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Dauntless continued his assault, striking out repeatedly, with a spear of lightning that curved and arced around clusters of buildings. There were a lot of buildings, so each attack had to be timed. The Knight kept its heavy shield up, retreating, enduring strikes that sometimes sent him skidding back a hundred feet. Sometimes he fell with the impacts, tearing up road and toppling heel over head. Always getting his shield up and in the way before the next strike, always keeping the shield at an angle so he would be driven down and back and not purely back and away. When intervening buildings provided cover, it ran, shield over its back. Glass fell from nearby windows with every heavy footfall. Like the world wept with its passing.
Dauntless only advanced. He didn’t walk, his body more a pillar between sky and ground than a body. He flowed forward, scraped past the city, navigating a path that favored lakes and water, parks and open spaces. Some buildings fell, but the damage to the city proper was minimal, all considering. Had he been moving in a straight line, he would have caught the Knight already.
His weapon remained extended, a spear of light and lightning, with fat, bloblike sparks larger than cars dripping off of it as its energy reached capacity, then exceeded it, waiting for the next clear shot.
And the Simurgh stood on the back of his hand, now. Back straight, wings spread, hair blowing in the wind, the golden light of the weapon itself suffusing her reflective silver skin. Like she was an extension of the weapon. The cameras they were using zoomed in on her, and the image began to distort.
Someone made the call to exclusively use the camera behind Dauntless, which viewed the scene from an angle where his body mostly blocked ninety percent of the Simurgh. Only a few wing-tip feathers were visible past his arm.
There were more people in the situation room that I didn’t know, now, and far less in the way of familiar faces. Less capes, more civilians. My family had departed, and so had Vista and Narwhal. Only Cinereal remained.
I stood to the left of the door, my back to the wall, my hip resting against a protruding vent at the wall, where someone had left a coffee and a small pad of papers. My new vantage point for watching things crumble. Monitors showed the monsters and their respective journeys, with numbers in the corners going up as Teacher’s tech continued to track the threat and chance of things breaking.
My ‘new’ vantage point because I’d just moved a minute ago. I’d been standing with my right elbow touching the doorframe before. I’d moved because the monitor showing Nursery had included a new set of guests. My sister.
And I really didn’t want to look at her. Moving meant a jutting bit of ductwork blocked off most of that image.
That was reason one.
Reason two was that Darnall and Jessica stood to the right of the door. A part of me had hoped that by moving, leaving a void to my right for someone else to stand in, Jessica might approach.
Instead, they talked in low voices, unintelligible, not that I tried to listen in.
I paid more attention to the flow of the room, the degree of agitation, and the tenor of conversations that I couldn’t make out. I told myself I was being aware without being aware, existing in that state that was supposed to work with the shard space. Just in case I had to go back.
My empty fingernail bed pressed against my upper arm. It burned like it was on fire, if fire was sharp.
Pay attention to the beats that land, the moments of impact, the key elements in the flow of it all.
Tension, agitation, people writing things down, Cinereal leaning forward, taking over the comms. What little I could make out of her voice was more familiar, casual. It made me think more of me talking to a member of Breakthrough than me talking to Natalie.
My eyes went to the screens, just before they changed over. All screens now displaying different angles of the same event.
Chevalier in his new armor, black, white and gold, bearing a sword that looked similar, grown large, the blade carving a furrow in the street behind him as he ran.
As he reached an intersection, where he had more room to navigate, he hefted the sword, treating it as feather-light despite its massive scale. It batted through two traffic lights and grazed a memorial stone that lined the main street as it came forward, came down-
He vaulted, striking the ground, lifting himself up, until the cannon blade was directly below him. Both hands on the handle, one foot on the trigger-guard, he scaled up the weapon, extending its length, carrying himself up.
It couldn’t quite grow long enough to get him to where he wanted to be, but the camera showed him reaching into the handle, with a shadow-flicker surrounding him up to the shoulders, just like the kind that surrounded the distant Knight. He fell for a moment as he swung his blade overhead, cutting into a building.
That cut was his point of leverage to use the blade to carry himself to the roof of a ten-story building that hadn’t yet finished construction, blade extending, carrying him back and out, lurching slightly as he adjusted before landing on a partially finished rooftop, surrounded by yellow-painted girders and beams. Two of the three screens I could see showed him. The screen in the middle showed the Dauntless titan and its uninterrupted approach.
A shift of the image showed the speck that was Chevalier standing on the building, easier to identify by the framing of girders and beams around him than by his silhouette. And the distant ‘titan’, Dauntless.
Chevalier adjusted his grip on the blade, raising it up and away from the building it had cut, bringing it overhead to where snow swirled around it, then letting it swing down, sweeping within a foot or two of the building’s face like a pendulum blade.
Getting a grip or deciding on a course of action before he moved the blade and extended it across the street and down.
Into a parking garage. A diagonal bar across the titan’s path.
One screen to capture the two of them, with some distortion from the Simurgh’s presence in the picture, a slash of silver-white against a brassy gold and the hard, dark angles that formed the titan’s lower body. Chevalier closer to the image, yet so much smaller. His sword was large and comparatively ornate, a barrier across the four-lane road.
The entire situation room was holding its breath, as the Titan continued its advance. The distortion got worse, with heavy artifacting across the middle of the image.
Come on. Come on.
The titan continued forward until it was so large in scale that it couldn’t fully be contained within the image without zooming out so far that Chevalier wouldn’t be visible. The image remained zoomed in on Chevalier and the cannonblade.
He moved the cannonblade, lifting it, swinging it out to point at the titan. At the Simurgh.
The Endbringer took off, flying skyward.
The Titan ceased moving. After a long pause, it lowered its spear.
Chevalier reported in, saying something over the comms. His voice was almost entirely static, and only the cadence of that static suggested it was speech.
Almost understandable, in the same way an abstract painting could be understandable if one fuzzed their vision enough.
Cinereal straightened. Adjusting a few key pieces of her costume, hand touching her hair, she made her way to the door.
Which would make the people who were present and who I knew in any capacity just Jessica and Darnall.
Cinereal stopped as she saw me.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Stay put. Don’t contact your team for now,” she said. “Be patient. If what you did yesterday was dangerous, we don’t want to chase that danger. If it was useful, it’s going to be more useful after things break down than before.”
I wanted to respond to that, to counter that those weren’t mutually exclusive.
But where Narwhal was the kind of militant, no-nonsense, all-business leader who I was pretty sure would bow to better arguments, I wasn’t positive Cinereal was anything like that. Cinereal was allegedly unfair, unreasonable, in training, expectations, her lack of patience, and her propensity to hold grudges.
I kept my mouth shut, nodding instead.
She wasn’t necessarily wrong, even if I could help with both this current situation and the one that we might be dealing with later tonight.
“Pulling together a meeting with everyone in one place seems difficult,” Cinereal said. “Eric!”
Death and rebirth were on my mind so much that I felt a sudden emotional twinge at the notion that it might be my kid cousin. A bit of pain at the realization it wasn’t.
‘Eric’ was a suit, roughly my age, jacket already removed and sitting on one of the nearby chairs. Good looking, in the way that the features that weren’t classically good looking added rather than distracted. In his case, it was a pronounced roman nose that was maybe one half-size too big, with a flat bit across the bridge suggesting it had been broken once and never set right. Tan skin, brown hair with blond highlights, a light purple dress shirt, black tie with a pin, black slacks, and nice black wingtips with a bit of scuffing at the toe, like he’d kicked something or nudged a dirty door open with his foot at one point.
She didn’t take her eyes off me as she said, “Eric, look after Ms. Dallon. I have a brief set of pending questions I was going over that I’ll send to you. Run them by her. Get any final statements from her, if she has anything to add outside of the notes she gave Defiant. Transcribe them. Stay close enough that she can ask you if she wants something. Send us your notes in the next ten or fifteen.”
I glanced at him. In the process, I caught him sizing me up. Bandaged hand, scarred hand with a wavy burn along the back, traveling across my chest for a half-second too long, back up to face.
No trace of embarrassment or shame. It was so hard to put my finger on just why I held it against him when Byron had done something similar on our first meeting, but he’d glanced away. I wasn’t sure there was a strict set of rules for judging that kind of thing, only gut feeling and instinct.
And my instincts were bad. I frowned a bit. He smiled to match the frown in intensity.
“I wanted to talk to Mark Dallon, if that’s okay,” I said. And to Jessica, but… “Semi-officially. There are only two others I trust to give me a fair assessment of what’s going on over there.”
“Chris Elman is the other?” Cinereal asked, eyebrows raising.
I could have laughed, but I was pretty sure that laughing in Cinereal’s face would earn me that grudge, and I wanted to be in her good graces if it meant working with the Wardens. There were too many resources and too many people I respected tied into their group. It was too important that we share information.
“Dot,” I told her. “Amy’s goblin or imp. If the conversation earlier had gone a bit differently, I would have brought her into it.”
“I have to go, or I’d ask, so Eric will have to be the one to ask you why. We won’t be more than an hour, Antares. We’ll exchange emails and messages while traveling.”
I looked. Chevalier had retreated from his perch. Dauntless remained where he was, surrounded by tall buildings, each and every one of them smaller than him.
“Good luck,” I told her.
“I don’t believe in luck,” Cinereal told me. “We work hard to let opportunities happen.”
“Can’t argue that,” I answered, clenching my burned hand for a second, feeling how tight the skin was.
And she was gone. Back into the fray.
Leaving me with Eric.
I looked back, and saw Jessica following Cinereal out.
“I’m sorry to spring that on you, and I know it might not be my business… but it’s kind of my business?”
Didn’t make sense. Cinereal was out in the hallway, Eric was here. I was being studied, analyzed. My career, such as it was, was in the balance.
But other things mattered more.
Jessica’s expression softened, in a way that didn’t really equate to being happy nor calm. “You’re right.”
“Can we talk?”
“I’ve been asked to give access to some files, I need to find the right ones, to preserve confidentiality for the rest. I’ll be no more than ten minutes.”
And that was that.
Armstrong was gone, Jessica and Darnall were gone, Cinereal was gone, and I literally knew nobody here in the situation room.
Except for Eric, who I’d been introduced to a minute ago.
“That sounded important,” Eric said.
It sounded like none of your business. “It was, I think.”
“It’s going to be a minute before she sends me the questions I’m supposed to ask,” Eric said. He smiled. “I’m supposed to ask about Dot, your sister’s goblin. Maybe that’s a starting point.”
Not really. Talking about Amy is a really shitty start to any dialogue.
“She’s unfiltered,” I said. Keep it business. “Her views aren’t human views, neither is her perspective.”
“Really low-to-the-ground perspective, I have to imagine,” Eric said. “She’s tiny.”
Was he cracking a joke? It was hard to tell his regular smile from his joking smile.
He hadn’t won any benefits of a doubt from me. I didn’t return the smile.
“Huh? No. Alien perspective,” I said. “Where she’s coming from, where she’s going. Amy does something wrong, Dot thinks that something is interesting. Amy tries to defend that something, Dot admits it happened. You get to see behind the curtain.”
“You spend a lot of time thinking about this, huh?” Eric asked. He looked away, in the direction of the screen with the Nursery-thing and the monsters.
“I’ve had to.”
“The way you talked to your sister. A lot of history?”
“The Wardens know that part,” I said. Out of curiosity, I looked for and spotted the sticker I’d been looking at during harder conversation earlier. “If they could talk to Dot alone and keep the conversation friendly, I think she’d admit to a lot of Amy’s crimes and wrongdoing, if only because she doesn’t think of them as crimes. That’s basically it.”
“You immediately think of crimes and wrongdoing?”
I gave him a look. Meeting his eyes again, I saw him studying me. Looking at my neck, up to my face- but not in the sense that he was making eye contact. Not for a half-second there. He saw my eyes and locked eye contact again. Unflinching, unblinking, unabashed.
Like a dominance thing. Like he was trying to convey with gaze and eye contact that he wasn’t ashamed and he was proud to be looking at me or some shit.
Definitely no fucking benefit of a doubt, now. This wasn’t the fucking venue or time.
“You just seem to be looking for the worst in her.”
“Weren’t you watching?” I asked.
“I was. I listened. I heard you.”
“And you’re okay with her approach?”
“I think she could be coming from a good place, and taking a bad route to get there. She helped a lot of people with the handling of refugees, she honestly saved us by taking in the villains, because we had no place to put them. She wouldn’t be the first parahuman I’ve seen who’s… got a different perspective, as you put it.”
Was he, like, testing me? Was this a thing that Cinereal had signaled or told him before she talked to me, that it was his job to see how fragile or aggressive I was?
Or, worse, was he doing this because he believed that?
How was I supposed to even respond to that? He’d heard it all and was giving her the benefit of a doubt?
“I have to admit,” I said, measuring out my words. “I’ve thought to myself that I hope she can find some good, healthy people to be in her corner. I want us all to get through this with a minimal loss of life, and I want her to find someone who sees her perspective and can walk her through things until she’s closer to… a healthy perspective.”
An amused look crossed his face. “I’ve always prided myself on seeing things from other’s points of view.”
Okay, fuck this, fuck him.
“What’s your background, Eric?” I asked. “You’re working under Cinereal?”
“Kind of. Yeah. I have been for a month.”
“Corporate before that?”
Again, that amused look. “I’m curious why you think that.”
“Because a lot of the other options tend to take a firmer stance on things.”
“Not corporate.” More amused.
“Not PRT,” I suggested.
“No. Just a student. I work here days, spend nights studying at Nilles. I have to confess I only get a couple of hours a week where I’m not tied up, to go on dates, or do shopping that isn’t stopping in at the corner store.”
So you’re one of the people who took my spot at the University, I mused.
“If this evacuation is for keeps, you might not have a University to go back to.”
“Well,” he said. “More time for going out, doing shopping, meeting friends for a match.”
He was clearly joking, but I couldn’t find the humor in it.
How many people here thought like him? How many could brush off disaster or act like the giants, Simurgh, and Dauntless were happening to someone else? Purely things on a screen?
Was that an artifact of them not having powers? Were there other Erics in the room that never saw a battlefield as anything but something on paper or screens?
Safe in a bunker that might survive a second Gold Morning, he’d been faced with some of the worst of the worst, and he didn’t get it. He thought about my boobs. He boasted about considering Amy’s perspective in a show of self indulgence that was, given context, more vulgar than if he’d whipped out his dick and slow-wanked in front of me, while talking about his technique.
The world was going to end and he didn’t get it. He seemed to assume things would be okay, there would be lacrosse or squash or some other preppy asshole sport, and I was thinking that as someone who liked preppy, clean-cut guys.
This was humanity? I’d reached out to Jessica, I’d poured out emotions even knowing she wasn’t my therapist anymore, hoping she was a friend at the very least. And nothing.
It couldn’t be all of humanity. Gilpatrick, Natalie, Jester, Presley.
I’d told Ashley, once upon a time, that we built those relationships for our advantage, that they needed it, and through it we built something in the way of ongoing goodwill. We, if nothing else, got a strategic advantage.
Except, floundering, I wanted to reach out for them, because I needed them. I found them wanting. I found them lacking.
And I felt so fucking lonely, in that moment. I’d thought before about how isolated a cape was in the grand scheme of it all, each of us with our individual powers, but… this was more than that.
My family gone and outright alien to me. My teammates and friends, past and present, gone or dead.
Like I could reach out and… there was nobody there.
“I hope you get your match with friends after all of this is said and done,” I told him.
“So do I,” he said, chuckling, like he wasn’t vaguely offputting enough to give me an existential crisis.
“Anyway,” I said, feeling very out of place. “That’s Dot in a nutshell. But we can’t talk to her without going through the Red Queen first. Mark Dallon is a better bet for getting the down-low. I think.”
“Sure. Let’s see about arranging the call,” he said. He looked around. “Station three looks less busy.”
In the back corner of the room near where Jessica and Darnall had been standing. The same terminal that had the sticker on it that I’d been fixating on.
A guy who looked to be in his thirties was at the computer, working his way through camera feeds, selecting tracts of data and deleting them. He had a very square face and red cheeks, with black hair in a pronounced widows peak that could have been a receding hairline. His suit jacket didn’t fit him.
“Any chance we could get the console, Larue?” Eric asked.
“Is it official?” Larue asked. “I’m trying filtering algorithms with the digital noise we got. I can’t use anything that has Ziz on it. I’d really rather use this terminal than my laptop.”
“Semi-official. We won’t be too long.”
“Sure,” Larue said, smiling. “I’ll take the chance to take a break, go by the vending and coffee machines on the way back.”
“Thanks. We might take longer than that trip does.”
“I’ll manage. Want anything?”
Eric shook his head, taking the one chair as soon as Larue had vacated it.
“Antares?” Larue asked.
“No. No thanks.”
“It’d be my treat.”
I shook my head, my arms folded as I watched what Eric did. “Thanks though.”
“Thank you for what you do,” the guy said. “That conversation earlier didn’t look easy.”
“Thanks,” I said, meaning it despite my discomfort. Everyone had seen me snap, there. “Thanks for what you do, too, you know.”
“Fifteen minutes of work on a thirty second video clip that they might not even glance at or revisit,” Larue said. “Feels like busywork for the civilians, to make us feel like we’re helping, while you’re the ones in the thick of it.”
I shook my head. “You’d have to be on the same team that got the cameras out there.”
“Yup. I didn’t actually do the camera part, though. Post-process.”
“It helps,” I said. From this vantage point at the back right of the room, I could see the screen with Nursery, all the way up at the front, far left. I could see the shape that was Amy, surrounded by shuddering giants who were in the process of sprouting tree-like masses of slick flesh from their groins, greater branches showing how soft they were on impact with the ground, each limb ending in an individual ‘fruit’, curled up into fetal positions, uncurling, standing, and swelling in size by the second. Amy went to each, touching them. A spot of orange at her shoulder- that’d be Dot. I spotted Marquis. “All the individual things. Glimpses of the monsters before we have to face it for real.”
I could fly out there right now. Same portal I used to get to the fight with Damsel and Deathchester would put me close. I could go to her and I could erase her from consideration.
And I’d get in trouble. Possibly a long stay in an alternate reality. I’d get some consideration for mental stresses, probably. Darnall would testify on my behalf.
“All of us got into this business because it fascinated us,” Eric said, his attention on the text conversation with, I had to assume, Shin. “Hearing the source of that inspiration encouraging us is pretty cool.”
I wasn’t encouraging or thanking you, Eric, I thought, my expression unchanging. You haven’t earned it yet.
“Off to get coffee and a Gnarly Bar,” Larue said.
“Catch you after,” I said, smiling a bit.
Eric reached up and toward me.
I brushed his hand aside before it could make contact. My arm and hand hadn’t moved in the course of the brushing aside. I’d meant to do it and I hadn’t.
It had been a brief, natural expansion of my forcefield, a brief, natural movement of an arm that had no meat beneath the skin, no bone beneath the meat, and no and no rejiggered rat or feline DNA in blood, bone, meat, or skin. Above all, it had been a gentle touch.
I wasn’t supposed to use my powers, and I’d just used my powers.
“Uh,” Eric said, his eyes going wide, the smile falling away, the good humor gone.
“Don’t do that,” I told him. “What were you doing?”
“Trying to get your attention.”
None of that dominance now. None of the steady eye contact.
“You had it. Sudden movement in the corner of my vision? You said you were good at seeing perspectives. Please be aware of mine.”
“I- sorry,” he said.
Too defensive, I thought. Calm down.
I gripped my arms. My missing fingernail really fucking hurt.
“Was going to say, he’s with Amelia. You could try calling, but…”
I looked at the screen again.
No sign of Flashbang. Dad. Probably dad.
I felt that pang of loneliness again.
Dead silent, unmoving, I watched the screens.
I wanted to be out there, helping.
But we were being penalized for going off on our own. We’d ducked one set of arbitrary, rushed rulings for another set.
I tried to tell myself that it was the deal I’d struck with myself. That I’d cooperate, listen.
Anything else got messy, and hurt the rest of the team.
“I could ask you some of Cinereal’s questions.”
I’m not sure I could take it, I thought. I’m a bit on edge.
A little bit mega proud that I had that much control over my forcefield. It helped with the feeling of loneliness.
“Sure,” I told him.
“It’s a brief list. Question says she wanted to talk to every member of your team separately. I take it to mean I’m supposed to ask you and just you.”
“Tell me about Capricorn,” Eric said, leaning back.
“How was he, how is he?”
“This is confidential?”
“Good as,” Eric answered.
But I felt like not answering at all would be damning.
“When I first met him, he was good. Harder headed, stricter with himself and in a way, with his brother. Unavoidable. Natural hero, just thrust into a situation where someone was going to do something disagreeable. They found a middle ground and given where they started, I think that’s incredible. He’s a good leader, capable, powerful, pretty darn sensible, if aggressive, but even that aggressiveness has become something more… tempered, mature. He bypassed Goddess in a way the rest of us couldn’t. It’d be nice to have him out there. I think you guys need him out there.”
“Concerns? Critical weaknesses?”
In this moment, I could imagine Tristan feeling much like I was feeling right now.
I thought of Sveta, of the images, and the broken-up dream where she’d fallen from the decorative rock in front of the mall to the empty parking space below.
“Smart, caring, sensitive, with a nurturing side and a sense of justice you wouldn’t expect someone with the rest of her personality to have. She knew valuable stuff about this base and the raid, she knows practical stuff about Cauldron and power interactions I haven’t run into. If you need an expert on weird power-physiology interactions like…”
I gestured vaguely toward the Nursery screen with my bandaged fingers.
“…she’s the one you want. She’s lived it. She studied it, to better care for the other Case Fifty-Threes.”
“Some of those Case Fifty-Threes still hold a grudge. She’s new to her body, but you guys know that. She’s done pretty darn well, considering.”
“Precipice. Rain Frazier.”
“Tough. I’ve known capes who can take a hit. Ones with powers. Ones without. I’ve known capes who have drive to an extent that they won’t let themselves go down. With Precipice, no powers but he can take that hit, and he won’t topple, won’t fall. He fucked up, coming from a bad situation, doing something bad. He wants to make up for it enough he won’t stop or stop fighting for our side. He’s had experience dealing with and circumventing Mathers. If you’ve got a giant Mathers out there, talk to him. He doesn’t believe in himself enough.”
“He doesn’t believe in himself enough,” I repeated. Are you even listening?
“Lookout. Ms. K. Martin.”
“We don’t know enough. She gets us information. She cares. She wants to do right by society, she wants to be a heroine. She’s capable. I have the instinct you guys want to bench her, because she’s a kid and she’s been a bit off-rails. Don’t. Or if you do, bench all of us. If you bench just her then it’s going to destroy her a little. She needs the group, and that includes needing her new team. They’re good kids.”
“She stayed with you?”
“For a few nights.”
“Has she reached out in any way since you were told to avoid contact with one another?”
“Not that I’m aware.”
“What’s the worst case scenario when it comes to her?”
“That an eleven year old girl has her heart broken yet again.”
“I think they meant powerwise.”
“I don’t know. Mental breakdown, leading to her forcing people to be close to her through blackmail and coercion. Violations of privacy.”
“How likely do you see that eventuality?”
“Not very. She’d have to feel like she has nobody. I don’t think she’s anywhere near that.”
Eric nodded. He didn’t type or record that I could see. Didn’t take notes on paper.
I didn’t miss the fact Kenzie had way more questions than any of the others. Suspicion about them wanting to bench her reaffirmed.
I thought of Tattletale in the trigger dream. Scrambling to save her brother.
I knew that all of us tended to have hangups about our trigger visions. It had been part of the reason I’d asked Dean about his. I knew I would maybe forever have a pet peeve about being ignored, trampled. Movers would feel restless, tinkers would deal with anxiety. It was the way things went.
So I could extrapolate, think of that scene, and think of Tattletale and her every interaction with anyone she seemed to care about being an extension, in some small way, of that desperate and helpless struggle to save her already-deceased brother. Too late, wrestling with the blanks and question marks in the aftermath.
“I wish she was a hero,” I said.
“Can you elaborate?” Eric asked.
Still no smile on his face. Still no feigned friendliness. The forcefield had batted his hand aside, and dashed those overly friendly pretenses and leers away.
“She’s exactly what we need, in terms of information, the ability to tie disparate things together, and penetrate to the heart of things. She came last night because of her association with Kenzie’s group. She came because she wanted to know what was going on. And I’m on the same page as her there. Just about everything else, I think we disagree. I respect her, but I don’t like her or respect a lot of her actions.”
“Uh huh,” he said. “And yourself?”
I wasn’t in a good place to do a self-evaluation. I’d just sort of done one in front of Jessica, a little ways down the hall, and it had been a rambling mess, an outpouring of feelings.
And she hadn’t been receptive, so I’d said and done something stupid, hurting her and putting her on the spot.
“I want to help. When we’re this desperate, I feel like that’s all that should matter. Outside of that… I don’t think I can give you an objective self evaluation.”
“What about an un-objective one?” Eric asked. He smiled for the first time since I’d brushed his hand away.
“I feel like there’s too few people who are looking at the big picture, and it’s an actually terrible thing that my sister is one of them, and she and I are on a similar page in this. I’d like to think that everything I said about the rest of my team is true about me too. The good parts. To lesser degrees, obviously, but… even that sounds like I’m full of myself.”
Eric nodded. He turned back to the computer, and I had hopes it would be my dad. Because it’d be awfully nice to talk to my dad in this moment.
But he switched to another window, and began doing some typing. Summarizing my notes.
Looking over his shoulder seemed to be making him self conscious, and I thought about enjoying that as some eye-for-an-eye bullshit, but I didn’t want to make a bad impression. I stepped back and away, so the desk was to my right and I could only see the side edge of the monitor.
Three minutes passed, with a clack of keys, before the claustrophobic nature of the room began to get to me. The procession line of naked people had already begun. The Dauntless titan didn’t attack them.
“I’ll be outside,” I said. “Unless there’s more questions.”
“No more questions,” he said.
I wanted fresh air. I wanted to fly, to burn off energy, to breathe city air in my Earth. Bet, ideally, in a universe where it hadn’t all been ruined by Endbringers and aliens.
I settled for the catwalk at the end of the hallway, the railing near where I’d talked to Darnall and Jessica. A drop below.
I heard distant shouts and orders. A team getting organized.
In the wake of those conversations and that back and forth, I felt like I’d come close to an epiphany, a realization or an answer.
I just wasn’t sure what the question was.
In a way, I felt more secure than ever.
In another way, I felt isolated. The absence of others like a gaping wound, the stump of a missing limb.
In a way, I felt like doing something and making a concrete difference in the outcome of all of this was in arm’s reach.
In another… helpless.
If I could take the question and hold it firmly in my mind, then I felt like I could take the sum total of my feelings earlier and put them at the end, and algebra my way to a conclusion. We know this, that takes priority. Solve for X.
I wished I’d been able to talk to my dad.
A small, scared part of me worried I’d lost him forever. Because just like Byron and Tristan, Amy and I seemed to be trapped in a world where it felt like only one of us got what we wanted. Only one of us got a given parent. Only one of us got the Victoria Dallon closest to their heart.
Time passed, maybe ten minutes, my thoughts in a whirl. Moment to moment, I found myself regretting things I’d said, wishing I’d said other things, and being so frustrated I almost used my power to tear that railing out and crumple it into a ball. I could imagine punting that ball of metal railing into the wall with enough force it would embed into the hard white surface.
I have newfound power and control and they’re not letting me use it.
I want to get out there.
The railing squeaked with added weight. Battle damage from the raid on the base hadn’t been completely fixed.
“I talked to Amy Dallon, after I talked to you, the day following the attack on the community center.”
I didn’t respond, and I didn’t look.
“There are so many things I could say about that conversation. But I don’t want to get distracted. Suffice to say I told the Wardens I was worried. I felt like you were possibly right, saying she was dangerous, and I communicated that. They said they would keep a closer eye on her. The disaster with the portals and the loss of the headquarters no doubt made that difficult to impossible.”
“More pertinent to this… conversation? Confession? Is that she told me she saw herself in me. The exhaustion. The weariness, the imminent breakdown. She used her power on me-”
I whipped my head around, my eyes wide.
Jessica looked so weary, simultaneously alarmed at my alarm.
“Passively,” she said. “There’s no sign she did anything.”
I looked down, away, my heart hammering.
“Thank you for caring, though,” she said.
I swallowed hard.
“It was… a penetrating comment at a time I was undeniably overworked, overstressed, and trying to shoulder too much of a workload. It can happen, that the wrong comment at the worst time can devastate you. I’m sure you know, having dealt with Tattletale, who apparently has that as her power.”
I bit my lip, staring down at the space below the railing, the team rushing down a hallway.
“After that conversation, I cut down on my work. Delegated. I reached out, I found colleagues who were willing to help. I revisited an idea I’d had about having a guest speaker of sorts come in to talk to my therapy group. I’d brought it up with Weld before.”
“That was because of Amy?” I asked, tensing.
“In small part. I’m sorry.”
“What happened with Riley, Jessica?”
“How did you even hear about it?” she asked.
“When I visited the source of powers. I saw the… construction of Tattletale’s power. It let me see things if I asked. I asked about Amy a few times. Asked about you once.”
“Because you’re not you?” I asked, turning to face her, wounded. “Because something clearly happened, and you’re retiring?”
Jessica sighed. “What did you see?”
“Your hands around her throat. She hurt you in response. What happened with Riley?”
“After the portal incident, we were isolated. We were trapped in an alternate universe. I’d cut back on my workload prior, started to find my way back to who I used to be, old hobbies, old interests. I tried to hunt down people I knew, through the internet. The portal took me out of that frame of mind, and put me into a hostile place with exceptionally dangerous people who were, as long as everything was well, being good.”
“And it was your job to ensure it all went well?” I asked.
Jessica nodded. “I was second in command of our little group. Leader when Van- when the self-elected leader wasn’t around or when he was sleeping. There were other, more distant camps, and he’d visit them. The parahumans who had previously been prisoners or test subjects were in an isolated camp as well, about twenty minutes away from the main camp. I was in charge of that one. Making sure they were happy, keeping an eye out for danger.”
“We endured. We kept a balance. It wasn’t easy. A lot of the foods we experimented with made us violently ill. Fresh water was in short supply, we were cold, we got sick. Riley seemed to have saved us, if anything, by analyzing the food and curing the sickest of us- people I deemed so at-risk that it was unlikely she could do too much. Riley and Jamie Rinke were, to all appearances, angelic, all considered. Some reining in needed, naturally, and it took everything I had to stay on top of it all, especially with my own bouts with illness, but it worked. We’d made it out the other side.”
How does that get us from there to you strangling Bonesaw?
I didn’t butt in.
“The ‘other side’ was Valkyrie’s arrival. We talked. Everyone began to pack up, and she plotted the way back with Van. As liaison, it was my job to collect Riley and Jamie. Jamie was happy to go. Riley wanted to pack up her lab… and was resistant to my offers to help.”
“Tinkers are touchy. Little things like fingerprints can cause problems with specific tech. I have to imagine it’s the same for her work. Or was she up to something?”
“She was protective of her work in a curtained-off section of her lab. She wouldn’t let me approach, and my first thought was that we had people in more distant camps who had struck out on their own. Some parahumans, one couple, a jolly fellow who fancied himself a survivalist and who was taking an optimistic view of the situation. He would stop in every day or two, and he hadn’t stopped in for two days. We sent out people to get in touch with him after Valkyrie’s arrival, and they couldn’t find his camp.”
“Worrying,” I echoed the sentiment in her words.
“Terrifying. Crushing. Riley adopted her ‘Bonesaw’ persona, acting younger than she appeared- and with the surgeries she subjected herself to, she’ll never appear older than twelve. Laughing off my questions, being furtive.”
Another superhero team was running down the hall, far below us.
Jessica didn’t elaborate, didn’t explain the whole business.
For a moment, I was terrified that was it. I was left to draw the worst conclusion.
“She was my responsibility. I can say what I might say about workload, stress, the inherent difficulties of that situation, but I could have and should have kept more of an eye on her. The burden of guilt was on me more than it was on one very ill and traumatized young woman in a new and difficult situation.”
“That’s not being fair to yourself.”
“Maybe not,” Jessica said. “But that was what I felt in that moment. In working with people with criminal inclinations, part of my job is to protect society, and working with five people with powers, only two a real and present concern, I’d failed to protect a tiny, primitive microcosm of society. I got angry. Desperate. I tried to make her show me. And somewhere in the midst of it, she lashed out, I grabbed her, or the other way around.”
“Are you okay?”
“She dug her fingers into my arm,” Jessica touched her sleeve. “And used contacts on her nails to manipulate my nerves, trying to make my arm turn against me. Tensed muscles until they tore from bone. I still don’t have the strength I did, I still have constant pain, and that may be a reminder of my lowest moment, furthest from the person I wanted to be.”
I had a half-dozen questions I wanted to ask, but there was no perfect order.
“Was it? Had she done something?” I asked.
Jessica shook her head. “Everyone accounted for. Everyone checked over. Nothing questionable. If I had to guess, she was protective of her work because it was all she had to show for the prior timeframe and as you say, it was fragile. I’ve gone over that conversation a thousand times in my head, since, and I think she might have misread my tone, or misread my impatience as my wanting her to leave it behind.”
“And Bonesaw?” I asked, quiet. “Is she okay?”
“Riley is Riley, Victoria. Physically? Even with nearly every bit of her technology removed from her body, I don’t think there’s much someone could do to her with physical wounds that would last.”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that.
“Mentally? Emotionally?” Jessica asked. “She asked to stay. Valkyrie tried to convince her. They struck a deal that Valkyrie would visit now and then. She was ashamed she hurt me like she did.”
“I think she’s more experienced than most when it comes to enduring betrayals and being hurt by people close to her. But that makes it more of a betrayal that I perpetrated, Victoria. Not less. More of a wrong.”
And in the doing, I thought, because there was no way in hell I’d say it out loud, you proved my sister right? Tired, sick, desperate and scared, you perpetrated what you see as an unforgivable betrayal?
“I can’t support or help anyone until I relearn how to support and help myself,” she told me. “I know you want and need me to be my old self, but I need to rediscover her, first. For myself first, then for others. If that’s even possible.”
Something about her tone at the end there made me look at her, study her.
“Did you trigger?” I asked.
She didn’t move a hair.
“Because I know your policies, and I can imagine you’d be the type to suppress it, do what retired capes are doing, pretending you don’t have powers, that a purely civilian life is possible, but-”
“Victoria,” she interrupted me.
She shook her head at me, before dropping her gaze to the crowds below us.
And hopes were dashed. Jessica was out of reach.
“I’m sorry that happened, Jessica.”
“So am I.”
My screen glowed with the text message from the Wardens, in the second before I drew a circle, radiating out to another application, which showed a map of the Headquarters. Once Cauldron’s, then Teacher’s, now the Wardens’.
I found the coordinates and the room.
Had a small crisis of confidence.
The door opened.
Black hair, thick and long, tied back. One eye half-lidded, due to injury or birth defect. He wore a gray marled long-sleeve t-shirt and sleep pants. I liked the way he wore both of those things.
“Anelace,” I said.
He studied me, glancing past me to see if my team or anyone else was there.
“Problem?” he asked.
I shook my head.
“What’s going on?”
I looked off to the side, thumbs hooked in belt loops. “You’ve… given me hints before. That you’re interested.”
“Blatant ones. Yeah. Why?”
“I’m interested. You and me, no strings attached, you let me lead. We go our separate ways after, stay friendly.”
I told myself I wasn’t going to fidget, but my thumb plucked at my belt loop.
He stared into my eyes, brows creasing. “For real?”
“Yeah. And if you say no, I’d appreciate we just forgot I made this offer.”
I’d told myself I wasn’t going to say that either. My thumb plucked at my belt loop again.
“If you’d rather sleep, I know you finished patrol a bit ago.”
And that. Damn it.
“No,” he said, negating. He looked at me. “Yeah. Yes.”
I started forward. He put a hand out, flat to my stomach.
I remained where I was, frozen, tense, nervous.
“Boundaries?” he asked. “Or better yet, why?”
I could have lied, or come up with reasons.
“I don’t want to be alone right now. I want to be the opposite of alone.”
“Okay, then. That’s why,” he said, and his voice was breathy. My hair stood on end. His hand was still flat against my stomach. “Boundaries? Rules? How do we go about this?”
“No talking?” I ventured. “That’s easier. Talking leads to thinking and I don’t want to think for the next… thirty minutes.”
“That’s harder. There’s stuff to figure out partway, there’s questions, do you want… vigorous? Rough? Gentle? Also, holy shit, thirty minutes.”
“Gentle,” I said, barely a whisper. “It’s okay if thirty minutes is a big ask. Skin to skin contact. Tender. Anything that’s…”
“Not alone?” he asked.
My heart was hammering. I was terrified. A whole morass of dark thoughts lurked near the back of my brain, but that other drive won over. At least in this context.
“I don’t have protection,” he said.
“I do. Grabbed some on the way over. For what it’s worth, it’s been… years. I’ve had checkups since then.”
“I’ve been checked up since,” he echoed me.
He stepped out of the doorway. Inviting me into the dim room. There wasn’t wall art, but he did have a plant, something like a bonsai, and rocks. There were some books on the bookshelf, but almost none were sitting up the right way, and most were lying on their side like bricks or stacked up into towers, to make more use of the space.
He couldn’t have even been here that long. Curious, that he’d bring a plant and rocks to a barracks-style dormitory room.
“My boundary,” He whispered.
“I have neighbors.”
“I figured,” I whispered. “No noise above a whisper.”
My phone was warm in my pocket, the text one gesture away. Message from the Wardens, verdict reached. Capricorn, good to go. Sveta, good to go. Precipice, a-ok. Lookout, cleared provided there was supervision. She would have access to her tech. No word on Tattletale, but that hardly mattered.
Antares: benched. Stay nearby, await further instructions.
Anelace began to remove his long-sleeved shirt. I stopped him.
Silent, his forearms still crossed, hands still at the bottom of his shirt, his abdomen partially exposed.
I pushed his hands away, stepping close enough our chests touched. No doubt he could feel my heartbeat.
“I want to undress you,” I told him.
“Let me lead? Every step of the way?” I asked again. “Please?”
“Even for stuff like this?”
I’d compared the situation room to a shoebox in the midst of a tomb of concrete. This dorm room was a tenth the size, so small I could reach across it and touch two separate walls. A bed, shelves, a cabinet.
Two of us, a bit of light, and what felt like a whole world of dark thoughts in the space beyond, like the situation room had had its concrete.
But he was warm. I kissed him, and it felt both warm and sad.
It helped with that lonely feeling without really solving it.
I pulled off his shirt and I pulled off my sweater. He stood there, breathing in deep, looking at me, and I breathed that in. Being wanted.
I thought without thinking about anything, my brain a febrile buzz.
I couldn’t reach out. Every resource or ally I had was tied up or gone. I wasn’t supposed to contact my team, my parents weren’t supports, the Warden leadership had its concerns and even Jessica wasn’t available. I had an appointment with Darnall for later but that did nothing at all for now.
It made me feel isolated, lost, and cold.
So I held onto another warm, willing body, kissing it, pressing it down onto a cot barely big enough for one person.
The approach we were taking as a collective felt wrong. I’d tried to articulate what I wanted, what I thought we should do. I’d tried to pursue that, going to where the powers came from.
I had suspicions, but no energy or wherewithal to pursue them. I wanted to be out there, chasing that gut feeling that had been nettling me. But I couldn’t. To do so would be a betrayal on several levels.
It didn’t feel right, but I’d concede to the greater authority.
Base, animal instinct, much neglected, at least, felt kind of right. It was hard to call it wrong, at least, when it was so far from morality or black and white thinking.
I tasted his skin, his sweat, and I smelled him. He smelled like herbal tea. I touched the expanse of him and I looked at him in the dim. Between tasting him and smelling him, nuzzling him, my face wasn’t more than a half inch from him at any point. His hair tickled me and mine no doubt tickled him.
I felt the chase of other thoughts, familiar and wrong, and sank deeper into mindless sensation to escape them. Drank in the small male sounds.
We hadn’t even taken off our pants yet. Not that the flannel he wore was a real barrier to me feeling him.
I was benched. We’d submitted to higher authority because we’d told ourselves it got us more than it cost us. And in the now, the rule was that Victoria Dallon didn’t leave until there were further discussions.
That was the law, so to speak. Closest we had to one.
Follow the law, when that fails, do what feels right. When that fails, reach out.
Above all else, avoid doing what I might regret tomorrow.
I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this tomorrow, but I felt like I might regret it. Opening doors, opening the way to being chased by thoughts I didn’t even dare come close to. The awkwardness. Feeling like I was betraying Dean. Feeling like it might hurt my reputation. A hundred other small reasons, and prime among them was the concern that I felt like if I wasn’t careful, I could shed tears. I had no idea if they were happy ones or sad ones.
But that regret was for tomorrow.
He made a noise, just loud enough it might disturb the neighbors. I silenced him by kissing him, taking his hands and putting them where I wanted them, before raising my pelvis so I’d have access to my belt.
This was what I needed now.
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