‘stance’, for lack of a better word.  Arms found positions on walls far too out of our reach to access, and others were placed strategically where it would take far too long to run to, or near broken sections of ground.

Other limbs , I could barely see, even a majority of others, were gripping a ceiling far out of sight in the darkness high above the room, so the rest of it could hang down.

It reached into itself, and it pulled out finished work.

I counted ten pieces of tinker technology, built to be larger than I was.  Then I revised my number to fifteen, then to twenty.  Discs, gauntlets, claws that glowed too bright to look at directly.

“Hurry!” I called out, with one word taking up my full capacity of air.  The next two words were the same. “Devices incoming!”

I could make out the others past dust and images of a world past.  Their route was close to the dais, beneath an outcropping of Cradle’s slabs.  That outcropping served as their cover from the worst of it.

Filaments extended down.  Not a hand, but a thousand prehensile strings that snatched at my clothing, the roots of my hair, my arms, even my nose momentarily, my tit, and the toe of my boot.  One moment I was free, the next I was being wrenched skyward, filaments cutting into clothes and skin like razor blades, and in the third moment I tried to move and I realized the sheer limitation of movements available to me.

I shifted position, wriggling my shoulders until I was out of my jacket.  I hoped to slip free, and I found the cords cutting into my sleeves too tight.  It was a good thing the material of my costume top was made to be rugged.  I hung from my forearms and one toe, my jacket bunched up around my elbows.

My midsection almost didn’t have the strength for me to twist, to bring my foot up, and to get it to where my elbow was.  To push, scraping the sleeve against my arm inch by inch, as the ground disappeared beneath me, half-foot by half-foot.

I got one arm free, and I swung.  I kicked off my boot, and swung again, dangling only by the one arm.

And inch by inch, my body weight now pulled my arm free of that sleeve.

Cords were reeling in, possibly ready to reach out again.  I focused more on the moment than the future I could be dreading.  I kicked out, swung, and wrapped both legs around the nearest arm, giving me the leverage to pull with almost my entire body.  Getting my arm free.  It got my costume top.

Which apparently wasn’t okay.

From one disc above me, a flare of orange, a burst of flame.  Like Colt’s lighting arms, but it was fire, and it was sinuous, with three digits like a bird’s talon.  When it hit the granules beneath me, it turned them to glass.  Forming a shape like a letter ‘Y’, two talons slid in the ground around to point away from me, and the third stabbed up and in my direction, aimed right for my upper body.

I punched out with the buckler, my other hand going to my wrist, to push against the wrist that bore my armguard and buckler, bracing it against the force of incoming heat and flame, that threatened to throw me from my perch.

The heat swelled, metal melted, and residual heat blasted my face and scalp, despite the fact that my shield, part of the thing’s arm, both of my arms, and my hood were between the source of the heat and me.

The intense burning sensation hit a dizzying crescendo, then changed to something approximating coldLike all sensation was gone.  It felt like it took half of my consciousness with it.

I barely even heard the gunshot.  I did hear the ringing silence after, dimly registering the fact the flame talon wasn’t firing anymore, and instead hung limp, sparking.

Thanks Tattletale.  I bet you’re going to be smug about this.

I tried to slide partway down using thigh-strength alone, but the fire had damaged the thing’s own arm, and I wasn’t all there.  I hit a stopping point and nearly fell from there, but found the wherewithal to slide down a bit more, to punch my arm in the general direction of the melted section of smooth white ‘skin’, jabbing the contents within with a buckler of glowing metal that easily bent and smeared globules of molten steel amid dense wires and filaments.  They burned with an acrid smell.

I tried to slide down a bit more, and somewhere along the line, numb, I lost my grip.

The impact knocked the wind out of me.  A blinding pain at my leg made me twist away, but it was the pain and blurry vision through eyes that might have been burned that informed me my shield and arm had come into contact with my knee.

The others were more in this section now.  Last leg of what shouldn’t have been this insane a journey.

More devices were going off.  Claws that scattered shelving units and propelled them away with force.  Limbs sprouted from the ground, and Tristan carried Byron’s weight on his back while charging one, throwing their full weight and the shield into the limb to push it back and away, giving Sveta room to move, as she jabbed at another with a stick of metal.  Damsel kept her distance from the pair, but as the smaller hand recoiled from Sveta’s stabbing, she took advantage to turn the hand into a stump with a swipe of her claw.  Given the logistics of the claw, the weight of it, and possibly the fact that tinkertech that didn’t belong to the many-armed agent itself wasn’t working, the slash seemed to require a lot of effort.

That, or it had always been a weapon more for show and shaping her power than for practical slashing of any opposition.

Chicken Little called out a warning about a bombardment from above, and Sveta and Tristan split, moving in opposite directions as fresh Tinkertech was unleashed.  Sveta went deeper in, Tristan backed up to the nearest cover, adjusting his grip on Byron.

I saw Sveta look up and see the sky I saw, all darkness, pale arms, and glowing points of light.  I saw as it dawned on her, the nigh-impossibility of getting through this forest of limbs and now almost-continual bombardment.

I saw Sveta look at me, my burned self, and seem to despair more over that than anything.

Tattletale fired with thought behind each shot.  One bullet for a given device, not every device got a bullet.  It might have been only the ones she thought she could break, and most of them broke.

She wouldn’t have access to her power, I was pretty sure.  I thought of the girl in her trigger event.

You’re not dumb, I thought.  You know what to do.

Rain, Tattletale, and Love Lost passed beneath the granite slabs, guiding and shielding the kids.  Cradle loomed above, unmolested, still watching.  I opened my mouth to shout a warning, and the air in my lungs tasted burnt, my lips split, and the effort dizzied me.  The pain was coming back, but it was simultaneously profound and disparate, touching some parts of my upper body and leaving others entirely numb.

A casual two-handed throw of a piece of rubble.

Rain was sheltering the kids with his body.  In the end, it meant that when the rubble came down, it struck both him and Candy.

He stared down at us with scuffed glasses, saw Tattletale taking aim, and ducked down, hiding in his portion of the room.

Sveta started my way, but the ground between us was suddenly riddled with phantom handprints, forceful enough to turn the granular into something solid.  She shied back behind the wreckage of empty shelving units in what I presumed had been Snag’s area.  Writ large with the spatial distortion that came with being directly under this thing.  This guard dog.

Long seconds passed, and was feeling colder and colder with every heartbeat.

The bombardment was slowing.  The thing was drawing back into itself.

“Why did you go ahead?” Sveta asked.  Asked me.

My throat felt impossibly dry.  I’d inhaled air that was too hot, maybe.  “Needed to distract,” I said, intending to say ‘it’, and getting only a mouth movement with no air instead.

“You did that.  You followed through,” she said.  “Gave us that opening we needed.”

Tattletale and Love Lost worked together to carry a partially caved-in Rain, Tattletale with a gun in her hand, her eyes on the concrete above her.

Darlene, Chicken Little, and Kenzie carried an injured Candy.  Rain had apparently absorbed most of the blow.

“Essalated,” I managed.  “Esc-”

“Escalated,” Sveta said.

“It did.  Like an Endbringer.”

I pointed, using my less burned arm.

It was escalating even now.

Disparate parts and pieces of technology knitted together into something big.  Some tinkers specialized in the big stuff.  Others worked toward it for a long time.  In Boston, the original Damsel had faced off against Blasto’s big project.  At Gold Morning, String Theory had unveiled her own, apparently.  The tinkers had collectively built one.

Now this nest of arms was forging something else, and by the looks of it, the glow of individual energy cells powering on, it was nearly complete.

I could remember the files, the information only for team leaders and Wardens.  Information on the Endbringers, provided in retrospect, only after Gold Morning when the Endbringers cooperated against Scion and the attacks stopped.

“We can’t get through.”

Sveta looked, and I saw her purse her lips.  Too many limbs, and too much tinkertech had been used to complicate the way through, riddle it with hazards.

“I don’t think we can, sweetie,” she said, barely audible.  The kids were yelling, pointing at what Sveta and I had already noticed.

I shook my head.  It wasn’t time to give up like this.

“Get-” I managed, pointing.  “Him.”

Cradle.

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From Within – 16.8

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“Okay,” Rain said.  He was getting off the phone, and his statement came with enough finality that it made more than a few of us turn our heads.

“You got through?” I asked.

“Talked briefly with Colt and Love Lost.  Couldn’t talk to Cradle, he’s off in the wilderness, and they’re really antsy about drop-ins to chat with tinkers, since tinkers are most likely to try something fancy.”

“Probably for the best,” I said.  “Might tip them off that we’re trying something off the wall.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “I just said it had stuff to do with dreams, which isn’t too weird since you asked for details on dreams earlier.”

Others resumed doing what they were doing, getting ready, with costumes on and low conversations.  I had my own costume on, and Kenzie now wore her costume from the neck down, her helmet set to one side.  It looked like she was trying something new, as a cross between her head-encasing helmet and the Heartbroken masks.  She still wore the visor across her eyes as she tinkered away on the keyboard.

Above her, projected on the wall, was the short clip of the room’s denizen moving from the darkness into the space at the center of the room, then into what Rain had labeled as Cradle’s portion of the room.

“Precipice,” Kenzie said, without looking up.  The tool she held looked like a screwdriver, but sparked when she touched it to a circuit board.  “Walk me through the timeline again?”

“Lookout-”

“Any dates you can tie to the costumes changing?  Or when what you had on you when you went into the room changed?  Anything?”

“You’re trying to apply logic to dream, Lookout.”

“Yeah, uh, duh?  Kind of!  We don’t know what it’s going to be like in there, but the way you talked about the room, you don’t have powers in there?”

“Not really, no.  And powers from outside don’t normally apply inside.  I was haunted by Mama Mathers for a while, and she didn’t have any hold on me in there.”

“If this turns out that we’re more like your usual dream-self while we’re in there than like ourselves out there, all you’ll have is your stuff.”

“Yeah,” Rain said.  “Which is the theory we’re going with.  Drag everyone into the dream room and go from the room to the general shardspace.”

“But if we can figure out the rule that determines if you can bring stuff in, then you can bring in tinkering stuff, and we can figure out a battle plan.  So let’s focus and go back over stuff, and see what maps out!”

She sounded so impatient, constantly frustrated.

“Don’t be rude,” Chicken Little said, quiet.

“I’m-” Kenzie looked momentarily frustrated.  “Please?  Can we try, Precipice?”

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.  “No specific dates.  It went back and forth a lot.  It’s only recently that I stopped having the plastic demon mask with me when I appeared in the room.”

I wanted to ask Tattletale for her input, but she was wrapped up in a conversation with Sveta.  I motioned to get her attention, and she glanced at me, nodding, without breaking stride in whatever she was telling Sveta.

Rain continued explaining, “Love Lost and Snag went to wearing costumes pretty quickly.  No tinkertech, exactly, but the housings stayed intact.”

“Housings,” Kenzie said, motioning for Candy to take notes.

“Uh, Love Lost’s mask.  Same general shape, but no tech.  Snag had the arms, toward the end, but they weren’t tinker-managed and he left them behind when he approached the dais.”

“Colt?” I asked.  “If she’s new, does she fluctuate more?”

“Her clothes change some, but it’s pretty minor.”

“Does it match to what she wore that day?”

Rain shook his head.  “No idea.  Probably not.  She wears her own style of clothes even though she’s in the prison near the bunker, with prison-issue clothes.”

“That leaves me with two ideas, just going off of usual shard stuff,” I said.  I had Kenzie’s full attention, the other kids arranged around her, helping.  Rain was nearby too.  Everyone else was getting ready, strapping in like they expected a fight, even though there was no guarantee we could put up any.  “Idea one: it goes off of self image.  Love Lost and Snag changed to wearing costumes because they quickly dove into the mercenary villain thing.  Precipice keeps the Fallen mask because it takes him a while to let go of the guilt, self-image, how he was raised, whatever else.  Did it go away when you fought Christine Mathers?”

“A bit before.”

“Okay,” I said.  I looked down.  “Well, that doesn’t disprove idea one.  With this idea, Colt keeps her civilian clothes because her being in prison hasn’t fully sunk in.  If this idea applies, it might be worth meditating before trying this.  Solidify a self image in the mind.  Works for Breakers and some Changers, where their form changes every time.”

“Okay,” Rain said.

Kenzie groaned a little.  “I can’t do anything with that.”

“Idea two is that it’s the agent’s concept of us.  This might sound a bit more woo-woo, but I think there’s some foundation to it.  They build up their own picture of us, and costume factors in.  Breakers who wear a mask will have the mask become part of their breaker form.  Valkyrie’s flock seems to incorporate minor details into their physiology.”

“So my losing the mask is… what?” Rain asked.

“I don’t know, Precipice,” I said.  “Maybe the agent was sitting latent inside you for a long time, it recorded a lot of impressions of your time with the Fallen, while the others had comparatively less time, so the time they spent in costume got more traction.”

“Maybe the agents like masks,” Darlene said.  She’d been pretty subdued since the incident earlier and her car trip with Tattletale.  Tattletale had kept her back for a little while as part of a continued time-out from her time with the Tenders, but Lookout had needed to scan her again, and Tattletale was too busy to call her away again.

I smiled, taking the effort to give Darlene one because it seemed like she was dejected enough to need one.  She stopped fidgeting and clasped her hands together.  I told her, “Could be.  You definitely see that in Valkyrie’s flock of warriors.  It’s never civilian clothes that got absorbed into their appearance.  There are a lot of theories around how agents work with twins, similar or identical powers, uh, how to phrase it?  They’re bad at telling one of us apart from the next, twins especially, so maybe masks make us easier to tell apart?”

She nodded pretty vigorously at that, looking over at Capricorn.  He was on his phone, looking pretty wrapped up in his conversation.

“That’s sorta dumb,” Kenzie muttered.  “Massive interdimensional, cosmic-tier power and they need masks to tell us apart.  Right.”

“Take two grains of sand off a beach.  How easily can you tell them apart?  Does it help if you paint each one?” I asked.

“Well, I’d love to know how I can paint each of us the right colors,” Kenzie said.  “With… not that long left.”

“Focus on what you can do,” I told her.  “Don’t feel you have to cover every base.”

She nodded.

The time had passed quickly, my trip to get my costume and pick up Kenzie’s hadn’t been too lengthy, but the little things like last-minute research, changing, touching base and scheduling an email to let Crystal know what had happened if I wasn’t in a position to come back and cancel said email… they felt like things that should take a few minutes, ten or fifteen, and they took two or three times that in reality.

“Do you want to use our hands?” Darlene asked.  “We could network, like we did when making the eye things.”

“No, that only works for mass production,” Kenzie said, looking away from the hardware to focus more on software.  Behind her, Darlene deflated a bit.  Kenzie seemed to notice, and turned, “But thank you for offering.”

“Anything I can do?” Darlene asked.

“There are some snacks under the table over there, can you get me some?  An electrolyte juice box?  And some snack I can eat with my hands, ummm, I want something salty but I don’t want to get salt on my hands.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Darlene said, happy to be useful.  Chicken Little went with her to go raid for snacks.

“Grab me something!” Candy called out.

“Go,” Kenzie told her.

“I’m here to cheerlead for you,” Candy said, sitting on the edge of Kenzie’s desk, looking down with her eerie smiling mask.  “Rah rah, go Kenzie, go Kenzie.”

Kenzie snorted.

“We could project a cheerleader outfit onto Chicken Little,” Candy said.  “How’s that mental picture for you?”

“You’re distracting me!” Kenzie cried out, but she didn’t sound bothered.  She worked more vigorously, tapping at a screen projected into the air.

Tattletale approached, but she approached Darlene and Chicken Little first.  She didn’t break them up, simply checking on them as they brought back a bunch of stuff to Kenzie’s work area, jogging with enough vigor they nearly dropped stuff.  Tattletale’s pace was more sedate.

Darlene tore open a bag, nudging Chicken Little.  “Open, Lookout!”

Lookout opened her mouth.  Candy threw a pretzel at her, missing the open mouth, and a bird caught it.  The second throw was on target enough that Kenzie got the mini-pretzel in her mouth, the bird that was diving to intercept instead landing on her forehead.  She wiggled with amusement as she bent over her work, chewing, the bird peering down with her.

“What do you need?” Tattletale asked.

“We’re wondering about masks, gear, what might translate.  Any ideas?” I asked.

“No friggin’ clue,” she said.  “Kids are being good enough?”

“Yep.  We were brainstorming a bit with Precipice.”

“Mm,” Tattletale made a noise, looking at Rain.  “Nervous?  It’s your head on the chopping block.”

“Might have been nice to get advance warning that we’d be letting the beast out of its cage, there,” he said, looking at the wall.  Kenzie looked up at him, and he conceded, “It’s probably a good thing we found out about it before we did this.  I’d rather know in advance.”

“If you had to fight it, could you?” Tattletale asked.

Rain shook his head.  “No powers in there, pretty sure.”

“That, right there, is the administrator of your weird dream room.  Dreams are especially hinky as far as agents are concerned, and they might have been anxious when setting up the dynamic you have.  Before Gold Morning, minds got wiped, you’d have the dream room thing and you’d forget everything, but that’s not there now.  So instead they set up this role.  Manager, distributer of your token things, and guard dog.”

“Giant lightning man guard dog,” Rain muttered, looking over at the projected screen.

“It’s not going to look like that when you’re in there,” Kenzie said.  “Just FYI.”

“Great.  Now I feel even less prepared,” Rain said.

Tattletale explained, “You’ve knocked down the dividers between sections, including the guard dog’s pen.  It’s going to be pissed, but I don’t think it’s going to want to kill you, Cradle, Love Lost, or Colt.  Maim, maybe, and I don’t know how that translates to you being awake, but you’ll get more deferential treatment than Snaggletooth did.”

“That’s… a bit reassuring, I guess?”

“Nah,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t be reassured.  Because the walls are down and that thing isn’t going to act by human standards.  I’d say you have fifty-fifty odds that it comes after you, hard, to guard its corner, and it’ll come after you tomorrow night, and the next night, and the next…”

“Oh,” Rain said, and his voice was light, airy, “Oh great.”

“That’s if you and your clustermates are lucky.”

“What happens if they’re unlucky?” Chicken Little asked.

“Maybe don’t answer that,” Rain said.

“Something like Ash Beast,” Tattletale answered it anyway.

“I don’t know who or what that is,” Chicken Little said.

“The human essentially gone, the powers at full, reckless capacity, always on.  You get the part where you’re repeatedly torn apart, but it’s more of a twenty-four seven, every second of every day thing than it is a once-a-night thing.”

I swallowed, looking at Rain.

“What do I do?” Rain asked, very clearly steeling himself.

“Couldn’t tell you,” Tattletale said, her voice level, almost bored.  “Do what you were going to do, I guess.  You white-hats go sit in your cube, get transported in there, try to get your hands on the controls of this fucked up system we’re all hooked up into.  Do it before Teacher gets set up and starts tampering with the shardspace again.  Do it before things start breaking down on the city-wide scale.  Just, you know, dodge or distract that thing while you’re in there.  Use the fact it probably doesn’t want you or your clustermates dead, shield your guests, give them the opportunity to go for the goal.”

“Knowing it might tear me to shreds, physically or mentally,” Rain said.  “Snaggletooth ended up brain dead.”

“The alternative is that it’s just you and it might do that anyway,” Tattletale told him.

“With that alternative, at least I don’t put my team at risk.”

“You would be putting them at risk if you went the Ash Beast route,” Tattletale said.

I saw Rain clench all four fists, and not because he was ready to swing at Tattletale.  Stress, strain.

I spoke up, “What’s your goal here, Tattletale?  Because this feels a bit more like you’re rubbing it in than if you were giving it to us straight.”

“I’m here on pure goodwill,” she said.  “And while I’m here, enjoying the chance to get a deeper look behind the veil.  Bonus is, I’m guilt-free this time, and I get to be a bit smug that my kid didn’t make this mess.”

She motioned toward Kenzie and Chicken Little.

“Oh fuck off, Tattletale,” I said.  “This isn’t a competition and we really don’t need to be dwelling on this stuff when there’s a deadline.”

“Not dwelling,” she said.  “Briefly commenting.”

“Um,” Chicken Little said.  He raised his hand like he was in class.  All heads turned his way.  “Didn’t you kind of mentor Skitter?  Wasn’t she your ‘kid’, kind of like this?”

“No,” Tattletale said.

“She kind of was,” I folded my arms.  “By just about every objective account we have.”

“Including stuff you’ve told me,” Chicken Little said, to Tattletale.

“No,” Tattletale said.  “You’re way off base, bud.  Skitter was her own woman.”

“But Imp said you taught Skitter about the cops and robbers game, and we all know how that went.”

“Alright,” Tattletale said.  “I might have to put a new rule in place, where you’re grounded every time you bring her up.”

“Why?  That’s not fair!” Chicken protested.

“It’s not fair,” Darlene echoed, in a tone reminiscent of the ‘don’t hurt the Chicken’ chant from earlier.

“It’s an opsec thing,” Tattletale said.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Chicken Little protested.

“If I ground you enough times, maybe you’ll learn, hm?” Tattletale asked, sounding way too pleased with herself over browbeating an eleven year old in an argument.

“I bet it’s ’cause you keep beating her in arguments whenever you do it, Chicken,” Candy said.  “What are the unwritten rules again?  You don’t attack innocents, we know Skitter did that, you don’t use guns, we know she did that.  You don’t kill, well, we have to remember Alexandria…”

“Okay,” Tattletale said.  “I think it’s time to head back to Aunt Rachel’s.  I’m sure there are some stables to muck out, as punishment for the whole debacle earlier tonight.  If Breakthrough wants the rest of my Tattletale insights, I’ll have to ask for my standard fee.”

The kids protested loudly, voices overlapping, with Kenzie adding her voice to the outcry without looking away from her work.

“You’re more of a child than any of the children in the room,” I told Tattletale, incredulous.

“I’m a mastermind supervillain with limited hours and mental resources.  I’m being nice, offering my insights, but I am one hundred percent willing to take the cheap-shot shortcuts if it means conserving those resources or keeping my mentee safe.”

“Does that mean if we make it less mentally exhausting to stay and be helpful, you will?” Candy asked, innocently.

Darlene must have chosen that moment to connect their little squad, because Darlene, Candy, Chicken Little, Kenzie, and Chicken Little’s four small birds all looked at Tattletale in eerie, simultaneous sync.

“Do you really want to go to war?” Tattletale asked, sounding amused.  “I know your dirty little secrets.  Swimming hole, Chicken?”

Chicken flinched out of the synchronicity, looking down.

“Your frequent stints over at the greenhouse, Decadent?”

Candy didn’t flinch to the same degree that Chicken had, but she wasn’t in sync anymore either.

Darlene looked over at Candy, “Wait, was that what Chastity was teasing you about the other day, or-”

“Shh,” Candy muttered.  “You’re playing into her hands.”

“Which of the gardeners is it?” Darlene asked.

“Shhhh,” Candy made the sound through clenched teeth.

Tattletale folded her arms, silently gloating.  “Darlene?  Where do I even start?  The nightmares, or the twigs?”

Darlene might have broken the connection between the kids, because there was no sign of sync-up anymore.  She slumped a bit.  She’d already looked a bit dejected and crestfallen since the whole issue earlier in the night, but it was more pronounced now.

“I know about the nightmare, but twigs?” Candy asked, barely audible.

Darlene didn’t answer.

“You’re an actual child,” I said, to Tattletale.

You try wrangling a whole family of Heartbroken.”

“Tattletale,” Rain said, and his tone was clear and stern enough that it got our collective attention.

“Hm?”

“Any other information you could provide would mean a lot,” he said.  He didn’t look at her, but at the ground between them, his fists still clenched. “I don’t have a lot of cash, but I will pay if I have to, and I’ll go into debt if you need me to, I’ll pay you later if I can’t pay your fee now.”

“We can chip in,” Chicken Little said, piping up.  “Right?”

“Right,” Darlene said, sounding a little less confident or willing.

Tattletale sighed.  “You don’t need to pay.  Neither of you.”

“Thank you,” Chicken Little said, quiet.

“Even if you could fight it, you’re not going to kill it,” Tattletale said, indicating the monster on the screen.  “It’s going to bounce back from just about anything you could do to it.  Prepare for it to have a few tricks up its sleeve, because it’s an extension of a species that plays the long game and that knows we don’t have it in us to permanently stop it.  So don’t underestimate it, don’t assume it’s shown you everything it can do.”

I frowned.

“It isn’t human, and it never was,” she went on.  “Don’t expect it to have human rationales.  Do expect it to have a program it follows, a set goal that may or may not be one hundred percent clear.  It’s going to be somewhat predictable, but powerful enough that the predictability isn’t reassuring or an easy answer.”

“Does it have weaknesses?” Capricorn asked.  He’d joined the conversation.

“Yep.  I’m betting it can’t go much further than the room.  If you can get through that gap-”

Tattletale walked over to the projected image, where two thirds of the room were cast into ‘shadow’, before indicating the far wall.

“It can’t follow?” Rain asked.

“I’m thinking… ninety percent odds it can’t,” Tattletale said.  “But you’re going to find other stuff on the far side, a little less consistently solid, and from what Damsel said, it’s going to be a bit like everything’s gone breaker.  They like structure and they like redundancy, so expect details pulled from host awareness, specific and collective.  When you don’t have structure, you’ll have vast amounts of connective tissue.”

“Valleys that are simultaneously mountains?” I asked.

“You got it,” Tattletale said, sounding like she was having far too much fun.  “That stuff on the far side?  Doesn’t move far beyond its confines.  Be ready to run.  If your tricks to try to force waking up don’t work, you just need to live for long enough to time out.”

“Talking to Colt and Cradle, our best guess for how long we’re in the room is a little under forty minutes,” Rain said.

I couldn’t help but glance at the clock.

Eerie, that he said that, and the clock showed 35:12, 35:11, 35: 10… counting down.

I adjusted the buckler at my left arm.

“Dinner’s here,” Kenzie said.

It was Snuff, back from his errand, with bags bearing the unappetizing name of ‘Roadkill’.

I walked over to Tattletale, as she backed away from the defused situation with the Heartbroken.  Chicken Little was unwrapping Kenzie’s dinner for her, holding her burger out, while Darlene tried far too hard to be okay with it.

In this moment, at least, with the stress of the clock hanging over her head, Kenzie seemed to be as happy as I’d seen her since Ashley had died.

“Tattletale,” I murmured.

“Hm?”

“The way you described that thing in the room.  Sounded familiar.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Fair warning: it’s all educated guessing at this point.  Very educated, but no guarantees.”

“Sure,” I said.  I looked at the constantly replaying image of the thing emerging from the shadows.  “Is it an Endbringer?”

“Nah,” she said.  “Smaller in stature, more limited in scope.”

I realized I was holding my breath, and I didn’t release it.  I felt like there was a ‘but’ coming.

“It’s the same scaffolding.  Same construction material.  Similar principles,” Tattletale elaborated.

“Thanks,” I told her.

“You’re not taking your kid in with you, are you?”

I looked over at Lookout.

“Wasn’t planning on it,” I said.

“Say something happens to your team,” Tattletale said.

I held my finger to my lips.  I turned my head toward one of the more obvious cameras.

She brought a hand up to her nose to scratch it but then left it there, cupped over her mouth. “Do you have any preferences?  Messages to pass on?  People you’d rather see looking after her?”

I didn’t see Kenzie acting strange.  With Darlene crowding in to take over burger duty, Aiden holding out a napkin to catch drippings, and Candy laughing at something, the group of them were probably a sufficient distraction that Kenzie wasn’t monitoring my conversation with Tattletale.

I covered my own mouth as I talked, “If anything happens, contact the Wardens.  Dragon and Defiant can handle the tech side of things, but you’ll probably need the heroes to get a handle on her.”

“I’ll waive my usual fees for handling contingencies if you’re quiet about Chicken Little and his loose lips.”

I nodded.

With that, Tattletale walked away.

We have to do this, I thought.  Then I had to amend my statement, because we’d already let the guard dog out of its pen.  We had to do this.  We can’t be following behind every crisis.

The clock counted down to Rain’s bedtime.  31:32, 31:31, 31:30…

2:15, 2:14, 2:13, 2:12…

“Don’t try to control your breathing, ignore all of that usual stuff about deep breaths or breathing in through the mouth and out through the nose,” Sveta counseled.  “Breathe naturally.  Don’t get mad at yourself if you stop breathing naturally, just move on, move forward, return to what we’re focusing on.”

Sveta was the person to talk us through meditation, because she’d had to do it several times every day, as a part of managing her control.

“Our focus is on ourselves,” Sveta said.  “Body image, the costume we wear, and what led to us getting the costumes we did.  If your thoughts go outside of this area, bring them back in, but don’t get mad at yourself, or the emotion will become the focus.  You don’t get anything from being mad at yourself.  We are the clothes we wear.”

It was hard to bring myself to follow her general roadmap.  So much of what I’d done I’d done because it hinted at or stood in stark contrast to things that were very fucking good at distracting me.  I’d chosen a black costume because Amy’s was white.  Gold because of Gold Morning.  My icon at my shoulders with its spires was evocative of the Wretch’s hands, the symbol extending to be a circle with the dot within to emulate the armbands that so many wore.

And if I thought of Amy and the Wretch, and if those thoughts took hold, if this meditation worked, would the me of the dream room be the Wretch?

The thought chilled me and invaded my thoughts over and over, which only made it worse.

All were roads I could have spiraled down, so I turned to surrender instead.  I didn’t fight, I didn’t struggle.  If I thought of the current me, I tended to think of myself in costume.  Antares in black and gold.  The number of layers varied, sometimes a coat, sometimes a few bandages.  But I was quietly confident in that background self image, mostly confident that it was the me as I visualized myself.

When I tried to let my mind drift with only nudges here and there, to explore the buckler and the armguard that was attached, to go back to the routine of suiting up and pulling on the individual costume components, it was loose, fragmented, easy, but always with dangerous thoughts lurking around the exterior.

I didn’t make myself meditate, and instead, focused on maintaining a good mental state, grounding myself in reality as I tended to do when I needed to bring myself out of the well of dark thoughts I tended to associate with the Wretch.

I was in a square with my team.  We sat within the boundaries of Kenzie’s ‘cube’ that she’d used to let Tristan communicate while Byron was dominant.  Wires streamed in from every direction to the ‘cube’s’ perimeter and the boxy keyboard that was the actual device.

I peeked, and saw Damsel fidgeting, bladed arms in her lap, the sharp inner sides of each blade turned upward.  Each fidget was faintly audible as a metal-on-metal sound.

Tattletale, Kenzie, and Kenzie’s team were all on the far side of the room, giving us a wide, wide berth.  Snuff and Sidepiece had left at our request, Snuff watching Sidepiece at Tattletale’s instruction.  If we were going to be collectively unconscious, then we couldn’t have that unpredictable element out there.  It was part of why we had Damsel in here with us.  She knew the terrain, so to speak.

Buckler, I thought, idly.  I imagined its dimensions, committed the weight of it to my mind.  I thought of the zip of my top, the form-fitting nature of it, the feeling of boots being pulled on, uncomfortable and tight, then suddenly comfortable, as my feet found the perfect fit waiting for them.  The bottom of my foot imprinted on the material as much by hard landings and downward kicks as by any great amount of walking.

I felt impatient.  It didn’t help that I had to feel like I was ready to jump to action the moment we ticked over, while trying to stay calm and steady enough that my costume-complete self image held true.  It felt like the clock should have hit zero by now, and I was ready to voice a comment, asking if it had worked, if Rain was still with us, but first I’d look at the clock.

I turned my head toward the display-

Voices cheered and jeered, and people bustled around me.  Tinny noises and different music formed a cacophony of sound.

Where?

I took a step forward, and I realized I wasn’t in control.  The motion happened on its own, which was a good thing, because if I had been in control, I might have stumbled or fallen.  My legs were shorter.

The faces of girls running just in front of me, almost cutting me off, they were familiar, but this scene wasn’t.

I ran forward, reaching for a joystick, my hands going to buttons.

The joystick was the standard ball on top of a stick, common to any number of the arcade cabinets around me.  But this ball, it was orange with black stripes dividing it.  A basketball.

Even the motion of the hand on the joystick was familiar while the context was wrong.  Down, down, down- selecting my team, three superheroes in basketball uniforms.

“Victoria,” my dad said.

I twisted around, but the game was starting.  A girl shoved her way in beside me.  On the far side of the cabinet, other girls were there.  Two versus two.

“Just one game?” I asked, my attention divided.

He looked so tired, so disinterested, but he smiled.  My mom, beside him, managed to feign interest, but didn’t smile.  Amy sat off to the side, cheering loud enough to make up for both of them.

“I’m good at this,” I murmured.  Emotions were unsteady, unsure, and small, as they found their places in my chest.  “I’ve practiced.”

“Focus on the game,” the girl next to me said.  She was my opponent, having butted her way in, choosing her own roster.  She was bigger, square-chinned, naturally strong.

Naturally good at the game, I soon found.

I could have matched her, maybe.  I had my own strengths, I’d studied, I’d put in the hours, and as my mom had said, it wasn’t enough to have natural talents, you had to put in the effort too.  I wanted to think I had both.

I stole a glance, and I could see how they were barely holding on.  Some people had approached them, talking to them because they were heroes, everyone knew about them, they were cool.  Even as they fielded questions from the crowd of parents and friends off to the side, they forced smiles, feigned interest, kept watching.  My mom pointed, indicating for me to focus on the game.

Down, down, down.  The joystick mimicked the dribbling of the ball.  I input the commands for a Legend-ary half-court shot, a score.  I chanced a look back, and saw Amy there, cheering, pumping a fist.  My dad mimicked her.  My mom hadn’t even seen.

I had a flow going, a routine.

The girl beside me elbowed me.  She was stronger, and in the moment, she got my hands off the controls.  She took the ball.  She scored.

I stole another glance.  Of course it was a moment like this that both of my parents were looking.

Down, down.

It was my last game, they’d agreed to let me play it.  Fail here, I could continue until I failed.  For the other girl, it might have been the same, but it couldn’t have felt half as important.  I wanted to show off, I wanted to show that even if I wasn’t on the same stage as my parents, I could use what I’d learned, be excellent in my own way.

Trailing a few points behind.  I passed, passed.  But there wasn’t any cooperation from the other player who was supposed to be on my side.  The opportunities didn’t come.  Didn’t come.  The clock ticked down, 31, 30, 29…

I didn’t know the script, but I knew the tempo, the rhythm, the way this was supposed to go in the way I might know the beat of a song even if I didn’t know the specific words.

15, 14, 13, 12…

I got the ball.  I got my shot, everything on the line, chance to be a hero.

And the girl casually shoved me.  I fell, and on the dirty floor of the arcade, my arm skidded on grit from shoes and bits of food.  A sandpaper scrape, a slam to my elbow that felt like a steel rod rammed up my elbow to my shoulder.

“Owww,” I mewled, cradling my arm, and belatedly, I realized that this particular stage had gone quiet, just in time for me to sound like a girl closer to four than to fourteen, my voice overly loud with the acoustics of the space.

The silence and the stares felt damning.  As if this girl wasn’t the one in the wrong.  I was.  Because I was the daughter of superheroes.  I was supposed to be better.

I didn’t want to look, this time, but I did.  Amy had her eyes downcast, like she couldn’t even look at me.  She would later tell me she knew how much this had mattered to me.  My mom, though, she stared at me.  It was a look of condemnation and disappointment, followed by a glance away.  I could almost understand that.

My dad, though, arms folded, was talking to a man beside him, idly chatting.  He glanced back over his shoulder at a man with a heavy beard and dense tattoos.  Too disinterested to notice my efforts or failure when a hundred other people nearby had seen and heard every last bit of it.

What is this?  I thought.

The game showed a countdown.  I made myself get up.

Free shot, for a chance to continue.  One shot wouldn’t win this, it was just a stupid fucking game.  My arm hurt.

Fingers maneuvered the joystick, I hit the buttons.

I missed the shot, with everyone except for three people still watching.  Their love was conditional.

The blare of the game over sound was loud, jarring, shattering my senses.

What is this?

Who is this?

The legs could have belonged to the same person, but the sensations and the subtleties were different.  The body wasn’t as athletic, but it was lighter, skinnier.

A girl.  Sveta?  In a… house?

I felt a weird surge of hope and dread.

No.  I felt a bit crestfallen.  This had to be Ashley.  Was this as different for her as it had been for me?

The body I was riding inside reached the top of a third-story stairwell, then started navigating hallways and rooms, padding around on white carpet.

The house was so large, so empty.

The room she went into had posters on every inch of every wall, with some tacked to the ceiling.  It smelled like sweat, with a faint bathroom smell, making her wrinkle her nose.

“Gross,” she said.

I felt a stab of fear and concern, hearing that child’s voice.

She went straight to the bedside table, hauling it open, and poked her way past magazines of women wearing swimsuits.  She found a digital music player with a cracked screen and the cover for the batteries missing, batteries exposed at the back.  She had her headphones on, cord dangling, and she plugged it into the player.  The music sounded muted, not as sharp as a modern digital player might be.

“Stop stealing my stuff, loser,” she said, clipping the music player to her pocket.  She fished through more of the drawer’s contents, rolling her eyes as she turned the page of the swimsuit magazine, revealing it to be a cover stapled over a much more lewd kind of mag.

She backed away, continuing her search through the room, but the bathroom smell swelled, and she turned her head.

In the walk-in closet, gym stuff on the floor, more fancy clothes to the right and out-of-season winter clothes to the left, a teenage boy dangled from the central railing, toes touching the ground.  Urine and shit ran down his legs to his nice white sneakers, and onto the floor below.  Blond, but with face purple-blue, his features already distorted.

She made an incoherent sound, lunging forward to wrap her arms around him, to try to lift him up, as if she could.  He was almost twice her size.  The damp from his pants leg pressed through her shirt and to her stomach, and she flinched away, aware of how cold it was.

She turned to the side, and the movement of her head brought another involuntary sound past her throat and lips.  Her eyes traced the path, the plan, the route of climbing up onto clothes, getting to the rope he hung from.

The clothes and the hangers weren’t strong enough to support her, and she only managed to tear clothes off the rod.

The actions were frantic, senseless, and each one seemed to punctuate the cold, grim reality.  He didn’t move, he didn’t struggle.  His skin was cold.

She hit him, scratched him, as if somehow that could rouse him, wordless, her throat choked, pain gripping every part of her chest and throat.

Her fists balled up, and a strange sensation at her fingertips made her startle.  She looked down, then startled again, her eyes going from the underside of her fingernails to the gouges she’d left in his arm.  Skin, balled up under her nails.

She almost tripped over his things, as she backed up, hand held out between them as if she could somehow back away from it, too.  Vision and breathing were incoherent, and there was a dazed, lost sensation as she stepped out of his room into the hallway, and didn’t even seem to know where she was.  The hurt was constant, pressure on her chest, her head pounding, the bathroom smell lingering because her efforts to grab him had gotten some on her.

I’m sorry, Tattletale.

The scene shifted, the path from her brother’s bedroom to the phone not even committed to memory.  She reached the phone, and she held her hand over the list of numbers.  Parents, names that might have been family friends, emergency services.

“I don’t know who to call, Rex,” she mumbled, and her voice was small, timid.  “Ambulances are for people who are alive.  Police are for investigating deaths, but it’s obvious who did it.  I feel so stupid.”

Tears blurred her vision, and she blinked to clarify it, looking at the names: ‘June Livsey’.  ‘Fred Livsey’.

She didn’t press the button.  Quietly, she hung up the phone, and headed out the door, head hanging.

“If I’d been a bit sooner…”

Across the street, jarring in juxtaposition to the nice house and the nice houses on either side of it, was a shopping center.  Lost, dazed, she started toward it, not even glancing either way to check for traffic.

“I’m sorry.”

If Tattletale is here, then…

The rocks and plants outside of the shopping center were exaggerated in size, and not because of the dream.  They were exaggerated because this was a place that had been made before Gold Morning.  As a larger group, they played on the rocks.

“Hurry, Michael, Dimitri!  There’ll be time to practice jacking each other off later!”

The larger of the boys laughed, even while other kids jeered at him.  The point of view dropped to the ground.

“No need, Nadia!” the large boy called out.  “I’ve practiced, studied, and mastered that, all on my own!  I bet I could teach your dad some things, so he could please your mom for once!”

The jeering continued.  Nadia laughed.

There was a display board with swappable letters by the trees.  Nadia began toying with it, putting vulgar words up there.  Kids jeered and joked, topping each other, with comments about Dimitri’s uncle and inventive approaches to dog breeding.  Dimitri joked back.

Motorcycles rumbled with a deepness that sank in, right to the belly, as bikes pulled in around the mall.  Men with tattoos climbed off, heading inside.  Some had masks, dressed up like demons.

The point of view didn’t join in, remaining quiet, face heated.  Some other kids were scraping stones against the big rock in front of the mall, to make drawings as vulgar as the words Nadia was putting up.  Hands scraped rock against rock, leaving pale markings behind, to draw swirls, birds, fish.

I know those swirls.

“You’re looking good, Nadia.  Almost like you’re a real girl,” Michael teased.

Nadia curtseyed, pluckign at the corners of her dress.  She smacked her lips to blow a kiss.  “And here I thought your family only had eyes for dogs.”

“You’re the dog, Nadia!” one of the others jeered, almost drowned out by Michael’s laughter.

The efforts to draw the birds and fish renewed, more vigorous, more violent.  There were tears, ready to spill forth, that were quickly blinked away, as a faint rain pattered down around them.

There were more rumbles.  More motorcycles, joined by cars.

“Maybe we should go in,” someone said.

The hand scraped stone against stone, hurrying, a hand gripping a branch to maintain a position, to finish the picture-

Feet slipped.

Then the fall, and a stunned darkness.  Faces peering down, the pain, a disoriented jumble that came with a disorienting, slightly askew scene.

I wanted nothing more than to hug my friend, but she was already slipping out of reach.

“I’m sorry,” the words were a faint croak, thick in the throat, before the scene faded.

Her entire body convulsed, as she emptied her stomach’s contents into the toilet bowl.  The force of it was so violent she almost lost her grip on the toilet seat.  Her hands were trembling, and her shoes didn’t have the traction needed to stay beneath her.

Sidepiece?  She’s not anywhere near us.

“Are you okay?” a voice came from outside the toilet stall.

She heaved, but she didn’t have anything left to produce except for a dribble of fluid.

“Can I call anyone?”

Non!

Bodyless, only an observer, I could only feel a nebulous but profound moment of despair.  The word was French.  It wasn’t Sidepiece.

The voice was so young, hoarse from the recent vomiting.

“Are you sure?  You don’t sound well.”

The hands that fished for toilet paper were so small, wiping around her mouth.

She wasn’t even tall enough to kneel by the toilet.  That was why her shoes had slipped, had been necessary.  She wiped at herself some more, then looked down, at a nice dress and hard shoes with buckles, more useful for being pretty than for any activity, let alone finding traction on bathroom floors.

She hiccuped, and the motion was so close to the recent vomiting that her entire upper body convulsed, hurting a bit.  It at least seemed to disturb the hiccup enough that she didn’t hiccup again.

“I could call a doctor.”

“No!” the child cried out, and the word was outlined in fear.  She hurried to reach up and find the door latch, opening it to find a concerned middle aged woman there.  “Please.  I’m okay.”

“You don’t sound okay, hon.  Where’s your mom?”

“My papa is outside,” she said, in halting English.  She went to the sink, standing on her toes to get water and wash her face, washing her mouth.  “I didn’t want him coming into the girl’s bathroom.”

“Okay.  Should I go find him?”

She shook her head.  With damp hands, she wiped at her dress and then her hair.  She half-walked, half-ran for the bathroom door, the fancy little shoes nearly slipping on the tile.

A group of men with tattoos got in her way almost immediately.  She shied back, waiting for them to pass, then saw the woman behind her, and hurried forward.  Into the food court.

A man, round-headed, round-bodied, bigger than any man she’d ever seen in real life, rose from the bench he sat on.

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice gentle, the words French but understandable.  “You ran so quickly for the bathroom.”

“I’m okay,” she said, clasping her hands in front of her.  Every word French but translated.

“Do you want to go home?  I can drive you now.”

She shook her head, fierce, emphatic.

“Okay, then,” he said.  He put out his hand.

Looking back at the middle aged woman, the little girl reached out and up, putting her hand in the man’s.

“Do you want to try the arcade again?” he asked.  He indicated the arcade at one corner of the food court.  A crowd of parents and onlookers was gathered.  “It looks busier than before, but that can be fun in its own way.”

She shook her head.  “No thank you, Keith.”

“Whatever you want to do.  I want you to have the best time,” he said. He gave her hand a squeeze.

“Thank you, Keith.  Can we, um, can we sit?”

“Sit?  Surely we can do something else.”

“I want to sit,” she said.  She looked at his hand, and the squeeze she gave it seemed calculated, intended, the look up at the towering figure tremulous, unsure.

“Okay,” he said. “Here, I have an idea.  Sit, wait there.”

She did, sitting at the table in a large food court, looking around her at the people, eyes lingering on families.

Her hands touched her stomach, which was tender.  She saw someone glance at her, and dropped both hands into her lap, clasping them together against the stiff fabric of her dress.  It wasn’t cold, but her hands shook.

She saw Keith return, navigating the crowd, smiling at a mother and her kids.

Her stomach flip-flopped when she saw what he held.

He placed the cup of ice cream in front of her, then did the same with an ice cream cone, which had a paper holder to keep it upright.  “I wasn’t sure whether you’d want a cone or a cup, so I got both.  If you want both, I won’t tell.”

He winked, and she smiled, tremulous, unsure.  She reached for the plastic spoon, and her stomach did another flip.

“You don’t want it?” he asked.  “Are you okay?”

Paralyzed, she sat there.

Candice,” he said, and he hurried over, kneeling beside her to bring himself more to her level.  It only made his presence feel more oppressive.  “Do you want to go home?”

“No,” she said, her voice small.  Her lips formed a word she didn’t utter: never.

CandyI’m sorry you had to go through this.

Candice, look at me.”

Obedient, she did.

“I am your ally.  I know some men pay your father for access to his, um, girlfriends, wives?  To have them keep them company?”

Candy shrugged.  I could feel the movement, as deliberate as the hand squeeze, like the lie or manipulation was more obvious than anything in its intentionality.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I joked before about running away with you, when we first got into the car.”

Candy nodded.

“If you wished, Candice, we could get in the car now.  We could drive away to a far away place and he would never find us.  I would never hurt you or do anything like he thinks I would.  Like you might think I would.  No, every day would be a best day, like today.”

“My sister,” Candy murmured.  “I can’t leave her.”

“I could pay for her to come join us, perhaps?”

A different kind of paralysis took hold.

“I have… many sisters.  No.  I can’t.  Even if not, I have to do what daddy says.”

“He said to listen to me, didn’t he?”

She went stiff, nodded.

“Then I order you to listen to me.  Tell me what you want.”

“I-”

“Yes?”

“I want to sit here.”

“Alright.  We can sit.  You can have your ice cream.  I know it’s your favorite, your dad told me.”

She picked up the spoon, hesitating.  Her stomach cramped.

“I know we’ve had three desserts already, and three big meals, but we’re allowed to enjoy ourselves on a best day like today, aren’t we?” he asked.  He squinted his eyes together, like he was being mischievous.

She nodded, unsure.

Mange, mange!” he urged her, chuckling a bit.

She lifted a spoonful to her mouth, closing her mouth down around the cold ice cream.  She shied away as he got back up to his feet beside her, and drew herself in to be small as he settled on the bench to her right.

Her stomach hurting with every action, she lifted another spoonful to her mouth, while he sat beside her, chin on his hand, looking at her like a fucking lovestruck schoolchild looked at their crush, his hand on her back, rubbing.

A tear ran down her cheek, and she hurriedly wiped it away, looking to one side to avoid letting him see.

She saw a familiar face, and reached out.

That familiar face reached for her.  Darlene.  But there was too much distance for them to make contact.

“I’ll go get some more ice cream,” he said, almost giddy.  “Some to take home.  You can have some on the car ride back.”

Darlene’s hand dropped to her side.

She was tugged along, her head ducked low.  The grip on her wrist was like iron.

“This way,” the mall’s staff member said, meek, deferential.  She bowed slightly, then looked abashed to be bowing.

The door was pushed open, and they entered a back room.   special event space, decorated with streamers and big paper letters that were all strung together.  Kids were already assembled, half of the group gathered at one side table, expectant as the cake was cut.  The other half were playing with presents that had been opened.

The streamers spelled out a name: Yasmin.  Darlene’s eyes, our window into this scene, moved to a girl in specific.

People turned, people noticed.  They reacted.

And then they didn’t react.  Cries of fear and alarm were silenced without word or gesture.  Each of the adults went still.

“Come,” the voice was French-accented, but it spoke English.  Smooth, cold, calm.  “I think you should sit at the head of the table, my Darlene.  Any objections?”

There were none.  Darlene’s eyes moved around, tracking adult, child.  The chair was pulled out for her, and she sat.  Every adult obeyed.  The children, however, were indecisive, frozen in fear that was wholly natural.

“Take down the other girl’s name.  You and you, you can watch the doors.  Nobody leaves until my child has had her birthday party.  Sit, everyone!”

Darlene watched as Yasmin’s name was ripped from the wall.

His voice was loud and smooth in her right ear.  He was quiet, but nobody present made even the slightest noise, so everyone heard.  “Now, who do you like?  Who likes you, hm?”

She looked at a boy, blond, and saw his eyes widen in fear at the eye contact.

The boy smiled.

“Come, sit at the head of the table.  You can be the prince for my princess.  You will do whatever she asks of you.”

Darlene was stiff, frozen, staring down the length of the table.  She shivered as she felt the boy next to her take her hand.

“Now pick one, Darlene.  Who do you like least, in this room?” he said, his voice held the threat.  “It is your birthday, this is your test, you will choose.  Both your brother and your sister got their powers, and so will you.  But you won’t leave me, as they did.”

Hands on her shoulders, a hand gripping her left, adults smiling all around her, she pointed at a boy at the end of the table.

“Why?”

“He- he spat at me once.  S-s-said I smelled funky.”

“What shall we do with him?”

Darlene was silent.

“If you don’t choose, I will, and I’m far crueler than you are.”

“Extinguish him,” Darlene whispered.

The chair skidded, the boy thrashed, fighting despite the fact there was nothing there.  He fell from his seat, while children all around the table shrieked and cried out.

Then he went still.

All around her, children looked shocked, stricken, horrified.  They looked at her.

“Look at their faces, Darlene,” he murmured.  “They never knew who you were, did they?  Now they know the truth, and they will keep it with them forever.  We will make decisions for each and every one of them today.”

Darlene nodded, eyes dropping.

“We are family, my Darlene,” he whispered.  “That is all you will ever have or need, yes?  Blood ties us together.  Cosanguinuity.”

The detonation rocked the shopping center.  People turned, looked, and saw the tattooed people standing on tables, standing on stairs to the upper level above the food court.  Blue fire and shadows danced around them.

The figure we rode in was another small body, this time.  A boy.  Breaths huffed.  He looked for help, support, and saw none.  Alone, he was lost in a tide.  People pushed him without even meaning to.

“Imp!” he called out.  “Aisha!  Charlotte!  Forrest!

There was no returning cry, or if there was, it was drowned out.  The people around him increased by the second.

But they reached the end of the long hallway with the big exit sign above it, and they stopped there.  They didn’t open the doors.  People pressed in-

He stumbled, falling, and he saw the people running at him, so fast it was clear they wouldn’t stop.

A large figure put himself between the boy and the people.  A man with a thick beard, old fashioned glasses, a piercing in his nose, and kind eyes.

Snag.

He fell as well, blocking the tide of bodies with his own, gripping the side of a sign that was built into the wall, scratched plexiglass case and frame protecting the image beneath.

“I’ll do what I can to protect you,” the man spoke, and his voice was deep enough to be heard through the din. “I’ll try to keep the path clear.”

“I-” Aiden tried.

But Snag gripped him, then lifted him up to the top of the plexiglass case, away from the stampede of people.  Pushed, shoved, Snag nearly lost his footing, but then managed to get Aiden to a secure spot, standing on the frame, the window above him.

But Aiden was too small to reach.  He looked down, and he seemed to search for and find familiar faces, vertigo making his vision swim.  Voices jeered, mixed in with panicked cries, and he shrank against the wall, feet slipping, finding footing again, slipping again- fear lurching in his chest.

“Help,” he whispered.  “Anyone?  Please?”

The perspective distorted, and the way down might as well have been five stories, not ten feet.

In the midst of the trample of bodies, Ashley twisted her head to one side as she was smacked across the head.  Her vision swam.  She tried to stand and she wobbled.

“Stop,” she said.

They tucked themselves into a space by the wall, but it wasn’t possible for everyone to occupy it.  Her father loomed above her, struck out.

“Come on!” he shouted, voice loud, hoarse.  “Make your decision!”

She winced, face turned away.

“Answer me!  Don’t go mute on me like she does!”

“I don’t know,” she said.

“That’s not an answer, Ash,” he growled.  People pushed past them.  “Come on.  If I have to get rid of one of you, is it going to be you, or is it going to be her?”

Ashley turned her head, and she stared past her longer hair at herself, small and short-haired.  She cringed, fearing the next blow, and the other her stood a little taller.

“Come on!” he shouted, gripping them by the arm.

Kenzie reached out, trying to find a grip.  The mass of bodies pressed in, and she was pushed back.

Her foster parents reached out for her.  Two black men, one barrel-shaped, hair short, wearing a colorful shirt.  Another man, skinnier, with a tidy dress shirt, a worried look on his narrow face.

She fought to hold on, as people pulled them apart, and her fingernails dug in, scratching, scrabbling, skin filling the space under her nails.

Until the desperate fight to maintain the grip made the reaching hand flinch in pain, pulling away.

She reached out, vainly, with every muscle in her body.

And there was hesitation on the other side.  A fraction of a second.  When they reached out, only fingertips touched.  Then they were separated.

“Byron,” Tristan gasped.  He was trapped under the press of bodies, his brother on top of him, Byron’s arm leaning against his throat.  He couldn’t breathe, and the view through Tristan’s eyes darkened around the edges.  “Listen to me, damn it!  Wake up!”

But Byron was unconscious, eyes partially lidded.  The pressure on Tristan’s throat was involuntary.

“Wake up!  Please!”

Reaching, scrabbling, Tristan found a splinter of wood.  He stabbed his brother, perhaps to try to get him to wake up or come to reality.  It didn’t work.

So he stabbed again- and again.

The doors opened, and Rain was there, in the too-bright light, as people spilled forth.  Darlene, Aiden, me, Tristan, Byron’s comatose body, Sveta, Candy, Kenzie, Ashley, Tattletale, Colt, Love Lost, and Cradle.

Rain greeted us all with a desperate, mocking laughter.

And then, as though a light switch had been flicked, the scene was gone, and we were in the room, divided into fifteen sections, each haphazardly connected to the last.

I had my costume and my buckler, but not my flight.  I hurried over in Sveta’s direction, crawling at first, then staggering, and crossed the boundary.

And in the shadows furthest from me, the watchdog woke.  It lumbered forth, reaching out to grab the concrete of Cradle’s area, a table in Rain’s, and to the shattered dais at the center of the room.

Too many limbs, all smooth planes like marble, with cables running in the gaps, each glowing with an intense heat.  A twenty foot tall titan made of reaching arms that could have been tentacles, they were so many-jointed.

It was nothing like the beast of lightning we’d seen on the video.

That wasn’t a single watchdog administrating this room.  It was one of four dogs.

Cradle’s.

“Cradle!” I called out, and I felt like the words were futile even as I uttered them.  “It won’t hurt you!  We need you to get in its way!”

All around us, the others were still reeling from reopened wounds.  They were slow to move, and the many-handed beast was quick.

And Cradle did not get in its way.

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