Heavens – 12.1

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The red and blue lights from the police cars and the red lights from ambulances lit up the courtyard of the University, with multiple vehicles parked on the broad, normally pedestrian-only walkway.  The lights were inconstant, ambulance and police cars flashing at a slightly different rate, so they desynchronized, creating a strobe pattern, then resynced.

No noise.  Only darkness and the lights.

There were students gathering around the edges.  Some of my mom and dad’s teammates were keeping the perimeter clear.  I could see people in pyjama pants, wearing boots, hats and coats, and others with bags of fast food or supplies bought from on-campus stores who had forgotten about their now-cooling meals.  They had to know it was bad.  Superheroes covered in blood.

In another course of events, I might have been among them.  And then- then what?  Would I be stepping forward, volunteering help and expertise, touting my time with the Patrol block?  In that timeline, would I have made headway against the nightmares and the loathing of my own skin?  Had I made headway against the nightmares and the discomfort with skin that wasn’t human and hadn’t come from humans?  I hadn’t vanquished my demons.  I’d just… scared her away.  She was some other Earth’s concern now.

Now there were more demons.  Cradle.  Love Lost.  March.

No scaring them away.  That wasn’t how this ended.

Alone, I wasn’t sure where I stood.  A few things figured out.  That I couldn’t be just the Warrior Monk, or just the Scholar.  But I wasn’t alone, and that was maybe the biggest difference.  Not necessarily all for the better, but still a big difference.  I had backup, and I had distractions.  People I could dwell on instead of myself.  We were all fueled by different things, and I was fueled by dwelling on others.

Yeah, not all for the better.  Lookout was seriously hurt for the second time in a matter of days, an ambulance picking her up.  I’d started all of this because I’d wanted to help Ms. Yamada, and given that I’d been unable to reach her on my phone but I’d been successful in at least reaching her answering machine with a stranger’s, I was pretty sure she had blocked my number.

Capricorn emerged from the building, one hand on his helmet as he adjusted the fit.  No cloth layer beneath like Tristan had switched to.

Rachel followed.  Her dogs were small now.  A chihuahua with bulging eyes and a spine malformation was in the lead, bouncing ahead, stopping as she whistled to rein it back.  The other two were a jowly hunting hound, and a husky.

No, not a husky.  Damn, that was spooky to see.

As they stepped outside, the dogs were made to sit.  I saw the changes begin, with the chihuahua bouncing up excited as it started, Rachel making it sit again.  With the intermittent darkness as the emergency lights flashed, it didn’t look like a gradual change, but one of fits and starts.

She more or less ignored Byron and I as she handled the dogs.

Probably for the best.

Rain emerged in the company of Chastity and Cassie, Rachel’s henchman. Rain was holding the destroyed whip segments, while Chastity held her arm out for him to poke at.  She still wore the arm that Love Lost had made.  Cassie observed from the side.

A mismatched set.   Precipice was in costume, his mask and the mechanical right arm bearing the circuit board pattern in a glowing blue, his costume modified from a winter coat with a hood.  Chastity was wearing nice clothes and a coat that looked like she’d had to go to Paris or New York to find a store upscale enough.   Cassie in a bomber jacket with patches and badges on the sleeves, some looking like they were there to mend rips or tears.  The hair that stuck out beneath the hat with earflaps was longer in the front than in the back, in a way that made me think her hair had gotten too long and she had just gathered it all up into a single ponytail and then cut it off.

It put Rachel’s comments to Candy about the long hair in another light.  What was it like to even be Rachel’s henchperson?

But she got along with Chastity.  Since they’d reunited, they had been together at every opportunity, breaking apart only because of the serious fighting and the differing modes of transportation.

The hound was tall enough that it could stick its nose into Cassie’s face without rising from its sitting position, licking her with a tongue that looked more like a braid of three tongues than a single one.  Armor plating was already sprouting, and skin was splitting to show muscle that would potentially wrap up and around without much rhyme or reason, only maintaining the rough shape of a dog.

“Sveta?” Rain asked.

I pointed skyward.  Rain turned on the spot, craning the circuit-board masked face up as he looked to the rooftop.  Sveta’s face was just barely visible.

He extended a hand, and the face bobbed in a motion that was too fluid and extended to be called a nod.  For me to emulate it, I would have had to use flight or have my head sink into my chest cavity.

I’d tried to fly up to Sveta on exiting, to talk about the route she could take that didn’t risk contact with any rubbernecking college students.  She’d asked me to go.  Her control was better after Rain’s ministrations, I had some protection, but she hadn’t wanted me near.

Mourning.  Grieving her lost body.

Now Rain was using his power again.

“Please tell me that you can figure out something about their location from the broken pieces of the whip,” I told Rain.  “Or the glyphs Tattletale drew, or- anything?”

“Love Lost was inspired by the body part severing whip when she designed her whip-claws,” Rain said.  “The groundwork’s there, but not the implementation.  Not the… energy source, for lack of a better term.  The nucleus.”

“But she was going in that direction?”

“Yeah.  Seems like.”

“Fuck her then,” I said.

Yeah,” Rain responded, with some fierceness I didn’t tend to hear in him.  Some of the others nodded.  Chastity.  Rachel.  Byron.

“Any luck de-scrambling the signal?”

Rain shook his head.  “Lookout’s looking, but I don’t think this is her specialty.”

“She’s busy with the doctors now,” I said, quiet.  “I was hoping we’d have more to go on.”

“We have enough,” Rachel said.  “They got enough blood on them that my dogs can follow.”

“Good,” I said.

“Almost grown,” she said, indicating her dogs.  “We good to go?”

“In a sec,” I said.  “We’re missing people.”

It took another minute for our missing people to show.

Ashley, limping on her peg leg, with one of Rain’s miniature arms wound around it, the hand touching the ground, not as a foot, because it couldn’t bear any weight, but as a way of getting some sensory input.  She didn’t bring Lookout with her, which was probably for the best.  Natalie would look after Lookout, Darlene, and Chicken.  It would be Natalie’s call, based on how Lookout was doing, whether Lookout would be talking to us on comms.

My parents might’ve arrived before Ashley did, but they hung back a touch as Ashley caught up with us, my hand going to her shoulder to steady her, Rain immediately checking on the hand attachment.  I glanced back at them.  I saw Foil join them.  The last of our group.

“How is Lookout?” Byron asked.

“Upset.”

“Relatively?” Byron asked.  “Putting the situation aside?”

“Very upset,” Ashley said.  She looked at me.  “My sister wants to know where we’re going.  She’s with the two Citrine recommended.  They’re traveling west from our place.”

“We’ll let her know as soon as we have an idea,” I said.

Ashley nodded.

My parents approached.  Foil went to stand by Rain.

“Hello again, Rachel,” my mother said.

“We’ve met?”

“You’ve met,” Chastity said.  “We’ve met.”

“Briefly, before I took a break from things,” my mom said.

“Are we going?” Rachel asked, gruff, impatient.

“We have a vehicle,” my dad said.  No longer in ‘dad’ mode.  Not in looking-after-hurt-kids mode, or his speak-softly-so-civilians-don’t-get-intimidated mode.  Superhero mode.  “Who’s in?”

Straight to business.  We had a clock, and none of us were particularly interested in wasting time.

“We have the armored van, too,” Foil said.  “Beat up, no airbag, villains unloaded from the back and passed into cape custody.”

“Good,” I said.

“Do you want to ride with me?” Cassie asked Chastity.

“Shouldn’t.  As much as I want to, after the last crash, I’m not dressed for a ride.”

“Precipice?” Cassie asked.  Very casual, pointed.

I’d caught a glimpse earlier, while Precipice worked with Sveta.  Sitting at the end of the hallway, Chastity had traded off with Cassie so she could look after her sisters and ‘cousins’.  Precipice had had his hood down and mask off while talking to the henchwoman.

“He shouldn’t,” Chastity said, before I could say anything.  “He has tech to look after.”

“Or driving,” I said.  “He handled the drive well earlier.”

“Another time,” Rain told Chastity.

The teams split up between vehicles.  Rachel mounted the hound, while henchwoman Cassie found a seat on the wolf’s back.

The dogs were on the main road before the armored van and my dad’s truck were out of the parking lot.  The two vehicles followed, and I watched to make sure that Sveta had caught up.  She situated herself on top of the van.

I’d reclaimed my earbuds, and my phone was fully charged.  I began dialing a group call.  I was maybe the only person present in a position to address everyone.

“Speaker?” I asked, as my mother joined the conversation.

“You’re on speaker phone.”

“Dad?” I asked.  He was in his truck with Foil and Chastity.

“Yeah.  Don’t use this much, had to find the button.”

“Rachel, Cassie, you can hear me?”

I got a nod from Rachel.  Cassie looked to be mostly dealing with staying mounted on the wolf, which was a tougher ride.

“Sveta?”

I saw Sveta nod her head.

“Okay.  The members of this cluster pass out at a set time every night to rearrange their powers and the strength of those powers, dream, and communicate.  This is our time window to do something.  That’s the good.  We have resources.”

“So do they,” I heard Rain.

“They have resources too, yeah.  That’s the bad.  They have mercenaries hired and contingencies planned, and they have our teammates’ body parts held hostage.  We have to keep in mind that he knows we know about the time window.  Anticipate that he’ll have guards, mercenaries, hirelings, traps, deceptions… Love Lost had some nasty traps at her hideout.”

“They’ll have eyes on the roads,” Foil said, through the phone.

“They will.  Lookouts, people watching their rear and flanks while they get where they’re going,” I said for the benefit of Rachel and Cassie.

“I’ll get off the main road.  I may come back to give ’em a sniff,” Rachel reported.

“Rachel’s going to try to stay more out of sight,” I said.  “Can you roll down the window of the van, Foil, and make sure Sveta can hear?  I’m going to stick with her right now.”

“I’d rather not roll it down,” I heard Sveta, distant.

“Belay-”

But the window was rolled down.

Sveta was perched on top, and as she was, she was as in control of that body as I’d seen maybe three times ever.

“Do you want the windows rolled-”

I saw her shake her head.

Foil left the window open, and Sveta hung near the top of the van.  Rachel was starting to peel away, her dogs running now in places where a lookout wouldn’t immediately spot them and identify a telltale sign of Undersider or Undersider-Breakthrough action.

Helps that there aren’t headlights on the dogs.  We’d be spotted a mile away. 

On reflection, it was patently insane that they were traveling as fast as they were with no headlights.

I followed Rachel and the dogs as they left the road, running through the fields to the side, where no streetlights shone.  I kept the Wretch active while flying out of reach of them.

“They have hostages.  We can’t charge in.  We can’t make noise.  Swansong, Damsel, and Rachel are our biggest, noisiest attackers.  Capricorn, Flashbang and me are a step down.  We have more ability to be quiet.  This is a covert mission until we get a better sense of where the hostages are and what measures we’re up against.”

“I can be quiet,” Rachel said.

“Rachel says she can be quiet.”

Swansong chimed in, “I spent years on my own, every bite of food I ate and every piece of clothing I wore was a result of me being stealthy.”

“It’s-” I started.  Damn it.  “Yes.  Absolutely.  If our covert group needs a distraction, though, you’re best at making a lot of noise.  Then you can use that stealth to slip away.”

“That got you a sigh and a nod from Swansong, for the record,” Byron relayed.

Rachel was silent, face hidden thoroughly by her winter wear.  Unreadable.  I couldn’t tell if she was listening and unhappy about it or if she wasn’t listening and was happy at the prospect of imminent trouble.

“So we’re all on the same page: the go-ahead to kill,” I said it into the phone.

I let those words hang.  Weighty ones.

“Kill who?” I heard Swansong.  “Specifically.”

“It wasn’t specific.  Love Lost, Cradle, and March, for sure, but anyone who’s aiding and abetting.  Obviously this doesn’t include people who don’t necessarily know.  I think it was a surprise for Lord of Loss and Nursery.  Mayor says yes, for all that counts.  Lawyer-”

I had to remember my mom was present.  How to relay the tacit permission without throwing a wrench into Natalie’s professional life?

“-Talked to me,” my mother said.  “She won’t tell you yes, but today she isn’t telling you no, either.  I think that’s as close as you’re going to get.”

Essentially my take on it.

“That’s where we stand,” I said.  “They’re planning to delay, so be ready for any master-stranger stuff that might tie us up or obstruct us.”

“Protocols?” Byron asked.

“At the first excuse, yes.  But only then.  Otherwise it slows us down.”

“Can’t get a nose on the scent with the wind!” Rachel raised her voice.  “Going to the road!”

I started flying in that direction, to stay in earshot and to signal my acknowledgement.

The dogs reached the road, running alongside.  One ran with nose almost to the ground, a precarious kind of stampede forward, when it couldn’t look firmly in the direction it was running.  The wolf and Cassie took up a position head, clearing the path.

I felt bad for the cars that were on the road tonight, seeing this sight.  The dogs, even though they were on my side, were objectively things of nightmare.

I heard Rachel whistle.  The dogs peeled off once again, away from the road, away from everything, so they ran through places where tent cities had stood and where trees had been cleared but only skeletons of buildings stood.  A wilderness of the interrupted urban.

She was saying something.

“-ent North.”

“They headed North?” I asked.

“This way!” Cassie shouted, pointing.

“Turn north,” I told people on the phones, as I flew straight up to get a view of what was involved.  I could see the headlights of cars that weren’t going anywhere.  “It looks like one of the portals to Earth N!  Be wary!  Company parked up further ahead!”

Earth N.  Lord of Loss’s Earth.  It had been Marquis, before Marquis had vacated.  Deader and Goner had controlled territory there too, off of one of the portals.    An Earth of a dozen corners, where the settlements were spread out and hard to reach, so a bunch of the ‘corner worlds’ were on the same Earth.  Which in reality made sense, when so much vetting had been necessary, to watch for invasive species, disease, and hazards.

We’d been once before, when looking for the culprits of the portal attacks.  We’d found Earth Cheit’s people camped out there.

Now?  Now it was a different kind of problem.  It was where the villains had retreated to, for the most part, since Hollow Point and similar locations had failed.

And right now, the villains were pushing the limits, rebelling hard against the idea that heroes finally be asserting proper authority again.  Rebelling somewhat more understandably at the idea that if people were a real problem, we might have to incarcerate them and not let anyone know where, lest we run into another fiasco like we did with the prison.

Bluestocking, Prancer, smaller villains, bigger villains…

None of the above.  I was a dark form flying through the dark, and no lights touched me.  Nobody looked up.  I could scout their number, look for familiar faces, and get the lay of the land.

It was as though they’d sensed that we’d be coming at them angry and willing to cross lines.  There were humans gathered around the parked cars, and cars situated so they blocked the access to the portal.

“Headlights off,” I said, through the phone.  “Stop if you can see them parked ahead.”

I had a position to see the truck and van park.  Nobody among the cars seemed to notice.

Rachel, Cassie and I joined the others, parked in the darkness, looking at eight cars with at least fifteen people gathered.  Two of those eight cars blocked the entrance to the building where the access to Earth N was.

On the building itself, more people were gathered.  People-mounted spotlights swept over the field and the road, but didn’t reach far enough to illuminate us.  There were more than fifteen people in or on the building itself, and that was just the ones I could see in plain sight through windows and on the roof.   They were armed.  Rifles.  Not a police, patrol, or station employee’s uniform in sight.

They’d taken the station and now they guarded it.

Everyone was climbing out or half-climbing out of the vehicles to get a view of what we were up against.  I saw Sveta’s pale face in the woods off to the side.

“People we can deal with,” Ashley said.

“We have to deal with them without immediately sounding the alarms,” Byron pointed out.  “Which is awkward, because that’s a lot, and they look organized.”

“Cell phones don’t tend to work across dimensional portals,” I said.  “In a theoretical world where we could get in and block off anyone from getting through the portal to notify the other side, we could hit this place pretty hard and still remain covert.”

“Could flood it, turn it to stone before the flooding gets to the other side,” Byron said.

My mother was hanging back, staying quiet.  My dad looked pensive.

“Thoughts?” I asked.

My mom answered me.  “I think you know what the answer is.  Time is short.  Are you asking because you want to be fair and maintain the team equilibrium, or because you really do need the advice?”

Which had a faint tone like, if I needed the advice, I’d failed somehow.

“Because every bit of feedback is an opportunity to do what comes next better.”

“They got away.  This is where they went.  Every minute that passes, they’re either getting where they’re going or they’re already there and they’re laying traps, organizing their people, or getting ready.  Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.”

Just hearing that last line made my hackles raise.  I hated that line, because it seemed to always be paired crosswise with ‘you can always do it better’.

My mom seemed to sense the raised hackles, because her expression softened.  “You know the team and team dynamic better.”

I looked to my dad for backup.  But my dad wasn’t my dad right now.

“Do you remember the engagement patterns we used to drill on?” Flashbang asked.

“Of course,” I said.

“It would be nice to get some use out of those again.”

“I’m noticing you’re saying engagement.  You want to blitz,” I said.  And mom’s implying I want to blitz.  “Any objection to hitting them and wiping them out before anything else?”

Some shaken heads, some silence that wasn’t uncomfortable or damning by my best estimation.

“Chastity, Capricorn, with us.  Stick by Flashbang.  Precipice, Swansong, guard Cassie and the vehicles.  If we run into a wall, you’re our backup.  Swansong can punch through powers, minions, anything we can’t seem to stop, Precipice can punch through obstacles.”

Precipice turned to look at the situation.  A long straight road with woods on one side and field on the other, cars sitting with engines running and headlights illuminating tracts of land.”I have to be there to hit stuff.  If you’re in there and you run into trouble-”

“We’ll signal.  You’re sticking by the truck for a reason.  Cassie can get you in and Cassie can get you away.”

He nodded.

“Rachel?  Hold the flanks.  There might be people coming from down the road.  Once we signal, bring everyone that’s not inside back in.”

I saw the frown on her face.

“We’ve got a team going right for the heart of this place.  Number one thing, we stop them from reaching the people on the far side.  Then we clean up from the inside out.  You guys handle the outside in.  Yes?”

“Mm,” she grunted.

Great.  Great communication.

“Sveta, I know you don’t want to go inside while you’re unsuited, so just help from the flanks, follow our rear.  I’ll try to stay in communication.  When we get through, we’ll bring you across.”

“I’ll do what I can,” I heard her say.  A voice like the one she’d used in the hospital.  “I want to try this but I’m really afraid it’s not going to work.  A lot of things didn’t.”

“Really truly, just knowing you have our back matters,” I said.

I saw her nod.  I wasn’t sure she believed me.

“We don’t have long,” Rain said.

I nodded.

“Dominoes,” I told my parents.  “Capricorn, Chastity, with us.  Be ready to run.  Rest of you, spread out.  Capricorn?  Give yourself a water gun further down there.  We’ll need it to reload.”

“Reload?”

“You’ll see.”

They did.

“Small, small, empty,” my dad said, creating his energy orbs.  Hard light around a swirl of energy.  He tossed them to my mom.

She shifted into her hard, indestructible sphere form, and I snatched her out of the air with one arm before she could hit the ground.

Run!” I gave the order.  My dad ushered the two forward, Capricorn’s armor making metal on metal sounds in tune with heavy footsteps, Chastity far lighter.

I flew, Brandish tucked under one arm, a large sphere.

With a bit of Wretch strength, I hurled the sphere.  It crashed into the two guys on guard duty, I landed, and I kicked it, channeling about seven years of active frustration with the maternal unit into the kick.

It lost a lot of momentum by the time it struck any of the people on duty.  I remembered talking to Lord of Loss’s men about how his people were recruited.  Were these among them?

The ‘ball’ that was my mother was an indestructible projectile.  I kept it moving, a prelude to my own arrivals, as I plunged into each group in turn.

At the station housing the more discreet portal to Earth N, they’d noticed.  People were running, some had guns and were getting to cover.  Others were heading inside.

We only had seconds to get a grip on this.  Which meant-

“Hit ’em!”

I kicked the ball hard, full Wretch strength.  She flew through the air and collided with the lip of the roof, tearing into it.

In a flash, she was Brandish again.  Her one arm swept out, hurling a sphere.

The detonation was small.  Bright, with impact but no heat and no fire.  There was a ‘whump’ and a shockwave that scattered snow and dust, with multiple people sent sprawling.  A second toss, with much the same effect, but it included some of the people who were getting to their feet too quickly, and it sent them tumbling, with some frantic movements to avoid falling off the roof.  Not that here was a great chance, given the short lip around the perimeter, dotted with cornices that hid the places where the prefab building had been put together.

The third toss landed in the midst of another group, who scrambled away.  She lunged into and past the sphere that hit the ground, catching one guy.

I took my cue, going after the remainder.  Two people close enough together that I could land beside them, driving my elbow down into one’s shoulder, grabbing the other by the back of the hood and, pausing as I delivered the elbow-strike, heaved them forward and face-down into the surface of the roof.

To the side, the ‘grenade’ burst into a sputter of bubbles.  A fizzle.

Brandish was already twisting around, her weapon across his neck.  They sank down, and the weapon followed them, the tip searing into and through the cornice beside the man.

“Radio,” she said.  “Walkie talkie?  Now!

He reached for his coat.  She beat him to it, reaching inside the open coat, and pulled out the walkie talkie.

“You will tell them it’s a trap.  Tell them to freeze, and make them believe it!  They are not to call anyone, they aren’t to pass through!”

“I-”

She moved the sword, singing beard-hairs.

“Fuck!”  He fumbled for the walkie-talkie.  Again, she beat him to it.  Making everything fast and fluid as he followed instructions.  “Do not go through!  Your lives depend on it!  Find a safe place and remain where you are!  The portals-”

I reached out, covering the mouthpiece.  “The portals are unstable.”

“The shrinkage,” he said, through the walkie talkie.  “They think it’s what happened before the other ones went bonkers.  No passage, no signals through!  Stay put or evac!”

Hopefully that would do.

I had to leave the cleanup to the others.

“Gun?” my mother asked.

“In my belt.  At the back.  I dropped my rifle,” the man said.

She reached around  behind him, got his gun, and slid it into her belt.

“Reload,” she told me.

“Yeah.  Go with the others.  I’m diving in.”

She turned into a sphere.  I grabbed it and hurled it toward my dad.  Again, distance and air resistance ate into the forward momentum, even with the Wretch active.  My dad, Byron and Chastity had paused by the constellation Byron had drawn out.

My dad caught my mom out of the air.  Those days in the gym hadn’t been for nothing.  When she changed back, she was in his arms, her face close to his.

Dorky, lame, embarrassing.

And I resented it, for reasons I couldn’t put my finger on.  Dorky, lame, embarrassing, and I couldn’t have gotten more of this?  Or it couldn’t have extended into things that weren’t shock-and-aweing a bunch of desperate assholes who were willing to work for a villain for a chance at the good life?

I couldn’t stay to watch, as much as Dr. Darnall might have asked me to think it out.  I pushed the guy I was holding with my aura, ratcheting up the panic.  “Who do you work for?”

“Uh-um!”

“Fast answer!”

God I hated how I sounded like my mom had sounded in that instant.

“Lord of Loss.  But we’re being hired out to someone else.  Love Lost.”

“You know he’s a lunatic.  You know she’s violent and she works with killers under her.”

I saw him shake his head, frantic, jarred by my aura.

Then the fleeting admission.

I grabbed him, bringing him closer to the edge.  Was there an angle I could throw him and a place I could put him where he wouldn’t die on impact?

And a tendril grabbed him.

Seizing him, then depositing him firmly in a snowbank.

“Good one!” I shouted.  No time or breath to waste.  But that had saved me the time it would have taken to deposit him down there.

I flew around in a sideways arc, diving for a side window.  That put me inside the building.  Once the Wretch was active again, I plunged through the floor.  There were people with guns, and I flew into each of them.

I knew the general layouts of the stations.  I’d visited more than a few.

Punching through obstacles and walls put me in the center area between all the terminals, past the initial gates.  Staff had already cleared out.  I could hear the noise outside, powers being used.  Chastity’s voice.

A voice crackled over the walkie-talkie.  “Can we get a confirm?  When are we good to proceed?  Hello?

Couldn’t let them proceed.

I left the rear group to handle the doors and the people we’d scattered.  My goal- the portal itself.  I flew down and through, knocking down metal gates that should have been open.

There were people making a break for it, and I dealt with them.  I helped them down the stairs, in the most debilitating way possible.

I heard the slap of Sveta behind me.  I heard the bang at the door.  Ashley’s power.  I spun in the air, caught only a glimse of a door with a silver line on it, Ashley with her good foot out, arms behind her.  As part of that scene, I saw  a massive collection of tendrils, with Sveta’s face at the center of them all, her expression focused, her face not as traced or marred by the tendrils reaching across it.  Nothing at eyelids or nostril, nothing at the corner of her mouth, pulling because it acted instinctually.

The cape geek in me wanted to rattle through all of the ways that could have happened.  The Sechen Ranges, or the fact she was pissed, that anxiety fed into itself and she was so distracted by reality that the cycle had been interrupted.

But she was with me.  No suit, no middle ground.  I had the Wretch and I felt the tentacles touch it, leveraging it.

How confident was she, to transition from ‘I don’t want anyone near me’ to ‘I can be this close to a variable scenario’?

“Can you grab the Brandish-ball?” I asked.

“Yes,” was the whisper.

Hearing the whisper, knowing my friend, I got it.  Sveta turned away, head down low while tendrils reached up.

I felt a pang of sympathy, but I couldn’t afford to act on it.

And at the station platform itself, was the irregular shape of the portal, a three-dimensional hole in reality.  A few dozen people were gathered.  Stuff had been unloaded, including food and munitions.  Intending a longer stay.

The deeper recesses of the station.  They were talking, unaware of the commotion above.  Trying to figure out what they were doing.  They had a boss and that boss wasn’t on site.  Love Lost had been brought in, and Cradle wouldn’t be here.  Not so close to the deadline.

They’re just obstacles and an early warning system.

As I arrived, Sveta delivered the Brandish-Ball, whipping it down hard.   Water flowed down from upstairs, as a distant offshoot of the water gun that had deposited Brandish here.  The ball ricocheted off the ground, hit the ceiling, then, in the center of the room, expanded into Brandish, who was loaded with pre-prepared Flashbang grenades.   While she was in her ball-state, she was in total stasis.  The grenades had a timer, but the timer didn’t count down while she was frozen and not of this world.  She scattered them, throwing them wide.

In a half-circle around her, grenades exploded with light and concussive force.  Some of that force caught one or two people badly enough that there might be long-term injuries.  For the rest, it took the fight out of them for the moment.  Everyone who had been standing in or near the portal was laid low.

The dominoes engagement – named by Amy.  Which sucked, because that ruined it a little.  Me, Brandish and Flashbang all hitting like dominoes toppling.  A series of devastating blows.  Brandish wasn’t bothered by light, and in the midst of the chaos, knowing which she’d thrown were duds by experience, she could weave through while her targets were just trying to get out of the way.

The explosions cleared out half of a roomful of forty people, many of them armed.  Sveta and I picked through the remainder.  Women with guns.  Men with masks covering their lower faces.  Tossed aside.  Sveta couldn’t really be shot, and the Wretch protected me from being shot, even though it was mostly pandemonium and people reeling.

And Sveta’s movements only continued to make sense to me again, now that I could parse why she was so reluctant and reserved.  I’d known her at one point in time when this was all she had.  She’d been hesitant to get to know me, but she’d settled in.

But she was a teenage girl.  And for a brief time, she’d had a body.  A covering she loved for a shape she hated.

Back then this body had been her in entirety.  Now?  After a body and paint to decorate that body, after clothes and clothes we’d shopped for?  To lose her suit was to be stripped down, naked before the world.  Vulnerable on multiple levels.

She wrestled with that even as I saw the visible triumph in how each extension of a tendril moved just a bit more accurately, just a bit less self defeating.  And just a bit was a hell of a lot when there were so many tendrils.

“You’re doing great!” I cheered, because words were all I could offer and what I really wanted was to hug her and have her hug me back with those arms she’d built.

I wanted revenge, here, and I wasn’t ashamed to admit it.  For her, for the others.  For Kenzie who had lost her hands and who hadn’t been able to smile enough to compensate for the pain and sadness, whose cheeks had been wet with tears.  For Ashley, for Darlene, for Tristan…

Fuck.

Infiltrating, finding our stride.  Getting a sense of where strange teammates were, so I could identify the big guy who looked like he might take a little more effort to take down, someone I didn’t necessarily want to pulverize, and I could hit him so he stumbled in the direction of the group coming down the stairs.

Chastity caught him, and I saw the stunned surprise at the pretty girl before him.

She backhand-slapped him, and he hit the ground like a wet towel.

No smile, no triumph at the act.  Even with Lord of Loss and Nursery’s people, there had been that.

Rachel’s dogs came down the stairs three astride, with Cassie on the hound’s back and Rachel following behind.  Each dog had multiple people in their mouths.  Two for the chihuahua, three for the wolf, and three and a half for the hound.

No- not a half.  Someone’s jacket had come off.

They were deposited on the floor and the people writhed, unwilling to get up.

“Let’s get through and scramble.  We have everyone?”

A quick head count confirmed we did.

Past a small army, a little bloody, a little too unkind, in a way that would be remembered, but we were as intact as when we’d arrived.

Blue lights appeared down the center of the room.  Water appeared, and that water was like the inverse of the parting of the red sea.  A crest of water appeared in the center of the long platform, and as it sloshed down, it swept the unconscious, injured, and dazed bodies on the platform to either side of the platform floor.

We fell into formation as we stepped across and through the portal, some of us limping or giving evidence to injuries minor and moderate.  I chose to float rather than limp.  Sveta slipped through, found a rack of books, and clung to it, hiding on the far side and peering over at us as we made our way into the platform, earth-N side.  The dogs sniffed and snorted at the ground.

“They were here.  And there’s blood,” Rachel said.

Rain twisted around.  “The dogs told you-”

“On the ground,” she said, pointing.

“Ah.  Fuck.”

Fuck indeed, I thought.  Rain.  There was no good place to stow Rain.  No place that an assassin like Operator Red wouldn’t be able to find him or kill him.

Not that Operator Red was with us anymore.  Juliette had taken credit, which was chilling to think about.  More chilling that she and her brother competed over kills.

The blood was a good reminder that we were in enemy territory now.  The settlement that extended from this station was a place where villains rented out places.  From our past visit, I knew that there were distant cabins that were intentionally out of the way and hard to find.  Without cooperating authority, finding the right place would be hard or impossible.

This was Lord of Loss’s turf.  We’d arrested the authority.  On principle, I was fairly sure, he wouldn’t tell us what he knew or guide us in the right direction.

“Scrambler,” Swansong said, holding up a device.  It looked like a taser, but meaner.  “And our key out of here.”

“Do we?” Byron asked.

The station on this side was empty.  No people, no staff.  Computers were on, as were the monitors for tracking the state of the portal.  Unmonitored monitors.

I walked around the desk.  Camera footage showed that the place was empty except for one girl in a staff uniform out back, smoking.

“Don’t hit that button just yet,” I said.  “Could this be a trap?”

“I can scan,” Rain said.  “Not well, but I can scan the area.”

“Be ready to run,” my mother said to my father.  To all of us.  The two of them were standing close together, his hand on the small of her back.  Because they were dorks.

While Rain waved his thingy around, and the rest of the group settled so they could watch out windows and peek at the settlement beyond,  I stayed by the computer.  Periodically I hit the spacebar, to cycle through the surveillance images.

On a second go, I realized there was also television.  Fed through from Earth Bet.

A distant, shaky camera shot of Brockton Bay.  Mechanical suits were flying around, unleashing barrages.

And slowly, glacially slowly, the city unfolded, returning to its old, shaky, ruined configuration.

I shivered, seeing it.  I saw Byron clench his fist, heard a ‘no’.

Rachel, supposedly Vista’s friend, only glowered.

I got my phone out.  I flew to the portal.  “Don’t seal it!”

Ashley raised her intact hand, thumb clearly nowhere near the button.

Through the portal.  Back to a roomful of people who were still recovering from a soak and concussive shocks to the sensory faculties.  My aura kept all but ten or so from getting back up, as they slumped over defeated or frustrated.

My phone call went through.

“What the hell just happened in Brockton Bay?” I asked.

The explanation took a minute to get through.

By the time it was done, my fingers were knotted around the headphone cord, which was so tight it threatened to cut off circulation.

“They want Foil.  But even if they get her, they aren’t saying for sure they’re willing or guaranteeing they’re able to walk it back.”

And these guys want Rain, I thought.

Worse than we’d anticipated, in a lot of ways.

One bargain or the other might even be a consideration.

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Interlude – 12.z

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“You can’t put that down there.”  The words were hushed, furtive.  May’s mother snatched up the violin case that May had just set down.  In the process of straightening up, her hands fixed May’s shirt collar, then smoothed her hair down.  “Everything matters.”

May put one hand inside the other, rubbing where the weight of the case had pulled at her fingers, her expression unmoving under the attention of her mother.  A kiss at the top of her head, a smoothing of the hair, another kiss.

“We’re going to be late,” she murmured.  A strategic move.  In the moment, mentioning the time took the attention off of herself and put it toward the time.  Toward digital clocks on the walls, the number of people gathered at the subway platform.

Even in her distraction, her mother’s hands were still at her shoulders, rubbing through thin, papery-crisp fabric.  Her mother’s lips absently pressed against the top of her head again.  She was embarrassed, and in her glances to either side, she saw a group of girls about her age, talking and joking together.  They weren’t looking at her though.  They were roughhousing.

“My friend thinks you’re hot!” one of the girls shouted across the subway platform, aiming the comment at a guy that was at least two years older than any of them.  The other two girls, a blonde and a redhead, tried to shush her, one of them pinching her hard, the other trying to cover her mouth.

“Don’t be distracted.  Play the music in your head.  Go through the words, remember the inflections.  If you’re confident about the singing, work through the violin piece.  If you’re confident about the violin, think about the singing.  Visualize.”

May was distracted.  The blonde girl dragged her friend away, while the redhead pushed.  All of them had faces that were varying shades of pink, from exertion, from embarrassment, from fun.

And the one who had shouted- she was seemingly the only person on the platform who paid attention to May.  A long, lingering look, encompassing May and her mother, the aura of ‘fun’ momentarily dampened by what May imagined was a pitiable sight.

It was a moment that struck her as profound, the kind of moment she imagined would be with her forever.

And that girl, who looked like she could have been May’s sister, who could have been one of the many, many people who evacuated Japan after the attack, who might have changed her name to be more American like May had changed hers, she would probably forget this momentary meeting of eyes.  May’s heart swelled with a childish sort of longing, a mad desire that- if she could only push that feeling out, couldn’t it be the kind of wish that drove fairy tales?

I want to be you.

I want the clothes off your body, so I can wrap myself in them and be them.  I want the friends who are pinching and shoving you and laughing with you. 

“Which are you focusing on?”

“The singing.”

An encouraging rub of the shoulders, reminding her of how thin the fabric was, how scratchy it was.  The pleated wool uniform skirt was worse, but it at least didn’t touch her legs when she wasn’t sitting down.

“You’re going to mess up the ironing if you keep rubbing like that.”  Another deflection, a diversion.

The hands dropped away.

“Remember to smile.  You never smile enough,” the voice in her ear said.  “You have such a pretty smile.”

May nodded.  The deflections and diversions were only that.  It was like kicking at the water at the edge of a beach, creating a momentary divot that was immediately filled in, pressing in from all sides.

I want a life that’s a balance of life and work, not weeks of waiting for a break in my schedule, so I can have a scheduled, calculated few hours of fun.  This movie, because it will help with my English and because it’s a classic.  An actual playdate for a thirteen year old, my ‘date’ chosen carefully, because their parents are the right people and they’ve never been in trouble.

“I’m so proud of you.  I know you’re going to be great.  If we aren’t late.  Are you still visualizing the singing?”

“Yeah.  I murdered the time, when I ran through it with Ms. B.”

Nervous hands fluttered at her collar, fingernails running along her neck as fingertips and thumbs pinched at the fold, pressing it tighter.  Fingers brushed imaginary dust off her shoulders.  May’s hands remained clasped in front of her.

“Where is that train?”

May’s mother ushered her one way, closer to the edge of the platform, closer to where the train would come, so she could stand at the yellow line, peer past and around, maybe hoping to see the light of the train, though there was no sound.

Just off to one side, a taller homeless woman had approached the group of friends, her tone urgent, angry.

May didn’t want to stare, and with a lack of people to look at, met the eyes of the man who was the homeless woman’s friend or boyfriend.

She could remember how, the last time she was sick with the flu, she’d longed to be well again so much that she’d promised herself she would cherish the days when she wasn’t sick.  She had done the same thing when she had a toothache.

Did the homeless man have days like that?  Was his every day like that, filled with longing to not be… that?  Was she supposed to be happy she was where she was?

Because she couldn’t.  Happiness was by accident only.  Happiness was when the tutors got the times wrong and there was a break in the schedule, and mom just so happened to be busy with something.   Or when mom had just bought the violin and cupboards and fridge were running empty, and mom messed up the timing on the preheating for the chicken kiev, so it was raw on the first bite, and there had been money only for a dollar burger and side salad.

The homeless man had a bottle in the pocket of his ankle-length jacket, and all she could think was that he was free.  Free to make all the bad decisions.  Free to dress like that, free to eat whatever, if and when he had the money.  She would rather go hungry six days out of seven if it meant eating what she wanted on the seventh.

The shouting got louder, and it got louder because it was closer.  Hand at fun-girl’s shirt, the homeless lady drove her toward the edge of the platform.  Flailing, reaching out for help, fun-girl ended up pulling at her friend, who was moving forward to help.  She groped for May’s mother, of all people.

May’s mother toppled, because she was leaning forward and totally unaware of what was happening in reality.

And in toppling, she pulled May down, because there was no reality where she would let go of May.

All of the emotions that had been brimming inside of May were left standing behind her like a cloud of dust after a cartoon character was whisked away, they had to be, because they were gone in an instant, replaced by the feeling of falling, and then the feeling of pain, as she landed, a few feet down.  A springing feeling in one hand, like a sprain or a twist.

“Are you okay?” her mother asked.

“My hands.  I think I hurt my hand.”

“Stand up.  Let’s get up before-”

Someone else fell.  The red haired friend of fun-girl.  People were pressing forward, trying to stop the attacker, trying to reach down but getting in the way.  Fun girl was on her back on the platform.  Her head stuck out and over.

“I hurt my hand, I can’t play violin.”

“It doesn’t matter,” her mother said.  “We have to get you up.  Stand up!”

May tried to stand.  She was wary of the tracks- was there a third rail?  She remembered something like that.  Was-

She saw the violin case and grabbed it.

May’s mother, face streaked with blood, lifted May up, hands at her waist.  May reached forward, where people were helping, where people were focused on helping one of the white girls, or the man that had fallen onto the track, the latter groups more obstacle than anything.

Her hand full, she passed the violin forward and over the wall of people, before her mother couldn’t hold her up anymore.

Why did I?

“Again,” her mother said, voice warbly with emotion.  She wiped at her eye, where it had blood running into it.

The next attempt started and stopped in the span of a second.  A waste of strength, when nobody was positioned to catch, lift up, and receive.

In the back, the black man who had been in the attacker’s company was pacing, hands at the sides of his head, where his hair was shaved.  May reached, and he didn’t see.  His eyes were on his friend, who was being clawed, beat, pummeled and pushed, but who wasn’t being moved.

May’s feet hit the tracks.  Her mother let go of her to wipe at the blood in her eye again, and May stepped back, almost instinctively putting distance between herself and the hands, the attention.

There was an alcove.  May retreated to it.

Everything mattersEvery detail.

It mattered that her mother had hit her head, and had blood running down one side of her eye, that her mother reached for May and found someone else, the blonde girl.  She lifted, noticed something was wrong, and by then, was locked into the course of action.  She wasn’t a bad person, wouldn’t drop the girl to look for her own daughter.

But she did look, and with one eye squinting shut, she didn’t see May.

The train could be heard.  The lights visible in the tunnel.

There was still time.  Just enough.

She reached forward, but she didn’t –couldn’t– call out.

This accident bigger than chicken kiev.  Bigger than tutors missing an appointment.  She wanted it to be a happy one and in the instant her mother turned and met her eyes with the one eye that wasn’t squinting shut, May wasn’t sure it was.

The train flew past, and May’s outstretched hand was positioned just so, that the fingertips were grazed by the rivets at the side of the train, but not struck clean off her hand.  She might have imagined it, but it seemed to her that as the train hit all the other people, it paused for just a hair.  A single tenth of a tick of the clock.

She heard the screams, and she bowed her head.  Conscious of what she’d just done through her silence.

Disaster.

She opened her eyes, but she saw only darkness, and she wondered if she had died after all.  She saw figures writ in onyx black against a black background, dressing themselves in roles.  Again and again, on the stage, curtains closing, crashing together like waves, fragments flying in every direction, then backstage, figures dressing themselves in a new set of roles for another performance, then the performance, so fleeting compared to the preparation and what followed…

She felt an elemental sort of urgency as she minded the repetition, the drum-beat flow of images so big she had to abstract them in her head.  In trying to define that elemental urgency, she reached for a comparison and found one in her mother, driving her, not demanding perfection, but needing it.

In that touchstone of reality, May found her way back to clarity and sense.  To feeling nauseous and bewildered, numb and hypersensitive to the smell and taste of blood, the smell and taste of the train’s oil and engine.  To touch, the scratchy feeling of blouse on skin, sweat coating her.

The sounds.  People still screaming.

To get away, she had to get through.  Between train cars- she had to step on a segment to get up and forward.  Up to the platform.

Reaching hands tried to pat at her and check that she was okay.  Used touch to assuage their own anxiety.

Dimly, she realized some of the blood droplets she was walking on were her mother.

Driven by the thought, she pulled away from the hands, ducking down, looked for her violin case, and found it lying on the platform.  She ran up the stairs, stopped and hugged the side as people ran down, and escaped the ones who paused long enough to notice that the scratchy blouse had dots of crimson on it, each dot bleeding into fabric and spreading out into circles.

A man screamed, and it was a different sound than the other screams.  They were reacting to something that had happened a minute ago.  The man- the homeless man with a mop of dreads at the top of his head, he was screaming because of something that was happening now.

May winced at the sound, then winced again as her thoughts were briefly scattered.  Onyx figures that weren’t figures, choosing roles in contradiction to one another.

She shook the thought away, took long seconds to find herself again.  The hands were reaching down, now, trying to get her to stay still.

May charged through the forest of hands like a linebacker, violin case held against her upper body.

Up to the street.  She hailed a taxi.  She had some money.  She was careful to hold the violin case so it covered up the blood on her shirt.  Her hands wiped at the blood on her face.

In shock, in numbness, she told herself that she couldn’t be late.  Her mother wouldn’t want her to.

“Julliard,” she said.

“You look too young to go there.”

I’m just going to show off for someone important, not to apply.

“Julliard,” she said, instead of articulating herself.  A machine, a metronome.

The taxi pulled onto the street. She was free, for better or for worse.

Delicate touches for the gear shift, one hand firmly at the wheel, March let the car coast down the length of shattered highway.  She flicked on the hazards.

“Why are we stopping?” Ixnay asked.

March leaned into the wheel, pointing.  Snow and dead plant life danced across the road, tracing curious paths where they abruptly turned at right angles.

“The hell?”

“Vista,” March said.  “Cute kid.  If she’s actively using her power, then driving into it would be bad.”

“Bad how?” Dino asked, from the back.

“It doesn’t affect us,” March said.  “Our ride would turn into a pretzel around us while we stayed the same.”

She smiled, and she looked at the others for reactions.  Only Tori matched the smile.  Tori, the Goddess cluster’s fourth.  Tori, who had a tractor beam as a power.  Tori’s was a friendly smile, not one of appreciation for the novelty of the situation.  Not that Tori was really the type to get excited about novelty, danger, or those sorts of things.  Not often.

Fine then.

March hit the accelerator, shifting gears.  She caught a glimpse of alarm on her megacluster’s faces as they sped toward the effect.

There was a paradigm shift, a sudden lurch, and she heard a yelp.  From Ixnay, the baby.

“That was only ice!” she crowed, steering into the slide.  The wheels found traction again.

“Ice is still dangerous!” Tori reminded her.

She had to swerve around sections of road that had broken as the ground had resettled.  More wind brought more flurries of grasses that hadn’t had enough sun over the past year, gone dry over time and now scattered in even drier, windy weather.  It brought dead leaves that hadn’t decomposed, dust, and meager twists of snow.

A light gray plain beneath a dark gray sky, no light from the streetlights, no illumination in houses they passed.  What wasn’t dead was slowly dying and what wasn’t slowly dying was being killed.  It was cold and yet wildfires burned elsewhere, and the smoke from those fires turned the horizon from a line of light into a line of black.  There were places near the cities where  the water had chemicals in it and in places that meant that there wasn’t any ice, or ice could coexist with water that roiled in the wind, gray in reflecting the sky and white where it frothed.

She could see how it happened.  The order of things, laid over one another.  A fallen tree branch over a patch of leaves, telling a story.  A car that had crashed, gone rusty, that rust a history and a timetable.  Paring through it all, she could get a sense of how it had played out.  A clock had ticked down without anyone the wiser and when it had hit zero, a world had ended.  These were the consequences and the casualties.

To throw paint at a surface and see it mid-motion, splashing against itself, to see the potential, that was best.  The next best thing was to see the aftermath.  A rolled vehicle, a collapsed building with plants trying to grow over it, finding root in the clean water that had pooled in recess.

“Home,” she said.

“Sad,” Tori said.  She touched March’s arm.

March shook her head.  “No.”

The car sped by a long line of bodies covered by sheets.  Rain had smashed down the sheets and the sheets had molded to the bodies, going stiff or getting stained, following the bodies on their to decay.

“…Maybe a bit,” she decided.

“I’m worrying about the pretzel thing,” Ixnay said, leaning forward a bit.  His costume was black, a red ‘x’ across his face as part of his mask.

“She’s a hero, Ix, she’s not going to lay a trap that might hurt a civilian or any friends that are coming to help her.  And she’s a teenage girl.  What teenage girl is going to sit still and keep her power in place somewhere while doing nothing with it, when she knows the people she’s up against are making plans?  She’s going to be anxious.”

“This is going over my head,” Ix said.

“Smart thing to do would be to lay a trap.  Watch from a distance.  There would be almost nothing we could do about it.  But she doesn’t think that way.  She thinks the impressive part of her power is what she does when she’s used it for a while.  Not the weird things that happen while she uses it.  She’s not going to do the smart thing and lie in wait.  She’ll get ready to drop a mountain on us or something.  That’s the teenager approach.  Reach for the big guns.”

“I don’t think that’s a teenage girl thing,” Tori said.  “You were a teenage girl not that long ago.”

“And I am impatient.  I’m reckless, and I don’t dwell on the quiet parts of my power as much as I could.  But she was younger when she started, and she still has a way to go.  If she lived another ten years, I think she’d settle into it.”

There was a length of road with a hole in it that a car could disappear into.  March swerved around it, coming close as the wheels skidded on an invisible patch of ice.  She checked the rear-view mirror to make sure the others were fine.  They were going a little slower, a little wary, and were following her path fairly closely.

“Not that little Vista is going to live that long,” March said.

There was no argument from her megacluster.  Ixnay fixed his gloves, one looser-fitting than the other.

Off the highway.  Onto the side road.  They had an incline to go up, and with the ice on the roads, it was a tricky route to take.

The signs indicated the destination.  ‘Brockton Bay’.

As they made their way down the road, the view between the mountains and hills became clear.

A city folded into itself, a landscape from half a continent away pulled close.  Another side of the city raised up.  An end result like a cardboard box turned on its side, just the one side open.  Inside, buildings ran horizontally, vertically, upside-down, even diagonally in places, where they jutted from corners.  None collided with any others, and water, parks, and hills all factored into the architecture.

March broke into laughter, seeing it.  She let their ride coast to a stop while they still had the view.

Too dangerous to go forward.  There would be traps.  Pits, divots, uneven ground.  The ground could be raised into spikes, or a wall could suddenly appear in their paths.  She hit the hazards to notify the other team, then pulled over, before putting their ride into park.

She couldn’t let go of her amusement over the sight.

“You really think the quiet stuff is what makes her strong?” Ixnay asked.

March managed to stop laughing, uttering a gleeful, “I really do!  But this is great!  I can’t wait!”

The others climbed out.  Ixnay, Dino, Enyo.  Tori lingered behind.

“Don’t die,” Tori said.

“It doesn’t matter.”

Don’t die.  We just found each other again, and you’re old enough I don’t think it’d be weird, and…”

Tori’s hand brushed the side of March’s face.  March took it in her hand and kissed it.

“Our thing is temporary.  You can’t get attached,” March said.

“You always say that.  Temporary because you plan on dying?”

March shook her head.  “Because, until I figure something out, we can’t be together long-term.  It’s unfair to pretend we can.”

“I’m worried what your solution would look like.  She got you good.  Wormed her way into your head.”

“It’s not that she got me,” March said.  “I got it.  I figured it out.”

March looked in the rear view mirror, saw Tori’s expression, deathly serious.

She twisted around, kissing Tori, to make that expression go away, because there were few things that bothered March, and one of those things was people she loved being unhappy.

“I won’t die,” March pledged, her words breathed against Tori’s cheek.  “I promise.”

Tori smiled.

“We’ll be together for a few decades, I think.  Unless we’re interrupted.”

The smile faltered a bit.  Tori shook her head.  “You’re messing with me, not making any sense.”

“I’m the most sensible rabbit I know,” March retorted.

“You say interrupted, but you mean dying.  You promise me decades but you tell me no long-term?”

“Yes on all counts.  Yes, dead is always possible, and you know that.  Yes, decades.  Yes, I can’t get your hopes up about long-term.”

“You’re fucking with me.  Lying to me by dropping ‘decades’ in there, or pulling some double-meaning on me.”

March shook her head.  She kissed Tori again.  “Talking about it makes me sad.  Let’s just enjoy the time we have together, without commitment?”

“Thinker neurosis.  Like the fire thinker having a thing about arson.  Except you somehow think decades aren’t a commitment?”

“Sure.  Let’s call it that.”

“Or is it the relationship that isn’t important enough to count?”

“You are important.  You count.”

“But not as much as Flechette.  Not as much as Homer.”

“They count in a different way.”

“I should be glad that you don’t want to drink my blood.”

“I don’t want to drink Flechette’s blood either.  But…”

But.

“But if I could?  If I can?  I’d map you to our cluster, so I could do all the Kiss and Kill things I have to do to them to you, too.  And you would be the most important person in the world to me, then.  I’m going to look for ways.”

Tori touched March’s face.  There weren’t many people she was willing to let touch her like that.  Tori knew, too.

“I’ll stick my sword through that teenager, and I want you there when her power comes undone and this city slowly folds back to the way it’s supposed to be.  It’ll be like watching a flower bloom, all around us.”

“That’s not nearly as romantic as you think it is.”

“City-flowers?”

“Sticking metal through kids,” Tori said.  When March didn’t respond, she added, “You’re so weird.”

“I’m ahead of the curve.”

“You’re weird, and I like it.”

March pulled away, settling into the driver’s seat, locking eyes with Tori through the rear-view mirror.  After the distraction, she had to hype herself up, remind herself of what she was doing, and get her mind off the subject of how impermanent this all was.  “Time against space, let’s see who wins.”

Tori rolled her eyes.

March pulled on her mask, put on her cap, with the flaps that covered her real ears, flipped up her collar, and drew her rapier from between the two seats.

Tori, getting out the other side of the car, wore blue contact lenses that colored her eye from corner to corner, an electric contrast to her brown skin.  The rest of her mask was only going on now – around the eyes, silver with blue highlights.  More blue feathers dangled from the braid that hung from her temple down.  Her costume included a long coat with cobalt blue chains around the collar where a fur collar might normally be.

March didn’t know how Tori didn’t get her hair caught in those dozens or hundreds of chains, but she liked the effect.

Tori was joined by Jace and Megan.  The other two wore blue as well, though Jace favored midnight blue, painted onto armor that had scuffed here and there, the silver showing through the paint.  His shield was a metal riot shield, painted on the front side with the paint rubbed away with fingers and the side of the hand, in a way that was clearly a handprint, but also clearly meant to be a rabbit- two fingers for each ear.  The inside had three handprints in blue against a steel background, one at the top left, one in the middle by the shields handle, and one at the bottom right.

Megan wore sky blue.  Scarfs and cloths, with a scarf around brown hair.  She too wore the contact lenses, but her look was more of a dancer.  She wasn’t a fighter, and being even this close to danger had her on edge.  Jace seemed to sense it and drew nearer.

There were the Graeae twins, Dino and Enyo.  Silver haired, wearing gray and silver, they had rabbit patches sewn onto their sleeves.

Then Ixnay, as alone as she was, though she could pretend he had a bit of company with the arm he had borrowed.

They had other help too.  Kingdom Come, injured, could still use his power, and the corner world warlords Deader and Goner had lent her Noose, Shiv, Matches, Bash, and Banger.  They’d owed her from a favor she had done them a year ago.

The other half of her forces were split into two groups.  With the phones dead, she would have to find another way of coordinating with them.

But this would do.  She was excited.

“Let’s play, Vista,” she said, smiling.  With a two-note whistle, she gave the cue for her army to fall into step.

Her hand went up, hand signal, and her power kicked in.  Two, three, fist pointed left.

Jace and Megan began to jog forward, taking the side path.  With only sound cues and awareness of where they had been before, March could visualize their locations.  She knew how fast they moved from how fast they had moved before, she knew how long it would take to get where she wanted them to go, and she knew them well enough that she knew their behaviors and they knew what she wanted of them.

One, two, hand flat in ‘paper’ sign, pointed right.

That was Kingdom Come, Tori.

Ixnay stuck by her.  He knew the signs too.

“Newbies,” she announced, without turning to address them.  “I’ll walk you through the hand signals.  If you follow them, we will win.  Keep up.”

The shortest path from the road to the city was sloped dirt, loose earth and ice.  She angled her feet to slide down the slope, with Ixnay following after.  As she reached untenable ground, she hopped up onto a rock.

Looking back, she saw the newbies from Deader and Goner’s group were lagging back.

“Keep up!” she ordered.  Her hand went up.  Paper sign, again, pointed skyward, then turned into a beckoning gesture.

Megan hit her with the power boost.  March felt her perceptions shift, her power take on new dimensions.  The dimensions it would have permanently if she got her hands on Foil.  The world slowed down as her perception of time increased.  That perception of time was linked to a perception of movement, and all of this would become child’s play.

She would crack open this particular cereal box, find her treat, and please the people who were going to try to corner Foil.  Even if they succeeded, they’d weaken her or wear her down, and March would be free to act.

She’d skin Foil and wrap herself in Foil, she would soak herself in Foil and gorge herself on Foil’s flesh.  Foil’s clothes would be decoration, as she had fancied once upon a time.  She would be in and of and greater than and less than and equal to Foil.  Then she would be in and of and to and through Foil, and vice versa.

And if Foil made it, which she would, provided March didn’t make any hilariously bad slips with the knives, which she wouldn’t, then what was left of her would come to accept it in time.  She would see that it all made sense.

She would even come to love it.

“They didn’t let me sing or play,” she said.  “But if they had, I would have killed it.”

“Shit,” was the response, a sluggish utterance, tired and not all the way there.

May shrugged.  It had been a good while now, since she had stubbornly insisted on playing, while the person she was supposed to play for tried to get her to calm down and sit still.  To explain why she had blood on her.

She had almost, almost used her power on the woman.

She abandoned the conversation, and had doubts her conversation partner would even know she was gone.  It was late, or early, depending on interpretation, and anyone here who wasn’t addled was getting other people addled.

A trio of half-naked teenagers ran through the mansion, hucking vinyl discs at one another.  May skipped forward, her power kicking in, and she caught one of the discs out of the air, her finger at the little hole.  It spun with latent momentum, and her finger traced along the underside, carving out a line of power, which became a spiral rather than a complete circle, as she moved her finger further out.

She judged, connected to the timing, and visualized the avenues it could travel.  She threw it frisbee style, lining up her own body with the ghost images.

The vinyl passed into the boughs of an apple tree, detonating just as it reached the center.  The entire tree shook, and apples began raining down.  The two people beneath shrieked and made a run for it as the hail came down.

May pumped her fists in the air.  As the apples stopped falling, people ran to go get some for themselves.

A twenty-something guy offered one to her.  She clapped, and he ran across the poolside before throwing it.  Not the most accurate throw, but she was an accurate catcher.  She ducked low, hand behind her back, and let it slap into place between index finger and thumb.  Nobody was really looking, but that hardly mattered.  She was wearing a mask and kept her hood up, either way.  Dime store mask, borrowed sweatshirt.  Notoriety or fame didn’t matter much when it wasn’t even her face.

“What are you watching?” as she approached the couch.  A twenty-ish girl was sitting there, laptop out, while three people crowded around.

“New hero,” the girl said.

May looked, watched the video play, an introduction with some poses and close-ups of costume parts.  White and blue, a tinted one-way visor.  PRT quality, PRT production.  Polished but… boring.

The girl wasn’t, admittedly.  May watched as the girl threw darts, cleaving through the top of a series of soda bottles.  While the caps were still in the air, she threw again.  The darts embedded metal caps to the wall.

May picked up a bottlecap and set it to spinning on the table.

“I don’t miss,” the girl on the screen said.  She threw again, beheading another series of glass soda bottles.  Foam sprayed and caps flipped through the air.  She ducked low, and threw the darts through the short wall of cinder blocks that had held the bottle.  They struck more caps, sticking them to the wall.

“There’s no taking cover from this.”

As the video cut to a series of rapid-fire shots, each zoomed in on a different cap, leaving an afterimage of a letter as things moved to the next shot, May stopped the cap, fingertip striking it down flat against the table, set it to spinning again, stopped it-

The letters on the screen spelled out ‘Flechette’.  An edited-in graphic stamped in ‘Ward – NY1’ below it.

“You’ll see me patrolling the streets of New York, starting February first,” Flechette said.  She picked up a new bottle with blue liquid inside, took a drink, then flipped the bottlecap back.  Without turning around, she threw a dart behind her.

It caught the cap, and embedded the cap to the lip of the camera, just in front of the lens.  A Flechette in miniature on the cap.

The scene, of course, was ruined by the squawk as the ad shifted to cramming in as much merchandising as possible in the last one point eight seven seconds.  T-shirt, poster, limited time energy drink collectors item.

Buy now, buy now, buy now!, she translated it.

The video stopped.

A few people looked up at May.

“Familiar?” the girl with the laptop asked.

“Yeah.  A bit.”

“Do you know why?”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m seventeen, in my first year studying powers,” the girl with the laptop said.  “I can tell you things.”

“What do you want in exchange?” May asked.  She was leery of being indebted to anyone.  Leery of being trapped again.

“To study you.  Talk to you.  I’ve been meaning to for a while.”

“You could just ask.”

“I did.  But you were pretty drunk, and I was geeking out,” the girl said.

The party was one of about fifteen benders that May had participated in since her mom had died.  She had a hundred thousand dollars in inheritance, and after the state had found someone who qualified as a relative, she’d ducked out, grabbing the folder that her new guardians had been left, with details on her trust.

They were leaving her access to the account, probably because they thought it would help lead them to her.  As far as they were concerned, she always just barely got away.  For her, it was trivial.

And with money and people who enjoyed spending money to keep her company, she’d settled into a group of teenagers and college students who were crashing at houses.  It started at their relatives houses, then migrated to people they knew of.  This time, those people they knew of were confined to a back bedroom.  Food was being tossed into the pool because some guys wanted to see if they could fill it up enough that they could ‘walk on water’, clothes were being modeled and despite the fact that it was five-something in the morning, people were still at it, still dismantling the house or boning or scraping the bottom of the liquor cabinet with the stuff that apparently wasn’t supposed to be drunk straight.  They’d turned it into a punishment game.

“It happens when a bunch of people get powers all at the same time.  The powers get fractured and different people get different pieces.  She triggered when you did.  Ring any bells?  Does anyone stand out?”

“Maybe.  Some people, I guess.  I don’t even know what a trigger is.”

“They say if you do something really triumphant, you get good powers.  If you don’t… you get the flawed or broken ones.  You trigger at major moments.  Best days.  Worst days.  That’s the line, anyway.  Does it hold up?”

“I got good powers, so…” May paused.  She thought about how she’d let her mom die.  Was that supposed to be a triumph?  “I guess I did something good.”

The student with the laptop smiled.  “Can-”

“Police!” a kid yelled.  “Shit, shit, shit!”

There was sudden panic.  People who were in the heaviest of make-out sessions pulled clothes back on.  Others hurried to find shoes and boots.

“They’re by the pool!”

At the back of the property.  We’re surrounded.

“Fuck!” one of the oldest people present shouted.  One of the sober people.  He was tattooed, and he’d been the one supplying the drugs.  He paused for reflection, then uttered a louder, fiercer, “Fuck!”

“You’re not scared,” the girl in the chair said.

May shook her head.  “I can get away.”

“Can you get me away too?  I’ll tell you everything I know about Flechette, your multi, what it means…”

“I don’t care about Flechette.”  I know who she might be.  I still don’t care.

“What do you want, then?  Get me out, keep me out of trouble, and I’ll help you with whatever.”

“Out?” the guy with tattoos asked.  “You can get us out?”

“She has powers,” someone remarked.

“I can get everyone out,” March said.  She smiled.  “If you follow my instructions exactly.”

She could see the excitement of the girl in the chair.

“Raise your hand if you can count to thirty… okay.  Which of you are confident you could count to one hundred?”

There was a heavy series of bangs on the front door.

“Police!  Open up!”

May counted eight hands.

“The moment I snap my fingers, get started.  Count carefully.  We can’t run until we stop enough of them.  You- upstairs.  There’s a fire extinguisher on the wall.  Count to a hundred starting at the finger-snap, make sure you have it by seventy.  You’ll want to stick your head and arms out onto the roof on that side of the house at one hundred and start spraying right then.”

That got her a nod.  She snapped her fingers, putting the mental model into effect.  Timing, visualizing the person going around the corner, up the stairs.  She could adjust her mental model, backward, forward, which would be useful when the numbers got larger.

You – front door.  Blockade it, dining room table, should take you twenty seconds.  Take four of the people too drunk to count to help lift.  Go now.  You-

Ixnay’s waves pulsed through the air, making the air condense into rings, and some of those rings served to stop some of the drones and the ice crystals that were flying through the air.  As the waves hit, the things were suspended, rotating slowly on the spot.  If released, they would continue their current trajectories.

“Megan, your three!” March gave the order.

Megan turned, hand extending out.  She tractor-beamed an ice crystal her way, driving it into the back of a cape that was stampeding toward her.

“Back three steps!  And five!”

Megan hurried back three steps as the stampeding cape crashed into the ground.  He coasted on icy ground, stopping just before colliding with her.  Her trust in March was enough that she’d already turned, was grabbing a drone out of the air, pulling it to her-

The stampeding cape rose to his feet, only to have the drone crash into him.

“About face!” March shouted.

She loved these moments.

Without asking, with trust, her megacluster spun one hundred and eighty degrees.  Switching who each of them were fighting, changing targets, shifting priorities.

“Jace, shield, ten!”

Jace half-turned, shield going up.

“Noose, charge!”

Noose, faced with a gauntlet of tinker soldiers dressed up as knights, hesitated.

“Belay that!  Turn right and help Matches!”

March burst into a run, straight for the gap that Noose had refused to jump into.

“And for the record!?  You would have been fine if you hadn’t hesitated!”

March was a target for the forces defending the Brockton Bay time bubbles because she was so clearly the leader.   Now they were finding what they saw as an opening.  Two capes came at her from different directions.

She traced a half-circle on the ground with her rapier, then stepped back from it.  That covered one flank.  The other- her rapier caught a stone on the ground, flicked it into the air.  As she pushed her power through the rapier and into the blade, the weapon traced a 9/10ths circle around the stone as it flipped it up.

The ice cape threw ice at her, and as the line on the ground detonated, it intersected the flying shards.  Frozen shrapnel scattered across the battlefield.

A little messy, but-

At the same time, the stone detonated a second after being flicked, well before touching the ground.  It was at eye level for the cape who had sound-manipuating touch, fingers singing as they moved through air and the ability to deafen on touch.  He reeled back with a bloody nose.

Not his biggest concern.  March put her rapier through his chest cavity, pulled it out, and then drew a line through the face with her power.  A hole in the heart, and four point three seconds until face became crater.

A merciful way to go.  It was also about to become a dramatic and cool way to go out.

She cut a scrap of his costume away, doing a small circle with her sword to keep it airborne, cut it in half, then pushed her power into one of the halves.  Time delayed explosion.  While Megan’s power boost was running through her, she could work with shorter fuses.

The explosion was just in time to intercept a lob of ice through the air.

Her sword danced, keeping the other scrap alive.  “Bash, right turn!  Deal with ice guy for three seconds!”

Ice guy reacted, backing away instead of going on the offensive.  That was fine too.

“Tori, about face!  Your twelve in three, two, one!”

The explosion at the face knocked the cape’s helmet off.  Tori caught it with her tractor beam, pulling it to her with the same force as if it had been thrown full-strength.  It clocked the ice guy across the side of the head, while he was focused on Bash.

Across the battlefield, a cape created a flash of light.  As it faded, March found herself alone, in a maze filled with moths.

One by one, defenders of the ruined Brockton Bay began to appear in the maze with her.  Phased into this space.

Do you want to see me go all out? she thought.

“If this is a hallucination, I’m not bothered,” she said.  “I trust my team to handle things while I’m out.”

One of the capes shook his head slowly.

I still have the power boost from Megan.  One against seven.  No, eight.  And the world is moving in slow motion for me.

She could do this.

“What do you gain by messing with this stuff?”

“That would be telling, and you would put more people between me and what I want.”

“You lunatic.”

March smiled.  “You guys are the crazy ones.  If you knew what I knew…”

Homer had grown, in a lot of ways.  He was well-dressed now.  He still had the dreads, but they were shorter, bound in gold – it looked like wedding rings.  His mask, too, was gold.  He had a golden baseball bat, and as he walked, he dribbled a baseball with the bat.  A flowing black costume swept around him.

He liked the aesthetic and she didn’t hate it, herself.  She watched the baseball bounce up and down.  Black skin, gold stitches.  It was getting a beating, just from being dribbled.

“I think I got the singing from you,” Homer said.  “I remember the violin case.  Some musical talent.  I guess not violin, specifically.”

“I sang before.  It’s been a while since I did.”

“If you picked it up again, I’d lose the ability,” Homer said.

May nodded.

“It’s subtle,” he said.

“I’ve been really into putting all kinds of fun things up my nose and into my arm,” May said.  “Is that from you?”

“I was never an addict.  I used regularly, but I never had to,” Homer said.  He paused.  “I haven’t used in a while.”

“We each get what the others don’t want.”

“Seems like it.  Or what we have in abundance.”

“I checked in on our third,” May said.  “She’s serious now.  Dedicated, disciplined.  She doesn’t hate it either.  I’m the opposite.  She and I switched places.”

“I tried to reach out to her.  She wasn’t interested.  I don’t think she understood,” Homer said.

“That she’s not alone?  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  New school, new foster parents, moving away from friends, she’s lonely and she’s making up for it by jumping into the Ward thing, but if she stopped and listened…”

“The Ward thing is better than the mercenary thing,” Homer said.  His voice took on a different tone, hollow.  “I’ve stepped on toes.”

“I was thinking about going that way.  I’ve burned through a hundred thou in an alarmingly short span of time.”

“If you do, step carefully.  Find a mentor, find the people who are worth listening to.  Once you step on toes, it can’t be undone.”

“You said you had a reason for reaching out.”

“The private investigator I hired said you needed cash.  I’m not sure what will happen when things catch up with me, but… I hope you don’t keep getting pieces of me.”

They entered a tunnel beneath a bridge.  Homer hit the ball, striking it sideways, so it ricocheted off floor, wall, ceiling, wall, then lighted onto the bat, stopping with only a slight bob from the bat to catch the momentum.

He did it again, harder, hitting the ball instead of catching it, to keep the speed going.  The ball glittered and glimmered as it reached its peak speed.

They were out of the tunnel by the time it stopped, and Homer resumed dribbling it.

“You’re dying?”

“The kind of people who rise to power in New York aren’t the kinds of people you cross.  When you get hired by someone, it’s your job to do the due diligence and make sure you aren’t digging yourself into shit with the wrong people.  Gotta do it before you sign the deal, too.”

“You could run.”

Homer shook his head.  “I’ll try.  I’ll reach out to our third another time before I go.  But… I wanted to look after you two.  I got things from you, like the capacity to love, and satisfaction, and respect for other human beings.  I owe you.  So I’m going to set you up.”

“Can I have your contact list?”

Homer hesitated a good while.

“I’ll be careful.  I’m good at staying out of trouble.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t stop it.”

“Stop- the train?”

“The attack, people getting pushed onto the tracks.  I- our powers mock us, you know?”

“I had that feeling.  A friend of mine said something similar.”

“I couldn’t.  She was too important to me, and I couldn’t stop her, but I had to stop her.  I finally took action, she turned on me, and she got killed.  Worst of all worlds.”

May nodded.

“And I can’t do a thing with this power that doesn’t hit people right where it needs to to kill them.  I can smack something clear the opposite way and the ricochets put it right into their temple, or over their heart.”

“I’m ready, whatever comes.  I wanted to say my goodbyes.”

She rolled her shoulders as the light flared around her.  Centipedes, giant moths, and seven of the eight capes who had followed her into the maze.

She had to adjust her mask, and she had to adjust her boot, because she had been so intensely at it that it had come unlaced, then nearly come off.  She’d had her toes at the heel and her heel at the top of the boot for the last part of the skirmish.

She stabbed her weapon into the ground, and bent down to fix her boot.  Her people waited.  One injured while she was gone.  It was Shiv.  No loss.

Checking herself over, she verified everything was okay.

“Check-” she started, before her lack of breath stole the words away.  She gave signals instead.  One, there, phone.  The universal pinky and thumb extended provided the ‘phone’ sign.

She held up fingers, then pointed at Shiv.  Slow at first to recognize they were the number, Banger found his wits, stepping forward to pick Shiv up.  March, meanwhile, adjusted her calculations.  Any instruction given to Banger would have to account for delays like that.  The guy was slow on the uptake.

No phone.  No way to contact her reinforcements or other squads.

Maybe they wouldn’t need them.

Finally regaining her breath, she plucked her rapier from the ground, and she pointed it at the center of the city.  Another five or ten minutes of walking, and they’d be at the foot of the construction.

Her group set out.

She’d come to like travel.  It helped that other people were usually driving.

They’d settled into an informal role.  Jan was the power expert, March the bodyguard.

Jan had no interest in being a gal in a lab coat in the PRT, but she did have an interest in writing about powers and people with powers.

Which meant hunting down interesting things.  Which interested March, too.  She was set for a good long time financially, and with this, she was feeding other passions.

Maybe the insatiable curiosity was Flechette’s.  Maybe the poor girl was enduring her first few months with the PRT, being expected to learn these things, and it was being raised as a talent or inclination, discarded because Flechette had other priorities.

They got each other’s scraps.  They were stabilizing over time, but now and again, things would get passed over.  If Homer hadn’t pointed it out, then she might never know.

“This is a heavy one,” Jan said.

“Heavy how?” March asked.

“Six people.  They triggered like you did.  All together.”

Six?

Jan nodded.

Six.  When Jan and March reached the town, there were three.

Three at a table in a shitty pub, four looking worn out, scared.

“I’m Tori,” one member of the group introduced herself.

“Jan.  This is March, my bodyg-”

Can you help?” the plea from a man, who was prematurely balding, and who had veins at his forehead, not from stress, or maybe only partially from stress, but because that was the way his forehead looked.  He didn’t seem superhero-ish.  “Please.”

“I can try,” Jan said.  “March is a cluster too.  We’ve been researching things, and new information is coming out every month or two.”

“Do you have a carousel?” another member of the four-person group asked.  A woman, brunette.

“A what?

“A carousel.  It’s what we termed it.  Silly of me to think you’d know what I meant.  Any game?  A gimmick?  A way the power passes power around?”

“I’ve picked up some skills, I think.  And addictions.”

That only got her a head-shake in response.

“Start from the beginning,” Jan said.

“Did you hear about the quarantine at White Rock?”

Jan nodded.

“Do you know the reason why they quarantined White Rock?” Tori asked.

“Yes,” Jan said.

“No,” March said.  “Quarantine?

“Someone dug a hole,” the other woman in the group said.  “I’m Megan, by the way.”

“Hi Megan.”

“They made a hole between worlds.  And… some people here started using it.  A few years back.”

“Me,” Tori said.  “Jace.”

The guy raised a hand.

“Smuggling.  Passing information.  Scientific research.  Music.  There’s so many ways to profit, with a link like that.”

“Of course,” Jan said.  “Something went wrong.”

Megan nodded.  “People started getting sick.  We thought we took precautions, but…”

“I lost someone, several someones,” Jace said.  “They traced things back, connected it to the suspicious material, the fake IDs we made to push stuff out into the right channels… they shut down the boundary.”

“The wrong people got stuck on the wrong sides,” Tori said.  “I got stuck here.”

“What was the inciting event?  You all triggered at once?”

“No,” Tori said.

“That’s the way it works.  Multiple triggers within a minute of each other.”

“Days,” Megan said.  “Days.”

“The portal,” March murmured.  As heads turned her way, she said, “The portal?  If there’s a lot of energy or interference, or connections or… whatever.  We talk about powers passing stuff between people, but maybe they need to draw energy from somewhere to do that.”

“An open door between worlds as a big signal booster?” Jan asked.

March shrugged.

Jan nodded.  “That would make it easier for six to happen, absolutely.”

“With the quarantine, and the inhumane treatment, and the suspicion we were doing it on purpose, as a biological weapon…” Megan said, trailing off rather than forming a full sentence.

“Well, that gives us some answers and food for thought,” Jan said.  “But… you asked for help.  Why?”

“The carousel,” Tori said.  “Every day, one of us would become strong, and the rest are weak, or normal, or… or whatever.”

“I’ve heard about similar cases,” Jan said.

“We- there’s a loyalty effect,” Megan said.  “It’s messing everything up.  It’s messing us up.”

“Loyalty?” March asked.

“We couldn’t say no.  We didn’t want to say no.  And each of us have fragments of a power that influence people’s moods or views of them.  Change how other people treat us.  There were two who were problems.  Two who had us robbing people, hurting people.  One of them told us to like hurting people, and I don’t know-”

Megan trailed off.

“I did.  A little bit, for a little while,” Jace said.

Tori nodded.  “And for a while, things were okay, because we all knew that if we did something unconscionable, then in a few days we would be at the mercy of whoever we did it to.”

“Things changed?”  Jan asked.

“One of our group took charge and- she went after the other.  They were both the worst of our six… for very different ways.  He was the monster but she- she had the strongest control power.  She went after him and she took his day of being in charge.  The day of having all the power.  And she came after each of us, one by one.”

“To do what?”

“Take our days.  And she got even stronger, if that’s possible.”

“What happened to her?”

“She disappeared.  A while ago.  And things have been okay for a couple of years now.”

“But the other – Bill.  He called Jace.  Reached out.  He wants to try doing what Bianca -the other woman- did to him.  Even though we’re already spent, we don’t have any days any more, and we barely have power.  He was trying to convince Jace to kidnap us.  Promised money, safety…”

“We don’t have anywhere else to go.  People made Bianca disappear when she became a problem, and we’re not exactly in anyone’s good books since the portal mess.”

“I was barely even involved,” Megan said.

“He got Ysmine,” Tori said.  “He’s coming for us.”

This wasn’t fun.  It was hardly a game.  But to be trapped, March could sympathize.  It hit so close to home that she worried it was designed to.

She laid her hand over Tori’s.

She’d reached the city.  A folded-up Brockton Bay.  She whooped as she ran forward, leaping, hurling herself at a bend in space.

The bend swept her up.  Gravity flowed in another direction.

With hand signals, her teams fanned out.  Tori was absent.  In two minutes, Tori would fire a blue flare off to one side.  It would signal the reinforcements, if the reinforcements hadn’t been wiped out.

“March!” a hero bellowed.  He stood on a rooftop directly above her, looking up at her while she looked up at him.  Twenty feet separated them.

“Hallo!” she shouted.  The bent space captured her voice, made it resound in different ways.

“You can’t do this!  You can’t touch the time bubbles!  Every person with a power that looks at the future says the result is bad!

She laughed.

“Stop!”

She laughed again, gauging the bent space, then ran, leaping over a chasm, letting the bend in space redirect her leap, putting her near another rooftop.

Her people were making their way up now.  Getting used to the vectors of this particular battlefield.

“You need to stop!”

“You need to get out of my way!  I get what I want, and anyone who tries to stop me dies!”

“It’s not a game!”

She laughed again, using one hand and both feet to quickly ascend the light post that illuminated the newest roof top, dragging her sword against the length of it as she ran; it was the roof where the distance between rooftops was shortest.  She stopped, pausing, then leaped.

The leap carried her a few feet up, helped by the fact that the space in the neutral territory between buildings was neither up nor down.  Then the light exploded.  The blast from the explosion tipped her over to the far end of the neutral territory.  She fell up, rather than down.

All around her, buildings began to move.  Leaving her less in the way of escape routes.

Vista was in play.  Vista was getting in her way.  They’d had a few run-ins already, when March had paid visits to Foil and had run afoul of the city’s heroes.  This city’s heroes, she had to remind herself.

She smiled, and she moved her hand, signaling her team.  Heroes were mobilizing, moving across every plane, like a topsy-turvy funhouse, but each facet was a different hero and a different power.  Each moved in slow motion.  She had time to remind herself of what each of them did.  The ones she wasn’t sure of, she sicced her people on.  A hundred cans of paint in the midst of being tossed onto surfaces.

When this was done, all would be crimson.

“I’m so sorry.”

“Shhh,” Tori murmured.

“I’m so sorry.  I was supposed to save you.”

“Shh.”

March’s head sagged.

A flashback.  A brief and violent struggle.  She was good at timing, but she had to know what her enemy did.

And the people of this cluster did so very many things.

A man, heavyset, with a false magnificence that filled her with equally false strength, just to be around him.  False enough that she tested and exceeded her limits, hurt herself in mind and body.  A telekinetic shield that seemed to parry things just as effectively as her own timing power and enhanced baton did.  He teleported short distances, and made the building shake like it was in the midst of an earthquake when he appeared.  Power and force and when she finally cut him, he grabbed the line she’d drawn on him and threw it away, like it was a scrap of cloth.

Now… now she bled.

Now a tube in her arm drained her and kept her at the brink of life.  She faded in and out and every part of her hurt.

For Tori, who was just close enough for March to touch, it was much the same.  Blood drained.  She passed out, came to with weak startles.

For Megan… for Jace, for Ysmine.

And he was getting stronger.  And somewhere, a disappeared Bianca was getting weaker.

He’d drained March in hopes that he could take her power like he took the others’.  He didn’t get the power.  Now, instead of killing her directly, he killed her by neglecting to check her vitals, neglecting to ensure he didn’t take too much.  She didn’t get the drugs or the food the others did.

So she talked to the ones in earshot.  Tori, primarily, when the two of them were awake at the same time and the sedatives weren’t too strong.  About love and life and hopes and missed opportunities.  About mothers and violins and about the differences between their worlds.

By millimeters, she was brought closer to a futile end.  Her hands were bound in a position where she couldn’t activate her power, and her sense of accuracy and timing only helped her to track the time she had been here.

Slowly, she slipped closer to oblivion.

Onyx facets.

Onyx walls.

Carmine facets, with veins instead of edges, kaleidoscopic when she tried to wrap her head around the shape.

Carmine walls, that she could almost imagine were the inside of her, because she saw herself reflected in this wall or that surface.

She’d remarked on the power of portals, and as she felt things hum through the structures that made up this oblivion, she imagined it was much like that.  Vast amounts of power being redistributed, like the amount it took to hold up a breach between worlds.  Governments had tried to harness the power of Haywire’s portals and they’d decided it didn’t work because any means of gathering it didn’t stand up, durability-wise.

A tidbit from Jan.

Poor Jan.  Dead Jan.  She hadn’t been any use to Bill.  The bloodletter.  The blood priest.

March sank deeper into the oblivion.  She saw patterns in the energy that ran through things, and for fleeting instances, those patterns resembled people, ideas, events.  Too much to read.  They weren’t for her.

But there was something here for her.  Codified into everything in the same way she was being codified.  Homer.

She could see the empty space where Flechette was meant to be.

She communicated with Homer, and it was different than anything she’d done or felt as flesh.  She felt his sadness and knew he’d died sometime after she’d left.  Swallowed up by the worst of New York’s villains.

She could sympathize with the blood priest, who was scrabbling so viciously for this.  He told himself it was for power, but… he was really after this, she felt.  He wanted this connection.

Something beyond the short and fleeting life.  A heaven where she would never be alone.  Forever in the company of another, running through, over, under, into, communicating through shared events and bursts of static, riddling each other out.

And when Flechette died-

The view dimmed.

And when Flechette died, she would have Flechette forever.  Until the end of a species that intended to last beyond the end of the universe.  And Flechette would have her, and what happened in flesh would be swiftly forgotten.

The view dimmed further.  For an instant, she felt a fear bigger and more horrible than any she’d ever considered.  That she could be teased with this, then to have it taken away.

It all went black, and she wailed with a body that no form and a voice that had no sound.

Her heart resumed beating.  She sat up, and was instantly pushed down.  A doctor.

Already, the particulars were fading.  But an impression that deep- that would never go away.  She knew.

She could remember the feeling of the portal, so close.  Past a veil.  A huge source of energy.  An amplifier.

Maybe that helped make the impression deep enough, strong enough.

Tori’s voice.

“They’re taking us to Bianca.  So long as we’re with her, none of us will be able to try this again, and if we do, at least we’ll be somewhere we can’t interfere with other stuff.”

March tried to sit up.  Doing so gave her a blinding headache.

“It’s okay,” she said, not sure if Tori was still there.  Or any of the others.  “None of this matters.”

“What?”

“It doesn’t matter.  I love you.  Thank you for talking to me.”

“Be safe, March.”

It doesn’t matter if I am.

All of this is a teaser.  A chance to flirt and toy with our reality before we move on.  Little more than a game or a dream that sets the tone for the day.

She shivered.  She felt nauseous.  She felt glorious.

She didn’t hear or see, but by the feeling of the air, she sensed that Tori was gone.  The others were gone.

She would see Flechette, of course.  There was no way that she wouldn’t, when they were fated to revolve around each other for an eternity.  Joined by gentle Homer.  Surrounded by the muted presences of others.

How delighted Flechette would be when she found out.

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Blinding – 11.12

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“I’m back,” I told Darlene.  “That wasn’t a minute, was it?”

She shook her head.

I had Juliette with me, her arm around my shoulder.  She had a wedge missing from her side, and some horrific damage to her shoulder I couldn’t parse with the blood and the way her hair matted into the wound.

She pulled away as soon as there was a bookshelf in reach to lean on.  Hand over hand, with one arm barely functional, she crawled along the wall to the nook by the door, where she slowly eased herself down.  Still hand over hand.

“Do you want help?” I asked.

Juliette shook her head.  She reached over to the light switch.  Only half of the lights in the space were on, and with a flick of the lights, only the light from the back room where Lookout and Swansong were and the light from the stairwell we’d come from were there.

Nobody complained or commented.

She settled in against the wall, leaning sideways into it instead of sitting with her back to it.

I was wary as I watched.  There was something about how quiet she was and how rigid Darlene was, that made me feel like Juliette was a powder keg about to go off.  I had no point of reference, I didn’t know much of anything about her except that she and her brother didn’t get along, and the feeling persisted because- because there was no way she could be like that and not be bottling up emotion, ready to vent it at the next or nearest excuse.

She pulled out her phone from her pocket.  The screen glowed in the dark.  She fished in her pocket with the shaky arm that was attached to a shoulder with a gap in it that I could have put my hand through, and she pulled out the headphones that were threaded up and under her top.

I saw it coming as soon as I saw the glimpse of blue at her side, where it looked like a triangle had been taken out of her.  The headphone cord had been severed.

Her hands shook as she held the severed cord.

“Do you- do you want mine?” I asked.  “My earbuds?”

She nodded once, a single jerk of the head.

I pulled mine out.  Rather than approach, I tossed them to her.

In taking them, she turned further away from me.  As if she had to move away from giving a thank-you, refuse my existence further, because I’d supplied that help.

“Antares?” Darlene asked, a question in a small voice.

One eye on Juliette, I found my way to Darlene’s side, crouching down.

Juliette plugged the earbuds into both phone and ears.  Her head leaned against the wall as she stared down at the screen, the blue light illuminating a pale face with drops of red at the side, spray.

Darlene, at least, seemed to relax as Juliette did.  I touched her shoulder, and felt her start at the touch.

“I peeked in on Lookout and Swansong.  Capricorn is helping them.  If- I may have to go help him again.”

“Don’t leave,” she said, her voice small.

I slumped against the wall, going from a crouch to a hard sit.  She reached out, trying to hug me, and I pulled her a bit closer, which provoked a head shake.

It took a second to find a position where she was comfortable.  Not being too far from Aiden, her back pressed against his.  Her head in my lap, even though I wasn’t a person she knew.

My heart was pounding like I was in the middle of a fight, my thoughts were chaotic, and I was just sitting, trying to figure out how to handle this, worried that I was somehow doing this wrong.

“Lookout,” I heard Byron.  “Lookout, stop-”

Lookout came around the corner, hobbling on one leg, a hand at the wall, the other leg she was using terminating at the ankle.  She set the stump down, reached out to the wall for support, and paused as she looked at Darlene, Chicken Little and I.

Byron came around the corner, checking.  I signaled that it was okay, even though I wasn’t sure it was.

“Don’t touch him,” Darlene told Lookout, sitting partially up.  There was a panicked note in her voice.  “You can’t touch him.”

Silent, Lookout started forward again.

“Lookout,” I said.

There was a grim kind of determination as she made her way forward, more extreme than a limp.  I started to rise, but hesitated when she went straight past Chicken Little.  I had to catch her as she half-crouched, half-collapsed, landing between Darlene and I.  I eased her the rest of the way down.

“Thank you,” she said, quiet.

Just past her, Darlene looked wary.

“You can’t run on that leg,” I said.

“It doesn’t hurt,” she said.  There was a pause.  “It hurts a lot.  But putting weight on it doesn’t hurt.  It’s frozen like it is.”

Darlene nodded.

“This is doable,” Lookout said.  “I’ve been hurt worse than this.  Not that I want to say it’s minor, because it’s not, I want to sympathize and-”

She’d been hurt worse than this?  With her parents?  I found that really hard to imagine.

Or… not physical pain.

“Okay,” Darlene said, her voice tight.

Lookout was tense, fidgeting.

“Can I get you anything?” I asked.  “Either of you?”

Darlene shook her head.  She didn’t, I noticed, insist that I stay.

“My helm-” Lookout started.  I caught the hitch in her voice.  “My helmet.  The, um, I was thinking about what I was going to say when people showed up, and- can you help with my helmet?  I-”

She reached up with both hands.  One hand had a thumb missing.  The other had been cut at a diagonal.  There was nothing except a triangle pointing to the corner nearest where the pinky would be.

I hadn’t seen, glimpsing into the room before letting Capricorn handle our teammates, turning my attention to Juliette.  I felt guilty having left Kenzie, but I would have felt worse, making a promise to Darlene and not following through.

“I have it,” I said.  I tried to find the clasps.

“I thought what I’d say, and it sounds weird, now that I’m here, but watertight bodysuits really suck so much when you’re sweating a lot.  I feel like I’m swimming in here, and it’s full up all the way to the neck.  Is that gross?  I’m sorry if that’s gross.  I don’t know why I fixated-”

Another hitch of the voice.

“It’s okay,” Darlene said.

I didn’t have words.  I just focused on the helmet.  I found the clasps and opened them.

She was sweating profusely, but I wasn’t sure that sweat was responsible for the moisture at her cheeks.  Saying something or pointing out how out of sync that was with the smile on her face would have been betraying a trust, however.

My first concern was in mitigating the damage.  Kenzie and Darlene, and then Chicken Little who was lying a short distance away.  Was it making things worse, Kenzie being here?  I didn’t have the best read of Darlene or Chicken Little.  Kenzie sat beside me, her back to the wall.  Darlene lay on her side, propped partially up because to do otherwise would mean her head was in Kenzie’s lap.

“When help comes, you might need to put that helmet back on.  Darlene, your mask, too.  I know it sounds like the dumbest thing ever when things are like this, but it could be a lot of people, and once your face is out there then your secret identity is kaput.”

That got me a solemn nod.

“Are you okay?” Kenzie asked.

“Not very,” was Darlene’s response.

“Capricorn warned me Chicken got hurt.”

“Apparently,” I said, quiet, because I wanted to make my voice heard now, before the conversation reached a point where it was too much of an intrusion.

“They hurt him.  We couldn’t stop them.  He can’t see or hear much now,” Darlene whispered.

Matching Darlene’s volume, Kenzie said, “Can you?  I know it must hurt to be connected.”

“You and Chicken?”  A tighter tone of voice, defensive.

“You and me, silly.  I want to help him but…”

Lookout reached down, using the left hand that was only four fingers, no thumb.  Index and ring finger went beneath Darlene’s arm, while middle and pinky went over.

“Go easy, Lookout,” I said.

Darlene resisted a bit as Kenzie lifted the arm, but didn’t fight as it was moved toward Aiden, instead.

“Help me help him?” Kenzie asked, pushing the hand of the dismembered arm toward Aiden.

Aiden stirred slightly, then touched the arm, pulling it closer to him.  Both arms wrapped around the limb, pulling it against his chest.

Macabre, but I could see Darlene visibly relax at the gesture.

She wants to help too.

“Connect us,” Lookout said, insistent.

Her most injured hand reached down to Darlene’s intact one, touching wrists.  Lookout twisted around to see me and spotted the helmet.

I followed the unspoken request, putting it in reach.  Watched as Lookout moved her hand, Darlene moving hers in concert.  Used Darlene’s fingers as her own to reach to the back of the helmet, with me rotating the helmet to help.

The ‘bun’ at the back was soon disconnected.  A flick of a small switch made it open, two covers pulling back to reveal the camera ‘eye’.  Another two small adjustments made that eye turn left and right, then up and down.

The distraction seemed to help both of them.  No hitched breaths, no physical jolts of pain.  The light from the stairwell caught a bead of sweat at Kenzie’s forehead, lights glittering on the moist surface of Darlene’s eyes.

The camera was removed from its oblong mounting, moved over toward Chicken Little-

He jumped at the physical contact, squeezed Darlene’s arm harder.

The pad touched his neck.  The camera came to life, moving stiffly, the cover ‘lids’ opening and closing slightly, the ‘pupil’ narrowing and widening.  Rain’s tech.

Kenzie leaned into Darlene hard, pressing their faces together as the camera focused in on them.

“Hi!” Kenzie said.  “Hi there.”

“Hi,” Darlene said, to the camera-eye.

“Hi,” Chicken Little spoke for the first time.  “I can’t hear you.  I can’t see you clearly either.  I don’t think it’s because it’s dark.”

“We can work on that, can’t we?” Kenzie asked.

Darlene nodded.

I extricated myself, letting the two girls get to a more comfortable position, Kenzie communicating through Darlene’s power to get Darlene to act as her hands.  Darlene didn’t need me to cling to, at least for right now.

“Sveta?” I asked.

Silence.

“What can I do?” I asked.  My voice carried into the dark.

“Leave.  For your own safety.”

The words stung.  A gulf separated us.

“I can use my forcefield to get close.”

“Don’t.  Not when- not like this.”

She didn’t trust herself.  It wasn’t just the gulf.  She was several steps removed.  On most days I’d seen her at the hospital, she’d been one or two steps removed from hurting me.  One mistake to smash something into a forcefield, another mistake to do something to my body.

Here, to cover that distance, turn the corner, to smash my forcefield and then to hurt me, it required a sequence of mistakes.

And she saw that sequence as being too possible.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Me too.  I’m just- why?  Why couldn’t they take my word for it when I said I surrendered?  Why did they have to wreck it?  Why did they-”

There was a movement.  A object hurtled in anger, startling, then I startled more as that object exploded.

Not fire and heat, but a violent release of pressure.  Layered lemon-slices of plexiglass overlapping one another, each one curved and nestled into others to form a ball shape.  On impact with the floor ten feet from me, the pieces had sprung apart.  I could see where the damage had already been done, pieces sliced through, some pieces missing.

“Sorry,” I heard her voice.

“No,” I said.  I leaned against the wall, staring up at the ceiling.  “No need for any apologies.  I get it.”

“Can you give me some space?  I want to mourn.”

Mourn.

Byron was helping Ashley, and I knew they heard.  Both looked at me.

“The body,” I said.

“I really liked it,” she said.

“So did I,” I said.  I could have said there would be another one, if anyone in her immediate circle could help it.  Even that Rain had the details on the internals that he’d been replicating as something writ large.  Didn’t matter.  There was something sentimental about this body, and it was no longer usable.

“I could have killed him.  Them.  I had a split second to decide, and I worried that if I instinctively grabbed at the whip, then the tendrils would be cut loose.  They could hurt a lot of people if they weren’t attached to me.”

“You made the right call.”

“I think so,” she said.  “But it’s not easy knowing I might’ve stopped some of this from happening.”

“We have options,” I said.  “Trust me?  Can you just… give me some faith, that I can figure something out?”

A long pause.  Wrestling with herself, in more than one way.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Just… some space?  Until I trust myself?”

“I’ll be back to check on you soon,” I said.  I knocked on the wall as I left.

I had to walk around bookcases to reach the table where Ashley and Byron sat.  The table had been moved so that Ashley could watch Kenzie’s group.

About ten feet away, Flor was handcuffed to a desk – a professor’s desk, fit for the front of the classroom, with the internal shelves and drawers.  her legs were stacked against the wall, and she hunched forward, hair hanging down as she tried to tear open the wrapper from a treat from the vending machine with her teeth.  She’d been supplied with a lot of things, and for now that seemed to be keeping her content, much as Juliette’s phone was allowing her to tune out.

Treats and battery life were finite, though.

“Status?” I asked Byron.

“The rest of team blue is arriving soon.  We got a status update from Vista, we were debating calling emergency services, or which teams were even available,” Byron said.

I could see the toll that this dark place was having on him.  He sat closest to the glow from the back room where Swansong, Lookout, and Flor had been stowed.  His brother was hurt and he had to be acutely aware of that.

“No emergency services just yet,” I said.  “There’s not a lot they can do.  Let’s wait for our reinforcements first, regroup, make sure we know exactly what we need.  But people will have to show up to do cleanup.  This much blood is a biohazard.  The more injured people are going to need fluids and blood.  We’ll have to arrange it so we can brief them on the scene before they walk in.  Flor, Sveta… too many dangerous scenarios.”

Byron nodded.  “Good.  That sounds right.”

“Swansong?” I asked.

Possibly wary of a trap, Cradle had been less sure of the strikes he had delivered to Ashley.  Marks cut into thigh but didn’t penetrate all the way.  One mark cut into the prosthetic hand.  Once one leg had been severed at the calf, he had stopped.

Tristan had supplied a peg leg, with the raw end of the stump set into a blunted spike of stone with a growth meant to reach around the calf.  Strips of her dress bound it to the leg.

She sat in a way that had her leaning back, trying to look casual and failing utterly with the darkest of looks in her eye, as she surveyed everything around her, the various kids in particular.

“It’s fine,” she said.  “Works.”

“Did you get painkiller?” I asked.  Byron had found some in a kit.

“I don’t know if they’re okay to take with the meds I’m on,” she said.

“I can search it on my phone, if you want.”

She shrugged.  When she turned her head to look at the kids, I could see how drawn her face was, the meager light highlighting the rise and fall of musculature beneath the skin of her face and neck.

“Vista reached out,” Byron said.  “She couldn’t get ahold of you?”

“I put it in the other room.  I didn’t want any sudden noises bothering Sveta while she’s unsure of herself, and I thought it would be a good idea to charge it in case Juliette’s runs out of power.”

He nodded.  He could have called me an idiot for not being available.  I wouldn’t have faulted him.

But he wasn’t the type to do that.

Byron tapped through to find an image.  He slid the phone across the table in my direction.

Brockton Bay, not New Brockton, and it was thoroughly Vistafied, as Vistafied as anything I’d ever seen.  I recognized the scar, a section of the city where Bakuda’s bombs had been detonated in a massive bombing run, chaotic and unpredictable, and then sealed inside an encasement of concrete taller than most of the buildings in that area.

That encasement had broken when Brockton Bay had been hit, but enough of it remained to be recognizable, with color leaking out of the gaps, like fireworks in slow, two-years-to-get-this-far motion.  That section of the city was above the Boardwalk.  Folded forward, walls folded in.  Buildings meshed together like teeth of a zipper, many rooftops a matter of ten feet from the counterpart rooftop on the other side.  There were gaps, but many of those gaps were filled by the sections of the city that stabbed in from the west half of the city.

The ‘bay’ of Brockton Bay and the ocean beyond it was reduced to a vein of water that ran along one edge of the almost-cube.  Another wall was a distortion of things from pretty distant territory, if I could judge by the ‘rings’ where long distances of terrain had been compressed down: I was guessing Earth Bet’s Killington was among them.

A sign of how sparsely populated Earth Bet was, that she could pull that off.  A city folded like origami, distant locations pulled in, so that all of the places they needed to protect were within a few minutes of one another, one upside-down, one leftside-right, one placed at the back, so a lattice of ruined buildings and trees protected it.

One open face, facing the rest of the world, with the terrain leading to that face being warped, altered into ripples, made as slow to traverse as possible.

Go you, Little V.

“I bet she’s happy with that,” I said.

“She is,” Byron said.  He slid the phone to where Ashley could see it.

“Badass,” she said.  There wasn’t a hint of the smile I might have expected accompanying that word.

“I didn’t tell her.  I didn’t think she needed the extra worry,” Byron said, as he took his phone back.

“She’s scared,” Ashley said.

“Nervous, not scared,” Byron said, before I could say anything similar in Vista’s defense.  “She wanted to stay on the phone, we had a confusing minute when she thought I was Tristan.  Then we talked for longer than I should have.  She’s waiting for the attack, seeing only hints of them, having to rely on heroes to cover her flanks because her focus is so tied up in what she’s doing.”

“She’s made herself the King on the chess board,” I said.  “So long as she’s making that place that impenetrable, they have to get her to crack it and do what they want to do.”

“Something like that,” he said.

I thought about going.  Leaving this oppressive atmosphere.  Except that would be leaving Byron as the only able person on site, when there were too many volatile variables.  Darlene and Kenzie were getting on for now, but would that change?  What happened when Flor could no longer snack or Juliette had no phone?

When Sveta needed a friend, and I wasn’t around?

She was tough, but…

“Tell her,” Ashley said.

“Tell me what?”

“Valkyrie’s back.  I immediately asked if she’d help, but they’re doing quarantine.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Okay, well, if this goes on for a few hours-”

“Jessica,” Byron cut in.  “They found Jessica.  And some staff.”

“Bonesaw?” I asked.

He shook his head.  “Apparently not.”

Ms. Yamada?

“I left a message.  No response yet,” he said.

I folded my arms, feeling simultaneously relieved and anxious.  I wasn’t sure I would have had it in me to make that call and leave that message.  Not with the state of things.

“There aren’t many teams available.  I’ve been going through everyone I could think of.  They’re all tied up.  The villains acting like shitheels and going all-out isn’t limited to Cradle, Love Lost, and March,” Byron said.

“Did anyone turn up?” I asked.  “It doesn’t have to be to go after Cradle or anything.  Just… people we can trust to watch the fort?”

Byron tapped on the phone, then turned it around for me to see.

I frowned.

“Yeah,” I said.

Kids,” I said, over the phone.  “I’ve talked to the Undersiders at this point, I’ve talked to Sveta.  I know you’ve had a longstanding interest in keeping the gears turning and the greater machine working, and I fucking swear, if you screw us on this, if you pull the rug out from under us-”

“I’m not going to do that, Antares.  But I can’t tell you exactly what you want to hear, either.  You’re right that this isn’t okay.  But it’s also uncomfortably close to taking a side in an internal dispute.”

“Then take a fucking side!  We’ve put our asses on the line to protect this city.  We’ve gone out of our way to cooperate with you, and people are getting torn to pieces!  As far as I can tell, they’ve refined their mechanisms for tearing people to pieces!  Narrower and fatter margins for where the invincibility-immortality effect extends from the wounds.  You cannot be okay with this!”

“Calm down.”

“I’m-” I started.  I stopped myself, lowered my volume, and calmed down, but not because she’d asked.  Precipice, Rachel, Foil, and the Heartbroken girls had arrived.  Natalie drove her bug, guiding them to the building.  I was out in front, standing in the cold, pacing.

“Optics matter.  If we take a side now it might hurt everyone later.  I’m not okay with this.  But as long as it’s a feud-”

“They went after the Navigators.  How is that a feud?”

“So long as it looks like a feud… we’re reluctant to step in.”

“You’re useless,” I snarled the words.  “Completely, utterly fucking useless.”

“In this?  Maybe.  Partially.  We can make less overt moves.”

“Do,” I said, my voice hard.

“My husband says you threw a wrench into their finances.”

“And?”

“And they’re doing a workaround, reaching for other accounts to pay the mercenaries they hired.  He can interrupt that, he says.  It will add to the pressure, at least until they can pay their hires some other way.  It might mean you have less to deal with.”

I restrained myself from being too demanding.  “That’s a step.”

Provided,” the voice on the phone said.  “You take credit.  It’s an extension of what you started.  It will add to your mystique.  It casts reasonable doubt, when the reality would turn a dangerous amount of doubt toward economy and the man closest to it.”

The others had dismounted, or climbed out of their vehicles.  Worried lines creased Natalie’s forehead.  She hesitated, standing about twenty feet away from me.

“We’ve done you favors,” Citrine said, over the phone.

She said something else, but I was distracted by the sudden approach of team blue, who had dismounted and gotten sorted.  Precipice, Rachel, Candy, Chastity, Aroa, Foil.  I covered the mouth of the phone.

“It’s bad,” I said.  “Hang back a second?”

“I can deal with bad,” Rachel said.

With that, she led the Heartbroken girls into the building.  Precipice and Foil hung back, Precipice standing next to Natalie.

I uncovered the mouthpiece.  “I lost you for a second there.  Repeat yourself, Citrine?”

I saw Foil fold her arms.

“Ahem.  Favors.  We’ve done you some.  Knowing what Cradle and the associated groups have done, I can promise you that we won’t extend any favors his way.  The way forward will be hard for him, I think.”

“I don’t think he plans on sticking around long enough that he’d care,” I replied.

“Aleph aside, no universe is truly isolated anymore.  Many worlds have neighbors.  If they settle in Earth N, we can apply pressure.  If they move to Shin-”

I tensed.

“-Pressure,” she said.

“We could use that husband of yours on the field, if the stories I hear are right,” I said.  “He’s good enough that he could do it and not leave a trail that leads to you.”

“He is.  Unfortunately, we’re being targeted.  There are no valid moves on this board that don’t put us at risk of being picked off.”

Teacher?

I clenched my fist, angry.

“Is there anything else?” she asked.

“Permission,” I said.

“For?  To?”

“To do what’s necessary to deal with Cradle,” I said.  “And Love Lost.  Potentially others.”

“You don’t need permission for that, Antares,” Citrine’s voice was soft on the other end of the line.

“No.  But I want it,” I said.  “Tell me… if this somehow wraps up, and people ask questions, it won’t be your people who are putting the screws to us or making us out to be the bad guys.  Because I know that’s happened.  The lines always got pushed and tested, villains and even heroes would default to what was easiest, taking a bad guy out permanently, and then when the situation was tidied up, the authorities would crack down hard on them.  Because getting back to a state of normal meant removing all of the murderers.”

“I’ll do what I can, but I’m not the court and the courts aren’t me.  I won’t put you there, I’ll even do what I can to discourage it, but if you find yourself there through no fault of mine…”

My expression twisted and I had to fight to get it back to normal.  She did not make herself an easy person to like or even tolerate.

“Thank you, Citrine.  Some people just arrived.  I should look after things here.”

“Good luck.”

She was the one to hang up first.

I met Natalie’s eyes.

“Upstairs,” I said.  “Before you say anything, before you make any firm judgments…”

“This would be better if I was objective about it,” she stated.  “I shouldn’t get involved to the point that it colors my judgment.”

“If you don’t want to get involved, I understand.  It’s an ugly scene.”

“I want to get involved.  I don’t want to be overly involved,” Natalie said.  “I’m worried that that’s what I’m being led to.  I’m worried I started on that road when I helped Lookout.  Not that I regret doing that, but- you’re shaking your head.”

I was.

“Why?” she asked.

“I get it.  I really, really do.  You can be proud of the course of action -and you should, you really should- but still not like where you end up because of it.  That’s okay.  I get it.”

“But?”

“But nothing.  You earned your stripes.  You get to… call in a favor, or have your turn holding up the ‘it’s complicated card’ and being unreasonable-”

“That’s not what I’m doing,” she said.

“I’m not saying…” I trailed off.

“You kind of are,” Precipice  cut in.

I frowned.  “If you don’t want to get involved, cool.  I don’t fault you.  I respect the shit out of you for backing Lookout up, going the extra mile many times.  Dealing with Goddess and helping us there.  I don’t hold it against you if you want to draw the line there.”

“I-”

“Can you just- sorry.  I don’t want to say I respect you and then interrupt a second later, but can you let me finish?”

Natalie nodded.

“I’m tired, I’m not at my best, and I don’t want to frame this wrong.  I’m saying if you want out, you can be out.  If you want in?  If you want to check out the scene, get all the facts, have your say?  I would welcome any input.  I think we all would.  We’re shaken up.”

“Yeah.  Absolutely.”

I had to clear my throat.  It still hurt.

“If you don’t want to look at the scene, if you want to give your opinion without knowing the whole why?  You’ve earned that.  It’s unfair but you’ve earned the right to be a little unfair.  If you want to give that input, then yeah.  I’ll listen.  We’ll listen- the rest of Breakthrough, I think.  Just… don’t be unfair about it and call it fair.  I don’t think I’d be comfortable going this extra mile in any premeditated way if either you or the mayor said no.”

“You want me to sign off on murder?”

Put so bluntly, it was a heavy thing.

“Just… go upstairs?  Or settle in down in the lobby, wait for ambulances and cleanup?”

“Or go,” she said.

“If you want,” I said.

I saw her expression, put myself in her shoes for a second, and then I frowned, hand going to my face, pushing hair away, momentarily covering my eyes.  “I’m just realizing the situation I’m putting you in.  You can’t go, because that’s the same as giving permission, because you heard one end of the conversation with the mayor.”

Natalie hunched her shoulders, hands in her pockets.  “I’ll go up.  Don’t worry about it.  It’s been a shitty night.”

“Thank you.”

She headed inside, turning to where the stairwell was.

The wind changed direction.  There hadn’t been anything falling from the sky or stirred by the air, but with the change, snow was whisked from precarious positions, and flurries stirred up.

“I might have to opt out,” Foil said.

“Okay,” I said.

“I love the kids, many of them, I really do, but the horrific stuff isn’t getting easier with time.  You’re supposed to become numb to it, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“I’m not becoming numb,” Foil said.  “Each time’s harder than the last.  I’m going to stay down here.  Keep watch.”

“Okay.  It makes me feel better to know we have someone watching out.  Just remember you’re being targeted too.”

“I’ll be careful,” Foil said.

I nodded.

Precipice followed me inside.

The door shut behind us, and he put his hand on my shoulder to stop me.  His mask glowed blue, the circuit pattern glowing in the unlit lobby.  Similar circuits traced his miniature arms.

“What’s our next step?” he asked.

“Vista may have this in hand.  It’s looking more like we might have to go after Cradle.”

“What Love Lost said… she fully expects me to turn myself in.  This is what she’s trying to do, right?  Apply pressure?”

“I don’t think she’s in her right mind,” I said.  “What she’s doing and saying don’t line up.”

“Maybe.  You’re not answering my question.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, she probably thinks you’ll give yourself up, to undo what was done to all the others.  Or she thinks that if those guys are left like this for long enough, they or their loved ones will turn on you.”

Precipice nodded.

“I don’t think it makes sense to do, Rain,” I said.  “I think they’ve proven themselves unreliable and dangerous, well past the capacity for any kind of deals.  If you turn yourself in, they’ll let the others suffer just to make you more miserable before they kill you.”

“I was wondering that,” he said, barely audible.  “A lot of time spent stuck in a room with them.  I can see it.”

“We’ll figure something out,” I said.  “If we can’t figure out a workable plan of attack, we’ll go after March and-”

I stopped as we reached the top of the stairs.  Natalie stood in the doorway.

Candy, Chastity, and Darlene were talking.  Aroa was with Juliette, and the fact that Aroa had been in what was effectively a car accident when the armored van had rolled was nothing compared to Juliette’s condition.  The pain was clear and the blood was everywhere.  It didn’t help that the lights had been turned on.

Kenzie didn’t have her helmet on, despite my earlier urging.  She sat with Chicken Little while Darlene’s family members clustered around her.  She didn’t seem aware of it, but as seconds wore on, she hunched over more, tension taking over her body, her hands pressed tight between her knees.

I touched Natalie’s shoulder, to get her to move, or to get her out of my way so I could act.  She reacted, turning, and Kenzie noticed.

Either because she was good at putting on a show or because having the right people around revitalized her, Kenzie almost immediately perked up, the signs of pain gone.

“Natalie!  And Precipice!”  she said, all smiles.  “Precipice!  I’ve been using your contact pads for Chicken Little.  It’s so useful!  Can you help me crack this?  I think the signal’s not translating right.”

“One second,” Precipice told her.

She bobbed her head in a nod.  Natalie entered the room, stepping around streaks and pools of blood, and Kenzie seemed happy as a clam to have Natalie around.

I studied the room, trying to see if I was missing anything.  Any powder kegs set to go off, any tensions, any people in need…

There was one, really.  Rain.

“We can’t discount the obvious,” he said.

“The obvious?  You’re not turning yourself in.  We already established that’s a bad idea.”

“The other obvious,” he said.  “It’s… seven-something o’clock?  Almost Eight?  It was six when we left in the three teams, thirty to forty five minutes to get to the locations, move between them.  Then this.”

“About right,” I said.

“It’s not all that long before I get knocked out by the dream room,” Rain said, quiet.  “Erin says I’m almost dead, I’m so unresponsive.”

“You think it’s a time window to go after them?”

“One of ours and three of theirs get knocked out.  It’s an edge.”

“And their mercenaries are possibly disrupted,” I murmured.

Precipice nodded.

I put my hand on his shoulder as I left him behind.  Byron was sitting in the chair next to Swansong, and even though I knew he hadn’t been touched by the whip, he’d presumably felt Tristan’s wounds, and it was clear from posture that he wasn’t bearing down well under the situation.  Swansong had barely moved an inch, except for that dark look in her eye to intensify.

Situations like this could bring out the worst in us-

Rain joined Lookout, bending down to see how the camera had been set into place.  Aiden raised a hand to bump fists with Rain, a relatively small hand meeting a smaller, mechanical hand.

Not just the worst in us.

Sine-squiggle.  Guncheck.  Greater-than symbol.

N.  O.  D.  E.  A.  T.  H.  S.

I spelled out the letters, tracing them.

After a pause, a response.

Circle with a diagonal line through it.  Square with wobbly side.  Arrow.  Trident.  Less-than symbol.  Circle with a vertical line through it.  Equal-sign with line drawn through it.  Parallel vertical lines.

There was no pattern I could discern.  There was no point, either.

But I couldn’t bring myself to stop, either.  So I traced out words.  The response came back, garbled, encrypted.  I wrote down the symbols as best as I could.  When I called it quits, I could go to the others, pass it to Rain or to Kenzie, and see if they could work out how the scrambling happened, and if there was a way to counter it.

I doubted it was easy.  I doubted it was possible.  There was no point to this, no pattern, and no way I could bring myself to give up, because giving up meant going back out there and-

-And I’d hit a wall.

I hunched over the sink, avoiding looking at myself in the mirror.  My notepad -actually a tall pad of sticky notes with lines on them- was balanced precariously on the sink, threatening to fall when and if I wasn’t careful to put the part I was writing on over the right inch and a half of sink.

Backwards two.  Two overlapping circles.  Backwards two.

The door to the bathroom opened.  I tensed.

I didn’t untense when I looked in the mirror and saw who it was.

“Thank you for coming, mom,” I said, without turning around.

“Your dad’s here too.  We brought the team.  Victoria-”

Mom,” I said, interrupting.

She stopped.

“Whatever you’re going to say, just… save it?  Please?  Whatever you want me to hear you out on, I will.  E-even Amy.  Her, you, family, obligations, anything.  But-”

I hesitated as my voice wavered.

“-not tonight?” I asked.

I remained tense as I saw her approach.  Inscrutable.

She gave me a hug from behind.

I stopped taking my notes, laying pen across the pad, my fingers pressing it down hard, as if to secure it there.  Resting in the sink, one arm draping out, a portion of Tattletale’s upper body was animated, a finger tracing its arcane runes at the base of my wrist.

“…give this a try?” I asked.

The emergency services workers had arrived.  Briefed by Foil on what to watch out for.  That being told not to go down one hallway was really important.  That one little girl in the bunch would ruin lives for fun and two more girls would hurt people or kill for a laugh.  Or something.

My mom’s team was helping to guard the location.  Protect Foil, protect us.  A technology blaster was pacing the area, searching for bugs or anything the other side might be using.  A thinker was talking to Lord of Loss and the mercenaries.

Even with the warnings, I felt it was best to occupy the hallway.

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“If you need to call it quits, say so,” I said.  “It’s insidious.”

“It’s insidious all the time.  If you’re right, then… maybe.”

“Maybe,” I said.

Rain stepped forward.  He lifted a hand, then dropped it.

At the far end of the hall, under the influence of his power, Sveta endured.

My dad, having helped with the heavy lifting, returned to the second floor.  The people who had camped out here weren’t intending to go to any hospital.  That included Darlene and Lookout.  Chastity was keeping Rain company while he worked, while Byron had his head down for what I imagined was the nap of the emotionally exhausted.  Ashley was with Kenzie and so on and so on.

Solidarity, friendships, bonds.  Support.

I watched from a distance as my dad approached one of the only people who happened to be alone.  Candy, who sat with her knees to her chest, while the doctor looked over Darlene’s wounds, a handful of feet away.

I heard her respond to his question.  “I don’t like when strange men get close.  Sorry.”

I saw him back off, walking away, sitting against a distant wall.

He created a globe in his hand, and he rolled it across the floor, to Candy.

She stopped it, then rolled it back.

It was, of course, a grenade, but he caught it, reabsorbed it, then created another, rolling it.

So the back and forth went, a half-dozen times.

I floated over.  The emergency personnel had cleaned, stitched and bandaged my foot and tended to some of my other wounds, but they couldn’t do much for my throat, except to hand me a pack of lozenges and tell me to stop by a hospital when I could.  They’d even been gracious enough to re-wrap my burned hand.

My foot being bandaged made me more likely to fly than to walk, if only because the compression there was a reminder to not put my weight on it.  Also because the amount of crud they’d flushed out when rinsing it had been alarming.

I settled down beside my dad, resting my head on his shoulder.  Candy passed the ‘ball’ to me, and I stopped it with my foot, before using my toe to flick it a few feet over to where my dad could stop it.

“That’s not the kind that blows up, is it?”

“Nah,” he said.  He let it stay there for another few seconds.  It popped more like ten soap bubbles than anything explosive.

Juliette, recently looked after, unwilling to go to a hospital, settled herself down a short distance away.  The ball was passed her way.

A game of not-even-catch that was more fit for infants than children or adults, but it seemed important, somehow.

I dialed.

One ring.

A second ring.

The third- interrupted.  A heavy click.

I put my phone down.  Juliette’s was still plugged into the wall, recharging, and I picked it up.

I dialed.

One ring.

A second ring.

The third- interrupted by a voice.  “This is the work number for Ms. Jessica Yamada, counselor.  I can’t come to the phone right now, but please feel free to leave a message.  If you have an emergency-”

I hung up.

Without picking my phone up from the table, I dialed her again, using my own phone.  I watched rather than listen to the ring, listen to the…

I saw it transition automatically from call sent to call terminated.

I knew that if I were in the right frame of mind, I could come up with a good reason.  I also knew that in any frame of mind, right or wrong, there were easily five or ten really unpleasant answers.

I didn’t feel up to trying it.

I approached Rain, who sat on the floor, doing upkeep with a pocket toolkit on a far-from-pocket prosthetic body.  It was like trying to fix a car crash.  Chastity still kept him company, guarding him, even though she wasn’t in the best shape herself.

“How are we?” I asked, pitching my voice to be heard.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Sveta said.

“It worked?” I asked.

“Some,” she said.  “I’m still going, even if I have to keep my distance from all of you.”

“Alright,” I said.

The table that Ashley sat at was close.  She tilted her head as I looked at her, her expression still grim.

“My sister’s coming,” she said.  “So am I.”

“Walk over here first,” I said.  “No stumbles, no falls.”

She stood from her seat, her leg wobbling as she put weight on the peg that Capricorn had provided.  Back ramrod straight, chin high, she made her way to us, her hand going out once to correct her balance.  Not what I could call a stumble.  Not quite.

I caught her as she reached us, and she leaned heavily on my shoulder.

“Okay,” I said.

We had the verdict from Natalie.  We had the opportunity, we had the motive.  The means- we would see if we had the means.

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Blinding – 11.11

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…and all of the junior heroes I want to ensure have a place in this world, and every damn member of this team needs a full time friend to guide and help and I can’t be everywhere at once, least of all for my best friend.  I’m worried about Sveta and Weld and yet they’re the easiest thing to mentally set aside in the moment and I’m worried it’ll be weeks of moments and then I won’t have a chance to help.  I’m worried about Kenzie and I’m worried about Rain and about Tristan and about Byron and Ashley and Damsel and even Natalie-

I’m worried about me, too.

Reality came crashing home with a massive impact that crushed the Wretch.  The object in question hit the ground and tipped over, moving in my direction.

I flew back, halfway to get out of the way of the thing- the section of building.  Halfway to get away from the mental effect.

Can’t- can’t let this get to me like this.  Can’t let it distract me.  Fucking stupid of me.  How many times did we mentally go over the list of techniques and approaches to fending off mental and emotional effects?

I shook my head.  The overwhelmed feeling slipped off of me like a caking of soap under warm water.  The condemnations stuck.

I pulled myself back to reality.  I’d gone after the breaker again.  Again, I’d been repelled by the effect.  The overload.  She flew over me, using blades she’d created at her hands to cut at the building and bring debris tumbling down.  I’d been trying to stop her before she could rain something down on the van, she’d got me, and while I was out, she’d gone ahead with her plan.

The armored van rested on its side.  Concrete and rubble littered the top, covered the side and the door that pointed the sky, and some pieces had even fallen within.  A pillar-like mass of brickwork had been what had almost hit me.

Dangerous.  If I got remotely close to her, I got hit by that effect and it took me out of the fight for however long it took me to pull myself together.  Fucking stupid, that I’d thought I could chance it.

I shook my head.

Those feelings, the doubts, the hesitations, I knew where they were coming from.  Somewhere down there, near the driver’s seat, Precipice was extending his power up toward me.  I had to face those feelings, use them to forge myself into someone more effective, or quash them.  Were they useful to Victoria Dallon?  The Scholar?  The Warrior Monk?  Hell, I wouldn’t even rule out the Wretch.

If they weren’t useful to any of the above, then I had to burn them out of me.

I grabbed a piece of concrete, and I leveraged my strength to hurl it.  The Wretch’s extended limb clipped it, sending it off course.  Too low.

As if it had sensed I had been thinking it might somehow be useful.

I felt agitated, frustrated in a way that went beyond screaming about it, pounding a punching bag, or decking a bitch.

Don’t get angry, get even.  My mother’s words in my own voice, running through my head.  A condemnation, even though the tone was level, instructive.  And Precipice’s power was making that all the more pointed.  Turning every failure into a sharp, painful lesson.

I hurled another piece of concrete.  She adjusted course to avoid it, slashed at a building wildly to bring down more chunks.  This set- not aimed at the armored van, but at Rachel’s dogs.  There was a wild, untrained edge to the attack.  A woodcutter hitting one side of the tree over and over until things came loose, instead of carving out notches… but it was a fresh swing every second, and her blades cut deeper than an axe did.

Focus.  Be constructive, The Warrior Monk told me.

I’d hoped to skim the periphery of the effect, to see if I could get her to use that power, test if there was a time window before she could use it again.  There wasn’t.  It wasn’t like there was a better time or opportunity to test, either.  She was full-bore, all-out, holding nothing back.  If I waited until she wasn’t dropping chunks of building then the fight would be over before I got an opportunity to figure out a way forward.

I could draw on the practical side of the condemnation aura to process the same feelings that it woke in me.  Logic, careful processing, consideration.

“Fuck  youuuuuu!” a distant Bit- Rachel could be heard, the last word drawn out, lost in the huffing and growling, howling noises made by her dogs.

I’d been disoriented enough I hadn’t accounted for Rachel’s contingent.  She’d sent one dog, Yips, after the breaker, while she and her henchman fended off Nailbiter, Rachel riding the largest dog, curiously symmetrical, while her henchman had been riding the ‘soft mouthed’ dog.  Past-tense.  Nailbiter had unseated the teenager.

The distracting emotion blast didn’t seem to work on the dog, so as it managed to climb up a building face, a part of its narrow face bashed in, the breaker had no recourse but to fly away.  Away from the rooftop, toward the armored van.

I was ready, picking up more concrete to fling, while Yips reached the edge of the building rooftop and began acting agitated, like it was trying to psych itself up to jump down.  It was five stories, though, and I couldn’t imagine that even Rachel’s dogs could handle that.  Not with half of the dog’s face smashed in and the meat and bone hanging off of the skinny frame.

Yips leaped down to a lower rooftop, then across to the face of the building, running horizontally along a vertical surface, the undamaged side of its face looking down.  I saw it tense-

I threw concrete at the breaker, knowing the breaker would have to evade both the throw and the dog at the same time.

She changed course.  Flying toward Rachel, toward the two dogs, and toward Nailbiter.  Abandoning the van.

“Heads up!” I shouted, and the shout was a painful reminder that my throat wasn’t wholly intact.

Stupid.  Don’t do that.

No need to use Precipice’s power to condemn any overcorrection or anything, I decided, as I took flight and chased after.  It had been stupid.  I had to pay attention to my injuries.

There wasn’t any convenient measuring stick I could use to figure out if that anxiety overload was going to hit me or not.  Worse, even though I’d been hit twice, the state I’d been left in immediately after getting into range hadn’t been the ‘remember exact distances’ sort.  I was forced to give her a wider berth.  I was faster, but instead of using that extra speed to catch up, I used it to keep a roughly equal distance, but also maneuver while I did it.  Instead of straight forward, I arced up-

She blasted Rachel and the henchman.  I didn’t see any sparks, flash, or glow.  Only the immediate, visceral reaction, where the dog continued forward, but Rachel bent her head down, twisting away and back, almost hurling herself off the spot where she’d leashed herself to her ride.  The beast hesitated, but then Nailbiter moved, and it lunged.

The henchman just scrambled back, head shaking, curling into herself and uncurling to crawl, then stagger away.  Like she had bees in her brain and there wasn’t anything she could do but get away from the beehive.

Rachel screamed, and it was an angry scream, a roar and a howl.  It caught me off guard, and it seemed to catch the breaker and Nailbiter off guard too.

Right.  I remembered that from the attack on the bank.  Dean had remarked on it after.  Rachel was the kind of peculiar where emotion powers didn’t always produce intuitive responses.  I’d used my own power to scare people only to make them angry, yes, but I’d also run into people who had been seemingly unaffected outwardly, except to become more friendly and submissive, and one rare case who had been the horny kind of submissive, possibly helped by the substances he’d been partaking in.  No parahumanity involved.  Just… wiring.

I had to ignore her.  I’d already noted just how open and vulnerable that emotion blast had left me.  Rachel was in a serious fight with Nailbiter, and she needed cover.

In my effort to keep a good distance from the breaker, I’d flown up.  I was working on the assumption that the power emanated as a rough sphere or ovoid, or it had a singular target and a range that target could be affected at, and the effective zone of control had that spherical or sphere-ish shape to it.  Either way, the arc of my flight was like the arc of a rainbow, putting the curve of the sphere beneath me.  I closed that rainbow arc, flying down, straight for Nailbiter.

Her fingers and teeth had elongated, and riddled the mutated dog, plunging through face and exiting the top of the head, and plunging through chest and forelimbs, exiting the other side.  The animal was suspended mid-pounce.

But Nailbiter was suspended in a way too.  I saw the whites of her eyes as I came down.

Limbs extended, torso and head morphing to stretch out further, adjusting her position and making my target a narrower one to hit.

I did hit her though; while she was impaling that dog, she had to extricate herself to move anywhere.  The hit was a glancing one, and I didn’t bend, break, or apparently bruise anything I hit.  I landed on the road behind Nailbiter.  Above me, her head couldn’t move while her teeth were in use, but her eyes did move, tracking me, staring down.

Pinky and ring fingers withdrew from the dog, hands straining and adjusting the lengths of wrists, fingers, and palms, just so she could get those fingers curled around and lance through me.

My instincts warred with one another as I collected myself post-landing, taking in the scene.  Throw up the Wretch, one instinct said.  Protect against that imminent attack.  Never use the Wretch while in close proximity to another living person, another instinct said.  That instinct told me to fly away.  A third instinct was that I had to start resolving things, because a breaker scenario I couldn’t change and a changer I couldn’t break would just tie us up until the rest of Breakthrough and the Undersiders were caught.

What had to be three of the longest seconds I’d experienced in recent memory passed, my eyes darting across Nailbiter, looking for the next angle of attack and seeing nothing pointed my way.  My own breath was cold against my face, which was a reminder that I had a mask and I hadn’t put it on in this case.

Probably better that I maintained my peripheral vision.

Three seconds to consider, to give the Warrior Monk time to protest, to call this madness or pettiness.

No.

The Wretch unfolded and unfurled, and I was close enough to Nailbiter that it could find things to grab.  A forearm, an elongated torso, a leg.  Twisting, crushing, pulling.  She gained durability as she stretched out, but durability wasn’t invincibility.

I stood straighter, rolling my head to one side, then the other, a gloved hand adjusting the armor at my front.  I turned to see what was happening with Rachel and the henchman.

The Wretch, for the time being, didn’t move while I moved within it..  Fingers dug into ground, scraped at wall, and invisible teeth gnashed at air.  But for the most part, the Wretch maintained its hold on Nailbiter’s extended body parts.

I didn’t want to kill, so I moved in a more measured way, walking at first, until the scratched underside of my damn foot made contact with the cold surface of the road, making my knee buckle.  I used flight as a crutch to keep me upright while advancing.

In this floaty, walky way, I approached the nearest wall- a three foot fence concrete that bounded a parking garage’s lot.  I put my hand out and felt the Wretch.  A tensile membrane, hard energy.  My two years of waking nightmare.  It slid under my hand.  A length of stomach, back, or thigh that was in the process of trying to get into place to do something.  I could feel the curvature of it, my hand pressing against the inside of that nightmare-shaped shell.

I hadn’t really had an occasion to deal with a scenario like this.  When the Wretch was firmly anchored and I wasn’t.  Normally, it moved with me.  Now?

I pushed against that surface, the Wretch moved, and Nailbiter moved with it.  There was no resistance.  No situation, as far as I could tell, where the Wretch would anchor to something and I’d smack into it from within.

With flight and a strong push of my hand, I smashed Nailbiter into the short concrete rim.  The dog’s paws touched ground, and it began to pull away, the pencil-thin fingers pulling out of its head and torso.

I flew back, dragging Nailbiter away, then smashed her into the barrier again.  It was like trying to smash a balled up bundle of barbed wire flat.  Too much spring, too many parts sticking out, too much tensile strength in there.

Not good enough, I thought.

I’d hoped I had an ally, but the big dog who’d helped pin Nailbiter reached a point where it had backed far enough away and slumped to the ground.  The amount of blood it was shedding and the mass of the creature created a splash of blood as its weight crashed down to the road.

I chanced a look to my right.  The breaker was backing away from her attempt at getting Rachel, who was sitting in the middle of the street, supporting her henchman.  Two dogs were protecting their master, with the gangly Yips clinging to the side of the building, tail and tongue hanging straight down.

I spotted the moment when the breaker decided it wasn’t worth the trouble.  She took off- straight toward me.

I couldn’t leave this like this.  Nailbiter was too hard to break or take out of action, even if I’d hurt her some.  Worse, she was just getting a grip on things now.  Once I had her full focus, this would be harder.

She withdrew a hand, elongated upper arm, forearm, hand and fingers becoming normal, but for some horrendous bruising and tissue damage around the wrist.

There weren’t three seconds to consider and measure my response.  A heartbeat.  I dropped the Wretch, flying in past a tangle of elongated, nail-ified fingers and leg.  A point scratched my arm through the sleeve.

Diving through the thorns, the barbed wire, the- however I interpreted Nailbiter’s altered form.  I reactivated the Wretch in the moment before impact.

She reacted, her arm started to grow, moved as I closed in.  Too slow on both counts.  I twisted in the air for some added torque, my foot came down on her wrist, drove it into and against her elongated calf, and broke something.  I felt the impact through my body, saw her entire body twist and arch in reaction, twenty-foot lengths of finger sweeping through the air with the whistling, whooshing sound that normally came with the swing of blades.

Teeth retracted, her head turning my way.

I flew away.  From her, the teeth, and the breaker that was flying down the street, straight for me.  I was faster in a straightaway flight, which meant-

Meant what?  Meant I’d broken Nailbiter’s wrist but done nothing else, meant that I had a breaker to deal with, friends who were being dragged away, other friends and allies in a toppled armored van that might be hurt-

The breaker’s emotion power.  I tried to find anger, roaring, and it didn’t really work.  She tackled me, and the power I wanted to use was lost behind a fog of rattled thoughts.  She was small, I realized.  Hard to tell when she was in the air, but she was almost a full head shorter than I was.

Have to deal with this short breaker, Nailbiter, have to catch up to the van.  We have no idea how team yellow is doing-

She stabbed me with a blade of black energy, right through the chest.  Zero hesitation.  I gasped, felt the power slide through me, but it was her that seemed most surprised by her action.

Her that seemed surprised by the fact that when she withdrew the blade, it had penetrated my costume and cracked the armor at my front, but it hadn’t touched my skin.

She reared back and backhanded me.  I partially blocked the blow, and I felt how little power there was behind it.  It reminded me of how I’d had to learn how to fight while airborne, maximizing the delivery of each blow.

She was in a position where she should have had leverage, straddling me while we were on the ground, but the arm she was using to try and strike me didn’t have bones or muscles.  It was a construction of her power.

I blasted my aura, saw it didn’t have an effect on her, and struck at her instead.

Of course, she didn’t have bones, blood, or muscle in the place I’d hit her, either.  The blade cut both ways.  I tried to fly away, and she used her impulsive, instant-acceleration, instant-stop flight to shove me hard into the ground, so I’d be scraping the back of my hood and head against the snow, ice, and pavement if I kept flying that way.

I could fly up, but…

I used the Wretch instead.  I hit her with my strength active, and I saw her reel, hurting.

Still not as much as it should have been.

She blasted me with the emotion power, in retaliation, and to fend off further attacks.

The Wardens are trying to save the multiverse, and of all the people trying to save a single ‘verse’, I don’t trust Advance Guard because they’re reckless, I don’t trust the Shepherds because they’re driven by the wrong things, and Foresight, while decent, isn’t a save-the-city kind of group.  They’re a figure-things-out group that’s currently trying to figure out how to deal with the recent death of their leader.

Which means that on top of everything, I don’t trust anyone else to save the city from itself.

I flew, and she followed, pressuring me with that power.

I can’t even deal with my own family and I’m taking that on.

With no recourse or way of dealing that wasn’t flying face-first into the emotional onslaught, I pushed myself to keep flying away, and that worked.

The disorientation stuck with me for long seconds.  Fortunately, it also seemed to stick with Nailbiter.  She’d been in the power’s radius.  She, if I was interpreting things right, felt it a hell of a lot more, for a hell of a lot longer.

So it affected multiple targets, then.

I was supposed to be resistant to emotion powers.  This effect I’d experienced, it was the reduced-power version.

I fought to get my thoughts in order.  I didn’t have Precipice’s power effect on me, which meant he probably didn’t have enough of a view of the battlefield- nobody had emerged from the toppled van.  Not yet.

But Hookline was near that van, chain in hand.  The disgraced ex-flunky of Beast of Burden with the invincible chain, a mask that was just chain wound around their face, with spaces for the eyes and mouth to peek through.

Another factor in play.

The biggest dog was back on its feet now, injured, and limped toward its master.  She put a hand on its side.  I could see the bones grow and regrow, the blood welling out with more intensity, before the wounds began to close.  The weakened Yips with its flesh hanging loose looked tighter, now, like everything had drawn back in together.  The wound at its face was mending.

On the other hand, Nailbiter was back on her feet.  She looked battered, hunched over, but she was back on her feet, regardless.  The hand with the broken wrist was hanging limp at her side.

Nailbiter was… not impossible to deal with.  Except as I tried my evasive maneuvers, circling around, the breaker was putting herself between Nailbiter and me.  I started toward Hookline and the van, and the breaker was quick to shift position, trying to block me off.

Slower than I was, but maneuverable, and there was a really large radius around her where I couldn’t fly, walk, or run.

Breaker, I thought.  On-off power or powerset, typically a whole-body transformation.  Contrasted from changers by the fact that the transition to breaker was usually sudden, instantaneous, and the forms or qualities they adopted were of the breaking-reality or powers sort.  Of course, there were lots of people in the middle-ground between the two, leading to a mess of cross-classifications and mix-ups.

Breakers tended to be strong, but it was a limited strength, not in measure, but in the limited circumstances.  The powers required the form, and the form didn’t come free.  So it made sense that this breaker had powers on a level above Precipice and Love Lost.  The compact with the alien in the breaker’s head was that they got to burn the candle at both ends, but only while in the form.

That would be why PRT advice for dealing with breakers was to catch them when they weren’t breaker.  Without the form, they were often powerless or far weaker.  The less PRT, more-capey sort of answer to the threat was that breaker forms came with protections, but they also came with weaknesses.  My for-a-short-time teammate Shadow Stalker had been impervious to physical blows and conventional weapons, but a minor electrical shock threatened to kill her, and I’d heard that even a strong static shock had delivered actual injuries that had translated to muscle damage after she had turned human again.

My own feeling was that assumptions were dangerous.  Normal rules did not apply.  I’d run into it when crossing paths with Night and Fog at one point.  Being breaker could mean that they didn’t see through their eyes, and their entire body was a lens through which they saw in every direction.  It could mean they relied on other senses.

So when I took flight, I was careful to note how the breaker turned her face to track me.

That was something I could use.  I couldn’t get past her, and she was intending to keep me away by warding me off, but I could consume her focus so she wouldn’t catch Rachel off guard again.

Flying, I circled the battlefield, blocking off her view for moments, timing my changes in direction for when she couldn’t see me.  I passed the section of building that she had already damaged, and pulled away a chunk of concrete.

The Wretch seized it as I held it, tore it from my hands, and I had to cancel the Wretch and fly with the chunk to catch it again.

Bursts of strength, to maintain my grip, to get leverage, and keep that chunk alive, without letting the Wretch unfold.

A dart in one direction, and she moved to cut me off.

In the other direction- again, she moved.

I hurled the chunk in Nailbiter’s general direction, as she and Hookline approached Rachel and the three mutant animals.

Her reaction was near-instant, but her first reaction was to grab the chunk.  She didn’t have the muscles or power for it.

She darted forward and under it, slashing at it instead.

Yeah, that’s the catch with that particular form.  You don’t have any actual strength when it comes to dealing with the real world, just… the ability to cut things really efficiently.

Breakers had other drawbacks that weren’t like Shadow Stalker’s weakness to electricity or the electric breaker that I’d fought and his ability to be involuntarily conducted.

Some were time limits, like only being able to stay breaker for a set amount of time.  Some were internal batteries, a power supply that filled up over time before they had to turn human and absorb more.

If she had either of those things, she wasn’t acting like she felt it was urgent.  Then again, she reeked of inexperience.  Not knowing the lack of her own strength, for one thing.

Some had a need for something environmental, like a water breaker who needed a body of water to manipulate and absorb.  I could scratch that off the list.  I could almost assume it was a lack of environment that drove her, given her tendency for staying in the air, but she’d been close to the building she’d hacked up and she’d been on top of me when she’d shoved me to the ground.  Not… power driven from being in the open air.

There were others.  The ones who needed people, the parasite-breakers and those who drank up emotion to fuel themselves.  Not that emotion was something so physical, but the thing that supplied the power liked and valued the emotions they churned up and the reactions those emotions got.  It would be the kind of thing they wanted to set up.

I flew to keep forcing her to cut me off.  Her back was to Hookline, who was whirling the hook around him in a figure-eight.  If I could land- wincing at the pain in my foot as I did, I could put myself close to the ground and compel her to match my level.  Could I manipulate her into getting into the way of Hookline’s whirling hook?  Was she that dumb or unaware?

I saw her turn her head slightly.  She’d heard the hook whooshing through air, probably.

Damn.

Fuck me, what else?  Think, think!  You call yourself a powers geek!

As was becoming reflex, I turned my head to check to see if Precipice was there.  The windshield was pointed my way, and Precipice was on the other side.  More importantly, Foil was climbing out the window at the top.

Think, I thought.  You wanted to study this in University.

Powers.  Environment, people, and powers.  Was there a possibility that she was like the Pharmacist’s purple fire, that burned powers?  A breaker form that relied on powers, in a trump-like way?  Was she drinking in nourishment for that form every time that I used my flight or pushed out with my aura?

Would that tie into her having similar powers?  Similar powers to me, at least in the loosest sense of the flight and ‘aura’?  But how or why, when I hadn’t been anywhere near when she’d taken the form, and she seemed to have this narrow suite of powers.  She had no strength at all.  It suggested something too selective, picking at random instead of drawing on a theme like Spright did.

I wasn’t sure I had any evidence of it, and the fact that my powers didn’t feel drained counted against it, but I could put a pin in that one.  I could test the hypothesis a bit by pulling away from her, flying up, to see if she lost strength or defaulted to staying near the others, when I was far enough away that she probably couldn’t drink from my flight and she had nobody nearby to draw on.

She flew up to follow.    She wasn’t an experienced flier.  As I flew over her head, she kept her feet pointed toward the ground, turning that mask-like face with its wreath of silvery, glowing smoke-hair up toward me, rotating to keep me in her sight.

If I could get around and past her…

I kept testing her, occupying her attention.  Hookline and Nailbiter were focused on Rachel and the dogs, and if this breaker was focused on me, then maybe I wouldn’t fuck this up too badly.

I could feel Precipice’s power coloring the edges of my thoughts.  I was still being affected.

Other kinds.

There were the consequence breakers.  There was no limit to the time they could spend in the form, except for the penalty waiting at the end, heavy on their mind.  It could be tied to any of the other drawbacks.   Things like pain, of a magnitude and duration related to how long or how much power was expended while breaker, or madness, or having one’s mortal body age at a hundred times the rate while in the breaker state.  Vista had just mentioned a breaker she’d been friends with, a magenta cat, that had missed her opportunity to turn human too many times, and had decided to stay in the form rather than face the consequences waiting for her.

Night Hag had been a Slaughterhouse Nine member once upon a time.  She had also made that choice, but more to shirk her humanity, to revel in her altered state.

If my enemy here was a consequence breaker, then there was nothing I could do except play an extended game of chicken, seeing if she would give up out of fear the consequences had grown too heavy.

But again, I didn’t see the urgency in how she acted.

I couldn’t rule out that she had no idea.  I was thinking of her as dumb, again, immature, and drawing on that to jump to a conclusion, and it was dangerous to do so, but I was pretty sure the only data points I had was that she hadn’t already thoroughly tested her own limits, she was small, and her way of hacking up the building had been clumsy.

Or… reckless?  Off-kilter?

There were breakers who had a profound mental change as part of the break.  Ones who lost all compassion and became cold, ruthless, and machine-like.  Ones who were filled with rage and destructive impulses, to be stopped only when the little coherent bit of humanity that watched its actions through a window undid the form.  People who hallucinated while in their other form, or who saw the entire world as something nightmarish.

I thought of how she’d chopped at the rooftop.  Her demeanor as she’d come after me.  The way she danced between targets, seemingly forgetting about the last as she moved on to the next, her power facilitating that dance with the manner of flight it gave her, so abrupt and quick to move elsewhere.

Which meant there were maybe chinks in the brain.  Or in the heart.

“Can we talk!?” I shouted the words across the empty void.

I was really hoping that Foil was able to use the fact that our enemies were distracted to do something and turn the tides.

She shook her head, wispy hair drifting around the mask-like face, slow in following the movement, as if she were underwater.

She touched her mouth.

No voice.  No bones, no muscle, no lungs, no breath to form words.  No lips, for that matter.  What had been lips were hard ridges of tooth-like protrusions.

She was reckless, almost drunk, wild and I needed to find a way to use that against her.

If your enemy is choleric of temper, agitate the fuck out of them.  A lesson from my childhood, paraphrased.  Except she wasn’t choleric of temperament.  It was an outdated model by a few centuries, but I was willing to latch onto anything for inspiration.  Even if it was the wrong label in an outdated system.

Choleric tempers were the ‘warrior’ tempers, as I interpreted it.  The rulers, the warlords.  The decisive doers.  Sun Tzu’s idea had been to dismantle that organization and focus by upsetting them and inflaming their tempers.

This woman was… more whimsical, no passion in what she did, instead doing it as a kind of expression of her self.  Of her new self, if I was interpreting her lack of experience right.

Lack of experience, or a mental effect of being a breaker with a mental state attached to the form.

Whimsical made me think sanguine and sanguine was the ‘happy’, creative, wandering sort of personality.  If I wanted to take that apart in the same way… could I take away from the whimsy?  Could I go after her on an emotional level, without using my aura?

But I didn’t know what agitated her or brought her down to earth.  I didn’t know her.

I flew in wide circles around her to make sure I had her attention.  If I could pull her far enough away from the rest of what was going on, there was a possibility that I could make a break for it.  Beat her there.

Every second I waste is a second that the others might be getting hurt, or imprisoned.

“They’re planning on hurting a lot of people,” I said.  “Everyone we talk to that has any power that gives them info says that March is going to do something that’s as bad as whatever happened to the portals, like the ones in New Brockton or Norwalk.  People are going to die and you’re letting this happen?”

She seemed to have realized that ‘down’ meant nothing when you defied gravity, and shifted her orientation to face me more fully without craning her head up.

It gave me a better view of her, too.  I knew she was she was probably new to her power, really new, and the breaker decorations suggested a belt buckle, regular clothes, built up around the back of the head like whatever she’d worn and incorporated into the breaker form had included a hood.

This never worksTalking to people about the harm being done, the stakes.

“People have been chopped up, left alive.  People who made it their life’s work to get people out of slavery.  By helping these guys, you’re helping the people who hurt those people.  You’re helping slaversMonsters!”

I did see a slight reaction as I raised my voice at the end.

I reached for another talking point, I thought about family, and something fell into place.  Before I could ask if they had any family in the city, I found myself able to see past the mask, metaphorically speaking.

“Colt?” I asked.

She flinched more than she had when I’d shouted ‘monsters’.

“It’s not worth it,” I said.  “It may be fun in the moment, but that power you’re using, it never comes easy.  There’s a consequence or a price or a limitation and I don’t think you’ve figured it out a hundred percent.  Whoever brought you into this, they haven’t showed you or told you the ropes.”

Her hand went up, touching the side of her head, skeletal doll fingers in the midst of wispy glowing smoke hair.

“And there are situations where people get powers and make some bad first moves, and they pay for it for the rest of their lives.   Swansong- Damsel could probably fill you in on that.”

I saw the recognition on that alien face.

“Colt, Damsel spoke highly of you.  She worried about you when we were watching the villains.  If you came with me, if you helped, then there would be at least one face you recognize.  We can help with family, home situation, with fending off Love Lost, any debts you’ve incurred-”

I saw her shake her head.

Got it wrong, I thought.  Not even a small shake of the head or a dismissal.  Something stronger than that.

No debts.  Maybe the opposite.  That she felt she owed them?

“You’re starting a whole new phase of your life, make your first steps the right ones.  You don’t owe them anything.”

She hesitated.

“Colt,” I said, repeating her name to try to stress the reality I wanted to bring home. “You don’t have to betray them.  I’m not asking you to fight.  Just… make a mistake.  Let me by.  Or tell them you were getting a handle on your power, you lost track of things.  Mistakes happen and they can be forgiven.”

She shook her head.  A small shake this time, more for herself than for me.

“Make a mistake, let me fly past.  Then you fly down a short while after and do what you have to do.  If my side wins, you come with us.  If their side wins you go with them.  It’s smart.”

Not that I was sure I could win, but I hated not having an opportunity to try.

“All you have to do, for five seconds, is do nothing.”

She was statue still, floating there.  I saw her turn to look at the portal on the horizon.  A slice of a different Earth’s night sky.

I dove.  She didn’t move to intercept, and I had no idea if it was because she’d decided to let me or if it was because that mental state of hers was making her more easily distracted.

It was Colt, and Colt had no relation to the mall cluster other than the fact that she’d spent a few weeks in the company of Love Lost.  Yet her powers fell eerily in line with the cluster’s.  She also had the flight, and a kind-of-aura-esque take on the emotion power, which seemed like a me thing.

I plummeted and brought up the Wretch in time to make contact with the ground, just behind the newest Parahuman to enter the fray.  Kitchen Sink was at the van, throwing stuff at and into it.  Both fists and my unscratched foot struck hard ground and cracked it.

He twisted around, a handful of foot-long centipedes gripped in one hand.  In his haste to turn and react, he threw them in a loose fan that only sent one flying in my general direction.

I hit him across the collarbone, I used my power, but controlled the velocity of the hit, striking him with a flat hand.

Sufficient to break bone.

He crumpled to the ground, rolling back, twisting in agony and groaning with the agony that came with twisting when he really shouldn’t.

Dealing with him meant that he couldn’t get at the people at the van.  Foil was evading Hookline, and Nailbiter was dealing with Rachel.

Two dogs down.  Yips included.  Only the biggest and Rachel remained, and Rachel had been unseated.

Foil was supposed to have her gun, but I hadn’t heard gunshots.  Was she reluctant?  Was there a problem?  No, well yes, but she’d been disarmed- I had to look to find who I was looking for.  Disjoint, standing on a snow-covered balcony.  His white mask and black hair made him hard to spot in the gloom.

And that left two members of this particular group, assuming they’d all stayed together.  Sidepiece and Love Lost.  It was hard to imagine Sidepiece missing this action, and Love Lost…

I flew up, trying to get a better vantage point, looking for her.  I couldn’t afford to get into the fray before identifying everyone in play.

Hookline and Nailbiter were the biggest threats.  Disjoint was assisting both.  Probably unseating Rachel  and taking Foil’s guns.  Rachel was holding her own, while Foil was… she was stuck evading, it looked like.  Relying on her power to help with the timing and deflection, but against an opponent with impossible reach and flexibility.

I went after Hookline first.  In the worst case scenario, I figured I could buy her a chance to act.  I landed, because being on the ground made it easier to control my strength, strode toward him in the floating walk that kept me from having to put too much weight on my scratched foot, and drew my fist back.

A hand caught it.  Disjoint’s.

I caught his hand between both of mine.  I used my power-

A scream ripped through the area, distorting the meager light that was available, filling every inch of space with a kind of energy, ambient and agitated.  That energy soaked into me.

Reflexively, my hands tried to crush the hand that was clamped between them.  It slipped free in the last instant.

Reflexively, emotions boiling over in a release of the frustration I’d felt earlier, I went after Hookline.  A flying charge.  I’d break him-

The hook caught Foil, who had been hunched over.  Swept her into my path.  I had to divert course.

Attack, was the impulse.

The length of the hook and chain doubled up in loose loops  that filled the space between Hookline and me.  A snare, waiting for me to fly into it.

With the artificial emotions running through me, I felt like flying right through it and winning regardless was a really fucking good idea, because fuck that two-bit villain.  Fuck everyone responsible here.

I changed course as I reached the length of chain, adjusting my orientation to cannonball through one of the spots he might not have anticipated.  It closed around me, but while it dragged at me, slowing me down, it didn’t catch me.

The hook reversed course, flying my way.  Invincible, high-velocity, and the first step to me being wound up and then hurled around however he chose.

In the surge of emotion, I hoped he’d try.  I could try things.

I didn’t get a chance.  Though her face was red and her movements restless, Foil jumped forward, through the same fence of loops and barriers.  Her timing and position were good, and there was less coverage because I’d already been snared, which meant she managed to slip through.  The movement and the distraction meant I had enough slack to withdraw. Foil, on the other side of the airborne, telekinetically-moved chain, was now in close quarters with Hookline.

She swung to club Hookline with something she wielded, and Disjoint caught her wrist.  Immediately, she shifted footing, her left shoulder almost touching Hookline’s right.  Blocking Disjoint’s view.  Her knee came up-

Hookline grabbed her by the shoulders, pulling her to the ground with him.

It was a good move.  I couldn’t interfere as much as I wanted, because the chain was twisting through the air between me and the Foil-Hookline fight.

Love Lost, meanwhile, stalked closer.  She whipped out her hand, and the fingers on that hand extended into a metal whip.  She retracted it.  She turned a circular dial at her shoulder, and electricity crackled between two fingertips.

Colt dropped out of the sky, landing behind her.  For a brief moment, Colt turned human.  She swayed on the spot for a second, before Love Lost caught her.

Colt said something, then went Breaker again.

Fuck.  I could see some resolve in her stance: the hands clenched at Colt’s sides, the framing of the shoulders.

I could also see how she floated in the air.  By the looks of it, her powers hadn’t changed.  One point against the trump thing.  I’d almost thought there were power copying shenanigans going on, but it didn’t make sense that it would be this static, this particular set.

I floated toward the rubble that Colt had brought down.  I saw Colt react, making sure to create the black blades with ethereal white haze around them.

Did she think she could chop it out of the air if I tried hurling one at Love Lost?

A silver blade cut through the air.  Precipice’s answer to Love Lost’s scream.  It hit the chains that Hookline had made, but it drew no silver lines.

They’re protected by Hookline’s power, I thought.

I turned to look at Precipice, who crouched with Chastity’s support on the side of the armored van.  They’d climbed out of the open door in what was now the ceiling.  Aroa and Candy would still be inside.

Another silver blade flipped end over end as it whipped through the air.  Foil, a chain around her neck, hands trying to keep it from tightening, flipped backward, feet at Hookline’s stomach.  Flipping him up and into the way.

The silver blade grazed him.  Foil kicked him backward, sending him crashing down to the road.  The silver lines that marked bicep, deltoid, and pectoral split, and blood gushed out.

Costume and flesh cut.

I’d had the same lines drawn on me just an hour ago, when fighting Lord of Loss, before the meeting with Rachel, before the travel.

“Does that girl have my cluster’s powers?” Precipice asked.

“Yeah, looks like,” I said.

“How?”

“Usual way?  I don’t know, Precipice.  She blasts you if you get too close, by the way.”

Foil bolted, running in Disjoint’s general direction.  He caught her leg and she nearly tripped, but she managed to find her stride a moment later.

Love Lost motioned, and it was Colt who flew to bar Foil’s way.

“Go, help her,” Precipice said.  “I’ve got Chastity for backup, and Rachel’s on her way.”

I turned to look.  Rachel had polished off the fight.  One of her dogs followed beside her at full size.  The other two were small.  A chihuahua and a golden retriever with a black patch at one side.  She’d beat Nailbiter.

“Go!”

“I don’t think Chastity can beat Love Lost,” I told him.

“Hey, fuck you!” Chastity said.

I bit my tongue before sharing my other worry, because it was even more controversial than doubting Chastity’s skill.  Honestly, Rain, I’m not sure you won’t put yourself in a situation where you’re forced to kill her.

I only imagine that because I’m trapped in my own hell of other people, and even though it’s as good as it’s going to get, it still eats at me.  She’s in another world and there’s little to no chance she shows up in my life again until I reach out… but it eats at me.

I can sympathize if you want her dead.

The two of them hopped down.  Aroa climbed out the door, perching on the wheel.

“Candy?” I asked Aroa.

“Hurt,” Chastity answered.  “You should go.  We’re good.”

I took off, escaping the area just in time to hear Love Lost scream, a sound matched by the tromp of Rachel’s mutant dog’s charge.

Disjoint-

A hand covered my eyes as I flew his way.  I tore it away, and it was gone when I looked to see.

Colt blocked our way, focusing her attention on Foil.  I saw Foil stagger back, and sought opportunity, helped by the distraction of Precipice, Rachel, and Chastity going toe to toe with Love Lost.  There was a violent metal against metal sound, a flap of cloth, with Love Lost airborne- she’d used the charging dog as a stepping stone, scratching its snout as she sprung free, going right for Precipice.  Chastity stepped forward, unsteady- she’d been using Rain for balance as much as he’d used her.  Her face was scuffed and she had a red mark down the length of one leg.

Three against one, but all of the three were injured, worn out, or both.

I used the distraction, going over, because Colt still wasn’t in the mindset for aerial combat, was slow to look up.  Disjoint was helping Love Lost, thinking he was too safe in Colt’s range.  At worst, what, he’d get stunned?

I saw what Foil was after.  Disjoint had disarmed her, stealing her guns, and she’d brought three or four.  I saw one in pieces, the slide removed and tossed away, and I saw another lying in the snow.  A dark, unmistakeable shape.

“Foil!” I shouted.

Colt whipped around, alarmed, looked back at Foil, who was recovering from the latest stunning.  Immediately, Disjoint tried to grab me again.

I threw the gun, lobbing it high.

Foil ran.  While she did, I went after Disjoint, so he couldn’t slow her down.

If this was going to work like I’d hoped, we couldn’t be interrupted or interfered-with.  Disjoint was the bigger problem.

I crashed into the balcony, breaking it.  I grabbed at him, not holding him up so much as I reserved the right to arrest his fall at the latest second if it looked like anything fatal or injurious.

It didn’t, so I let him land the hard way, amid dust and uneven concrete.

Colt had taken too long to realize what Foil was doing, or what I’d done.  She’d moved to protect Love Lost, and that wasn’t where she needed to be.

The gun fell from the sky, and Foil, who had timing and accuracy powers, was in position to catch it, nearly dropping it not because she was off, but because it was probably heavy and falling at a high velocity.

Colt, adjusting her battle plan, was maneuvering around the fight.  Picking a spot where it looked like her emotion power would catch Precipice and Chastity, but leave Love Lost out of it.

Colt was caught by apparent indecision, unsure of who to stave off, or maybe if she was considering my offer, figuring out the way this was turning.  Love Lost’s henchmen had fallen or retreated.  It was just Love Lost and Colt now.

Was she debating running?

Whatever it was, she was choosing a spot that meant I couldn’t be confident about flying over.

Chastity wore the glove that Precipice had taken from Love Lost’s workshop.  The finger extended like a whip, maybe ten feet long, more to deflect and combat what Love Lost was doing than to go on the offensive.

She did the offense thing with a bullwhip.

Love Lost, for her part, was agile and scary.  Her leaps gave her traction on the side of the building, and let her choose where she jumped down to, instead of it being any kind of foregone conclusion decided by trajectory and human limitations.

Her weapon was the other half of the same glove that Chastity was using.  It was longer, stronger, and unlike Chastity’s, it left gouges where it impacted the ground.  Many of those gouges were reserved for the snapping mutant hound.

Foil fired.  I saw her bend over, and I saw the blood pour out.

I flew to her.  What happened?

She’d shot herself?

Colt remained where she was, staring at Foil, turning to look at Love Lost.  Chastity and Rain whipped and threw silver blades, the dog nipped, and Rachel whistled to give it an order.

I reached Foil’s side.

Her left hand was what had been injured.  The gun dropped to the ground.

“What the hell?” I asked.

She indicated Colt.

The breaker had touched ground, and wasn’t moving from the spot.  I could see why.  A shot of the gun, penetrating the toe of one foot.  With the bullet passing through, fusing everything solid enough that it touched as her power effect wore off, it had sealed the breaker’s foot to the ground.

“That doesn’t work with guns.”

“Works,” she said.  “Ow, this hurts.  The reason I use a crossbow is I can touch the tip and affect it, fire it before it affects enough of the bolt that trying to push it would destroy my crossbow.  For the gun, I had-”

“You had to touch the live bullet?” I asked, placing pressure on the wound.

“It worked,” Foil said. “Fired through a hole I made in my fist,

“Why her?”

“Clearest shot, and if I hit Lost, then the breaker would hit everyone with that emotion power.”

I set my teeth.

Colt bent down, starting to hack at the ground.

“Shit,” Foil said.

I flew.

Wretch out, hitting hard.  There were probably no vitals to worry about.  Only a supply of energy animating a puppet that had been phased into our world.

I hit her, hard, and I knocked her to the ground.  The section of foot broke away violently, and she flickered, turning normal.  A fourteen year old teen, the toe of her boot torn up, blood welling from the tear.

I stepped on her, pinning her to the ground.  She stopped where she was, staring up at me.

Leaving only Love Lost.

Who looked way too okay with current circumstances, all considered.  She glared at Rain enough that it was probably impacting her combat performance, but I didn’t see desperation.

Had she distracted us enough?

She backed off, holding up a hand.  I was reminded of how she’d looked when we’d encountered her at the Lyme center, after we’d destroyed all the guns.

She wasn’t normally one to back down or accept a graceful loss.  Too bloodthirsty, too angry.  But twice now, she’d backed away.

She felt confident.  Confident she’d get her revenge.

“Can we talk?” Precipice asked.  “I’d like to have a conversation.”

A firm shake of the head, a glare.  One claw clenched into a fist, the other remained up, urging us to stop.

The clenched claw opened.  She began tapping at the air.  I could see faint squares appear and disappear in mid-air as the claws pierced them.

“Trap?” I asked, raising my voice to be sure the others heard.

Love Lost shook her head.

The typing continued.

“She’s spelling out words,” Precipice said  “Five of-”

A synthesized voice that didn’t come from Love Lost, but seemed to radiate off of nearby power lines.  “My team walks away.  You get some of your people back.  Decide now.”

“Hostages,” Chastity observed.

Love Lost nodded.

“Imp?” Candy asked, from atop the van.

Love Lost nodded.

“Chicken Little?”

Another nod.

“My brothers and sisters?”

A nod.

I was tense.  I wasn’t sure I bought this.

“What’s the catch?” Precipice asked.  “You put a lot of effort into this.  You’ll give up your stakes?  You’re not even asking for me to turn myself in?”

She didn’t respond.

“You don’t want Rain?” Chastity asked.

That, Love Lost responded to, turning her attention to Chastity.  She shook her head.  Again, she began typing.

We waited, tense.

You’ll turn yourself in to our care another time.

“What if we say no?”

No response.  Only a glare.

“What if we say we won’t let your guys go?” Chastity asked.

Love Lost drew a claw across her throat.  Then she waved a hand in one direction.

Was that the direction they were?  An accidental hint?

I had a bad feeling, but I felt stuck.

“You need to call off March,” I said.  “This thing she’s doing, it’s bad for all of us.”

Love Lost shook her head.

“It’s going to get kids killed.  Thinkers we talked to seem to think it’s something along those lines.”

She went still.

I could see agitation in her hands, in her claws.

I saw it start to fade.

“Kids, Love Lost.  Like your fucking daughter!” I shouted at her.

At that, I saw a flare of anger, enough I worried she’d do something reckless.  Then-

Then doubt?

She stared down at the ground for a long moment, and nobody broke that spell.

Then her hand went up.  A claw, four fingers and a thumb extended.  A hand pointed in one direction.

Five of ours for some of yours.

“Who are you keeping, out of our groups?  Tattletale?”

There was no response.  Instead, fingers typed.

I expected another audio message.

Instead… wailing.  Panicked sounds.

A hollow sound, magnified times ten by the fact it seemed to resonate out from everything from wires to engine block.

A young girl’s voice, caught up in sobs that made the words impossible to make out.

For an instant, I forgot how to breathe.  My heart forgot how to beat.  I wouldn’t have been sure I knew how to stand if I couldn’t fly to keep myself upright.

Candy reacted, I saw, hands at her mouth.  Chastity visibly flinched.

Rain… he looked angry and harrowed at the same time.

“Take your people.  Tell us where ours are,” I said.

Nobody on our team disagreed with me.  Nobody looked like they doubted the call.  Not while the sounds continued.

Love Lost tapped her wrist and she pointed at me.

I looked at my own wrist.  The disc was still mounted there, slightly ajar after the fighting.

I tapped it, activating it.  It brought up the red team, Kenzie and Ashley with hands bound, back to back.  The other Heartbroken kid a distance away, looking like she was digging.

A tap brought up the yellow team.

Noise, no directional indicator.

Love Lost gestured, and that was apparently the key for some tech to kick in.

The noise remained, but there was an indicator.

In an instant, the others were hopping up onto the dogs for a ride, Rachel giving a hand to the more battered members of our team.  Love Lost stepped to the side.

I turned her way.  My foot was still on Colt’s chest.

“That was a kid,” I told Love Lost.  “I thought you had some principles.”

She didn’t move an inch.

“What the hell did Cradle do to you?  Or… what compromise did you make in yourself, that this is okay?”

Not a bat of an eyelash.  The mouth of her mask was a perpetual roar, and her eyes matched it in intensity and simmering anger.

“You brought her into this?” I asked, my voice choked, as I pointed down at Colt.

“I brought myself into this,” Colt said.  I could read her expression now.  I could see a look of regret pass over her face.

I didn’t care in the slightest, either, because regret wasn’t worth a speck of shit if it didn’t change anything.

I let Colt go, and stepped closer.  Love Lost moved her claws, and the image at my disc broke up, the location data fading.

When I backed away a step, she returned it.  That information was her insurance.

There was a whistle, shrill and loud.  Rachel, at the very far end of the street.

They needed guidance.

I checked the direction and I checked my phone, before flying down to Precipice and Rachel.

“University.  I’ll meet you there,” I told them.

“What if you get ambushed?” Precipice asked.

“I’ll manage,” I said, my voice hoarse.  “I’ll have to manage.”

“That’s not good enough,” Foil told me.

“It’s good enough,” Rachel said.

Good enough.  I flew.

Better that I forge ahead.  I could move faster than the dogs,  especially when intervening buildings were taken into consideration.

Fifteen minutes of flying.

Then the University.  Closed for the weekend, but with students still milling about.  No lights of emergency vehicles.

The lights in the building that the disc led me to were off.

Snow and cold had a way of obscuring the nose and eating smells and sounds.  It said a lot, then, that the smell of blood was as strong as it was.

Disturbances in the snow in a relatively abandoned area were my second clue, helping me to verify that I had the right building.  I tried the door, found it locked, and broke it.

If I’d had any doubts, the smell of blood and bodily fluids erased them.

I heard the wailing.  It hadn’t stopped since I’d entered.  Someone was shushing them.

Tristan, bisected, lay on the ground, panting for breath.

“Ant- Vic,” he managed, between huffs.  “Are they gone?”

“They left, I think,” I told him.

He let off a string of Spanish expletives before burring.  Becoming Byron.

“I’ve been trying to give medical care, get people sorted,” he said.  “But we couldn’t afford to let them know we- fuck!”

“It’s okay,” I said.

I saw the look on his face, eyebrows drawn together.

It’s not okay.

“Show me,” I told him.

Bags were the first thing I saw.  Bloody gym bags, with blood leaking out the bottom.  Then… body parts.

Kenzie’s friend Darlene was the source of the wailing.  Her arm was in her lap, and it wasn’t attached to her shoulder.  Chicken Little lay on his side beside her.

“Y-you’re back,” she said, to Capricorn.  then she looked at me.  “Can you fix this?”

“We’ll get your arm attached, okay?”

“Not this.  Him.  They hurt Chicken Little and it’s supposed to be a rule, that you don’t hurt the Chicken!”

“Your friends did, or-”

“The bad guys did!  But it’s a rule!  It has to be a rule!”

“Shh,” I said.  I bent down, offering a hug.  She took it, seizing me in a deathgrip.

I put a hand on Chicken Little’s side, and he flinched.

“Can you sit up?” I asked.

“He can’t-” Darlene started, before stopping.  “Can’t hear.  Don’t make him take off his mask, either, because he needs that to hold things in place.”

“Juliette’s here,” Byron told me.  “Tattletale’s over there.  Swansong and Lookout are in the other room, they were the last ones brought in.  I didn’t want to break in in case they noticed and saw me.  I thought we needed someone mobile.”

I couldn’t even move, with Darlene hanging on me.  She shifted position as I tried, and I saw where one of her legs terminated at the knee.

“Sveta?” I asked.

“They broke her suit.  She’s staying at the end of the hall.”

It took doing, especially when I was sore, but I could use flight to help.  I lifted Darlene, and immediately she started fighting me.

“I need to be with Chicken Little,” she said.  “We can communicate some with my power, but being connected means he hurts more.  I don’t know what I’m supposed-”

“Shh,” I said, easing her down.

“I check in now and then.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That’s good.  Can you stay for a second?”

Her hand clutched at my leg.  Like she didn’t want me to go.

She couldn’t leave Aiden and she wouldn’t let me go.

“One minute, okay?” I asked.  “One minute, you can count the seconds.  Can you count?”

She nodded.  Without speaking, she mouthed the words.

Sixty seconds to see how bad it was.

“Let’s get Swansong and Lookout out,” I said.

I hesitated as I saw damaged equipment.  Something not all that dissimilar to Love Lost’s whip claw, but it had a handle, and it was broader.  Split in two.

“The device we’d need to undo the damage,” Byron said.

I flinched, looking away.

“You should know.  They severed pieces of Swansong and Lookout,” he told me.

I nodded.  I was almost numb now.

I only had a minute, then I had to go back.

Juliette was lying on a table.  As hurt as anyone, with a burn at her side that had damaged her clothes.

And on the ground, half of Tattletale.  One arm, one leg, no head.

Some of our team was here, I realized, with a sick feeling.  That’s how Love Lost put it.

“Everyone’s accounted for?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Byron said, “But…”

He didn’t finish the statement.

Everyone is accounted for… but only some of our team is here.

They took the rest hostage.

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Blinding – 11.10

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We picked up the three mercenaries, lifting them into position on a dog’s back.  Each was out cold.

Sliced and diced a bunch of your buddies.

Sveta.

The others were caught.

“Do we go after her?” Precipice asked.

“March?” I asked.  I had my phone out and was typing one-handed as best as I could.  “I don’t like how our guy here phrased things about slicing and dicing-”

My fingers weren’t hitting all the keys right.  My hand shook annoyingly.

I kept my voice level.  “I’m texting Vista.  We’ll see what she can do.  If she thinks their team can handle it, we might have other options.”

“Them thinking they can handle it is different from handling it,” Foil said.  “It’s March.”

“We’re going after the others?” Precipice asked.

“Gut feeling?  Yes.  We know where they are.  The disc should be working now that we’re out of Nursery’s range.  We get to them, maybe we can get enough answers to steer things.  There’s no telling who exactly is where, though.”

“You’re thinking they’re dead?” Rachel asked.

“I’m thinking worse than dead,” I responded.  “You didn’t hear what happened to the Navigators?”

She shrugged.

“Chopped up into cubes, but not allowed to die,” Foil said.  “They might have done that to some of ours.”

Rachel’s expression hardened.

“I know,” Foil said.  “I’m not good with this stuff.  I can suck it up if I have to, but I swear, if it happened to the kids?  To any of our friends?”

“I”m getting flashbacks to the Fallen attacks on the portals,” Precipice said.  “The stakes, the distractions.”

“Some of the same people are involved,” I pointed out.  I put my phone away, tapping the disc on the arm.  Still, my hand shook.  Only our team red was findable, but the setting was screwed up.  Lookout’s team tracker seemed to be working under the assumption that the entire team was together.  Our team red was split in two, which meant it was very, very zoomed out.

“We could try going after March.  Resolve the hostage situation after,” Foil said.

“Do you want to?” I asked.  “Really?”

She shook her head.  “Only if it makes sense.  I’m just putting it out there.  We know she’s split off from the larger group.”

“The problem is that March never makes sense,” Rachel muttered.  She was at the back of the group.  Chastity was walking beside Rachel’s henchman, who was sitting on a jutting outcropping of bone at the dog’s shoulder, one hand on its side to help her maintain balance.

“Foil,” I said.  “What’s March’s fixation on these time effects?  I’m trying to wrap my head around all of this.”

Give me something I can break down.

“I don’t know.”

“She has enhanced timing as a power, but I don’t think that factors in.  What’s driving her?  What’s the focus?”

“She wants to wrap Foil’s skin around a rocking horse and ride it all day long,” Aroa said.

“Ew, weird, and no, I don’t know.  I’m a focus but time effects have nothing to do with me.”

“Multitriggers,” Precipice said.  “She collects them.”

Why?” I pressed.

“Because I think she gets them.  She understands it, she’s good at finding us out in the wild, she’s good at figuring out weird, wild shit like the power transfers.  The Goddess thing.”

“Because of her power, somehow, or-”

Foil shook her head.

We headed back, flying, jogging, or, in Rachel and her henchman’s case, hopping up so they hung onto the side of dogs with one hand while the dogs did the work of padding through snow and over ice.

Chastity had a suggestion, “Natural inclination.  Some people are good at music, and they were going to be people who were good at making music before they even picked up an instrument or sang a note.”

“Maybe that,” Foil said.  “Maybe she’s been focusing on that stuff while I was getting started as a Ward, getting my gear, doing patrols.”

“Do you know anything about her?  Do you get insights through any special… dynamics?” Precipice asked.

Foil shook her head.

“Bleed-through?” he pressed.  “Emotions leaking from one person to the other?”

“Terrifying idea, but I don’t think so.  Unless-”

She finished her statement there.

Unlessss?” Candy asked, drawing out the word.

“It’s nothing that would be helpful.”

“She’s a thinker primary,” I said.

Precipice nodded.  “Like I’m a blaster primary, it’s the strongest of my powers, and Foil is-”

“Striker, technically,” Foil volunteered.  “Not that the otherworldly things that put these powers in us really categorized everything so neatly.”

We had to get up a hill to get back toward the parking lot.

I continued to find my refuge in geekery.  “March’s a thinker first.  Mental powers come from mental triggers.  Powers that grant skill, perception, information, they tend to stem from self-centric things.  Dilemmas, complexes, obsessions, delusions.  Can I ask what the circumstances were around your trigger?”

Foil jogged at a light pace, considering.

“No obligation, but it would help,” I said.

“It’s weird that there are so many people here and there’s only one that I don’t know well enough to trust telling,” Foil said.

“I’m the odd one out?” Precipice asked.  “I’ll cover my ears.”

She reached over to his arm, pulling it down before he could.

“I’ll skip over details, but I know you’re roped into this.  She’s after you, right?”

“Technically I owe her a favor,” Precipice said.

“She won’t make that easy.  The more you know, the better,” Foil said.  She drew in a deep breath.   Then she hesitated.

Which was annoying, but annoying was better than freaking out over what might have happened to Sveta.

Answers, we find them, we help the others.  If needed we break all of Cradle’s limbs and get him to tell us how to undo what he did to the Navigators.

Through that, maybe we can stop March before she does whatever she’s planning.

“I didn’t mean for it to be a big thing,” I told her.  “I know triggers are heavy.”

“No, it’s okay.  I need to, and if anyone has insights or perspective, it would help,” Foil said.  “Even if it’s power wonk stuff.”

“Alright,” I said.

“I was fostered, entered into the system.  I had older siblings who weren’t.  Subway platform in New York, I get attacked from behind, and it was one of my sisters, homeless, and so- so angry.  It was like she lived in a completely different, warped reality, where I was to blame for everything, I’d sold her out, I’d taken something she was owed.  She tried to push me but I caught myself, and when she tried again, she pushed other people down onto the tracks while pushing me down to the ground, put my head in the way of any incoming trains.”

“March was one of those people on the tracks?” I asked.  “Her timing power… and an imminent train?”

Foil shrugged.  “All I know is I triggered as the train hit my sister, convinced she’d killed me.  March says our third was a friend of my sister, but I barely met the woman, and I didn’t realize why she was important or what she meant when I did.”

“And March?”

“There were people on the tracks.  Never got off, just… backed off enough that they could hug the wall while the train passed.  Or she got under a ledge, or she was pulled up and something else led to the trigger”

I nodded.

“Does that really give someone powers?” Chastity asked.  “Being off to the side and having a train pass within a foot of you?”

“She might have thought the same thing as Foil.  That she was about to die.  But thinker triggers are tricky.  They’re all about what’s going on in someone’s head.”

Precipice was staring off to the side.

We’d have to talk about Cradle at some point too.  Deciphering that.

Foil’s family situation had gotten other people caught up in it.  That explained a bit of March’s fixation or degree of blame, maybe.  Or the worship, if March saw Foil as responsible for vanquishing their attacker.  Or something.

“I always wondered if my sister was on something, or if she was under the effect of a power, or if she was just that angry.  They were supposed to do a full autopsy and send things in to get checked- it was even a request of mine, when I joined the Wards.  If they ever figured it out, they didn’t tell me.  All I ever heard was that it was still in the works, there was a backlog, the department didn’t see it as a priority.  It stung.  A small part of my reason for wanting to get out of New York was to get away from the dynamic where I was just another face in a very crowded department.  Of course, I picked Brockton Bay, and we all know how that went.”

Foil was fixated on her end of the trigger, but I was left to consider March’s.  Thinker triggers were hard, because they took place in a person’s head.  What served for one person to trigger might not work for another.  The only evidence available would be the course of action before, and the course of action after.

“Power involvement would complicate things,” I said.  “And explain things.  Like your power’s tendency to go through anything, not just through things.”

Foil nodded.  “I’ve talked about that with some power testing people.  They didn’t talk about the thinker side of it though.”

“What was your first meeting?” I asked.

“She joined a villain group my Wards team was already dealing with.  Low-level, nonviolent, safe enough that our bosses were okay letting us try.  She made them more effective and she blew up enough things that our bosses withdrew that permission.  We moved on to another sanctioned target, and March joined them.”

“After you from the beginning.”

Foil nodded.  “She would disappear for months at a time, then show up with friends.  What got me was that I was trying to treat the cape stuff like a career, right from the start.  Getting away from… from whatever pulled my sister down.  For March, it was always a game.  Not the usual way, where it’s a specific meta-approach to crime and criminality.  Like an actual game.”

“Sometimes you have to approach it that way,” Candy said.  “The worse something is, the more you have to treat it like it’s nothing.”

“Yeah,” Foil said.  “It’s just fucked up when she ropes me and Parian into it.  Or the other Undersiders.  Or civilians.”

I saw Precipice start to raise two right hands, like a student in class who had something to say but wasn’t sure about it.

He stopped, dropping his hands.  Not the time for it.  We had other immediate concerns.

Our driver was leaning against the door of the van when we returned from our excursion, smoking.  All was well until we drew close enough that the streetlights illuminated our group, and the driver saw the three bodies we’d draped over the back of Rachel’s dog.

There were a few directions one could go, when their immediate peer group had just been taken out by the scary people with powers.  Fight, which meant drawing that gun and doing as much damage to us as possible, flight, which meant hopping into that vehicle and trying to drive away…

His hands went up.

Freeze is another option.  For the guy, not for us.

Other people couldn’t afford for us to freeze.

“I’m going to knock you out while we figure out what to do,” Chastity said, as she drew closer.  She drew out her whip.  “Don’t do anything stupid.”

“I don’t know what they said, but I’m not part of it,” the driver said.  He backed up a little.  The hand closest to his gun dropped a couple of inches, still raised.  “I’m new.”

“He is new,” Chastity said.  “It’s true.”

“Don’t announce that you’re going to bitch slap a grown man and then fail to follow through,” Aroa said.  “It makes all of the Heartbroken look bad.”

“Is there a way forward where we don’t take him out?” I asked.  “Because I’m really not keen on running interference while someone else drives on icy roads, so I can grab it if it starts skidding.  It’s nerve wracking.  He seems to have the driving down, at least.”

“It’s what I do.”

“Shh,” Rachel shushed the man.  “You don’t have to whine about guarding the car.  My dogs can handle that.”

Whine?

“You have Yips with you, and Yips is barely a dog,” Candy said, pointing at the gangliest of the monster dogs.  Rachel glared at her.

“All I’m asking is who drives, if he doesn’t?” I asked.

“I can drive,” Foil said, at the same time Precipice volunteered with a, “Me.”

They exchanged looks.

“Enhanced timing and accuracy with my power.”

“I’ve been driving since I was old enough to see over the wheel, most kinds of weather.  I don’t have much going for me, but I’ve got that, at least.”

I put my fingers at my nose, pinching the bridge.

“Why haven’t we beat down the merc?” Aroa asked.  “Priorities.

“Because we don’t know what we’re doing, hon,” Chastity told her.    She flicked her hand, the motion traveling down the length of the whip that draped across the icy road.  “These things take negotiation.”

“No,” I said.  “Knock him out.  Precipice drives.  Dogs will run interference, but they can’t do it alone.  The road between here and where we’re going is busier, and other cars on the road limit what the dogs can do to stop the van if it goes off course.  I’ll be overhead, helping.”

“I can drive,” Foil said.  “I know he’s your teammate, but-”

“But we need you shotgun, in a position to shoot if we need shooting,” I said.

She considered, then nodded.

Chastity looked at Rachel for confirmation.  Rachel nodded, and Chastity flicked out her whip without turning to look at the driver.  He brought up an arm, protecting himself, and the whip encircled his wrist.  She hauled back on it, pulling him toward her- and he went with it, charging her.

A dog butted forward, moving to intercept.  The driver couldn’t pull back or get away before the dog rammed him with its head.  The impact was heavy enough that Chastity had to let go of her whip instead of being pulled along with.

“I don’t have enough shots for my crossbow,” Foil told me, even though the situation with the driver wasn’t yet resolved.

“We have other weapons,” I said.

“I guess,” she said.

“How much time have you spent at the range?” I asked, flying over to the dog with the knocked out mercs draped over its back.  It shied away, stopping as Rachel made a disapproving sound.

I pulled a pistol from the mercenary’s holster, handing it to Foil.  Off to the side, Chastity bent down over the mercenary,

“Not enough.”

“Enhanced timing and accuracy, at least.”

She nodded.

I gave a hand in getting the knocked out soldiers into the back of the van.  Lord of Loss was already in the back, under the bench behind the passenger seat.  As we’d done with him, we positioned the mercenaries, zip tied their hands and feet, then had Foil use her darts to fix their clothes to the surroundings.

It was crowded work, so as soon as my portion of things was done, I checked on Lord of Loss, making sure his hands weren’t cold and that circulation was there.  Which was probably nicer than anything the asshole would do for us.  Sticking people’s faces into Nursery’s power.  Fucker.

I shivered involuntarily.

“I should cancel out my power on them sometime,” Chastity said.

“They’re knocked out until you wake them up, right?”

“But if that tackle had hit me, they’d be awake and I’d be out, and I wouldn’t be useful to you for a while,” she said.  “We have to assume it’s going to happen.”

I nodded.  “Maybe wait until we’re closer to where we’re going.  It means Lord of Loss talks less.  He’s kind of ridiculously annoying.”

She nodded.

“We could tape his mouth shut,” Aroa said.

“That’s a hazard if he pukes.  Which he might if it turns out he’s very claustrophobic.  Which he might be, since I’ve never known him to go indoors while in breaker form.”

“Ah, I know someone like that.  Except not being tied up.  She freaks out and sometimes even barfs every time she gets tied up.”

“Puke and taped mouth means not being able to breathe.  For now, let’s keep it simple,” I said.

“As funny as it would be to see him freak?” Aroa asked.

I pushed her the rest of the way into the van.

The other two Heartbroken climbed into the back.

“The dogs will help keep you on the road.  Don’t pull too far ahead,” Rachel said.

“Got it,” Precipice said.

“You say dogs,” Candy chimed in, “But Yips is barely a dog.”

Rachel slammed the door in Candy’s face.

“Yips?” I asked.

Rachel indicated one of the animals.  The smallest and gangliest of the monster hounds.  It was still large enough that when it walked by the van, its spine was level with the top of the vehicle.

“Where to?” Rain asked, leaning out the window.

I checked the disc.  “Direction of Fairfield, looks like.”

He nodded.  The armored van started up.  It rumbled to life, then started forward, a little jerky.  It almost immediately braked, skidding a few feet.

Even from outside the vehicle, I could hear the heckling from the Heartbroken.

“Problem?” I asked, raising my voice.

“Checking the brakes, getting a feel for the weight of the vehicle.”

More heckling from inside.

Rachel still hadn’t left.  She was bundling up, drawing a blanket that I’d taken as a saddlecloth around over her legs instead, so the corners met at her lap, the blanket covering her legs.  She had leather mitts that looked comically oversized, more like boxing gloves than regular wear, and added protection for her face: a hood with fur trim pulled up, ski goggles for the eyes, and a face cover for the lower half, a dog’s features stamped onto the cloth.

Her henchman had a similar setup.  Where Rachel rode the largest beast, the teenager rode the middle one.

Rachel’s voice was muffled.  “If we have to body check the van, you’re going to need to pull your leg up.  Don’t lash in too tight.”

“That’s terrifying,” the henchman said.

“There’s still time to ask to ride inside.”

The henchman shook her head, pulling her hood up and hunching over, mittened hands at the chains that served as reins.

I flew up to the top of the van, standing on top as it pulled out of the parking lot.  Being grounded and in contact with it helped keep me in tune with its movements while I checked my phone.

No signal.

The van picked up speed, which made standing on top harder, the wind against my hands cold.  I’d have to trust.  We had sent a message to Vista, urging her to be ready for March, and we’d told her to pull strings and cut all communications for now, at least until they’d weathered the initial attack.

The wind whipping over the top of the van caught my legs, sweeping them off the roof.  I started flying the instant they were no longer touching, staying close.  I wrapped the Wretch around myself, to shield against the cold wind, at the cost of making it harder to fly straight.  Shifts in air resistance, a lopsided body.

If March couldn’t call other teams or mercenaries, then she couldn’t coordinate timing.  She would still have an advantage, but it would be predicated on having the information to exploit.

The disc at my arm glowed.  I checked the status.  I wasn’t sure how to tune the default settings, because pulling up our red team still brought up a painfully zoomed out view, with three red dots miles away from another three red dots.  I had to take nearly a minute to focus the view on one group of three, zooming in close enough to make out any pertinent details, and it looked like I’d have to do it every time I wanted to check.  If I wanted to check on the other half of team red, then I had to reset, then zoom in on them.

Swansong, Lookout, and one of the Heartbroken kids were in custody.  Bags over heads.  Hands bound.  Swansong had the power to free herself, but she couldn’t use it.  Lookout had been positioned just behind her.  Using her power would obliterate her teammate and friend.

The heartbroken kid, one of the younger ones closer to Kenzie’s age, was being managed with a long pole attached to her restraints.

An indicator showed the direction to them.  They were to our west and were traveling west.  We knew they were heading to a portal.

They were near Fairbanks and were heading in the direction of the screwed up portal that had once led to Earth N.  In the same neighborhood as Kenzie’s old house.

An attempt at checking on the other group provided only static.  We’d known they were at the university, and that wasn’t far from the portal in question.

Was this a trap?  That we could only see one target for the time being?  Love Lost was a tinker, careful enough to have security on everything tech and traps riddling everything that wasn’t tech.

It was hard to imagine her not expecting us.

“Let’s try to intercept red team before they’re taken to where the larger group with Cradle is!” I called out.

I got a signal of assent from Foil.  Rachel, to my right, nodded her head.

At least she wasn’t fighting me.

“Rachel!” I called out, trying to be heard over the rush of wind.  “Can you hear me!?”

I heard her grunt.  I wasn’t sure if it was in the affirmative or the negative.

“What’s going on with Tattletale?  She didn’t catch this with the mercenaries?”

“She’s an idiot!” Rachel barked the words.

There wasn’t any elaboration.

“Victoria!”

It was Foil who called out through her open window.  She’d heard me.  She leaned out the window, one elbow poking out.  The hand of that arm had a gun in it.

I flew close enough to hear, which meant being close enough I couldn’t wrap the Wretch around me.  It was cold, but I could deal in the short term.

“I don’t know if you can relate,” Foil said, “But sometimes you get stuck in  a place that isn’t you.  Where everything you do is a drain on you.  It brings out your worst traits.”

My face was so cold I was worried about frostbite.  I turned my head around, one gloved hand going to my hood to keep it up as a shield against the wind.  All the same, I flew sideways, one eye closed.

Foil said something, and I had to cup a hand by my ear to hear because the wind whistling past the van was too much.

“Tattletale’s in that place, trying to help the city,” Foil raised her voice.

“She took over Brockton Bay!” I had to half-shout to be heard over the rush of wind.

“She didn’t!  Not like you’re thinking!  Coil took most of it over, set most of that stuff in motion!  Skitter did a lot of the rest of the work when it came to the taking over part!  Tattletale isn’t a warlord!  She isn’t a chessmaster!”

Eerie to hear one of her allies say it.  More uncomfortable to have to recontextualize my mental picture of her.

“What the hell is she, then?”

“She’s an idiot!” Rachel shouted.

I was surprised she could hear.

“She’s a manipulator!” Foil called out, raising her voice in response.

“She’s an idiot, but if you start talking shit about her-”

“I’m not, Bitch!  It’s not shit,” Foil said, the latter half of what she said was a normal speaking volume.  “She took over what Coil started and she steered that.  She’s good at that, but the farther we get from that setup of his, the harder it is.  She steered the group, helped Skitter, helped Imp!”

“And Rachel?” I asked, looking at Rachel.

“You don’t manipulate her, or you get your head torn off!”

Rachel turned her head to stare at Foil.  With the protection against cold weather, her expression was hidden.  I was going to assume sheer hostility.  It seemed to stay the case, unless she was being sweet to the Heartbroken kids.

“She was always at her best dealing with the smaller scale and the biggest, most abstract stuff,” Foil called out.  “Fights and powers, conspiracies, not running cities!  That was always her sticking to someone else’s game plan, manipulating the parameters.  She was best when she was taking care of the Undersiders.  When she had to look after herself, because not being at her best meant she might not be able to manipulate and steer her friends.”

Skitter and Imp?

“Except they’re okay now!” Foil’s expression had changed below her visor.  She was almost smiling, but it was a sad smile.  “Imp’s okay!  Rachel’s okay now!  Parian and I are okay!  Heartbroken are less broken than ever!  New Brockton was even okay!  The ones who aren’t or who couldn’t be okay are dead!”

Rachel snarled.  When I looked, she was just goading her dog to keep running and to run harder.  Tough going in the tall grasses and bushes that ran along the side of the road.

Or at least, the goading and tough way forward was a good excuse.

Losing teammates was- I could sympathize with that.

“She has no purpose?” I asked.  My hand was cold where it was holding my hood up.  I pulled it down, using my other, and drew closer so I wouldn’t have to strain my throat yelling.  “How does that lead to a screwup like not knowing what her own mercenaries are doing?”

“She has a purpose, but it’s killing her,” Foil said.  “She looks after the city.  It’s that thing that drains her and brings out the worst in her.  It doesn’t fill that need she has, but she does it because she has to.”

“She did it, past tense,” I gritted out the words.  I’d have to bail in a second to throw the Wretch up.  “She keeps talking about how she’s bailing, she’s out, she doesn’t want to get involved.”

“Yeah.  What’s she doing instead?”

“Looking after Chicken Little.  Do you mean he’s her project now?  Like the Undersiders were before?”

“Except he’s okay too,” Foil said.  “Most of the way to okay.  And she’s trying to steer him when he’s already on course to being a good- whatever he ends up being.  And that drains her, I think it surprises her how much.  She doesn’t accept input, not from me, most of all, not from Imp, Rachel doesn’t give input, and I think everyone that’s paying attention is pretty sure she’s going to either get him hurt, drive him away, or get herself hurt.”

I thought of the little man I’d felt so much like I’d wanted to coach and guide.  The boy with the birds.

“She looks like she’s in her element but she’s not.  So she puts more of herself into it-”

“And ignores the things that are in her element?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Just so you know, I don’t have the most charitable view of her, though I’m really trying here, I’m glossing over a lot of general bitchiness,” Foil said.  “Take what I say with a heaping of salt.”

“I don’t-” I winced at the cold air that rushed its way to my sore throat, colder than most of the air I was intentionally taking in.  “I don’t have the best view of her either, I don’t know if that means there’s no need for any added salt, or if I need an extra heaping.  But it makes sense.  What you say makes sense.”

“She’s out there,” Precipice said, from the driver’s seat.  His hands were on the wheel, the smaller mechanical arm on the shift.  “She’s helping our team yellow.  I’m not saying you’re wrong.  Just… to me that looks like she’s really conflicted, that she’s saying one thing but only halfway committing to it.”

“I’m not going to tell you that you’re wrong,” Foil said.

“But you want to?”

“She’s given me so much flack about being conflicted where I am…”

I didn’t hear the rest.  Foil was talking to Rain now, not me.  I peeled away, far enough from the armored van that I could use the Wretch.  Close enough I could step in if needed.

A bit of relief, but it didn’t make the cold parts of me warm, it just stopped them from getting colder.

I checked the disc.  Again, I had to zoom in.

I flew in closer to the others, holding the disc up.  I saw Precipice glance my way.  I put my arm out across the disc, hand flat, pointing the way.

“Be careful of a trap,” I told him.

I saw him and Foil nod.  Foil undid her seatbelt.

“Watch for ambushes,” I told Rachel, “We’re conspicuous.”

“I heard you already,” she said.

Her henchman did give me a salute, though.

“And Precipice?” I asked.

“What?”

“Same thing as Lord of Loss.  Hit me.”

“Are you serious?”

“Yeah,” I said.

We had to catch up to the hostages and the group of mercenaries or whoever that had caught them.  They’d beat Imp, they’d gotten around Lookout, and Swansong hadn’t taken them down.

Every car on the road was a potential threat.  Every person on the street, every alley was a potential direction of attack.

I rose higher, scanning the surroundings.  So many people wore black for their winter clothing, or they wore white, and they were camouflaged against a background of dark pavement, gray concrete, and white snow.

I checked the disc.

They weren’t far at all.  A couple of blocks away.

Rachel’s dog barked.  A warning sound, one that the others picked up.  I saw her reorient-

I sprung to action before I even had a good view of what was happening.  In the dark, it was hard to see the particulars, but I could see the outside context.  A car turning around a corner, only to hit a barrier.

Naibiter’s claws.

I was already descending, and taking action meant a trajectory change, the momentum already there.  I struck the claws from above, driving them down toward the ground.  Though rigid, they bowed beneath the pressure from above.

She was the escort, running alongside much as Rachel and I had been doing with the van.  The difference was that we were making sure Precipice didn’t drive off the road or slide into incoming traffic, keeping an eye out from where we were.  Nailbiter was running interference.

Buying time for their vehicle to get away with their hostages.  Our friends and teammates.  If they reached Cradle-

I caught the nails, and I lifted, hauling them up, so they wouldn’t be a barrier for the van.

Nailbiter’s distant figure barely moved.  But the ‘nails’ came hard.  More than fifteen, pale and narrow, passing me, stabbing into the street, stabbing a nearby building face.   One hit the Wretch, and the other hit me, grazing the underside of my fucking foot.

In the same moment I reacted, the fingers I was gripping withdrew, slipping from my grasp.  Too fast, too silent, no cues, and it was too dark to see what I was fighting.

She wasn’t the only one running interference.

Another flier, coming at me as I tried to take evasive action.  Nailbiter, off to the side, was scaling a building, preparing to come at the van or come at me from the flanks.  I focused on the flier for the time being.

She had a silvery glow about her, long, wild hair made wilder by the fact that she wasn’t human any more.  I could see the veins running across her body, the fact that her body had incorporated her costume- maybe clothes.  A high collar that could have been a hoodie or a collared shirt.  A ridge at the hips and waist that could have been pants, with a pair of horns decorating the ridges halfway between where the belly button should have been and the nethers- by placement and protrusion, I was guessing belt buckle.  The solid mass in the midst of the silvery nimbus was a dark purple.

Breaker.

Breaker meant on-off powers, ones that tended to ‘break’ reality.  A breaker power meant there were other powers in the mix.

Hers was creating a foot-long blade at each hand, black, to contrast the silvery glow, flickering and shimmering.

I flew closer.  I saw her stop in mid air, faster than any flier I’d seen, then immediately set off in another direction.  Direction change on a dime.  To turn that abruptly, I usually had to land, hit something, plant myself on some solid ground and then fly off.

Not as fast as me, it seemed, but far more maneuverable.

I drew in closer.

She hit me, and I didn’t see what with.  A flash, an impulse.

My head was flooded with information.  Everything and nothing.  Every priority I had.  March and the time effects, Love Lost and the hostages, Cradle and the people he had apparently butchered, who would be stronger if Love Lost got close.  The team, the dynamic with the Undersiders, the Heartbroken, the kids– I couldn’t help but go to that.  And from there my brain leapfrogged to the Major Malfunctions to Fume Hood and the other low-level capes who had been so neglected.  To the major teams and that I still had to prove my worth to them.  To the organization I was trying to set up- not in the sense that I wanted an institution, but I wanted to organize, and that meant something vaguely institutional.

I wanted to stop anyone from being hurt like I’d been hurt.  I wanted to stop every Amy out there.  I wanted to save every Glory Girl, stupid and barbaric as they might be.  I wanted to help Jessica help Breakthrough and I was worried that by failing to stop Chris I’d failed her.

A surge of feeling, of paralysis and motivation in overwhelming measure.

And I’d been driven back by it, because it had tapered off as I’d pulled away.

Which meant the flier was free to continue.

I saw her course, and I had a pretty good idea of what she was capable of now.  I halfway knew what she was doing before she used the black energy blades at her hands to swipe at a lamp post, severing the post that held up the glowing head.  The metal crashed to the ground, and the van rolled over it, bucking, almost leaping into the air.

Rain steered, and navigated the traffic that was freaking out, people stopping midway down the road without pulling over after hearing the crash.

The van was almost recovered when Nailbiter struck again from the alley.  Rachel’s dogs leaped, crashing into them, and instead of striking dead on or through the windows, they raked along the top, still forceful enough to topple the van, knocking it onto its side, directly in the path of incoming vehicles.

I swooped down, curving as I descended.  I was almost flying horizontal as I hit it, knocking it out of the lane.

I heard a door pop open.  Foil, climbing out the door that was now facing sky.  She had the gun in her hand, for all the good it would do here.

I really hoped Chastity had revoked her power from our captives.  Else we wouldn’t have her, and we’d potentially have an escaped Lord of Loss.

Mutant dogs snarled as they turned, facing the alley where an elongated Nailbiter was stepping out, a leering, stretched out smile of rusty nails plainly visible.  Rachel shushed them, and for a moment, the only sound was of passing cars, and the crackle of the nimbus of energy around the breaker that flew above us, suspended in the air.

Those powers… what the hell had Love Lost done, to add another member to Rain’s cluster?

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Blinding – 11.9

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The armored van cut its way through the thin sheet of ice that crusted the road.  I could hear the sound because the windows were all open, even the panels on the side, thick glass popped out and away.  Our driver was a mercenary in black, Korean, with sparse facial hair at the upper lip and chin, one gloved hand on the wheel, the other hand holding a cigarette up near his face.  It was cold as shit, and the comedown of the immediate danger meant my resistances were down, and I felt that cold twice as much as I normally might.

The open windows were partially for the cigarette, but the windows were mostly open for the smell.  Being smothered by Nursery’s power meant being smeared and soaked with juices, and those juices smelled like a fine blend of blood, urine, apple juice, and ham juices that had gone slightly off.  It was heavy enough on the air that I could breathe in through my nose and taste it in my mouth, back of the tongue to the tip.

The people in the back were enduring.  Foil had Parian’s head in her lap, Aroa at the end of the bench with her head turned so her nose was by the air that rushed through the window.  A very red, cold nose, but cold seemed preferable to smell.  On the other bench, Rain sat beside Chastity, who had Candy beside her.

I could imagine having a conversation with my twelve year old self, seeing her starry-eyed at the prospect of being a superheroine, and that conversation stopping before it even started because she’d gotten a whiff.

My phone rang.  I turned it over to see the screen, then raised it to my ear.

“Hi big V.”

“Little V.”

“Shit, are you sick?  You sound sick, and that’d be miserable, on top of everything.”

“Not sick,” I said, clearing my throat.  “A little froggy from pulling four pounds of unborn baby out of my throat.”

My mild amusement at imagining her reaction was dampened badly by the very vivid recollection of actually pulling the thread of Nursery’s powerstuff out of my throat.  I kept my breaths very shallow.

“I once got hit by something that made hear hear voices,” Vista said, through the phone.  “For me, the voices belonged to people who died and people I’d killed.  Took three months before it was at the point that I could ignore it, and for two of those months I thought it would be permanent.”

Couldn’t avoid it any more than you can get out of the way of someone’s flashlight beam, and then you’re permanently changed?  It was only three months, but I feel changed a year later.”

“No shit?” I asked.  I had to clear my throat again.

“Yeah shit.  How bad was your thing?  Sounds painful.”

“Not my best day.  Not my worst, but the night’s not over.  As nice as it would be to chat, I should ask why you’re calling.”

“I’ve been trying every few minutes for a while.   Did you have to turn off your phone for a bit for opsec?”

“Nursery’s power.  Jams signals.”

“Did you hear about the Undersiders who got shot?”

“I got a voice message, but we only had one dot of network connectivity so I couldn’t call for details or talk to them.  One Undersider and two heartbroken.  Unless there’s more?”

“Not that I’ve heard.  The villains want to get in touch to negotiate.”

“Hostage exchange, I’m guessing?”

“Yeah.”

“They haven’t given us a deadline and from the message I got, we don’t even know how the surgery or medical care is going.”

“Seems like the optimal time,” Rain said, from the back.

“What was that?” Vista asked.

“Question of timing.  They could try to negotiate now before things get complicated-”

“Before one of my siblings or cousins bites it,” Aroa muttered.

I gestured for them to pipe down.  “-I think the people who have the final say in negotiations are preoccupied.  They aren’t pushing a deadline on us, so for right this second, our read on it is that’s a wait-and-see thing.”

“Okay.  Wait and see.  I wanted to let you know in case you weren’t aware they’d been shot.  That was one reason I called.  There’s another.  Another two.”

“Hit me.”

“Do you need help?  I didn’t plan on asking, but you have a throat baby now-”

“Throat abortion, technically.”

“Good excuse for me to ask now, then.  Do yo want me to send you people?”

“How’s your end of things?  Tell me that first.”

“Wardens and your other teams are tackling the time bubble issue.  Things are ugly in New Brockton with the Undersiders no longer in charge.”

I winced.

“If you really needed it, we could send some people.”

I could hear the tone in the ‘really’, and it clarified the uneasy tone in the rest of it.  I’d imagined the city was on fire, before, when all of the villains had stepped up their game and gone on the hard, no-rules offense.  Things were still bad and we didn’t have enough capes on rooftops.

But if I really needed it, she would try, she might even find a way, and other critical things would suffer for it.

“We don’t know how bad the situation with the others is,” I answered.  “Can I get back to you on that?”

“You can.  Fill me in on your thing, so I can tell people higher up the ladder and figure out when and if we can get away sending someone.”

“Our team red got shot up.  Some of them were taken prisoner.  Ransoms pending.  ”

“That much I knew.”

“Team yellow is silent.  No communication.”

“Who’s on yellow?”

I hesitated.  The inquisitiveness wasn’t unusual for Vista, but being pressed when I was weary and my defenses were admittedly down had me on my guard.  My first thought was master-stranger protocols.  If she was compromised or if she wasn’t really Vista…

But she’d opened with ‘big V’.  I believed the story she’d told and I believed that the Vista I knew, in her right mind, might bring it up like she’d done.

“Victoria?”

“Tattletale, Chicken Little, three heartbroken kids, Sveta and Capricorn.”

“I wanted to make sure Tattletale wasn’t with you, get a mental picture.  The second reason I called- offering help wasn’t a reason-”

“Yeah.”

“A friend reached out.  I wanted to check with you before giving her your number.  ”

I could connect the dots.  “Hellhound.”

“Bitch,” Foil said from the backseat.  “I know it’s awkward, but it’s the name she chose.”

“Call her Rachel,” Vista advised me, over the phone.

“Rachel, Bitch.  Okay.”

“Can I give her your number?” Vista asked.

“Go for it.”

“Call me after if you can.  Let me know how it went.  And if you need something for that throat, hit up a gas station or a pharmacy, look for this medicine they sell that’s from one of the alternate earths.  Weird name, orange cap, blue bottle.  I lived by it the last time I had a cold.”

“I will.”

“Good luck with your teammates.  And with Rachel.”

I hung up.

“Vista’s giving Rachel my number,” I said.  “She doesn’t have yours, Foil?”

“She has it, she loses it.  Frequently,” Foil answered.

“She thinks if she can’t remember a number she shouldn’t have to bother with it,” Chastity said.  I looked back at her, saw her leaning her head back, eyes closed.  “People have tried to tell her about contact lists.  She prefers a smaller circle.”

“We don’t cross paths much,” Foil said.

“Any tips?”

“No good ones.”

Parian roused a bit, nudged her.  Foil bent down as much as she could without wrapping her stomach and chest around Parian’s head, in her lap.

“Don’t back down,” Foil said.

I fidgeted.

My phone buzzed in my hand.  My thumb was already ready to hit the button.

“Henchman here,” a young voice said.  “Acting as secretary- don’t nudge me.  I am.”

There was a pause.

“Secretary doesn’t sound weird.  What sounds weird is you interrupting me when I’m expediting.  Passing you to Rachel, Antares.  Good luck.”

I cleared my throat.

What?” was the answer on the other end, like someone had been been called at three in the morning, letting the phone ring ten times before the caller gave up, only for them to start again.

A sweetheart, Vista had said.

“You called me,” I said.

“I was supposed to go help Imp.  She got shot before I could get there, the rest of them caged.  Tattletale said to come to her, so I tried, and that went to shit.”

“Something happened?” I asked.

“It went to shit.  You’ve got my guys with you.  We’ll meet.  Drive-thru at Hot Pepper’s.”

“See you there, then.  We have to drop off Parian first.”

“Yeah,” she said.  She hung up.

She apparently didn’t want a timeframe.

In the backseat, Foil was twisting around.  The two benches faced each other, in true PRT- or SWAT-van style, and Chastity had moved to the other bench.  She and Foil were doing their best to extricate Foil from quivers and holsters without making Parian have to lift her head up, passing things across to Precipice.

After they were done with Foil, they took off the most ostentatious and ‘cape’ stuff of Parian’s.

When we pulled up to the clinic, a one-story affair with a plastic sign illuminated from behind above the door, people were waiting outside.  Foil, in civilian clothes, helped Parian out.  Parian was a petite middle-Eastern or Indian girl, which I hadn’t expected.

It looked like it would take a while to sort out, so I hopped out and flew across the street to the gas station.  I stopped by the bathroom first, to wash my face.  I pulled my phone out as I bought the little thing of medicine and some odor annihilators.  Supplied by another world.  I hoped there weren’t traces of cyanide or formaldehyde in it.

“Hey Little V,” I croaked.  as she picked up.

“How’d it go?”

“Reasonably, I guess.  The sweetheart thing is pretty hard to see.  It’s not that I don’t believe you believe it, but you might have lingering brain damage after the hearing voices thing.”

I heard her laugh on the other end.  Good to hear.

“It’s there, trust me.”

“Then we’ll see how it is face to face.”

“How’s your throat baby?” she asked.  It took me a second to realize she was asking how the baby was, not calling me baby.  It was like a slap in the face.  She went on, “Are congratulations in order?”

I shivered.  Still feeling the cold, still aware my defenses were down.  The clerk took my money.

“No congratulations,” I said, my voice a bit of a croak.  “I pulled out what I’m estimating was four pounds of baby from my throat.  Our friend that we just dropped off at the clinic got a seven pounder, I’m guessing, not counting all the rest of the stuff that was attached.”

“Gag.”

“Tell me about it.  I’m about to gag just remembering it, and don’t get me started on the smell-”

The clerk averted his eyes as I looked at him.  Yeah.

“We called ahead, they were ready to get her on her way to a hospital as soon as we showed.  They’re answering questions and filling in the clinic staff so they know what’s up.”

“Right on.  I hope she’s okay.  Hometown pride, you know?”

“I know.”

“Gotta hold on to stuff.”

“I know,” I said.

The clerk handed me my receipt.  I took my stuff, raised my eyebrows for him as he stared at me, then headed out the door.  I flew to the parking lot by the clinic, and I saw they hadn’t left yet.

Cold as it was, I decided to stay in the air.

I noticed the silence, and I wasn’t sure if it was a painful, awkward one.  “You were talking about it before.  Holding on to stuff.  The hallucinations.”

“I slapped my forehead after hanging up, cringing for bringing it up,” she said, almost groaning out the words.  “I don’t know why I did.”

“Was Dean one of them?”

“Yeah,” she said.  I could hear her voice over the phone, and the groan was gone.  Almost a relief.

“Was he angry?”

“He wouldn’t be angry, or he wouldn’t be Dean if he was.”

“He got angry sometimes.”

“But he wouldn’t be angry.  He wouldn’t stay that way.  He was just… better than, you know?”

“Absolutely,” I said, quiet.

“My therapist got so cranky about it.  We’ve got people who can see through walls.  Capable people.  I know someone who got stuck in a circumstance after an incident, she missed her time window to change back a few dozen times and now she just stays a giant magenta cat made of energy.  And a certain someone was strong enough to deal with being hospitalized for years after-”

I cleared my throat.  A second after doing it, I wasn’t sure if I’d done it intentionally to interrupt or if it was an accident.

“-After.  Strong enough to deal then and after.  So is it really hard to think maybe someone can be a really great guy, and I’m not puffing him up by calling him that?  That maybe she doesn’t need to take the one negative thing I say about him and run with it?”

“We puff him up a little.”

I heard Vista make a disgusting snorting sound over the phone.  I smiled.

“Are we trying to one-up each other here with war stories, because you just-”

“Nah,” she interrupted.  “Nah.  That’s for the boys.  I know that really cute guy in armor on your team has the competitive streak.  I’m… empathizing.  And saying something I wanted to get off my chest, I guess.  For a while after it wore off, I gave some real thought to going to where we’d stashed our bad guy and getting him to dose me again.  That was part of the quote-unquote ‘clinging to the good’ conversation with my cranky old lady therapist.  Most of the voices were friendly, and because I figured I’d gotten by, not telling my superiors.”

“Can’t do that.  Not giving them the information.”

“I know.  But this is all me trying to say that sometimes this all sucks.  Really sucks.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Sorry about your throat baby.  Me spending three months with voices in my head is the best comparison I can come up with.  Sucks.”

“At least you got something out of it.  Got to talk to Dean.”

“You didn’t get anything out of your throat-baby?  No cooing at the chubby little munchkin?”

I made a sound I hadn’t wholly intended to make.  Humor and disgust and cringe all together.

“Good luck with your team, Victoria.  This thing is a mess.  If you need help, we’ll send some people we can’t afford to.”

“The time fuckery is too important.  Too big, according to apparently everyone who knows anything.  Don’t.”

“If we don’t hear from you?”

“Don’t,” I said, again. “Don’t send anyone, don’t come.  Not unless you’re sure you can afford to.”

“Okay.  Don’t become one of those voices in my head, Victoria.  I’ll put you in a corner of my brain with Bastion, Barrow Rose, and Shatterbird.”

“I’ll do my best.”

“Call me when you’re done.”

“You too, yeah?”

“Yeah.”

I hung up.

They were still talking, and I didn’t want to join in.  Too close to memories of being wheeled off.  Packed up into an ambulance, hearing people talk about me like I wasn’t there.  Being ignored.

Parian wasn’t being ignored.  Foil stroked her hair while talking to the professionals.

Still too close.

I flew straight down to the van.  I stepped into the vehicle, and I unloaded with the odor annihilators, spraying myself down, and being sure to get the seats and the rest of the vehicle’s interior.

It kind of worked.  I couldn’t trust my own nose, but the worst of the smell was gone, and what lingered was akin to a bad aftertaste, which was equal measures floral scent and Nursery-power.

As the others returned to the vehicle, the driver gave me a nod, apparently approving.

Candy, on reaching the back end of the van, took a whiff and broke into a stream of French profanity.

“I can’t tell if you’re mad or happy,” I said.

“So happy,” she said.

“I’m going to smell like flowers,” Precipice said.

“It’s better than smelling like hot dog water and pee,” Candy said.

“That’s true.”

Foil was the next to appear at the door.  I hadn’t been sure if she’d come or if she’d stay with Parian.  She took up her spot on the bench, and Chastity sat beside her.

“She looks like she’s in good hands,” I said.

“She does.  Let’s just get this done.”

Everyone climbed in.

Our professional driver continued to drive on icy roads with one hand on the wheel, but the armored van seemed equipped for the weather, he seemed confident, and I was pretty sure I could do something about any skids if I had to, as I’d done with Byron.  I forced myself to relax, uncapping the medication and tossing it back.  Half a bottle for now, half for later.

It didn’t have the bad taste I expected, but it was oily, and bad associations made me want to gag.  The effect on my throat was immediate, though, and as soon as I felt the cool sensation, the desire for a gag disappeared.

The fast food place wasn’t far.  Hot Pepper had a sign that showed ‘Pepper’ standing with only the portion of her body between nose and hips visible.  Her arms were folded and the folding held a giant hot pepper within her cleavage, in an association driven home by her pose and the kissy lips visible up at the top.

Question marks about why Rachel had chosen this aside, I could see commotion.  Cars blocked some of the view, but I could see people at the window, crowding to one side… and as we rounded the corner and pulled into the lot, I saw the giant dogs.

Rachel was attacking one of her own.

Before our armored van even pulled to a stop, I was out the door, flying.

“-be torn apart!” Rachel’s voice was raised.  She stood on the  back of a giant mutant dog that was stock still, head down, breath coming in and out in huffs.  “Which is it!?  Cut in half, chewed, or torn apart?  Or are you going to say something I actually believe!?”

‘Sweetheart’.

The man didn’t answer, fighting for a grip.  By the look of it, he didn’t have the breath to form words.  A dog had a paw on his chest, and was leaning forward, exerting what had to be hundreds of pounds.

“Hold on,” I said.  “Wait a second.”

“This is my business, not yours.”

“It’s everyone’s business if you’ve got people at the window over there watching.  Word gets around.  What happened?”

“He looked at me funny.”

“Y- what?”

“Don’t make me repeat myself.”

The guy on the ground was groaning.  I was reminded of the day I’d first glimpsed the Siberian.  This woman, then a teenager, attacking people in her territory for the crime of being there.  Maiming some.

She had henchmen, by the looks of it.  I looked at the nearest one.  “Am I missing something?”

“Nah.  He looked at her funny,” the girl in the heavy jacket covered in patches and buttons said.  Her eyes were heterochromatic.

Rachel whistled twice, two short sounds, more like a bird call than anything.  The dog lifted its head, peering at her with one eye.

“Soft,” she said.  She indicated the mercenary.  As the dog lowered its head, mouth open, she said, “Good.”

Not good,” I said, as I saw the dog take the mercenary’s head into its mouth.

“What the hell?” Rain asked, as he caught up.  The Heartbroken were with him.

Rachel, though, turned our way.  She wiped at her nose with her sleeve, leaving a wet line on it, then saw something- someone, and smiled.  She hopped down from her dog onto snow, gave it a few heavy slaps on the side, and said, “Stay.”

“Stay is good,” I said, eyeing the mercenary.

She walked past me to where the Heartbroken were.  Her hug of Chastity was forceful enough that Chastity had to take a step back, awkward with Rachel holding her.

“I’m still annoyed,” Chastity said.

“Get over it.  We have work to do.  Now hug me back.”

Dutifully, Chastity did.  The hug broke, and Chastity seemed very at ease in the wake of it.

For Candy, Rachel bent down, then straightened up.  A big hug, Candy’s feet dangling.  Rachel’s hand went to the back of Candy’s head, fingers in her hair.  Those fingers gripped the hair close to the scalp.

“Don’t muss my hair,” Candy said, into Rachel’s shoulder.

“Long hair is a weakness,” Rachel said.  “It’s something your enemies can grab.”

“You have longer hair.  You have dogs with longer fur.”

“I’m all out of enemies and my dogs don’t have hair when they’re grown,” Rachel said, “And I have long hair because I don’t care enough to bother one way or the other.  But you make your hair this nice, braid parts, put pins in parts, make it all shiny-”

“Conditioner, Aunt Rachel.”

“And you leave yourself open.  If a villain or a no-neck twit hero gets their hands on you like this, what do you even do?”

No neck twit hero?

“What are you going to do?”

“I’ll fuck ’em up.”

“You don’t hesitate then.”

“Of course not.”

Rachel let Candy drop.  Candy spent a second smoothing her coat and skirt before fixing her hair with her fingers.

Aroa tried to back away.  Rachel caught up with her-

I wanted to wince, because Aroa was the thirteen year old Heartbroken who apparently liked hurting people, and got a power that lashed out with pain and made people like the pain.

“No hugs,” Aroa said.  “Never hugs.”

Rachel stopped short of a hug.  A hand touched the side of Aroa’s face, two fingers above the ear, two below.  She moved the hand, Aroa’s head rocking.

“Don’t get into trouble,” Rachel said.

Head still moving side to side, Aroa rolled her eyes.  “Or you’ll make me pitchfork shit?”

“Next time, I’ll make you express anal glands,” Rachel said.

“I don’t even know what that means,” Aroa said.

“Popping out the pooper juice,” Candy said.  “After I embarrassed Darlene in front of Chicken Little, I got sent to Rachel and apparently I qualified as breaking the ‘don’t hurt the Chicken’ rule, so I got the bad punishments.  I had to do it four times.”

Aroa smirked.  Candy smirked back, less natural, more mocking of Aroa’s expression.

“It’s your job next time,” Rachel said.  Her hand stopped moving but it didn’t pull away.

Aroa glared up at Rachel.  “I don’t think you realize how fine a line you walk with us, abusing us like you do.”

“I’ll make you a deal,” Rachel said.  “Show up.  Come anytime.  Good clean food, playing with the other kids, swimming, riding the horses or dogs.  If you aren’t bratty and you don’t scare or hurt anyone, you get a pass.  No anal glands and no cleanup the next time you get in trouble after that.”

“I don’t plan on getting caught.”

Rachel put another hand on the other side of Aroa’s face, bending down, and putting her face the crown of her head.  She murmured something I didn’t hear.  Aroa nodded.  As Rachel took her hand away, she gave Aroa’s head a push.  Aroa rolled her eyes.

Last of that side of the group, Foil greeted Rachel.  A hand clasp, not a hug.

I glanced down at the mercenary, who still had a paw pinning him to the ground, his head lifted off the ground by the teeth that had slid between head and pavement, mouth not fully closed.  He barely moved.

“Precipice and Antares,” Foil said.  “Bitch.”

“Yeah,” Rachel said.

I put out a hand.  She hesitated, then took it.

Precipice did the same.  She didn’t hesitate.  Because she’d gotten over it with me, or because I was more of a reason to hesitate?  Past history?

Off to the side, Chastity was greeting Rachel’s henchperson.  A kiss on each cheek, deftly done, while the henchperson reacted in the awkward way just about anyone, myself included, did when a surprise dual-cheek-kiss was done to them, trying to reciprocate while a step behind.

“If you get your food and arrange meetups at a place like this, people are going to draw conclusions,” Chastity said.

“It’s good food.  I got you some.”

“I’m really not hungry.  But thank you.  At a place like this you’re getting pretty waitresses, not good food.”

“If pretty waitresses was all they had, then they wouldn’t be full of customers.  And they wouldn’t have a nice sign.”

“Can we address the guy with his head in a dog’s mouth?” Rain asked.  “It’s alarming.”

“It’s a soft mouthed breed,” Rachel said, patting the side of the dog with heavy slaps that sounded like drum beats.  The dog, for its part, wasn’t moving its head an inch- considerable given the size of that head.

“I don’t know what that means.  I never had a dog growing up,” I said.  “My parents said it wouldn’t be fair if we got hurt or if a supervillain got us, and we weren’t back for it.”

“Fair,” Rachel said.

“Not fair.  They had you,” Candy said.

I shrugged.

“We had a dog,” Chastity said.  As the Heartbroken turned her way, she clarified for her sister and ‘cousin’, “Not the fat man.  An actual dog.”

“What the fuck?  I don’t remember that,” Candy said.

“It died when you were small,” Chastity said.

Rachel stared at Chastity, her expression unreadable, just kind of ambiguously hostile, eyebrows furrowed.  Then she turned back to me.  “Soft mouthed means it’s gentle.  You could have it carry an egg and it wouldn’t break it.”

“Is it necessary?” Rain asked.

“We’ll see,” Rachel said.  “Off, Honeybun.”

The dog backed away, releasing the mercenary’s head.  Just from moisture of the dog’s breath, his head and face were damp.

“I didn’t have a look in my eye.  I’m just doing the work,” he said.

Off to the side, Candy shook her head.

“Lie,” Candy said.

“I’m fucking innocent of whatever it is you think I did!”

“Lie.”

“You’re lying to my face?” Rachel growled.  She stepped forward, gesturing.  The dog exerted more downward pressure.

“Fuck!  No!”

To my right, Precipice shifted his footing, head angled down.

I could see the faint change in the man, the way his jaw set.

“I get the pay, I do the work, I keep it simple!”

“Lie.”

The mercenary’s expression twisted.  Breath fogged as he hissed through teeth, his hands reached up to grip the dog’s leg, as if he could alleviate the pressure by lifting it- but that was next to impossible.

“I don’t know what you want me to say!  You’re utterly insane!”

“True, but iffy.”

“Fuck you!”

“True, but also iffy phrasing.  The intent is there.”

I folded my arms.  I knew that Candy didn’t have any emotion sensing or lie detection power.  This guy worked with the Undersiders and seemed to be under the impression she did, or that it was possible.

I glanced again in the direction of the restaurant.

“We should take this elsewhere.”

Rachel shook her head, glancing at me.  “If we take it elsewhere it’s going to be so they don’t see any bodies.”

“True,” Candy said, mischievously.

Rachel shot her a look.

“Whatever.  Let’s just move elsewhere, then discuss.”

Rachel whistled, and gestured for the dog to move its paw.

We lifted him up, Rachel, Rain and I draping him over the dog’s back.  As we finished, I saw Rachel glance sidelong.  First at Foil, then at mercenaries.

Foil was hanging back, apparently looking at Chastity and the henchman, but with a vantage point to see the entire group, the other mercenaries included.

“The only way this goes okay for you is if you cooperate,” I told the mercenary.”

“There’s nothing to cooperate about!”

“Lie.”

All based on a look, and a little girl pretending to be a lie detector.

I felt uneasy.

“You want to give us answers before we get where we’re going,” Rachel said.

“I don’t have any to give!”

“Lie.”

I saw the man’s expression twist.  I gave Rain a look, discreetly pointing between him and the man.  He nodded.

Guilt and regret aura in effect.

He twisted his head around, looking at the other mercenaries.

I spun around, relying on flight, not feet.  Already, the two mercenaries were acting, their expressions set somewhere between annoyance and alarm.

Foil’s actions were smooth, as she stepped in close.  As one drew his gun, she struck his arm.  It fired in the moment of impact, and the gunshot hit the ground right behind Rachel’s right heel.

Rain and I hit the other mercenary at the same time.  Rain’s hand caught the guy’s arm.  His mechanical hand reached up to grab the gun as I grabbed the guy, keeping his other arm from doing something.  Mechanical fingers worked at the gun, and pulled away the gun’s slide.

The mercenary knew some martial arts, and tried them on me.  A grip at my arm, pulling me forward, a twist of his body-

I inverted, flipping up, so my hands were down and my feet were up.  His leverage was nil, and with my hands gripping his hands, I could come down hard, the flat of my forearm against the flat of his, driving down.  Bone broke as I forced arm to ground, and nose broke as face followed.

“Are there others?” Foil asked.

“The one that drove us,” Rain pointed out.

“And these three,” Chastity said, looking down.

Rachel turned to the one that had ‘looked at her funny’.  “Speak.”

“I don’t-” he started.  He grimaced.  “Fuck.

Speak.

“We got a better offer.  Money froze up when the Undersiders left New Brockton.  The boss is being cagey.  We talk, you know.  About what happens next.  This is a cushy gig, how does it end?  And we collectively decided a year or two ago that if it ended it would look like this.”

“And you fuck us?” Rachel asked, gripping him by the collar.

I saw him set his jaw.

“May I?” I asked.

She didn’t let go or budge, staring him down.

“Rachel.  We’re working on this together.  Let me have a go.”

“Let’s cooperate,” Foil said.

Rachel dropped him.  He slumped to the ground.

I glanced at Rain, gesturing slightly, indicating our prisoner.  That got me a nod.  For the actual interaction, though, I had to get close.  I was glad for the armor at my knees as I knelt beside him.

I could feel Rain’s power.  Subtle, but there.

“Tell us.”

No answer.

I pulsed out with my aura.  Calculated, as I’d been doing as of late, to just extend a few feet.  The others would barely notice it, if they noticed at all.  A glance confirmed I was right.  No changes in expression, no reactions, no anger or frustration with me.

“Tell us who paid you and what this operation entails.”

No answer again.

Again, I used my aura.

Rain was exerting a constant pressure, magnifying regret, shame, and guilt.  My power was a slap across the face, a burst of emotion, a feeling plummeting to the pits of the stomach.

In the wake of my power, they’d rebound, reel.  Some emotion control powers could be used like that, to create a long-term effect that extended past the power’s duration.

That lesson was being driven home by Rain’s power.

“Cradle,” the man said, his head bent.  “Love Lost.  March.  They’ve met, they’re working together.”

“Kind of assumed,” I murmured.  “Try harder.”

A slap of my power got a reaction from him.

“Last I heard, which was before we left for the restaurant, they beat your buddies.  Both groups.  Sliced and diced a bunch of them.  If anyone asks…”

A pulse of my aura encouraged him to keep speaking.  He babbled instead.  “If anyone asks we were going to say we were with Tattletale until she bit it.  We’ll say- we were going to say, we only joined these guys when it was all over.”

“What are they up to?  What are they doing?”

“They’re retreating to another world, taking hostages with them.  That’s Cradle and Love Lost.  March is gunning for the finale.”

Not Finale, but the finale.

“The time-stop and time loop effects?” I asked.

With circles under his eyes, his expression a little wild, our captive mercenary nodded his head.  “Exactly.  As far as they’re concerned, they’ve won.  You just haven’t gotten around to realizing it yet.”

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Interlude – 11.c

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Tattletale adjusted the disc.  The screen buzzed, flickered, showed the blue silhouettes of Antares’s group frozen mid-run, and then stuttered.  A blue line made a circuit around the perimeter of the disc a few times, accelerating as it went, before the entire thing winked out.

The words that popped up in blue weren’t pointed in a direction that Darlene could see.

“Signal lost,” Tattletale said.  “I guess Parian’s group found Love Lost.”

“Foil sounded confident that she could deal with her,” Capricorn said, his voice muffled by his helmet.

“She is very good at what she does,” Tattletale said, fiddling to tune the disc to another setting.  It looked mostly like static.  “She said she can do it, and I believe her.”

Darlene wasn’t sure why Tattletale had to do that.  It sounded so insincere, but it was the backhanded kind of insincere where she could use an eye roll or a simple denial to shrug it off if ever called on it.  Back when Darlene had turned five, Papa had been in a black mood for a while.  From what Samuel had said, Papa had wanted to collect Sidney Saile, the girl from Vancouver, and he failed.  That had been when Cherie had left and with Darlene’s mom being gone, she had no immediate family except Papa.

And Papa had had the black mood.  More casually cruel than he’d ever been.  Tempestuous.  She only dimly remembered those days, like a bad dream, but she remembered some.  She’d spent a long time having to worry about getting unlucky and having her dad single her out, out of twenty or so people, and a handful of people being kind of shitty.  After the black mood, it had changed to the point that it wasn’t about getting unlucky and being that one person in twenty.  It had been about being one of the ones who got out of the way and escaped his attention.  Everyone had been scared and shitty.

Her sister and some older ‘cousins’ had gone to school.  Cherie had.  It had seemed like a fairy tale.  The girls on television and in movies had gone to school and dreamed of being princesses and singers, even Sidney Saile had. Darlene had just dreamed of going to school.  So she’d begged.  She’d fought and even went on a hunger strike, until her dad made her eat until she was sick.

The compromise had been a homeschooling network and the homeschooling network had been Darlene’s introduction to the backhanded statements, the fake smiles, the two-facedness.  Mostly it was the dads and moms, but some of the other boys and girls had learned it too.

She felt now like she’d felt then.  There were dangerous people out there who wanted to hurt her and people she cared about, a black mood spread out among a few people, and even in her happier place people were shitting in the drinking water.

Tattletale briefly met Darlene’s eyes, her fingers still busy tapping and clicking at the disc, to go through channels and adjust settings.

Darlene felt the swell of Aiden’s chest as he puffed up a fraction, the little lean forward and up, like he had to push himself and stand a little taller to speak, and her full attention was on him before he even got the first word out.  She felt his expression like she felt his own, even though his mask was blank, a circular disc with a conical beak, two beady eyes, and the cock’s comb.  Eyebrows drawn together and up.  Her own moved to match.

“Are they okay?” he asked.

“No signal.  We won’t know until they’re clear of whatever it is that’s jamming it.”

“Can I take a look?  I’m more familiar with Lookout’s tech.” Capricorn asked.

“Be my guest,” Tattletale said.  She unstrapped the shield-like disc from her forearm.  She passed it to Capricorn, who strapped it to his own arm.

Capricorn was pretty cool, but in a bit of a Chevalier way.  He’d been a hero for a while, relatively speaking, and he was still around.  She couldn’t see or feel his face because the only one she was connected to right now was Aiden, so he had a cool mystique, with an emphasis on the ‘cool’.  His personality felt like it would be painted with shades of Samuel and Juliette.

Tress probably wasn’t taking the disc because her arms were artificial.  Her body was encased in armor, and that armor had connections at the shoulders and back that had two large arms, half of a neck and half of a face extending from them.  It was like she had a giant robot version of her, but it was only a quarter of the way there, and she was living like someone who had been chopped into pieces, moving forward by crawling with the overlarge arms.  Darlene could see Tress’s face, but it was harder to get a sense of her than it was with the helmeted Capricorn.

In this moment, though, Tress was easier to read.  Worried.

“Should we check on them?” Tress asked.

“Define ‘we’,” Tattletale said.  “These kids are in my care.”

“I’d go,” Juliette said.  “I’m old enough.”

Juliette stood off to one side, wearing a Velo-brand coat and turtleneck sweater that matched the texture and color of the wool cap she wore, her hands in her pockets.  Her hair was straight, her eye shadow blue, and her expression deadpan cold.  Amias was sitting on her shoulders, leaning forward in a way that pushed the hat slightly askew.  The only thing keeping Amias perched where he was was Amias, because Juliette wasn’t putting in much effort.

Tattletale shrugged.  “Sure.  We do need to have a conversation sometime about how you want rides places, you want clothes bought for you, which is kid treatment, but you want to be considered ‘old enough’.”

“It’s the benefit of being a teenager,” Juliette said, deadpan.

“Benefit of being the not-your-mom adult in the room?  I can say no.”

“Does being really good at helping out with the cape stuff help?” Juliette asked.  “I can kill someone if you need someone dead.”

“I want to see less people dead, not more,” Tattletale replied.

“I can promise to try to kill less people if I can keep getting the best of both worlds.  Rides, clothes, and missions.”

“You’re supposed to be Imp’s headache, not mine.  Let’s just get through tonight.”  Tattletale said.  Weary, she said, “We’ll talk to Imp about it, another time.”

“We shouldn’t split up any more than we already have,” Capricorn said, his voice quiet.  “Not when they’d be happy to catch some of us alone.”

He was clicking through the channels.  It was only static and blank images.

“Mm hmm,” Tattletale made a noise.

Darlene clasped her hands together, staring down at them.  Her focus, though, was on Aiden.

“I could say I’m going no matter what,” Aiden said.

We could,” Darlene added.

Aiden put out his hand.  It took her a second to realize she was supposed to give him a fist bump.  She did, glancing his way, then turned her eyes back to Tattletale as the hands made contact.  She could feel his hand, feel her own hand, and as he continued to move his hand, moved hers to mirror.  Fist bump to high-five to finger-wiggles to backwards-high five.  Their hands flipped around to a brief hand hold, her idea, then pulled away, tips of their middle fingers brushing against palm, then middle finger, bent just enough that they caught at the tips.  A small songbird was already flying down, perching on the outstretched fingers.  It peeped, wings spreading as it flapped dramatically without taking off.

Ninety-five percent of it without looking at each other.  Darlene broke into the silliest smile, and there was nothing anyone could say to make it budge.

Tattletale folded her arms.  “I have to admit, that was cool.”

Aiden was smiling behind his mask.  He puffed up like he did, chest out and forward, trying to stand straighter.  The bird on their fingers took off.

“How many tries did that take to pull off?”

“That was the first try,” Aiden said.  Darlene wanted to bounce on the spot, but that would have bugged Aiden, so she just clasped her hands together and let the nervous energy jitter through one leg, toe of her boot on the ground, heel bobbing rapidly up and down.

“It’s cool, don’t get me wrong-”

“Very,” Tress said.

Darlene’s hands, still clasped together, thumped against her upper chest, pressing against her collarbone, arms hugged against her body.

“It doesn’t mean you’re not going to get hurt if you get into a fight,” Tattletale said.

“If someone’s going to get hurt, and my friends are there, I have to be there,” Aiden said.  “I have to.”

“Do you know if it’s a danger?” Capricorn asked, quiet.  He dropped his left arm, the disc strapped to it, dark, and held a phone to his ear instead.  He turned to Tattletale.  “What does your power say?”

“Nothing clear,” Tattletale said.  “And I’m not taking a leadership position.  I’m taking a looking-after-the-junior-members position.  My power isn’t at your beck and call.”

Capricorn raised his hands, surrendering.  His phone was in one hand.  “Sveta?  Thoughts?”

“We need to help them if there’s a possibility of trouble.”

“I’m not sure.  Some radio silence is normal.  With tinkerings especially.  Except there’s nothing on the phone either.”

“Phones being down sometimes is normal too,” Aiden said.  “In most places.”

“True,” Capricorn said.  “But you can see where I’m worried.”

“I’m worried too,” Aiden said.  “That’s Candy, Roman, and Lookout out there.  They’re some of my favorite people.”

“Tch,” Juliette made a small sound, because Aiden had mentioned Roman.

Capricorn blurred.  His entire body and the blue armor he wore became just a little bit bigger, and where his eyes were, she could see a glow.  The glow faded last, as the blurring went away.

He cleared his throat, a little louder in that than he’d just been, talking quietly.

“There’s another option.  They’re out there, thirty to forty-five minutes away, something like that.”

“Less,” Tattletale said.

“But still a trip.  We have to get there.  So think, which of them are getting into trouble where our arrival decides things?  Are they running, and we show up in the nick of time?  Or are they better off with us moving forward, possibly winning, and creating a negotiating position.”

“Hostages?” Darlene asked.

“Hostages only work if Love Lost or March even care about what we’re doing here,” Capricorn said.  “I’m thinking that they want answers or people or something else.  We can get that here and change things there.”

“I vote for that,” Juliette said.

“Mmmm.  You were just talking about killing people,” Capricorn pointed out.  His finger tapped against his forearm, where his arms were folded.  He looked at Tattletale, “Is she trustworthy?”

“There’s no way for me to answer that question without causing problems or having more headaches later.”

“That’s kind of an answer on its own, isn’t it?” Tress asked.

“Is she trustworthy?” Capricorn asked Aiden.  “Not just for this vote.  If we’re doing anything, my team needs to know.”

“Juliette’s good at cape stuff,” Aiden said.  “She says she likes watching people die.  I’d say listen to her unless people might die.”

Qué chingados…” Capricorn muttered, looking at Tattletale for confirmation, which she didn’t give.  “Can’t be simple.”

Can’t be simple with Tattletale either, Darlene thought.  Tattletale had wanted to separate her and Aiden like she was separating Aiden and Lookout, until Darlene had made her argument in the car.  Her power made Aiden safer.  If Candy was the only one with Aiden then that would be bad in its own way, because Candy egged him on.  If none of the young Heartbroken were with Aiden, then the older Heartbroken would be, and very few of them were good role models… and Aiden would be worse off in the future, because there wasn’t going to be a time anytime soon where he wasn’t surrounded by the Vasils.

Tattletale had agreed, points for that.  But she’d wanted to separate them and Darlene would remember that for a while.

“The benefit of this is it’s simpler,” Tress said.  “Mobilizing is hard, and what happens if we go all the way there, communications are dead, and we can’t find them?”

“Good point.  What about you?  Your votes?” Capricorn asked.  He turned toward the group.

“Mine?  Ours?” Aiden asked.

“Sure.”

Darlene felt Aiden blink.  Felt him make those small actions that prepared him to speak like an adult to adults.

“My birds are here.  This looks like the kind of place where I can use them.  I don’t know if it’ll work wherever we end up.”

Darlene looked around.  The university was a lot of large, spacious buildings, with sloped concrete overhangs covering walkways, outdoor ampitheaters with stone stairs instead of seats that were now covered in snow, and second-, third-, and fourth-floor aboveground tunnels that extended between buildings.  Right now, they were among the dorms.  Cradle was said to be active on the other end.

She could see how the birds would be useful.

“Let’s stay,” Darlene said.

Capricorn nodded.  “Let’s move to a better position then.”

Tattletale was looking around, taking in information.  Tress walked forward on her hands, her ‘body’ barely touching the ground, Capricorn beside her.

It was nice that they’d asked instead of telling, and it was the best thing ever that the handshake had been a thing and that everyone thought it was cool.

She felt Aiden shift how he was walking, drawing closer.  She half-turned, realizing what he was doing, and met his three-quarters of a hug with one of her own, the two of them still walking, just now with one arm around each other and their heads close together.  Her forehead touched his hard mask, and the physical contact was more of a squish than anything, because they were wearing extra layers for the cold weather.  She was connected to him and she could feel him there, the extra squeeze of the hug he attempted, even though she didn’t feel one hundred percent of it on her end.

She took in a deep breath, happy, and she could smell the shampoo he wore and the birds he spent so much time around.  There had been a time a year ago when she hadn’t talked to him much, and she was still, as Imp put it, ‘understandably fucked in the head about certain things’.  Her best ideas of how to go forward with the feelings she already had about Aiden were from raw instinct, because Cherie was a bad big sister to look up to for that stuff, and Papa and ‘the women’ were a worse adult examples.

During that time a year ago, in her ‘fucked in the head’ phase, raw instinct had been to quietly hold her breath and only breathe in if he was close, anytime she was in his company.  Smelling him had mingled with the rush of having oxygen again and the dizzying feelings that swam through her.  He hadn’t noticed, because as much as her education in things had been a flood of too much, his had been too little.  Tattletale didn’t like anyone, Imp was discreet, Bitch was too far away, and his parents had died when he was little, so he could barely remember them or their relationship.  He didn’t even like any of the shows that would teach him the little things.

Maybe that fucked up phase had been a good thing, as tragically lame as it had been, and as much as her cousins had teased her once they realized she was doing it, with Aroa and Juliette getting in her way and Candy playing on the other team, trying to get Aiden closer.  If she hadn’t needed to push herself to get closer so she could breathe and not pass out or die, she might never have started talking to him.

And then she wouldn’t be warm, her face this close to him.

“Good job on the handshake,” Aiden whispered in her ear.

“I was just thinking I was so happy with how that worked.”

“I need to focus on my birds.  But you’re awesome.”

Darlene nodded, smiling.

Aiden broke away, leaving her with only the warmth on the one side, leeching away in the cold.  He put his arm out, and a trio of birds landed on it, each with the camera collars.  With his other hand, he had his phone out, and he thumbed his way through until his phone was displaying the view through the camera.

The birds took off.  The image on the phone screen became a whole lot of darkness with occasional flecks of white.  As the birds changed course, buildings came into view.

He turned her way.  His mask was expressionless, but she felt him smile.  She smiled back.

Tattletale walked at a certain distance away from the group, her phone out.  She pressed it to her ear.

“Which building was it that had the high power draw that made you think tinker?” Capricorn asked, quiet.  He’d changed back to his blue self.

Tattletale pressed a finger to her lips, shushing him.  She pointed, and Aiden sent out his birds in that direction.  The camera showed the view, and each tap of the screen rotated to another camera.  The images were too jarring at the outset, but settled as each bird found its perch on a different building.  One to the north, one to the west, and one to the south, focused on a building with black tiles all across the exterior, and the yellow-tinted solar windows that didn’t have much color to them in the gloom.

“I need more,” Tattletale said, still on the phone.  “Details?”

There was a pause.

“Details I can use,” Tattletale said.  Her voice was tense now, which got everyone’s attention.  “That’s not the point.”

“What happened?” Tress asked.

Tattletale pressed her finger to her lips again, clearly annoyed.  “If you don’t feel comfortable going after them alone, come here.  I’ll send you the address, keep your phone handy.”

Capricorn folded his arms.  The metal made noise as it brushed against more metal, and Tattletale inarticulately waved her arm in that direction, trying to gesture for him to be still and stop.

“We’re twenty-three minutes away.”

There was a pause.

“It doesn’t work that way.  Twenty-three minutes is twenty-three minutes.  You can’t say ‘I’ll be there in fifteen’ and make it happen.”  Tattletale waited, shifting her weight from foot to foot, her breath fogging as she sighed, her eyes rolling.  “Then I’ll expect you to turn up in twenty-three minutes, irritable because you weren’t here in fifteen.”

“Aunt Rachel,” Chicken Little said.

“She turned up at the meeting place.  The team got taken down.  Love Lost was where March was supposed to be.  No sign of March.  Because she’s here.”

“She overheard?  Saw something?  How do you know that?” Capricorn asked.

“I know.  The good thing is that March isn’t where Foil and Parian are.  The bad is that someone else is, and the people we’re up against are confident in their abilities.”

“A trap?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said  “Right now, we’re surrounded.  Nine to ten parahumans and three unpowered are here, already in position.  One to three more are on their way here as reinforcements.”

“Aunt Rachel’s on her way here too, right?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “Battle mode.”

“We’re choosing fight over flight?” Capricorn asked.

“They won’t let us fly,” Tattletale said.  “Battle mode, I am not joking.”

Blue lights began to appear around Capricorn.  Tress shifted position, dropping to all fours and bracing against the ground while the long arms with the slender hands moved.  One provided some light cover to Aiden, Darlene, Juliette and Amias.

Darlene reached into her coat, pulling out a mask.  Imp had supplied them, and they were all built around a theme.  Darlene didn’t even remember Jean Paul, but apparently that was the style that they were matching to.

It made Imp happy, at least.  Darlene looked at her mask, which had silver forming a kind of tiara shape, extending up the nose across the forehead, and down the temples, where they curled around to the cheekbones.  The lips on the mask were silver, the eyes of the mask black.  She fixed her hair around it.

“We should get inside,” Tattletale said.  “Can you, Tress?”

“Yeah.  I can’t do narrow hallways, but if it’s an emergency, I can ditch these arms.”

“Can you ditch them now?” Tattletale asked.

“Let’s wait until they get in the way or slow us down,” Tress answered.

Inside.  The building at this area of the university was a concrete fixture that had a lot of stuff underground, based on the way it almost immediately had a four-times-normal -width set of stairs that went down, with stairs on the far left and right that went up to a higher level.  Artwork was mounted on the walls, people that Darlene was pretty sure she was supposed to recognize – a male scholar and a female scholar.  There were people inside, standing or sitting on stairs, and they reacted with alarm as they saw the gathered group, with Tattletale, Chicken Little, Tress, and Capricorn all in costume.

She supposed she, Juliette and Amias had masks, but Darlene had a hard time calling it costumes.  They weren’t costumes any more than normal clothes were costumes.  She had her nice coat, her velvet dress with the extra layers underneath, padding out the skirt portion, and black tights with silver-leaf pattern printed onto them.  Her shoes were another thing Imp had provided her.

Juliette’s mask had four eyes, two smaller ones beneath the main ones, and spikes that could reach straight back from the masks’s edges.  The spikes were on hinges, and didn’t actually reach directly back because the shape of her head didn’t let them, but it formed a distinct look.  Amias had been lowered to the ground, he had slipped his mask on, black with gold flecks and veins at the edges, blending in with black hair and the black toque.

“You should network,” Aiden whispered.

“I can connect us,” Darlene said, loud enough for the others to hear.  “Who wants in?  It lets us coordinate.  You saw the handshake.”

“Me,” Juliette said.

Darlene reached out, connected to Juliette, and felt the sensations bubble into existence- it wasn’t quite immediate, because background noise didn’t fill in, so it was only the parts that Juliette intentionally moved and the things that received new, less usual sensations that registered the sensations.  The feeling of the cold metal railing as Juliette slid her gloved hand down the length.

It was that ‘had to be prompted’ thing that kept Darlene from feeling things like Aiden’s private areas.  If and when a sensation stirred into her awareness, she politely ignored it.

Juliette knew the routine, and she moved and flexed everything in order, clenching hands, then feet, then forearms, calves, thighs, stretching-  Darlene locked in the sensations.

“Anyone else?”

“It’s that easy to connect?” Capricorn asked.  “What’s the upside?”

“Coordination,” Darlene said.  “We know exactly where each other are and what and how we’re doing.”

“Drawback?”

“It’s weird at first,” Aiden replied, quiet.  “But if you’re going to ask me the same thing you asked about Juliette, I trust Darlene.  I’d trust her with my life.  I trust her with this.”

Darlene’s hands drew together, clasping, then broke apart a moment later.  She didn’t know what to do with herself, hearing that.  The emotions inside her were a mess, everything a jumble.  She imagined that if he’d said something a little more, then she could have teared up or felt as warm as she ever had, depending on what it was he said.

But that was all he said, leaving her… flummoxed.  That was the word.

“So easy for you to say, huh?” Capricorn asked.

“Trust is earned,” Aiden said, and though he didn’t move his head, Darlene could feel the eyeballs slide against eyelid, turning Tattletale’s direction.  “Darlene earned it.”

“Dumb,” Juliette said.

Darlene wheeled on her cousin.  Juliette’s face was hidden by her mask, but even without the mask, even with Darlene able to feel every inch of Juliette’s face, forcing the sensations into being, she couldn’t feel the slightest of twitches or movements.

They reached the bottom of the stairs.  The base level of the building had the aroma of sweat, like gyms and pools did, and past them, rows and columns of lockers.  The group stayed together as much as they were able, as they filtered between the columns.

“Fire alarm,” Capricorn said, as they reached a central area, with hallways extending in every direction.   “Assuming they know where we are or that they’ll find out as soon as someone friendly to them passes on word, it gets the civilians clear.”

“They know where we are, don’t worry about that.  Pulling the alarm lets them know we know.”

“It gets civilians clear,” Capricorn said.  “Yes?”

“Yes.”

“That has to be worth it.”

“If you say so.”

He started forward, hesitating like he expected her to tell him not to, then with more confidence, he strode toward the little red plate on the wall.  He hauled down on the switch.

The ear-splitting noise was immediate, worse because she heard it with three sets of ears and each was positioned in a slightly different place in the group, because the building was all poured concrete, and the sound bounced around violently.

The group hurried forward.  Deeper into the building’s underbelly.

“We’re getting further from my birds.”

“It’s the best way right now,” Tattletale said.  “It makes us harder to track with tinkertech, and there aren’t security cameras down here.  Only employees with instructions to watch out and radio if there’s trouble.”

Tress spoke up.  She was making her way down the stairs, her hands out to the sides, sliding down the railings.  “If you don’t think it’s going to be a problem, and if it doesn’t affect my movements or yours, you could try connecting to me.  Don’t be-”

Darlene connected, missing outright on her first attempt, then aiming for the face and finding the connection there.

The others had been gradual, a handful of sensations at a time, as each body part made contact with something.  Tress felt like a hundred sensations at once.  Limbs as thin as pencils and as strong as small caliber gunshots were fumbling, reaching, thumping against her shell, and groping blindly for rings and switches, hauling back on cords, gripping those cords, tracing the seams of the hollow metal shell, and straining against bondage where metal bands cinched them together into groups, leaving them to rustle faintly against each other.  The longest groupings were extended out to and through the metal arms, where they strained and worked, providing a lot of the mechanical movement for the added limbs.

She felt Tress’s lips part, the words barely audible over the screech of the alarm.  “Oh wow.”

“You okay?” Capricorn asked.

Tress nodded.  “It’s… nostalgic.  The sensations of a normal body.”

“Connect me?” Capricorn asked.

Darlene threw out a hand in his direction.

Her head twisted to one side, as she tried to take in the sensations.  She’d expected a two-dimensional image and she got a three-dimensional one.

She’d felt a boy’s body, with her brothers and Aiden.  Capricorn felt like a man’s body, in a way that even Samuel didn’t, and Samuel was close to the same age.  Strong, burdened by armor, breath hot inside his helmet.  That was the Capricorn who was walking down the stairs.

Another Capricorn was overlapping that, frozen like a robot with the power switch thrown off, suspended and moving along with the Capricorn she saw.  Frozen as it was, she could feel the heat of the brain against the skull.

Here and there, feet and legs were moved instead of moving on their own.  Always maintaining a workable footing.

“Oh.  Shit,” Capricorn said.  “So that’s a thing.”

He sensed it too.  Part of the network.

“And Sveta’s… wow.”

“Don’t get lost in the network,” Aiden said, quiet.  “As neat as this always is, it’s supposed to help, not distract.”

“Good advice,” Tattletale chimed in.

“This is weird,” Capricorn said.  “Even putting the fact that my brother’s there, and Sveta’s- I’m getting new insights into Sveta.”

“Yeah,” Tress said.

“If you want to stop-” Darlene offered.

“No.  It’s just weird.  Even if I ignore that stuff… weird for other reasons.”

“You shouldn’t feel anything too weird,” Darlene said, defensive.

“You get used to it,” Chicken Little said.  He was probably happy to get to be the expert for a while.  “I grew up around powers, so I’m good at adapting to the little things.”

“Grew up,” Juliette said.  “You barely started.”

Aiden huffed.  Juliette laughed without making a sound, body shaking.  Darlene glared at her.

“Cretan and Lionwing are standing guard that way, probably with someone else.  Nursery, Lord of Loss, Blindside, any other prominent merc,” Tattletale said, indicating off to the left.  “We’re going that way.”

Opposite direction.  They picked up the pace.  The danger felt more real now, in a way that the fire alarms hadn’t driven home.

They made it about thirty feet before Tattletale stopped in her tracks.

Tattletale held up a hand for silence, which seemed insane, because the fire alarm was loud.  Hearing anything that wasn’t from someone a few feet away was impossible.

Tattletale turned at a right angle, a course that would have carried them even further from the entrance and the stairs that had led them down.

She didn’t actually walk forward.

“Cretan and Lionwing,” she said, pointing left.  She pointed forward.  “Case fifty-three, case fifty-three, and Contender.”

“Vulturehawk and Thud,” Tress said.  “Weld’s sources say they’re not from our Earth.  There’s a language barrier.”

“They’re here, in the building?”

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  She pointed right.  “Cradle, Operator Red, two of March’s underlings.  We don’t know what those underlings do, either.”

“What if we go the way we came?”

“The rest of March’s group,” Tattletale said.

“You picked a shitty way to go,” Tress told her.

“I picked a good way.  We pick and choose which group we want to bust through as we make a run for it.  How strong are Thud and Vulturehawk?”

“Strong,” Sveta said.

“And Contender’s in that group.  If he catches us, then there’s nothing we can do, unless we’re willing to abandon one of our own.”

“As the person most likely to be abandoned, I vote no,” Juliette said.

“Let’s avoid the guy with the assumed chop-people-up tech,” Tattletale said.  “Let’s avoid March.  We’ll throw ourselves at the trained, efficient killers.”

“We can make them less trained and less efficient,” Juliette said.

Tattletale hung back.  She looked at Capricorn and Tress.

The two nodded.

“Let’s go.”

“You good with this?” Capricorn asked, his head turned toward the other half of the group.

“Yeah.  Good,” Chicken Little said.

Darlene nodded her agreement.

The group broke apart as they ran past more rows of lockers, each seated in sloped concrete pads, then reunited on the far side.  The lights of the underground space were both too bright when looked at and insufficient to light the whole area.

The fire alarm shut off.  The ringing in Darlene’s ears continued, the only sound other than huffed breaths and running footsteps on hard floor.

Lionwing and Cretan were there.  White and black armor, hers modeled with a griffon aesthetic, his modified with a bull, but no clear or obvious horns.

Always amazing to see when Tattletale is accurate, Darlene thought.

Cradle was there too, wearing a tinker’s outfit with a jacket.  The entrance was blocked with Cradle’s mech.  A tall man in a flowing costume stood with a flickering line held between his fingers, like a dart or card made of black energy, visible from only the edge.

“Paris,” Capricorn said, under his breath.

Cradle audibly snarled on seeing them.  “There they are.  The job.”

“Not without being paid,” Lionwing said, not budging.

“You’re aware Tattletale is a mastermind?  Why would we pull your pay in the middle of the job?  Do the task and you will get paid.”

Paris nodded, stepping forward.  The others hung back.

“Go,” Capricorn said.  “Go!”

They turned and ran.

A dart flew past them.  It cut into the base of one row of lockers.  Where it hit, it disintegrated.  The end of the row began to tip to one side, and as it fell, it brought the rest down.  The group was forced to shift direction, to avoid putting themselves in the way of lockers toppling like dominoes.  With Capricorn leading the way, they ran on the partially collapsed shelf, which was now more horizontal where it had been vertical.

“What the hell happened?” Tress asked.  “Tattletale!

“Someone fucked with my reading.  Two someones.  Your brilliant leader called the bank or something and the mercenaries aren’t getting paid.  Good is they’re pissed and we have less to deal with, bad is it fucked with my reading.”

“She did what we wanted to do,” Capricorn said.  “Each team tries to do their job, do what they can from their end to support the other teams.  You can’t blame her.”

“I’m not blaming.  I’m stating facts.  I can’t give accurate information if certain things aren’t communicated to me.”

“Phones and discs are down,” Capricorn said.

“I know!” Tattletale shouted.  “Can-”

Something detonated off to the side.  Darlene shrieked, hands going to her ears.  Her eyes went wide as she saw the shelving unit beside them starting to fall.

Tress caught it.  Except Paris was coming right up behind.  He threw one dart, and it penetrated Tress’ arm.  Where the dart hit, the arm began dissolving, spraying off pellets that dinged and pocked the lockers where it hit.

She twisted around, aiming the spray toward Paris, who ducked low and pulled his hood down over his head.  Disappearing around a corner.

“Sidepiece is coming,” Tattletale said.

“Whoever said that is lying!” Sidepiece called out.  “I was faking it!  Do you want to see the real thing?  Let me show you!”

Capricorn was drawing out blue motes.  As he heard that, he shifted position, until his body was almost touching the motes.

They turned to sprays of water, and that water banked off of his armor, spraying hard up and out.

Tress’s one intact arm caught him, keeping him from being bowled over by the force of the spray.

There was another explosion, way off to the side.  It took a second for Darlene to realize what had happened.  The spray had caught whatever was being thrown at them.

Sidepiece cackled.

Tattletale reached back, grabbing Amias’s hand to help him run.  They passed the initial row of lockers, moving to the center of the crossroads- routes lined with lockers, benches, and places to study extended in all four directions.

Darlene felt Juliette spin around, then go stock still, trembling.

“Tress, Capricorn!” she tried to shout and it came out almost as a screech, pointing.  “Hit him!”

Paris, emerging from a row of lockers, was now frozen mid-step.

Capricorn started forward, jogging in Paris’s direction, unaware.

“He can’t move while Juliette doesn’t!”

Capricorn picked up speed.

With a gauntlet, he slammed his fist into Paris’s ribs.  Paris didn’t budge, except to sway.

Another hit to the same spot.

Then, realizing he didn’t need to be efficient, that it was about doing damage to an opponent that couldn’t defend themselves, an uppercut to the jaw, with a gauntlet around his hand.

“Pull down the lockers!” Darlene cried out.

Capricorn touched the lockers.  Then he looked at Paris, and he hesitated.

Why?

“Tress!” Darlene tried.  “Juliette can’t run until he’s dealt with!  If she starts moving now then he’ll be right back after us!”

“No,” Capricorn said.

If he was going to say anything else, he was interrupted before he could.

Another detonation.  This one came with a flare of orange light that didn’t seem to make the area brighter, because the smoke that came with it obscured as much light as the fire created.

“They’re closing in,” Tattletale said.

Aiden reached into his jacket, retrieving two birds.  “I hope you two are warm enough.  You’re all I’ve got for now.”

The birds took off, circling around the group.

There were more coming.

“Cretan and Lionwing struck a deal,” Tattletale said.

“Can you say anything that isn’t about how this is getting worse?”

“We can go that way or that way,” Tattletale pointed.  “Any way that isn’t to Cradle or March.  The lines will be thinner.”

Fire barred one of the available ways.

Toward Operator Red, then?

“There’ll be only one or two at these exits, probably,” Tattletale said.

Sidepiece, darting in and out of cover, hurled something.

A lump of something meaty that splashed on impact, the stuff that splashed igniting a second after settling.

She hopped up to a metal bench above the flame, fingers tearing at her middle, and then turned-

Again, Darlene felt Juliette freeze.

She bolted forward.

“Birds!”

The birds flew with her.  She had to pick where she stepped carefully, because the ground was on fire, which made this a game of ‘the floor is lava’.  There were bags left behind by students fleeing on hearing the fire alarm, which was ironically not making noise while there was actual fire.

‘Sidepiece’, now that Darlene could see, was a woman built like an apple that had been eaten to the core.  Her hair was styled and her mask scary.  She looked like a zombie, except she was supposedly explosive.

She was also frozen, standing on a bench above a sea of fire.

Some people were immune to powers.  Most of the Heartbroken had some resistances to being controlled or having their emotions messed with.  Darlene was hoping that Sidepiece wasn’t immune to her own fire.

Hopping up onto bench surrounding a pillar, she had to jump onto a melting plastic cart, then onto the bench that was part of the row that Sidepiece was balanced on.

One arm around her face, to keep from breathing in the smoke, she shoved Sidepiece, and Sidepiece toppled.  The woman landed at the edge of the fire, her feet in the flames.

Veins and tendons stood out, her body rigid now, while Juliette continued to refuse to let her move.

She hopped down onto Sidepiece, one more stepping stone in this game of ‘lava’.

“Come on!” she shouted, her voice high.  “This way!”

The others followed.  Capricorn lagged behind, creating water.  Paris was dodging the water until-

Juliette turned around, freezing him.  Which released Sidepiece, who shrieked like she was being burned alive.

Which… fair.

Darlene stared down at the woman, watched her thrash.  Seeing her get on hands and knees, trying to rise, Darlene kicked, heel toward head.

Sidepiece ducked her head low, the heel hitting the back of her head, but not seeming to do much.  She’d hoped it would put Sidepiece back in the fire.

“You’re so fucked.  I’m going to fuck you up, you little fucking fucker!”  Sidepiece shouted, her voice raw.  She was trying to pat out the flame.

The birds harassed her, pecking and swooping.  One got her ear, tearing at it.

And in the background, the others weren’t catching up.

No, because Lionwing and Cretan were catching up.  And the Case Fifty-Threes.  The group had tried to go one way and they’d stopped.  They started to come her way, and Cretan used his power.

It was a wave, a pulse that rippled over everything.  Where it passed, things were bent.  Rows of lockers now turned at right angles, ground bent up, requiring climbing up a two-and-a-half-foot ledge, and off to Darlene’s left, a hole in the wall showed a tunnel, with a tiny version of Cretan upside down on the far side.

That tiny Cretan turned toward her, then began charging down the tunnel, swiftly growing larger.

No no no

Water gushed, aimed down the complete wrong direction, and yet somehow it passed into the tunnel, gushing in spirals and throwing the bull-costume mercenary around inside the confined space.  Some water sloshed out on Darlene’s side.

“-clidean space,” Tattletale was saying.

“Come!” Darlene shouted.

In the tunnel, there was a splash, as Cretan brought his fist down on the ceiling of the tunnel.

Another pulse.  Another ripple.

This time, there were walls and bends that obscured Darlene’s view of her team.  She could feel them, though.  They felt a normal distance away, even if her last glimpse of them seemed to put them in weird places.

Leaving her alone.  Separating her from them.  From Sidepiece, thankfully.  From the birds.  She could only hear the shouts and the chaos.

She turned around.

A man in red, with a white handprint on his mask.  He held a knife.

She wished she wasn’t wearing her own mask.  Maybe if she wasn’t, she could say or do something, pretend to be innocent.

The man threw a pair of handcuffs her way.  They slid on the floor, traveling in a straight line until they hit a weird bend, then slid left a short distance.

She bent down to pick them up.

“Cuff yourself to that bench.  If you use a power, I cut you where it hurts,” the man in red said.

She opened the cuff, looking at the serrated metal edge that allowed for the handcuff’s adjustments.

“I can’t stand being tied up,” she said.  “It makes me want to barf.”

“It has to be better than being hurt or dead.”

She shook her head.

“Don’t make me be an asshole,” he said.

“I just want to go back to my friends,” she told him, her voice small.  She could feel Capricorn being kicked hard.  Felt Aiden’s back slide against a surface as he tried to make himself small.  “They need me.”

“That’s exactly why I can’t let you do it,” the man said.

“Life has really, really sucked for a long time,” she told him.  “I finally have good things.  I have a boy I like.”

“Cuff yourself, then.”

She shook her head.  She had to swallow gorge to keep from coughing or vomiting into her mouth.  Just the idea of it brought her to that point, made her breathing uneasy.  “I’d lose my mind.”

Aiden noticed, turned her way, touching the wall.

Not that it helped.

She broke the connection.  The absence was palpable.

The man approached, knife held out, until it touched her throat.  She breathed hard, her eyes wide.

Was there even help coming?  Someone coming through the wall?  Aiden’s Aunt Rachel?

No.  Not this soon.  Even if she came in fifteen minutes like she’d said.

She created a connection to Operator.  Connecting her body to his.

The knife moved, touching where her jaw met her neck, and pressing in enough to split the skin.  It stung, and she saw him jump at the feeling.

She pushed the knife hand away, cut the power and punched for the balls- and he blocked her hand.  He wrenched her arm to one side, so she bent over-

And she reactivated the connection.  Let him feel that pain of arm being twisted backward.

Her foot had always had a quirk, where if she curled it in a crescent shape as hard as she could, it cramped hard.  She did that.

There was an element to things where it was sympathetic, and while it was sympathetic, he felt compelled to adjust his balance, move his own foot, to do something about the cramp.

She shifted her weight, shoving into him with all her weight.  He stumbled, still holding her arm above her, shoulder socket twisted nearly as far as it would go.  She forced the twist, reasserted the connection so he could feel it just as much as she did.

He released her, catching her by the neck instead.  He had the knife-

And she had her hands free.  She grabbed her finger with the hand that still had the cuffs, and she bent it backward until something gave.

The knife didn’t reach her throat.  It clattered to the floor and she was able to push and pull free of the hand that had her neck, the injured finger flaring with a pain that lanced to her funny bone and up to her shoulder, close to her throat, where the pain magnified the barfy feeling that had accumualted there.

She threw herself at the knife, curling around it.

He kicked her, more to get her off the knife than to hurt.

“I was going to go easy on you because you’re a little kid, but-”

She bit her tongue, hard.

It shut him up, startled him.  An opportunity for her to take the knife she’d grabbed and swing it madly in his direction.

Except he knew what he was doing.  On her second swing, he slapped at her wrist, and her hand went numb.  The knife clattered from it.

A blow to the temple, and her vision went fuzzy in one eye, the other seeing double, like all the vision in one eye had been shoved into the other.

“I can do things other than hurt you,” he said, growling.

She brought the handcuffs down with her other hand, relying on her sense of him.  She was too slow to disable her power, so she felt the initial connection, where the blunt point and serrated edge caught him in the wrist, gouging.  She fell as much as she pulled down, and the thing was hauled in deeper.  A fishhook set.

With a hand with one broken or badly hurt finger, she hung onto the cuffs, the rest of her reaching own, groping for the blade.

He kicked her, along the lower half of her body, and the pain was immense, jolting through her.  He’d hit her in the back, near the spine.  She knew he felt it, just as much as she felt the injury at the wrist for as long as her power was active.

Her fingers found the knife, touched it, made it spin instead of grabbing it.

She kicked up, toward the balls.  He blocked it again, but took the momentum out of the kick more than he stopped it entirely.  It made him bend over slightly, and that gave her the chance to pick up the knife.

Still hanging down, pulling on the cuffs where they were embedded in flesh, because relaxing it would mean he could pull the cuffs out, she swung wildly with the knife, aiming at the only flesh in reach- the back of the arm she was pulling down on.  Four wild strokes, and she’d turned flesh there into thick ribbons, blood pouring down to the ground.

“You-”

She bit her tongue again, hard.  Every part of her was tense, rigid, trembling, straining, and her face mid-bite was no different.

He hurled his mass and her mass around in a quarter-circle, screaming as he did it, because he was pulling on the cuffs and making the damage worse, but in the doing, he created an opening where he could grab her hand and peel it away from the chain of the cuffs.

She reasserted the connection as she picked herself up.

She knew exactly what he was doing as he did it.  Her movements weren’t as eerily efficient as his, but they were informed.  On the occasions where it did look like he’d catch her, she used her power, so he felt it too.

She took an opportunity to cut him, and that was the point he stepped back, panting, bleeding, and drew two more knives.

She still couldn’t see in the one eye, one ear was ringing, the other eye was seeing double, and her back hurt, where he’d somehow hit her and made the organs hurt.  Not just one, but multiple ones, the pain radiating through.

He lunged, and she dodged.  He swung downward, and she reached up, both of her hands gripping the handle of her one knife, to provide the strength that, combined with the rush of danger, almost let her match the strength of a grown man using one arm.  Her knees bent as she tried to keep the knife from coming down, she felt him get ready to stab with the other knife, and let her hand slip.

The hand came away from the handle and found wrist.  She dug fingers into the wound, making him drop the knife, then brought her blade away from where it had been holding him at guard, matching his swing with hers.  The knife ran along knuckles.

She’d aimed for fingers, hoped to chop them off, but the knife wasn’t an extension of her or her power.  Had she used her fingernails, she knew she could have gotten them exactly where she wanted them, respective to her opponent.

This wasn’t the only time her mood had turned this black.

“Nobody’s taking them from me.  I have a family, a job, and things I want to do.”

“I’m-”

She bit her tongue.  She tasted blood.

“-mrg,” he said.  “Stop that.”

She lunged for him, scrambled to get away from one swung, lunged point-first for another.  On attack, her power was off.  On defense, it was on, ensuring that she knew his every move, she could deflect, absorb, reduce the impact, and when she felt anything, he did too.

She didn’t stop.  Her assault was on his legs and his footing.  Cutting his thighs.  Swiping for his groin.

A glancing blow, a knife sinking into her upper arm.  The sympathetic feeling of the pain weakened his grip on the weapon.  She twisted back, pulling it out of his reach.  When he reached again, she kept twisting.  Always keeping that horrible pain away from the fingertips she could feel just as much as she could feel her own.

He took a step back, and she felt the thigh muscle flare with pain and fail to provide the strength in the same moment he did.  She closed the distance, driving the knife into his belly.

Her face against his collarbone, she withdrew the knife and stabbed again and again, then dropped to her knees, just to get the knife handle to a place where he couldn’t grip it and pull it from her arm.  His fingertips touched the handle, but didn’t come close to gripping it.

He struck her across the face, instead.  This time, she was rendered entirely blind, her head full of noise and pain.

The Operator slumped to the ground, and she felt everything, felt the blood welling out, sticky between fabric and skin.  She knew he felt the pain and noise in the head that she experienced, and she felt it was fair.  Fair that he had to experience the kind of thing he’d done to others.

She wished she had a good quip.  The others were better at it.

“I’m Heartbreaker’s kid,” she said.  “I’m not as powerful, but I’m better, because he was horrible.  You shouldn’t have fought me.  That was stupid.”

He wore a mask, and she could feel him gasping and gawping, a fish on dry land, his hands at the portion of his stomach where he had multiple stab wounds.

She reached for his mask, to pull it off.  He shook his head, refusing.

She stabbed him a few more times, trying to hurry him along his way.  It didn’t really work.

She turned away, instead.

The others- she pushed out with her power, trying to get it through the wall.

Sidepiece.  Sitting with her back to a wall.  She banished the power as soon as she realized who it was.  Another direction.

Aiden.

She felt Aiden’s alarm and agitation as he realized she was hurt.  He touched his arm.

She cut off the connection and looked down at the knife at the spot he’d indicated.

Darlene had spent enough time around Roman to know the particulars about stabbing people.  Pulling things from stab wounds made it worse, not better.  Though she wasn’t sure it really was better, here.  There wasn’t much there at her upper arm, with it being as skinny as it was, and the knife kind of bobbed and dangled where she moved wrong.

“Darlene’s hurt!” Aiden called out.

She pushed out.  She found Capricorn, crawling across the floor.

Everyone was separated from everyone else.

“I’m sending birds!  I’m going to try to reach you!” Aiden called out.

She looked, groping for openings.  The floor had turned up at a right angle and nearly met the ceiling now.  She set to climbing up, as best as she could with two feet and one arm.  A bench had turned up at a right angle too.  Her starting point.

She reached over the top, where there was a foot of gap, and a bird touched her fingers.

“Take me to him,” she said, before she started squeezing herself through.  The English phrase ‘stick out like a sore thumb’ kind of applied, since she had a knife sticking out of her, and a narrow space to fit through.  She did her best, her arm draped across her front, right hand by her left hip, wriggling through, groping for handholds on the far side.

A labyrinth.  She felt out with her power.  Found the Cretan.  The Minotaur that was making this maze.  He moved so quickly through it that it seemed impossible, though it was possible he was undoing the effect as necessary.  His head turned her way.

The power that let her find people also let them find her.  She had to be careful.

Forward, forward-

Into the L-shaped space that Capricorn was in.  She dropped down, and her legs were so shaky she landed on her rear end.

“Creating handholds,” Capricorn said.

She nodded, tense.

“You’re hurt.”

“So are you,” she said.

He was in two pieces.  The legs were twitching.  The upper body, lying on its back, was creating orange lights.

He didn’t respond, didn’t elaborate.  Didn’t say he was okay or not okay.

She felt out with her power, establishing a connection.  She felt his body, in two pieces.  The other side of him was intact, waiting.

“That’ll have to be good enough.  I’m not-” he groaned, a strangled sound.

He blurred, trying to change back.  It was a torturous thing, the blur reaching out, groping, trying to connect, to meet the two halves.

She reached for him, grabbing the lower half, and dragged it closer by inches.

Unnecessary.  It just took time.

Capricorn with the blue armor, now.  Intact.  With her power, she felt the two separated parts, floating superimposed around him.

“Climb.  I’ll follow.  I may have to lose my armor so this doesn’t break under my weight.”

She climbed.  She could follow orders when important.

“You kids are scary,” he said.

“Yes,” she murmured.  “We have to be.”

She climbed, one hand and two feet, the other hand more a guide to remind herself where she was.

On higher ground, she had a vantage point of more of the battlefield, below raised walls, around bends.  The tunnels that seemed to magnify and shrink.

The Cretan crashed down near Sveta.  She struck at him with a gauntlet.

And Tattletale-

She saw Tattletale backing up until she was out of sight and hurried forward.  Aiden was rarely far from Tattletale.

“I’m not a part of this.  I’m keeping half of an eye on the kids,” Tattletale was saying.  “You don’t want to go this far.”

Though unable to see Tattletale, Darlene could see Cradle, holding a glowing red whip.

“I have to,” was the response.

She heard the impact, a sound like the whole universe was gasping for breath.

Again, she heard the sound.  This time, it struck a wall, carved it away like it was butter.

The wall fell away, and Cradle advanced, head low, passing between the four segments of Tattletale,

“Cradle- the most intact part of Tattletale said.  “You have a mole.  Someone who tipped you off.”

“Learn your own lessons.  Mercenaries follow the highest bidder,” Cradle said.

Darlene pushed out, connecting herself to Tattletale- to someone who had been carved into quarters and felt it.  Then to Cradle.  To stop him, to stall.

But that was all she could do.  She watched as he found his bearings, straightened, and ended further discussion with a stomp of his boot vicious enough to mute out Darlene’s connection to Tattletale.

The whip flared as he cracked it, turning toward her.

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Interlude – 11.b

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Two Hours Ago

Colt winced as Love Lost threw a gun at Nailbiter with no apparent intent to make it a gentle or careful throw.  It wasn’t because of anger, but because she trusted Nailbiter to handle it.  Nailbiter extended a finger to thread the trigger-guard, before using an overlong finger to slap the gun into her waiting left hand.

Nailbiter seemed to consider for a moment, dark eyes catching all of the lights as she looked down at the lump of metal.  She gripped it by the barrel and held it out toward Nursery.

“Oh no,” Nursery said.  “I don’t believe in guns.  I have to be a good example, you know.”

Lord of Loss chuckled.

They were gathered outdoors, with members of the gang coming and going.  Some weapons, some food, multiple cars being loaded up, gassed up with plastic jugs.  Breath fogged in the air, except for those who didn’t apparently breathe.  Lord of Loss was one.

Colt, Love Lost, and Nailbiter were standing near the door, with Nailbiter taking things as they were handed to her, or pointing when someone held something up for her, designating a vehicle.  Lord of Loss, Spruce, Nursery, and Unbound were standing off to one side, the latter three wearing their winterized costumes.

The rest of the group was already by one vehicle.  The powered didn’t have to carry or haul.  Colt wasn’t being asked to carry or haul, but that wasn’t a good thing.

“Keep the peace at the Lyme Center,” Nailbiter addressed the mercenaries.  Colt barely noticed the whistling ‘s’ sounds anymore.  “One or two of you can wait there.  It won’t need attention unless someone gets stupid.  Picks a fight, gets drunk, doesn’t matter.”

“What kind of response do you want?” Lord of Loss asked.

Love Lost paused, meeting Nailbiter’s eyes.

Nailbiter supplied the answer.  “Dramatic, but not dramatically violent.  These people are ours.  If you act and use powers, mention our names.”

“Then we’ll put Spruce there.  He’s used to keeping order,” Lord of Loss said.

“And he’s bounding back from the flu, poor dear,” Nursery said.  “It’s good if he’s somewhere warm.”

“Don’t tell them that,” Spruce said.  “I’m well enough for whatever needs doing.  I can keep things calm, resolve disputes.  When you say mention your names, I should say, hm, ‘Love Lost wouldn’t want this’?”

Love Lost nodded, a firm motion.  Her heels clicked and scraped on the floor as she took something one of the henchmen had brought from upstairs.  A belt that sat askew on her hips.  A rigging of claw-work and thin metal bars that formed a half-circle around her upper arm, reaching almost to the shoulder.  It took a second of work to get the  rigging to attach to the existing work that reached her elbow.

She made a motion with her arm.  The claw that was attached to her hand swept in a half-circle, slapping into place at the upper arm, while the configuration of bars and blades at her bicep slapped into place over waiting forearm, hand, and fingers.  She made a backhand motion, and the new, smaller set of claws uncoiled like five slinkies, with a sound like a hundred tiny swords being drawn from their sheaths, then sheathed again as they returned to their normal claw shape.

Cool.  Scary but cool.

Or was it scary- cool but scary?  Colt wasn’t sure.  She wasn’t in Love Lost’s graces and that was a problem.  Love Lost disposed of problems.

“Only the one?” Nailbiter asked.

Love Lost tapped her wrist, claw-blade striking metal bars there.

“What’s she mean?” the mercenary in orange asked.

“No time to get the second one done,” Nailbiter told him, keeping her eyes on Love Lost.  No disagreement there, Colt noted.

But Love Lost did tap her wrist again.

“And we should go,” Nailbiter said.  Love Lost nodded, firm once again.  “Those of you who aren’t at the Lyme center, keep an eye on our place.  Cradle thinks they’ll come for us.  If they do, we want them to find you instead.  Protect our headquarters.  Don’t mess around there.  It’s trapped.”

“We can guard it,” the giant shell of a man said.

“I could add my own traps,” Nursery said.  “If they get close I’ll know where they are.  If they get too close, my baby can pacify them.”

Love Lost gave the go-ahead to Nailbiter.

“The stairwell,” Nailbiter said.

“Enclosed spaces.  Anything I can seal shut, without the power leaking out.  I was thinking of the refrigerator.”

“It’s a pantry under the stairs.  I’ll show you,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost held the door open for Nursery, then followed her in.

“Or she will.  She knows where all of the traps are,” Nailbiter said.

Colt felt intimidated, surrounded by the people who were here.  Lord of Loss was huge, and had a big personality.  The other mercenary had quality, and the thugs they’d chosen to surround themselves with were big enforcer types, like they’d taken their pick of the largest five percent of guys from over in Earth N.

Colt’s dad had once said that he liked people who surrounded themselves with smart people, because they weren’t insecure.  It was the same thing here.  They surrounded themselves with big, strong guys and they didn’t look any less powerful in comparison, even though Spruce was a skinny guy and Nursery was barely any taller than Colt was.

It was uncomfortable, thinking about her dad.

On her side, Nailbiter was skinny, even rangy, and Colt liked that last word because it made her think of the range, of steer and cattle and that thought made her think of beef jerky.  Love Lost was lithe like a jungle cat, and some people were like that.  Beast of Burden had had that bullish quality to him, even when unarmored.  But Nailbiter?  Nailbiter was less beef and more jerky.  Salt and grit in personality and quality, everything in her condensed down, her hair dried up with bleach and her brown skin abraded here and there, lips chapped or scraped up with the nails, a cut on one eyelid.

“Sidepiece,” Nailbiter called out.  Sidepiece was sitting on the hood of a running car.  Disjoint leaned against the edge of the hood, feet on the ground and back to his girlfriend, and had Sidepiece’s legs pressed against his arms, knees by his shoulders, while she did something with his hair.  They were casual, even lovey-dovey, while Kitchen Sink and Hookline stood by, stiff and looking like kicked dogs.  Hookline had one hand at the elbow of his other arm, head down, while Kitchen Sink had his arms folded, shoulders drawn forward.

In the same doghouse as me, Colt reminded herself.

“What do you want?” Sidepiece asked.

“Show the mercenaries around.  Key areas.”

“There’s not much,” Sidepiece protested.

Nailbiter’s already hard expression took on a harder cast.

Rolling her eyes so hard that her head moved with it, Sidepiece disengaged from her boyfriend and hopped down.

“Thank you,” Nailbiter said, to Sidepiece and Disjoint.  Her smile was all nails and one screw.  Sidepiece gave her another eye roll.

Leaving Nailbiter and Colt alone.  Well, alone except for the people who were loading up trucks with basic supplies

Fuck, Colt thought.  That was on purpose.  It was cold, and the chill that came over her made her feel even colder.  Nailbiter still had the gun.

“What are you going to do?” Nailbiter asked.

“Do I even have a choice?” Colt asked.

“If you did, what would you do?” the woman asked her.

Colt shivered, jamming her hands in her pocket, ducking her head down.  “I don’t know.”

“You need to know,” Nailbiter said.  “I’m sure you can guess why Sidepiece isn’t asked to watch you.  You’re not that stupid.”

Colt shook her head.  Her hair was a mess and she couldn’t bring herself to fix it.

“Disjoint handles it sometimes.  Love Lost sometimes,” Nailbiter said.  “But it’s usually me.  Do you know why?”

“Because you’re the one who’s going to kill me, if she decides it needs to be done.  The others aren’t reliable for that kind of thing.”

There wasn’t an immediate response.  Trunks and car doors slammed.  Some men turned to give Nailbiter a thumbs up.  She responded with a motion of her hand.

“We talked about it,” Nailbiter said.  “She draws the line at a certain age.  You’re over it.  The question is if you’re a kid.”

Colt’s first attempt at speaking failed.  When she tried again, her voice was closer to being a whistle or hiss in Nailbiter’s voice than a normal person’s voice would be.  “And?”

“And I want to know what you’re doing right here, right now.  Are you coming here?  Are you staying behind, making sure the errands are done and dinner is made, being careful not to open the wrong cabinets?”

Colt swallowed hard, looking through the open door to where Nursery was crouched by the pantry under the stairs.

“Very careful,” Nailbiter said, amending her statement.  “Or are you going to run and try to go home?”

“I know too much.  You’d catch me.”

“If that wasn’t a consideration?” Nailbiter asked.  She turned her face toward Colt, her eyes dark, her teeth frozen from where moisture of her breath had gathered on nails and formed an ice coating.

“I don’t know.”

Nailbiter’s expression changed, a snarl without a sound to it, and Colt dropped her eyes.

“We were the bastard children, my sister and I,” Nailbiter said.  “Our daddies passed through town and they didn’t know it, but they left our ma with child.  School was a suggestion, and I fucking hated and hate it when people suggest I do anything.  You hear me?”

Colt nodded, not sure why this tangent had come up, but it was better than talking about execution.

“I was young enough that I’d just grown in my adult teeth when my face got caved in by a boy from town, five years older than me and he got most of those teeth.  He said I picked the fight with him, I fell and bit the curb by my own clumsiness.  They took his word for it.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You had nothing to do with it.  Thing is, times were changing.  Powers meant an awful lot of people with causes were getting the ability to make themselves heard.  My sister and I, we heard people were commemorating the anniversary of one of those people getting arrested.  Lustrum.  You know her?”

Colt shook her head.

“Kids aren’t getting educations in what’s important, these days.  She stood up for women when they needed it and she was put in a hole forever as punishment.  What her followers were saying sounded good, ‘cuz I was angry at my daddy that I’d never seen and would never know if I saw him, and I was angry at the boys in town, and the people who let those boys be the boys they were.  We joined up.  Not that different from this.  We had a good role model in Lustrum.  Nothing better than a martyr, you hear?”

“Did you get your teeth fixed?”

Nailbiter smirked, showing her teeth.  The smirk distorted slightly because her lips stuck to the metal where it was cold.  “Stupidest question I’ve heard from you yet.  You can see the fix.  Third go I’ve made at it.”

Colt swallowed and nodded.

“We split up.  I tried the sapphic shit and nah.  My sister had a relationship that turned into a ball of drama that was bleeding into everything else in the group, so we moved on.  Stayed with our friends in that group.  We were on the road, half the group making music and the rest of us robbing the occasional asshole to make ends meet.    We realized we were a stone’s throw away from our hometown.  Our mama was gone.  Dead.”

“I’m sor- that fucking sucks.”

“It did.  It does.  But the boy who caved my face in wasn’t dead or gone.  We tracked him down.  Caught him drunk and alone.  Decided we’d corner him, I’d fight him.  Get my own.”

“Did you?”

“I wasn’t strong enough.  I blame being vegan and eating a meal every other day, looking back, but I didn’t think about that then.  I just knew I was hitting him and he wasn’t hurting.”

“If he was drunk, that’d be part of it, right?”

“I didn’t know that either.  I thought it’d make him sloppy.  He managed to land a hit and it hurt me enough that the others all jumped to my side and he was able to run for it.  I came to, realized what was up, and couldn’t sort it out in my head.  A couple years then of thinking we were invincible, I was strong, we had the answers.  The thoughts in my head twisted up in my stomach and in all that twisting, I came out different.  I had a cause of my own and it was getting my brand of justice.  Him.  The people giving him pats on the back the same time my jaw was getting wired shut, because I was just a bastard fucking child with a slut mom…”

Nailbiter drew in a sharp breath, the sound hissing through teeth.

“I kept going after that.  I thought about pulling out his entrails.  Felt too tidy.  So I clawed out his eyes and lanced his eardrums.”

Colt couldn’t bring herself to answer.  Nailbiter was staring off into space.  Reminiscing.  There was no joy in the expression, no sadness.

Worse, Colt decided.

“I did what I’d dreamed of, and it wasn’t enough.  So I did similar things to people similar to Noah, then ‘similar’ started to mean less.  Sister pulled away, said it was too much.  One by one, the rest of the group fell away.  I had the cause, I had someone to look up to.”

“Lustrum?”

“Yeah.  When you go to the Birdcage, Colt, they sort you out.  Put birds of a feather together.  I was one of a few prisoners, and once I heard how they were putting certain people in certain blocks, I thought of her.  Of course I go there.  Of course.  But I ended up being Ingenue’s to look after.  Not just not Lustrum’s, but farthest from Lustrum’s cell block.”

“And you never got to see her?”

“I got to see her.  You can go this way or that.  You can even pack up your shit and move to another cell block, if the leader of that block allows it.  Moment I heard that, I knew what I was doing.”

“Okay?”

“I went to ask if I could.  Listened in.  I realized she wasn’t who I thought she was.  A hundred college campuses and a hundred more cities, and her face was printed on caps and smocks all over.  Meant different things to different people.  For most, being part of her following meant taking a stand.  Not even being criminal or protesting.”

“It sounds like it was big.”

“Yeah, well, there was no anger in her, she didn’t even like violence much.  Hated that what she’d put out there had been twisted around.  My type most of all.  I never did let her know.  You get ideas in your head, you decide who you want someone to be, and it’s you who disappoints yourself more than them who disappoints you.  Understand?”

“I think so.”

Understand?”

It was a question with more meaning to it.

“No,” Colt admitted.

Nailbiter’s expression shifted, that mute snarl again.

“I don’t know who it is you think I’m looking up to that’s going to disappoint me,” Colt said.

“You’re not looking up.  You’re looking down,” Nailbiter said, sounding as pissed off and exasperated as Colt had ever heard her.

Colt’s eyes darted this way and that.  If this was a test, she didn’t want to fail.

“You think I’m looking down on you?  On Love Lost?  The group?”

Nailbiter was silent.

“I… have a real choice?  You’d let me go?” Colt asked.

“Are you saying you want to go?” Nailbiter asked, and her voice was hard, the hisses and whistles sharper.

Again, that trap of a question.  If she said yes, she could be killed or punished as a traitor.

But that could be the ‘looking down’ part.

“I don’t want to go home.”

“Is that because you’re afraid to leave, or you’re afraid to go?”

“I want to stay,” Colt said, and by the time the sentence was done she wasn’t sure if she believed it.

Nailbiter didn’t budge.  No tells, no decisions.

“I don’t want to stay behind, but… I’m not sure I’m brave enough to be a soldier.  Fire a gun.”

There was noise at the door.  It opened, and Love Lost stepped through.  Seeing her face, Colt was reminded of the golden man’s face in the rare video footage of him.  Of the image that had been mass-printed, of an artist’s rendition of Scion, the man who would later end the world.

Not that Love Lost was capable of ending the world, but the expression was so similar.  Caught between anger and sadness, disappointment too light, too loaded a word in Colt’s mind now that Nailbiter had talked about it.   Crestfallen?  Why?

“You’re not a kid,” Nailbiter said.  “If you were, this would be easier.  But because you’re not a kid, I can give you options.  How would you like artificial courage?”

“Art-” Colt started.  She stopped as she saw the pill Nailbiter held between two extended fingers.

“We don’t trust you enough to leave you at headquarters alone,” Nailbiter said.  “If you can’t fight, you can’t be a soldier.  So either take the steps necessary or get lost.”

Going home meant facing her parents.  She’d attacked her mom to get her mom to let her go, while Nailbiter had watched it happen, not stepping in.  Nailbiter had claimed her, and now Nailbiter was saying she had things wrong?

She didn’t get it.

But as scary as these guys were, going home was scary in another way.

She reached out for the pill.  Nailbiter deposited it in her hand.

“Chew it, don’t swallow it.  It’s going to last for a bit whatever you do, and you don’t want it having to sit for too long to work.”

Colt put it between her teeth.  She bit hard, and it crumbled.  The acrid taste flooded her senses.

“That’s awful.  Ugh!” she cried out, doubling over.  “Is this that pill person’s stuff?”

She looked up, and she caught the very tail end of Love Lost and Nailbiter silently communicating something between them.

Having already taken a second or two longer than she usually did, Nailbiter answered her, “No.  Nothing tinker about it.  It’s an upper.  Some energy, some recklessness.  Courage, if you want to call it that.”

Love Lost looked even more upset than before, but she betrayed nothing and said nothing.  A clawed hand was gently laid on Nailbiter’s shoulder in passing.  It stayed there as Love Lost stood straight, chin rising.  Her claws and other tinker decoration glittered as she raised a hand, fingers moving in a swooping gesture.

The cars and trucks that had been idling to let the heaters run chugged to life, almost synchronized.

She wasn’t sure if it was the rush of fear and excitement or if it was the pill already working, but her heart was pounding now, with a hammering rhythm that paid no mind to her feelings or the circumstances.  The brights of the world seemed brighter, and the darks seemed darker, and in the moment, there was a hell of a lot more dark than light.

Nailbiter extended a hand.  She gripped the barrel of the pistol, handle out for Colt to hold.

“Don’t take this if you’re not willing to shoot to kill.”

Colt took the weapon.

Twenty Minutes Ago

“Go,” Nailbiter barked.  “You’re a liability.”

Liability?” Sidepiece asked.  “The liability is the q-tip down there.  Our good old Damsel of Distress needs to answer for betraying us, and I swear we’ll get that answer if I have to blow up everyone here to do it!”

Colt smiled, despite herself.  She felt a bit giddy with excitement.  She was ninety percent sure that Sidepiece was joking, but the idea that she might not be made her want to laugh.

Smiles were okay, she decided, but laughing was a problem.

“Go,” Nailbiter said.

“Never and fuck you!”

Love Lost pointed.

“Fuck!” Sidepiece shouted.

Colt’s hands shook as she held the binoculars.  It was enough that it was kind of hard to keep the binoculars focused on a target.

Which was a shame, because two of the targets was really, really nice to look at.

Damsel, Lookout, Imp, a young girl in a black dress with white lace frills beneath, a boy with wild blond hair, cute and older, but on the nerdy side, and another boy with black hair, moody, glowering, the same age or just a bit younger than Colt.  She’d liked boys in the past and she’d really liked some boys she’d gotten to know, but she’d never really really liked boys, and she’d definitely never really really liked boys she’d only ever known from a distance.

Hookline shifted his position, and Love Lost put an arm out.  The configuration at her arms broke apart, going through the swapping procedure, then stopped, only the bars extending out, an added foot of reach that blocked Hookline.

“What?” Hookline asked.

Nailbiter offered up the answer, “The blond one senses things at a distance.”

“The kid has cameras.”

“Not aimed our way, probably.  If they were, they’d be on alert.”

Love Lost held up a claw, tilting her head to one side.  She nodded.

“This is where March’s group has been hanging out, they’re after her?” Disjoint asked.

Love Lost nodded.

“We’re surprising the surprise attackers,” Disjoint said.

Love Lost shook her head.

There was a pause, then she typed out the words.  Colt reached for her phone before it even rang, still looking through binoculars.

Love Lost:
SURVEILLANCE.  NOT SURPRISE ATTACK.
THEY ARE SUPPORT TEAM FOR SOLO ASSASSIN.
IMP.

“Makes sense,” Nailbiter said.  “We don’t know the power level of the three without masks.”

Love Lost:
THE GROUP IS SCARED OF THE YOUNGEST GIRL.
UNPREDICTABLE AND POWERFUL.
FORMATION HAS BLOND BOY AT CENTER.  PROTECTED.
BLACK HAIRED BOY IN VANGUARD.

Black haired boy.  Colt looked again.  He walked with Damsel, not saying much.  Damsel was vanguard too, it seemed.  Made sense, based on what she knew.

“Can we take them?”

It took a second before Colt realized she’d asked the question.

Love Lost nodded.

She reached to one wrist, and adjusted the settings on the claw at the arm where there was only one configuration.  Colt watched warily.

Claw-tips glowed.  Where they moved, they cut lines into the air.

A circle was drawn around Hookline.  A line was drawn from it, as claws tapped at air.  Hookline’s phone lit up, and he held up the screen for others to see.

Love Lost:
SMALLEST GIRL.  INCAPACITATE.

More circles were drawn out.  Orders given by text to specific phones.  Each person dutifully held up their phones with the targets and orders, shifting position to be ready to take the courses given.  Some would attack the rear, others the front.

Disjoint to Lookout.

Kitchen Sink to the black haired and blond boys, whoever provided themselves as a target.

Nailbiter to the same pairing, dissuading Damsel where possible.

Love Lost to Imp and Damsel.

Then Colt.  A circle drawn around her and two other hired guns from the Lyme center.

The text appeared.

Love Lost:
SUPPORT ATTACK FROM REAR
PERMISSION TO KILL
EXCEPTION FOR TWO GIRLS.  LOOKOUT & YOUNGER.

Colt nodded.  Her heart continued its racing beat, not slowing, not speeding up.  It made the entire thing feel less real.  Easier.

Love Lost started forward.  She pointed, then the hand moved, fingers extending down.  She ‘walked’ the fingers through the air.

“Walk, don’t run?” Kitchen Sink asked.

“Until they notice us.  Save our strength and stamina until then,” Nailbiter said.

Love Lost nodded.

Their path was downhill.  Their target a city street with closed businesses all shuttered.  Some looked like they were permanently closed.  Ice made some footing treacherous, but different members of the group compensated.  Love Lost had her claw-feet.  Nailbiter had pointed tips to her fingers and toes.  Hookline dragged his hook against the pavement.  Disjoint was segmented, most of his body floating.

Kitchen Sink wasn’t so able.  The other mercenaries too.  Still.

“Gun tag,” Disjoint said.

“What?” Colt asked, startled.

“What we’re doing right now.  Playing tag with guns.  Get them before they get you and you win.  Other way around?  Lose.”

“Don’t lose,” Kitchen Sink said.  “Those are Heartbroken.  They don’t go easy on losers.”

Claw snapped against claw like a snap of a finger, but far more violent, and with the lights still left activated, the movement produced a small sparking of light.

Love Lost broke into a run.

Colt raised her binoculars to confirm, even as she started running too.  It was the pat-the-head-while-rubbing-your-tummy kind of coordination that would have been hard at any time, but the pill made it harder or the pill made it seem easier of a task.  She slipped and skidded on ice until her foot hit the crust of a snowbank.  A mercenary hauled her to her feet, then kept a hand on her shoulder as they ran.

They’d been noticed, so the attack was happening now.  Gun tag?

She had a gun.

“It’s not March!” she could hear one shouting.  The dorky-cute blond boy.

Shit,” was his companion’s response.  The broody-cute one.

They converged on the group, each set of Love Lost’s people rounding the corners and stepping out from cover in near concert.  The Undersiders-Breakthrough teamup had already formed battle lines, a loose ring protecting more vulnerable members.

Lookout already had her tinker weapons out.  A clawed tail or something and a white gun that she clasped in both hands.  Disjoint’s hand appeared and seized her wrist.  She pulled the other hand away, taking on a one-handed stance, aiming off to the side.  Another hand caught her.

The black haired boy was stepping forward, and Colt had to remind herself she had a job to do.  She aimed high and fired.

It didn’t slow him down or distract.  Fists clenched at either side of him, he roared, a fierce sound, veins standing out on his face.  Kitchen Sink reeled, then started sprinting forward.

“Don’t!” Hookline shouted.

There was no controlling it, apparently.  A headlong berserk rush, meeting the black haired boy, who was still roaring.

Kitchen Sink was all brawn, weapons appearing in his hands, slipping free as soon as he realized he couldn’t use them.  A metal stein became a thing he could grab and swing toward the black haired boy’s face.  In the other hand, the deciding fixture was a bit of piping with a showerhead fixed on the end.

The black haired boy fought with one arm extended, the other held back.  It was a fencer’s pose without a fencer’s foil, grace, timing, and keen reactions contrasting with the way his eyes were bloodshot and veins raised on his forehead.  He swayed back, slapped aside, and stepped in close, driving a knee into Kitchen Sink’s middle.

Faster than a normal person, maybe stronger.  Inflicting rage but suffering it too.  Forced duels.  If he kept doing that-

She raised her gun.

Before she could do anything, people were getting in her way.  Damsel was one, and Damsel was complicated, and that complication made her hesitate.

Damsel used her power.  Nailbiter swiped into the air at the same moment, predicting Damsel’s trajectory.  Her power made an explosion that looked like all of the light and all of the dark that Colt had noticed after taking the pill were being twisted together until they snapped, and it sent her flying into the air, toward the extended fingers.

She didn’t stop using her power, though.  Rather than end it abruptly, Damsel let it trail off, bringing her hands under her.  Her feet went up, and she stepped on the underside of the fingers, before bringing her hand up-

The fingers retreated.

Hookline had the little girl who wasn’t Lookout.  Hookline’s power was a chain and hook that couldn’t be destroyed, that he could telekinetically manipulate, and he’d encircled the girl with it, the hook secured on the chain that he was now hauling in with both hands and power.

The girl reached for Kitchen Sink as she passed him, and Hookline whipped the chain a bit, casting her a few feet to one side in the other direction.  Out of reach.

She screeched, like only a young girl could.  Colt was put in mind of Reese.  Her sister.  It jarred.  She hadn’t thought of Reese in a while.  She hadn’t gotten along with Reese in… ever.  But she still missed her.

Weird to think about in the now.

Damsel, landing, immediately sprung forward, toward Hookline.  Nailbiter produced a cage of interlocked fingers, barring the way, and Damsel avoided the cage, another burst of power to vault to one side, yet another to slide through the space between elongated wrist and ground.

“Fuck!” Hookline shouted.  “Fuck me!”

Nailbiter followed up.  Fingers drew in, a cage that now closed in around Damsel, and her teeth extended, a scattershot volley that aimed to fill the space.

Damsel used her power twice in quick succession before the kicked-up snow and dirt and the seemingly countless narrow spikes that filled the area caught up to her.

Two shots.  One to punch a hold into the ground, the other to reverse course and hurl herself into that hole.  The nails had passed overhead.

Colt saw movement.  She aimed, sighted her target, and recognized it as the blond boy.

“Samuel!” a girl shouted, not that far away- between Love Lost and Colt.

Reflexively, Colt pulled the trigger.  It felt like it had seemed to work with the black haired boy’s power.  His power had been rage, both inflicted and felt.  This was a horrible, jarring kick, and corresponding to that kick, the boy kicked back and flumped to the ground in a horrible, jarring way.

“You bitch!”

Colt turned toward the sound, then felt bewildered at the lack of a source.

The black haired teenager was trouncing Kitchen Sink, despite Kitchen Sink’s relative size and weaponry.  Sink’s swings were wide and reckless, and he almost seemed to forget he had the weapons in his haste to get in close and hurt the teen.

That changed in a flash.  One item fell into his hands, and he hurled it.  It produced a cloud as it hurtled through the air, and that cloud left the black haired boy coughing.

Kitchen Sink slammed his face into the boy’s.  Sink’s face had a heavy porcelain mask strapped to it.  The boy had nothing, and dropped to his knees, one hand to his face.  A second later, veins stood out across his face, more intense than before, and the blood loss accelerated.  He lunged forward, and didn’t quite manage to get off his knees before Sink started pressuring him down toward the ground.  Sink looked pretty affected, almost frothing at the mouth now.

Colt staggered back, an arm encircling her neck.  Her first thought was that it was one of Love Lost’s mercenaries, and that she’d somehow crossed a line or gotten her just desserts.

Her other thought was that Love Lost was stalking toward her.  Her right claw extended into whips with sharp metal caps at the end.

Colt tried to bring her gun up to shoot at the guy who had her.  When her hand raised, however, there was no weight in it and no gun.

She felt a gun press against her back.  Though it was a heavy, hairy man’s arm that held her, the voice in her ear was feminine.  “You just shot my friend, you fucking lunatic.”

Damsel was using her power more, skipping ahead, while Nailbiter was trying to catch up.  Forgetting the strangulation for a second, Colt twisted to try and see what was happening.

She was just in time to see Damsel arrive at the corner where Disjoint was waiting.  He had no arms by which to defend himself, so Damsel was free to use her power to deliver a flying knee-strike, as he doubled over, trying to shield himself with truncated arms.  When he flew back, he had hands again.

Which freed Lookout, who he had been restraining.

Colt screwed her eyes shut, saw Love Lost doing the same, as Lookout raised her gun.

The flash hurt, even with her eyes forced as shut as she could get, her face turned away.  It made her mind adjust light and dark in a funny way, as if she’d always scaled it from one to ten and she’d just found a new, higher bar for ten.

Her mom was always in the hospital for hip pain, she thought.  She’d heard a lot about pain scales, had heard her mother complain about how arbitrary a ten was.

Disjoint was knocked out.  Hookline- he gathered chains together into a loose wall in between himself and Damsel.  Doing so meant dragging the kid a little closer.

Colt found herself able to breathe again, unsure why she’d even stopped.  Love Lost shoved past her, and started whipping at the air.

“You need to help!” Colt shouted at Love Lost, her voice too high, tremulous.  The mercenaries that had been part of her flanking group were on the ground, and she couldn’t remember them getting beat.

Bending down, she picked up one of their guns.

Damsel crashed into the length of Nailbiter’s claws, then used her power again, forcing the claws to move with her, slamming into Hookline.  It meant the littlest kid was free.  Colt turned to look, and saw Lookout aiming.

She shielded her eyes, aimed blindly in the right direction, and fired, pulling the trigger again and again, in time with a heartbeat that was moving so fast she couldn’t count it if she tried.

Something hit her across the side of the face.  She fell.

It was Love Lost who picked her up again, her grip hard enough that metal claws threatened to pierce skin.  Love Lost’s claws were slick with blood.  Kitchen Sink was battered, Hookline rattled, but those two were up.  Disjoint and the other mercenaries still seemed to be unconscious, except or a guy or two at the far end.

They were outnumbered.

“Traitor,” Kitchen Sink said, to Damsel.

“Old news, that,” she said.  Her eyes were black from corner to corner, and they smoked faintly.  She’d been scratched at one shoulder by Nailbiters’s teeth.

“You shot a child,” Damsel said.  “You’re working with Cradle on that machine of his?  You’re a disappointment to yourselves and everyone who has to walk the same earth as you.”

Love Lost was silent, of course.  Colt made a small amused sound before she could stop herself.  Still a little giddy, loose around the edges.

The smile fell from her face as she noticed Love Lost staring her down.

Oh, this was worse than going to the doghouse.  This was fucking up and then doing it again.

And getting beat.  They were going to win.

And then- then she would have nowhere to go.

The thoughts that sprung from that were delirious, but they weren’t ‘upper’ thoughts, as far as she got that stuff.  They were a swell of darkness, pushed up from below.

“You alright, Roman?” Lookout asked.

“Peachy,” Roman said, his voice a growl.  He spat blood onto the snow.  “Samuel’s not peachy, and Flor’s bleeding.”

Love Lost and Nailbiter looked so confident, and Colt wasn’t sure why.

Confident and pissed.

In her daze, trying to make sense of things, Colt saw Kitchen Sink try to throw something.  Lookout’s claw-on-a-tail reached out to catch it, but that left her blind for Nailbiter to attack.  Damsel threw herself at Nailbiter’s real body, to throw off her trajectory.

Love Lost wheeled around, striking out with her whips, hitting empty air, then leaped backward, riggings on her legs snapping out as they fired like gun chambers, giving her a slight boost.  Her feet scraped against the wall, and she ran on the surface for five running steps.

She bounded down, toward Damsel, Nailbiter, and Lookout.

Everyone had something they were doing.  Except Colt…

…And Flor, the creepy little girl with the black dress decorated in white lace.  The girl smiled, showing a lot of small white teeth.  She limped with every step.

“You shot my brother,” the girl’s voice was quiet.  “Now if I do something extra horrible to you, they won’t blame me.  It’s great.  Thank you for shooting Samuel.”

Colt backed away as the girl advanced.  In the background, it looked like Love Lost was winning, propelling herself from Nailbiter’s claws to strike Damsel in the air.

The girl bolted forward.  Even with the limp, she was quick.

Colt turned to run.  If that girl wanted in close, then Colt wanted away.

She got three steps before she was caught.  In the confusion and daze, she thought it was two people.  Two different arms.

Imp.

No.

The arms thrust her back in the direction of the child.  She slipped on ice and skidded to a stop.  Where one of her gloves had ridden up, her hand had scraped on the hard ground.

Colt reached for something- anything she could do.  A plea- she had no ideas.  An anything?

She floundered, like she was in water and there was only water so disturbed and black that she couldn’t find any way up or out.

There were stars in that water, and it wasn’t the water churning, but sleek forms within it.

As the forms came nearer, they welled up in her vision.  Less like a person walking toward her, and more like a planet colliding with her own.

That form had a mouth, and that mouth yawned open wide, until it encapsulated her vision, and everything in every direction was this thing.  She moved her focus around, struggled, fought- but it was like being in quicksand.

She saw the heart of the thing.  She saw the small star of energy and how it was broken up into a thousand facets that were somehow all still aligned, even as the thing came to pieces.

And that star, that pit at the very belly of this thing, it burned so hot and so bright it began to eat at her consciousness.  Even the detachment she felt wasn’t any insulation against the consuming light.

But she wasn’t one to follow or obey.  She’d run away from- she couldn’t remember the word- her creators.  She was doing a shitty job here with this new group.  Hurting a child.

Hurting cute boys, but that was the drug talking.

The drug was an insulator.  A thing she could put between herself and the ownership of her being here.

The first step in a hundred thousand, all undertaken in a frame of completely different time.

She stood on the edge of that pit, and the power was there for the taking.

She stepped away from it, even in her desperation.

Into the real world, where the ground beneath her hands was cold.

She had a power, but just as she’d refused the greater body of power, she fought the urge to take hold of this.  To do so threatened to pull her into that pit.

For the time being, she stood, shaky.  Others had staggered, hands to their heads.  Powers had gone limp.

The scattered henchmen Love Lost had brought were here, hurrying forward.  Roman, the boy with black hair, was clubbed across the head with a baton.

Two of them were still close to Colt.  As soon as she grasped the fact, saw the decisive action on the part of the mercenaries, she pulled herself to her feet and kicked- catching the younger girl right in the midsection with her boot.

And Imp-

She wheeled around, saw Imp stagger forward, and struck out with the gun.  One blow to the throat, hard, leaving the woman sputtering.

It was only when they were down that she could reach for her power.

When she did, she felt herself teeter.  On the cusp of falling.  She swayed.

The so-called ‘ground’ solidified.

The fight resumed, hesitant at first, as people were still recovering.  But the actions of the unpowered henchmen were forcing the Undersiders and Breakthrough to react.

She had a power.  She drew in a deep breath, and she used it.

Now

Bags over their heads, hands bound behind their backs, several with poles attached to the bindings at the hands, so they could be managed from a distance.

Her nose was bloody, her hand and knee scraped, and the drugs were leaving her with a strangely disappointed feeling, out of tune with the reality before her- that she had a strong power.  Just the moods swinging in the opposite direction.

Her feelings jerked this way and that as she took it in.  Disjoint gave her a reassuring smile.  Love Lost, though, didn’t seem happy in the slightest.

Weird, considering they had this contingent captive.  Two of Breakthrough, one Undersider, three Heartbroken.  Two of those had been shot, one lacerated so badly by Love Lost’s whips that she couldn’t walk, and all three of those were now on the way to hospitals Love Lost had worked with before.  The medical care would be held hostage, as necessary.  Otherwise, they were all hostages now.

There was no going home again now, a small voice in her head said.  She’d crossed lines.  Even within this group.

Home had been destroyed two years ago, another said.  The concept had stopped meaning anything back then.

“Come on,” Disjoint told her, stirring her from dark thoughts.

Colt forced a smile to her face, and found her feet.

“We’re nearly done,” Nailbiter said.

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Blinding – 11.8

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“If you’re right then I’m a big fucking idiot,” Precipice said.  “That’s supposed to be a pick-me-up?  Good news?”

“No,” I said.  I was going to follow up, but I didn’t get a chance.

“That’s not right at all!  You have to look on the bright side!” Candy said, with enthusiasm, her eyes flitting this way and that as she took in the extended constructions of flesh that ringed the area.  There was an edge to her voice that betrayed her alarm at the situation.  “If she’s right, you’re a secret genius.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Precipice said.

“Very very secret,” Aroa muttered.  “The kind of secret that people might notice in a hundred years, if they cared enough to study you.  Which they don’t.”

“Closer,” Precipice said.

I shook my head, focusing more on the battlefield than anything.  Lord of Loss was pulling himself together, his thugs gathered around him.  Nursery had her own backup, but she wasn’t doing so well with them or at all.  Half my reason for hanging back in the now was to see if any cracks formed that we could exploit, there.

Then again, we had to keep the cracks from forming on our side too.  Foil was focused on Parian, the kids were scared.  Precipice was about as unsure of himself as any teenage boy would be, dealing with mercenaries hired by the woman who wanted to kill him, after having spent the latter part of the evening having his head screwed with by an attractive girl.  I tried to reach out, “Precipice, if you’re agreeing with Aroa, the girl who said she laughs when old people get hurt-”

“Babies or old people, really,” Candy supplied.  Aroa pointed a finger at her cousin without looking at her, nodding.

“-then you might be being a little hard on yourself,” I said.

“I’m an expert at being hard on myself,” Precipice said.  “It’s either that, or I’m the biggest asshole alive, and I’d rather hate myself than be an asshole.”

Well, not a lot I could say to that.

Chastity, though, was entirely on the ball when it came to rebuttals.  “Alternative, Precipice mon chou?  Find someone else and show them how hard you can be for them.  Having an external pressure release can be very nice.”

Precipice turned his head her way.

“I did not mean me, but I’m flattered,” she said, laying a hand over the triangle of cleavage she’d left strategically in place, with an amused tone that told me she’d wholly meant to imply herself.  “I meant our big man there, or the sea of horrific baby-makers that are waggling themselves at us as we speak.”

“Sorry,” Precipice said, apparently one hundred percent believing her.  “Yeah, that sounds like a good temporary plan.”

“It helps that Lord of Loss has a punchable face,” I said.  “Help me punch it.”

He created a silver blade in his hand.

“That’s part of it,” I told him.  “What we just talked about?  I need you to use your power.  We’ll try it out.”

“Are you fucking serious?” he asked.  “Now?”

“When else?”

“In a safe, controlled training environment?” he asked, with a tone like he was almost angry.  Incredulous.  A part of it was probably that I was reversing course on things I’d told him again and again.

“Fun fact,” I said.  “Powers don’t tend to jibe with safe and controlled environments.  For every cape that I know who picked up a trick in PRT labs or whatever, there are ten more who figured their tricks out because they had to.  You want to make it work?  Field test, be confident, be creative.”

“How many tried to pull something inventive and got their asses kicked?” Precipice asked.

Lots.  But our alternative is that if we don’t up our game then we get our asses kicked here, now.  The way this is going we’ll have to surrender or get captured, and we’ll have to deal with a woman who will probably impregnate us as an alternative to handcuffs and a guy who’s so unreasonable he thinks smileys should be appended to every sentence in an email.  Not even good ones.”

“If we surrender, they arrest us, not you,” Foil said, her voice low.  I hadn’t been sure she was with us at all, she’d been so quiet.  “You fly away, get help.”

I looked at her- I would have locked my eyes to hers to read her expression, but she wore a fencer-style opaque pane that covered her face.  Her costume was form-fitting, sleek and stylish because of course it had to be when she was partnered with a fashion designer, but that costume was normally adorned with a fanned-out array of spikes where the javelin-like bolts were in her quiver, darts mounted at her forearms, hips and thighs where she could grab them.  Most were empty now.

“How is she?”

Parian coughed, hoarse, and her shoulders and arm drew together at her upper body.  A length of cloth moved telekinetically, crossed under her mask, wiping her mouth, and came away bloody.

She gave me a thumbs up.  Foil, by contrast, was rigid, stricken.

“Foil.  We deny them what they want and what they want is you.  That’s the job.  You and the Heartbroken focus on finding an escape route.  Get clear.  If you can’t, you focus on keeping anyone else off of Precipice’s back, so he can help me.”

“Okay,” Foil said.  She gripped the handle of her rapier with both hands, even though it was a one-handed weapon.

She was in shock as much as Parian was, if not more, but she was pulling herself together in a visible way now that she had strict orders.  She wouldn’t be someone who had lived through six Endbringer encounters and the end of the world if she wasn’t.

“Do your best,” I told Precipice.

“Do my worst, you mean?”

“Yeah,” I said.

Nursery wasn’t accepting the help of her henchpeople, but getting to her wasn’t easy either, because her power was thickest closer to her.  Lord of Loss was hunched over, his outer body in a state of change where he was all over the place, half-falling apart.  It looked like as good a time as any, but appearances were deceptive.

My eye fell on the cabling that Lord of Loss had shucked off and left on the ground.

“I’ll be going where Lord of Loss is now.  Be ready.  We all move at the same time.”

Precipice nodded.

I took off, not flying for Lord of Loss, but at Nursery.  The group started running, the Heartbroken and Undersiders heading the opposite direction from Lord of Loss.  Precipice hung back a bit.

Nursery was aware of me, it seemed, and the wreath of moist appendages drew in closer to her in anticipation, spooking her henchpeople.  A loud noise to my right marked Lord of Loss taking action.

He emerged like a cannon shot.  Nursery-modified building skeletons crumbled as Lord of Loss scampered forward, almost running on the walls.  A wolf drawn out in a spindly, sleek way, a face like a spear-head, feet like spear-points. Bands were gathering out and unfolding, bulking him up as he ran.

Much as the bird had first appeared from the failing other form, Lord of Loss had been maintaining that in-the-works, haphazard construction as a feint, while forming a denser real body within.

That was fair.  I’d gone after Nursery as a feint, too.

I flew down, diving, to hit the ground hard, and the section of road that had turned to floorboards shattered beneath the Wretch as it hit.  Flesh beneath bruised and gouged, and it was that flesh that provided the real stopping power.

Hitting something hard provided the momentum for me to stop, so I could immediately fly the opposite direction, with an emphasis on immediate, because the gory impact was immediately followed by tongues and probosci trying to close in around me or latch on.

Even with the sleek form, Lord of Loss was slower to adapt, to turn.  It was similar to the bird, which had needed to take wide turns to fly.  It was still building in mass and scale, the spear-feet becoming paws as calcified metal strips folded and wrapped around.  He was aiming to win on the raw power front, and by outlasting me.

I landed at the safest point in the bloody mess around Lord of Loss’ landing spot, where flesh bulged and overlapped.  The primary threat I had to consider was a braid of umbilical cords with tiny faces peering out between the gaps.  I kept one eye on it, and almost missed the other, independent cords that were peeling up and away, trying to sneak their way to me.

The primary threat.  There were others.  Lord of Loss had moved quickly, escaping the remains of his prior form, but his soldiers had been gathered close and they hadn’t moved far.  Their focus had apparently been on getting clear of the worst of Nursery’s power, not on getting to a good place for stopping me or the others.

Problem: two had guns.

“Can’t be worth it!” I raised my voice.  “Throw down your weapons!”

They didn’t.  The only reaction I got for my trouble was from the umbilical tendrils, which seemed to hear the noise and turn my way.

I chose my course so the one large braided mass was between me and the gunman with the best angle to shoot at me.  Rather than fly around, I flew straight at it.  I hit it with the Wretch and struck it down with a direction in mind.  It slapped hard against the ground nearest one guy with a gun, shattering his footing.

I flew after him, ignoring my main objective for the moment.

The kind of shooting most people practiced was shooting while at the range.  Feet planted, shoulders square.  Not possible when three-quarters of that person’s footing and immediate surroundings were uneven fields of meat that wanted to pump them full of fast-gro mutant fetuses.

I hit the ground hard, just to the one gunman’s right.  They didn’t even pop off any shots as I made the approach, because they were focused on not getting sucked into the meat.  My landing broke more of the flooring.  If he’d been on an isolated section of ice in the middle of a frozen lake before, he was standing on ice cubes now.

“Drop it,” I told him, as his eyes widened and he realized his predicament.  I reached for his wrist and he didn’t fight me or try to get away.

The gun tumbled from his grasp.

Immediately, I took off, gripping him hard around the armpits with one hand, my other hand at his arm.  It was a precarious hold and he seemed to realize it, because he made a prolonged, frightened sound that wasn’t quite wail or whimper.  More of a ‘murrr’.

He was my human shield as I flew at the other gunman.  I let go of him, and I let him crash into the other guy.  Floorboards beneath them cracked but didn’t break like eggshells.  The building between this spot and Nursery had probably absorbed the worst of the mist.

I half-floated over to them, half-stalked.  With one stomp, I put the gun through the floor and into the meat.

“What the hell kind of money are you earning, that you’re willing to put up with this?” I asked.  “You know one of your buddies got a fetus stuck in their ear, right?”

“Not money,” one of them said, crawling backwards to get away from where the ground was bulging, a soft wet mass crowning at the aperture.  “Homes.”

Homes?

“On a safe world.  Big houses with two servants each.  Room for our families.”

I could hear Lord of Loss making his approach.  The building next to us shuddered, steel girders disintegrating and bending beneath Lord of Loss’s mass.

“Next time, throw down your weapons.  It’s not worth it.  Someone else would have killed you.”

“If we die, our families still get the homes.”

“If they get those homes-” I started.  Lord of Loss reached the edge of the building, metal screeching as it crumpled beneath him.  He looked down at me.  “-they’ll be living somewhere under the thumb of a guy who would throw away their loved ones without a second thought.”

“He has second thoughts,” one of the ex-gunmen said.  “He was clear about the rules.  The job comes first.”

“He’s better than others,” the other said.

Lord of Loss leaped down.  I flew back around the corner to where the braided umbilical thing had been.

I wanted to have a long, long discussion with them, but I wouldn’t get that chance.  When this was all over, we’d either be in Lord of Loss’s clutches or we’d be hurrying to help the other groups.

I really hoped for the latter.

In the lot, the braided umbilical thing was rousing, finding added length as it broke free of the container that had been Lord of Loss’s body.  A tendril with a draping of placental sacs was reaching in from the building Lord of Loss had damaged with his weight, and the ground was dissolving into a morass of reds, pinks, and layers of veiny translucent films.

I flew to the only area where the ground was semi-solid and the cable still aboveground, seizing up the length of metal in my gloved hands.  It jerked to a stop and the ice-crusted metal scraped against my gloves, tearing cloth.  I tapped into my super strength to get the power necessary to pull the rest of the cabling and hook free of the meat that had gripped it.

Lord of Loss prowled, hopping up to a nearby building to skip over the pool of crimson, past the groping sea of meat.

Alright, I thought, as I gripped the cable in my hands, feeling the Wretch periodically bat at it and grip it.  I clenched my jaw.  Hit me.

Lord of Loss chuckled, padding his way forward in the body of a burly wolf made up of overlapping strips of white.  The strips mingled at the spine, forming an uneven spiked ridge.  Where his feet set down, the ground broke and bled.

This is a stupid idea.

I cocked my head to one side.

Hi Rain, I thought.

I was aware of what he was doing, and instead of getting out of the area or getting angry, I kept my jaw clenched, and I endured it.  I made sure the Wretch had a grip on the crane’s cabling that we’d cut free, and then I spun, swinging the hook around.

Lord of Loss leaped, first up to the side of a building, then at me.  Aiming to get me before I could get the momentum sufficient to turn the hook into a means of real damage.

He was still confined to physical form, and bound by laws of physics.  Where his breaker form distorted rules was in allowing his sheer mass to stay functional, and in altering how he worked when he repeated actions.

I flew under the arc of his jump.  The timing was wrong to bring the hook to bear, but I could swat at him with the ends of the cables.  The hook had a pulley that was apparently locked, and four cables extended from it.  I had one cable firmly in my grasp, another in the Wretch’s grasp, but as the hook turned in its arc, the cables I wasn’t holding swung out on their own.

They’d been cut clean, and they were razor-like at the edges.  Sparks flew as they struck across his underbelly and back legs.

Not good enough.

Rain threw a silver blade, and it clipped Lord of Loss in the moment he landed.

I followed up, still spinning.  The hook came down, while Lord of Loss was still marked by the silver blade.

He hopped out of the way, and the hook carved a line through floorboards.  I saw the silver flare in the moment he finished his hop.  Slats began to extend and unfold, patching the injury.

He twisted, angling himself like he was going to leap to another building as a springboard to come at me again.  He didn’t.  He leaped sideways, twisting in the air, one shoulder partially unfurling to extend my way, claw breaking apart to be half as dense, the points twice as long.

I tried to bring the cable around, holding the midpoint and catching him with the cable-ends on the approach and the hook on the departure.  I only managed the former.  Too fast, too much momentum, and I had to get away from those extended claws.

The damage was less than minimal.  Too choked-up on the grip- like I was swinging a baseball bat at someone and trying to hit them with the end closest to my hands.

No.

He was building up the strength of his lunges faster than I was figuring out a means of attack.

This sucked.  Every bit of it sucked.  It sucked that Lord of Loss had more cachet with regular people than we did.  It sucked that this neighborhood was a nightmare, and someone was going to track the damage, blame all parahumans, and it would land in our laps before it even touched Lord of Loss.

Just like the community center.

Win the battle and lose the war?  It pissed me off that with this asshole, we didn’t even get to win the battles and we still lost the war.  He lucked out, he got a good power, and he leaned on consistency, doing jobs both small and big, building up a reputation, and never having cause to lose it.

Meanwhile, those of us who were trying to salvage things and manage a bad situation were getting kneecapped.  The public turned against us.

It was petty, it made me a smaller person, but I wanted to hurt his smug-ass face and knock him down a peg.  Take away that consistency and knock him down a peg.

And it galled me that it probably wouldn’t work.  At best we’d eke out a draw.

Momentum was key, so long as I was using the cable.  The Wretch was grabbing and plucking at the cable, which threw off the rotation a bit, but enough arms and teeth were holding on to keep my weapon firmly in my grip.

Anticipate the approach, assume he’ll time his attacks to avoid the hook-

He did.  I tried to maneuver myself in the air, to bring the hook around faster, so I could catch him, and I failed.

Not good enough.

I was starting to feel the accumulated effect of Precipice’s power.  It was like being on the basketball court, a thousand eyes watching me, and failing.  Failing in the eyes of my parents, failing in the eyes of my boyfriend, my sis-

Failing.

This wasn’t as simple as a hard shove in the direction of a second trigger.  I was pretty sure I didn’t qualify.  Second generation capes triggered ‘easier’, but there had never been a second generation cape who’d second triggered.  Whatever resources the power devoted to passing itself on seemed to rule it out, and I doubted the universe would be so kind as to let me be the first.  It would be too easy.

Multi-triggers were in the same boat.  Which might have been the universe being kind, given how many were lined up against us right now.

Lord of Loss was prowling below, changing himself in little ways.  He chuckled, a low sound that reached me up in the air.  Right.  I couldn’t retreat into cape geekery as the normal defense mechanism.

No, the only way to deal with this was to fucking deal.

I kept the hook spinning around me in loose circles, experimenting with passing it from hand to hand, with trying to find the balance between using my strength to keep it moving and maintain my grip and not having the Wretch in a position where it was hurting more than helping.  Here and there, the cable slipped against my hand, metal edges cutting at the fabric.  Tough fabric, but it was a lot of wear and tear.  Past a certain point and it would be cutting my hand.

This was a losing battle.  Every pounce and lunge he made was stronger than the last.  Because of his physical configuration, and because the power source he was drawing on as part of his breaker form was aligning to fire all engines in the right directions and ways.

For now, we were at an impasse.  If given the chance, I could go after Nursery.  If given the chance, he could go after the others.  With the way he grew, he would soon reach the point that he could catch up to them in one or two lunges, then be back here in a third in time to keep me from taking Nursery hostage.

They just weren’t making enough progress.  I wasn’t doing enough damage.  This whole fucking thing wasn’t enough.

The cable slipped in my hand.  It caught on the bandage at my burned hand, which pulled at yet-unhealed flesh.  Pain lunged up my arm, and I almost dropped the apparatus.

Layered injuries and stupid moments of failure.  I felt like I was under the watchful eyes of my mother, being treated with kid gloves by Uncle Neil, and having my moods tolerated by Dean at the same time I knew that mood was unreasonable, all at once.

I felt shitty.

You’re better than this, I told myself, and the voice in my head was my mom’s, my uncle’s, an Dean’s, all at their most critical and condescending.

I went on the offensive.  Lord of Loss hopped to one side, more nimble and quick than he’d been when he’d first emerged as a spear-throw of a wolf from the husk of the bird.  Throwing off my timing.

And my timing was thrown.  I tried to adapt, pulling back hard, strength active, to shift the arc of the hook.  He hopped again, easily avoiding it.

I didn’t let up this time.  If anything I had to break his momentum, force him to adopt a new form and a new course of action.  I flew in, kicking.

He pulled his head away from the kick, retreating.  I shifted my course, pulling the slack in the line taut, and let the current momentum of the hook finish its rotation.  It smashed him in the right shoulder and then carried on to hit the ground by his left forelimb.  He hopped, three-legged, to get back, already regenerating by morphing his form.

Still not good enough.

“I got advice once, that I should pick some forms and stick to them,” he boomed.  A man’s voice spoken from a body made of energy, at the heart of his form, magnified out by the shell he’d encased himself in.  “Then new advice, from your uncle, I think he is?  To experiment, diversify.  Think outside the box.”

Marquis.

He chuckled.  “I had a little help, to ease the learning curve.”

“Then you fucked up,” I told him.  “There isn’t a single person I can think of who could do that for you, that wouldn’t be a huge mistake.”

“You don’t know enough people,” he boomed.  Talking down to me.

Smug asshole.

“I like this.  Experimenting and testing out my new approach.  Thank you,” Lord of Loss uttered it with a chuckle.  Fucking gracious and fucking magnanimous.  “I’ll go easy on you in exchange.”

Well, if I’d wanted something to drive this sensation home, being condescended to would do it.  I built up the hook’s momentum again, passing cable from hand to hand.  Here and there, the little fuckups, that Precipice’s power drove home.  A loss of momentum.  A bad timing of the Wretch.  Better to do two sharper half-circles with a pause between them- a long ellipsis rather than a circle.  It let me switch the Wretch off and on.

I was sweating, my jaw hurt from clenching it.  This was hard, demanding focus while he did everything effortlessly.

This sucked.

I was a second or two away from feeling like I had the momentum necessary to deliver a good hit when he leaped in the direction of Precipice’s group.

I flew after him, and saw him veer to one side.  Claws latched onto the wall of a building.  Going up, gripping-

I shifted course.

-and he bounded off of the side of the building, collapsing a part of the construction as he sailed upside-down toward me.

Again, the hook struck him.  This time it was across the face.  The impact changed his orientation and gave me the opportunity to strike out, kicking.  I remembered the lessons I’d had learning to fight while airborne, and applied them.  Rotation was key, and my rotation was helped by the fact that the hook’s weight was pulling me one way.  Wretch active, heavy blow delivered.

The Wretch broke and I had to pull my hands away before the cable tore right past my hands and shredded them.  Wrong timing.   The only saving grace was that I’d just delivered a heavy hit, and all of the momentum was gone.  Cables swung through the air and the damaged hook and pulley combination tumbled end over end.

I caught it.  Not a great catch.

Rain had stopped for a second before resuming the use of his emotion field.  I wasn’t sure why.  I looked back, and saw he wasn’t that far from the building Lord of Loss had used as a springboard.  Dangerously close.

Lord of Loss wasted no time, lunging again, though he hadn’t fully healed.  Catching me before I could get my momentum.  I tried to hit him and I failed.

He caught my cable, forcing me to either go with him or lose my weapon.

I went with him.  I let him pull me down, then added my flight to the downward momentum.  The Wretch and I slammed into him, turning what had been a landing into a crash.

While the Wretch was inactive, I used the cable to bind one leg to snout.  The moment the Wretch was available, I hit him again.

Something seized my foot.  Beneath Lord of Loss was a pool of gore-slick floorboards and scattered pastel-painted furniture.  Reaching from that wreckage was another tongue, though this time without elbows.  Instead, it was covered in polyps.

Not polyps.  Tiny heads and limbs.  They had me by the calf, and groping fingers, hands, and gummy mouths were working at my boot.  One head bulged, swelling overlarge as another mass was pumped through the tongue and out the mouth, into the top of my boot.

I shook it free before it took root or whatever.  The mess in my boot was still wet, creeping down toward my toes, but the larger mass had fallen free.

I roped the tongue to Lord of Loss’s leg  with more cable, before delivering the heaviest hit to him I could.  The timing of the hit was off, as he lurched to an upright position.

You’re forgetting your lessons, I told myself.  You had this exact same sensation as you tried to spar with Uncle Neil, and he recovered too quickly.

You’re better than this, I told myself, with the voice of everyone I’d disappointed, and a dark, joyless feeling in my gut.  Swimming uphill, drowning.  Falling.  Suffocating under disappointment.

Timing, I thought, as I hit out.  Account for who I’m fighting.  Keep my grip on my weapon…

He reared up, limbs up in a flash, then coming down just as quickly, like a half-dozen guillotine blades with a truckload of weight driving them.  I flew under.

Remember the lessons Uncle Neil taught you about fighting, and stay inside their reach.

I flew to the underbelly.  Nursery’s growths reached up to me.  Slats like blades were above me.  To my left, the tongue, bound to one limb by cables.  He was shrugging off the cables.

I flew to the looser section of that cable, so I caught one at my shoulder.  The Wretch absorbed the impact as it pulled short, but it didn’t extricate me.  The cable pulled against my shoulder, and I spun in the air, hard.  My arm throbbed.

I’d killed the tongue, pulling the cable tight enough against it to cut it in two.

You’re better than this, I told myself, and it was a condemnation.  A feeling that had followed me all my life.  You have so much potential, my teachers had said.  But if I focused on friends my teachers would point it out, saying I needed to focus on my schoolwork.  If I focused on my school, I lost friends, got called stuck up.  If I was Glory Girl I was neglecting my life in the daylight hours and if I was Victoria then I was neglecting my dreams.  If I separated the two then I fell to pieces and if I commingled then I fucked that up too.  That was when I couldn’t be sure if my friends were with me because me or because I was a superheroine, and when my mom had to tell me to take my headphones off or correct how I dealt with the public.

A silver blade caught Lord of Loss.  He turned to go after Precipice, and he was strong enough in his bounding that I had trouble keeping up.  He got faster with every few paces.

So much fucking potential, I told myself.

There had been very few people who had apparently accepted me as me.  Two.  One had made me her plaything before discarding me, and-

Rain’s power enhanced that stab of guilt that came in the wake of a thought I knew was unfair, glossing over context for the sake of absorbing the brunt of the hurt.

-and the second was Dean, and I’d let him die.

I plunged, driving my foot toward Lord of Loss’s tailbone, to drive his hips down and break his stride.  He dodged me, and I shattered floorboards instead.

I flew straight for him.  He had lost momentum, as part of that change in direction.

The cable was still partially wrapped around him, caught on slats and ragged edges of his white metal strips.  I could see those parts moving, even pushing the cable out.

I pushed myself a little further, to reach that cable, to not allow him to so deftly dodge.  Expect it.

My hands caught the cable.  The Wretch gave those hands strength.

My hands at the cable  at lowest point of Wolf-form-Lord-of-Loss’s chest, I hit him with Wretch and pulled the cable taut.

He retaliated.  I hit him as he did it, before flying inside his effective reach.

I found the hook, dangling off the side of his neck.  I hauled on it.  It hadn’t worked with the bird, and I could remember Precipice’s power catching me as I’d failed to alter Lord of Loss’s flight course.  Failed to alter it enough.

This time, at least, I could haul his forelimbs off the ground, denying him leverage.

With back legs, he hopped.

I hit him while he was in the air, to throw him off course, and to alter the rotation of his body.  It was slight, but while the Wretch was gone, I could fly around, unwinding the cable.

Retrieving my weapon.

I didn’t use the full slack.  I wanted the ability to move tighter.  To bring the hook around faster.  I hurled it around me as I dove.

He landed, all four limbs back on the ground.  He wasn’t on the ground for a second before I hit him again.  The hook and pulley assembly came down as a dense fifty or sixty pounds of metal, a punch to follow up the diving kick.

“Nice!”

“Shut the fuck up!”

He started reconfiguring.  I saw parts that had been gradually moving around his exterior stop moving.

Timing, I thought.  I brought the hook around in another tight swing.  He leaned back, I flew in.  The distances and trajectory of the hook lined up.  A heavy blow to his neck.

He swung.  Dodge better.  I ducked under the sweep of the claw – now more of an arm.

It wasn’t a major factor.  It was a factor.  Making the lessons learned in the midst of the fight a little more pointed.  Driving them home.

Regret and shame were our mind’s way of teaching us, and Precipice instilled a kind of regret, a kind of shame.

A bitter, black kind of schooling.  One that could go awry so easily, because the things we felt shame over weren’t always the most accurate.

I hit him twice with the Wretch and twice with the crane hook before he got me.  He spiked me down into the ground, and floorboards shattered.  In an instant, I was mired in gore.

A hand slipped between my mask and my mouth, and it was moist, soft and boneless.  A tiny finger hooked at my eyelid, pulling down hard enough that my chin was hauled to my shoulder.

The hand at my mouth swelled, a thumb pressed against my lips, then a golf ball, swiftly and almost instantly becoming the size of a softball.  It burst, flooding my nose with fluid that tasted like sugar water mixed with urine.  The sensation, my head tilted back, fluid flowing straight into the sinuses and throat, it prompted a sudden, involuntary, whole-body reaction, my back arching.

Fierce enough that even though it was fleeting, it kept me from noticing the initial push of solid mass at my mouth.

Like containment foam, I thought, grasping for safety in the midst of horror.  Like taking a drink of water and finding a slug in it sliding right past the tongue, except not water, and the slug didn’t end- it branched, twisted around itself, and varied in texture.

Straight to the back of my nose, punching the soft flesh there, straight down my throat, like a slug followed by a fist followed by a knobby arm with too many elbows, all wreathed in slick, loose flesh.

All growing to a dangerous size in the time it took me process what was happening.  To process that another was at my fucking boot again, for some fucking reason.

I flew backward and away.  Using flight to give me the initial tug, to get things moving the opposite way.

Lord of Loss caught me in the air before the tug happened..  My head dangled, the growth still attached.

“Good effort,” he said.  “Let’s go find your friends.”

No!  Bad effort!  Fuck you!  Panic tinged my thoughts.  There was a growth just behind my collarbone, in the midway point of my throat, that I could feel growing to size and stretching things there.  I couldn’t breathe, I-

Air pushed into my lungs.  I could see openings in the growth that connected to me widening and closing as it sucked in air and supplied it to me by some column or tube in the midst of it all.

Which didn’t help the fact that it was still expanding inside my throat like it was going to tear everything internal to pieces.  I thought about using the Wretch in my panic, them remembered that if it tore the growth in half, then one half would be inside me, not retrievable without surgery.

I would not go to a hospital like that.  I would not see those looks on the faces of medical staff.  I wouldn’t be a sideshow.  Not again.  I’d sooner go out fighting.

In the distance, Rain created a blade of silver.  I saw him throw it.

Lord of Loss didn’t move, nor did the growth.  The blade sailed through the air, missing us completely.  It hit a distant building.

Fuck you, Rain!

I tried to pull away, which triggered my gag reflex.  The only effect was that gorge rose in my throat and squeezed into every gap, burning my throat where it rested.  The ‘breathing’ of the growth gurgled in that small amount of fluid.

Another two blades appeared.  Rain threw one- aimed at the growth this time.

Lord of Loss shifted position, putting his own body between the blade and the growth.  It hit him.

I hit him.  A kick, strength active.  It was enough to do damage, but the damage wasn’t enough to change things.

Rain threw for the third time.  A scythe cutting through the air, traveling end over end.

Lord of Loss took a step to the side, so it would miss.

With abdomen and flight, I kicked out, bringing my foot up, catching the growth and repositioning it.

The blade caught my leg and the growth.

The growth swelled in my throat again, and this time the swelling forced it down, moved the whole mass.  I brought the leg with the silver line on it back to kick-

Lord of Loss gripped the growth and pulled- enough to break it where the line had caught it.  I could feel some of the strength go out of it.  Slowing it down, reducing some of the immediate swelling, which also had the effect of causing the gorge in my throat to sink, not quite swallowed.  The gurgling was worse, and I couldn’t breathe in the moment, even with the apparatus inside me.

“Don’t be stupid,” he said.

Staring him down, I brought my leg back again, to kick him.

He caught me with another clawed hand, around the pelvis, limiting my movement.

I still had the chain in my hand, for all the good it did.  I had the growth in my throat, two hands gripping me awkwardly, simultaneously too gentle and too constricting, covering my body from shoulder to mid-thigh.

No choice.

I closed my eyes, trying to ignore the swelling at my nose, that felt like it was going to expand until my nose was just a hole a baseball could fall through.

I used the Wretch.  I felt it expand around me, pressing out, clawing at Lord of Loss.  I felt the grip loosen slightly.

I dropped, slipping free.

“Aha!” he said, almost happy.  “So that’s your forcefield.  I was having trouble putting it together.”

The Wretch grabbed and tore at the growth that was still jutting from my face, just as I’d feared it would.  In an instant, before I could react or realize just where and how fiercely it was gripping the appendage, flesh was torn away and I was left with four to six inches of raw, slippery flesh outside of my mouth, and what felt like three feet of flesh inside.

I flew up, twisting in the air to find an orientation that would let the thing fall out.  It didn’t.  Instead, there was only the sensation that when it came out, a sock of windpipe would be dangling past my teeth.  That was the grip it had, the expansion within my throat.

I still held the cable, and in an effort to hold onto it, I wrapped my legs around it.  I let cable slide through my fingers in fits and starts, the weight of the barely-intact hook pulling it down.

I found the end, and I had to fumble with fingers wrapped in bandages and gloves that had been shredded over the course of the fight.  I found the individual bands of metal that made up the cable, and I tore.

A thinner length.  Bendable.  I wrapped it around the stump of flesh.

Don’t tear.

The hook was too blunt to use.  But a tight binding of metal served to give me a grip where I wouldn’t have otherwise had one.

With a burst of strength, I pulled it partway out.

Don’t break.

I used more Wretch-strength, and pulled again.  Another two inches of progress.

Every pull threatened to see it go to pieces, or to have one piece drop off and settle somewhere inside me.

I hauled on it once more, and this time, the lump returned to my throat, impossibly large for how narrow the passage was.  I was forced to pull- and in doing so I stopped being able to breathe.

In the darkness and the cold, high above Nursery’s mist, where up and down no longer mattered, and the entirety of my reality was confined to a few feet of foreign flesh and the Victoria-flesh that surrounded it, I pulled it out by half-inches, now.

The gag reflex helped and hurt.  Because each retching was movement out, but the involuntary swallowing and the way my throat seemed to forget how to work, freezing up in the aftermath, it made it harder.

When the worst of it was past my teeth, there wasn’t one slug, but a hundred, of varying fatness and lengths.  Vomit followed.

Can’t ever do that again, I thought, and it was a lesson etched in a hair deeper than already fucking necessary by Rain’s power.  An aftertaste.  That black kind of lesson.

The thought was immediately followed by me getting a grip on the cable and dropping out of the air.  From hovering to falling to diving, being a projectile.

Straight back into the situation that the messy, bloody lesson was telling me I should stay clear of.

Because if I didn’t, I knew, I wouldn’t ever.  This was a potential ‘retire from costumes’ level of badness and bitterness.

There was no way this was okay.  Not by law, not by morals, not by regrets.

I caught Lord of Loss as he was shoving Rain head-first into more of Nursery’s power-stuff with one hand, and doing the same to Chastity with the other.  The ‘caught’ was more in the line of spear-fishing than net.  I was the spear.

I broke through his shoulder, slammed the hook in with all the downward momentum for some added punch, then flew back, relying on the hook to catch him and pull him off balance.

As he was pulled back and away, Rain was pulled up and out of the mess.  His mask had protected him, by the looks of it. Chastity had wrapped both arms around her face, protecting nose and mouth, but she had a growth at her ear.  She hurried to pull it out.  Precipice helped her.

Another at her cleavage- less urgent, and Precipice didn’t help her with that one.  Instead, he sat on the ground, one eye on nearby appendages, and the other on me .

I started to speak, then coughed.

That didn’t work.  Instead, I gestured.  A ‘come hither’.

He started to rise to his feet.

I shook my head.

Another ‘come hither’.  I punched at my chest with a fist.

This time he got it.  He hit me with his emotion power.

I rolled my head around, my throat burning like fire, yet somehow too fluid.  My neck was all tension.

My feelings were black loathing.

I took the fight to Lord of Loss again.  Timing, as I brought the hook around.  Evasion.  More evasion this time.  I couldn’t trust my forcefield to take a hit if that hit was going to deliver me to Nursery’s babies.

Baby, I reconsidered.  I could see enough of the battlefield where floorboards had broken that I could see that it was all one continuous mass.

Last time, I’d scored two hits with my own hands and feet, two more hits with the crane-hook.

This time, lessons etched in a little more, I landed three and two.  He swung at me, and I flew back and out of the way.

Not again.  That didn’t need Precipice’s power to etch it in, but I had it regardless.

I’d been good at fighting from a young age, courtesy of good instructors.  I’d learned to fight big threats, and I’d learned to fight the ones who didn’t go down.  Lord of Loss was both of those things, and he was reasonably quick.  I didn’t give him a chance to rest, returning immediately to the fight, and I could tell how he was deflecting my hits, bringing fists up to block, and blocking just a bit more aggressively each time.

I threw.  The hook sailed over him.  I pulled back, and the chain slid between neck and shoulder.  If the hook caught-

He batted it away.

The hook did catch his hand.  I used my strength for a bit more oomph, and it it pulled him slightly off balance.  I was immediately on top of him.

He elbowed me aside.  An eyeblink later, and he might have hit me without the wretch protecting me.

Can’t let him do that, I thought.  Another lesson to etch in.

Can’t let him blockTime the hook-swings now that the hook is free again.  Can’t let him hit me.

My senses were just a little bit sharper, my focus at its limits because anything less than perfect meant he got the upper hand, and it meant feeling that pit-of-the-stomach self-loathing and disappointment.  It meant feeling like I had once upon a time, not measuring up to a family that was superhuman, just for a simple missed swing.

Somewhere in the midst of it, I felt like I had his number.  He swung hard and blocked harder and I didn’t care because I could hit him low while he was defending himself up-top.  I hit him with strength that I could have used to lift up a truck, and then I did it a few more times.

I created an opening , drove him onto uneven footing where there was only flesh beneath him, and then flew to the opening.  The Wretch expanded in the opening, tearing it wide.  He reached up and I flew away before he could grab me.

Precipice was throwing out blades, catching Lord of Loss in the legs.  One stumble severed a leg, and it gave me an opportunity to redouble my efforts, focusing on the offense, sacrificing defense.

Finally, the villain toppled.  Finally, the hand fell away and I could access that opening I had created, that he had only partially repaired.

Into the cavity, to where the glowing figure was protected by a spider web of slats and segments.  Some were threading out, repairing the shell.  Others turned inward.  I was the girl in the box, as the magician thrust swords inside.

The first one cut me.  No.

The second glanced off of my armor at my chest.  The third did  much the same, at my leg.

The third, too, cut me.  No!

The fourth, I avoided.

I flew in, punching past a webwork of calcified steel slats, losing ground as they constricted around me.  As I felt my forcefield return, I pushed out with the Wretch, to expand the slats around me and give myself a way out.  I reached the glowing figure.

As I grabbed him by the neck, the body that was Lord of Loss stopped.  The life went out of it, and the light of the body in the center dimmed.

It all crumbled.  The man in my grip was thirty or so.  He had a nice haircut, if a bit young for his age, an earring in one ear, a coat, a gray shirt, and black slacks.  If he was wearing anything but that gray shirt past the coat, I couldn’t see it.

Nice clothes, but ones that lacked nuance.  The kind of outfit that Dean had once described to me, where a person with a bit of money walked into a store, insecure, pointed to a mannequin, and bought the outfit the mannequin was wearing.

“Good fight,” Lord of Loss told me.

I punched him in the mouth.  No Wretch.  Just the mild brass-knuckle effect that came with having four metal rings, each with a spike sweeping backward over the knuckle.

“I might deserve that,” he said.

“S-” I started.  I coughed.  No blood, at least.  “Start talking, Loss.”

My voice still sounded a hair too low.  I hoped I hadn’t permanently fucked up my vocal chords.

“What if I don’t?” he asked.

I looked over at the nearest appendage of Nursery’s power.  The area was diminishing by the looks of things – it seemed she’d made a break for it.

“I could throw you in,” I said.

“Would you really?” he asked.  He smiled.  “You’re too noble.”

I pulled off my mask and pulled down my hood.  I waited, staring him down.  As his eyes studied my face, his expression faltered.

Did we get through?

“I don’t normally see people’s faces while I’m changed,” he said.

“That doesn’t excuse anything,”

“Didn’t want it to,” he said.  “I’m only commenting.”

“What are your employers up to?”

“I don’t know.  Didn’t ask, didn’t care.  You might have a better idea than I do.”

“Just following orders,” Precipice said.

“Rule, not order,” Lord of Loss said.  “Rules help.  Before- before I was Lord of Loss, I was just this man you see here.  He was broken, before he had rules.”

“You’re still broken now,” I said.  “Whatever made you make those rules in the first place, you need to go all the way back to square fucking one and revisit it.  Because this?  Not remotely fucking cool.  Someone else might have killed you for it.”

He smiled.  I resisted the urge to punch him in the face again.

Chastity, though, was on her feet, striding forward.  She backhanded him across the face, and he went down hard.

“Others are awake,” Chastity said.

“Okay,” I said.  “You’re going to have to drag him.”

She made a face.

“Your fault,” I said.  My voice caught, a burr or frog in it that wouldn’t go away.

Fuck, my skin crawled.  I couldn’t even be sure my system was clear.  I wondered what I could drink that was caustic enough to discourage those things from growing.

Maybe alcohol.  A lot of really strong alcohol.

“He wanted to delay us,” Precipice said.  “He succeeded.”

An utter fucking disaster, I thought.

I paused.

“You can turn your power off,” I told Rain.

He did.

That could have been better, I thought.  But at least we got him.

I almost didn’t want to check.  I brought up the disc, and found it out of position, pushed to one side.  A click unfolded it, a tap at the rim once it was unfolded brought it to life.

“Are they okay?” Foil asked.

I clicked through, my heart sinking.

“No,” I said.

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Blinding – 11.7

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“Make you a deal,” I said.

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

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

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

“You’re mercenaries,” Chastity said.

“We are.”

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

“We work for money.  Rules are necessary.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No,” Lord of Loss said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Save your juice,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The others hadn’t slipped through.

“What’s the holdup?” I called back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bring him here!” Chastity called out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Candy looked up at me, then nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think,” he said.

I grit my teeth.

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

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

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

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

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

He laughed.

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

Crimson footprints in white snow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

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

Options.  What are my options?

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

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

Precipice.  Fucking Rain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Foil was running out of ammunition.

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

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

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

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

Mood, I thought.

Self-doubt and regret was Precipice.  Another signal.

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

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

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

The crumbling continued.

Did we kill him?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, still flying toward my target, I indicated.

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

The silver blade cut into the cable, this time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That trench would mean no escape.

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

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

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

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

Futile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How’s Parian?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.  “Might not end the effect.”

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

I shook my head.

“Keep it in mind as a last resort.”

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

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

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

“Sorry,” he said.  “Panic.”

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

“Sorry,” he said.

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

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

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

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

Candy blew a kiss.

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

“Two out of ten,” Aroa said.

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

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

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

Focus,” Chastity said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mine?” Rain asked.

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

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