Gleaming – 9.15

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We had enemies here.  We had put Monokeros in an extended time out, and there was nothing saying that any of our enemies here could decide to do the same thing to us, or worse.  There were Fallen, tertiary members of Prancer’s group, old Birdcage villains like Monokeros who could be a danger to anyone, and any number of ex-prisoners who might have unkind views when it came to heroes.

The rain wasn’t as intense or driving as it had been before, but it was still a factor, still freezing most things.  Prisoners were using forcefields to shield themselves, because they didn’t have jackets, and the prison uniforms, while warm, weren’t outdoor clothes.  The ground was hard with frost and ice, except for where the passage of dozens of feet warmed it and turned it into mud.

I glanced at Goddess’ makeshift platform.  The portal that led from Gimel to the interim world had been set on a hill with some lesser structures on it, the land leveled out.  The platform was a large rock that had been cleaved in half, forming a flat sheet of rock with a crisp edge that would dull with a few more winters and rainy seasons.  I could see the top half in pieces further down the slope, now serving as seats or perches for various capes in Goddess’ battle line.  The rain traced a loose fractal pattern as it wicked off of Goddess’ bubble of telekinesis.

On that platform, beside Goddess, I spotted Amy, and I immediately looked away.  On the train with Tristan and Ashley, weeks ago, I’d seen Presley out of the corner of my eye and it had reminded me of Amy.  That had been enough to fuck with my mood and my head.  Now she was here for real, not for the first time tonight.

In the corner of my eye.

Keeping her in the back of my mind weighed on me.  Keeping her out of mind meant I was unpleasantly surprised when she came up.  I could rationalize and reassure myself, and those reassurances about her character and the girl I’d grown up with fell to pieces when I thought about how she had repeatedly breached my boundaries.  When she’d used her power on me in the first place – if only that, I could have maybe forgiven.  When she’d used it on me a second time, following my explicit no, because I’d been scared and I’d been dissolving alive?  When she had repeatedly, constantly showed up despite my express wishes?

There was a kind of fear where the heart raced.  There was anticipatory fear where the heart pounded, a singular body-jarring thud at what felt like a slower rate, though it wasn’t.

My chest felt as though everything had seized up, and I couldn’t feel my own heartbeat in my own chest.

Enemies.  Thinking about enemies was easier than thinking about… whatever Amy was.

Lung stood at the furthest end of the makeshift stage from Goddess, tattooed arms folded.  Someone had picked up his mask for him, and he now wore it.  The metal had dark mud still caked in some of the creases. and from the angle of his head, he was watching me with eyes that still glowed.  He didn’t look pleased with his immediate company, which included Seir, and he didn’t look pleased with me, either.

To wait, take a detour, get medical care, or go straight to Goddess?

Straight to Goddess meant getting past the Fallen, and ‘past the Fallen’ could never be a thing that occurred without incident.

Straight to Lung, angry as he was.

Straight to Goddess, who we would have to tell about Monokeros.

Straight to Cryptid, who wouldn’t look me in the eye.

Straight to Amy, who stood at the edge of that stage, lurking in the corner of my eye, not looking at me.  Going out of her way not to look at me.  That didn’t make it better.

Crystalclear’s voice interrupted my thoughts.  I’d forgotten I was with the group.  “I’m going to go see if they’ll let me talk to Ratcatcher.  I’m supposed to be keeping an eye on her.”

“Or a crystal.  Keeping a crystal on her,” Lookout said.

Crystalclear smiled.  “Yeah, I guess.  Can you keep an eye out for Fume Hood, Antares?”

“I will,” I said.  I floated a little higher, so I could see over just a few more heads in the crowd.

Crystalclear jogged off, costume boots tromping in the mud and the puddles that had formed on frozen dirt.

“I miss my gear already,” Lookout said.  “I feel blind.  I can’t believe I didn’t get any readings from him.”

Blind was right.  It was still dark, even with the light of powers and the lanterns and freestanding lights that had been brought over from the prison.  The storm above didn’t make it any better, diffusing the glow of all of the electric lighting.

“What’s broken?” Rain asked.

“Everything’s a little broken, or it’s moist.  Half of it won’t work at all, diagnostics and reboots aren’t helping, and the other half doesn’t work well anymore.  Water between lenses, balances and tolerances are off, uuugh.  My phone doesn’t work, my flash gun is a fifty-fifty about if it’s gonna work, and my other stuff is on the blink, cutting out.”

“I know the feeling.  I miss my body,” Sveta said.

“Oh, gosh, sorry!  Here I am complaining, and-”

“It’s okay.  It’s fine,” Sveta said.  There was a smile on her face, and her voice was light.  “Complain all you want.”

“You’ll fix it,” Swansong said.  “You’ll both be fine.”

I turned to face the group and observe, glad to have my back to the stage.  Freezing rain pattered on my hood.

Lookout shook her head.  “I’ll fix some of it!  Some.  Some is broken forever.  The broken-forever stuff is like my easier, cheaper work, like my mask, and less cheap stuff like my projector disc, but still, that’s a lot of work, and I don’t have my regular workshop anymore, so it’s harder to find the time and get stuff done.”

“You might have a workshop where we end up,” Rain said.  “We don’t know where we’re going from here.  Maybe we all end up with a small country to run.”

“That caught your attention, huh?” I asked.

“I-” he started.  “I’ve kind of always fantasized about having a place of my own.  Even my fantasies don’t ever get nearly that big, but it’s easier to imagine because I’ve imagined smaller scale versions of it.  Give me a cabin or a quaint house with a good size backyard and I’ll be content.”

Standards, Rain,” Swansong said.  “Think mansion or tower.  You need room for servants.”

“Uh,” Rain said.

“Cute young men in elegant black uniforms who run to obey when you snap your fingers,” Damsel said.  Two claws clacked together.

“And young women,” Swansong said.

Damsel arched an eyebrow, “You think so?  Are you more worldly now, or is this a strategy?  Distracting male visitors?”

Swansong shook her head.  “We’re talking about Rain.  Rain would want women, I imagine.”

“You say imagine, but I cannot imagine Rain in a manor with maids,” Byron said.  “Sorry, Rain.”

“No.  I’m grateful you pay enough attention to know I’m not a maid guy, if anything.”

“It would be maids and a singular manservant.  A Jeeves type, if you will,” Swansong said.  “If you’re to go that route-”

“I’m really not going to.”

“-it’s a good idea to have a same-sex servant who has the right sensibilities when it comes to your hygiene, fashion, and other needs.”

“I don’t want any servants at all.  I’m saying my standards are perfectly good where they are.  A house just big enough for me.  A whole country is an interesting thought exercise, but if Goddess wanted me to run a country, I’d still lean toward having a small house, and no servants.  Servants rub me the wrong way, after some of what I saw growing up.”

Swansong made a disappointed ‘tsk’ sound.

“Um, so, hm… you wouldn’t want a Jeeves, that makes sense,” Lookout said, before her tone of voice changed to a maximum unsubtle, “What about an- um, a you-know-who?  Wouldn’t you want room for at least one more person in your cabin?  Even as a maybe?”

“You-know-who and I haven’t talked enough lately,” Rain said.  He paused.  “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really imagined myself having both a house and someone I really care about as part of the same scene.  Well, once, but… that was special circumstances, and it wasn’t a happy sort of special.”

“Now I’m curious.” Byron said.

“I’ll tell you and Tristan later, I guess.  Anyhow, I wonder if it’s because it felt like even that was asking too much.”

“Set your standards as high as you can,” Swansong said, while Damsel nodded beside her.  “Then live up to them.”

“If I set my expectations low, then me being in prison is tolerable.  Things sucked before, and the only thing I wanted was out.  I got what I wanted and I’m happy about that.  I am- was actually genuinely reasonably okay with being here.”

“And now we’re free,” Swansong said.  She looked around.  “Or something.”

Something.

They were talking about future and dreams, and all I could think about was the uncertainty before us.

Either the Chris thing was all in my head, or they hadn’t been looking at the right times to see it.

“We need to get through this first,” Sveta said.

Thank you, Sveta, for saying it.

She went on, “Look at Goddess.  She’s tense.  Teacher isn’t done, and we still have enemies out there.”

“We have enemies in here,” I said, my voice quieter.  “And that’s something we need to be careful of.”

Rain looked over his shoulders.  Lung’s end of the stage was closest to us, and the Fallen were closest to Lung.  They didn’t have much of a ‘tribe’, exactly- the other gangs that they’d roped into their circle to defend against the good guys were too low-level to contribute much to the prison population.  Dealers and bikers.  It meant that they were mostly limited to a gathering of ex-Teacher followers.

“I don’t think they’ll start anything.  You’ve gotta have balls and be stupid to pick a fight when the rest of the crowd could come after you, or if Goddess could get upset.  Shitty as he is, I don’t think Seir is that stupid and that brave.”

The Fallen weren’t my only concern.  I looked at Cryptid, who was still transforming.  More feathers now.  It was a form that looked pretty much exactly like his earlier shape.  The twisted-up wingless bird with the hooked beak, and a neck that looked broken, head dangling.  The point of the beak grazed skin where feathers were pushing through, more spearlike than featherlike as they were slick with moisture, and where the beak grazed, it left a line of oozing blood.

“What’s Cryptid’s form there?” I asked.

“No idea,” Sveta answered me.  Others shook their heads.

“He likes birds for the grieving-sad-pensive-thinking realm of things,” Lookout said.

“I’ve never seen him change,” Rain said, observing.  “And he’s changed a few times today.  Twice earlier in the day, before anything even happened, then to this bird form, he changed later towhatever he was just a few minutes ago, with the ridge of cysts… and now back to this?  Did he-”

Rain stopped mid-question, looking at me.

“Did he get help from Amy?” I asked.  The word sounded wrong in my mouth.  “Panacea?  I don’t know.”

“He might hurt tomorrow,” Byron said.

“Maybe,” I agreed.  It might have sounded callous to say it out loud, but the pain he’d suffer tomorrow was the least of my concerns.  Every time I looked his way, I was trying to find some eye contact, some signal, anything that would suggest he was working with the group.  I felt like I was seeing the opposite dynamic at play.

I saw him limp up behind Amy, the head swung like a pendulum, and he had to catch it with a talon-hand to keep it from hitting Amy.  Amy said something to him.

My skin crawled.

“Lookout,” I said.

“Yes?”

“I know you hate being left behind, but-”

“No,” she said.

“It would make it easier to gloss over the Monokeros thing if you were with Natalie and not front-and-center in front of Goddess,” I said.  Not my only reason.

“No,” she said.  “I don’t want to split up.”

“Even if staying with the group in the short term means Goddess might get worried again, assigning you another babysitter?”

“Even if,” Lookout said.

I found myself a bit at a loss for words.  I could argue logic, but this wasn’t borne of logic.

My issue wasn’t borne of logic either.  Half of the reason I wanted Lookout to hang back was because I didn’t like how Cryptid was acting.  If he was in a bad place, if he was thinking about hurting himself to try and do something, or if he really wasn’t part of Breakthrough anymore, then I didn’t want Lookout in the midst of it.

“She should come,” Sveta said.

“It’s best if we stay together,” Lookout said, sounding solemn and sincere.  “But thank you for thinking about me.”

“Can I call in a favor?” I asked.  I made a rectangle with my index fingers and thumbs.  “Or use the it’s complicated card?  Let me do this, let me explain later?  I have a gut feeling about this.”

“I have a heart feeling about this,” Lookout said, stubborn.

It couldn’t be easy.

“Antares,” Swansong said.  “She stood up to Monokeros.  She’s strong.”

“I know.  I’m not disputing that.”

“She stood up to Monokeros because she’s worked really hard with dealing with obsessive and overwhelming feelings,” Swansong said, her voice quiet.  “And because she really wants to stay with the group.  She wants the group together.”

I bit my tongue.

I looked over my shoulder at Chris.  He still stood by Amy, growing taller and taller, the feathers filling in the space to the point that barely any skin showed, and the skin that did show had large goosebump-like growths on it that indicated the feathers pushing through.

Amy had her tattooed hands clasped in front of her, Dot on her shoulder.  Amy’s hood had been pulled up and to the side, used by Dot for warmth.  Goddess’ power kept them protected from the rain.

The group being together or not together was the problem.

“Stay close to Swansong and Damsel.  Keep that emotional training in mind.  This might be a tough situation.”

“Got it,” Lookout said.

I nodded to myself.

Fuck.

I ran fingers through my hair to fix it, then adjusted my grip on Sveta’s prosthetic body to ensure it sat squarely on my shoulder.

Of course the Fallen stepped into our way.

“Rain-man,” Seir drawled the words.  “We were talking about you.  I’m hurt you didn’t come say hi earlier.”

“Yeah, well, didn’t see the point,” Rain said.

“Respect is the point, Rain-man,” Seir replied.  “We’re not people you want as enemies.”

“I don’t want the Fallen as friends either,” Rain said.  “The respect thing is already decided.  You don’t deserve any.”

The heavyset man smirked.

“We have business with Goddess,” I said, before Seir could answer.  It was, in a passive way, my way of backing Rain up.  More voices in the conversation made it hard to retort, to cut Rain down, and I wasn’t sure Rain was the best guy when it came to wordplay and coming off as intimidating with words alone.

“The lady says she doesn’t want any hassle.  If we let just anyone up there, then everyone’s going to want to come by, say how they can be useful, try to elbow their way in.”

“It’s important,” I said, “And it won’t take long.”

It was Tristan who added his voice to mine.  “Refuse us access and you can be the one to explain why she didn’t get the information she needed.”

When had they switched?

“The drowned rat in gold armor can fly, can’t she?  She goes alone.”

Me?  I could, but-

“We’re sticking together, Seir,” I said.  “I don’t think you were even assigned this job.  You’re trying to make yourself important, pretending to be a gatekeeper.”

“Do you really want to test me, little girl?” he asked.  He locked eyes with me.  “Rain-man, you should tell these ignorant fools to think twice about what they’re doing.”

“Why would I do that, Tim?”

“Because, Rain, you’d better believe we know where your slut friend lives.”

Tristan put a hand at Rain’s shoulder, as if to stop him from advancing.  Rain wasn’t quite the type to charge forward to swing a punch, though.

“Some expert advice for ya.  If you have one person you want to keep in line, Rain, then it doesn’t work if you hit ’em, take a belt to ’em, stick their head in a water barrel.  Takes forever.  But if you get them as a pair, sisters, mother daughter, man and his wife, boy and the girl that will forever be too good for his useless self, it’s easy.  Tell the first one that if they don’t listen you’ll hit the second.  Tell the second that if they don’t listen, you’ll hurt the first.  Takes no time at all to break the both of them.”

“I think the fact that you have to do that makes you all look pretty fucking pathetic, Seir,” Rain said.

“You call me pathetic, I call you the same thing,” Seir said, and his voice was a growl.  “Difference between us is that in a matter of hours, you’re going to be on your knees, sniveling and begging for us to stop hurting the girl.  Could be that you’re there, could be that you’re on the phone.  I won’t even ask, and you’ll still be begging to take back any insult you said about me.  That’s how that is.  And the other way around?  There is nothing you can say or do that will change my mind about how shit you are.”

His words were followed up by some shuffling movements and chuckles from the four or five Fallen and assorted others that were keeping him company.

Rain started forward.  Tristan’s hand was still at his shoulder, and it might have been what stopped him from doing something regrettable.  Tristan became Byron, and Byron leaned in to say something to Rain.

“Can I shoot him?” Lookout asked.

“No,” I said.

“Can I?” Damsel asked.

I thought about it for a second.  “No.”

“What’s going on here, now?”

Another person joining the conversation, with a retinue at their backs.  Coalbelcher.  He’d found clothes, and now wore a heavy jacket with a hood, zipped up all the way, a ball cap and jeans.  I had no idea how he’d found anything that fit him, but he’d managed.  A bit of black drool extended from the corner of his mouth to his chin.  He was of a similar frame to Seir, but a little more put together, now.

Family,” Seir said it like it was an epithet.  “A boy not respecting his betters.”

I saw Coalbelcher’s eyes.  He was crude in dress, in speaking style, and in apparent intent, but there was calculation going on there, as he assessed the situation here.  He hadn’t earned his position as top man on the guy’s side of the prison by pure luck.

“Tell you what, Tim,” Coalbelcher said.  “Let me talk to ’em.  Consider it a stipulation.”

“Stipulation?” Rain asked.

“We still don’t know what’s happening next,” Coalbelcher said, “But they need to shore up numbers, and then there’s me and my people, all without a place to go.”

“You’re joining them,” I said.

“Maybe.  Depends.  If our empress there is giving us each a territory of our own, doesn’t make sense to.  But if she’s grouping us together, could be we join in.  Work with.”

“Bad idea,” Rain said.

“We can hold our own,” Coalbelcher said.  “But I won’t be lowest of the low.  I go in as an equal, and I bring six powered boys from the prison and one powered son with me, in exchange.”

“You want to be a brother of the family so you can tell me to back off and let you talk to these pukes?” Seir asked.  “Seems like a waste.”

“Sure, it’s fine,” Coalbelcher said.  “We have a pre-existing relationship.”

Seir shrugged.  He gave one of his guys a push on the shoulder, and they walked off.  They were still close enough to get in our way if they wanted, not necessarily in earshot.

“You kind of disappointed me, Coal,” I said.

Disappointed?  Must be we got our wires crossed.”

His higher voice had a wry, mocking tone as a baseline, as if everything he said was sarcastic.  It was hard to tell if he was serious about the wires getting crossed.

“Maybe I was too subtle,” I said.

“You said you wanted me to do for her what you did for me.”

“And?” I asked.

“And you got me out.  Or close enough.  Now I’m really out, I’m bristling for a fight.  It’s all good.  Won’t deny that.  Did I misinterpret your intent?”

“No.  You read that right.  Except she’s still there, with the other civilians.  You didn’t get her out.”

“Natalie?” Lookout asked.  She looked up at me, head craning back.

I nodded.

On the stage above, Goddess was walking toward us.  Half of her attention was on the horizon.

“I let her go.  She got away for a bit.  Then they caught her.  I can’t keep letting her-”

He stopped as Goddess came within earshot.  All voices in the vicinity stopped outright or went quiet.  Even the rain was silent, bouncing off of the telekinesis.

Amy stood at the other end of the stage, framed by Cryptid’s black feathers, his rear legs to her left, one of his front legs planted on the ground to her right, head dangling so that his beak was near her elbow.

Couldn’t get rid of her.

“I can’t seem to be rid of you,” Goddess said.

The weird alignment of thoughts threw me for a momentary mental loop.  “Sorry?”

“This meeting,” Goddess said, indicating Coalbelcher and the rest of us with an extended finger- Seir fucked off just enough that he was too far away to be included in the group.  “Two groups that concern me.  Where the fuck is Monokeros?”

She wasn’t just tense.  She was pissed and tense.

“She pulled a knife on Lookout.  It was over the top and unwarranted,” I told her.  “We put her in time out.  Two of Teacher’s thralls are in there with her, Blindside and Kingdom Come.  You should get them, carefully, and get Monokeros if you absolutely have to, but I really recommend keeping her there.”

“I will be retrieving her, but it’ll have to wait, there are other concerns,” Goddess said.  “My danger sense is emanating from your group, from you in particular.  It’s identifying Coalbelcher and his group in a similar way.  Tell me why.”

“I don’t know why,” I told her.

“We may just be those types of people,” Sveta said, her voice slightly muffled.  “A little closer to being dangerous than average.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said.

“Is there anything we can do to help?” Lookout asked Goddess.  “You know, if you give me a computer, I can gather information, or I can pull up records on people you have here, see if we can find the right tool in the toolbox for your particular problems.”

“You’re among my problems, according to my danger sense,” Goddess said, her voice hard.  “Teacher has more coming.  Not an army this time, but a trap.”

“Mama Mathers?” Rain asked.

“Yes.  I won’t put my hand into that bear trap.  We meet strength with subtlety and subtlety with strength.  Coalbelcher?  I’ll have you as part of the army that sweeps over that part of the city.  Destroy everything, and destroy her with it.”

“I can do that.”

“Work with Seir and Knock Knock.  Keep them in line.  Do this and I’ll reward you.”

“I’ll get everyone organized.”

“Be ready to move quickly.  The Wardens may choose that time to attack.  Once we know she’s gone, you’ll fold back, and catch the Wardens by the rear.  Immobilize, don’t kill.”

“I’m not much of a killer,” Coalbelcher said.  “I’m not much of an immobilizer either.”

“If you can’t do it, I’ll ask someone else.”

“I can do it.  Let me find people.  I think I know someone who can move large groups.”

“I assigned one to Knock Knock,” Goddess said.  “City Slicker.”

“That’s the one I was thinking of.  We’ll get it done,” Coalbelcher said.

Goddess didn’t respond, didn’t change in expression, or move her head or hands.  She stared at Coalbelcher, and he shifted his weight a little, before raising his heavy chin, emulating a soldier standing at attention, if a soldier could be of the greasy, drooling-black, baseball cap sort.

“You have a choice, Coalbelcher.  My power is telling me there’s something about you that I should be wary of.”

“I have no idea what you mean.  You’re promising power, fame, fortune, a territory of my own, and a slice of normal pie after two years of living in this shithole we slapped together here?  I’m all about that.  I’m yours, I’m loyal.”

“Perhaps,” she said.  She turned her head, found someone, and indicated for them to come.

It was Crock o’ Shit.  The lie-detector.  The tattoos of scales on her arms were standing out slightly in relief.

“Say it again.  That you’re loyal, and that I don’t need to worry about you.”

“I’m loyal.  You don’t need to worry about me.”

Crock o’ Shit nodded.  “He’s fine.”

“He doesn’t feel fine,” Goddess said.  “If something happens, Coalbelcher, if something occurs to you, a thought that you haven’t fully formed, a memory that surfaces, an idea you’re not quite ready to have yet, consider it very carefully.  It may matter more than you think, and your entire fate hinges on the decision you make.”

“Yes ma’am,” he replied, his voice nasally.  He horked up something and spat it off to the side.  The spit was like a gunshot, silent but bullet-quick and violent, with a chunky black splatter that smoked visibly.  His voice was slightly less nasal as he finished, “I’ll think carefully.”

She dismissed Coalbelcher with a sweep of the hand.

“I’m in alignment,” I said.  “We all are, in Breakthrough, Natalie excepted.”

“Natalie?”

“Our lawyer, the civilian.”

She looked mildly annoyed that Natalie had even been brought up in that context.  She glanced at Crock.

“They’re fine,” Crock o’ Shit said.

“They feel like an ambient danger,” Goddess said.  “Stay where I can see you, Breakthrough.”

“You should know, we disabled the ankle-bombs,” I said.  “Your army should be safe.”

“Mm,” Goddess made a noise, not even a full word.  I could see a sheen of sweat, where hair was sticking to her head near her temple.  More sweat shone at the back of her neck.

“Are you okay?” Sveta asked.

“This was easier the first time,” Goddess said.  “A decision I made as a teenager, to take over, solve all of the problems.  Eternal youth, through my cocoon man, beauty, endless wealth and power.  It was fine.”

“It sounds great,” Lookout said.

“Then it was all taken away.  Each and every one of my enemies expects me to take it back, which forces me to do just that, because a third of them would eliminate me, a third would enslave me to use me, and another third would castrate me and take… everything vital to me.  All of my power.  That castration wouldn’t guarantee I’m saved from the first two groups.”

We were silent.

“I feel it.  My danger sense makes me aware of the proportions, and how close they each loom.”

“Do you want a hug?” Lookout asked.

“I want my enemies crushed and gone,” Goddess said.  “Be ready to assist in the fighting if they get this far.”

“Yes ma’am,” I said.

“The Wardens will strike in a matter of minutes.  They’re partially protected from me, so timing will be critical.  Teacher will also time his attack, delivering the Mathers woman, in the hopes I stick my hand into the trap.  Be ready.  Maybe you could die in the fighting and simplify things.”

“If it helps, then sure!” Lookout said.

“I’d rather not,” I said, putting a hand on Lookout’s shoulder.

“I was joking,” Lookout said.

“Mm,” Goddess said.  She fixed her hair and her collar- I wasn’t sure why, since she could look like anything and nobody here would mind, and then she lifted herself off the ground.

Wardens inbound.

“I hope it’s not Weld with the Wardens,” I said.

“Tell me about it,” Sveta replied, voice soft.

“Or Vista, or Miss Militia… or anyone,” I said.  I grit my teeth.  “Are you guys ready?”

“I don’t have stuff,” Lookout said.  “Maybe if there’s a computer somewhere nearby, I can track things in the city, or do a quick repair of my phone.”

“We’ll check inside,” I said.  “Capricorn, Rain, Swansong, Damsel, you guys handle the front line?”

“Leave me Sveta and the prosthetic body?  I’ll see what I can do to get things working,” Rain said.

“Please,” Sveta said.

“No promises,” Rain said.

“So after I made a big deal about not wanting to split up, we’re splitting up?” Lookout asked.

I frowned.

“Sorry to be needy,” she said.  “I just, you know, heh, I’m a bit weird after the whole ‘tear your throat out’ thing.”

“You’re a bit weird always,” Rain said.  “But so are the rest of us, so you’re in good company.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “Listen, it’s okay, I”ll manage something somehow, I’ll get stuff fixed, and I’ll have a neat trick.  Maybe I can supercharge my light gun and we can blind an entire attacking force.  Then-”

“Lookout,” I interrupted her.  “We’re short on time.  Let me go get a computer from the entrance building.  I will bring you tech.  Good?”

“Good,” Lookout said, breathless.

Good.

I took off.

We were fighting the Wardens, now.  We were fighting Mama Mathers.  Us against the world, and it didn’t feel triumphant.  It felt like we were up against the whole fucking world.  Multiple worlds.

I was spooked, and I wasn’t happy.  I didn’t like this, even as I could take it as necessary.  We didn’t have a choice, just as Goddess hadn’t.

I saw Crystalclear with Fume Hood.  I dropped to the ground.  One foot slipped in mud, the other hit ice-hard soil.

“Five second recap,” I said.  “Wardens are coming, be ready to fight.  Teacher’s bringing in the big guns, one is Mama Mathers.  If she doesn’t come from the city, it’s going to be up to all of us to deal with what she does, capture and kill her despite the insanity effect.”

Crystalclear made a face.  He’d be vulnerable.

“Five second response,” he said.  “They wouldn’t let me talk to Ratcatcher, but she seems healthy, if irritable.  I tried to check on your lawyer, but again-”

“No contact,” I said.  “I’m getting a computer and then I’ll be back.”

“Good luck!”

Natalie.  I flew toward the building, finding Natalie while I was on my way.  Lights were few and far between, so the entire group of staff was huddled beneath a lip of rock, one light shared by a hundred people.  Natalie was fairly close to the front, near the assistant warden, her fingers pressed together and to her mouth for warmth.

Nothing I could do.  I’d tried to create an opportunity.

Ratcatcher was easier to find again, since she was mounted on one of the trucks in a group that was being used to produce light, headlights cutting through the mist of freezing rain, people’s breath, and people’s body heat.

She saw me, and then she looked away, the rain-soggy cone of her paper mask making the direction she was facing abundantly clear.  Similar to what I’d seen with Cryptid, with Chris.

A rebuke?

No, this wasn’t a rebuke.  I saw the nose move as she angled her head to check where I was in the sky, looking askew at me, then the nose moved again.

Pointing.  A staff building.

I changed direction.

She’d done something before getting caught.  What?  I didn’t even know her power for sure.  Rodent control?  It was supposed to be thinker.

I wasn’t sure what I’d expected.  My heart had been frozen in my chest for what felt like fifteen or twenty minutes, and now it pounded.  The building interior was dark, with many lights burned out or broken, and the contents of offices, of trash cans, and the papers that had topped desks were now strewn everywhere.

“Hello!?” I called out.

She’d been in the tunnel, and she’d run.  She’d gone through the vents and… she’d come here?  A small building with offices and files.

Chairs, a bench, plants.  No animals to be seen- no rodents.

I shivered.

Paperwork, file folders, filing cabinets, with drawers pulled out and thrown into walls with enough force to make dents and holes.  Nothing about or in the dents or holes, that I could see.

More benches for sitting and waiting, with metal loops embedded in the walls for prisoners to be handcuffed to.  Paperwork, more paperwork, another potted plant, a vending machine that had been raided, the chips and candies that hadn’t been eaten now piled on the ground beneath the shattered glass pane.  A few feet away, there was blood.  Not from the vending machine.

The blood was part of a trail of splatters leading to a dead guard, one of the metal loops for handcuffing prisoners now embedded in his chest cavity.  I felt for a pulse, and I knew there wasn’t one.

My heart pounded harder than before, feeling the lack of a pulse.

What could he have told me?

I reached the end of the hallway, found the stairs, and flew in a zig-zag to navigate the flights.  The building only had two floors, and the damage to the second was negligible, nothing strewn around, most offices locked.

I shivered a bit more.

Lookout was expecting me to deliver a computer.  I was- I was chasing a vague hint from a girl in a paper mask, if it could even be called a hint.

“Hello!?” I called out, again.

Back down to the first floor.  I stared down the length of it.

She’d left the tunnel, and she’d done what?

She’d been caught, just like Natalie.  She’d caused enough of a fuss that they’d tied her up, despite the fact that she was aligned.

Was she aligned?

The tainted food- the drugged food.

Natalie had had her bound hands pressed to her mouth.  Had she been warming her breath, or had I caught a glimpse of something in the way of a message?

They’d crossed paths, met, collaborated.

I flew down the hallway.  The stuff from the vending machine.  Bags of chip that were half air and half chip.  Boxes of candy.  Many were damaged.  Some were dirty, in a way that could have meant they’d been walked on.

I held the candies, and I hesitated.  It was hard to convince myself to.  It felt disloyal.

Master-stranger protocols.  I imagined Natalie with her fingers to her mouth, like it was a mimed order.  Driven by an impulse, feeling like I was potentially about to take poison, I took the most dirty, most damaged package, opened a hole wider, and then tipped a few of the gummy candies back into my mouth.

In the distance, it sounded like Goddess was tearing a mountain out of the ground.

I chewed, tasting the chemicals and preservatives of the candy, something I’d never been a huge fan of, and… it tasted delicious.

I swallowed, turning my head toward the ceiling in the process, and I closed my eyes.

Was it just candy?

A part of me wanted it to be.  A part of me wanted an excuse to feel less uneasy.  The conflict was brewing and- and good people were going to get hurt.  Goddess was-

-fucked in the head.

Fuck her.

Fuck this.

I hope your fucking danger sense is making your head spin, Lady in Blue.

I grabbed the other candies and chips, favoring the broken bags.  When my hands were full, I speared them on the spikes of my costume.

Style be damned.

How had they managed it?  The building had been collapsed.

Rats.  Mice.

It might have been Natalie who gave Ratcatcher the direction, Ratcatcher who did the lifting.  Had they known they were going to be caught, and laid this as a trap?  Something that anyone coming through might pick up and share?

Coalbelcher would’ve been near Natalie, if he’d been protecting her or watching out for her as part of the deal.  Had he taken some candy?  Had he eaten some, or did he have it saved for later?  Was that why Goddess didn’t like her sense of him?  I could see him being loyal but not aligned, or aligned but carrying tainted candy.  More the former, since he didn’t seem the type to save something for later.

I reached the first large group, near the interim portal.

“Chips or candy?” I asked.

“What?”

“There’s a big fight brewing,” I said.  “We need to get energy up, and there’s not much food.  Do you want chips?  Candy?”

“Chips, fuck yeah,” a guy said.

Share,” I said, with emphasis.

With luck, he’d have one or two, it would kick in, and he’d start sharing out of spite.

I sure was.

Another group.  It might have been Auzure, though it wasn’t members I recognized.  They’d come to help defend the portal and stall for time.

I just threw them the candy.  The woman who caught it saluted.

“Share!” I said.

Goddess should be getting pinged pretty hard right now, if this is working like I hope.

Another hero group.  I tossed them two small bags of chips.

Hopefully it got us another set of non-Goddessed allies.

There was a chance that some of this wasn’t treated.

I just had to hope that most or some of it was.  We were picking a massive fight.

A small gang of criminals.  I threw them something, and I didn’t wait for a response.

Rain streamed down around me, drumming against my costume, loud against the plastic of the chip bags and the bags and boxes that had the candy.

I saw my team.

“No computer?” Lookout asked.  “Were they all broken?”

“Something better,” I said.  I tossed her a bag of candy, then tossed another to Rain.

“Uh,” Rain said.  “The sentiment’s appreciated but…”

“Eat.  Energy,” I said.

“Mind trading, Kenz?” Rain asked.

“You don’t like grape?”

“Not this type, no,” he said.

“Only because I like you,” she said.

I felt like my heart was beating so fast it would give everything away.  I focused on the distance.

“It’s bad,” Byron said.  “You can’t see it right this second, but she’s altering landscapes.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I heard.”

There was another blast.  Another sound like a mountain was being uprooted.  The ground shook, and this time my feet were touching it to really feel the impact.

Not a mountain- a building, with some foundations.  I saw it move.  From a distance, it seemed to move very slowly.  I knew that it would be moving at a dangerous speed if one was actually at the scene.

Kenzie, her mask still open so her eyes, nose and mouth were visible, her face otherwise enclosed by the helmet, looked up at me.  I raised an eyebrow, and saw her nod slightly.

“Ash.  Want grape gummies?”

“That sounds atrocious.”

“Atrocious in the best way,” Kenzie said.

Swansong took two.  Damsel did the same.  I watched as the candy was shared around.  Kenzie cracked Sveta’s ball open to give her some.

“Nice fashion,” Swansong told me, indicating the packages that had yet to be delivered, speared to my shoulder.  “I prefer less colorful accessories.”

There were few enough that I could pluck them free.  I held the assorted packages in two hands.

“Ahh,” Swansong said.  She met my eyes.  “Good candy.”

“How the heck did you find this?” Lookout asked.

“Others did the legwork,” I said.  Relief surged through me.

“Guys!” Sveta shouted.

The momentary peace was disturbed.

One of the buildings in the distance had changed trajectory.  Two stories of apartment building flew end over end as it soared toward us, shedding a stream of concrete fragments.

“Look out!” I shouted, at the top of my lungs.

I put my arms out, and I flew.  I caught Lookout and Swansong, and Lookout had Sveta.  I almost had a grip on Damsel, but she slipped free, moving her hands to avoid slashing my hand and arm open rather than cling.  My flight was uneven, and my burdens heavy and awkward enough that I didn’t feel confident flying up.

Tristan and Rain were running, trying to get clear.

It was already so dark, the night so chaotic, that I couldn’t fully process what happened as it hit.  The casualties, the devastation, whether other teams had been caught in it.  The rush of air threw me off course, and my grip on my team members was broken.  Everyone rolled, tumbled, or otherwise sprawled.  Damsel used her power to shoot at the incoming projectile.

I could see most of the team.

I’d dropped the candies.  If only I’d kept them on my armor.

The Lady in Blue.  It had been her, reacting to danger sense, hurling a building.

Now I could see her, flying toward us.

She landed, shaking her head as she did.

The dust seemed like too little for the impact and the size of the chunk of building.  It might have been the rain, or the darkness obscuring some of it.

I could see Lung.  Other teams, people I had definitely not given candy to, were converging on our location, supporting the Lady in Blue.

I could see Amy, in the background.  She did nothing to help.  She was silent, passive.  A ghost to haunt me.

My costume shifted around me.  The Lady in Blue lifted me into the air by my costume.

Not all people who could affect inorganic things only could do that.  Sometimes just being adjacent to something organic made it hard to manipulate inorganic materials.

I fought with my flight.  She held me firm.  I activated the Wretch, then deactivated it as soon as I saw that Lookout was too close, just below me.

One by one, she plucked up the members of Breakthrough.

Her head turned.  Dirt and mud sprayed sky-high as she used her power.  Dealing with another attacker.  Someone I’d given candy to?

The dirt and mud hadn’t even finished raining down when she used her power again.  I saw the shape of him, leaping to one side.  He was more visible in the cloud of dirt, rain and mud than he was ordinarily.

Black feathers on black background.

I could feel the dim impulse that she pushed out.  The punctuation mark.  The power to control.

He moved faster.

I felt it again.  This time, he dropped to all fours.

“Harder!” Crock o’ Shit shouted, from the sidelines.  “You almost had him!”

The Lady in Blue used her power again, more forcefully than before.

Cryptid leaped.

I saw the moment of hesitation, the moment of realization that there was nothing inorganic on him to grab.  She ripped up the earth instead.  He was thrown into the air, lost in the flurry of mud.

I used my power, hard.  To distract, to break her focus.

Appearing sooner than should have been possible, Cryptid was right next to her.  The ground broke under his feet, point blank this time.

It didn’t go any further than the cracking of ground.  Cryptid’s talons found the Lady in Blue’s midsection.  He tore her open, sternum to pelvis, and his talons hooked into vital organs.  He pulled them free, and all of the strength went out of her.

For how much damage had been done, it took four or five surprising seconds before her power canceled out.  We dropped out of the air, and I flew to catch Lookout before she could land too awkwardly.

All around us, people were shuffling closer.

Amy was among them.

Cryptid was at the center, his broken neck twisted around, his head dangling.  His beak was like a curved blade, gleaming in the rain, pointed at the small of his back.

I could see what that was supposed to mean, now.

Crock o’ Shit hadn’t been telling the truth.  Goddess’ power hadn’t almost worked.  Crock had been among the people I’d given candy to, just before I’d reunited with the group.

Fitting.

I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy the irony.

“Chris,” Lookout said.

Cryptid looked at her, then seized his head.  He moved it side to side.  Shaking it in a ‘no’.

“Did Amy do this?” I asked.

“I didn’t do anything,” Amy’s voice cut through the dark and the patter of rain.  “Organized.  Struck a deal.”

I swallowed hard.  “Deal?”

She wouldn’t look me in the eyes.  “Everyone!”

I couldn’t remember her shouting.  She’d never been one to do it.

“Everyone!  You have a choice!  We are going to Earth Shin!  We are going to be an authority!”

I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Sveta did it for me.  “Amy!”

Amy shook her head, glancing at Sveta.  “There will be rules!  This means submitting to my power!  It will not be as Goddess’ was!  You’ll follow a code of laws, you’ll maintain control and peace, and you’ll protect populations.  You’ll be reasonably good!  Or you can stay here.  You’ll be freer, but you’ll also be a target for heroes!”

She planned this.

I looked at Cryptid.

She planned this with him.

Dot was perched on her shoulders, clearly excited, but Amy’s expression was impossible to read.

“What the hell are you doing?” I asked.

She met my eyes.

She looked almost angry as she looked away.  As if she had the fucking right.

“Come with us or stay.  It’s your choice,” she said.  She looked at Cryptid.  “Is that okay?”

Cryptid seized his head, and moved it in a ‘yes’ motion.

Amy’s expression was both angry and sad as she surveyed everything.  Freezing rain streaked down her hood, and her breath fogged.

She met my eyes.

“Red Queen,” Lookout said, under her breath.  “Dot called her that.”

My skin crawled.

The Red Queen started to walk away.  Cryptid was at her side.

Some prisoners were fairly quick to leave to follow.  Ones who knew her from the Birdcage?  With them went followers, and once a critical amount had left, a majority followed.  Only the heroes really stayed.

Only rubble dust, and mud, now.  Scarcely any lights on this hillside.

“What?  Chris?”  Lookout asked.  She giggled, sounding uncertain and Swansong pulled her into a hug, so Lookout’s face was buried in Swansong’s side.  It would have been a full-body hug if Lookout hadn’t been hugging the orb.

What just happened?

Others were arriving now.  Natalie was with the prison staff.  Ratcatcher was with Crystalclear and Fume Hood.  They seemed to be free of the influence of the Lady in Blue.

Who had been practically torn in half, now lying ten feet away from me.  After seeing my- seeing Amy like that, the grisly scene was somehow one of the least shocking things in the midst of all of this.

“He was just waiting for an opening?” Rain asked.

“Shh.”  Swansong.

The assistant warden drew closer.  We’d been some of the people on point through all of this.  He wanted answers.

I didn’t have any.  Amy?

“We need to- to do something about this,” I said.

“Are you up for it?” Byron asked.

I shook my head.  Images of Amy and the sounds of her voice were weighing on my mind, interrupting half of my thoughts.

I reached out for Sveta’s ball.  Lookout handed it over.

“Sorry,” I told Sveta.  I hugged the ball tight.  “Sorry.”

I felt her forehead thunk against the side of the orb.

“Okay,” Byron said.  “I’m officially passing the baton… we both know you’re good at this part.”

He blurred.  Once I realized what he was saying, a second or so later than I should have, I could understand it.

I nodded.

“Yeah,” Tristan said.  He started striding toward the assistant warden. Without turning to face us, he intoned the words. “Damage control.”

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Gleaming – 9.14

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I tumbled through darkness, and this time there was no frame of reference, even a wrong one.  The water was numbing, the darkness all-consuming, and the water around me was moving, more akin to being in an undertow in a fast-moving river than a pool.

Was that only foreshadowing for what was to come?

The thought was eerily calm, disconnected from the danger and the chaos around me.

Fear was contagious, and the fear of the dark was something I’d inherited.  There was something about having a mom who often slept with the lights on that made a small child insist on her night-light.  When a first sleepover fell to pieces because of the night-light issue, that little girl’s parents had provided explanations.  They were superheroes, their powers used light.  That was why.

It would be a few years before that little girl would start to feel she’d been told a lie.  Not a realization, but a feeling.

Fear paralyzed like cold water did.  It shackled, limiting action, like debris stirred up by water, computer components and bits of metal hooking on clothing.

Two ways to deal.  One could bend to it, succumb.  It wasn’t a bad option, despite what one might think.  Because the alternative was to fight, to push through, and any movement that followed from shackles and paralysis was liable to be rushed, to get other people hurt.  I’d learned both of those things from my mother.  I’d seen her on her patrols, heading into dark alleys with only her weapon for lighting.  I’d seen her bend to the fear to the point it was an integral part of how she lived.

If I acted now, if I used the Wretch in a confined space when I didn’t know where my team was, if I flew, I could do a horrendous degree of harm.  I flew in one direction, found a flat surface, and pressed myself hard against it, until I was grounded enough to have a sense of gravity.  The water roared, someone was trying to shout underwater, but the sound was lost, dulled and muffled beyond recognition.

Something touched my leg, then pressed out, pushed, and I felt the strength of it.  Not a human hand or anything similar.  A tendril.

No sooner did I recognize it than I felt it pull away.  My leg was pulled after it by the force of the water moving in its violent wake.

Blue lights began to fill the space.  Motes of light appeared, leaving trails and lines behind them.  The illumination was murky, everything cast in one or two shades of blue and more pitch black.  Objects were unrecognizable, the side and top of a table ten feet away looked much like a folder of papers floating within my arm’s reach.  Both moved violently – I hadn’t expected just how turbulent this water would be, or how much.

This time around, I had my orientation, but I didn’t have the ability to do anything with it.  I exhaled slowly, letting bubbles slip through my lips, a way of measuring my time limit.

I searched through the oppressive, near-opaque gloom, a world of sluggish and violent movements, of chaos, and I saw nothing.

The movement of the water wasn’t as intense as it had been in the first few seconds, but for every small amount that it slowed and calmed, I felt waves of stress and strain, my breath pushing against the inside of my chest, wanting out and wanting more.

Not hard edges.  Look, Victoria!  Look!  Where are they!?  Look for human shapes, for the lines of the human body!

Motion caught my attention, almost invisible in a swirl of computer chips and boards.  I moved to intercept before I’d fully verified who it was.  Rain, swimming through the water.

I flew to him, grabbing him, helping him along.  I saw his head turn, his eyes wide.

I could fly, and flying was better than swimming.  Holding him, I flew us both toward the door, toward the tunnel where someone would have to swim further than the length of a swimming pool to get to the hole we’d made.  They would then have to get up through that hole.

Tristan drew outlines, and made dense material that fit within those outlines.  Byron drew outlines, but the condensed material was something that uncondensed, expanding out to fill space, vastly disproportionate to the outlines made.

Rain slipped from my grip.  He’d stopped abruptly.  I turned myself around.

He pointed.

Hair, floating free in the water, and a form that wasn’t really trying to swim.

I nodded confirmation, and Rain kicked, propelling himself toward the door, the eddies and flows in the water flipping him belly-up.  Leaving me to it, even as my pulse joined the dull roar of water in my ears, each beat a delivery of a swiftly dwindling oxygen reserve.

More blue lights surrounded Rain, surrounded us.  It still felt like two shades of blue and black, but the blue was lighter, the black filling less space.

I grabbed him and gave him a tug to help him on his way, and I saw a glimpse of Byron at the door.  He was drawing out motes.  Behind him, Damsel was already heading through the tunnel, visible more by the froth behind her, the water and debris turbulent.

Bubbles slipped through my lips.  How long had it been?  Twenty seconds?  Forty?  A minute?  Two minutes?

I was ready to get to a place I could breathe now, and I still had too much to do.  I pushed urgency out of mind, with a growing feeling that if I did start to panic, I’d be less able to handle it because I’d put it off.

The hair, as I flew to intercept, was Monokeros’.  She wasn’t really trying to swim.

I saw flashing, and for a moment, I thought it was the server somehow still alive.  Then I saw the shape.  The side of someone illuminated by the flash, a line with slight curves that could have been someone’s leg or back.  A human kind of shape.

I flew past Monokeros to the other shape.  The flashing continued- Lookout’s flash gun, aimed at the wall.  A signal.  It was a steady series of flashes, until the gun ceased to work.  I saw her smack the gun a few times.

She didn’t even realize I was there until I put my hands on her shoulders.  Her head turned, and multiple round red eyes appeared in the dark, focusing on me, some narrowing like an old camera’s shutter.  She raised her hand in a small wave, and some of the lenses went dark.

Somewhere in the background, there was a detonation.  I could feel it through the water, muted as any sound or vibration would be.  It still shook my entire body.

I drew her close, pulling her tight to my side so we might be able to move faster through the water, with less drag.  The return hug was bear-hug fierce, shocking after the casualness of the wave a moment ago.

I took flight, heading back the way I’d come.  I was a little less gentle with Monokeros, gripping her wrist in passing, wrenching it as I went.

Even approaching the tunnel was a complete change.  The debris had flowed in this direction, and with the movement of water from a larger room to a narrower corridor, the churn was worse.  It threatened to tear Monokeros from my grip.  Byron was still there, waiting.

I didn’t get that far before tendrils gripped me.

Two living people in my arms.  I couldn’t use my forcefield or strength.

The tendrils pulled away.

It was always Tristan who had done the hand gestures or motions to accompany the uses of his power.  This time, it was Byron moving his arm, touching a mote, and then moving his arm toward the hallway we were aiming to enter.

Ah.

More water, I thought, as the power took hold, motes disappearing.  The lines and dots of blue light winked out of existence, plunging us into a darkness where the two still-lit lenses on Lookout’s mask were dots against blackness, rather than anything illuminating.  With that darkness came an impact, enough that it knocked the remaining gulp of air from my lungs.

It was cold, so fresh into our reality, and I had to fight the impulse to use the Wretch.

My focus was on the team.  I controlled our pace by flying against the flow, tried to keep Lookout and Monokeros closer to the top of the tunnel.

I breached open air, and it was startling, because we weren’t anywhere close to the hole.  Water was flowing out and away.

My hand hurt in ten different ways because of the burn and the fact that the water was soaking through the bandage and it was cold enough that it would have hurt on its own, much less making contact with a sensitive injury.

I saw the square hole we’d cut in the top of the tunnel, and I hauled the two up.  In the moment I was about to take us up and out, Monokeros jerked her arm free of mine.  Waking up, maybe, or- who knew?

Rain was still in the water, half-turned to absorb the flow.  He was holding position and holding onto Byron, using his power to keep them both in place as rocks amid the overflow.

Tristan had walled off the tunnel, and up until just a short while ago, that wall had served as a dam, which was part of why the water had risen to the level it had.

Judging by the hole in the wall and the fact that the wall wasn’t intact anymore- Damsel had blown it up.  Helping, kind of.

I carried Lookout out, then flew down for the others.  Byron was next, heavy as he was soaking wet and wearing armor.  Rain was easier.

“My tech,” I could hear Lookout’s lamentations.

“I thought it was waterproof,” Byron said.

“Water resistant, a lot of it,” I heard her.

I flew back into the hole.  “Byron!  Light!?”

The light was meager, but it caught the edges and foaming rises of water as it flowed over the dam, past debris that had been dragged from the room to here.

There was a hole in the wall.  My first destination.  Damsel was within.  She’d blasted a hole that pointed back and away from the flow, forming an alcove she could stay within.  Thane, Teacher’s tinker from the server room, was lying in the rubble and dirt at her feet.

“You okay to stay for a minute?” I asked.

“You okay with making a lady wait, when she can blast your head-” Damsel started.  Her teeth chattered hard enough to interrupt her.  “-clean from your shoulders?”

My own teeth chattered, partly because of a sympathy reaction.  “Somewhere in there, there’s another lady who can do that.  I’m really hoping she’s behind a closed door.  I’ve got to help her.”

“If you must,” she said, before nodding in a way that didn’t match the words.  “Save her.”

“Huddle for warmth for now,” I said.

She looked down at Thane and sneered.  “I’d rather be cold.  Huddling with me is a privilege.”

“Then see if Capricorn can make you a ladder.”

“Will try!” I heard Capricorn.  Tristan now.

“Vic- Antares!” Lookout called to me.

I looked up.

She turned on a flashlight, then threw it down to me.  A small one, bright.

“You’re awesome,” I said.

“Help my friends,” was the response.  “I want us all together again.”

I wasted no more time.  I plunged into the dark.

Sveta, Crystalclear, Ashley, Ratcatcher.

Kingdom Come, if he didn’t come part and parcel with Sveta.

The water had vented out enough that I could fly over it.  I flew into the room with the server, and found it nearly empty of water, now.  Debris at the door was damming it, and I destroyed that debris using the Wretch.

“Sveta?  Kingdom Come?” I asked.

Tendrils whipped out of the water.  They seized me.  I activated the Wretch, then dismissed it a moment later.

Calm, I thought, as my heart hammered.

She hauled herself up.  She was too coordinated to be Kingdom Come.  Most of her was outside of her shell though.  In a way, she wasn’t our Sveta.

Raising herself up to eye level, she brought her forehead forward, until it rested against mine.

“Rinsed him off?” I asked.

I felt the nod.  “He’s over there in the corner, pulling himself together.”

“The B team is okay.  Where’s the A team?”

“Downstairs.”

Downstairs wasn’t good.

“He covered the ceiling so he was dripping down on top of us.  I saw it at the last second,” Sveta said.  “I took the bullet, and tried to put myself where I would at least get in their way.  Thane had to work remotely.”

“You did good.”

“I don’t feel good.”

I wanted to reply to that, but I knew the feeling one hundred percent.

One hundred and ten percent.

“Bricklayer’s mantra,” I said.

I felt her nod, her forehead against mine.  “I’ve got me.  You go get Swansong and Crystal.”

“And Ratcatcher?” I asked, turning around in the doorway I was already flying through.

She shook her head.  “Ran.  Get the other two.”

I nodded.

The light from the flashlight wasn’t quite sufficient for this kind of oppressive darkness.  A single beam of light weighed against corridor after corridor, room after room of only darkness.  I found the stairwell, and beyond the first flight, everything was obscured by the receding water, the level steadily decreasing.

I could hear something below.  The terrible noise I’d noted earlier, a roar or great grinding.

As good a cue as anything.

The debris and the degree of the churn at the top level of the water made entry by flight difficult, with an obstacle catching my shoulder on one entry and a lack of forward movement stalling the second.

Then I was beneath, and the already small beam of light from the flashlight halved in size, diffused into dark, grimy waters.  My skin and clothing were soaked through and gripped with the cold water.

The roaring I’d heard earlier was louder here.

Louder still as I flew deeper through the water, through a maze of things that threatened to catch at my armor and clothing, scraping at my arms.  It was a morass of debris, old construction material left in the tunnel, where it could sit forever, and I couldn’t use the Wretch because doing so threatened to make things harder to get through.  I’d only end up tearing things down and compacting stuff into barriers.  I’d run out of breath before I got through.

I exhaled a bit, letting bubbles rise to the surface.  I’d always found that trying to hold two full lungfuls of breath ended up being counter-intuitive.  A steady release helped.

The current of the water became stronger as I got closer to the bottom, and the amount of sediment increased.

I found the source of the roar.  Ashley, her back against the edge of a doorframe, stood knee deep in water.  Her power was directed at the hallway, a steady, continuous blast, that bucked, kicked, and forced her to retain her control.

I thought of fighting the shield as the Wretch tugged at it.

I floated in water as it was churned by Ashley’s power.  Some of what her power did was annihilate, but it was random, and most of what she was doing was holding it at bay, steadily removing some of the water from existence.

I was still trying to figure out what to do to help when she stopped.  The blast ceased, and water crashed into the room she and Crystalclear occupied, the both of them just barely visible in the froth of bubbles and sediment before they were pushed back.

I flew into the room, and the force of water rushing in forced me to stick my feet out, hitting the wall opposite the door.  I reached out, found Ashley’s head, and from there, found her hand.  One hand burned, holding Ashley despite the pain, feeling how cold her skin was, well beyond the norm of a human hand in cold water.

I did much the same with Crystalclear’s head and hand.  I could feel the chunks of quartz-like crystal studding each.  I held his hand with the same that held the flashlight, awkward, the fierceness of our mutual grip driving the metal into the meat of my hand.

I led them through the dark waters, into the maze of wooden slats and fence material.

There was no roar anymore, no distant explosions as Damsel of Distress tore down a wall.  Even high above, it seemed like the fighting had stopped.

Crystalclear helped to navigate.  We found our way up, and when the coast was clear, I pulled them up at my maximum speed, hauling them to where we could all breathe again.

Dripping, panting, we all caught our breath.

I started to head forward, and Swansong reached out with one hand.  It didn’t move well, and I could see her wince, before pressing her forearms against one another in an ‘x’.

“Sveta,” she whispered.  “She’s compromised.  Kingdom Come got her.”

“Sveta should be okay now,” I said.  “Rinsed off.”

“Did you confirm with a password?” Crystalclear asked.

“Sveta’s one of the very few people in this world who I don’t need to,” I said.

“There’s a lot of people out there who probably thought the same thing and they regretted it later,” he said.

I nodded.  I would have explained, but I didn’t have the words.

“Ratcatcher ran?” I asked.

“She went up one of the ventilation ducts that isn’t supposed to hold a person,” Crystalclear said.  “We thought she’d get help.”

“We haven’t seen hide, hair, nose or tail of her,” I said.  “Goddess won, we think.  And we destroyed the server.”

“You destroyed it,” Crystalclear said.  “You do realize that could have just set everything off?”

“They were going to set it off,” I said.  “Given a choice between a certainty and a possibility of making it, they chose the second option.  I didn’t disagree.”

“They were really going to go that far?” Crystalclear asked.

I nodded.

“Because Goddess won,” Swansong said.

“Yeah,” I said.  I wanted to be happy about it, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  Too many close calls, too many questions.  My sister was out there, and I couldn’t avoid this… third confrontation.  The third in one night.

One fucking long night.

“I think the situation is as resolved as it’s going to get,” I said.  “Teacher loses, he can’t blow the bombs, Goddess has her army.  The heroes are up there.  I think- if there’s anything left to contribute to the situation, we help her keep the peace.”

“We help them,” Crystalclear said.  “We help the heroes.  This protocol, I’m invoking it.”

As if we hadn’t fought enough uphill battles tonight.

But I nodded.

The others had caught their breath.  Ashley was rubbing her forearms, moving her hands with a little bit more in the way of dexterity.

We entered the server room, and Sveta was there, a face and tendrils that were barely visible in the dark.  She was hunched, for lack of a better word, over her ball.  A case of bulletproof glass with staggered ventilation, so that a tendril couldn’t worm through.  A circular lock required some careful manipulation and a clamp of Sveta’s teeth to properly open, if help wasn’t provided from the outside.

But it collapsed into a flat position, and try as she might, she couldn’t coordinate to un-collapse it.

“Can I approach?”

“You got them?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You shouldn’t approach.”

I stopped where I was, floating.

“I can’t coordinate well enough,” she said.  “I practiced before, but never in the dark.”

“Give it here.”

The hunk of interconnected slats of bulletproof glass struck my breastplate in what was essentially a ‘soft’ pass from Sveta.  The noise made my much-abused ears hurt.

I squeezed the orb, using my forearm instead of my right hand, and hard edges scraped against hard edges.  It slid into its spherical shape, two pieces of plastic nipping off a bit of my arm as they came together.

I opened the lid, and Sveta reached inside, before pulling herself in.  Tendrils had to be coiled together, piled atop one another, filling much of the space.  With my hands full, I had only a glimpse of her expression.

Sveta’s hell.

I locked her in.

“Thank you, Tress,” Ashley said.  “Doing that.  I know we haven’t always been on the same page.”

“I’m still glad you’re okay.”

“It was noble, Tress,” Ashley said.

“It was stupid.  For an instant, I forgot what I was.  And I can’t do that,” Sveta said.  “Other people can’t afford for me to forget.  I positioned myself as best as I could, before he… seeped in.”

I felt some violent motion within the sphere, as if a torrent of physical activity could illustrate the feeling.

With a very different tone of voice, Sveta said, “I’ll need my armor.”

“I’ll get it,” I said.  I started to hand off the sphere, then stopped myself.  “If you’re okay with-”

“Yes.”

I let Swansong hold her.  A silent Crystalclear pointed the way to the armor, and I knelt by it, moving the debris that half-buried it.  Most of that debris was paper.

“Can you-” Sveta said.

“What?”

“I’m sorry but can we leave the tentacles?  The ones Rain made?  Say they were too heavy to bring.  His intentions are good, but…”

“Got it,” I said.  I moved the flashlight to my mouth before figuring out how the new arms connected as part of the greater suit.

“If it’s a problem, you should tell him,” Crystalclear said.

“I will.  But the last twenty-four hours have been utter insanity.  We need to make sure people are safe.  It’s going to distract him.  I know this is bad and it’s against every rule in the superhero magazines and Saturday morning cartoon shows, but…”

“Lie?” Swansong asked.

“Please.  For now.”

“He worked hard on that,” I said.

“I know, but-” Sveta said, her voice muffled.

“Can we compromise?  Bring them, but have them detached?”

“The material is good, even if the intent is overeager,” Ashley said.

I heard a ‘tuk’ sound.  Sveta’s forehead striking the lid of the sphere.

“I should, shouldn’t I?”

“Your body, your call,” I said.

“That’s the issue at its heart, isn’t it?” I heard her.  With the muffling effect of the sphere and how quiet she was, it was hard to catch all the words.

A forearm of pale flesh, a loose length of dense black netting that connected it to another forearm of pale flesh, all in sequence.  Some metal framework within provided a loose skeletal system with levers and pullies.  The locking mechanism involved getting some concentric rings lined up and sliding a bolt through them.

I hefted it over one shoulder, holding it there in a fireman carry.  with my free hand, I combed fingernails through wet hair.  Wet costume, armor, and Sveta’s body were all heavy.  Crystalclear lifted the tentacles, wrapping them around his shoulders like a scarf.

We reached the hole.  Tristan had made a ladder.  The group was huddled.  Thane and Monokeros stood off to one side.

We emerged, each of us in turn, with me steadying Ashley so she could ascend with her hands both full and not at their peak.

Lookout sprung to her feet, and Monokeros reached out for her- missing Lookout’s shoulder.

She bounded to Ashley, and stopped short of giving Ashley a hug.  Ashley adjusted her grip on Sveta, and pulled Lookout into a one-armed hug, arm at Lookout’s head.

Interesting, to see how Damsel observed that, the fidgeting with claw-fingers, eye contact not leaving that scene.  I wasn’t sure if it was a terrifying interesting or a positive one.  Figuring that out required resources I didn’t have.

In a similar vein, I saw Rain look at the tentacles Crystalclear carried.  He didn’t remark at anything, instead turning to survey the situation, almost the opposite of what Damsel was doing.

The prison was quiet.  Not a shout, no movement.  Many buildings had been pulled down, the staff buildings in particular.

“We lucked out with the bombs, it seems,” Ashley said.

“Not luck,” Tristan said.  He indicated Thane, who sat slumped against a wall, a short distance from Monokeros.

“The situation in emergency controls went bad,” Thane said.  He talked like he had a mouthful of tobacco, all mush and sloppy syllables.  “I had to work remotely.  Not nearly so fast as I would be.  But I turned off the fucking bombs.”

“Even though Teacher wouldn’t want you to?” Rain asked.

“Of course even fucking though fucking teacher wouldn’t fucking want me to,” Thane said, and he put enough clarity and emotion into each ‘fucking’ that it didn’t make a mess of the sentence.  “I’m wearing one of the damn things.”

He shook his ankle to demonstrate.

“He told Rain and Byron when we took him back to lash him to a light fixture,” Tristan said.  “Not that this is the best outcome.”

This.  The bombs were ineffective now.  The prisoners were free.  United under an effective leader.

“We need to save Cryptid,” Sveta said, within the sphere.  “And Natalie.”

“Yes,” Lookout said.  “Please.”

I could look across the group and I could see the people who had very little fight left in them.  Me.   Ashley.  Sveta.  Rain had taken a bit of a beating, but that was usual.

By contrast, Lookout and Capricorn looked fairly eager to go.  I knew that they had their own issues.  That Tristan was on edge from earlier in the night, still battling some demon I didn’t know the name of.  Lookout’s demon was named Lookout, accompanied by a yin-yang extension of that struggle, currently in the form of Monokeros.

“The worst of it’s over.  Let’s focus our energies on those two, do what we can to minimize the damage,” I said.

“It’s not over,” Crystalclear said.  “Let me… assert my authority on that.”

“Is that your vision?” Lookout asked.  “Is it something you see?”

That’s not the authority he means, I thought.  He means the master-stranger protocols.

I had to mentally reorient my perspective.  This isn’t over?  It felt over.

“…if my phone wasn’t broken, I’d really really like to get a reading of how your crystals work and how you see through them, and-”

Rain nudged Lookout’s shoulder with one elbow.

“-and yeah,” she terminated early.

“It’s not something I see,” Crystalclear said.  “It seems pretty obvious, but I don’t know how to handle this.  It’s freaky to see.”

“It’s not something you see, it’s just that you see as freaky?” Lookout prompted him.

“Yes,” he said.

“That doesn’t make sense,” she said.

“I’m going to handwave it and say my crystal-vision breaks the rules when it comes to seeing stuff.”

“Oh, duh.”

“You’re leader if you need to be, Crystalclear,” I said.  Then, for Monokeros’ benefit, to cloud the master-stranger protocols, I explained, “You’re with Foresight, they were first on the scene.  I’m okay following orders.  You make the calls.  If you say we should back off and make contact with our team another way…”

“I’m not going to say that,” he said.  “That might be the way to go, I don’t know.  I’m working with limited information, with a really distorted view of my own, and I hate that.  What I do know is that the situation is unsalvageable like this.”

“Agreed,” I said.

“We need one sane person to report to people in the know.  That means we get people out.  ”

“If you’re talking about going against Goddess, we might have a bit of a problem,” Monokeros said, and her voice was low.

“He isn’t,” Tristan said.  “The situation’s a mess.  The prison is totaled, and some complete scumbags are now going to be free.  We need to talk to the key people so they can rein those guys in.  The guys who aren’t going with Goddess.”

He sounded so natural saying it.  Not one hint of a lie or falsehood.

All the same, there was a pause as Monokeros locked eyes with Tristan.

“Woah!” Crystalclear barked the word, loud enough to startle us.  He threw himself between Tristan and Monokeros.  “What was that?  You used your power on him?”

I tensed.  Monokeros awed people, like my awe power turned up to maximum.  She gained protections against that target, as well as insights into their personality and mind.  It was that last thing she had used against Tristan.

“I wanted to see if he was being genuine,” she said.  “He’s loyal but not genuine.  I’m not stupid, Capricorn.  You know deep down inside that everyone is going with Goddess.”

“Shit,” Crystalclear said.

“Once the dust settles, she will come for you and any others who aren’t on her side.  As soon as it’s not pointing her to any immediate threats, her danger sense will tell her if there’s any corner of the world where enemies lurk.  She will find them and bring them in line, starting with the closest or the most severe.”

I saw Crystalclear draw in a breath.  Fingers ran along a crystal near his elbow, nervous.

“Do what you need to do, tell us what you need, and I, at least, will trust you,” I told Crystalclear.

“I wish I had a big plan.  Maybe I’ll come up with one-”

“You won’t,” Monokeros said.  She took a step forward, limping.  She’d hurt her leg earlier.

Crystalclear ignored her.  “But for now, I think my number one priority is making acquiring me as hard as possible.  I’ll see who I can round up, you do what you need to do with your team, and whoever gets to the authorities first tells them everything.”

There aren’t even any good authorities to go to.  The Wardens are in shambles, the major teams are either here or dealing with their own disasters.

“It won’t work,” Monokeros said.  “You won’t get away.”

“I’m going to try,” Crystalclear said.

“Cryptid said we should decentralize,” Sveta said.  “I think it makes sense.  We’ve got Ratcatcher out there, Cryptid’s doing his thing.”

“When in doubt, when law and right and wrong don’t factor in, reach out,” I murmured.

“Yeah,” Sveta said.  “Let’s reach out.  Let’s get our guys and Crystalclear, you get your guys.  Someone has to be able to find a good solution.”

“Goddess has,” Monokeros said.

“Please,” Damsel said, from the periphery of our gathering, still sitting with her back to a ruined wall.  “Shut the fuck up.”

Monokeros made a small giggling sound.  My skin crawled.

“It’s fine,” she said, sounding very cavalier.  The whites of her eyes showed very distinctly as she lowered her face to an angle.  It was a model’s pose for a portrait shot, a little out of practice, the hinges and bolts a little too loose in how she held herself together.  But still a model’s look, meant for the dramatic effect.  “You should run far, far away, Crystalclear.  And I’m going to leave too.  To report to my Empress.  The rest of you should do what you want.  It’s done.  I’ll tell her you did good work.”

“Thank you for that,” Ashley said, her voice laced with sarcasm.

“Come,” Monokeros said.  “Lookout, with me.”

Lookout didn’t budge.

“She gave you to me as a gift.  It’s a little bit like getting a book as a gift with the cover ripped in half, I have to grin and bear it-”

The entire team tensed.  I might have put out a bit of aura, but I couldn’t be sure.

“What the fuck?” Rain asked.  “You did not just say that about our teammate and friend.”

“It’s okay,” Lookout said, her voice light.  She took a step forward, and Ashley reached out for her.  Lookout shrugged free of Ashley’s hand, spinning around.  “It’s okay, really.  Please don’t grab me like that.  It’s okay if she does it because she’s that kind of person, but I know you’re better than that, Ashley.”

Ashley let her hand fall to her side.

“I’ve got to do this,” Lookout said.  “And I want you to trust me that I’m okay doing this.”

“Okay,” Ashley said.

Not okay!” Sveta raised her voice.

The rest of us voiced our own protests.

“Come,” Monokeros said, like she was talking to a dog.  Lookout went to her with a bit of a skip to her step.

Tristan was quickest to close the distance.  Monokeros stumbled a little as she turned around, putting a hand out to her side, indicating Lookout.

“She’s using her power,” Crystalclear said.

Tristan stopped in his tracks.

“I’m using my power,” Monokeros said.  She lowered her gaze again, so the glower of her eyes was barely visible beneath finely plucked eyebrows, the ‘horn’ of the triangle tattooed on her forehead pointed at Tristan.  She moved her hand, revealing a shiv that she had been keeping in the sleeve.  “Lookout.”

Lookout took the shiv.

“You don’t want to do this,” Ashley said.  “I told you what would happen.”

“If they move a muscle to follow us, if they say a word, if they use a power, I want you to put that shiv in your neck as many times as you can before they make you stop.  I’ll be really, really proud of you if you do.”

The group was frozen.

“Really?”

“If you can get it in there and give it a good twist, get it in there so it goes in one hole you’ve made and sticks out another, then cut out what’s in between, I’ll be extra proud.”

“It doesn’t really work that way, though,” Lookout said.  Her voice was small.  “I do more than I’m asked for homework and the teachers get annoyed.  I work hard on my projects and my team gets upset because I’m overworking myself.  Every minute I’m working hard, and it is hard, there’s this feeling in the back of my head, like I can imagine the warm fuzzy feeling when they’re amazed and happy.  I’ve made them happy.  That’s what pushes me to do it.  But it never works out the way I hope, because I hope too much.”

“You want to impress me, don’t you?” Monokeros asked.

I found myself shaking my head slightly, as Lookout nodded.

“You can feel me, big in your head and your heart.  Hold onto that feeling, and believe,” Monokeros said.

Tristan started forward.  Ashley stopped him, grabbing him with both hands to haul him back, force him to land on his ass.

“Close,” Monokeros said.  She said it to Lookout.  “He almost took a step forward.”

Lookout nodded.

“I want you to believe.  If they step forward or give you any reason, and you do as I’ve told, then this will be the time that matters.  Believe that.”

“I believe you.”

“Yeah,” Monokeros said, barely audible.  “This one last time.  Unless they let you and me walk away.”

The shiv fell from Lookout’s fingers.

Monokeros twisted around, but Lookout was backing off too.  She drew her flash gun, pointing it at Monokeros.

“That-”

Lookout fired the gun.  A bright flash that seemed to illuminate the entire side of the prison complex the pistol was pointing at.

“Won’t work, I’m immune to my targets,” Monokeros said.  But she backed away a step, then lunged forward another step.  Bending down for the shiv.

I was already flying.  I wasn’t alone in my charge.

Monokeros hit me with her power.  It took all of the fight out of me, blinded me, and sent my thoughts spiraling into irrational tangents.  Instinct and impulse recognized people hurling themselves toward her, and a bizarre, white-phosphorous bright impulse made me not want to share that space close to her with them.  I turned.

Lookout fired again, and the feeling went away as quickly as it had come, just an instant before I could lash out at anyone nearby.

In the wake of it, I felt like a small part of me died, burned away.  Not because of any lingering aspect of the power, but because I hadn’t ever wanted to be influenced like this again.

Blinded, Monokeros kept a hand out toward us.  I saw others react as she hit them in turn, firing blind.

But she could only affect one person at a time.

I put my hand around her throat.  She hit me with her power, that white-phosphor, all-consuming feeling of being overwhelmed in a good way.

Again, the feeling of death as it passed.  Swansong was there.  Saying something.

“…if Antares lets go of you, I will take your head clean off.”

“Then do it,” Monokeros said.

“No,” I said.  “No, we aren’t killers.”

I didn’t use my powers to force her to move.  Shoulder to shoulder, my hand at Monokeros’ neck, Swansong’s hand gripping her by the ear, we made her walk backward.

She started to speak, and I squeezed until the words stopped trying to get out.  She’d talked enough.

Her feet reached the edge of the lip of the hole we’d made.

“I’ve got it,” Swansong said.

“You’re sure?”

She nodded.

“Don’t just push her so she falls down to the hole and then falls through.  That feels too barbaric.”

“I know,” Swansong said.  Swansong held onto Monokeros’ ear, as the rest of Breakthrough formed a loose circle around the hole.  Swansong had to crouch, one hand and both feet sliding on the slope as she got closer to the hole itself.

She let go.  Monokeros fell through.  Capricorn’s lights were already marking where he was closing off the tunnel.

If anything in this was salvageable, it had to be that we’d either tell people to watch out for Monokeros in the access tunnel, or that we’d just close the portal altogether, or leave it lensed.

Not a death sentence, but if we could put her in a world without people, without innocents, where there was only nature and subsisting on her own, I was okay with that.

“…my first genuine friend that doesn’t have my DNA, and you know that’s a high bar when it comes to quality.”

I turned to look at Swansong talking to Lookout.  A small laugh from Lookout.

“…and if you want to know for sure when people are proud of you, when people think you’re amazing then you should know that this…”

I turned away, turning a deaf ear to the scene.

It was for them, not for me.

Sveta was in Rain’s hands.  Tristan stood off to one side, keeping an eye on Thane.  I turned my focus to Crystalclear.  He was standing way off to the side, almost a hundred feet away, staring off into the distance.

“Shouldn’t you be going?” I asked him.  “You wanted to get away.”

He shook his head.  The crystals caught the meager light.

“No?”

“Over there,” he said, pointing.  “That building?”

Three hundred feet away.  The building had been hit by something that had caved in one wall, wiping out the floors that separated the first floor from the second, so it was just a husk.

“What about it?” I asked.

“I got that far,” Crystalclear said. “And then… it was like something major had happened.  A turning point in history, you know?”

“I kind of know,” I said.  I had a whole mess of mixed feelings as I realized what he was saying.  Trepidation was about fifty percent of that mess.

“It came from you guys, but it bounced, because I get a feeling it started somewhere else.  I can see it with my power.”

“She aligned you.”

“That’s a good way of putting it,” Crystalclear said.  “Oof.”

“Oof,” I said.  I gave him a light punch in the shoulder.  “Come on.  Stick with us, then.  I wouldn’t mind the backup.”

We didn’t hurry as much, now.  If there were moves to be made, then they would be leisurely or opportunistic ones.  There was no use running, not when we were all tired, not when I was carrying a prosthetic body and Rain had a pair of prosthetic tentacle arms.

Besides, I really wasn’t looking forward to seeing one inevitable individual in particular.

We made our way past the shattered entrance building of the prison.  Past looted rooms and parahumans standing watch over scared staff.

I saw the assistant warden we’d reached out to earlier and approached him.  Parahumans moved to block my path.  They seemed to recognize me and then backed off a little.

“We’ll do our best to help you out,” I told him.  “Do you need anything?”

The look in his eyes was haunted as he shook his head.  An inmate at his own asylum, with the patients as the wardens.  And maybe, just a little, there was a lifelong fear come to life.  That the Parahumans were taking over and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Keep your chin up,” I said.

Out of the portal and into another world.  An interim world.  Here, people were camping or laying out tables and other things they’d taken from the prison.  There were a few improvised medical areas, and my heartbeat quickened on seeing them.  I had to double and triple check to confirm.

No Amy, for one thing.  That was ninety percent of it.

No friends, either.  No Ratcatcher with grievous injuries.  No Natalie.  Not in the medical area, at least.

It was a short hike to get to the other portal.  We were offered a ride by someone that had taken a guard’s car, but we refused.  The group needed to stay together.  It was what Lookout wanted and needed right now.

The prison had been burned to the ground.  The interim territory was a camp, a place to fall back to.

This- this was a front line.  All of the prisoners were gathered, organizing themselves.  The heroes we’d brought along had come around to working with Goddess.  I could place them by the teams they belonged to.

Most of them.

I saw Goddess, and I saw that she was talking to heroes.  They weren’t heroes that had accepted our invitation.

She’d reached out, using her new power battery.

I saw Lookout wave, and I saw Natalie, gathered with prison staff.

I spotted Ratcatcher on my own.  She was standing on the back of a pickup truck, ropes binding her hands to the spoiler.  I got Crystalclear’s attention, nudging him, and pointing.  I saw him nod.

There were enough parahumans around us that we couldn’t talk.  The noise was too much.  He tried anyway, saying something about how she was too big a pain in the ass.

No Natalie.  No Ratcatcher.

Was it just the Wardens now, fractured and distracted?

Just us, who had barely enough of a sense of protocols to doubt this reality?  We could say no to Monokeros, but were the others convincing themselves in the same way I was, thinking of how bad she was for Goddess?

On that topic, of Goddess, I saw Cryptid in Goddess’ vicinity, talking to- to my sister.  He wore a monstrous form, narrow but with a chest and spine so distended that it was almost like he was a dorsal fin or clown fish with four legs extending from the sides and planting on the ground, like stout arms mid push-up.  His body was writ in mottled pink flesh, with a row of boils down the back.  Only Cryptid could be that weird.  If I’d had any doubt about his identity, he wore the sash he usually did, to protect his modesty and carry his stuff.

What was unusual was that for the first time since I’d known him, he was changing where people could see.  From this to something else.  I saw flesh sag and slough, and it wasn’t this fin-shaped plague-disgust thing.

Goddess finished talking to the team she had just recruited.  Arms folded, she surveyed her soldiers, and her soldiers, even the roughest of them, seemed to look up at her in turn.  She turned her head and looked over to the horizon.  Earth Gimel’s Megalopolis glittered.

I watched with a heavy heart and a growing feeling of trepidation as Cryptid and Amy joined a small handful of others, forming something of a line.  Amy at Goddess’ right hand.  Cryptid a couple of spaces over, growing black feathers, his neck extending.  He looked at us, and then he looked away.

Mute, yet capable of saying everything with a single look.

I looked back at Lookout, and I saw that she’d been happy to confirm the others were okay, and now she was geeking out with Rain and another cape I didn’t recognize.  They were pointing at the prosthetic suit of Sveta’s I still carried.

Only Sveta was really paying attention like I was, watching Amy and watching our teammate.  She had been traumatized on a level by what had happened with the Irregulars.

That story was repeating itself, at least on one small front.  Betrayal, inexplicable.

Communicated in one look: he was with Goddess, as we were, but he was no longer one of us.

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Gleaming – 9.13

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The tunnel was a concrete tube, stabbing in the direction of the front gate of the prison, bright lights arranged on the sides at roughly eye level, each pair of lights spaced out from the ones before and the ones to come, all contained within protective cages, many of which illuminated the spiderwebs that covered them and the moths that had found their way down.  The matching pairs of lights made Rain and Byron cast two half-intact shadows, where they stood a little ways down the tunnel.  In the ring of lights that surrounded the short ladder down, I cast a half-dozen.  That half-dozen shadows narrowed to two as I approached the boys.

A heavy impact elsewhere in the prison complex shook the ground, and the concrete walls absorbed it.  The effect was muted, diffused through the tunnel.

Lookout followed me down, hopping down from the short ladder with a ‘hup’ sound.  She was small in the shadows of Monokeros and Damsel, who were right behind her.

“I hope you’re not claustrophobic,” Rain murmured.

I glanced at the walls of the tunnel.  It was narrow enough that the lights on the left side were only six feet or so from one another.  Because it was a tube, the path was only two feet wide or so, before it became a curved slope that couldn’t really be walked on.

No room to fly or to maneuver if it became a fight.  No real ability to throw ourselves to the side if there was trouble.  Dropping to a position where we were flat against the floor meant we’d be lying in a row, because the sloped floor would just see us rolling down toward the path at the center.  No cover to be had.

If anything, the open space extending both front and back was more… concerning than the unyielding concrete and dense earth to either side, above, and below us.

There was another impact.  Bugs fled cracks in the walls, tracing crazy paths in their search for hiding places that weren’t anywhere to be found.

“How are we doing this?” Byron asked.

“I have some experience in leadership, if you guys need some direction,” Damsel said, from the back.

“I-” I started, pausing to double-check myself.  “I know the team better.  I’ll give some direction, if that’s okay?  I have ideas.”

I saw her shrug.  Her gaze was cool, but her mannerisms nervous as she shifted her weight to her other foot, claw hands twitching.

“Byron,” I said, even as my thoughts were trying to judge that nervousness in Damsel.  “If it’s okay, we could use Tristan right about now.”

“Sure.  Why?” Byron asked.

“He can give us cover, and I know Blindside carries a gun.”

Byron nodded.  He blurred.

“I could lead if you wanted,” Tristan said.  “I led Reach for a while.”

“If it’s okay… given what we talked about just outside the headquarters, I’ll take point.”

“Because I said I didn’t trust myself.”

“Sure,” I said.  I hadn’t wanted to just volunteer that, with so many listening in.

“Do you trust yourself?” he asked.

I hesitated.  Then I shook my head.  “I don’t know.”

“Ahem,” Damsel cleared her throat.  She raised a hand, the claw-tips scraping the concrete wall.  “I trust myself.”

“Uh,” I said.  As Glory Girl and as a member of the Patrol, I’d occasionally run into situations like this, when dealing with people who were wholly unreasonable or hampered in their reasoning.  They never got any easier to deal with.  “…I’m mostly trying to aim for a happy middle ground between self-trust, being durable enough to be close to the front where we can see what’s going on, and knowing the members of the team.  Even if we accept you’re confident, you can’t take a bullet.”

“Mmm.  I suppose.”

“Tristan, can you make us shields?  One for each of us?  More like the shields SWAT teams and Patrol teams have than anything else.”

“It’ll be heavy.”

“Worst case scenario, it breaks in my hands.”

“Sure.”

I nodded, thinking.  “Damsel- is it okay if I call you that?”

“Mm hmm.”

“If there’s trouble, can we count on you to give us a side area to duck into?  If you put a hole in the wall, will it be okay?  Do you know if it’ll make it more likely to cave in, doing what it does, swirling things around, or will it be less likely?”

“No idea.  We don’t lose much by trying,” Damsel said.  “Dirtying my prison-issue shoes?”

“Except a possible cave-in of the whole tunnel,” Rain said.

“Give me some credit,” Damsel said, her nose rising a fraction.  “If the whole tunnel collapses, it’ll be because I wanted it to.”

“Great,” Rain said.

“And Lookout,” I said.  “Any camera feeds down here?  Drones you can deploy?  The more we know about what’s going on-”

She was already shaking her head.

“No cameras down here.”

Lookout shook her head again.  “Connecting down-here to everything would defeat the purpose.  It’s a closed, secondary situation and a secret escape route for prison staff in case of emergencies.”

“Not a very good secret,” I observed.

“No.  Um!  Um, I don’t have any ongoing camera footage down here, but I can find the old footage from when they headed this way.  Some of it’s dead and it might not have any fancy extra perks like thermal vision, seeing backward in time or physical representations of social relationships-”

“You can get your cameras to track social relationships?” Rain asked.

“She said she can take pictures of the past and you’re focusing on that?” Monokeros asked, dry.

“Uh, yeah,” Rain said.  The rest of us nodded.

Monokeros seemed deeply bothered by that.  If there was a question to be asked or something to be made of it, it was drowned out by Lookout talking, her voice insistent.

“I’m saying stuff like that.  When it’s cameras I make a lot of the time I can get them to pick up other noise and waves and junk, and later if I want to toy with the feed or go enhance, enhance, enhance, then maybe I can.”

“Okay,” I said, interrupting before Lookout could get carried away.  “Footage of these guys, as they make the approach.  Maybe they brought something.”

“Oh, right, on it!”

“Victoria,” Tristan said.

I turned to look, and the orange motes he was drawing manifested into a shape.  It was a little more triangular than rectangular, the point scraping the ground, but it had a bar across the middle and it had a hole in the front to peer through, if I kept my head at the right angle.  Black stone, run through with veins of what looked like copper, gold, or a mix therein.  It tipped toward me, and I caught it with my burned hand and my shoulder, before catching it with my other hand.

“Stand back,” I said.  I glanced back to make sure the coast was clear, and then I activated the Wretch.

Stone creaked and strained as the Wretch grabbed it, and it bucked this way and that as hands gripping the top and then the side pulled at the edges.  Part of the bar broke almost immediately.

Tristan did something cruder with his shield, drawing it small.  He drew out more motes near where I was, and as I advanced, he advanced into the motes, putting his shield out so the stone would manifest and bond to it.

Once I knew he was doing that, I picked up the pace.

“Rain,” I said the word instead of calling it out, because the acoustics of the tunnel meant that sound would travel.  “If Tristan and I go down, use your ranged power to stall and distract, don’t hurt anyone, get Lookout and Damsel clear.”

“Yep,” he said, like it hadn’t even needed to be said, didn’t even warrant a full ‘yes’.

“And me?” Monokeros asked.

“Your orders are the same ones Goddess gave you.  Keep an eye on Lookout.  Make sure she gets out safe and sound.”

“I meant he should rescue me too.”

She didn’t even get it, did she?  That she was that ignorant, that fucking unable to see the wrong in what she did, that she might even say she’d do it all over again.  A complete and utter monster, behind me, her footsteps running.  She could use her power on me at any moment-

“He could,” Tristan said, behind me.  He was the only one besides me who wasn’t a little winded by the running.  Rain seemed to be doing okay too.

Hearing that voice, the firm shutdown of the monster, it helped.

Too easy to get pulled- sucked down a rabbit hole.

“Guys,” Lookout said.  “My mask is fritzing out.”

“Your mask?” Damsel asked.

“I’m all wired up.  I’ve got cameras for eyes, and they aren’t working,” Lookout said.

I floated in the middle of the tunnel, doing my best to orient myself in the air in such a way that if the Wretch started pulling the shield around to my left, I could rotate it back the right way.  I looked back and saw Lookout scrabbling at her mask, pulling the reflective insert that ran down the middle of her face back.  Her eyes, nose, and mouth were visible.

“Any special vision modes?” I asked.

“Not really.  Picking up some of the visual noise as a supplementary thing.  It’s wired so I can plug other stuff in or see through a video feed like I’m there.”

“But you could parse it if you took that recording back to your workshop and scanned it,” I said.  A statement, not a question.

“Uh huh,” she said.

“Blindside,” I said.  Far enough down the corridor that we couldn’t see them yet.

Lookout held up her camera, her expression serious.  I didn’t have long to see before she lowered it for Tristan, then turned around to show the others.

It had been a video loop.  Most of the cameras that were able to move had turned away.  The ones that couldn’t, I presumed, had gone black.  The images we had were of people at the very edge of the camera.

“What’s the takeaway?” I asked.

“Two people at the edge of the camera.  Kingdom Come and someone else.  A guy prisoner.”

Teacher had someone on the inside.

“No footage of the guy?”

“No.  He was walking right behind Blindside, and whatever mussed up the cameras meant he wasn’t very visible either.  He’s skinny.”

The Wretch jerked the shield to one side.  I flew around, my arm extending to its full length, my fingers gripping the view-hole in the shield.  Not wanting to fight it any further, I shifted position, ready to move on.  “We push on.  Save Sveta, get Ashley, get Natalie, make sure we have control over the bombs if we need it.”

“Go for it.  I’m right behind you,” Tristan said.

“If you have to fight Blindside, swing something that won’t stop when your arm does.  A flail, whatever.  Or strike from an oblique angle.  Switching elements might really work here.”

“Maybe.  They could also risk drowning us or washing us away,” Tristan said.

“Yeah,” I said.  The Wretch crushed a part of the shield, and I winced.  “Yeah.”

I flew forward.

Blindside, Kingdom Come, and one unknown.  Somewhere down this tunnel was a computer, console, or other network that allowed for communication with the other Earth.

The shield blocked my view, but that didn’t change that Blindside still blocked aim.  I was flying on a course, and I couldn’t pitch that course to go cleanly over Blindside.  I hit an invisible wall, my flight course altering against my will.  I brought my legs up, feet planting on the wall, and then flew, strongarming my shield in Blindside’s general direction.

I hit the invisible wall and canceled out the Wretch.  The shield carried on, slamming into the concrete wall and scraping a light clean away from its housing.

“Oh, it’s you,” Blindside said.  They didn’t sound like they were so close they’d almost been hit by the shield.  Had they scooted back?

Blindside moved, feet tapping against the tunnel floor, and I was forced to look away, turning toward the wall.  I could gauge from the edges of my vision and judge distance using the angle I’d been moved at.

“Reminder: if your head turns too fast the wrong way, you might snap your neck.  That’s not me trying to do it.  I don’t want to do it.  Believe me, it’s a problem, driver flies by, head turns too far to the left, car goes flying… if you go flying, actually flying, the same thing happens.  I don’t want the blame for that shit.”

“What are you doing, Blindside?  You work for Tattletale and Lord of Loss, got a heroine shot, and now you’re here, working for Teacher?  I can’t picture those two working together.  You can’t possibly think Teacher’s going to fix your problems and not enslave you.”

“Get this through your skull, Patrol girl.  I don’t work for them.  I don’t like either of them.  I work for money.  Cash.  Dollars and dineros.  Trading dollars and New Dollars, if you want to be modern.  I’ll even take some nice horses for barter if I gotta.  They tell me to guard the tunnel while they do what they do, I’ll do it.”

“Take it from someone who was a crime boss in an earlier life,” Damsel said.  “Sometimes it’s easier to leave the help behind than to fork over the cash to pay ’em.  You’re going to get left behind.”

“You weren’t that kind of person, right?” Lookout asked.

“I never did it, no.  But power makes people callous.  I might have.”

Blindside cut in.  “You’re talking about Teacher?  That man doesn’t want to be on my bad side.  Half of what he does is make thinkers.  The other half is making tinkers, some of which are still pretty darn affected by my power.”

“Power makes people stupid too,” Damsel observed.  “We have exceptions, like Goddess and yours truly, but…”

“Someone like Teacher?” I finished the thought.

“He seems like the kind of person who’s so smart they do stupid things,” Damsel said.

“Maybe,” Blindside said.  “But he’s at least smart enough to know that if he crosses me he’s going to have to watch his back.  You know why he’s going to have to watch his back?  Because I’ll be there, walking up to his front, grabbing his dick and balls, and cutting ’em off.”

“Ew,” Lookout said.  “Why do that?  That sounds gross and awkward to actually do.  You’d have to get his pants off.  Stab him in the chest if you have to do something.”

“Or be creative,” Damsel said.

“Or be creative, yeah!”

“Or don’t cut and stab people,” I said.

“The whole merry gang,” Blindside said, pacing while talking.  “Should I be happy you’re distracting me from the boredom or annoyed?”

“Annoyed,” Tristan said.  “Come on.  You’re outnumbered, we just fought Lung, plus the Pharmacist, the woman who sets powers on fire.  We won.”

“Yeah,” Blindside said.  “Here’s the reality.  I’ve had my power for a while.  I know a lot of the tricks.  I’m armed and all of you can’t hide behind one shield.  You could win.  But you might not.  Turn around, leave, I won’t stop you.  When we get what we want and we leave, we’ll bring your guys with.  Happiest outcome.”

“I can’t lock on,” Monokeros said, from the very back of the group.  “You guys are on your own.”

I saw orange motes start to appear in the corner of my eye.  My head flicked around as Blindside ran beneath me, toward the group.

“Incoming!” I called out.

I heard Tristan’s, “Fuck!”

Blindside had slipped past the wall Tristan had been making before it had been confirmed.  He dismissed the motes, audibly grunting as something crackled.

Voices overlapped.  “That itty bitty thing isn’t going to-” “That’s a tas-”

From what I could gather, Blindside had realized their stun gun didn’t work on Capricorn and applied it to Rain instead.

Poor Rain.

Damsel’s power crackled, then flared out, the noise deafening in the close confines of the tunnel.  Blindside shrank against one side of the tunnel, which meant I could turn my head to see three-quarters of the scene.  Damsel had backed off a bit, and now held her claws out.  The distortion of her warped space was being held within the confines of her claws, a roughly spherical shape of what looked like slices of space seen through very tinted glass, Vista’s warped space, slices and curls of total blackness, and crackles of black lightning.

I heard a gun cock.

“Shoot me, and this stuff I’m holding fills the tunnel,” Damsel intoned the words.

“And your team?” Blindside asked.

“They’re not mine.  They’re a means to an end.  Meanwhile, you’re an obstacle, which means you’re going to end,” Damsel said.  She couldn’t look straight at Blindside, so she turned her chin up, arms out, holding the contained storm of shadows and blurs.

“If you think I won’t put a bullet in any of them-”

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care?  Haha, what?” Lookout asked.  “You said I was cool!  We bonded over a book!  So much for you being cool!”

The gun cocked again.  “I’m aiming at the kid now.  Don’t think I won’t put bullets in her legs.  I had to deal with the Tweens Between in New York, and that helps anyone get over the hurting kids thing.”

What?  Am I in upside-down world, all of a sudden?  Damsel being hilariously uncool and people saying the T.B.T. aren’t the best?” Lookout said.

“Lookout,” Capricorn said.  “You wanted to be on the front lines.  You need to keep your head on the task at hand.  Can’t get upset at Damsel and excited about some overrated hero group.”

“Okay,” Lookout said.  There was a pause, then she muttered, “They weren’t overrated.”

“Put the power away.  The noise is hurting my ears,” Blindside said.  “I will shoot the kid if you don’t.  In four, three, two-”

The power fizzled out.  Damsel had to shake one claw to get one flicker of power to disappear, and in the midst of the shaking, her claw tip scratched concrete.

“Turn around.  Go the other direction,” Blindside said.

At the front of the group, still holding his shield, Capricorn looked up at me, eye barely visible in the shadows behind the goat-styled helm.  At one hand, his finger indicated the end of the hall.

Me?  Going on alone?

I hesitated, glancing in that direction.  I’d be dealing with Kingdom Come and a strange cape alone.

“Don’t even think about it,” Blindside said.  “If you leave, Patrol girl, I’ll start shooting.”

We couldn’t fight them in close confines without hitting allies.  Couldn’t use something like Tristan or Damsel’s power without affecting allies.

I did believe that they’d shoot someone.

“Alright,” I said.

“Two options,” Blindside told us.  “You fuck off, or you stay until K.C. finishes what he’s doing and comes back.  Which might be a while, because he’s taking his time.  When K.C. turns up, you’re going to run because you don’t want him using his power on you.  That’s a fast ticket to Teacher getting his hands on you.”

“Which means we might as well just fuck off,” I said.

“Good girl,” Blindside said.  “You finally get it.”

“Our team,” Rain said.

“They’re in good hands.”

“Go,” I told the group.  “Back the way we came.  We head for the entrance, do what we can.”

“But Tress, and Swansong,” Lookout said.

Capricorn looked up at me.  Then he switched.  Tristan to Byron.

Was he thinking or hoping that Byron had a clever idea?  If he was, he was inside Byron now, very disappointed that his brother didn’t have any more ideas than he did.  Byron let the large shield drop, then headed back through the group, helping Rain and putting a hand on Lookout’s shoulder.

“I think dealing with Teacher is the kind of situation where nobody wins,” I told Blindside, flying above so that the limits of my field of vision kept track of where they were.

“That’s my problem to deal with.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“If you’re thinking about having the guy in the fish armor flood the tunnel, think again.  I wouldn’t be letting you go if I thought that was going to work.”

I nodded, and then I flew after the others.  My hand caught the ladder as I reached the wall, my arm catching some of my forward momentum.  I grazed Monokeros on my way up past the ladder.

“We’re really abandoning them?” Tristan asked.  He was already aboveground.

I looked down the hole.  Monokeros glared up at me.

“We’re not going down through there,” I said.  “Come on.  We’re heading to the front gate.”

“I don’t like leaving them,” Lookout said.

“We won’t.  Sveta’s my best friend and Swansong gave me an apartment with no strings attached.  We won’t leave them, I promise you.”

Lookout nodded.  “I want everyone together again.  We get Tress and Swansong, and then we get Cryptid, and we’ll have Damsel of Distress with us as a bonus.  Um, sorry.  I’m getting distracted again.  Usually Cryptid tells me to shut it.”

Cryptid.  It was a disorienting thought, because there was so little about Chris that let me orient my thoughts where he was concerned.  He was out there with my sister- and that last element was something that I actively didn’t want to think about.  Disorientation and aversion both.  Revulsion.  Hate.  Disappointment.

“Do you have an actual plan, or should someone else step up?” Damsel asked.

“I have a fucking plan, Damsel,” I said.  “Ease up.”

Talking about leadership in the first place had been a mistake.  I had to take a second, clearing my thoughts.  There was a way to do this.

“Lookout,” I said.  “We saw the tunnel.  We saw where it goes.  I know there’s no footage there, but is there any way you can map it out and help us figure out where the tunnel is, beneath us?”

“We’re going in from above,” Rain said.

“What do you think?” I asked.

“I think we could,” Lookout said.  “Um.  When I was lensing the space map, I wasn’t even thinking of underground tunnels, so I double checked before and-”

“Speed it up,” Byron said.

Lookout talked double-speed as she finished, “I have a strong guess and I can refine it.  With what we saw down there.”

“Do it,” I said.

“Yes!  Projector disc, Capricorn?”

He handed it over.

There was an outright war going on near the front door of the prison.  I could hear the succession of noises, of distant detonation, pause, detonation, pause, rumble of something collapsing.  The pauses were becoming fewer and shorter, and there were more noises that overlapped.  Here and there, gunshots could be heard.

“We get to the terminal for the bombs, and we end this,” I said, keeping my voice low.  “We sound off an alert for every ankle bracelet, and they’ll notice.  Neither Goddess nor Teacher want to lose the prisoners.  We can put an end to this fighting and make the prisoners stay put.”

“Some of the prisoners,” Monokeros said.  “Some are leaving with Goddess.  No negotiation.”

“Sure,” I said.  I met Monokeros’ cold eyes, and I felt my skin crawl.

“I missed out on the Tweens Between,” Monokeros said, wistfully.  “I liked them, from what little I saw of them.  They had moxie.”

“Oh hey!  Another fan!  Moxie is a great way of-” Lookout said.  She stopped working for a second, looking up.  “No, wait, hey.  That’s awful, haha!  No!”

“Work,” Rain said, putting his hand on her shoulder.  “Tress and Swansong are counting on you.”

“Right.”

She was a kid, in the end.  She was, as much as any of us, trying to wrestle with conflicting feelings, with tension.

I wrestled with my own feelings, trying to anticipate what came next, without letting my thoughts get muddled by the blood-and-bodily-fluid streaked elephant that was occupying one large segment of my thoughts.

For a moment, it was all I could do to just keep my equilibrium, stay calm, and try not to think.

One hundred and ten percentIt’s not about being the Warrior Monk.  It’s about being all of it, getting to where every part of me functions and functions well.

“Got it,” Lookout said.  She held up the disc, and lines sprung out, painting a fuzzy rectangle on dirt and grass.

Something struck with a sound like cymbals as large as a building, loud enough that every single one of us bent over, hands at or near our ears, wincing in pain.

“That’s Advance Guard,” Kenzie said, barely audible as my ears rang.

The heroes at the portal.  If they were coming in, that was because the people they were trying to stall had gotten through, and the heroes were following after.

If the heroes were following after…  Then Goddess had yet another massive advantage.  Teacher might be losing this, and if he thought he was losing while he had control of the ankle bombs…

“Damsel, Rain, can you use your powers?  Get us through the ground.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Rain said.  “But I sever, I don’t really dig.”

“Whatever you can do,” I said.  I looked over at Damsel.

“Only because you were good to my sister,” Damsel said.  “What’s a little dirt on an outfit this hideous?”

“I’ll buy you something,” I said.  The noise of her power tearing into the earth seemed like it drowned out the end of my statement.  I raised my voice a bit, “I think I know someone who knows the kind of clothes you like!”

I saw a smile on her face before she started swiping out, tearing into the ground and creating a ditch in a matter of a single blast.  People backed away as she widened it into a hole.

She did have control.  It wasn’t just holding the blast as a localized storm of energy.

The power geek in me wanted to spend hours thinking about what that meant, drawing an analogy between Swansong and Damsel, and me and… something else.  Was that something I could chase?  Something I should chase?

“Hold up!” Tristan called out.  Byron had switched out when I hadn’t been looking or focusing.  “Give me a second.  I’m going to shore this up.”

Damsel was panting for breath, animated, seemingly excited to be alive in a way that I hadn’t seen in Swansong or in Ashley.  Sweat streaked the dirt on her face, and she was illuminated by the orange lights that spiraled around her.

Rain dropped to a crouching position, pulling Lookout down as people ran by.  Women in red prison uniforms.

Pure luck that Damsel hadn’t been making noise as they came by.  I held out a hand, indicating for the others to wait.

For Breakthrough to be at its one hundred and ten percent, we needed to get Tress, Swansong, and Cryptid.  We’d help Crystalclear and Ratcatcher, we’d get to the console or terminal, and we’d get control of this situation.

I gave the go-ahead to start again, my eyes scanning the area for any prisoners running around.

“Another ten feet,” Lookout said, looking at the disc and the phone she was holding.

“Get us close,” Rain told Damsel.  “I’ll get us through the last bit.  Cleaner and quieter.”

Orange lights swirled, reinforcing the walls of the hole that was being dug, while Damsel stood at the lowest portion.  She swiped out with her power, with no staggering or apparent pain, glanced up at Lookout, got a motion to go again, and repeated the process.

“Good,” Lookout murmured, peering over the edge.  “One foot of dirt and one foot of concrete left.”

Damsel put a claw against the wall of stone, claw-tips reaching for purchase and finding none.  She lifted a foot so covered in mud that the footwear was impossible to see, placing it on a spike, and then used a blast of her power to ascend to the top of the hole.

More control there too.

Capricorn leaned forward, catching at one claw with a gauntlet before Damsel could tip backward and fall the way she’d come.  Damsel said something I couldn’t hear, walking away from the edge so the way was clear.

Rain threw his scythes, drawing a square.  I looked over at Tristan, who nodded.

“You block Blindside.  I cover the other end of the tunnel,” I murmured.

“We’ve got this,” he said.

I flew down, Wretch out, aiming for the center of the square.

It broke clean, concrete shattering only when it struck the floor.  I followed it all the way to the ground, landing with one foot, both hands, and one knee pressing into the dirt atop the shattered pad of concrete.  I had my orientation, which meant I was clear to go.  I flew in the direction of Tress and Swansong, Tristan landing behind me the moment I was out of the way.

Into the underground bunker.  Past a room with ten bunk beds, past a kitchen, and into the larger room.

Into the situation.

A man in a prisoner uniform sat in a modified computer chair, the chair’s back to the wall.  He had the kind of brow that meant a perpetually furrowed glare, a mullet, and a thick beard.  There were computers in the corner, and he’d opened the cases, strewing components around him.  Many had been worked into the chair itself, turning it into something more like a throne.

He was their access to the console… just as Lookout was intended to be ours.  Inconsequential.

Of far more consequence was Tress, who was partially out of her armor.  Tendrils flailed around her, grabbing everything in reach, pushing some away, pulling others closer, flinging the rare one.

When the tendrils moved, it was with a speed the eye could barely follow.  Something was whipped in our direction, and before I could see what it was, a crackle of electricity destroyed it, LEDs and boards across the tinker’s chair lighting up.  I saw the tension ease in the tinker’s shoulders, only to return there as he saw me.

In another situation, I might have wondered if he was an opportunist who found their way down here.  With the information from Lookout, I knew he wasn’t.

“Stop what you’re doing,” I ordered him.

Sveta’s head turned my way, by a rotation and flexibility that a normal neck didn’t have.  Her face was streaked in blood, her eyes were wide, and she was lost in herself in a way that broke my heart to see.

That heartbreak stopped when I saw a grouping of tendrils move, but it wasn’t a good stopping.  It was sudden, numbing shock that stopped all other feelings, thoughts and processes.  The grouping of tendrils all grasped the same thing- a lump of a shape in black fabric.  Blood streaked the smooth ground where the fabric touched it.

“What are you doing out of costume, Sveta?” I asked.  I sounded so normal.

There was no response.

“Where’s Swansong?” I asked.  Still normal.

She dropped her eyes to the ground.  Tentacles flailed madly.

“Crystalclear?” I asked.

More tentacles bunched around the fabric.

I stepped forward.  I felt the buzz of ambient electricity in the air.  I moved my hand and felt it intensify by multiple factors.  Something told me that if I reached the threshold where this invisible electric fence divided the room, the electricity would converge on a single point, aiming to repel me.

Tristan, Lookout, Rain and the others caught up.  They stopped a few paces behind me, looking over and under my shoulder at the scene.

“Where’s Ratcatcher?” I asked.

Tendrils twisted at the black fabric.  Something crunched inside.

She flicked it at me, limb snapping out like a whip.  I activated the Wretch by raw instinct, and the Wretch intersected the electric field.  An invisible hand caught the cloth, and the nimbus of electricity briefly drew an outline around the Wretch.

Better at dealing with sustained onslaughts.

Something crashed behind me.  I turned to look, still tense as the Wretch held out against electricity and held the black cloth.  Rain had kicked the tinker’s tech-upgraded chair.

Another kick, and the electricity went away.  Rain and Capricorn both hauled the guy out of his chair, back and away.

I let the Wretch drop away.  The fabric hit the ground, and immediately, tendrils began reaching for it.  Unrecognizable bits of flesh rolled out.

“You did that on purpose,” I said.

She looked at me, and I saw nothing of Sveta in that face.

“Kingdom Come,” I said.

The black cloth- none of the others had been wearing black.  They’d been wearing prison uniforms.  The cloth was Kingdom Come’s own costume.

“He’s controlling her?” Lookout asked.

“He’s trying,” I said, my voice shaky with the relief.  “But the thing about Tress is that she’s worked ridiculously hard to get to where she is.  It takes a kind of strength, and that asshole doesn’t have it.”

Kingdom Come opened Sveta’s mouth, worked her jaw.  No words came out.

She doesn’t have full lungs, Kingdom Come, I thought.  For her first year or so, she couldn’t talk or explain herself, not that she even knew the language.

“Let my friend go.  Reconstitute, end the breaker state,” I told him.  “And show me where Swansong, Ratcatcher, and Crystalclear are.”

“They’re in the back,” Lookout said.  She brought her hand forward, holding the disc.  The compass had lines extending out toward a door.  We’d have to get past Kingdom Come to get there.

Going for the exit at the far side of the tunnel?  Is there one?

Kingdom Come reached out with tendrils, groping at the ground and at piles of things.  He worked to drag her prosthetic body across the floor, putting himself between us and what looked like a large computer server with cables running into the ceiling above it.  Loops of metal bound tendrils together, and more cables and loops bound the tendrils to the body.  Only a portion were free.

“Let her fucking go,” I said.  I floated closer.  A tendril slapped into the ground between us, slicing through the air with a sound like a sword might make.

“Thane,” a crackle of a voice could be heard, from the mess of technology to my left.  “Stop what you’re doing, pull us out.  Tell Kingdom Come and Blindside.”

Kingdom Come crawled closer to the console, blocking it off.

Rain, scrambling to rummage through the tech, found the device.  He pulled it free and hit a switch.  He hesitated for a second.”Clarify.”

“Who’s speaking?”

I mouthed the name.

“Kingdom Come.”

Tentacles slapped against the ground.

“We give her nothing.  Find your way back.”

Kingdom Come dragged himself closer to the server.

What’s he doing?  I floated closer, and tendrils struck out, forcing me to retreat.

How did this happen?  Sveta in the center of the room.

I could deal with her grabbing.  I’d dealt with it as the Wretch, but she’d been careful to hold, not to strike out.  It had been the product of years of work.

Orange motes began to circle her.  I didn’t move a muscle, watching.  Tendrils reached.  Stone trapped them.  I saw ‘her’ react, pulling away, pulling tendrils out and through the gaps provided.  Others squeezed at stone, straining to crush it.  More tendrils reached, even using the stone as a point to grapple and pull herself forward.  More stone trapped them.

Others reached out for the server.  On the wall, there was a plexiglass case mounted, with wires hooked into the server.

It wasn’t a fire alarm behind that case.

“Shit,” I said, realizing just how they intended to leave Goddess with nothing.  I looked back at Damsel and Rain.  I saw Rain look down at the bomb that was still at his ankle.  The shackle that kept him in prison, currently quiet and black, but so easily it could become death or maiming.

Tendrils snaked in.  I flew closer, and tendrils almost immediately shattered the Wretch.  Orange lights danced around the tendrils at the case, but it was too late.  The light solidified into a hunk of stone, encasing those tendrils, while more lights solidified into chunks of stone that kept Kingdom Come locked into position, unable to crawl away or mount an effective attack.

Still too late.  Within that case on the wall, which contained an emergency button that might easily set off every single ankle bomb, I could hear the plexiglass shatter, crushed.

Beside me, Tristan took a deep breath.  I met his eyes.

No time for words, no time for communicating a message, that message being received, the understanding.

Only the understanding.

Tristan became Byron.  All of the rock he’d placed throughout the room, on the server switches and on Sveta became a rush of water, swirling and flooding the underground space.  Her prosthetic body was shoved, twisted around, and the tendrils pulled away from the button.

Given the choice between every single one of the prisoners being executed and every single one of the prisoners living and being free, we’d made a call, because some of those prisoners were important to us.  The server flooded with frigid water that quickly extended from floor to ceiling, and blinking lights went black.  As connections were disrupted, lights all around us went out, leaving the space as dark and cold as death.

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Gleaming – 9.12

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“Antares,” Goddess said.

I felt a little bit of fear and awe as I stopped re-wrapping my bandage and turned to face her.

“Good work,” she said.  “You’re mercurial, but you can be pretty fucking useful.  If you wanted it, I could bring you to my world, and give you a lesser country.”

“A country, wow,” Rain said, beside me.

“I don’t think I’m mercurial,” I said, frowning a bit.  “And I’m grateful for the offer but… I’m a city girl.  I’d rather help the Megalopolis, and if it comes down to it, make sure people here support you too.”

“It wouldn’t work that way.  Something’s bothering me.  So far you and your team have been on top of things.  Tell me something about the current attack.”

“We didn’t get all of them.  There are two more to deal with.  Blindside- you can’t look at them.  Can’t aim at them.”

“They would be the reason my danger sense is limited.”

“Probably.  Stymied?”

“Interfered with.  I can’t extend it past a certain range.  It’s worse since I’ve moved in this direction.” A motion of her arm indicated the direction traveled.

“That’s the access tunnels, isn’t it?” Byron asked.

Our teammates.  Teacher had sent Blindside straight there.

“We need to go,” I said.

“Stay,” Goddess said, her voice firm.

My jaw clenched.  I nodded.  “Sorry.”

“Tell me about the other,” she said.  “Two of Teacher’s powered got through?”

“At least.  The other was Kingdom Come.  He detonates himself into a shower of blood and meat.  Anyone who comes into contact with it is his puppet.  He reforms after.”

“I think I’ve met him, or one of his bloodstained puppets.  They wouldn’t align to my purposes.  One of Teacher’s many counters to me.”

“He’s a mercenary.  It’s possible that he might accept your offer of a country.”

“He sounds religious,” Rain said.  “Name like that.”

“Could be,” I said.  “We should go.  If Blindside is in the access tunnels-”

“You’ll stay for a few minutes.  I may need you for something else,” Goddess told us.

“The access tunnels are the communication outlet to the outside world.  They may also be the override to the bomb anklets.  This is important.”

“My danger sense, blind as it is, tells me we have other priorities.  If your teammates were in danger, I think I would feel it.  Stay.

We had done more than our share of the work when it came to taking down Lung and the Pharmacist, and we were, putting it lightly, exhausted.  I didn’t like staying, but I didn’t mind the chance to recuperate.  I felt like I’d been wrung out, then baked too long over an open fire.  I hadn’t even properly used my muscles, and I felt completely and utterly drained.

Goddess walked over to discuss things with Lung, and others were organizing into battle lines and squads, breaking away to go wrangle remaining guards and staff.  I saw Natalie among the wrangled.

I hesitated a moment, wondering if I’d do more harm than good, then broke away from Rain and Byron.  If I was close enough for Goddess to find, then that had to be good enough.  But I couldn’t leave Natalie.

“I’ll be right back.  Get my attention if there’s trouble.”

“Sure,” Byron said.

A reality with parahumans was that most who triggered were young – people as young as twelve could trigger, with the upper range being thirty.  There was a possibility for a few years of leeway, trending more toward the rare parahuman being younger than a parahuman being older.

The guys in this particular prison clique were young.  It was shocking to see people Rain and Chris’ ages.

“Don’t hurt or bother them,” I told the prisoners, my eye stopping on Natalie for a meaningful moment, trying to communicate something to her.  That I was on her side.  That if she had anything to say, now was the time to say it.

She said nothing.  Maybe to avoid drawing attention to herself.

And the prisoners, for their part, were equally silent.  I felt put on the spot, and I felt so drained physically, mentally, and emotionally that I could have been bowled over by hard words.  Tension kept me upright.

I hadn’t gotten a response, so I elaborated.  “Goddess may need them as bargaining chips, or to get access to parts of the prison.  If you screw that up, touch them, or scare them and get them panicking instead of thinking rationally, then it screws us all up.”

Believe me, I put my heart into the mental command.  Buy this, even though I don’t sound nearly as authoritative as I might want.  Don’t make me use my aura in this volatile a place.

“I don’t see why you get to tell us what to do,” a boy said.  He had the sharp chin, widow’s peak with a curl of hair at the forehead, and natural bad-boy glare of a classic kid’s show villain, but he had to be my age.

He also, judging by the group’s dynamic, had a few people under his wing.  Underlings.  He was the leader of this sub-clique.

“Do you really want to test me and find out?” I asked.  I sounded more steely now.  A bit more of my old self.

He stared me down, then dropped his eyes to my arm.  I wasn’t sure if he was seeing an injury, a clue that I wasn’t invincible, until he gestured.

“That symbol on your arm.”

Worked into the metal at my shoulder was a golden circle inside another circle, centered at about the midpoint between bicep and shoulder.  The five parallel spikes stabbed up from it.

“Gold Morning,” I said.

“Then you were there.  That’s the thing people put on their sleeves, if they were there or if they played a part.”

“Some don’t put anything on their sleeves, but they were there.  Lung, Goddess,” I said.  “Why?”

“You put it there for a reason, right?”

“Everyone has their reasons for wearing the armbands,” I said.  I worried I sounded defensive.  Again, I asked, “Why?”

“I’m not going to test you or test her,” he said.  “Out of respect for that.”

There were a few nods around his group.  One or two looked unsure, like the stupider, less ‘together’ members of the group weren’t sure if it was for real.

I wasn’t sure I believed it was for real.

“Good man,” I said, deciding there was no way to hammer it out.  I met Natalie’s eyes momentarily before turning away.

Nothing from her in the way of signals.  Damn it.

I went back to Rain and Byron, walking past a group that was preparing for the possibility of a frontal assault by Teacher.  Others were preparing to deal with the maximum security individuals who had apparently been given the Pharmacist’s drugs.  An attack from within, an attack from the outside, and then there was Teacher, who had the ability to hit us from oblique angles.

I wanted to ask Kenzie for a status report, but that meant approaching Monokeros.  I wanted to ask the boys, but they were talking to Coalbelcher.

I checked my phone three times in the course of a single minute, even though I knew that all communications were jammed.  It was a force of habit, a creeping anxiety as we went longer and longer without any input from the other half of Breakthrough.

I had a lot of anxieties in this moment.  The small-scale victory with Lung and the Pharmacist only went so far.

Byron and Rain exchanged a few muttered words as they walked over from where Coalbelcher was.

“You apparently made an impression,” Byron said.

I frowned.  “With Coalbelcher?”

“He said you said you’d get him out.  I thought we had a problem when he called us over, but he’s changed his tune.  Us being right about the danger of the cafeteria helped,” Rain said.

“I didn’t say I’d get him out.  But I let him believe it.  It could have backfired, come down on your head, if he didn’t think I at least tried, if this whole thing wrapped up, and then he ended up frustrated, with only you as a target.”

“It worked out,” Rain said, almost like he was assuring me.  Then, quieter, he said, “One of the few things that has.”

I followed their line of sight as they both turned back to look at someone.  Seir in his civilian clothes, mask off.  The man was of a similar type to Coalbelcher, but without the long stubble on his face sticking in every direction.  His hair was longer with some gray already in it, the circles under his eyes were black for reasons other than the coal-spit facepaint.  The tattoos gave him away.

“Seir,” I observed.

“He’s not a fan of us,” Byron said.  “We’re all on the same side, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t want to get back at us.”

“At me,” Rain said.  “I don’t think it’s an immediate problem, but if we have any choice in where we go, we should go wherever he isn’t.”

“Agreed,” I said, as I looked over at Lookout and Monokeros.  They were with another group, Lookout hanging a half-step back while Monokeros talked with some scary-looking women.  Monokeros was currently listening, as another woman did all of the talking.  The talker was pretty where her skin was intact, but had what looked scars from a bad burn extending all the way down her neck.  Another woman stood beside her, top already removed, torn up into shreds, and the shreds plaited into a cord.  The cord was being knotted into a hangman’s noose.

The other two had noticed I was looking.

“What about her?” I asked.  “Why did you not want me to approach Lookout?”

“Lookout came on a little strong with the Lady in Blue,” Rain said.  “It made her suspicious.  She’s suspicious of you too, you know, but she knows she can beat you.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Monokeros though?”

“If you’ve got a canary you’re worried about and a cat that’s restless, and you’re really good at managing your animals, which we know she is, maybe you give the canary a cat babysitter,” Rain suggested.

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” I said.

“It doesn’t make us feel that much better,” Rain said.  “But we can trust that the Lady in Blue knows what she’s doing, we know from what Swansong says that Monokeros is really messed up and touchy, and we don’t disturb that scene while it’s peaceful.”

I frowned.  Monokeros was smiling now.  I was creeped out by something in how she presented herself, but I couldn’t tell if it was because of something ugly in her peeking out, the contrast in her charmer attitude with the tattoos like the triangle at her forehead, making me think of- of certain individuals, or if it was because I knew that she’d gone full ritual killer, killing heroes, kids.  Hopeful young Vistas, Shielders, and Finales.  Kids who had faced the worst days of their lives and came out the other end wanting to help people.

“She was corporate, like Tristan and me,” Byron said.  “Goldenrod.”

“Yeah,” I acknowledged.

Byron went on.  “Started her own team, talked it up, but it never seemed to get off the ground.  Too many kids went missing, but they still didn’t zero in on her.  The masks, the secret identities, they make it so the kids cover up her tracks for her, making it harder to draw the connection.”

“Families too,” Rain said.  “Uhm, Jessica said something about this to me at one point.  That people with powers tend to have worse relationships with their family.”

“If they had good support systems, they’d be less likely to trigger,” I said.

“Yeah,” Byron said.  “Exactly.  They didn’t catch her until the second kid who left a message with people letting them know she was interviewing with a team.  They brought a different thinker for the interview with her, second time around.  The first one was an inquisitor type, sensed wrongs, guilt, saw memories that haunted people, used them or summoned them.”

“Summoned,” I said.  “And she had nothing to summon.”

“Ah, you know the story then.  I was wondering if it was just the talk shared between the corporate teams,” Byron said.

“No.  It was the talk in general.  Among capes, at least.”

A horror story among capes.

Byron nodded.

Monokeros smiled.  It was the kind of smile that was practiced, then reused so many times it looked natural.  A model’s smile.  The smile of a hero who lived off of their brand, like the corporate and sponsored heroes, and maybe the small family teams with an up-and-coming generation of youths.

“She reminds me of- of someone,” Byron said.  “Not all the time, but there-”

A crash interrupted him, and with that crash, a dozen powers nearby flared into effect.  I was already in the air, flying up to where I could activate the Wretch without annihilating two of my teammates.

It was Goddess.  With her power, she was tearing a building to the ground.

Once people realized it was her, they relaxed.  I took their cue, floating back down to the ground and my two teammates.

“What’s she doing?” Byron murmured.

With the disorientation of the fight and the change in the landscape around us, it took me a second to place where we were, and what that building might’ve been.  It was one of the prison buildings, but not an apartment, and given the proximity to the yard, equal access from both sides…

“The cafeteria.  With all of the anti-Goddess meds in it,” Rain said.  “That’s a bit of a relief.  Simplifies things.”

I nodded, silent.

Better.

Goddess turned her head around until she found our group.  She beckoned.

As glad as I was to stay put, I was glad to be moving.  We had an objective.

While Rain and Byron walked, me floating just ahead of the pair, Goddess turned, beckoning to others.  To Lookout and Monokeros.  Then to Damsel, to Ashley’s ‘sister’.

I looked back for Natalie, and saw her in the company of the other staff that had been taken into custody.  It was a dangerous atmosphere, with the guard-prisoner relationship reversed, and a lot of dangerous prisoners around.  Monokeros was of a certain kind of evil, but she wasn’t the only evil person around here.  If one of those people decided to hurt Natalie, would anyone stop them?

“Breakthrough,” Goddess said.  She looked at Damsel, who was approaching.  “In a sense.”

“Most of us,” Lookout said.  Then she leaned over to greet Byron, Rain and me with a, “Hi.”

“You can have a luxury vehicle, and you can get your luxury vehicle with all of the extras,” Damsel said, raising her chin a little, claws moving at her side.  “Both are good.”

“I don’t care,” Goddess said, annoyed.  “My danger sense is telling me something’s coming, and it’s not the kind of danger I have a lot of experience with.  Destroying the drugs didn’t help.  I think Teacher is doing something, and you have the most information about him and what he’s doing.  Solve it.”

“We need more information than that,” I said.  “What is your danger sense telling you?  How does it function?”

“My power is a feeling,” she said.  “It can come from a direction.  It tastes of intent.  It has flavors depending on the kind of danger.  This tastes hollow, and it feels big.  There’s no direction to it.  The opposite, the lack of direction is the danger.”

“Have you felt anything like this before?” I asked.

“I felt something roughly this big once.  It was when the world was ending.  The golden man.”

I drew in a deep breath, looking at the others.  They seemed about as alarmed by that as I was.

“You said it’s big.  World ending… but this is a small world.  One penal colony,” Rain suggested.

“When I was pulled into a battlefield, that world was small too, Precipice.  The scale is similar.”

“Broken trigger?” Byron suggested.

“The powers that have gone wild?” Goddess asked.  “It could be.  But even that would feel it has direction.  An enemy, or a power source.”

“We’ve heard of incidents where one person became a very large-scale effect.  The kind that would cover this whole colony, and then some,” I said.  “I think the catch is that most precogs and danger sensers can’t see triggers coming, even broken ones.”

Goddess shook her head, but she didn’t offer anything specific that would clarify matters.  I felt my heartbeat accelerate some, just from seeing her this concerned.

“I’ve felt this directionless threat before,” she said.  “It was after I came into my power, before I’d exercised it and learned its limits.  Someone came for me.  A monster, but the bitch looked human.  She sent me to Shin.  To give this feeling a name… it’s inevitability.  A doom through a nearly complete and total lack of options.”

“Inevitable doom, affecting this whole world?” Rain asked.  “Hollow?”

“Hollow, with a bloody aftertaste.  I’ve never felt a hollow doom before,” Goddess said.  “Maybe one of you has.  Figure this out, now.”

“I’m an expert in worlds ending, traps, and being doomed.  Been hearing about it for years, sometimes my whole life,” Rain said.  “Has it been inching closer all night?”

“I stopped looking when the purple fire blinded me, there was nothing before then.  I started looking after, and it was there.  Are there more questions?  If you can’t give me an answer, I’ll ask others.”

There was a pause.  We shook our heads.

Goddess used her telekinesis to lift herself off the ground, flying past the mud to another group that was at the admin building.

“No reports on Teacher?” I asked Lookout.

“No, but I’ve been distracted.  Our guys on the far side are just about out of gas.  He’s got guys massed but he’s waiting instead of sending them in.”

“Backup for the big gun?” I asked.

“Except not a gun,” Damsel said.  She moved her hand, one blade extended, the tips of the other folding loosely around it.  She winked at me.  “Guns can be dealt with by bigger guns.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.

“Could it be an Endbringer?” Rain asked.

“Jesus,” Byron said.  “Don’t even joke.  They’ve been dormant.”

“They can’t be predicted easily with danger sense either,” I said.

“I’m trying to think of things big enough.  It’d be embarrassing to be the kid who grew up in an Endbringer cult who doesn’t think of Endbringers when we’re debating possible apocalypse scenarios.  Seven plagues?  The four horsemen?”

“I like Death,” Damsel said.  “He has style.”

“Back when I was a hometown hero, my- we joked about the Undersiders being the four horsemen.  Guy in black with the skull, girl with the locusts, girl with the howling hellhounds and spiked collar, and the guy who controlled people.”

“You lost me with that last one,” Byron said.  “And I’ve actually read the bible.”

“Depending on interpretations, the guy in white is seen as either Conquest or Famine,” Rain said.

“Oh, like Conquest from the Toronto segment from the Maggie Holt series!” Lookout said, all excitement now that she was back in the conversation.  She took a step forward, and Monokeros reached out, seizing her by the shoulder.

Everyone present reacted in some way to that.  Even Damsel.

“You stay with me, camera girl.  Goddess’ orders,” Monokeros said.  She didn’t look the slightest bit worried that the rest of us were poised like we might use powers or throw a punch, given an excuse.

“Okay,” Lookout said, to Monokeros.  Then she said, “I liked that book, even though a lot of people didn’t.”

“I listened to the audiobook,” Damsel said.

“Yes!  Yes!  That’s great, you’re great, and of course, I’m stating the obvious by saying that-”

“Of course.  Glad to see someone with a brain.”

“We need our brains focused on figuring out what Teacher’s disaster scenario is, not in, uh, asserting the obvious,” I said.

“Two people with brains.  I’m starting to see why she likes you all.”

I kept talking, “I’m glad you guys are developing a friendship, but let’s think.  The sooner we work it out, the sooner we can help our teammates.  That includes Swansong and Tress.”

“It might be famine,” Rain said.

“Famine?” I asked.

“She said it was hollow, and it was something Goddess never experienced or knew.  Inevitable, if he sets it up right.  And it destroys her.  She was probably going after the feeling when she destroyed the food stock… but if we get desperate enough, people are going to dig out the food, contaminated, they’ll ingest the drug, and…”

“And Teacher gets everything he wants,” I said.

“It’s a siege.  Not catapults and walls siege, but a starve the other guy out siege,” Rain said.  “People back at the compound were always taking measures to plan for scenarios like this.”

“There’s nothing but wilderness around us,” Byron said.

“To feed an entire prison?  Indefinitely?  Knowing that you can’t roam too far when the bombs could reactivate at any time?  Maybe, but I don’t think it’s that easy.  I can totally see Teacher picking off people who go hunting with portals and hit squads.”

Okay, I could buy that.  It made sense.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Lookout said.  “I have the keys.  He might have broken down the front door, but so long as I’m lensing the space-map, it’s my door.  Any doors he puts down are going to end up fizzling.”

“It might be your door, but there’s nothing stopping him from dropping a mountain on top of it and then taking his time working out a solution later,” Byron said.

“Like you did with Lung,” Damsel said.  “Clever.”

“That was my brother, actually, but- yes.  Kind of.”

“We need Goddess,” I said.  “And we need to deal with this without getting tied up with the max-sec guys, Kingdom Come, Blindside… I’ll get her.”

How do you defeat someone with world-spanning powers?  You make sure she never gets a chance to fight.

I flew over to where Goddess was talking to Seir.  I saw his expression change as he recognized me.  I ignored it, focusing on Goddess instead.

“We have a guess about what he’s doing,” I said.  “If he keeps us from leaving, there’s no food that isn’t contaminated.  Everyone here starves… or we eat, and we might ingest the drugs that the pharmacist planted.”

I saw something in her eyes.  Alarm.  Bewilderment.

She took over an Earth.  She… did whatever she’d done to take over her cluster, and that can’t have been easy.  Then there was Gold Morning, but… the entire reason she was here and not in her world was because she had been pulled into the fight.  I could one hundred percent understand how she might not have made many calls then.  It could seem like a strange, bad dream, realer than existence in the years before and after, but so hard to parse that the mind turned away from it.

But this might well have been the first time she’d ever come head to head with the fact that she was well and truly outmatched, while she was well and truly in control of her actions, past present and upcoming.

“How does he do it?”

“We don’t know, but you said it yourself, it felt like-”

“No way out.  We evacuate.”

“He has a small army ready on the other side of the door, we, the non-Goddess good guys, have multiple teams there trying to stall Teacher.  The max-sec guys are probably under orders to attack us from the rear, if we try to run for it, and the access tunnel-”

Stop,” she told me.  “Fucking enough.”

“The access tunnel leads to a means to communicate with the outside, and links the prison resources to outside resources.  It gives him a way to tap into the ankle bombs your army is wearing.  My teammates, Goddess!”

“I don’t care!” she retorted.  Her voice was less of a shout as she spoke again, more of a hiss, “We evacuate.  Figure this out.  Yes?”

I was still, my thoughts stuck as I tried to figure out a way to reconcile it.  So many of the options available meant throwing away lives.

Her stare was cold.

She found world leaders and went after them one by one.  She sank ships.  She killed hundreds, even thousands.

The eyes of someone that had killed thousands.

All around me, killers, terrorists, kidnappers and worse were staring at Goddess and me.

“Figure it out,” she said, with more emphasis.

She stared into my eyes.

I was stuck, my thoughts tied in a knot, as I processed the options available to me.  Follow the law.  When the law isn’t available, do what’s right.  When what’s right isn’t clear, ask for help.

The team?  I could manage the team, we’d figure something out.  But that did nothing about the people who were still in various forms of trouble.  We still hadn’t heard from the A-team, down in the access tunnels.  Natalie was still in the custody of Goddess’ squad.  Lookout was still in Monokeros’ grasp.

This was the trap.  All of the puzzle pieces from Teacher’s riddle were coming together in this.  The nonlethal weapons.  The anti-air weapon he’d employed against me, they could well prevent Goddess from taking flight and making a break for it.

And the attacks she’d described- multiple fronts, multiple angles, multiple levels.  We couldn’t ignore the access tunnels and the control of the bombs they promised.  We couldn’t ignore the front door, or our rear, or the issue of basic needs, like needing to eat.

“Give me an answer, Antares,” Goddess said.  “Can you figure this out, or are you going to get in my way?”

“I’ll work on figuring something out,” I said.

She nodded slowly, still staring into my eyes.

“Sorry to be so intense,” I said.

“Good,” she said.  “Which buildings are the maximum security buildings?”

“The short, squat ones at the far north of the complex,” I said.

“He fed his drugs to the people there?”

“They get their food delivered, and the guards make sure they take their pills,” Seir said, behind Goddess.  “I’m borderline.  Max sec if I’ve been anything but good.  So I know.”

Seir was staring at me.  He seemed to be amused that I was facing down Goddess like this and I wasn’t coming out ahead.  That, or he was just enjoying himself, and he looked like an asshole as a separate, distinct thing.

Asshole.

Goddess, for her part, seemed to be focusing on the horizon, where the shape of buildings was only barely visible against the backdrop of sky and distant trees.  Many of the buildings didn’t have lights on.

I could feel her telekinesis like a harsh blast of wind right after a vehicle passed by.  The force in the air was even more pronounced along the course of the blast, lines and fractal images briefly visible as air compressed, moisture condensed, and light bent.

In the distance, one of the buildings toppled.

“That’ll get them moving,” she said.  “Seir, gather everyone you know.  Deal with them, knock down buildings and render this place uninhabitable as you come back from doing that.  We burn our bridges behind us.”

I saw the smile on Seir’s face.  I looked away.

I took off, heading straight up to where I could hopefully get my bearings, and where I wouldn’t have to see a Fallen who reveled in being Fallen being happy with the status quo.  It made it easier to think straight and set my mind to the task at hand.

Below me, Goddess was joined by some of the prison’s heavier hitters.  Not any of the heavy hitters I needed.  Lung was at her left shoulder, his eye glowing a dull red as he glanced up at me.  The scales had mostly receded.

I could remember Dean, in the hospital after Leviathan.  I zig-zagged through the crowd, trying to see people in gloom and slanted lighting.  I was looking for a specific body type, hair type, and face, but the prison coveralls masked physical shapes.

Master-stranger protocols felt so hollow in the now.  The team was compromised, the medicated food was buried under a fallen building, and that food came from Teacher.  I wasn’t sure I trusted it or the master-stranger protocols more than I trusted Goddess.

My zig-zagging journey continued, haunted by the memory of what had laid at the end of my last such journey.  Then, I’d been searching for the one face who might be able to help, and I’d been crushed on so many levels by the failure to find.

In this, I wasn’t even sure the face was an answer.

I spotted the others.  I landed, and in my current state of mind, I forgot how much the heat, the aerial acrobatics, and the earlier fight with the teacher hit squad and the Major Malfunctions had drained me.  I nearly dropped to my knees.  Nothing like my fancy landings of days past.

“What are we doing?” Byron asked.

“She wants to go out the front door, unless she gets another, better answer before she gives the order.  Teacher’s going to be waiting for her.  Byron, you remember the tools her people had.  For dealing with fliers.  Nonlethal weapons, that could capture the fallen.”

“And let Teacher get them under his thumb,” Byron said.  “Shit.  You’re right.”

“We need to get Goddess out unscathed somehow.  From her tone, I think she’s willing to make any sacrifices necessary to save herself.”

“Makes sense,” Damsel said.  “I’d be willing to do the same if I was in her position.”

“Uh, yeah,” I said.  “Not sure about that.”

“So how do we save her skin, ideally without sacrificing ourselves?” Damsel asked.

“You guys need to get to the others,” I said.  “If they haven’t come back yet, there’s a reason.  I’ll catch up.  We get the team together, make sure we’re all on the same page, and then we make our effort to escape.  We lean on-”

I almost said protocols.  It struck me that Monokeros, as dangerous and deluded as she was, could very well know the protocols, know what I meant, despite my efforts to be subtle.

“-We lean on each other,” I said.  “We know who we can trust.”

“Myself and myself,” Damsel said.  She paused.  “And maybe the little one.”

“Woo!”

“Lookout,” Rain said.  “If we un-lens or whatever, is it possible that we could use one of Teacher’s doors to make our exit?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “But just from what my phone says, I’m pretty sure he closed all the doors.”

I saw Rain grimace.

“Talk while you run, but time is short.  Go,” I said.

“And what are you doing?” Byron asked.

“Looking for Coalbelcher,” I said.

Coalbelcher?

“I think we can use him,” I said.  “Do you-”

The ground illuminated as though a spotlight was being directed at it, but the light was neon, the edges of things highlighted and then multiplied.

I looked around, and I saw the source.

The first of the max sec prisoners.  The dangerous ones that needed to be kept away from gen pop.  The ones who Teacher had reached out to personally.

“Go!  Avoid those guys, avoid eerie glowing ground!”

“He went that way!” Rain raised his voice and pointed, as the ground began screaming.  I took to the air, and I could see how the distorted lights were whisking and whirring against one another, like worms in a tangle.  There were shapes like people inside, writ large.

I thought about going after the guy with the shaker effect.  I decided it was too dangerous.  Too easy for me to get bogged down.

Hit like Glory Girl, hold nothing back as the Wretch, judge like the Warrior Monk, problem solve as the Scholar, and don’t lose sight of who you fucking are, because that’s a metric shitton to keep track of, Victoria Dallon.

Rain had given me a direction.

I was being so unfair.  Monstrous, even.  I could remember times when I had been scared, even terrified.  Gold Morning.  Day after day in the hospital.  After Crawler.  The day Amy had triggered, when I’d been the one hurt.

I didn’t have a chance to finish the line of thought.  I found Coalbelcher.

The head of the guy’s side of the prison had his soldiers with him, and they were gathering at the flanks, near the side of the entry building.  Some staff would still be inside, probably behind the shutters, protected by thick walls.

Up until Seir came back, razing the place to the ground so the bridges would be burned and Goddess’ army of prisoners would have no way to go but forward.

I could count them.  Seventy or so parahumans.  The prisoner coveralls designated the security level and the building they belonged to.

It took a moment of hovering before I saw Coalbelcher.  His face-paint was striking enough to make him obvious even in the gloom.

I landed, and he didn’t flinch as I appeared in front of him.  I saw him smirk.

“You’re out of your cell, but you’re only partway out,” I told him.

“I’m just happy to be stretching my legs,” he said, in his godfather-high voice.  “You come to talk to me for a reason?”

“To deal,” I said.  I indicated a direction.  “Not much time.  Hear me out?”

We walked a few paces away.  With the chaos and the max sec prisoners facing down Seir, there was enough volume that people wouldn’t be overhearing without sensitive ears.

Still, I’d have to keep those ears in mind.  I knew Lung was out there, and he was Goddess’ left hand man at the moment.

“What’s the deal?” Coalbelcher asked.

“I did you a favor.  I need something.”

“Something isn’t free.”

“I did you a favor,” I said, my voice tense.

“And that’s only good manners for a newcomer to my block.  I like you, girl.  Don’t make me change my mind.  If you want something-”

The neon images the shaker had created before erupted skyward, a giant of flesh with a sea of snakes at his waist formed from dirt outlined in neon.  Endbringer-sized.

“-You gotta give something.  I’m being pretty generous as is, hearing you out, and in my assuming it’s not coincidence that other people got the Wardens and the bombs all stopped blinking.”

“My teammate.  Our collective effort.”

“Great.  I still want something.  Convince me,” he smiled at me as he said it, meeting my irritation with sickly, black-spittle-between-the-teeth kindness.

“There’s a civilian with the Wardens.  A pretty guy with a forehead curl here-” I gestured to indicate, “-was with them the last I saw.  He led a group of late-teens, early-twenties guys.”

“Flense.”

“Fucking great, that’s not ominous at all.  Flense, then.  Her name is Natalie, she has a lot of inside information and connections.  I need you to do for her what I did for you, in my roundabout way.”

“And?”

“And… you didn’t murder anyone, did you?”

“I had an unpaid ticket,” he said, sarcastic.

“I was going to offer you an exit-”

“We’re all getting an exit, girl.  There’s no more prison, see?”

“With a bit more leeway and a helping hand in staying clear of Teacher’s control.  Because that’s- that’s being brain dead and building ray guns or something for twenty hours a day, until he decides he needs your power.”

“You’re going to help me get free and clear, girl?”

“I was.  But not if you’re a murderer.  Not if you’re a rapist.”

“I wouldn’t be a boss if I was.  I had a rival.  They decided I didn’t get my second chance, came after me hard.  I came after them harder.  They played it up in court, said I went-”

A squealing interrupted him.  The giant with a dress of worms was tearing chicken wire fence out of the ground.  Metal scraped against metal.

“They said I went too hard,” he said.  “Broke the guy’s jaw, which is true, it needed to be wired shut.  I hurt his back, lifetime of pain, bullshit.  I didn’t touch his back.  His arm?  No.  Lung damage?  Nah.”

I didn’t really have any time to spare.  I knew he was probably playing it down.  But if it wasn’t murder, was I really okay excusing that kind of violence?

It wasn’t lawful, right, or good to be the person who decided he got away for this crime.  But if I didn’t do anything, everyone would get away, or everyone would be under Teacher’s control, which was worse than prison.  It was having the mind shackled.

“I’ll check up on things after,” I said.  “If you’re lying, I come after you.”

“I look after this Natalie as long as you look after me,” he said.  “She knows how to get in touch with you?”

“Yeah.  When the phones are back online.”

A monstrous thing to do, I thought, a continuation of my thought from earlier.

I could remember how scared I’d once been.  When things had been worse than I’d ever experienced, when I’d been alone, more or less, or powerless.

Natalie was in that boat.  I was going to lengths to give her the chance to do something, because she was one of only three people I could count on, with the protocols.

Monstrous, to put that on her shoulders, to demand something of her.  But she was a teammate and the only other people we could lean on were a guy who didn’t know the protocols, talented as he was, and a girl who talked to mice.

Monstrous.

“Cryptid’s at the gate,” Lookout said, as I caught up with the group.  The boys were already in the tunnel.

“At the gate?  Near Teacher’s group?”

Lookout nodded.  “Um.  He brought company.”

“My sister,” I said, my voice tight.

“Oh, yeah, her,” Lookout said.  “And Goddess’ missing person.”

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Gleaming – 9.11

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I’d fought Lung before.  He was the very first bullet point in a handful, when it came to the fact that some people really hated emotion powers.  Which was fair- I still felt something small twist up inside me when I even thought about Snag’s feeling-of-loss attacks.  But Lung was part of the handful I’d fought where I could input fear and get anger.  Dean had run into the same thing, with emotions other than fear returning the same output.

Some people, especially those of a more feral stripe, just processed things in a different way.  The upside was the tactical advantage in it, if I could adjust my expectations fast enough.

The downside was that I had to make that adjustment.  Most of my costumed fighting experience was that my enemies would hesitate, get sloppy, or back off, but Lung, like Bitch, like the cooler but still dangerous Krieg or the seemingly unflappable Victor who would still act differently when under the influence of my power, attacking faster and more recklessly.  They were the people who were angry at the world, or those with the natural predisposition to fight rather than fly.

It meant I had his attention.  Even before I activated my aura, it still meant he was keeping an eye on me, because he had experienced it before.  Actually using my aura helped, provoking him on an emotional level.

With just a little more provocation coming from the hot purple apocalypse my aura was spreading across our shared battlefield.

I flew hard, chased by a stuttering spear of purple flame and a staccato, rolling explosion of fire where my emotion aura pulsed out and caught fire.  The aura pushed out, and the fires that caught traced in that direction, before flowing back in and toward me, stopping when the pulse ended.  That was what I assumed was responsible for the rolling part of the wall of explosions.

There was a crashing sound.  Goddess was dealing with the mooks, breaking the earth and then hurling that broken ground at them from one direction, while throwing other debris at them from another.  They were forced to run for cover.  Into the same building as Monokeros and Lookout.

I started to fly to pursue.

“No!” Byron shouted, barely audible given the distance and the hellscape of flame below.  “Only… deal with Lung!  You!  I can’t!”

I wanted to argue.  Lung wasn’t dealt with.  Not by someone like me.  Byron and Tristan were a better answer than a brute like me.

I stopped myself.  Byron was already making his way inside.

I at least knew Lung.

There was a strategy in what I’d been doing, in using my aura.  There were many strategies in this.  Lung wasn’t used to being on the defensive, and he had to limit what he did, even stepping to one side as the purple fire swelled and the pharmacist was slow to recognize and react to the problem.  Goddess hurled a metal beam at him, and he leaped to the side, where he was struck by a volley of something else.  Slivers or spikes.  Some impaled him, but they didn’t slow him down.

My eyes were open, and in the relatively dark area, Lung was bright and easy to see.  Where he was covered in metal scales, the metal reflected the flames.  The rest of him was more of a silhouette against the bright flames.  I could see the dragon mask, different from the one he had once had, with chains cutting through short black hair, tying the mask to his head.

I’d hoped for a tell, that the easily provoked Lung would turn his head around and shout at the Pharmacist for her failure to be careful.  That he’d look to a nearby window to make sure she was still alive, and that he didn’t have to worry about burning to death for-

I had no idea how old he was, I realized.  No idea how long it had been since he’d had to worry about burning to death.

No idea, and no indication that he was looking to any specific location for the Pharmacist.

The other tell that I was looking for was in the movement of purple flame- it was why I was paying attention to the flame that nipped at my toes as it burned at the motive forces of my flight, and to the purple explosions that flared up each time I pulsed out with my aura.  It was the approach I’d used when dealing with Mama Mathers.  Cape out of sight?  Watch their power instead.

With each pulse of my aura, the flames grew, and the Pharmacist dashed the flames, extinguishing a swathe of the fire around Lung as if throwing invisible water on the area.  I could pulse it, see the response time, repeat, see if it changed.  I could establish a rhythm, then fake them out.  How fast did they respond then?

Lung started hurling streams of fire into the sky.  Easy enough to dodge.

Still pushing with my flight to keep ahead of the trail, tracing a wide circle around the area, I pulsed my aura again.  Was there a shape to the extinguished area?  It wasn’t circular or neat.  Did it vary?  Why?

I was heading for a gap between two streams of fire when they ignited with the purple flame.  It was as though the streams of fire were gas, and the gas had been ignited.  With momentum already in play, I could only drop my forcefield, stop flying, stop using my aura, and let myself sail through the area.

Knees tucked to my breastplate, hands inside my hood, at the back of my head, elbows shielding my face, my hood pulled down, I hurtled through the purple fire.  I was in a cannonball tumble, and felt the wash of heat around me.  It was blinding in its brightness, so close to me, and the rest of the world was pitch darkness.

Setting fire on fire.

I opened my eyes, and the world was spinning around me as I tumbled head over heels through the darkness, still in the cannonball pose, still with none of my powers active.  With the surroundings being as dark as they were, I had only glimpses of the world, of the swathe of orange-yellow and purple-red fire, of stark spotlights, of the lights inside apartments and windows.

I used the sea of purple fire to orient myself, the dots and slices of yellow and orange serving as my position-reference for where the apartments and staff buildings were, and put everything into that perspective frame.

I lurched to the side as if by some telekinetic force, found nothing recognizable, and glimpsed another sea of fire, of red and orange.  Fear stabbed me in the chest as I tumbled through a world that made no sense.  The sea of purple I’d seen before was dissipating, breaking up, and a wall of fire loomed before me, pulling me toward it with an insane, inviolable force.

I forced my frame of reference to shift again.  I’d had everything the wrong way around.  The sea of purple fire had been the residual fire from Lung’s attack, the dots of yellow and orange just sparks in the air, not the faces of buildings.  A moment of dizziness, of disorientation and limited lighting.

In the moment that I made sense of the world again, I could confirm to myself that there was no purple fire near me.  I used my flight to stop falling, and flipped myself around to the right orientation.  My heart pounded.  I was in a place where the air was cold.

I could smell burned fabric, but I wasn’t on fire.  I had to check myself twice before settling on the conclusion that I was alright.

Lung’s focus was consumed with Goddess, now.  She was dismantling the entrance building of the prison, using the components to mount her attack.  Beams, chunks of rubble, volleys of- the slivers or spikes from before.  They were pulled from concrete.  Rebar.

I saw Lung fire out the long gouts of flame that pierced through the sky, illuminating the scant clouds above and turning them orange.  He placed them all in Goddess’ vicinity, and she used her telekinesis to scatter the flame.  The fires didn’t go out, instead licking through the heavy smoke in the air like slow motion explosions.

Lung was keeping the air aflame using his pyrokinesis.

In the moment that she turned to the nearby building, her focus wasn’t on Lung.  He was still in action, leaping to a steel beam that had pierced the ground, his weight making it sink until it came to rest against a nearby fence.  The burning smoke above swelled, the beams connecting again.

“Goddess!” I shouted.  “Get away!”

Too far away to be heard.  Rain hurled a scythe, and it sliced through the beam, tracing a silver line.  Lung sprung from the beam, and the force of the movement made it sever.

While airborne, he slashed with one hand, flames at his fingertips, and fire moved in a similar pattern a dozen feet below and behind him.  The movement of the fire connected one of the columns of fire he’d made near Goddess to a nearby patch of purple flame.  It ignited, and Lung leaped back as the purple swept up the columns of fire, toward Goddess.  She didn’t react in time, and the three expanding columns of fire grew to the point there was no space between them.

Lung’s landing in a spot of clearing was a heavy one.  With the landing, the forces that were gathering the fire of the columns together began to dissipate.  The purple fire had nothing to burn, so it went out too.  I saw Goddess flying away from the point the growing columns had converged, on fire and not moving in straight lines.

My first impulse was that I had to help her.  I thought of master-stranger protocols, but the only thing to cross my mind was that I still needed to stop Lung.

Lung marched through knee-high fire, grabbing one of his wrists, hauling on it.  His shoulder came apart almost as if he’d torn it partially off, a gap visible in the flesh over where ball met socket.  Spikes and scales spilled out, stabbing through flesh and filling the gap, layering the surrounding area.  Rain’s silver blades curved through the air before hitting rubble, beams, and ground- by my vantage point, I could see that he was firing blind.  One came within ten feet of Lung, and I saw Lung change course, striding into flames taller than he was.  Disappearing into the fire, where he had cover.

There was something colder in him than I’d seen in any of our past encounters.  The feral edge was still there, but the Lung I’d known wouldn’t have ducked into the flame to-

A column of flame stabbed skyward like an giant’s spear, forged of explosions.  I flew out of the way, and the spear curved, following me.  I tried to fly  back toward the base of the column so that the ‘head’ with the momentum behind it would have a harder time chasing me, saw a light pulse within it, and I put some distance between myself and the column.  The column expanded- regular orange fire, and not purple.  He was holding back on the purple.

If he didn’t want it, then I would provide it.

I used my aura, with an eye on where the purple flames were still burning below.  The purple fire on the ground expanded, touched other flames and spread through them.  It was a domino effect, and one that Lung seemed aware of.  He used his power to extinguish fires around him, a sharp intake of breath’s span before the purple fire spread to that area.  From her vantage point, the Pharmacist did much the same, extinguishing more of the purple fire.

But the purple fire traced its way up the column that I was still getting away from.  It put it out of Lung’s reach, because his power didn’t work on purple fire so much as it just fed a given area with more fire.  The Pharmacist had the ability to manipulate the purple flame, but she didn’t have the versatility or strength to go with it that a leveled-up Lung did.

I’d knocked down the column, even spooked him.  My use of my aura was a slap in his face.

He was colder than he’d once been, but he still got mad.  I had his attention again.

Columns and tapered spikes of fire speared up without much warning or reasoning as to where they came from.  Lung wasn’t near all or even most of them, but he fired, and the orange light illuminated me.  As Teacher’s thralls had done with their anti-air guns, Lung was trying to box me in, caging me.  Five spikes in a couple of seconds, all curving in the air as I changed my direction.  One ignited, turning purple, and the ignition caught on my flight trail.

If I slowed enough to fly around instead of forward, that flame would catch me.

I flew forward, instead, full speed, with a column looming in my way.  Nearer to the ground, I saw Lung connect it to purple fire, and that augmented flame climbed faster than I could fly forward.  It would balloon in size before I got past it, and each pulse of my aura made those flames lunge higher.

I kept using my aura, all the same.

At the last moment, a change of direction, then nothing at all.

As before, I tumbled through darkness.  No forcefield, no flight.  Only a general arc of travel with me as a dark shape against a night sky.  Sweat drenched me just from the ambient heat, and that sweat stung my eyes as my head rotated and the droplets traveled across my face.

I let myself fall, powers dark, the wind alternately freezing and skin-searingly hot as it whipped at my face, at my costume and my hair.

As I fell down, fire spiked up, aimed right for me.  I flew, and purple flame below me and around me billowed out, swelled, and lanced toward me, depending on its shape, chasing that flight.

As I made my aerial maneuvers around flares that worked like explosions constrained within invisible cylinders, the heat in the air sucked all moisture from my mouth and eyes.  Had I been running, the heat would have knocked the wind out of me, saw me crumpling to my knees.

My flight didn’t draw on any well of physical capacity like that.  Where anyone else might have been drained, I was… I was drained of something closer to my humanity.  I was my power in action, my focus, my battle-sense.

I was more a Glory Girl than the Warrior Monk right now, and that was okay.  If the focus of a dangerous, barbaric teenage me was going to keep me in the game in a moment like this, I would tap that focus with no regrets.

Maybe wrong to think that within a few seconds of recognizing how I was letting more human, fair parts of me fall away.

His senses were improving, going by his ability to track me in the gloom.  More eruptions were coming.

Frustration welled in my chest.  I was fighting like Glory Girl and that kept me fighting, but she was someone who charged in, and that wasn’t a possibility in the now.  The purple fire burned away powers, and Lung’s heat burned away… my reserves.  I couldn’t fight in a battlefield this hot for that long, and the others didn’t seem to have many more opportunities, either.

When I’d played basketball, ‘giving 110%’ was the refrain, over and over again.  With my mom, it had been to ‘give my all’.  Even Amy-

Fuck.  With the name, there were a hundred mental pictures, a hundred scenes and feelings, crashing in.  Focus gone, the image in my mind’s eye so intense that my efforts to push it away only dragged it in closer.

Double fuck, I thought, as fire came down from above, far too close to me.  He’d manipulated the fire of a spear of flame that extended high above me.  The prickle of heat and the wave of it that seemed to soak into my core and take the breath from my lungs and the oxygen from my blood hit me harder than the last time.  It was that staggering, fall-to-my-knees kind of heat, and it hadn’t been a direct hit.  This time, even though there wasn’t a physical component to it, my flight wavered, my speed suffered.

All at a time it counted most.

Fuck, I thought, and it wasn’t an angry, forceful, empowered fuck, in defiance of the world.  The fuck that I couldn’t even voice was the kind of sound that came out with a whimper, that made someone sound half their age, uttered just before they broke down into tears, slumped against a wall.

And even that image evoked half-formed images of my sister, hollowed out, harrowed, her hair greasy because she’d spent the last few days working on me.  Her arms and her old costume had been crusted with bodily fluids, my bodily fluids.  With dogs and cats, insects, and rats, probably, pulled apart into their constituent parts and used to build me.

To have it driven home that my weak point was this weak, this capable of breaking my focus.  There were moments my emotions choked me up, gripped my throat, tied my stomach into knots, paralyzed me or made me agitated.

But to act as Glory Girl, to have Amy so easily take that away, all over again?  It made me feel like my essential being, my heart, wasn’t even there anymore.  That heartless emptiness inside me wasn’t anything new.  But it had never hit me to this degree at a moment that I felt like I was functioning.

It wasn’t me that I heard or imagined with that small, nothing-left fuck, but her on the other side of a room, as someone banged on a door.  A scene framed not by wood, but by a length of my body, by hands that reached up, groping at the air, toward her.

The moment after she’d let me start registering memories again.

I landed, and my legs buckled beneath me.  I dropped to my knees, fires burning high just twenty feet away.  A steel beam gave me a modicum of cover, but it had been lying in the blaze long enough that I could feel the heat radiating off the metal, which didn’t help manners.

One hundred and ten percent.  Give it your all.  Do your best, Victoria.  An endless refrain I’d heard for far too long.  From my mom, from my dad, from my teachers, from my teams.

I couldn’t figure out what mode to shift to, where I had that one hundred and ten percent to give.  I couldn’t reach for the Scholar or the Warrior Monk in this moment and have it fail me.  I needed something else.  Something more raw.

Wretch, I thought.  Forcefield up, I reached for the beam.  My hands fell short, but the Wretch didn’t.

Glory Girl can’t win this.

So what does a one-hundred and ten percent Wretch look like, then?

I lifted up the steel beam,  The Wretch dug fingers in with enough force to leave indents in the warm metal’s surface.

I took off.  Lung was preoccupied, sending flame in the opposite direction from me.  I had a moment, so I looked up, flying higher to where the air was cooler.  A twenty-foot steel beam dangled from the Wretch’s hands, one end held firm enough that metal distorted in multiple places, the other end swinging below us.

In the cool air, looking up and trying to find my center, trying to tell myself I wasn’t making a mistake by bringing the Wretch into this, I could see the blue circles and lines.

A constellation drawn against the night’s sky, directly above Lung and the scene.  The motes weren’t moving, though.  It was being drawn.

I exhaled slowly, and my breath shook slightly in the process.  A tension I hadn’t realized I’d had was released.  If Byron was capable of doing this, then he’d confirmed Kenzie was okay.  That situation was dealt with.

In the weirdest, most twisted way, it wasn’t even a good ‘dealt with’.  That tension had helped in its way, holding me together.  Now I had to deal with me.

So stupid, that a mere thought could take me out of the zone and lead to a critical mistake.  That gout of flame that could have hit me, if I’d been a half-second slower.

Even when Glory Girl was at her peak, working with reactions primed and giving her supposed one-hundred-and-ten-percent, she had- I had been splashed with acid and enzymes, dissolved alive.

One hundred and ten percent Wretch.  But I’d pause first before going there.  A nod to the Warrior Monk, who was so tired, so beleaguered, her efforts frustrated.  I pulsed with my aura, and I watched the aftermath, Lung’s slight head turn, the extinguishing and the shape of the extinguishing.

Goddess was back, and she had friends.  People from nearby apartments.  Goddess was shielding them as they got into position.

Are we there already?  She’s just taking the people she wants, and the people with the ability to detonate the ankle bombs are… secured?  Did she and Lookout get them all?

The Warrior Monk recoiled at the idea, recognized it as a cause for alarm, printed in black ink on white paper, all caps, underlined.

If she’d gone that far, if we were already there, it was possible there was no coming back from this.  There was no getting through this night in such a way that things returned to square one.

That idea shook me.  The Warrior Monk faltered.  From sixty percent to fifty percent.  ‘110%’ so far away it wasn’t worth reaching for.

Behind Lung and behind me, the building began coming apart again.  Each chunk that flew away from the building flew toward Lung.  Rain hurled his silver blades, but Lung was keeping an eye out for them.

He was big now, but he was nimble.  A corner of the building hit the ground and rolled through the fires without breaking up.  Lung leaped on top of it, then leaped to another point, the beam that Rain had sliced.  It was just the tip, cut at a diagonal, and left leaning against the fence.  Lung had one foot on the tip, another on the top of the chickenwire fence, barbed wire crumpled underfoot.  No skin showed, his arms, legs, spine and neck were all extended now, and the mass along the length of his body was swelling steadily.  He reached up with claws of steel, seized his mask, and tore it free, casting it off.

The face beneath was even less human.

Lung lifted one claw, moving it through the air.  Fire swelled dramatically.  I could see that the point where he didn’t even need the purple fire anymore wasn’t that far away.

And then what?  Were we supposed to abandon the prison?  Leave it for Teacher?  He would find a way to seal the door, the prisoners would be trapped inside, and he would claim them, one by one.

No, I thought.  With the Wretch out, the memory of the hospital was all around me.  The helplessness, the lack of hope, the altered mental state.  That was what Teacher wanted.

Goddess wanted-

I closed my eyes..

She was scarily close to what I wanted, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was the master-stranger effect that was supposedly in place.  One hundred and ten percent.  The study of powers.  The authority, people organized and listening to her.  Even now, she was sorting out the people she’d brought from the apartments.

Lung was leaving the area, moving toward Goddess.  He would leave the area beneath Byron’s sword of Damocles, beneath the constellation of stars and the lines that wove them together.

Because it wasn’t enough?

I dove for Lung, the Wretch gripping the beam in a way that was not at all drawing it back for a big swing.  I’d deal.

Twenty feet long, give or take, a foot and a half tall.  I’d picked up cars before, always an awkward affair, and even this impressive chunk of metal was only a third or quarter the weight of those vehicles.

Hit him,” I whispered the words.  “Swing this at him.  Come on!”

Lung was drawing out fire, sending it toward Goddess’ crowd.  She was atop one of the damaged apartments now, her people organizing into battle lines.  A forcefield went up, as did something that looked more like an energy gate or portal than a forcefield or wall.  Off to the side, a lopsided, top-heavy minion made of slime or mud drawing itself out of the ground.

Goddess interrupted the first wave of flame.  The second, laced with purple fire, spilled over.  The fire ignited the forcefield, the minion, and the gate.  The gate fluctuated, drawing the fire toward its center, condensing it into a brilliant point, with the edges vibrating more intensely with every second.

The gate crumbled.  Free energy lashed out, and two people died.  the forcefield went out, and people were forced into a retreat.

I reached past the Wretch’s hands to touch the metal, gripping the lip of the beam in my burned hand.  I pulled, straining to draw it back.  The Wretch didn’t obey.

A moment later, I was flying into flames, so bright and chaotic after the darkness above that I couldn’t breathe or tell purple from orange.  It was almost like slow motion, seeing Lung start to turn his snake-like neck around to look at me with one eye that glowed like a drop of molten metal.  A distended face broken up into five sub-sections contracted together in an alien grimace.

The beam wouldn’t hit.  I canceled the Wretch, and let it hit the ground a few feet from Lung.

I hit the beam, rather than Lung.  One end remained mostly in place, the other coming around to strike Lung.  The effect was nowhere near what I would have achieved had I been able to swing the beam like a bat.  As it was, it knocked him back toward the area that burned.  Purple flames were extinguished in the moment before Lung could roll through them, and he sprung to his feet.  Before I’d recovered from the act of striking out, he was on his feet, hands moving, and the flames around me swelled.

Rain was still throwing out his crescents.  Many were being intercepted by swells of purple fire.  It likely didn’t help that I was close.

I flew to the beam, grabbing it and trusting the Wretch to grab it on pure reflex.  It was a narrow shield and a deflection that kept the worst of the flames from knocking the Wretch back out of existence.  It was my weapon, to keep Lung at bay, to try and knock him down.  This time we swung.

He caught the beam with both arms, feet skidding in dirt.

Then it was only one foot in dirt.  The other came up, forward, and stomped down on the length of metal.    The Wretch broke, and the end of the metal beam struck the earth with enough force to send dirt pluming over my head, above me and behind me.

His weapon now.  He drew it back, adjusting his grip as he did to account for the lack of traction, ready to swing.

He was still adjusting when Goddess used her telekinesis on the beam.  He was sent skidding back, tumbling into fire and the piles of wreckage that had been telekinetically hurled at him while he’d cultivated the fires around him and worked himself up.

“Capricorn,” Goddess said.  Her voice wasn’t pitched at a level that would be heard with the distance between herself and him.

The water came down all the same.  To say the water fell would have been wrong.  It was directed down.  Faster than falling water.  It was sent down like it was shot from a gun.

Where the water hit earth, it became a geyser of mud, and if Lung hadn’t slipped away at the last moment, then he was being driven down as mud was sent flying up to heights taller than some of the staff buildings nearby.  The purple fire caught the water and ran through it, more intense, not less intense, for the water.

It was loud, and then it was silent, the contrast so stark that it left my ears screaming.

Where there had been water, there was now a small mountain of stone, all spikes radiating up and out from the epicenter.  The licks of purple flame were going out.

Look, I told myself.  Put the desperate struggle aside for a second, focus on the objective.  I’m proud of Victoria the scholar, the person who studies powers and keeps an eye out for the solutions.

Some purple fires lingered.  Some faded.  If I imagined that the spike of stone blocked the Pharmacist’s view, I could eliminate some positions.

“That was good,” I heard Goddess behind me.

“Was?”  I asked.  I shook my head.

“Is?”

She had her good points.  She had her great points.  She had her amazing points, even.  This wasn’t one of them.  I paused for a second, then decided it was endearing.  Then things were good.

“I wouldn’t say for sure that it’s over,” I said.  “And if it isn’t over, we won’t have much of an opportunity.”

“I’d use my danger sense, but the fires blind me,” she remarked.

“Understandable.”

“Teacher’s lessers went into the building.  The tinkers, the thinkers.”

“Capricorn got them, I think.”

“Good.  Then-”

She stopped speaking  as something glowed deep within the stone.

“That’s Lung for you,” I said.  I sounded calmer than I felt.  I realized I still had the Wretch active.  I hadn’t let it go.  A good thing that Goddess hadn’t approached me.  “He gets stronger over time.  If we haven’t beat him yet, we might not be able to.”

“I don’t fucking lose or draw,” Goddess said.

The use of her telekinesis was wilder, now.  It was hasty, geometric shapes cutting through mud and dirt, carving lines into the beams and wood that she lifted into the air.  Like lines in something tightly coiled that had come free, the telekinesis struck out at random around the things she was lifting.  Mud splashed and rubble was demolished.

One by one, she sent spikes of wood flying.  She sent beams, sheet metal and corrugated steel crushed into lances and spears.  They plunged through the stone, into the glowing heart.  Each impact was an ear-splitting screech of metal on stone, of stone breaking, nails on a chalkboard with the volume turned up to twenty out of ten.

The volley was still going when stone cracked at the very edge of Capricorn’s stone fixture.  Compared to the noise of the ongoing assault against the glowing center, Lung rising from the mud and cracked stone was almost quiet.  The glow had been a decoy.

The fires around us had been mostly quenched by the cascade of water, but his scales were shiny.  Black mud settled into cracks while the scales caught the orange light.  His eyes seemed brightest of all, and they narrowed in pain as purple fire crept along his arm and shoulder.

The Pharmacist extinguished fire, but it seemed she was limited to extinguishing what she could see.  Fire burned in crevices, crept out further with more and more speed.  It hurt him, and where it hurt him, he healed, and the healing made it burn hotter.  With the way it crept along the exterior of his body, she wouldn’t have been able to see all of the flame without being here.

Even with that, he didn’t go running to her.  He turned toward us and he growled.  The face with the multiple sections that could pull away or draw in had expanded, and the growth included his neck now, with sections that could pull back, revealing teeth within.  There were spots that looked like they were scales that caught the light really well, but I was suspicious that they were eyes glowing molten.

Goddess sent the remainder of the volley at him.  When he moved, it wasn’t as fast as before.

“Careful!” I voiced my alarm, even before I could articulate what I meant.

He was slow, but it was an intentional slow.  As a steel beam slammed into his arm, crushing part of it, driving through flesh and scale, he didn’t look surprised or bothered.   He lunged out of the way of the remainder of the volley, and then he seized his damaged flesh.

Where scales had been parted, he dug in claws, and he tore away the flesh that burned.  Damage that would have killed another man served for Lung to have a handhold in his own altered flesh.  He tore into chest and arm, the chunks burning like crimson rags soaked in gasoline.

I took flight before he could finish.  I saw him tear away fifteen pounds of mass with blade-like scales embedded in skin, in muscle, and in one fragment of bone.  I saw the blood spill to the ground by modest buckets worth, and he barely seemed to care.  His focus was on the hand that he’d used to tear, that now burned.

Goddess was using the weapons she’d already used for her earlier volley.  They were pulled free all as one, then sent out in another volley.  As Lung brought his wrist to his mouth, the volley struck home.  Spikes that were ten feet long impaled his legs and fixed them to the ground.  Others caught him in the chest.  One struck his face and knocked a mouth-part free, and sent the burning hand flying.

At his back, wings unfolded.  He opened the various mouth parts to drool out the last chunks of his hand.

Wretch, one hundred and ten percent.  I flew at him.

Fires swelled around him, faster and larger than before, and where purple flames still burned, they caught the fires and made them swell.

While Lung was missing half of his right arm, shoulder to wrist, a pectoral and his left claw, I had slim opportunity.

The Wretch seized one spike as we passed it.  My first stab was uneven, mis-aimed because the Wretch didn’t coordinate.  Lung swatted the point aside with a stump of a wrist at the end of a long limb.  He exhaled, and breathed a plume of fire my way.

It swept over the Wretch, but it didn’t ignite her.  As I passed over him, his snake-like neck let his head rise, point straight up, then point back, with no difficulty.

I landed at a point beyond him, boots skidding in mud.

The Wretch started with a shape like me, and it expanded to a different shape.  I gripped a spear that had deflected off of scale, aware that fires around me were growing larger.

I turned the Wretch on, then off, on, off.  It was an inconsistent, lurching strength, one where I was handling a metal lance that had to weigh more than I did and I was handling it with ordinary human strength, then a moment later hands that weren’t mine gripped it, and it might as well have been weightless.

I found the orientation I wanted, as Lung brought his injured arm down and made every square foot of space around us burn.

I flew through the hellscape of flame and smoke, where Lung was only a dim silhouette and a position I remembered.  My grip on my weapon was a shaky one, one that alternated between me having the strength to hold the weapon and the ability to direct my posture while holding it.

Two seconds of flying forward, trying to keep the weapon on target.

A moment, caught between heartbeats, where Lung was suddenly visible, looming in my view.

And then another moment, as my racing heart contracted, where he gripped my weapon, catching it in one hand.  Even with half of his arm missing, he managed to fight the Wretch’s strength.

He jerked the weapon to one side, his strength matching the Wretch or catching it off guard.  The handle of the weapon tore through my forcefield.

There was no fire immediately around us now, but that was because Lung and the Pharmacist both wanted to keep Lung away from the purple fire.  Both used their ability to extinguish flame to maintain a clearing.

Which didn’t mean it wasn’t roasting here.  Sweat ran down my face in streams.  My hair was wet against the back of my neck, and my body was drenched in it, armpit to ankle.

My body.

I have eight hands that aren’t Victoria Dallon’s.

I caught another fallen weapon, trusted the Wretch to catch yet another.  While Lung’s hand was occupied with the lance I’d used, I attacked him with two more weapons, aiming to impale him.

His wings flapped, and he was working on freeing himself from the spikes that nailed him to the ground.  The Wretch drove him back down, bringing two more points down to his position.

He reached out, breaking one- manipulating flame with the other, to drive me closer to him.  I went up, back, and down to the ground again, feet sticking into sucking mud.

Tristan’s mass of spikes was an arsenal.  The Wretch’s invisible hands gripped stone, gripped the spikes that Goddess had driven into the heart of this structure.

Fire washed over the Wretch.  If it broke, I would burn or I would choke in the heavy smoke, but it was stronger against sustained onslaughts.

He pulled free of the spikes that impaled him to the ground.  A tide of dirt caught him.  Powers lashed out, from Goddess’ new retinue, and I could only see a flash of green through a haze of smoke, hear a crack, see the shadow of the top-heavy slime minion.

Work with meFight him.  This is what we both want.

I moved my arm, flinging it forward, bidding the Wretch to do the same.  It threw three.  Two were thrown in a way that would have hurt him if they hit points forward, and one was on course to hit Lung.

He was occupied with Goddess, but he still had the ability to strike it aside.

I still held more.  I closed the distance, spearing toward him with multiple points.  These too he fended off, with enough force that the Wretch was broken.

To get away from any fire and away from the heat, I had to fly up and away, into choking smoke that demanded I hold my breath.  My eyes watered.

Below me, a silver scythe-blade cut through the smoke.  I saw it hit Lung.

“Hit him!”

I had the Wretch surrounding me again, and then was back in the fray.  More weapons scooped up, my throws timed for when I thought I could land a blow.  I could see the line of silver across Lung’s chest.

He ducked the volley.  Claws dug for dirt in purchase, his wings thrusting him forward.  Powerful, but not powerful enough to disturb that silver line.

My eye was on the line, and I knew I could well be killing a man if I connected a blow.

I still grabbed the shattered trunk of a tree that had been thrown at an earlier part of the fight, and swung it at him, aiming for an undodgeable wallop more than a decisive blow.  I hoped it would connect and split him.

Goddess needed it to.  We needed it to.  If we couldn’t, Lung would kill us all.

The hit connected, and I saw the spray of blood as one side of his chest cavity opened.  Sternum to lower rib.  Sliced through the lung.

There was no humor in the irony, only a chill, as I saw blood fountain out.

In the midst of smoke, I saw him stagger.  I saw him draw in a deep breath, his chest coming apart in sections, like twenty fragments breaking apart, then coming back together in another configuration.  His back popped, scale scraping against scale as it extended.

Then the wind turned, and the smoke was heavier.  It was pitch black out and the smoke made it even harder for the light we had to illuminate the scene.  People on the periphery were unable to do much.

It hadn’t even slowed him down.

“Goddess!” I shouted.  We needed to coordinate on this.

“She’s gone.  Getting more help,” a woman’s voice cut through the smoke.

Too little, too late.

The Wretch wasn’t enough.

Even if I’d been one hundred percent coordinated, it wouldn’t have been enough.

The purple flames surged, diffuse in the gray-black haze of smoke.  Lung’s eyes were molten white, larger than before.

I heard him chuckle.  He knew.  That we were past the point where we could do it.

Hollow words, to give my ‘all’.  Hopeless words.

I’d needed this.  I’d needed to be able to do this on some level.  And I hadn’t been able to.  It scared the shit out of me.

Water sprayed, cutting through the smoke, as cold as the air was hot.  With that, there was a moment where others could see Lung, and Lung could see them.

Everything told me to run, that we had to evacuate.

Goddess- if the stories about her were to be believed, if the refugees from her world were telling the truth, then her world would suffer for her return.  I couldn’t really buy it, the long list of ifs, but it was the most critical way of parsing things.

If Teacher won, if we couldn’t beat Lung and keep Teacher from getting what he wanted, then none of the worlds would be okay.

We couldn’t run.

Water splashed Lung, and water became stone.  I flew at him, catching a large piece of rubble on the way.  My aim was to fly by him, to smack him with two or three hundred pounds of concrete.  Then I saw the blade of silver carving its way through the air, leaving a trail behind it, as it left its mark on smoke particles, making them more prone to splitting.

It caught Lung across the belly, and I closed in, ready to deliver the final blow.

Lung leaped up, wings flapping.

Disappearing into the smoke and darkness.

I flew after him.

By the time I found him, the mark on his stomach was gone.  He cast flame down toward the ground, and this time there was no reason for the pharmacist to extinguish it.

To distract him, I flew at him.  I used my aura, and it touched the purple fire on the ground.  Where Lung’s fire extended down, purple fire raced back up, cascading up the trails left behind each blast, climbing higher, higher, expanding as I fed it with my aura, until he had to stop for a moment to let it all dissipate.

Then I had his focus.  Two spears and one stalagmite of rock floated in the air beside me, gripped by invisible hands.  One was gripped so tight it was going to break in the middle.

The others couldn’t help me here.  We’d driven him to the air where only a few people could challenge him.

We.  It was a corny thing, too belated when Byron had ducked inside, used his power from a window, probably.  When Rain had been on the periphery, firing mostly blind into smoke and fire, and when Goddess had very understandably been caught up with the trials of directing an unruly group of prisoners.

But we’d been stronger as a group.  We were too fractured.

I watched Lung, my eyes burning with contact on the air, no doubt more red than white after all the trace contact with smoke.  The air was relatively clear here, and my vision was still bleary, my eyes like sandpaper.  My mouth hung open, so dry and layered with films of smoke that I didn’t dare swallow, for fear of choking.

I saw his head turn.  Then he dove.

I pursued.  I had to.

One hundred and ten percentGiving my all.

All of the Wretch- the moment his focus wasn’t entirely on me, I flew after.  He flew with wings and power.  I flew with something freer, impulse, something from within me.

The moment I was about to close, driving my spear-points into his wing, he tucked his wing in, rolling through the air.  Eyes, mouth, and the cracks between the segments of his body glowed red.

Fire exploded through the air around him as he continued to plummet.

The Wretch heaved the spears at him.  One hit him, the other two were duds.

It was frustrating but I accepted the frustration.  Tears streaked my face from the smoke-stained eyes.

His wings unfolded, their breadth catching his weight, arresting his descent.

I plummeted past him.

One hundred and ten percent of the Warrior Monk.

I used my aura.  Calculated, watching for the danger, where the purple fire was.

I provoked him, because I knew he was easily provoked, even in this state.  As mighty as he could be, this got past scale and muscle and it bothered him.

He sent out another cascade of flame.  I changed direction to avoid it, realized it was too wide in scope to escape, and let the Wretch absorb the blow instead.

Except the fire kept coming.  I accelerated my downward plummet, heading toward the building where, in another situation, I could have hoped to use that building for cover.

Here, I did the opposite.

The fire chased me, filling the air around me and to either side of me.  I headed away, headed down, the lip of the building’s roof so near to me that my breastplate periodically scraped against it.  He cut off the fire.

I looked back, and I saw him maneuvering.  He turned his attention to the others, to my team.

He wanted to stay near the purple flame.  It secured him against most of the powers that could stop him.  And… I had to let him.

He was a brute, and brutes had a way of forcing you to deal with them.

The thought made me think of Dean.

There was a strength in that, a part of that one hundred and ten percent.  The Victoria Dallon part of me.

I’d never fought when I felt this low.  Even at the community center, I hadn’t been as tired, as caught up in multiple things.  At the Fallen camp, I’d had hopes, and I’d been more singular of purpose.  I’d been able to focus on the others.

Here, the challenge was me.  Figuring out how to be strong when I needed to be strong.

I went through a window, turning my back on Lung, aware that I might be letting Byron and Rain burn.

I tapped the Wretch, and I tore through a wall.

The scholar.  I’d been trying to track where the flames were and where the Pharmacist operated.  I’d been dimly aware of Lung’s favored position.  He knew where she was and by operating within a certain area, he gave clues.

That had narrowed it down.

That he hadn’t been willing to throw out fire and hit this side of the building, abandoning his pursuit of me?

The Wretch came back.  I went through another wall.

Bystanders.  They were huddled together.  A guard had cuffs on, binding him to a cot.

“Where is she?” I asked.

I saw them exchange glances.  The guard looked back, off to the side, more in the way I’d come.

I flew back through the hole in the wall, then through the open door to the hallway.

I cut a path through the staff building, no running footsteps or pants of breath to impede my hearing.  I swallowed and choked back a cough.  Then I flew more, silent.  My hand slapped against a wall as I used it to stop myself sooner, so I could fly down a different hallway.

I heard her running footsteps.

Me, the scholar, working out powers.  The Patrol lieutenant, investigating, keeping an eye out for the troublemaker.

It wasn’t about finding that one part of me and executing it beyond perfectly.  The Warrior Monk, the Wretch, the Scholar, the Girl.

All together.

“While you’re running, you’re not helping Lung,” I called out.  I pushed out with my aura.

I escalated the pressure.

“He needs you!”  My voice rang through the hallways of the staff building.

More aura.  More fear.

Then I heard it, saw it.  A flash of purple.  The aura igniting.  I canceled the aura, but that didn’t stop the fire that had already been created.  In an enclosed space I had to duck, throwing myself around a corner, hood pulled down.  My feet thudded against the ground as I stopped flying.

It swept past me.

“You just told me where you are!” I called out.  I ran.

There was no fear aura, but there was more panic now.  She cast fire out behind her, blocking the path.

I took another route, going out the window, around the side of the building.  One window was open, and I flew in through it, muddy boots skidding on tile.

An electric whine caught my attention.

Teacher’s tinkers, protecting the woman.  I saw her past them, looking at me.  She’d learned her lesson from previous encounters, and she kept her fire put away.  There would be no blowing it up with my aura, getting her minions in the process.

I flew away, instead.

Mom told me to focus on the objectiveWhat does the enemy want?

She wanted away, to get back to where she could help Lung.

Lung wanted to be strong, to stay near the purple fire, to take over this prison for Teacher, presumably because he was getting paid, or because he was a Teacher thrall.

Out through the window, around the building… in through a window with a crash.

Another thrall, an older guy.  He was slow to react, slower with my aura blasting out.  I shoved him against the wall on my way through the door, and slapped his tinker gun away.  The Wretch demolished it in passing.

The mission.  There was a dangerous feeling of triumph when it felt like I was taking the bad guys down a peg, dismantling their plans.  The tag team was disrupted.  She was running, and I was catching up.

She’d gone downstairs, I realized.

My aura burned, pressuring her.  “You’ve lost, if you’ve abandoned Lung.  Does that mean you don’t get paid?  Or will Teacher be disappointed?  How does this work, Pharmacist!?”

“Shut up!” I heard her.

I lunged to one side, and then the Wretch tore through the floor.  I came down on top of her, catching her while she was bent over, shielding herself from the debris that was falling down on top of her.  I shoved her into the ground, hard.

I had spikes on my glove, that started at rings on the fingers and extended back toward my wrist, almost flat against my hand.  The points now rested against the most vulnerable part of her throat.

I saw her expression change.  Ten emotions in a matter of two or three seconds.

“Don’t even think about it,” I told her.

“More will come,” she said.  “He has an army.”

“And we have you,” I said.  I reached up to my shoulder, my finger tracing the spikes there.  Nothing.  I checked my breastplate, where tines radiated up from the icon just above my sternum.  I found a loose one and snapped it off.

The point still pressed against her throat, I led her to a standing position.  Then we walked, me holding the long spire of gold-layered steel against her jugular.

Fires still burned when we stepped out of the building, but the battle was over.  Goddess had brought others, and they all stood by.  Byron and Rain were sitting down on rubble, and Rain gave me a bob of the head in greeting as he saw me.  There might have been a smile behind Byron’s mask.

I spotted Kenzie off to the side.  Still with Monokeros.  She gave me a small wave as she saw me.  At the back, people were guarding Natalie along with the three heads of the prison staff.  Two were Teacher’s.  One was ours.

Behind Goddess… it looked like she’d collected most of the prisoners.  I could see Seir and other Fallen.  Coalbelcher and his second in command.  I saw Damsel.

No Crystalclear.  No Ratcatcher.  No Sveta.  No Ashley.

Lung stood by Goddess.  He folded his arms as I brought the Pharmacist nearer.

Goddess approached, standing square in front of the Pharmacist.  I lowered the point of the tine from the Pharmacist’s throat, then backed off.

The Pharmacist and Goddess stared each other down.  Everyone around us seemed okay with this.

I started to approach Lookout.  Rain got my attention, a motion of the hand, followed by a shake of the head.

I went to Rain and Byron instead, my arms folded.  Breathing hurt.  I was pretty sure the Wretch had filtered out a lot of smoke, but it hadn’t filtered out all of it.  Even now, the smoke was heavy in the air.

“You serve me now,” Goddess told the Pharmacist.

“Yeah,” the Pharmacist replied.

“You’ll tell me about the drugs you brought into the prison.”

“Taken to the cafeteria, to be applied to the food.  A berserker formula.  Turning everyone he couldn’t use into ravening monsters.”

“She’s lying,” a woman in the crowd said.

I could see the Pharmacist tense.

“It’s a power nullifying chemical,” the same woman said.  She stepped forward.  Words were tattooed beneath her eyes, so they traced straight lines down to her jaw.  ‘Crock’ and ‘Shit’.  Colorful, for words in black ink.  More ink put scales at her arms and neck.  “Nullifying your influence, Goddess.”

“And you took some,” Goddess told the Pharmacist.

“She did.  And she already got some to key prisoners,” Crock o Shit said.  “The maximum security ones, who get meals delivered.”

Purple fire surrounded the Pharmacist’s hands.  She reached for Goddess, and she made it one step before someone swung a guard’s baton into her throat.  She fell to the ground, fire extinguished.

“If she doesn’t suffocate from that, let her live,” Goddess said.  “The drugs will wear off.”

The crowd was pretty eager to drag the Pharmacist off.  Goddess turned her attention to Lung.  “Did you take the drug?”

He shook his head.

“Truth,” Crock o Shit said.

“He regenerates,” I said.  “Drugs have reduced effect.”

Lung nodded.

Weird to be on the same side as him now.

“The guards are dealt with, but Teacher isn’t going to leave it at this,” Goddess said.  “And we still have some loose ends to tie up.”

I didn’t miss the fact that she made eye contact with me, with Byron and Rain.

She was thinking about our teammates.

“Get organized,” she told us.

We hurried to obey.

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Gleaming – 9.10

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A droplet of blood fell from Capricorn’s gauntlet.  Amid the patchwork of glare and deep shadow that illuminated the prison, this droplet fell while he jogged through the light.  I was hyperalert enough that it caught my eye, and it struck enough nerves to stay with me for far too long after the fact.

I was flying, which gave me some ability to twist around and rotate in the air.  I’d been glancing to one side, checking our flank, but in the aftermath of seeing that droplet, I found myself flying backward, looking back toward the group rather than out ahead of us.  It took Sveta meeting my eyes and a few simultaneous glances from the others to bring me back to reality.

Weird that she was talking to Rain like she was.  Did I need to worry?  I felt like Capricorn and I were more on the same page-

Worrisome given the blood and the flare of temper.  Me back at the hideout.  Him just now, with that Teachered Officer.

-But Rain and Sveta seemed a lot cooler about Goddess, and the protocols of proper caping were far less ingrained in them.

Tristan was talking to them about Goddess.  About trusting protocols.  The blind led the blind.

I wanted my own blind self to join in, but I didn’t trust myself to string coherent thoughts together.

Battle mode, Victoria.

Thinking about the ingrained things helped.

How many nights had the teenaged me gone out in costume?  White costume with the dress and the skintight shorts beneath for modesty, gloves, knee-high boots, short cape, my tiara with its spikes radiating out.  That was physical.  I’d stretch, check on any injuries from the night before, adjusting my costume to cover any hints that I wasn’t invulnerable, and then I’d be out the door, running first and then flying.  All of that was the physical, the external.

Internally, it was excitement, anticipation, reminding myself of all of Mom’s little tricks about how to present oneself when out in costume.  I would be thinking about the recent crime maps, the online listings of last known sightings by villains, and mom and dad’s rules for my costumed activities.

The lines blurred at times, but it was very much a role I wrapped around myself, past and present.  A mode.

It hadn’t been that long ago that hands tattooed in red, black, and gold reached out for me in a place I’d thought safe and mine.  I was shaken.  I remained shaken enough that a droplet of red threatened to bring me back to that wretched place where Sveta had been forced to grab me and stop me.

But routine left its- its scars, I supposed, even though I didn’t think of them as bad scars.  It wasn’t just the bad experiences that left their mark.  A route walked through the wilderness enough times became a dirt path, a scar through nature.  Cities were harder to alter, but a cape or team of capes making an area part of their regular routine changed that area.  A pair of gloves and knee-high boots could be washed and worn enough times that they came to fit perfectly.  Scars and marks, impressions.  Impressions had been the idea I’d been searching for, and I was glad to have it.

I had to be able to do this.  I had to find that worn path, that image that I could wear as comfortably as any pair of gloves.  I had to be able to settle into that mindset.

Any alternative to being functional was not okay.  Not for right this moment, with so many people counting on us.  Not for the long term, when it meant I might have nothing at all in the aftermath.

There were too many Welds, Crystals, Vistas and Major Malfunctions out there.  Too many Jaspers, Gilpatricks, Yamadas, Natalies, and Darnalls.

A droplet of red, blood red fingers.

I pushed the image out of my head.  There was a desperate edge to my thoughts as I forced myself back on track.  Into that well-trodden mindset.

The head office of the prison and many of the administration buildings were toward the south end of the complex, with the yard situated at the middle-south, minimizing travel time from any of the cell block apartments.  Those in the higher security cells to the north had to walk further, but I had to imagine they didn’t get yard time or they got less.  Either way, we had two options, only one of which was a good option.  The bad option was to head south, loop around the bottom, and make our way to the women’s half of the prison.  That route put us closer to the prison entrance, where Lung currently was.

We would have to deal with that, with him, but not now.  I was happy procrastinating on that particular encounter.

“Rain!” I heard the voice.  It was higher, but it was from the guy’s side of the prison.  “Crystalclear.”

The voice came from one of the apartment buildings near Rain’s.  I flew up for a better view, and saw the man at the window.  He was heavy, with the kind of double chin that hung over his collarbone.  He had wiry stubble, and there wasn’t much helping to distinguish the end of the facial hair and the start of body hair.  His hair was short and uneven, and it was greasy, which made the uneven spikes that much more noticeable.

Most notable was his mouth.  He looked like he had chewed on an ink packet.  His teeth were yellow-white, but the spaces between them, the lines around his mouth and his tongue were all black.

Coalbelcher.

“…and a villainess?  Heroine?”

“Heroine.”

He gave me an up-down look that made my skin crawl.  Still staring at me, he called down.  “How are you out, boys?  What’s this commotion about?  I’m offended you interrupted my motherfucking meal, and I’m more offended you’re running around with two legs.”

“Special dispensation, since we used to be heroes,” Rain said.  “Two masters are fighting over who gets to take over the prison, deactivate the ankle bombs and recruit everyone inside.”

“Yeah?  Are we hoping they win?”

“One of them, maybe,” Rain said.

“Neither of them,” Crystalclear said, loud enough to be heard from the second floor.  At a more regular volume, he said, “I think your judgment isn’t that good right now, Rain.”

“Neither,” I echoed Crystalclear, not sure I sounded like I believed it.

Crystalclear moved his arm, pointing, and Coalbelcher leaned over the railing to see him better.  While the prison boss wasn’t looking, I gave Cyrstalclear a slight nod.

The others hurried on their way.  I saw Coalbelcher practically twitch, seeing them leave without a goodbye.  He was the boss of the men’s side, and he’d been ignored.

I could afford to stay.  I had to think about the future, consider options.  If we pissed this guy off, we could win today and see Rain suffer for it tomorrow.  “They have to run.  Time’s critical, and the guards are coming.  We don’t know which of them we can trust.”

“Hm.  I could be useful there.  What do ya think about getting me some of that special dispensation?” Coalbelcher asked.  He licked his fingers, then smudged the black spit around one eye.  It looked more like grainy black paint than anything.

“I have trouble believing you were a hero,” I said.

His fingers dragged slowly down one cheek, smearing black there.  Between the black eye socket and the cheek, it was the initial steps toward a skull face.

“A lot of trouble,” I said.  “If you try to leave, they’ll take your leg.  Sorry.”

“You sure?  I said I can be useful, and I see fires over there,” he said.  He pointed in the direction of the prison entrance.  There was a diffuse orange glow.  “I love fire.  Maybe I save lives if that gets out of control.”

With guys like this, it was all about respect.  It was hard, though, when nothing about his appearance merited it, and his vaguely lecherous approach shattered what little I was able to sum up.  Still… “Our old teammate talked you up.  He said you were the guy in charge, and we could use some of that to keep the prisoners under control if things get hairy.  Would if I could, Coalbelcher.”

“Find a way, yeh?”

That kind of order felt vaguely like a threat.  I wasn’t sure how to respond, so I simply nodded, then flew after the others.

A part of me had hoped for reasonable from the guy.  I wasn’t sure if I’d made anything better, but I wasn’t sure I’d made it any worse either.  Rain and Crystalclear running without saying goodbye had put the guy in a worse mood, but I wasn’t sure anything short of being part of the action would have put him in a good mood.  I’d tried, I’d left a door open.

It would have to do.

Rain had used his blades to cut through the fence and the wall separating the two halves of the prison, and the group was through.  Halogen lights were on and being manually operated, and the lights roved across the prison complex.  I saw one start to move in the direction of the group and the hole in the wall,and I flew in that direction to intercept.  If they had rifles-

The light stopped moving, then turned in the direction of the front gate, panning over the empty yard, over a group of officers who were hunkered down by a building, and then casting a light on the distant scene where, presumably, Lung was engaged in a fight.

I flew closer, just to double check it wouldn’t spin around, and I saw Sveta perched on the fence by the light.  I stopped short when I saw the disjointed tentacles poised around her.

“It’s okay,” she said.  My eyes were adjusting to the gloom, but the adjustment to seeing her face was helped by the fact her face was as pale as it was.  I could see the black tendrils at her face and around her battle damage.  “These are courtesy of Rain.”

It was what he’d been talking to her about on the ground.

The ‘tentacles’ were arm segments, repeated over and over.  Black tendrils snaked through the connecting mesh, but didn’t snake out, which was the important part.

“Is it fragile?” I asked.

“No.  Maybe.”

“Are you okay with it?”

“I want to be useful.  I don’t have to be human-shaped.”

“You want to be human shaped.”

“Yeah.  I guess that’s something Sveta gets, but Tress will have to put it off if she wants to operate at her best,” she said.  She stood up straighter, moving the prosthetic tentacles in the weird, stilted way that I’d seen her walk when I’d first seen her at the group therapy session.  She braced herself against the platform, then moved the tentacle down to the catwalk at the searchlight tower’s edge.  She grabbed an officer and pulled him along the grating that was the catwalk floor, where the glow from the spotlight illuminated him.  He was as young as either Tress or I, black, wearing a uniform.  An earring glinted at his ear.  “Can you check his cuffs for me?”

I did.  One was loose.  I tightened it.

“You’re unhurt?” I asked the officer.

I could see his nostrils flare, his lips pressed into a line.  He glared up at me.

“Situation normal’s all fucked up.  We’re here to help, really.”

No response.

This wasn’t being a hero in a neighborhood, even a hostile neighborhood like Hollow Point or the worst areas of Brockton Bay.  We were invaders, people who didn’t belong.  Whether it was guard or prisoner, we had few people we could count as true allies.

I met Tress’ eyes.  She nodded.

We left the tower, heading in the direction the others had gone.  Capricorn was leading the way to Ashley’s cell, the projector compass in hand.

Not that it was necessary.  I’d been before.

As I flew closer, I could see the pair of Swansong and Damsel at the balcony.  both wore the prison-provided coveralls, but Swansong wore a white undershirt or camisole under hers, the front left open.  Damsel wore only a black sleeveless top, her coveralls tied at the waist.  Fitting those claws through the sleeves would be very difficult.  They gripped the railing, metal blades long enough for her to scratch her toes without bending over, a thin, ripped webwork of skin stretched over them.

It was only Swansong who hopped down from the balcony.  Her blast interrupted her descent, and interrupted many of the shouts and calls from the woman inmates at the other doorways and balconies.

Swansong was as elegant as her raw, crude detonations of darkness and warped space were violent.  At the same time, I could see the tension in Damsel as she looked down at us, claws gripping metal railing, her eyes wild.  She looked like she could barely resist jumping down as well.

Capricorn and I were the first at the scene, as Tress dropped down to Rain’s side, touching one of her new parts.

It was Tristan and Byron, Swansong with Damsel looking down, and then myself.  Our halves removed by one step, one way or another.

“Your… sister?” Capricorn asked.

“She’s stuck where she is,” Damsel said, referring to herself in the third person.  She didn’t look like she could sit still, her claws moving, metal scraping metal.

“I could come.  We’re on the same side,” Damsel made it sound like she was being intentionally insincere.

I met Swansong’s eyes.

“She watched the meeting with Goddess,” Swansong said, as if that summed it up.  She tilted her head to one side.  “Where are Cryptid and Lookout?”

“Lookout is with Goddess,” I said.

Swansong’s stare was level.  Again, that curious stillness.

“Your little friend is in good hands,” Damsel commented from above.  She smiled.

Everything in her micro-expressions was different.  The degree to which she fractionally widened and narrowed her eyes in the course of a single sentence, the slight movements of her bladed hands, as if to create implications as she said ‘hands’, the intonations.  All of it was keyed in a way that suggested an implicit threat or imminent action, like she was coiled up and ready to… blast with her power or lash out.

This wasn’t the Ashley I’d come to know.  This was the Ashley I could imagine working with the Slaughterhouse Nine.

“Is she safe?” Swansong asked.

“She’s-” I started to answer.  “She’s with Goddess.”

Swansong nodded, “And Cryptid?”

“Cryptid left.  On an errand for Goddess with my sister.”

“He’s being more Cryptid-like than usual today,” Tristan observed.

“Of course he is,” Swansong said.  She glanced at me.  “Your sister?”

All around us, prisoners were noticing the scene.  Women’s voices were raised.  Pleading to be let out, threatening, commenting.  Less lewd than the guys’ side had been, but there was still lewdness.

My skin crawled at the thought of Amy.  My heart raced like I was only a step away from attacking Amy again, yet she wasn’t anywhere near here, and I wasn’t that angry in the moment.

“The less said the better,” I answered her, as diplomatically as I could.

“Then I won’t say anything.”

Rain and Tress caught up.

“Those are my arms,” Swansong said.

“What?” Tristan asked.

She pointed at Tress’s new addition.  The black wire mesh connected individual cylinders… pale shells that would have once been parts of Swansong’s arms.

“Uh, yeah,” Rain said.  “I wanted to do something more practical when we thought things were getting bad.  I made a few prototype versions of your arms.  With levers, switches, and wires inside, like the snapshots Lookout took of the inside of Tress’ suit.”

“Sneaky,” Damsel called out, smiling.

“There’s a limit to what I can do with your hands without leaving you worse off,” Rain sounded apologetic as he explained to Swansong.  “And I had a few days where my tinker power was working better.  Not that that is very tinkered up.  Half and half.”

“It’s fine,” Swansong said.  “If you’re going to use anyone’s arms as a model, you at least used tasteful ones.”

“I appreciate the thought,” Tress said. “And thank you, Swansong, for being okay with the use of your arms.”

“Your hands are okay?” he asked Swansong.  “They’re working fine?”

“They’re sufficient for tonight, thank you.  Let’s focus on Lookout and the prison, not me.”

“We have one more person to grab,” Crystalclear said.

Tristan held up the compass.

“I’ll get her,” Crystalclear said.  “You catch your teammate up.”

He wants to tell her that we’re Goddessed. 

That was fine.

Capricorn clapped his gauntlets together.  I didn’t miss the flash of dark red across the back of one gauntlet.  He spoke with authority and confidence, “Then let’s talk goals.  Goddess, Lookout and Natalie are after the assistant Warden and the Wardens Teacher co-opted.  Lung and Teacher’s soldiers are at the front and are presumably after Goddess.  Prisoners are staying put, but we’re in a weird place right now.”

“Weird how?” Rain asked.

“It’s about confidence and doubt,” I said.  “Prisoners could riot or test their ankle bombs if they get too agitated or overconfident, and that leads to either casualties or an unsalvageable situation.  They could betray us if they think this situation doesn’t work out for them, you never know with all the powers we have around us.  Officers don’t know who to trust, but they could start shooting people or people with the power could start detonating bombs if they panic.”

“That’s without getting into Teacher and Goddess,” Capricorn said.

“Or us,” Tress said.

“Or us,” he conceded.

I looked away, back toward where the fighting was worst.  The fires extended from the hole Goddess had put in the wall to a nearby administration building.

“We support Goddess first,” Swansong said.  “Get Lookout, get Natalie, get control of the situation.  All four of those things are tied into one another.”

“I don’t entirely disagree,” Capricorn said, “But Goddess is complicated.  Do you know what master-stranger protocols are?”

“No,” Swansong said.

“It sounds like the kind of thing the annoying Protectorate mooks would use,” Damsel threw out her remark from a distance, as if it was an extension of Swansong’s ‘no’.

“It is,” I said, my voice firm.  “But let’s settle for saying that the situation is complicated.  The nicest way I can think of framing it is that if we help her too blatantly, we hurt ourselves in the long run.”

“Why do we care?  Deal with tomorrow when it comes.  I know at least two of us are clever enough to come up with something,” Damsel remarked.

I wondered if we could or should just walk away.  If we weren’t waiting for Crystalclear to catch up with us again…

“Maybe we think of it as a question of reputation,” Swansong said.  “If we appear to be too subservient…”

“Mm,” Damsel made a sound.

“Mm,” Swansong echoed her.  She glanced at me and rolled her eyes slightly.

“I don’t really care about status,” Rain said.  “I want people to be okay, and… I want us to be okay too.  I’m here for a reason, and I don’t want that to get flipped upside-down or screwed up along the way.  I know that’s a crummy thing to prioritize when there are higher priorities, like people’s safety, Goddess, keeping the peace, and keeping Teacher from becoming the most powerful man on all the earths.”

“If he isn’t already,” Tress’s expression and tone were dark.

“It makes sense to go to Goddess,” Swansong said.

“It makes sense to split up,” Crystalclear said, as he rejoined us.  “We have other issues.”

He’d returned from the apartment with the other undercover member of Foresight.  The girl was short, her uniform not really fitting her, and she had improvised a mask of several pieces of paper and tape, several sheets forming a cone that encapsulated her face, with holes for the eyes that had pen scribbles surrounding each hole, darkening the perimeters.  Sheets of paper were connected at one corner each to form ears at the sides of her head.

“Ratcatcher, meet Breakthrough,” Crystalclear said.

“I’ve theen thome of them around,” she said.  “Thveta and I talked thome before I came.”

“Tell them what you told me.”

“A little friend of mine thayth that Teacher ith in the tunnelth beneath uth,” she said.  She pronounced Teacher like ‘tee-shirt’ with a silent t at the end, and little like ‘liddle’.

“What’s in the tunnels?” Rain asked.

“Networking,” she said.  She raised one leg, tapping the bomb.  “Control and everything that goeth out of the prithon.”

“He’s turning to his backup plans,” I said.  “We de-fanged the Warden and deputy Warden, the assistant Warden is on our side.  The person with the control of the portals and the bombs effectively has control of the prisoner population.”

There was a detonation near the front of the prison.  I saw the flame leap high.

Fuck,” Crystalclear swore.  “That fire is painful to look at with my senses being what they are.”

“Yeth.”

The fire.  Purple flame.

I could connect the dots, even if it was a little belated.  Multiple dots, now that I thought about it.  Multi-layered plans and contingencies.

We were fighting a mastermind after all.

“He paired Lung and the Pharmacist,” I voiced my thought aloud.

“Who and who?” Ratcatcher asked.

“Teacher picked a mercenary tag-team who want to level the prison just as much as Goddess does.  If we don’t want people to get hurt, then we’re going to need to step in.  Lung is… an old enemy.  Since half my life ago, about.”

“You know him?” Crystalclear asked.

“Yeah.  More or less.”

“You handle that then, if you’re comfortable.  I’ll go with Ratcatcher to the access tunnels.”

“We could use a thinker and a level head,” I said.

“I’m kind of under orders to be the level head for Ratcatcher, and I don’t want to go anywhere near that fire, in case I blow a mental fuse.  I don’t think this is really negotiable,” Crystalclear said.

“Ugh,” Ratcatcher said.

Ugh is right.  Crystalclear is just about the only person who isn’t Goddess influenced, who knows what’s going on.

“I can’t change your mind?” I asked.

“No,” Crystalclear said.  “No, this is the network.  It’s important.

It’s important.

I connected to what he was thinking.  The others, going by their faces, might not have.

The network.  Possibly with the means of calling for help.

“Alright,” I said.

“You know the way, Rat?” Crystalclear asked.

“I do,” Ratcatcher said.  “We’ll want more firepower.  My friendth reported a few powerth.”

“Then I’ll come,” Tress said.  “It’s- it has to be better than talking about master-stranger protocols and doubting myself or my teammates.”

“I’m still not sure I get those protocols,” Rain said.  “But I’ll do what the team needs.  Do you need wall-breaking power?  Get past any secure doors?”

“No,” Ratcatcher said.  “I can get through motht lockth quick.  Or my friendth can.”

As if to punctuate that last statement, a mouse poked its head up from her prison uniform collar, followed by a much larger rat.

“You talk to rodents?” Rain asked.

“No.  Not mush.  Only crathy people talk to rodenth.  But rodenth talk to me.  Very different.”

“Handy,” Rain said.

“Yes.  But we don’t need handy.  We need firepower,” Ratcatcher said.

Still?” Tristan asked.

“I’ll come,” Swansong said.  “If the rest of you think you’ll be okay?”

The rest of us.  Tristan, myself, and Rain.

“Why go?” Tristan asked.

“Because I trust myself more doing this than I do being near that.”

“Can you fight in tunnelth?” Ratcatcher asked.

Above, Damsel shook her head, as if it was already known.

“We’ll find out,” Swansong said, contradicting her ‘sister’.  “But I know I’m very good at fighting brutes like Lung.  Too good.  I don’t want to put myself in that situation again, not this soon.”

“I… can’t argue with that,” Tress said.

“Take my phone,” Capricorn told Crystalclear.  “We’ll stay in touch.”

Crystalclear nodded.

As a quartet, Ratcatcher, Crystalclear, Swansong, and Tress hurried for a spot at the midpoint between three buildings.  If there was an access hatch, I didn’t see it.  Women looking down from balconies hurled obscenities, complained about the delays for their dinner, and shouted to each other, asking what was going on with us being down here and the fires at the gate.

It left Capricorn, Rain, and I as the strike squad.  When we reunited with the others, we would have Goddess and Lookout.  If there was anyone at the other side of the portal, then we could sure use them too.

But Lung was a problem.

And- I moved as Tristan took a step forward.  My hand caught him right in the middle of the chest.  He stopped here he was, me in front of him, hand against his chest.

Lung was a problem, but so was Tristan.

My hand moved down to his gauntlet.  I grabbed it and lifted it.  Had we been on the other side of the portal, the gauntlet would have been cleaned by the freezing rain.  It wasn’t cleaned.

“I think we need Byron,” I said, moving his hand so the light highlighted where the blood was.  “We can’t have you acting like you did with that guard.”

“He had something going on mentally.  Wouldn’t stop,” Tristan said.  “It wasn’t as uncontrolled as it looked.  I was just trying to apply enough force to get him to stop.”

I wasn’t sure what to say to that.

“You told me to rein you in.  I’m reining.  We need Byron.”

Tristan was still for a long moment.

Too long a moment.  The fires were growing in the distance, and there was too much going on.

“No joking here, Tristan.  Change.”

“You had to ask like that.  Evoking the Tristan-Byron protocol?”

“Yeah?”

“If you ask, I’m switching,” he said.  “Just- there’s no guarantee he’s on board.”

“We’ll trust him,” I told Tristan.  “He recommended the protocols to me when he was clear and I wasn’t.  I have to believe he’ll abide by them now.”

He nodded, and then he passed me the compass.

Dissolving into a blur, he shifted to become Byron.  Lighter armor, in multiple senses of the word.  No blood marked his gauntlet.

“Okay?” I asked.  “We’re on the same page?”

“Master-stranger,” Byron answered.

We cut across the yard, with Rain using his power to slice through the fence.  It looked like posts were now being abandoned because of the chaos at the front gate.  Inmates were getting more agitated, and the guards weren’t at nearby towers or posts to tell them to shut it.  People were heading to where the fires were, to put them out or put the causes of the fire down.

“Fill us in on Lung, since it looks like he’s our biggest problem,” Byron said.

“Lung is a changer, with powers hooked into the change,” I said.

“Like Cryptid?” Rain asked.

“Different than Cryptid.  Lung changes to the same thing every time, slow progression, but a steady ramp-up the longer he’s in a fight.  Metal armor, pyrokinesis, enhanced senses, physiology, quickness, added parts.  He’s a warlord by temperament, but he was always missing something that let him take his gangs to the next level.”

“He has pyrokinesis?” Byron asked.

I nodded, content to let the scene that we were approaching serve as the more complete answer to Byron’s question.  Fires, purple and otherwise, spread out across ground that should have been exhausted of all fuel sources.  The heat was being turned up on the admin buildings and the entrance.

Teacher wasn’t the type to sic Lung on Goddess and expect a win.  He was the type to sic the combination of a fireproof monster who manipulated fire and a person who set powers on fire on Goddess and expect a win.

Lung was already partially changed as we sighted him.  He had enough scales that the officers who shot at him weren’t getting through, and he was big enough that the bullets that did make contact seemed to lack stopping power.  Each couple of gunshots was answered by Lung throwing out a rolling wave of flames.  The flames would travel a ways, hit one of the lingering purple flames on the ground, and then explode in size by three times.  Whole squadrons of officers were sent running.

No Pharmacist to be seen.  She was nearby, but it seemed to be the peeking-through-a-window nearby, not standing on the battlefield nearby.

No Blindside, no Kingdom Come.

Plenty of armed Teacher thralls.

Lung used his pyrokinesis, and purple flames swelled, billowing in his direction.  The flames would draw close, then the Pharmacist would extinguish the flames closest to the brute of a man and his underlings.

Interplay.

Byron began drawing out blue motes.  Rain created his silver scythes.

“Careful,” I murmured.

“Purple fire ignites powers,” Byron said.  “I remember.”

His water splashed down on one of the worse blazes at the admin building.  It had been the building where the Warden, his deputy and his assistant had all been set up.

It served to get Lung’s attention, pulling it away from Goddess and presumably Lookout.

“Dallon,” Lung growled the word.  Still capable of speech.  “Pests.  Too many of you remain.”

They were hard words to hear put out there so casually.  Words that made me think of Crystal’s family, of too many funerals in too short a span of time.

He moved one hand in an almost casual way, and the flames expanded, becoming a slow-motion, rolling detonation, with a sound like the thunder of a dozen lightning strikes.  A lick of purple flame caught it and ignited the pyrokinesis itself, the purple disappearing in the rolls of blinding oranges and reds.  Lung’s regular pyrokinesis manipulated those flames, in turn, expanding them.

No games, nothing held back.  Only a wall of flame that could have swamped many houses and conventional buildings, produced in mere seconds.  A ball passed between two people, growing with each toss, with us in the line of fire.

I saw it coming, braced myself, and activated the Wretch, positioning myself between the wall and my teammates.

For a moment, an eye-blink, I saw the Wretch outlined.

Byron had bent his head down, armored arm shielding his eyes.  Rain was the one who seemed to suffer the most from the ambient heat, with no shield or barrier to protect him.

“Go,” I told him, indicating.

He bolted for the building.  I saw Lung move, drawing a hand back with flame appearing in the palm.  I pushed out with my aura, taking flight, with every intent of interrupting his throw.

A fast-moving spark struck the Wretch, leaving me without my defenses.  Another hit me dead center in the breastplate, making me sag in the air as my body was momentarily paralyzed, my heart skipping a beat with the intensity of the shock.

Other shots were aimed at Byron, who seemed to endure, and at Rain, who didn’t.  I saw Rain fall where Byron and I had withstood the hits, not making it to the door into the admin building before the momentary paralysis gripped him.

“Go,” Byron said.

I flew in Rain’s direction, while Byron stopped using his water to put out fires and started using it to get at Lung from oblique angles.  Here and there, the water caught purple flames, and became gouts of the stuff.  Wherever she was, the fires extinguished before they reached Lung.

If he was immune to it, there was no reason to continually extinguish it.  It was very possible that the Pharmacist’s fire could ignite Lung’s fire immunity.  But she had eyes on the situation, and she was keeping him safe from her power, while he thrived in an environment where fire and heat were so ready at hand.

Lung ignored Byron’s water, ignited or no, and threw out flame, walling off my access to Rain.

In the midst of it, I saw Rain using one of his lesser-used powers.  I could see it only because I saw the purple sparks and the lesser purple flames in the grass swell.

Reinforcements had to be on the way.  Crystalclear was working on it in the access tunnels.  We had Cryptid on the far side.  We had- fuck me, we had my sister, of all people.  The people we’d lined up on the far side to delay Teacher were no doubt regrouping.

We had to survive long enough for help to come, while keeping the monsters like Lung from doing any real, lasting damage.  If we could do that, then our lesser sins might be forgiven or looked past.  The harm of guards, our means of gathering information.  The false pretenses by which we’d arranged our visits, when we had a real stake in things.

We had to endure.  We had to endure against a man-turned-dragon who would burn any normal individual to a crisp, and a hidden woman who would expertly burn the abnormal out of anyone else.  Until reinforcements.

They were showing up now.  Help.  Assistance.

The first of them, unfortunately, were Lung’s reinforcements, not ours.  A blood-spattered Warden and Deputy Warden.

Our reinforcements were worrisome in a completely different way.  When Goddess lowered herself from the top of the building to the ground, voices went quiet in nearby buildings.  She was essentially alone.  Natalie and Kenzie were close enough to see, but they were apart from Goddess.  They had the assistant warden with them.  Our guy, who theoretically was able to detonate the bombs that were strapped to most prisoner’s ankles, or to leave them be.

It looked like he was closer to panic than not, for what little it mattered.  He, Lookout, and Natalie were in the company of a woman who stood behind Lookout, hands on our teammate’s shoulders.  Monokeros.  The child-killing Unicorn IV.

And I couldn’t even afford to do anything about it.

Lung roared, as only a person with an enhanced physique could, and then he leaped forward.

Goddess matched him, lifting herself up, the purple fire catching and then tracing the invisible diagrams and forces that buoyed her, only a few feet behind her because she moved fast enough to outrun its pace.  More fire traced other powers she was using, blinding her and burning away the invisible, abstract forces that reached out from her and toward Lung’s brain.

It didn’t seem to give her pause.  She flew forward, no doubt straight into the convoluted trap that Teacher would have planned out weeks before.

I took flight, past flames and toward blue motes and lines, into that selfsame snare.

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Gleaming – Interlude 9.y

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Byron

“We can do this,” Tristan said.  But for Boundless, who was working other venues, Furcate and Steamwheel, the young members of Team Reach stood behind him, silent.

Byron was silent as well, but not by dint of choice.  His attention was on the details, both of Tristan and of the unfolding mission.  He wasn’t sure why.  It wasn’t as though he could burst forward to offer advice, and it wasn’t as though Tristan was going to let him out to offer input.

“What if he doesn’t show?” Tribute asked.

“Then we wait a bit longer, and then we go back, and we can tell ourselves that we tried,” Coiffure said.

“Trying isn’t good enough,” Tristan said.

“Sometimes trying is all we can do,” Moonsong said.

“It’s not good enough,” Tristan said, more intense now.  Because it was Moonsong speaking?  Byron had to wonder.  Tristan seemed to rein himself in, and Byron could feel the intake of half of a breath, almost a snort as that breath cut short.  Appearing to be calmer to everyone but Byron, who had that inside view, Tristan added, “The guy hurt Furcate.  He hurt Reconciliation.”

Be a little bit less obvious if you don’t want to tell the whole team?

“And Long John and apparently Whipping Girl in Virginia,” Coiffure said, like she was trying to pacify.  “I know.”

“He’s breaking the rules.  I get it,” Figurehead said.  “But we can’t blame ourselves if we don’t end up taking a non-opportunity.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Moonsong asked.

“I… guess I don’t?” Figurehead answered.

Tristan turned around to look at Moonsong, giving her a hard look.

She’s being clever, and that usually brings people closer together, yet Tristan thinks she’s betraying him, Byron thought.

“The shitheel is escalating,” Moonsong said.  “This is crime 101.  Worse incidents, with shorter times between each.”

“You’re talking all fancy, Moon, but I’m betting you learned that from a crime drama,” Coiffure said.

“It’s true, though,” Moonsong said.  She met Tristan’s eyes.  He looked away.  She continued like it hadn’t happened, “He’s not just a lowlife scumbag who hurts good people.  He’s hurting good people more and more as time goes on, and he’s going to escalate to the point where he kills.”

“Yeah,” Coiffure said.  “Not disagreeing with you.”

“If he doesn’t show, he doesn’t show,” Figurehead said.  “We can agree he needs to go to jail, but it doesn’t change the facts.”

Moonsong ventured, “I think what Capricorn is saying is that if the target doesn’t show, we should focus our energies on chasing him down.”

“Maybe,” Figurehead said.  He looked at Tristan, who shut his eyes, leaving Byron to only detect the nod by the mechanics of muscles moving, the weighty sensation of fluids shifting across his brother’s head.  “He needs to be dealt with, not arguing that.”

Can you at least acknowledge that Moonsong’s backing you up, shoring you up where you’re weak?  You’re lost in the focus on the mission and she’s handling the team for you.

“Update from Furcate and Wheel?” Tristan asked.

“In position.”

The location was part of a mess of buildings, set in a triangular plot of land that seemed as though it had been pledged to three different buildings, ended up shared by all of them, and was then complicated further by the access and egress roads.  An apartment complex loomed over a capital-E-shaped section of storage lockers, with a view that was further blocked by a squat building that was shared by multiple stores.

It was no surprise that none of the three installations seemed to be doing especially well.  Like plants trying to share the same sunlight, water, and soil, all three withered, with an apparent lack of thriving.

A highway, a major road, and a road leading off of the major road and into a morass of suburbs boxed it all in.  The car they were expecting eased its way down a narrow passage that cut beneath the highway, onto a single lane road that would turn the bend and enter the area with the storage lockers.

They heard the slamming of the car door.  Tristan leaned out to look, a fleeting glance before he pulled his head back in.

The image was momentary, but it stuck in Byron’s mind’s eye.  A man with Boundless’ height, but Tribute’s frame.  Boundless could have been a basketball player, if he’d been coordinated in the slightest, and Tribute was a middleweight boxer.

It was Paris, in costume.  His mask was the sort that covered the top half of his head, going down over his eyes and nose, his hair was long, very straight and blond, and the costume was a mix of loose cloth, like a mantle worn over the shoulders, and the form-fitting, with cloth and leather bands wrapped around arms and torso.  Black and blue-green, with decorative flourishes in a spade-like shape at the front of the mantle, where it hung over his sternum, and in the metal at the end of his belt.

He’d been bent over almost double to look into the car window.

“Let him go, let him go,” Tristan whispered.

Is he talking to the group, or is he talking to himself?

The car had to maneuver carefully to navigate the tight space.  It had been here before- the roads in and out of the storage locker area were confusing to new visitors, with most being one-way and one being out of sight.

“This is where he comes after he gets hired for a mission,” Figurehead said.  “Our sources were right.  Shit.”

Figurehead’s nervous.  His power gives him better info with unfamiliar targets.  He’s run into Paris before.

“Good sources,” Coiffure said.  “Would it be weird to get them thank you chocolates or something?”

“Given the area, I think the chocolates would only work if they had heroin in them or something,” Moonsong said.

“I don’t think that would go over well with the boss,” Coiffure said, smiling.

“Let him go inside,” Tristan said, all seriousness, as if he was unaware of the light, tension-breaking conversation.  “Let him get changed.”

“Are we playing it that way?” Figurehead asked.  “Perception is going to be that we hit someone out of costume.”

“If he wants to grab his mask on his way out, that’s up to him,” Tristan said.

The shutter of the storage unit whisked open, banging as it reached its apex. Tristan peeked out, just in time to see the door sliding closed, Paris’ legs and feet on the inside.  He looked in the direction the car had gone, then stepped out of cover.

Orange motes began to move around the door, forming like the flames of lighters catching, then striking out in straight lines.

He spared only a glance over his shoulder for his team, who was behind him.  His focus was entirely on Paris, now.

With a clench of his fist, he made the lines into something solid.  A ramp with the sides curving around to the sides of the door, with the backing that kept it from rocking forward.  Had someone sat on the ramp and if the door had been open, they could have slid inside.

“What in the world are you making?” Tribute asked.

Tristan pressed a finger to his lips.  There was a pause as he listened, and then he began drawing his next object.  A pillar, singular, high above.

The door opened, and Tristan passed control, letting the pillar become water.

He can’t even trust me to follow his logic, Byron thought, as the water came down, hitting the funnel.  The stone structure bucked slightly, even with the reinforced back, but it did its job.  The water was funneled to flow into the door of the storage unit, straight at Paris.

Team Reach fanned out as Byron drew out more water.  The direction he drew was more important than the points of light- the opposite of Tristan’s handling of it.  He placed the lines so they flowed down, aiming at the ramp.

No movement from within, no sound, no response, no swearing.

Byron hesitated in his drawing.

Figurehead drew his fingers together, middle fingers and thumbs touching, so there was a circle in the middle, and he aimed it at the storage area.  “He’s moving!  He’s going through the far wall!”

Moonsong shouted, loud enough to be heard on the far side.  “Steamwheel, Furcate!”

Byron let the water down.  A spray this time, not just a body of falling water with some direction to its flow.  It hit the ramp and banked into the storage unit.

He didn’t wait for the water to finish flowing or moving away.  He released that water, disconnecting himself from the lines and then drew out others, low to the ground, pointing up at an angle.

Unlike Tristan, he didn’t gesture to confirm or out of some ‘rule of cool’, as Tristan had put it.  It was to signal Moonsong as the water sprayed.

They’d done this before.  They’d practiced it with most members of the team.  He ceded control.

Sprayed water became ramps.  His teammates ran up the ramps, leaped, and were buoyed by Moonsong’s gravity.

To work with her like this, to see the team working with them like this, it lifted his spirits.  In everything that he did with Tristan, in eating, in sleeping, in watching stuff, listening to music, there was so little in the way of middle ground.  There was nothing the two of them both enjoyed and could enjoy together.

Except this.  Finding that teamwork.  Ceding control mid-run, as the others bounded forward toward their quarry, knowing Tristan could leap off of the ramp, that Moonsong was at the other ramp, he was okay with it.  It-

Tristan reached the top of the ramp, and instead of leaping into the field of reduced gravity, reached out for the lip of his funnel and hurdled it, his armor skidding on the rock with its veins of metal running through it.  The water was already flowing out, calf-deep as Tristan landed in it, pushed himself to an upright position, and headed straight into the storage locker.

Not sticking with the team, but taking his own route.

Byron could feel the strain in Tristan’s legs as he ran through the water.  He could see the red lights, a row of them ahead of them.

Had he been able, he would have said no, he would have vetoed this course of action.  It was too brash, too aggressive.

He could only watch, worried.  Tristan’s armored boots stomped through water, Tristan ducked through the hole Paris had made, and he punched into the red lights in a move that Byron had seen him practice, though not with this nuance.  Never before to augment his glove and arm with a mass of spikes.

Tristan hurdled boxes, and he emerged from the storage locker that backed Paris’.  Into the fight where the others were confronting Paris.  Steamwheel on her knees ahead of him, Figurehead and Tribute flanking him, and Paris in the center, wearing a white undershirt, jeans, soaked sneakers, and his mask.

His arrival from behind caught Paris off guard, but, as far as Byron could tell, it also caught their team off guard.

Paris took advantage of it, leaping closer to the immobilized Steamwheel while remaining out of reach, and he swung his arm.  The swinging motion produced flying darts at set intervals, though dart might have been the wrong word.  Lines or needles more than anything thrown toward a bullseye in a bar or kid’s basement.  One sank into the decorative metal at the side of Tribute’s leg, another into a shield that Coiffure fashioned of her hair, while the rest buried themselves into the road.

Where each needle sank in, they became a spray, a geyser, firing the opposite direction the needle had traveled.  Decorative metal and road disintegrated, the pieces sent flying back toward the point Paris had been- now the point Tristan stood.   Coiffure wrapped up the damaged hair in more of her hair, that flowed out like strands of wire she could manipulate, ‘catching’ the geyser in a spherical bubble of hair that left her momentarily unable to use her power.  Flecks of metal and road chipped at Tristan’s armor, threatening to strike him in the exposed portions of his face, his eyes in particular.

Tristan had to blind himself by bringing his arm up to shield his eyes.  Byron could feel the pain explode as Paris used the blindness, kicked one from the side, maybe trying to sweep Tristan’s legs out from under him.

Let me out, let me fight.  We can trade off in moments like this.

Tristan landed on all fours, tried to find his balance, and before he could raise his head, felt the impact of a kick against the side of his helmet.  He went flat.

The giant wheel at Steamwheel’s back spun up, steam poured out, and Steamwheel skidded forward, still on her knees.

Tristan raised his head, watched as Paris backed out of the way, and created a mote of light, moving it only an inch or so before giving it life.  Paris walked past it, twisting around to throw more darts at Steamwheel.

Tristan didn’t even look at Steamwheel- he was focused on Paris, creating another mote, another short motion before he gave it life.

It manifested as a spike, and Paris stepped on it.

“I’m out of action!” Steamwheel shouted, her voice amplified by mechanics in her suit.

The spike hadn’t punched through, but Paris had rolled his ankle and tipped over.  Byron felt a surge of triumph at seeing Moonsong slap Paris down with an increased gravity effect.

Steamwheel hit the ground hard, landing on her back as her suit disintegrated around her, the fragments flying out.  While she was on her back, the fragments were directed at the ground.

Paris twisted around and threw darts toward the roof Moonsong stood on.  She had to move, and as she did, the gravity effect broke.

Another throw clipped Figurehead in the side of his mask.  He had to twist away to keep the resulting spray of his disintegrating mask from firing into the group.

He’s the worst guy for us to fight.  Maybe if we still had Boundless…

Or if you would fucking let me out so we can work together, Tristan!  Work with me!  Work with the team!  This guy is a professional, trained mercenary with more years of fighting capes under his belt than any three of us put together!

Tristan heaved himself to his feet, eyes moving to the ground, seeing the twenty dollar bills floating in the water that was still flowing from the storage locker.  He raised his eyes to Paris, and Paris flicked his hands down, sending darts into the wet road.

A barrier of geysers, disintegrating the road and sending the fragments directly upward.

Tristan trusted his armor to protect him, running past the barrier.  Byron felt the bite of a pellet at one corner of Tristan’s jaw, sharp, with an impact that made teeth clack together, followed by a pain that felt like a sore spot on a tooth had just been hit with ice water, magnified by ten.  Another pellet bit into the back of Tristan’s leg, finding its way into the space beneath armor, past bodysuit, and into calf.

Paris was careful with the one leg where he had rolled his ankle, and Tristan was far less careful with his own injured leg, pushing through the pain.  He closed the distance, orange motes appearing like stars on the ground behind Paris as Tristan charged in, swinging.  Paris backed into a field of spikes and uneven ground, his footing unsteady, every other step a stumble.  He blocked one gauntlet with the length of his arm, and the resulting grimace suggested it hurt.

The surge of triumph in the chest the two brothers shared suggested Tristan was glad to see that hurt.  Tristan shifted his footing, and with his fist still in close proximity to Paris’ arm, slashed out with the spikes that he’d attached to his armor.  Paris pulled back, stumbled more in the process.

A moment later, his feet skidded on Tristan’s rock, wet from the water that had splashed up with each footfall.  Moonsong’s work, pushing him down when his footing was insecure.

Tristan closed the distance, swinging in the moment Paris was essentially reduced to kneeling.  Byron knew every technique Tristan was employing, every thought process.  He’d seen the training sessions and he’d had his own turn at them.

Tribute’s power surged through Tristan’s body, and time seemed to slow down.  In the moment he felt it, Tristan felt confident enough to shift his footing and balance, and throw out a kick from the side.

Not a move Byron would have been confident making, but the reason Tristan did these things, took the risks, made the bad jokes, was because they worked.  Where Byron failed, Tristan succeeded in his recklessness.

The kick landed, Paris catching it with the entirety of his folded arm, being sent sprawling by the impact.  Tristan adjusted his balance, and in the same motion, brought the leg he’d used to kick down in a stomp, aimed at Paris’ ankle.  Paris bent his leg to draw it back and away.

“Agh.”

Moonsong’s voice, pained.

Byron felt a sudden surge of alarm, and his frustration welled as Tristan didn’t even take his eyes off of Paris.  He was drawing out more motes.

Look!  Check on her!

Shit!” Figurehead said.

At that, Tristan glanced to one side.  It was the holes that Paris had put into the ground.  The geysers had spat the high-velocity fragments skyward, and those fragments were coming down.  There was a line of blood at Moonsong’s exposed shoulder.  She bent nearly double and touched her hair as another came down.

Get away, Moon!

Help her, you jackass!

Tristan turned his attention back to Paris.  In that moment, Byron hated Tristan.

On realizing that Paris had shifted position, using long limbs to put one needle to the gap beneath Tristan’s helmet, that hate didn’t fade by half.

Switch.  Look at all of the rock you’ve left here.  The rock on your costume, pointed at him.  If you switch, that rock becomes water, we put him to the ground, and we fucking have him.

Trust me and switch.

Tristan stared Paris down, not moving, not switching.  Behind them, their teammates could be heard running for cover.

The strength and perception effect faded as Tribute had to give up his position.  Tribute gave advantages at the cost of his own, and he needed to focus to do it.

I know you like sports movies, because fuck me, you’ve made me watch a lot.  How can you not draw the short fucking line and connect yourself to the jerkass team ace who thinks the entire team exists to support him and let him score?

Especially when you share a fucking body with one of those teammates!

Tristan’s eyes were locked to Paris’, and Tristan and Byron were both aware of the moment Paris glanced away, noting the teammates who were now beyond the area that was being pelted with a rain of pavement shards.

Tristan moved, reaching, moving his head to one side.  Paris was faster, his free hand grabbing Tristan and throwing him to the ground.

No needle in Tristan’s neck, but Tristan’s armor had been caught, and was coming apart, and Paris was free to run.  More darts were thrown behind him, to cover his retreat.

Furcate was waiting, as Paris sprinted away.  Their arm was in a sling, but they had the other arm in their cat’s paw gauntlet.

As darts were hurled their way, Furcate split in two, each moving in a separate direction, with the darts passing between them.

Each of the two Furcates was different, one of them resembling the original, the other with an arm free of the sling, a costume of a different cut.

Tristan climbed to his feet as Furcate started swiping and slashing at Paris with their claws.  They were nimble, but it was an ordinary human nimbleness, nothing augmented.

For that matter, Paris’ strength and agility weren’t anything special.

Coiffure had apparently realized that her hair was done disintegrating, and she was next into the fray, hair forming a bubble around her as she leaped through the fence of flying particles.  She kept weapons in her hair, blades at the end of braids, hidden in the expansive, growing mane, and she used them, hands reaching out, catching a cord, swinging the blade, her own hair deflecting that blade from hitting her as it carried on its course.  She moved like she had Tribute backing her, with a flying leap like Moonsong was helping with the gravity situation.  When her blades came down, they came down with a force that Moonsong had to have helped with, biting into the pavement.

Then, the rest of the team incapacitated or stuck in support roles, it was Tristan, Furcates, and Coiffure fighting.

Here and there, they drew blood.  It was enough to tell them that they were getting somewhere, achieving something.

Furcate split again.  Unlike their usual gauntlets, this Furcate had gloves that extended to the elbow, with five long blades each, their mask narrow like a fox’s.

Three Furcates, one Tristan, and one Coiffure.

And it should be one Byron, Byron thought.  He wasn’t watching for clues or details anymore.

Furcate was used to fighting alone or as… a pair or a trio, a quartet if they felt like pushing themselves.  Coiffure needed to reach out, and Tristan worked best with battlefields he could exploit, and he was limited in what he could do when any changes he made to footing could hamper either of the others.

And, Byron had to admit, Paris was very good at what he did.  He didn’t curse, even under his breath, he wasted no breath and few movements, and when one person got in the way of another, he used that, taking a position that meant Tristan had Furcate in his way if he wanted to close in.

In one of those moments when he had no access to Paris, Tristan punched his fist into a collection of motes.  They solidified into a single spike, extending forward from Tristan’s hand like an extension of his arm.  Even with his enhanced strength, it was heavy.

Byron could watch as Tristan swung, could see Tristan’s eyes mark the point where Paris’ heart was.

Paris saw it too.  The swing was deflected, the spike pushed downward, that same hand gripping it, pulling Tristan off balance.  Paris’ other hand reached toward Tristan’s chest, where glancing contact with disintegration pins had sliced at his breastplate without producing the geysers.  Much as the spike had been aimed for Paris’ heart, Paris held a fistful of needles aimed at Tristan’s.  Coiffure’s silver locks caught Paris’ arm, stopping him.  As if he was expecting it, he slashed at the locks, freeing his arm to continue forward.

Tristan, only by virtue of the one second of delay, was able to throw himself to the side and fall instead of being struck.  Paris tossed the needles down to the ground near instead.  They erupted, and the violent eruption gave Paris the opportunity to back away from the group.  Moonsong hit him, he stumbled, but he continued to retreat, throwing fistful of needles after fistful of needles, until visibility was nearly gone.

There was no advancing into that storm.  A hail fell on the group, each fragment of ground, building or steel shutter razor sharp and heavy.

Tristan started to advance toward it, and Coiffure stopped him.

“You know you can’t,” she said.

“He’s getting away,” Tristan said, and he sounded hollowed-out, far from any Tristan Byron had ever witnessed.

“They have a way of doing that,” Coiffure said.

“But-” Tristan said.

The second of the Furcates that had appeared now advanced, flinching at the nearby spray of disintegrating street, hopping over potholes that the darts had made.

One metal claw thumped against Tristan’s chest, by his heart.  Furcate’s body rested against his side, head at his shoulder.

“We made him bleed,” the Furcate said, staring into his shoulder.  “We took his storage container from him.  It had money in it.  Probably a lot.”

“I wanted to stop him, for Reconciliation,” Tristan murmured.  “For you.”

“Yeah.”

“For me,” Tristan said.  His voice was barely above a whisper.  “I’ve never hated anyone before, and I hate that man.”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s get under cover before those pellets start raining down any harder,” Coiffure said.  “Come on, you badasses.”

Tristan allowed himself to be led away by strands of silver hair tugging on his arm.  Furcate pulled back, lingered.

The three Furcates turned to one another.  It was as though they played a game of rock paper scissors, but they played with numbers.  Gauntlets were shucked off where needed, so fingers were free.  All three had injured left arms or hands, but in different ways.

Four-four-three, the one closest to the original signaled.

Five-three-five, the second one signaled, at the same time.

Seven-two-five, the one with the fox mask indicated, putting two extended, splinted fingers against the palm of the right hand with all five fingers extended.

“At least it’s a cool costume,” the first Furcate said, before dissipating into smoke.

The second dissolved away as well, leaving only the fox masked Furcate.  They hurried out of the ‘rain’, joining Tristan and Coiffure.

Tristan clapped a hand onto Furcate’s shoulder.  “You good, azúcar?”

Furcate nodded.

Then, seemingly lost for words, or defeated on some fundamental level, Tristan allowed Byron free.

“Fuck it,” Byron whispered under his breath.

“We did the best we could,” Coiffure said.

We?  I was barely there.

It wasn’t worth fighting.  He would hash it out with Tristan later.  Somehow.

“You okay, Moon!?” he hollered.

“Yeah!  Tribute got an ice-cream scoop’s worth taken out of his leg, though!”

Byron winced, and he saw a matching expression on Coiffure’s face.

He had to move his head to see Furcate’s mask.  “Two huh?  I don’t want to pry, but-”

“You can pry,” Furcate said.  They looked back.  “So long as it’s you, and not you and Moonsong together.”

“Moonsong has your back, Furcate,” Coiffure said.

“She cares about you,” Byron added.

Furcate shrugged.

“You had a two or close to two in the second position the last couple of times.”

“I’ll deal,” Furcate said.

They hunkered down.  Only a few more of the things were still geysering, spitting out their rain of pellets.  It would be another minute or so.

Coiffure got Byron’s attention, while Furcate was at the door, craning their head to peer at the battlefield.  A questioning gesture, shrug, and then an arched eyebrow above her mask, as she raised two fingers.

Two?

Byron tapped his head.

Mental.  Emotional.  He’d keep an eye out for Kay, some shitty candy and a hug ready if Kay seemed low.

It would be hard not to feel low after this.  This didn’t feel like a win, even though they’d sent the guy running scared.

But Paris wasn’t what bothered him.  Paris getting away was more the sort of thing that would eat at Tristan.

And Tristan was the thing that ate at Byron.  Insisting on doing that whole thing himself?  Fuck that.  It was a slap in the face.

Worse than that, though… Tristan had said that Paris was the first and only person he hated.

Yet I hate you every single day, Tristan.

Tristan

“Abide with me.  Abide with me, don’t let me fall,” Byron sang.  “And don’t let go.  Walk with me.  And never leave.  Be ever close, God abide with me.  Ever close, God abide with me.  Ever close, God abide with me.”

Tristan tried to lose himself in the greater service, ignoring the little things.  The acoustics- he’d always loved that part of it, the way many voices joined into one.

“O love that will not ever let me go.  Love that will not ever let me go!  You never let me go!  Love that will not ever let me go!”

Why did Byron have to focus on the book, glancing down as if to double check?  From the time he could read and sing at the same time, Tristan had made it a challenge to see how much he could memorize, seeing how long he could go before he had to check.  Seeing Byron do it now that he was fifteen pained him.  It was like someone who never took the training wheels off their bike.

The song had concluded.

“Tonight, Mrs. Garza asks that we keep her son Luis Garza in your prayers.  He struggles.  Pray for him.  Pascal Repp is not here, as he is finishing his most recent set of cancer treatments this week.  Pray for him, for he more than embodies the strength I talked about in today’s sermon.”

There were murmured responses.  Byron put their lips to work, adding good wishes.

Byron reached out for Brianna’s hand.  He gave it a squeeze.  Then he looked at Mama like- like he had to check with an adult that things were okay and that he had permission.

My brother, please.

People were filing out of the church, and bound in the claustrophobic darkness that was within Byron, Tristan felt an almost physical pain at Byron’s hesitation at entering the group of people filing out.  Mama and Papa had already found openings like the ones Byron passed up because he didn’t want to bump into anyone.  They were out of the church before Byron was out of the aisle.

It was like being stuck behind slow people on the sidewalk, every minute of every one of Byron’s turns.

“You didn’t mind this?” Byron asked Brianna.

She shook her head, then squeezed their hand.

Oh, dios mio and fuck me, the old women are hobbling toward us.  Please, Byron.

Byron passed up another gap in the file of people.  The old ladies approached, lights practically flashing in their eyes as they saw Byron holding Brianna’s hand.

“We’ve been caught,” Byron said, sounding far less anguished about it than he should have.  “The woman with the hat pressed over her heart was my grandmother’s best friend, Diane.”

“Oh wow.  It’s great that you have a community that goes back like that.”

“It’s a plus,” Byron said.  His hand found the small of Brianna’s back, as he worked his way forward.  They were intercepted by the old ladies.

He’s showing her off, Tristan thought.

“Tristan, how lovely,” Diane greeted Byron.

Tristan mentally pumped a fist.

“I’m the other one,” Byron said.

“Benson?  Bennett?”

“Byron.”

“Byron.  I thought your brother would be the one to have a girlfriend first.  He’s flashy like that.”

“Nope.  Anyhow,” Byron paused.  Stuck on finding the words in the latest of his awkward-ish situations he should one hundred percent have known how to deal with by now. “This is Brianna.  We go to school and work together.  Brianna, this is Diane, Mrs. Caudle, and Mrs. Plumb.”

“Brianna, dear, you’re a lovely young lady.”

“Thank you!  I’m touched- Byron told me that you were close friends with his grandmother.”

“I was.  She was lovely.  Tristan always took after her, I felt.  Naturally athletic, charming, go getters, both of them.  You’ve met Tristan, I’m sure.”

“I have met him, yes.”

You deserve this, Byron.

“I’m sorry, I’m so surprised he wasn’t the one bringing a girl to church.”

Byron flexed their lips in a forced smile.  No teeth showing, lips pressed together.

The conversation wrapped up, with only two more thinly veiled attempts at setting Brianna up with Tristan while Byron stood there, being far too polite about it.  It was Brianna, not Byron, who found the excuse to break away and rejoin Mama and Papa.

As they walked, Byron leaned in close to Brianna, “How are the injuries?”

“They’re okay.  The scratch in my arm feels tight.”

“I wish that had gone different.”

“We all do, By.  I wish- I keep replaying it in my head, wondering what I could have done better.”

“Yeah.”  Byron, still holding Brianna’s hand, raised her hand to his mouth, kissing the back of it.

“You two look so nice together,” Mama told Byron.

“Thank you,” Brianna said.  She smiled her politician’s daughter’s smile.  Practiced.

As a group, they walked to the car.  Byron didn’t let go of Brianna.

Tristan could only think about Furcate, sitting on stairs outside, back to the windows, wiping at their face.  It had been after Brianna had said something to them.  He wasn’t sure Byron got it, despite having seen.  That, or that Byron hadn’t wanted to get it.  Willful ignorance.

“I hope you’re doing okay, Tristan,” Papa said, looking past Byron’s eyes.  Byron dropped his eyes to the ground.

I don’t think I am.

“As soon we drop Brianna off, I’ll take you out for ice cream, Tristan,” Papa said.  “We’ll talk.”

“Oh, that’s nice, do you take Byron out for ice cream?” Brianna asked.

She couldn’t help herself.  She had to interfere, and she had to do it in a slimy way, acting innocent and dim-witted.

“I didn’t think Byron liked ice cream,” Papa said.

“I don’t mind it,” Byron said, timid.

“It was always a thing Tristan and I would do, after his games,” Papa said.  “Byron and I, we had other things we would do.”

“Oh?  What sort of things?”

“We would watch movies together while Tristan went out with Anita.”

“It’s been a while,” Byron said.

“Do you want to do something, Byron?  We could make plans, if you have any ideas.”

“It’s okay,” Byron said.  “It’s hard, juggling things with the team.”

“Are you sure?”

Byron shrugged.  “Yeah.  It’s no big.”

Brianna met Byron’s eyes.  Byron shook their head slightly.

Gutless.

The closer they were to Brianna, to Moonsong, the more distant the rest of everything felt from Tristan.

He thought of Nate and his failure to get the asshole that had taken a chunk out of Nate, even when he was giving his all, and that distance coalesced into a wedge, driven right at the muscle of his heart.

He might as well have been physical, trapped in this darkness as Byron’s world played in slow motion beyond it.

He had to do something, because he couldn’t keep feeling this way.  He’d die.

Byron

Tristan was all smiles and charm.  Mr. Wall was buying into it wholesale.

A two hour session and Tristan had taken an hour and a half of it.

“…does that make any sense?  I don’t… I don’t want a relationship with him, not like he wants.  We’re not that compatible.  But he’s one of the most important people in the world to me.”

“I think it makes a lot of sense.  You don’t have many real allies.”

“I- I guess not.  It stings to hear it put that bluntly.”

“You told me you wanted blunt.”

Tristan’s face stretched in a smile.  White teeth showing, and when he put on a face like he was trying not to smile, it was forced, acted.

Half of this whole thing had been.

No allies?  Most of the team backs you.  Dad backs you.  Mom backs you.  People we know forget I even exist, like Aunt Diane.

Fucking liar.

“I guess I did,” Tristan admitted.

“Is there a way to communicate that he’s important to you?”

“If you have any suggestions on how to do that without giving him the wrong signals, I’m all ears.”

“I guess that would be hard, huh?”

“Oh yeah,” Tristan said.  “He’s the only other gay guy I’ve met, you know.  I mean, there’s Long John, but… I don’t think I could have a conversation with Long John.  I don’t have mentors, I don’t have peers.  Just… one really cool, smart-as-shit guy who doesn’t deserve to have me and my situation inflicted on him.”

“I think we should talk about that.  Why ‘inflict‘?”

“Because I’m thickheaded.  Because I’m not there half the time.  I’m… not allowed to even pretend that I could do something with him that isn’t kissing.  It had to be hammered out as a strict rule.”

Because the only thing that stopped you that night was Nate.

“I talked to Mr. Vaughn about that.  I thought it was good of you to strike that compromise, Tristan.”

“It kills me.  It wasn’t a compromise.  It was me losing the ability to even daydream about something I think about every morning and every night.  Being with a guy.”

You can daydream, just like I daydream about Moonsong.

“The rule being in place makes it impossible to even hope or daydream about it.”

Not a question, but a statement.

Byron felt Tristan’s head jerk in a firm nod.

“I don’t know if this computes, maybe I’m just fucked up-“

Yes.

“Yes?” Mr. Wall asked.  A question, not a statement.

“It’s like, I had it in my head, Nate was just so neat, and I wanted to do something for him, right?”

“Sure.”

“And if I couldn’t put his dick in my mouth, then maybe I could show up by his hospital bed, and I’m still sweaty and satisfied with myself and Nate is pleased.  Except it’d be because I personally kicked that asshole Paris’ ass, caved in his face, and made sure he ended up in Federal prison.”

Violence as a facsimile for a blowjob, Tristan?  Nooo.  Not fucked up at all.

“Have you seen him?  In the hospital?”

Tristan shook his head.  “I had it in my head that if I could kick Paris’ ass, I could go see him and be proud, be okay.  As it is, it’s-”

Tristan clenched his fist.

“It sounds to me like you’re dealing with a lot of pent up frustration,” Mr. Wall said, but he said it with a smile.

Tristan smiled back.  “I haven’t manhandled the ham candle in the last year, Mr. Wall.  I’m fifteen.  Frustration is putting it lightly.”

“No compromise there?”

“Byron says no, and whatever he thinks I was going to do that night with Nate… I’m not going to do that to him.  I think I knew Nate was going to say no.  I just needed to be able to pretend.”

“What if he hadn’t?”

“Then I would have stopped, asked for his forgiveness for leaving him with blue balls- easier if I’m already on my knees, and I would have explained our situation.”

I was there, and I don’t believe you.

“I believe you,” Mr Wall said.  The man pulled his sleeve back to check his watch.  It had a Team Reach logo on the face.  “There isn’t long left in the session, but if it’s okay, I’d like to have a short conversation with Byron?”

Let me guess.  Can you compromise?  Tristan this.  Tristan that.  You’ve already been charmed by him, I don’t have a shot.

Tristan allowed Byron to have control.  Byron shifted his position, fixed his pants where they bunched up beneath his ass.

“Hi Byron,” Mr. Wall said.  “It’s nice to meet you.”

“Hi,” Byron replied.  He placed his hands on his knees, sitting back, and he braced for it.

“Let’s talk about what Tristan is trying to express,” Mr. Wall said.

Guess correct, Byron thought.

As the remaining fifteen minutes of the session continued, the guess was reaffirmed and then some.

Tristan

“Byron, I really don’t want to end up in a position where I’m mediating the disputes between you two.  Especially when those disputes involve your off time.”

“I don’t want this either, Mr. Vaughn,” Byron said.  “But what am I supposed to do?”

“Have you tried talking to Tristan?”

“Every day since we could form partial sentences.  I’ve come out with one win.  One case where we disagreed and I got what I wanted or needed.”

Sounds about right.  That’s your fault, not mine.

“Have you tried talking to him about this?”  Mr. Vaughn sounded exasperated.

“I told him it wasn’t cool, it was dangerous.  He shut me out.  No response.”

“Tristan?”  Mr. Vaughn asked.  He did the ‘change’ gesture.

Tristan took the driver’s seat, felt his body take shape from the blur, felt the lurch of his heart starting after a long period of dark stasis.

“What’s your take on this?” Mr. Vaughn asked.

“It was a group of people we trust.  Kay and Alison were there.  So was Reconciliation from Haven.”

“You drank.”

“Yes,” Tristan said, even as he thought snitch, he willed Byron to hear the thought with all of the emotion he put into it.

“Underage drinking isn’t great, Tristan.”

“Yes, I know,” Tristan said.  He drew in a breath.  “It’s how I cut loose, Mr. Vaughn.  I know Byron painted this as being a bad thing, but… it wasn’t that bad.”

“You slapped someone’s ass?”

“Yes,” Tristan said.  He let out a huff of a laugh, trying to lose some of the tension that was building up in his chest.  “It really wasn’t a big deal.”

“It was a guy’s ass?”

“I don’t see how that matters,” Tristan said.  Byron wasn’t vague enough.  Mr. Vaughn isn’t stupid.  He can draw connections.

“Okay,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Doesn’t matter, then.  But you passed out, Tristan.”

“In a safe place with friends close by.”

“You passed out in a strange place.  I know Kay and you are close, but Kay has their issues.  Alison is a damn good cape, but she isn’t someone I would trust my daughter to, if my daughter was out drinking.  Alison works damn hard and parties damn hard.”

Tristan smiled.

“Some of those other friends you mention were from other teams.  It’s not impossible that they’d want to see Reach come down a peg, especially with our recent ratings.”

“Not Reconciliation.”

“Tristan- okay.  But… I think Byron’s right.  This sounds more negative than positive.  One photo from one bystander, head and face cropped out, matched to your selfless shots, and we have an issue.  Potentially a legal issue, or one with the Youth Guard.”

Tristan felt a tightness in his chest.  He wondered if Byron felt it too.

“No more drinking, Tristan.  Not in excess.  Have a beer with your friends if you must, but nothing like last night.”

That tightness became anger, impulse.  “That’s- you can’t tell me that.  You said before, it’s outside of work hours.”

“Tristan-”

Tristan brought his hand down on the desk, rising out of his seat.  There was a tremor in his voice as he voiced his response.  “No.”

“You drinking in moderation seems like a pretty decent compromise.”

“You can’t tell me what I can or can’t do outside of office hours.  I’m a damn good cape, Mr. Vaughn.  I earn for you.”

“You do.  The fact that I’m letting the drinking slide should count for something.”

“I’m just trying to deal.”

“So am I.  I’m trying to do what is best for Reach, and I’m offering you a compromise.  Moderation.  Please don’t fight me on this, Tristan.”

“What if I do?” Tristan asked.

“If you do, then I would have to talk to the staff about the possibility of having some random drug and alcohol testing for the team.”

Tristan slumped into his seat.  He sat forward, elbows on his knees, head bowed.

“I don’t have much,” Tristan said.

“Would you consider talking to Mr. Wall about getting to a place where you have more?  He’s very good.”

“I’m already talking to him,” Tristan said, around a lump in his throat.

“That’s good,” Mr. Vaughn said.

Tristan shook his head.

Well played, little brother.  I guess you win another, with the tactics you learned from Moonsong.

“Do we have a mutual understanding, Tristan?”

Tristan nodded, quickly.

No passion, no wild abandon, no freedom, no time, and less and less fun.  No life.

What was left?

He reached for an answer to that question, and a sizable part of him died when he couldn’t find much of anything.

When he opened his mouth to speak, it was more a fish gulping for air than anything else.  He swallowed the failed attempt at drawing in breath, getting it past the lump in his throat.

“Please tell me we have some news on that asshole Paris.”

“We don’t, but you’ll be the first to know the moment something crosses my desk.”

“Please,” Tristan said.  He raised himself to a standing position.  He walked over to the door, and found himself unsure if he’d said it loud enough to be clear.  More firmly, he told Mr. Vaughn, “Please.”

Byron

“Round fucking two,” Tristan said.  He sounded so normal for someone who had had so much trouble sleeping the night before.  “Furcate’s back in fighting shape-”

Furcate punched one gauntlet into the other.  Chains jangled.

“And we’ve talked tactics.  We’ve learned a lot, these past couple of months.  Gear upgraded.”

“My second best suit is revved up and ready to go,” Steamwheel said.

“It’s really him?” Coiffure asked.

“It’s really him,” Tristan said.

“How’d you find him?”

“I…” Tristan trailed off.  “I found him online, and I tricked him.”

You obsessed, you created an online persona, a convincing one, and you convinced him you wanted to hire him.

“Kickass,” Figurehead said.  “I’m worried I’m not going to be useful.”

“There’s a chance he has backup.  Just focus on the backup, support us where you can.  If you can get a clear scan on him and go in for the critical hit, that’s great.”

Figurehead nodded.  “If he has backup, though, and we couldn’t deal with him alone last time-”

“Last time was my fault,” Tristan said.  “I was too caught up in doing it myself.  Teamwork will make up the difference.”

“I hope you’re right,” Moonsong said.

“I’m right,” Tristan said.  “I’m always right.”

Nobody disagreed with him, beyond a roll of the eyes from Moonsong, and it bothered Byron more than he cared to admit.

“We corner him, and we don’t let up the pressure.  We’ve drilled on this.”

Tristan put out his gauntlet.  Other people tapped gloves and gauntlets to it, with Steamwheel going low, putting her power armor’s fist beneath the group’s huddle.

The group split up, everyone finding their positions.  The decoy car was black, parked in the middle of a concrete dock.  Shipping containers surrounded the dock, and provided hiding spots for the rest of the team.

“Switch up rapidly,” Tristan murmured.  “Like you’ve been talking about, like we did in drills.  I want this asshole off balance.”

Tristan passed control.

“Yeah,” Byron responded.  Then he passed control back.

Like a handshake.

“But please-” Tristan started.  He paused, looking over at other members of the team who were getting into position.  “Let me finish him.  So I can tell Nate I did.”

Control was passed.  Byron couldn’t bring himself to nod right away.

But he did nod, in the end.

“And if you’re going to hesitate like that, then just swap,” Tristan said, the moment he had control again.  He fixed his helmet’s position.  He didn’t extend control back to get a response to that statement.

It had almost been cool, Byron observed.  This had almost been the way it should be.

Paris’ car made its way past shipping containers and to the dock.  It stopped nearly a hundred feet away from the parked car.  Doors opened, and Paris climbed out of the back, almost unfolding as he stood straight, because he was so tall that even a spacious backseat required some contortion.  Tristan looked at the guy’s muscles, at the quality and condition of his costume.  It had been updated since their last excursion.

The people in Paris’ car looked like ordinary staff for some rich guy.  A chauffeur, with sunglasses and an earpiece, and a woman with a similar outfit of black suit, sunglasses, and earpiece.

The reality was that Paris just wasn’t around that much.  He was a mercenary, an admittedly capable mercenary, and that meant he got work.  When he came back, it was because this was home.

For whatever reason, coming home also meant attacking certain, specific people.

Tristan drew a spike in the air.  As Paris paced around the car in his languid way, Tristan let it fall.

The wind impacted the spike’s course slightly, made the point veer so it no longer pointed straight down.  It pierced the engine block with a crash that saw Paris and his staff practically fall to the ground.  The back half of the sleek, professional car practically leaped up off the ground.  Moonsong caught it with her power, and the residual impact of the hit saw the car fly up, spinning end over end, practically weightless.

Credit to Tristan that a professional like this fell for this.

But falling for it wasn’t as good as things being said and done.

Tristan passed control.  Byron began drawing out his circle.  He left it unfinished, in a way that tended to make his work unreliable in consistency.  In this moment, he was pretty sure he could trust it.

The lines and dots solidified.  There was a splash of water, but it was minor.  The primary focus of his power taking effect was now ice.  The area around the car was now an ice rink.

Immediately, Paris’ darts were thrown around that ice rink, dissolving it.

Still, it kept Paris from running for it.  He could maintain his footing, turning around to look for attackers, but running for safety required more traction.

Where darts disintegrated ice, cracks spread between impact points.  Paris used the cracks, running so that one foot was directly in front of the other, each footfall carefully settled on safe ground within the crack.

Steamwheel charged in, wheel spinning, steam venting, feet pounding with so much force that broken ice bounced up five feet with each footfall.

Paris leaped, feet going forward, like he intended to slide on the ice, arm going back as he planned to throw.

Byron passed control to Tristan.  Ice became stone.  Low traction became high traction.  Paris went from a slide to a roll, a tumble.

Steamwheel vented steam after Paris, a heavy plume extending forward.  Camouflage systems on her suit shifted tints and shadows, making her blend into the steam clouds.

Paris rolled, found his orientation, and sprung to his feet- springing too high as Moonsong caught him.  A moment later, as he was still moving through the air, she brought her hand down hard.  Low gravity became high.  Paris fell in an awkward way once again.

And, barely taking any time to recover, he switched to the offensive.  More needles were thrown, and the needles he’d set on ice were creating a storm of hail and rock shards.  He barely seemed to care as they came down on his own head, but it impacted the others.

Figurehead apparently had a read, because he went after the driver, who had backed off, and the black woman in the suit.

When Figurehead could use his power, he was an action movie star in a movie with great choreography.  Every strike was predicted, countered.  Every step was a weak point.  The woman reaching for a weapon saw Figurehead getting his hands on the weapon first, using the butt-end of a pistol to rap the chauffeur across the knuckles as the man threw a punch.

Coiffure lashed out.  Her hair was longer, this time, her weapons that she’d woven into her hair now tailored for ranged strikes.  Whips and chains.  When Steamwheel wasn’t in close, Coiffure was lashing out, forcing Paris to dance.  Tribute was focused on Coiffure.  He would switch to the next person as soon as they took focus.

Paris began throwing darts at Coiffure.  Steamwheel put on the pressure, this time, stepping from the cloud of steam to attack Paris from behind-

A feint.  He was expecting her, and needles went to Steamwheel’s elbows and knees.  She reacted by hunkering down, her wheel spinning, and producing vast quantities of steam.  The steam was hot, hot enough that Coiffure had to back off, and Paris had to hunker down.

Moonsong hit him again.  Furcate leaped down from a shipping container, splitting as they landed, and Tristan marched forward, leveling a glare at Paris.

We’re on a dock.  If he goes for the water, I’m the answer for that.

Somewhere along the line, the choking gas had become water, and then the water had become ice.  Where Tristan seemed static, remaining with solids with only slight nuance, Byron had evolved.

Byron liked to think it represented some growth within himself.  Finding Brianna.  Finding assertiveness.

Paris used his darts to create localized hazards, it was how he fought.  He was athletic, agile, and he knew how to fight.  As he threw down darts, Byron and Tristan took turns covering up the areas where the darts spat out geysers of bullets.

As the darts started getting flung in their direction, they swapped back and forth, closing the distance, forcing Paris to retreat further.  Furcate flanked, because they loved flanking.  Coiffure moved out to the other side, her hair creating limbs she could move on, chains and whip noisy against the concrete of the dock.

Paris stopped being quite so conservative with the darts.  He threw them out in messy ways, toward Furcate, who split into two, toward Coiffure.  They were lower velocity, landing in clumps, but the resulting sprays were violent and harder to work around.

Once again, Tristan created the spike, a fist-encompassing growth of rock laced with metal veins.  Once again, Byron felt his nonexistent pulse pounding out its diffuse alarm into a darkness without bounds or perspective.

Tristan broke into a run to close the distance.  The sudden movement drew Paris’ attention.  Needles were thrown.

Tristan swapped out for Byron.  The spike broke apart into water and ice shards, but that didn’t matter.  What mattered was that momentum didn’t carry over one hundred percent.  Byron could pivot, run another direction, then swap again.

This is what I had in mind.

Their more unpredictable movements upped the pressure on Paris.  Tristan materialized, created his spike.  He had to abandon it a moment later, but he was a few steps closed by the time they’d swapped and changed direction twice in five seconds.

The next time he had a turn, on impulse, almost out of a weird gratitude to his brother, Byron set up the spike for Tristan.  As Tristan materialized, punching out, the spike formed around his hand.

Byron felt the smile, almost more of a grimace.

Furcate was close enough to slash at Paris, who kicked them firmly in the stomach.  The other two Furcates were on him a moment later, one with spikes on chains instead of claws.

Paris backed away, then moved his hands in a new way, slow, as if drawing a blade out of his sleeve.

Not a needle or a dart.  This looked more like a railroad spike.

The spike was hurled toward the ground in the midst of the Furcates.  The result  was a detonation, not a geyser, scattering them.

Coiffure was next.  She tumbled, her hair going limp.

No!

Tristan was silent.

Tribute fixated on Tristan.  Byron could feel the strength, the increase in heart rate, and the way that cognitive processing sped up until the rest of the world seemed to move slower.

Tribute would be a sitting duck, dumb, slow, weak and fragile, so long as he was giving this kind of strength.  One thrown attack like what Paris was pulling out of his sleeve would destroy Tribute.

But Tristan was slowing, changing course.  He switched out to Byron, letting the spike at one hand fall away.

Byron could change direction, doing his best to add to the zig-zag, placing his feet carefully.  He switched back to Tristan.

Tristan wasn’t focused on Paris.

Tristan looked at Furcate, at the Furcates, plural.  When he looked back over one shoulder, he didn’t look at his teammates.  It was at the ice.

Paris threw a railroad spike.  Tristan ducked it, letting it detonate.  Then, still in slow motion, still with some augmented power from Tribute, that power slipping away with every moment as Tribute went on the offense, Tristan charged.

Another throw from Paris, and Tristan twisted, absorbing the hit, before tumbling to the ground.

He was hurt, but he wasn’t hurt so badly he couldn’t get back up, press the attack.

What are you doing?

Tristan’s body roiled with emotion as he crouched there, head bowed.  He kept a wary eye on Paris, who backed away.  Tristan didn’t pursue.

Tristan!

The rest of the team was hurrying to catch up.  The Furcates were picking themselves up.  Coiffure was still down, and Tristan began to move in her direction, like he was in a daze.

“Stop,” Figurehead called out.  He set a hand on Tristan’s shoulder.  “Don’t move if you’re hurt.”

Tristan stopped moving.  He turned to stare at Paris, who was still retreating, not turning his back on the group.

Moonsong and Tribute had caught up now.  Figurehead was using his power to do diagnostics on Coiffure, which he would be bad at, since she was a known quantity.  He eased her to a sitting position.  She looked up at him and nodded, before wincing in pain.

And Tristan-

Tristan remained where he was.  He watched as Paris climbed a set of shipping containers, making his escape.

“What’s going on?” Moonsong asked.  “What the hell happened there, Tristan?  You wanted to be leader, and you’re letting him get away?”

“He hit us,” Tristan said.  “Direct hit.”

“What are you talking about?” Moonsong asked.  Her voice was tight, like she knew exactly what Tristan was talking about.

“We were switching out, for evasive action.  Then- then Byron didn’t switch.  He kept running, I-I-”

Byron could feel Tristan forcing the sound, forcing his voice to break.

“No,” Moonsong said.  “No, I don’t believe you.”

“I think he wanted to throw off Paris’ expectations.  When he was changing, we were more him than me, and that cannon-shot of Paris’ hit us.”

No.

“I can’t switch to Byron anymore.”

No.  Please.

“I think he’s dead,” Tristan lied, looking a now-anguished Moonsong in the eyes.

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Gleaming – 9.9

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When we were children and we were feeling insecure, we clung to the powerful authority figures in our lives.  Mine had just torn down an interior wall of a prison.

It would be so easy to stop fighting.  I was walking into a headwind, swimming upstream, alienating myself from my friend, doubts welling up inside me.  Somewhere in all of this, I’d almost killed someone I’d grown up with- and I had less apprehension or regret about that near-murder than I did about momentarily meeting Capricorn’s eyes, seeing him give me a small nod, as we flew and jogged forward.

We were the frontliners, each of us taking cover at different sides of the same hallway.   Goddess walked down the center.  She indicated one direction, and without words, Capricorn acted.  Orange lights appeared in a swirl, and someone that was sprinting forward nearly stumbled into them.  They scrambled back, ducking out of view.

Capricorn shouted a warning to them, and I barely heard it.

That I didn’t hear it told me a lot about how well I was processing things right now.

I could tell myself that for right now we would go after the one threat we felt unambiguous about, but thought and feeling both told me that I would feel just as wrong about betraying Goddess later on.

Goddess indicated my side.  I pulsed out with my aura.  I saw her react- and I heard the people who’d been approaching stop what they were doing, backing off.

I opened my mouth to apologize, and no words came out.

“Do it again,” Goddess’ voice cut through the noise.

Sure, I thought.  I found my voice.  “Yes.”

I hit her with my aura, soft at first, like a taste of fear in the mouth or a flash of something amazing in the eyes.

Her head moved, as if she was getting a sense for it.  When I tapered it off, she moved her fingers in an almost absent beckoning gesture, like she wanted more.

She nodded all at once, definitive.

“It won’t affect me now,” she said.

I wasn’t in a good place, and I could recognize that the inexplicable gratitude that welled up in me at hearing that wasn’t good.

Focus, I thought.

We’d been in this building before.  It was shaped like a plus sign, with the intersection in the center being the place we’d been held up, a heavily reinforced desk, including the gates we had to pass through.  We’d entered from the one corridor, and the corridor opposite opened into the prison itself.

Opened more since Goddess had taken that wall out.

Our current issue was the corridors off to the sides.  They were apparently for staff, and prison employees had retreated off to either side.  I looked back at Goddess, who hadn’t advanced.

“Deal with it,” she said, without stepping forward.

She’d have her reasons.

On our past visit, I’d noted the shutters.  The shutters were meant to be brought down from the other side, but…

Capricorn was crouched in the corner by the wall that framed the metal detector and gate.  Just past that short wall was the corner and the left turn to the corridor where staff had retreated.  Prison officers, security.  People with guns.  I got his attention, then indicated the shutters, moving my hand to emulate the shutter coming down.

He gave me a nod of confirmation.  I saw orange lights start to move along the ceiling.

I was crouched by the same wall on my side of the hallway.  Behind me, Sveta, Natalie and Lookout were all gathered against the wall.  Lookout was ignoring the situation and focusing on her phone.  Her primary goal right now was in keeping the Warden and his deputy from accessing any computers to start detonating ankle bombs.  Her secondary goal would be to keep an eye on what was going on.

She looked laser-focused on her task.  I felt less like a cape than I had on my first night out in costume.

“Tress,” Goddess said.  “At the desk.  Someone with a gun.”

I barely had time to turn my head before Tress had sent her arms forward.  She grabbed the sides of the metal detector, then slingshotted herself through it, straight at the window of the desk.  The scrape that followed was sharp, suggesting she’d scraped away some paint.  The red light and the buzz of the metal detector was immediate, but she moved fast enough that it seemed like it followed too late.

I didn’t stay to watch.  As off as I felt, I had to act.  I flew up, hands and feet going up and back as I landed with my back to the ceiling, my extremities catching the impact and minimizing the sound.  I flew while keeping as close to the ceiling as possible, cloth skimming across painted ceiling.  I had a glimpse of the people in the hallway, crouched by short walls and benches like I’d been crouched by the wall.  The shutter and its mechanism provided some limited cover.  The fact that the fluorescent lights focused on lighting the lower half of the room more than they focused on covering the ceiling helped.  If anyone saw me and reacted, they didn’t shoot.

The Wretch struck the locking mechanism, disappearing an instant after it had appeared-

A violent image, the Wretch visible to me like it had been in the hospital room, except ghostly, existing only in the form of streaked raindroplets and rain breaking against an invisible surface.  And beyond it- Amy.  

Focus.

I worried I’d have to haul it shut.  I didn’t.  The shutter’s own weight brought it down, with my destruction of the mechanism serving much the same function as hauling down on any release lever or pressing any button would have.  It was built like a garage door, but it was heavier, double or three times the thickness, and it was raucous, metal striking against the metal seat with a sound that would be heard next door.  Most likely the intent.

Capricorn materialized his power, bringing down the other shutter, rock cracking as the metal moved and the individual slats bent.  The impact wasn’t as much of a metal on metal sound as it came down to its housing.  He glanced at my shutter, then stood straighter for a better view.  Orange lights began to move along the shutters, covering each surface.

Sveta.  I flew down to the window, to check that she was fine.  She was already at the window, peeking out.

“It’s fine,” Goddess said.

I extended a hand for Sveta to take.  Too late, as her prosthetic hands seized my wrist, I realized it was the burned one.  It hurt, but I ignored it, pushing through it, as I helped pull her through.  She found the positioning for her legs after they were through.

My arm buzzed and prickled with the pain even after Sveta let go.

Stupid mistake, and a mistake that bad could get us hurt.  Focus, Victoria!

Goddess pushed down the additional barriers and barred walls that we would have had to be buzzed through.  The group fell into step around her, the staff in the two side hallways effectively bunkered in.  Capricorn made a gesture of his hand for effect.  The orange motes became an additional wall of stone, flush against the metal shutters.  It was very possible that it would make the shutters impossible to open until…

Until after.

It was a cold shock to think about how we had to handle the after.  We’d just interfered with law enforcement, and the law was supposed to be one of my go-tos.

Follow the law, if that wasn’t possible, do what was right.  If that wasn’t possible, we were supposed to reach out.

If I set that law aside- and I didn’t want to, but the situation was complicated, then I had other laws.  In the morass of doubts and concerns, I had to get centered and focus again.  I needed to put the events of twenty minutes ago behind me.  Now that we were here, I couldn’t be numb and unthinking like I’d been on the flight in.

Black and white text.  Protocols.  Rules to be followed.  Take all of the feelings and bottle them up, except those warm feelings of Dean, that give those protocols and stark letters their life.

Challenging each other, being competitive and trying to get the higher score.  Getting in actual arguments over it, where we were both pissy the next day.  Making up.  Dean telling me, as we cuddled, that competitive was hard for him, because his dad expected so much, and he could sense his father’s disappointment when he didn’t do his best.  I’d had such a distinct mental picture of Dean’s dad standing in the doorway, because so often when I went over there with Dean, there would be that kind of distance.  As if Dean and I being in one of their living rooms watching a show together meant the room was ours and his dad couldn’t or wouldn’t intrude.  I’d been so able to imagine the disappointment and distance both.

My mind jumped from that to an image of Amy standing in a doorway in the same way.  It-

My heart had already dropped.  The warm memory was wiped away and replaced with a chilled, ugly feeling.  I tried to reason my way through it, think around it.

It hadn’t been when Dean and I were cuddling, but we’d been together.  Another time.  Why had I connected that image to Amy?  The distance?  She hadn’t been disappointed- or, no.  Maybe she had, but I hadn’t known it then.

The ugly feeling persisted.

Had I known?  Had there been some glimmer of a suspicion?

It wasn’t a rhetorical question or a revelation.  Just… a very real question, where both answers were bad in their own way.

The ugly feeling got worse, as I dwelt on it.

I couldn’t cling to that for strength, so long as other memories attached themselves.  Both the times she’d been there when I was with Dean and the times she hadn’t been there when I’d been with him were mucked in together, muddled and muddied, shat on by her proximity to them.  That he’d had to have known.  That she could have saved him and she hadn’t.

I couldn’t.  The kernel of love I felt for him was too hard to reach for.

Then- then the other direction.  Reaching for that other direction meant getting close, meant walking through a corridor of memories and ignoring the person who kept on peering in through the windows and stood off to the side, punctuating so, so much of my early life.

What wasn’t hers?

In the hospital room, studying like I’d studied the master-stranger protocols.  Being the powers geek with the patrol.  Yes.  It was an identity I could and had wrapped around myself like a security blanket.

Never hers.  Untainted, but for a few intrusions looking in on Dean and I.

I wasn’t moving any faster, walking in line with the others, my jaw set, but I felt like I was.

There was another identity, one from another world that had never been hers.   It was a world that’d had- it had had its problems, but it wasn’t hers.  She’d defied it, as a matter of fact.  Where I’d longed for it, thrown myself into that world, she’d run from it.  She’d wanted love and acceptance from our family, but she hadn’t been able to bring herself to join in.

I reached for my mask, where it lay at my upper thigh, the curvature of the mask making for a neat fit.  I slipped it on, hooking it to the metalwork where my hood met my hairline, a band of chain going around the back, securing it in place.  It clicked in a satisfying way.

I wore a face, my face, but it was cast in alloy, untouchable, unmoving.

My breath was warm against my face as we stepped beyond the corridor, through the wholly unnecessary if impressive opening Goddess had made.

The sky was so bright, and it was warm.  There was only a sliver of sun, but after the darkness and the rain, the harsh coldness, the setting was eerie.  Less of a crossing over to another Earth and more of a crossing over to another world.

And there were guards.  The long distances and the open spaces with only chain link blocking off access meant that getting from A to B was more time consuming, and that was a dangerous thing when anyone with a gun had an open shot, often with next to nothing on the far side of us, the targets.

Capricorn began drawing out orange-red motes, clearly intending to give us some cover.

Goddess beat him to it.  With a sweep of her arm, she used her telekinesis to carve a great furrow into the earth.  Dust and dirt was sent flying, and there was a great opaque cloud.  Again, in the moment I saw the earth react, before the dust cloud covered it, I saw the pattern by which Goddess’ telekinesis touched the world, like a hand used to push would leave a handprint.  A line that zig-zagged out, back into itself, out.  The first gunshots erupted, the sounds louder because they could skip off the flat ground like a stone could skip on water.  Our group ducked down, and I put the Wretch out, shielding Sveta, Kenzie, and Natalie.

The dust was clearing, however.  Goddess had pushed out the earth, and where it had piled up, it formed a loose general barrier, thick with stones.

Goddess’ head snapped around.  She reached out, and part of her barrier exploded outward, stones and dirt flying.

“Don’t hurt them!” I said.  My voice was almost drowned out by the follow-up strike.  Something more localized.  Taking out one person who was still after her, following the initial strike.

“Hurt- you hurt the guards?” Sveta asked.

“Maybe they were bad people,” Kenzie said.  “Right?”

“Would you rather be shot by them?” Goddess asked, ignoring Kenzie.

“We have to live with the consequences after,” I said.  “We can do this in a good way.”

“One moment,” she said.  She paused.

I clenched my teeth, lips pressed together behind my mask.

Four hundred feet away, at one corner of a building, brick and glass shattered, a window and balcony coming to pieces.  From what I could see of the follow-up, a series of blasts and destruction within the room she had targeted, she was removing the floor from the room.

“That-” I started.

“A moment,” she interrupted, firmer.  Her focus was wholly on that spot.  There was a pause.  “One fucking moment.”

I remained silent, letting her do what she needed to do.  She turned her head slowly, looking around.

“There was a sniper.  There’s one more on the other side of the complex.  They’re not taking a shot.  They’re too far.”

With a finger, she indicated a building.

“Girls’ side,” Kenzie said.

“The men and women have fled.  Retreating to a fortified position.”

“I could spot them on my phone,” Lookout offered, helpfully.

“No,” Goddess said.  “It’s not a question.  I’m saying it because I know it.”

“Oh, cool,” Lookout said.

Goddess indicated the nearest building on the boy’s side.  “You’ll escort me.  Teacher’s pawns are close, and they were picked to stop me.”

“Is that the plan?” I asked.  “Visiting each building in turn?  Rounding up the capes, dispatch the guards and anyone Teacher set up?”

“Why does it sound like you’re questioning me?”

I hesitated.

I am Antares.  I am a scholar of powers, I was born to capes and raised to be a cape.  I-

I reached, grasping for the strength to push through my doubts.  Me with my mom and dad.  A weird scene, because I had been young, and I’d had a debate with my parents while we’d been out in costume, and I’d been thrown off balance.

I didn’t have time to replay the whole memory in my head.

“Yes,” I said.  The fuller answer found me as I grasped the rest of the memory.  The debate with my parents had thrown me off because they’d talked to me like equals, had considered my opinion valid, conceded points, or defended them.  “You wanted people close to you who weren’t just yes men.  It’s why you had- you had Amy, who you weren’t…”

I trailed off.  Bringing up Amy had slowed my momentum.  Trying to find a word to encapsulate this killed it.

“Aligning?” Lookout offered.  “Inviting to the coolest cool kids club?  Except we’re not all kids, um-”

“Aligning,” I said.  “Thank you for the word, Lookout.”

“Anytime.”

“I did,” Goddess told me.  She turned her head, looking for something.  “I don’t like standing in this open field, when we don’t know what Teacher has prepared.  We’ll walk to our destination.”

I nodded.

Capricorn created barriers to one side of us, as Goddess watched over her shoulder in the same direction.  Natalie looked scared- it might have been the passing mention of a sniper.

“You wanted people who debate with you, offer differing points of view.  You listened to Cryptid, so… is it okay if I bring up some points?”

“Cryptid may not be your best example, Antares,” Goddess said.

There was something ominous in her voice as she said it, even though she looked at me and smiled like there was almost a joke in there.

“I don’t understand.”

“He came to me with a form prepared to counter me.  And that is, as far as I detected, only one of three levels of deception that boy was putting into practice.  You don’t want to tell me that you’re following his suit.”

I wasn’t sure most members of the team weren’t shocked at that.  Looks were exchanged.  Of alarm, concern.

“But he’s helping you,” Lookout said.

“He is.  He’s clever enough that I want to work with him.  Antares, little Lookout, is a little more blunt about questioning me and making me wonder about her, and she already attacked one of my new lieutenants.  Did you have an actual argument, Antares, or are we going to talk about him?  Because if you didn’t have a problem to raise, I won’t be happy you questioned me.”

“Actual argument,” I said.  It took me a half-second to refocus myself, taking my thoughts away from Chris and back into thinking like a cape, the kind of cape that could debate approaches with my parents.  “The assistant warden of this prison is on our side, and he’s holding off on detonating the ankle bombs because Foresight convinced him.  He’s presumably watching through surveillance cameras-”

“He is,” Lookout said, looking around.  She sounded alarmed as she said,  “Nobody said I should stop him from doing it.”

“It’s good,” I told her, reassuring.  “It’s good.  If you stopped him, he might start panicking and doubting Foresight.  But if this group with a strange person in it starts assaulting his guards and collecting his prisoners…”

“He’s going to shit a brick, use that brick to break the glass, and hit the big red button that blows up those prisoners,” Capricorn supplied.

“Can you block him like you’re blocking the warden?” Goddess asked Lookout.  “Don’t actually do it.  I had a feeling as I asked.”

“I could,” Lookout said.  “But it’d be hard.  I’m already splitting my focus, and unless I want to shut off all power across the complex…”

“Leaving us in the dark,” Sveta murmured.  Her pale face turned to look in the direction of the sun.  No longer a sliver- it was a glow across the sky.  The ‘slivers’ were now only the crimson-purple linings around some of the rare clouds at that end of the sky.

We’d reached the building.  It was the same one the sniper had been in.  It was less like a proper apartment building and more like six cargo containers organized so it was two side by side, another two stacked facing a different direction, and then two stacked at the top, with the original orientation.  Staircases that led down or through were exposed.

Rain and Ashley’s buildings had four people per.  This is a six.  It’s almost like a threat rating, but the buildings with six have the easiest prisoners to manage.

We weren’t going inside just yet.  Goddess was hesitating.

“I think I know why.  If she does that then we become the bad guys,” I said.  “Foresight will find out or think something’s going on- they have good thinkers.  Right now they’re telling him that his staff and superiors are compromised, something dangerous is going on.  He’s listening.  We don’t want to give him a reason to think he’s being played.”

“Then we go after him.  Tress, if I tell you to go to him and keep him quiet and cooperative, can you do that?”

“I don’t know if I’m that convincing.”

“You might not be, but a knife to the throat is,” Goddess said.

I saw Tress’ expression shift.  Hesitation.

“Is anyone else capable?”

“I could try,” Lookout offered.

“You couldn’t be older than twelve, and I need better than try,” Goddess said.  She looked in the direction of the entry-building.  “Trouble’s coming.  It feels like Teacher.”

“It might be,” Lookout said.  “Let me look.”

She turned to her phone.  I turned my focus to the immediate problem.  We had to protect the leadership.

“If we grab everyone, they’ll panic and you’ll get nobody,” I said.  “We told Foresight we’d reach out to our team members and their undercovers.  They’ll let the guy in admin know.  Let’s get our forces together.”

“Teacher realized he can’t get in,” Lookout reported.  “He could’ve figured it out if he’d tried to make a portal a hundred feet in the air, but I guess he’s not that smart.  Like, helloo…”

“He’s attacking the front door,” Goddess interrupted.

“Yes,” Lookout said.  “I was getting around to that.”

“Our guys?” I asked.

“The teams we pulled together are going to be holding him off.  Fume Hood, A.G., Auzure,” Lookout said.  “And others.”

“They won’t succeed,” Goddess said.  “I wouldn’t be aware of the imminent danger if he was going to be scared away.”

“Then tell them, Lookout,” I said.  “Let’s not have them commit to a fight they can’t win.”

“I’ll tell them.”

“Get your people,” Goddess said.  “Lookout and the unpowered girl stay with me.  The rest of you- gather your forces.  I don’t care how you do it, but do it fast.  You know Teacher’s key players?”

“Yes,” Capricorn said.

“We’re doing what I did when I claimed my Earth.  Start from the top.  A prison warden has to be easier than a collection of world leaders.  You can manage this?  Remove Teacher’s pawns, that would give him control.”

“Would help,” Lookout said, her attention back on her phone.  “I’m spending half my time keeping these guys hemmed in, now that they’ve split up.  They’re gathering guards too.”

We don’t know what Teacher’s people are going to do.  They could blow up everyone not on his shortlist, and that could include Ashley and Rain.  It could include Crystalclear and Foresight’s other peopleOr they might do something that isn’t using the ankle bombs.

“We can manage,” I said.

“Um, here,” Lookout said.  She had her bag slung over her back, and she retrieved one of the projection discs.  “It’s kind of broken since last time.  But it has enough charge to draw lines.  It’s hooked up to the computer at home, the surveillance-”

“Short version,” Goddess sounded testy.

“Points at people!” Lookout said.

“Good!” Capricorn answered her, before bumping her shoulder with one fist.  She laughed in response, but we were already heading away.  Further into the prison complex.

I did glance over my shoulder at Natalie though.

She’d been silent, quiet.  What was she thinking or doing?  Did she have a plan?

If she just looked after Lookout’s welfare, I would be happy.  But there was a chance that wouldn’t be enough.  There was a good chance that we needed more than that.  Master-stranger protocols.  We needed one level head in our group.

Fifty or sixty eyes were at windows, staring down at us.  We were in the sixes, the buildings with six ‘apartments’ each, where the minimum risk prisoners were.  There weren’t many.  The fours were more numerous.  More dangerous prisoners who were deemed cooperative enough to have full privileges.

Sveta, Capricorn and I jogged.

“Rain and Crystalclear first,” Capricorn said.  The disc he held had lines extending from it, and some of those lines lit up.

“Yes,” I said.

“I can’t figure you out, Victoria,” Sveta murmured.

“Master-stranger protocols,” Capricorn said.

Sveta looked at him, “What?”

“Master-stranger,” I said.  “We’re under the influence of a power.  We can’t trust our own judgment.”

“And you’re on board with this, Capricorn?” she asked.  “You’re okay with this?”

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“Not like this!” she exclaimed, stopping in her tracks.

“Do you trust me?” he asked again.  “Forgetting this specific situation, do you trust me?”

“It’s more nuanced than that.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Stop that.  Don’t play your games with me, Capricorn.”

“Do you-”

“Yes!” she shouted.  There was a pause as she gathered her composure.

In that pause, the jeering and shouts from prisoners was audible.  Catcalling, threats.  Offers to get us money if we let them out.

“Most of the time,” Sveta added, more subdued.

“Do you trust Antares?”

“Most of the time,” Sveta said.  She looked at me.  “Yes.”

“Do you trust Weld?”

“What does Weld have to do with this?”

“The protocols we’re talking about are Ward and Protectorate protocols.  If Weld was here he would be following the rules too.  Do you trust Weld?  Do you believe in the Weld fan club?”

“That is the most manipulative shit, Capricorn.”

“If you don’t answer with a resounding yes, I think I win.”

“Fuck you, no you don’t, and yes, of course I believe in my boyfriend, but bringing him up is a stretch.”

“Sometimes our feelings get screwed up.  I’ve had to deal with it before,” I said.  “You know that.”

“Yes,” Sveta said.

“The rules for the protocols are simple.  We listen to the people we can be sure aren’t affected.”

“And you aren’t affected?”

“We’re all affected,” Capricorn said.  “Me, my brother, Antares, the kids.”

“Only Natalie?” Sveta asked.  “She didn’t say anything.”

“I think she thinks that if she’s quiet she could get an opportunity to make a phone call or reach out,” Capricorn said.  “And I don’t think Goddess is that stupid, to let her.”

“I don’t know,” Sveta said.

“Trust us, trust in the rules Weld would have followed.  Because they’re the guidelines of effective heroes.”

“Do the guidelines say how we handle this situation?” Sveta asked.  “Teacher’s attacking, he’s focusing his efforts on the front door.  Goddess is… she wants to fight him here, and we’re supposed to help her.  This is going to become a battlefield, and…”

“And a single mistake could mean our friends lose their lives, or dangerous prisoners get free,” I finished.

“Or Teacher wins,” Capricorn said.  “If he forces us into a retreat or captures us-”

There was a sharp whistle nearby that stood out from the lecherous ones one guy in particular seemed to be doing.  I turned my head, searching for the source.

A prisoner, standing at a balcony, where he had to look around the corner and along the length of a building to see us.  He was a black guy, with tattoos outlined across his face and arms that looked like they had been put on his skin with white-out.  He pointed down, and he held up his hand.

I couldn’t tell if his thumb was out, at that distance, but it sure looked like he had all four fingers up.

I saluted him.

“We’ve got company.  Officers, I’m guessing,” I said.

“We run, instead of fighting,” Capricorn decided.  I nodded my agreement.

Capricorn created cover, orange motes tracing out walls, which appeared just as we reached them.  I flew alongside, the Wretch active.  What the walls didn’t cover, I hoped Capricorn’s setup would.

Which was fine, so long as we just had the one squadron of officers coming from around the back corner of the building.  One squadron, one direction to watch, all good.

But there were others.  We approached the building that Lookout’s compass was pointing us to, and I could see the broken window on the ground floor, with no less than four officers lined up along it, guns pointed out.

I had to push hard to fly out in front, my arms outstretched wide and Wretch stretched out wider.  A momentary stop, working on the assumption the bullets would be accurate, turning to face one direction while flying the opposite, in an effort to confuse-

The Wretch caught a bullet.  In the moment the Wretch was gone, so soon after that I imagined it would have been blocked by the Wretch had it been a tenth of a second faster, Sveta grabbed me by the cloth at the small of my back.  She was already pulling herself to a destination, and in the process, she pulled me too.

I went high, because I could, and because I knew the people shooting at us wouldn’t be aiming that high with their initial battery.  For a moment, I was kind of Sveta’s kite.

We didn’t get away unscathed.  Each of those four officers fired off multiple shots.  I saw bullets hit my teammates.  I saw Capricorn fall in the wake of one shot.

Metal prosthetic body- not all that durable, with the lightweight metals.  As Sveta collapsed into a heap, the three of us stopping at the base of one building.  In the moment we passed through some of the light that reached down past the rectangle of a balcony, I could see the groove in Sveta’s body.  It looked more like someone had buried a hatchet in her side than anything.

And Capricorn- he crawled to the base of the wall, sitting up, before twisting his leg around.  It looked like his armor was up to snuff.  Whatever it was made of was denser, and it hadn’t parted or let the bullet through when it had taken the grazing shot.  Maybe a deflection, maybe a graze.

“All good?” I asked Sveta.  “No damage?”

“Nothing I can tell,” she murmured.  “Get me a patch?  At my back, actually only a short distance from the damage done.  I’ll try not to grab you.”

I found the patch.  I had to fumble with it, finding the way it attached.  There was a part that went inside the armor, inside the damaged portion-

Sveta grabbed it from within, pulling it flush against the armor.  “I think I’ve got it.  Thanks.”

I nodded.

Capricorn leaned out to peer around the corner.  There was a gunshot, and he pulled his head back.

“Night vision goggles or something,” Capricorn said.  He looked around.  “It’s too dark for them to see me, normally.”

I glanced up at the sky.  The sun had set.  No light from above that wasn’t from the moon, and we weren’t near any cities.  The only light pollution was from the prison complex.

“Guys who were behind us are going to catch up with us,” I said.  “If I was willing to hurt these guys, I would.”

“Patched,” Sveta said.  “So long as I don’t pick at the wires.”

Capricorn looked out.  Another bullet made him pull his head in.

“Stop doing that, you’re making me nervous,” Sveta said.

“I guess our assistant warden isn’t telling all his men to stand down,” Capricorn said.  “Antares, you’ve got-”

Something landed on the ground near us.

Trash?

No, not just trash.  An adult diaper.  Used.

I craned my head up to look, saw a wide-mouthed, wild-haired face peering down, and took flight, flying up toward them.

They shrieked, and then slammed their balcony door closed.

I lowered myself to the ground.  Capricorn had already dealt with the diaper, burying it in a pyramid of stone.

“Get my phone?” Capricorn asked.  “I’m wearing gauntlets.”

He indicated where, and I reached for it.

He moved it to the edge of the building, so that only the camera peeked out, and looked at the screen.  The night-vision mode wasn’t great, but even looking over Capricorn’s shoulder, I could see the general shape of the building.

I could also see the bright spots that were his sparks.  He was using the camera to help place them.

I kept an eye out for our pursuers at our rear.  In a prison complex that was inconsistently lit, we were now sitting in the shadows just beside the illumination that came down from diaper-man’s balcony light.

No, nothing was that easy.  I could see the first hints of flashlights mounted on guns.

“Hey Lookout,” I murmured.  “Since you’re messing around with power and systems, if you happened to want to throw these guys for a loop…”

The lights went out around the pursuers.

“Uh,” I said.

“Coincidence,” Sveta said.

“Blocking the window,” Capricorn whispered.  “We blitz.  Go in three, two, one!”

We rounded the corner.  A wall of rock blocked the window.

The door near them opened.  Sveta reached out, missed the knob, threw out another hand, and caught it.  She shifted her stance and hauled the door shut.

A gun fired from within.  The door handle came away.

Sveta, halfway to reeling her arm in, whipped it.  It reversed direction, extending in the direction of the hole.

She grabbed someone or something on the other side and yanked.  They collided with the edge of the opening door, which promptly slammed.  It was only a moment later, and after seeing Sveta’s expression, that I remembered the height that the usual doorknob was at, and what she might have grabbed.

The guards shot out the hinges, and at that point, there was no keeping the door up.  I flew to intercept, and as I saw their movements as they turned to track me, I shifted course, flying up.  With the Wretch active, I hit the ceiling just above the door, where the light was.

We still have pursuers from behind.

“We’ve got two red lines from the compass!” Capricorn called out.

Red line?

I flew back and away, so I’d have a second to think.  I was in the middle of evasive maneuvers when a bullet hit the Wretch.

Changing course, I put myself close to the building, so the overhang above the door would provide some cover from the shooter.

They shot elsewhere.

“Stop shooting my body!” Sveta called out, arms up in front of her face.

I flew straight down.  Wretch out, flat out, all out.  A full speed descent, a downward swipe of the Wretch aimed at the concrete pad that the building was seated on.

The pad shattered.  People all around me stumbled- shadowy silhouettes in more shadow.

I swung backhanded, aiming a punch with no enhanced strength active, but with my aura going from zero to ten.

A hand deflected my swing.  The woman stepped in close, with an underhanded punch.  The first hit my breastplate.  The second, same hand, hit my side, where the breastplate didn’t protect me.

People were cowering, backing up, but this person didn’t flinch.

And the one with the gun wasn’t either.  They brought their weapon around, aimed at my head.

I ducked right, relying on flight to keep me moving, when otherwise it would have been me landing on my side.  At the same instant, Sveta had a grip on the gunman and pulled them away, hauling back on the torso, not the gun-arm.  And, still also in the same moment, they fired.

With me moving one way, and Sveta pulling the gunman the other way, the bullet still clipped the edge of my mask just by the left eyehole.  My head was twisted to the left, pain singing in my neck in a way that promised I’d ache tomorrow.

And the martial artist woman in the prison guard uniform was after me.  Her body was a blur of grays and blacks against a black background, and I barely saw her leg come around.  A kick aimed at my neck, while I was still reeling.

Teacher thrall, I realized.  I brought the Wretch out.  She kicked the Wretch, and the Wretch might have been lashing out or growing out in her direction, because I saw and felt her leg break.

She landed on the three intact limbs, centered herself, and then pounced at me.

“The hell?” another officer asked.

“You’ve got moles!” I shouted.  “It’s why we’re here!”

The gunman was maneuvering to get a shot, his focus on Sveta again.  The second teacher thrall.  The night vision sniper Capricorn had remarked on wasn’t using night vision.  They had something else going on, courtesy of Teacher’s gifts.

And they were dead inside enough that my emotion power wasn’t affecting them.

Capricorn closed the distance with the gunman.  Sveta grabbed the pouncer.

The Wretch’s first hit was deflected, but only barely- the woman was hit hard enough that she was pulled from Sveta’s grip.  She didn’t have a second leg to catch herself on, so she wobbled unsteadily as she dropped to a one-legged squat, put her hands out to either side, and then sprung forward at me yet again.

I ducked low, using flight to orient myself, and kicked out.  She was ready for it, pulling her leg up out of the way- but the broken leg that dangled wasn’t so adroit.  I’d kicked it, hard, and as dead as she was inside, she seemed to feel sufficient pain or shock.  She landed hard across broken concrete.

“Hey!  Stop!” one guard shouted.

Capricorn had been punching the gunman, his gauntleted fist coming back from what couldn’t have been the first hit, starting to move in for a third or fourth.

He stopped himself.  When he let the guy fall, the guy fell limp, unconscious.

His head lowered, fists clenching.

“Can’t stop,” I said.  “We’ve got more coming.”

There were others in the incoming squad.  Capricorn looked down at the compass.  I saw two more red lines.

Teachered people that Lookout had noted and marked in her system.

Fuck me.

“Two of these guys are compromised too,” Capricorn said, more for the benefit of the other guards.

There was an eruption.  The incoming squad was scattered, various members thrown in every theoretical direction.

Rain and Crystalclear leaped from a higher point.  Rain stopped them mid-fall, then let them fall the rest of the way.

“We’re clear?  I’m not going to blow up?” Rain asked.

“You’re clear,” I said, before raising my voice.  “The rest of you who’re listening aren’t, by the way!”

“What the fuck!?” a guy on a balcony shouted down.  “What’s going on!?”

We ignored him.  My phone was buzzing, and the ‘compass’ that was the projector disc showing headings of various threats that surveillance had spotted was lighting up.  One big magenta line, then another, and another.  Red lines were converging.

“I’m really hoping we can close the portal if we need to,” I said, because I’m going to guess that those magenta lines are… bigger threats.”

“The people at the gates,” Sveta said.  She was working on patching her body where she’d taken bullets.  “Powered people.”

“No sweat.  We’ve got the Lady in Blue,” Rain said, smiling.

“Yeahhhh,” Crystalclear said, sounding very unsure.  “Hey, how are we feeling about that?  Because things are looking odd to me here, cracks in places there shouldn’t be cracks.”

His vision.

“We’re feeling master-stranger protocols?” I tried, with a note of hope, wincing a little at the same time.

“I’m not up to date on my protocols,” Crystalclear said.

I sighed.

“Things are screwed up,” Sveta said.

“Okay, it’s not just me then,” Crystalclear said, sounding relieved.  I wasn’t sure he’d sound as relieved if he had the full story.

I pulled my phone free.  My side hurt like a bitch where I’d been punched.  Hit-in-the-organs hurt.

But that hurt was almost welcome.  Hurt was part and parcel of wearing the costume, being in that zone of being a cape.  It was me not being Victoria, for just a little while.

A different headspace.  One of two safe refuges.

And… looking at my phone, I could see that I might need to tap the other- the powers scholar.

Kenzie had surveillance footage, looping between a few isolated clips because the people entering the prison now were destroying the cameras as they came across them, and one of those people was making cameras twist on their mounts to look away.

That would be Blindside.  I was pretty sure that another one was Kingdom Come.  The same guy I’d seen blow up… he must have reconstituted.

And they had a leader.  These squads liked to have a big bad brute in charge, and these guys had picked one I knew well.  Hometown brute, already growing in metal scales that punched through tattooed skin.

Fucking Lung.  Fuck him.

They weren’t alone.

I showed Tristan and Sveta, before turning the camera around for Crystalclear and Rain to see.

As the focus shifted away, my vision remained on Capricorn.  He’d wrapped up ‘cuffing’ the compass-marked threats.  His hand was shaking, and he seemed to be trying to settle down.  There was still blood on the gauntlet.

“Let’s get moving.  We’ve got to get Swansong and whoever Foresight sent to that side.”

“Ah geez,” Crystalclear said.

“We can do this,” Capricorn said, with a courage and conviction that I one hundred percent did not believe rang true, after seeing his hand shake like that.  He looked back at the guards that had backed off after hearing about the moles, as if for validation.  “We’ve got this.”

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Gleaming – 9.8

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For those who missed it, there was a Thursday update.  See the prior chapter.

Sveta was smiling, her face more relaxed than it had been when she had been challenging Byron and I.  Things were balanced out.  Kenzie was content enough.

Yet somehow, with whatever effect Goddess was supposed to have, more people in the room were upset than content.  Me.  Natalie.

Amy.  I didn’t want to think about or focus on Amy.  I didn’t want to think about the fact that she was here, invading my space yet again.  I could still recognize that she wasn’t happy with the current dynamic.

Tristan.

For all the advice, the good advice, that Tristan was supposed to calm down and focus his efforts on our number one enemies here, he was as angry as I’d ever seen him.  He’d taken off the bulk of his armor before switching out to Byron, and I had a full view of his face and neck.  I could see his eyes.

He turned those eyes toward me.  The look was dark, the tilt of his head and the overhead lights casting the sockets in shadow, with the shadows branching out through the lines along the nose and between the eyebrows.  His fist was clenched.

A study in contrasts.  In the moment before he had disappeared, Byron had looked okay.  Less tense than I’d known him to be in a long time.

“Enough,” Goddess told him.  “I can’t stand infighting.”

He didn’t back down, and he didn’t break eye contact.

“I’ve talked to some of my contacts.  They claim they’re ready.  Tell me what you’ve done.”

“We had a skirmish with Teacher,” I said.  “The team that helped us with that should sit this one out.    They’re depleted and as eager as they are, they’re also inexperienced.  Tiredness combined with being spent is a recipe for disaster.”

“You have others?”

“Plenty of others,” I told her.

“When you said ‘the team that helped us’, who was ‘us’.  Everyone went?”

“Capricorn and myself,” I said.  “Capricorn blue, to be specific.”

She looked at Tristan.  Seeing him still staring me down, she touched his shoulder.  He turned away from me to look at her.

“They ran into a cape,” Tristan said.  “Set powers and interdimensional doors on fire.”

“I know her.  Teacher will send her after me sometimes.”

“She’s the prison pharmacist.  She’ll be there.”

Goddess didn’t seem to be too bothered by that.

“Where’s Cryptid?” Kenzie asked.

“Assisting me.  He’s with the team that’s looking for the girl who has my power.”

“Oh, cool.  He’ll be good at that.”

“Can you give us more information on that?” I asked.  “I’ve studied powers in the past.”

“On the day of the final confrontation against the alien, I was pulled away from my world.  Many of my lieutenants and parahuman inhabitants of my world were as well.  When everything ended, Several of my lieutenants slipped from my reach.  I’ve found all but one.  The craven bitch was one of the five others who got powers when I did.”

“One of your other enemies has mentioned your background, and that you… somehow took the powers from the group,” I said.

“Tattletale?  Yes.  She’s similar to the woman with the fire.  She shows up at very inconvenient times.  Sometimes because she’s an unwitting pawn moved by Teacher.  Right now she’s busy keeping her area of this mega-city from collapsing.  A cursed place, Amy says.”

I flinched at the name.  I’d almost been able to pretend she wasn’t here.

“It’s probably because of the fact that she’s busy that Teacher is doing what he’s doing now,” Amy said.

“I want to ask, why are you here, Amy?” Sveta asked.

“Um.  I’m kind of uniquely situated to get a lot of this.  I knew Teacher, I knew Valkyrie, I’ve talked to Tattletale a few times, I had a sense of what was happening with Gold Morning before some others.”

I folded my arms.

“What I was asking is why are you here?” Sveta said.  “In this headquarters.”

“Because I wanted to make sure that everyone is okay.”

“Your being here makes things less okay,” Sveta said.  “I’m speaking for your sister here, because I’m sure she’s trying to avoid causing issues.”

My arms still folded, I nodded emphatically, my eyes averted to the ground.

“You’re causing problems,” Sveta said.

“I’m trying to take care of everyone, including the people important to me.”

“Enough of this,” Goddess spoke, her voice sharp.

Sveta shut up.  Amy went silent.

“Antares,” Goddess said.  “My power testing labs are very good and thorough.  I can’t imagine you have any new information for me.”

“Can I ask what her power is?  I might not know things that are better than what you learned from your labs, but I keep track of capes, as much as it’s possible, with clandestine groups and cults coming out of the woodwork.”

“A power battery.  She has five very minor powers, scraps of powers, but she has the ability to charge one, extending its range out dramatically in a straight line, usable once every long while.”

“And with this power back, you’d extend your range?”

“In a sense,” she said.  She made eye contact, and there was something searching in her gaze.  “Not straight lines.”

“Including the brainwashing?” Natalie asked.

“Nothing is washed,” Goddess said, her voice hard. “It is aligned.”

Natalie nodded, ducking her head down.

Her answer to Natalie’s question hadn’t been a no.

“If you’re done interrogating me, tell me about the prison.”

“I lensed the energy the gates put out to throw Teacher’s attempts to get in or out out of whack.  Teacher’s pawns are stupid-”

“They lack volition,” I said.

“And they’re gullible, which means they’re stupid.  We tricked them into talking to each other and we have most of them identified.”

“Including the people in charge that Teacher got to,” Tristan said.

He didn’t look any calmer.  It was an uncharacteristically cold kind of anger, though, one that left his voice level even as it stood out across his face, neck, and arms.

I could sympathize, on a level, but my anger wasn’t hot or cold.  It just felt sick.  It carried forward from the sick feeling that had come from being at odds with Sveta.  I was thankful that she was defending me and that she wasn’t causing issues, because I wasn’t sure if I could have managed if she didn’t have my back right now.

“We control the access for now,” Kenzie said.  “He’s trying to figure it out, but… I’m looking at data, and it looks like he keeps trying to open the portals a hundred feet below the prison.  The energy diffuses out into the ground.  He did four tries almost right away, and… it’s been a little while since then.  He made one try, still down there.  I think he might be out of energy.”

“Good,” Goddess said.  She smiled.  “Good work.”

Kenzie’s legs kicked, as she wiggled.

“Get ready.  We’ll go now,” Goddess said.

“We have one more play that’s in the works,” I said.  “An ally is going to make a move, and we should watch what happens so we know where people are.”

“Get ready in the meantime, then.”

I met Tristan’s eyes briefly as he turned toward the corner where he’d left his armor.  Still angry, in an inexplicable way.

There was too much to keep a handle on, and telling myself master-stranger protocols felt like it was about as substantial as shouting ‘Santa is real!’ when I knew he wasn’t- and Byron had been compromised.

My option now was Natalie, who I could maybe trust but couldn’t rely on, because so much of this cape stuff went over her head.

Or… or Amy.  Who maybe knew the cape stuff, but who I couldn’t ever trust.

Natalie.  I couldn’t reach out to her now.

And the others… compromised, by the rules and guidelines stipulated in black and white, outlined in tests that tens of thousands of PRT employees had to take and perfect, even the desk jockeys.

I checked my phone.  My phone was safe, covering distant territory.  No messages had been sent by Rain or Ashley before all communications had been shut off.  I looked at the monitors- also safe.

People were heading toward the cafeteria, and in that group, I could see Crystalclear and Rain.  It was good.  Coalbelcher was in the group with some of his lieutenants.  Less good.

In her apartment, Ashley stood with her back to the kitchen counter, her head bowed, her arms folded.  The Damsel, for lack of a better description, sat on a chair, one arm draped over the back, the other along the table, by the laptop that was now closed.  It wasn’t much use to them, now that the internet was cut off as well.

Another screen showed the video feed from Ashley’s eye-cam.  Once we were inside, if for any reason she wasn’t still in her apartment, then chances were good that we’d have to deduce her location.

Goddess walked over to look at the screens.  Kenzie, organizing her stuff and unplugging things from the computer, looked up.

Amy moved in my peripheral vision.  I shifted my stance.  My aura was on and off in such a short period of time it barely rippled past my skin.

She wasn’t focusing on me.  She’d taken a step toward Sveta, who was attaching her armor, her mask on the table next to her.

“Hello,” the small creature on Amy’s shoulder said, voice high.  A few people glanced over.

“Hello,” Sveta said, before returning to what she was doing.  She kept Amy in the corner of her eye.

“Dot, meet Tress,” Amy said.  “My mother told me a lot about her, and I make- made small talk with her boyfriend when I ran into him at the Wardens headquarters.”

“You have a machine body, and you don’t smell much like flesh or blood.”

“Be polite,” Amy said.

“It’s good!” Dot exclaimed.  “So special, to have something made like that.  A lot of love and care.”

“There was,” Sveta said.  “The most important person in the world had to work hard to make it even possible, and someone had to study very hard to learn how to make it, and that’s a kind of love too.”

Lookout, helmet on, gear gathered, approached to get a better look at Dot.  I opened my mouth to express a warning, but Lookout stepped back as Amy turned to look at her.

Good, I thought.

Dot didn’t seem to care, instead adjusting her perch on Amy’s shoulder.

“My Red Queen does good work with a lot of love too,” Dot said.

“I’ve seen the work she does,” Sveta said.

I could feel a weight pressing in on me.  Amy looking my way made it worse.

Tristan, on the other end of the room, was getting his armor on.  He watched intently, still silent, but for a few of the strategic comments he’d dropped for Goddess.

“Natalie,” I said.  I was desperate for an out.  “Can we talk organization?”

“Please,” she said.

“We can step outside,” I said, “If you don’t mind your jacket getting wet.  Give these guys some elbow room.”

Natalie nodded.

“Stay inside,” Goddess said.

There went that plan.

Why did this have to be so hard?  One person standing in the center of the room while her squirrel-like companion made small talk was harder to deal with than just about anything.

“My Red Queen has fixed a few of my kind.  Big ones, weird ones.  She could fix you.  She can make you just as wonderful in shape and strong enough you don’t need the body.”

“Don’t volunteer me,” Amy said.  “Things are more complicated than that.”

“But you can!  You can make her any shape at all, and then she won’t need that machine anymore!  Then I can take a hand or take an arm!  It’s all so colorful!”

“That’s enough.  I’m sorry, Sveta.”

Sveta didn’t respond, only giving Amy a cold look that, ten minutes ago, she’d been directing at me.

“But I want-” Dot started.  Amy brought up a hand, and stroked Dot like Dot was a cat.  I saw the contact, and revulsion gripped my entire body.

Natalie looked between Amy and me, and then stepped closer to me, hand moving as if she was going to touch me.  I flinched, and she stopped.

I nodded, and she touched my upper arm, just below the ornamentation of spires there.  She moved between Amy and me, blocking my view, and the gratitude that rolled through me could have stopped a moving vehicle.

I hated feeling weak and powerless in front of people like this- in front of Lookout, who couldn’t understand.  In front of Sveta, Tristan, and Goddess.

I looked away, tried to swallow and it got stuck, caught somewhere between up and down, in a position that paralyzed, too ominous for me to figure out how to breathe again.  I really truly felt like forcing it would leave me either choking, if I moved one way, or outright coughing out a mouthful of vomit.

Fuck her.  Fuck her for being here.  Fuck her for intruding, for not getting it.  Fuck her for her selfishness.

In anger, disgust receded.  I could swallow, the motion hard enough it hurt.

What’s going on?” Natalie whispered.  “This is Goddess’ mind control effect?  And you’re resisting it?”

“I’m not resisting it,” I murmured.  “Every iota of my being is telling me that it’s not a problem, it’s minor, I’m making the sensible calls.  But Byron said I’m affected.”

“Byron is-” she turned to look in Tristan’s direction.

“He’s affected now.  Swansong and Precipice too.”

“Oh,” she said.  “What do I do?”

“If you ask me, we ride this out, treat Teacher as the bigger threat, and we deal with that first.  We resolve the prison situation and we let Goddess go rule her world as she sees fit.  If she asks, we go with, we switch our focus… a lot could be done if we do our part there and use that work and accomplishments there to help Gimel.”

“And if she says she wants to destroy Gimel?”

“My first instinct would be to evacuate everyone and then destroy it.”

“And if she didn’t want to evacuate?  Kill everyone?”

“I couldn’t do that,” I said.

“Just like in the video, then,” Natalie said.

She’d seen Byron fighting me, had apparently heard the audio.

“I can get away and call people,” she murmured.  “The Wardens?”

“I think you trying would set off her danger sense,” I said.  And as I said it, I turned my head.

Goddess stood by the computer terminal.  Lookout was standing by her again, chattering away.  Goddess wasn’t listening, though.  She was watching Natalie and I.

“Be safe,” I said.  “We’ll figure something out.”

Natalie nodded.

I was pretty sure I was lying.

“Do you know master-stranger protocols?” I asked her, my voice a dire whisper.

As expected, she shook her head.

“You’re not compromised.  If you say to do something, anything, I’m going to put my trust in you.  Byron might.  I don’t know.”

Natalie opened her mouth to reply.  She was interrupted by a change in the lighting.  A whole wall of projected images flicked over to being a single image from a surveillance camera.  It was in color, and the sky on the other side was lit by hues ranging from blue to pink and orange.  The shadows of the people in the image were long.

Rain was a step behind Crystalclear.

On another wall, in another panel of projected image, Ashley had moved to the balcony.  Damsel stood beside her, claws wrapped around the railing.  Others were watching too.

“Audio,” Tristan said.

“…this with full knowledge of the consequences,” Crystalclear said.  He’d been close to the head of the group of prisoners that were going to the cafeteria to eat, and now he stopped, arms out to the sides.  Guards were moving to flank, weapons drawn.

“Don’t be stupid, Crystalclear.  Your record is good, you haven’t had problems yet!”

“Yeh, don’t be stupid,” Coalbelcher’s voice was accented, with nasal intonation that didn’t fit him.  “I was looking forward to my dinner, and I get cranky when something or someone gets in the way of that.”

“I have it on good authority that this prison is under attack as we speak.  Part of that attack involves the drugs they intend to hand out at the cafeteria.  I’m asking you to put a lockdown in effect and put everything on hold, medication included.”

“I’m seconding this,” Rain said.

“You’re delaying our dinner, boys?” Coalbelcher asked.

“Yes sir, sorry sir,” Rain said.

“Not smart.”

“Stand down, everyone else, kneel!  I don’t want funny business!”

The other prisoners in Rain and Crystalclear’s group were dropping to their knees.

“If a few hours pass and nothing happens, feel free to come after us, Coal, but we’re pretty sure on this,” Crystalclear said.

“Us,” Rain said.  “Put me out there, feel free.”

“Sorry,” Crystalclear added.

“I’m going to make you sorry if these guards don’t.  Getting between me and my motherfucking meal.” Coalbelcher growled.  From a distance, through the speaker, it sounded more like a child trying to sound menacing.  I wondered if he was more dangerous-sounding in person, backed by reputation, in a Brando-as-Godfather way.

“Down on the ground!” a guard called, indicating Crystalclear.

“I’m already kneeling.”

“Chin to dirt!”

“Again, requesting facility-wide lockdown.”

“Chin to the fucking dirt!”

“Figured it wouldn’t work,” Rain said.

Crystalclear dropped, hands at the back of his head.

“We’re going to cuff you, and then we’re going to take you two back-”

An explosion.

Lookout hit keys.  Our view shifted to surveillance camera footage of the cafeteria.  The detonation had wrecked the door and surrounding brickwork.

“By the look and sound of that, it seems like Crystalclear’s power,” I said, my voice quieter than I’d meant it to be.

“At least they don’t realize it’s him,” Sveta said.

“Yeah.  They had to take the guy who can grow explosive crystals on his head and send them through solid surfaces face-first against the ground, huh?”

The guards were focusing on getting the prisoners away from the site of the blast.  Crystalclear and Rain were pulled to their feet.  They didn’t seem to realize that it had been Crystalclear.  It was possible they knew what he did on paper, but recognizing it in the field was something else entirely.

“Over there,” Rain said, turning his head.

Crystalclear stumbled as he turned partially around, while the guard had a hand at the back of his prison-issue jacket.  As part of the stumble, he brought his leg back and kicked, scuffing the ground.

A moment’s delay, and- an explosion, off-screen.

“Can you get that for us, Lookout?”

Amy had moved closer to me in her effort to see what was going on in the video.  Natalie positioned herself, guarding me.  Sveta, too, had moved to another point.

Goddess was watching but not intervening.  I knew she meant well, but…

Lookout’s voice cut through my thoughts.  “Going back ten seconds.  Play.”

Video footage.  People running from the cafeteria.  One of them was the pharmacist, marked with an icon over her head, courtesy of Lookout’s tech.

Crystalclear had to have put a crystal in his shoe, because he’d sent something forward when he’d scuffed the dirt with his toe.  The explosion was the usual Crystalclear sort, but as it hit the pharmacist, she flinched, reacting, and the explosion unfolded into something more dramatic, with rolling waves of purple flame.

The shoe-crystal would’ve been his plan for if they hadn’t had him put his head to the ground.

The smoke was clearing away.  Our pharmacist was fine in the wake of it.  Of fucking course.

“That’s our cue,” Tristan said.  “We’ll have to trust they’ve got this figured out.  Rain and Crystal know what the pharmacist can do.”

Goddess turned toward the door.  With a power, she bid it to open.  Wind and flecks of moisture came in, beading the first few feet of floorboards.  As she approached, however, wind and rain stopped.

The group headed for the fire escape, Goddess lifting herself up to the railing, then floating down.  Tristan was behind her.

My thoughts were on Crystalclear and Rain, on the pharmacist, and how we’d travel to get there.  To my right, a supporting hand reached for my shoulder.

It was a colorful hand in my peripheral vision.  My first thought was that it was Sveta.  Then, after processing color, that Natalie had pulled on gloves.

A hand of mostly red, black secondary, with lines of gold running through it for highlights.

I hadn’t even fully processed the thought, or the warning shout of, “No!” before I was flying.  Forcefield out- I swung to strike her pre-emptively, before she could make contact.

The swing came at a downward angle.  Floorboards became splinters, and I could hear Lookout shriek off to the side.  I saw Amy’s eyes wide, her stumbling steps back as the floor shifted subtly under her feet.  Dot went from under her jacket to her shoulder, then bounded off.

Floating, I had no reason to move a hair.  I’d spent so long trying to avoid thinking about her, trying to find my equilibrium, to deal.  Even swallowing or breathing could be made hard.  Wearing skin could be hard, when the idea of her was close.

But if I didn’t move a hair, if I was a statue, all bridled fury and potential energy, I could stare her down, and hope that there was something that I could convey here.

My aura was still active.  I was probably disturbing the neighbors.  Just like with the swallowing, I couldn’t bring myself to do more than hold it in uncomfortable, bad-for-me limbo.

“Victoria,” Sveta said.

“Sorry about the floorboards,” I said.  I didn’t look, but it was hard to miss, even in peripheral vision.  “That’s probably the security deposit and then some.”

Amy’s lips parted.  Anger flared in my chest.  She got out just the two and a half words, “I’ll pay-”

I flew in, Wretch up.  She hurled herself back and away, and it was like she was moving in slow motion.  My flight was faster than her running.

Something connected with my forcefield.  With it, the paradigm shifted.  I couldn’t be close, couldn’t risk being touched.  I changed the direction of my flight, placing myself near the wall.

It had been Sveta.  As I turned around, she was reeling in her arm.

Amy had to circumnavigate the hole I’d put in the floor to get to the door.  Dot jumped from Lookout’s arms to Amy’s shoulder as she passed.

“You’ll be happier if you stop here,” Sveta said.  “We have a mission.”

The mission.

Do what’s lawful, do what’s right, when neither are clear, reach out for help.

The law and right aren’t in the prison right now.  They needed help.

“Okay,” I said.  “Absolutely.”

I headed for the door.  Sveta reached out, extending an arm to my shoulder.  I stopped.

“Give her a second to leave.  Some distance will be good,” Sveta said.

“She won’t leave,” I said.  “Because leaving would be the right thing to do.  I have to make her.”

Sveta’s expression shifted, a frown.

“Sorry, Lookout,” I said.  “I probably spooked you.”

She laughed.  I imagined a smile on her face, on the other side of her mask.

I floated past the hole and through the door.  I had to lower my head a little so I didn’t get a faceful of freezing rain.

On the ground beside the fire escape, Amy stood beside Goddess.  She hadn’t left.

“Sorry, Natalie,” I said, as I passed her.  She was standing on the uppermost stair that wasn’t the landing at the top of the fire escape.

“No,” she said, her voice small.  “I get it.”

I wondered if she actually did, now.

Goddess was staring me down, looking utterly unbothered, beyond maybe some impatience about getting to the prison.  Amy stood a little ways back, in her civilian clothes, her jacket’s hood up, her eyes not visible.

And I was- I was shaking, like the cold had gotten to me.

It hadn’t, but close enough.

As I drew nearer, I brought the Wretch out.  I let the rain outline it.

Goddess didn’t flinch.  Amy- I saw Amy take a step back.  She said something I couldn’t make out over the drum of the rain.

I flew around the pair- put myself in front of her, instead.  I touched down on the surface of the parking lot, and the Wretch scratched at it, scrabbled at it with multiple fingernails of a multitude of hands.

She turned away, and I put myself in her field of view again, my expression like stone because anything else would have broken in a second.  My fists were clenched, and I was acutely aware of the burn… yet I didn’t feel pain.  Even the old bullet wound in my upper arm didn’t hurt in this moment, which made me realize it usually did, just a bit.  A tightness that wasn’t there in this moment.

Because I didn’t feel pain, I felt like I could do this.  I could manage this because that almost-contact had shocked my system and my senses were altered in the now.  That allowed me to show Amy.  I could show Goddess because I trusted her.  The others- they knew or they’d seen.

Well.  Maybe they’d seen, but it might have taken the damage to the floorboards to show them.

Adrenaline surged through me to impel, drive me forward, in a moment I was stiller than even a person standing could be.  A person that stood needed to make micro-adjustments to their position, to keep their balance.  Weight shifted from foot to foot.

Not so, for me.  I could have been a corpse.

I saw moisture on her face that wasn’t rain.  Like the two and a half words she’d spoken, it was almost enough to provoke me again.  I felt outrage, seeing that.

I knew I wasn’t being rational.  I knew I was in shock.

Like with the master-stranger protocols, I had to recognize where I was, and what I needed to do.  Things divorced from instinct, biological impulses, and baser needs, like fight or flight.

“Did you get your closure?” Goddess asked.

Amy turned her head to look at the woman, and I could see her eyes.  Bewildered, haunted.  Hurt.

Amy wasn’t under Goddess’ influence.  She was a lieutenant who had connections to key players like Tattletale, Marquis, and Teacher.

I’d seen those eyes before too.  Around the edges of memories that had been wiped away.

“Amy,” Goddess said.

Amy wasn’t up to speaking any more than I was.

“Go to Cryptid.  You’re useless to me here.”

Amy nodded slowly.  She backed away.

I had no idea if she planned to catch a ride somehow, run, walk, or do something else.  I didn’t really care.  She was leaving.  She was gone.

She’d tried to touch me.

What to call it when someone I wasn’t prepared to forgive did something unforgivable?

I wasn’t sure.  But I could cuss at myself in my head, for letting things get this far, for letting my guard down.  A ‘fool me once…’ thing.

As the rush lost its hold on me, the shaking got a bit worse.

“Natalie,” Tristan said.  “Can you lock up?  Tress has trouble with things like keys, I don’t think Lookout keeps keys readily available- she has other things to do with her belt pouches.”

“Yeah,” Lookout said.  “It’s in my satchel.”

The satchel was more like a fanny pack, worn at the back, strap extending diagonally over the right shoulder and around the left side of her ribcage.

“And I don’t want to go up and down the stairs in armor,” Tristan said.

“Okay,” Natalie said.  Tristan threw his keys to her- a small object thrown in the dark.  By his accuracy more than anything, Natalie caught the keys.

And just like that, things were close to normal again.  The shaking in my hands didn’t quite go away.

I saw Goddess raise one hand.  The surface of the parking lot cracked, and in the lighting, streetlights and lights from the nearby building hitting the icy ground at an angle, it made the shift in the ground and the breaks in the ground stand out that much more.

She used her telekinesis to lift up a disc of ground from the parking lot, and as she did it, it was clear that the telekinesis had its own shape to it.  Something geometric.

I’d have to keep that in mind, like I had to keep Sveta’s suit or Lookout’s facial expressions in mind.  Quirks and weaknesses.

Tristan approached.  I could still see glimmers of that earlier anger.  I wasn’t sure exactly what was coming of it, though.  To be that angry and- what?  No focus?  Was he burning it off or eating that anger and digesting it into some other form?

It was too many question marks in a row, coinciding with the shaking of my hands.  I hated feeling weak.  I liked being the declarative sort, the one who could list off bullet points and elaborate on them, not get caught up in wonderings and doubts.

“I get it,” Tristan spoke.  His voice wasn’t his usual.  “The sibling thing.  Wrestling with… with wrongs.”

I nodded.  I could believe it.

“Difference is, I was the wrongdoer,” he said.  “The blood was on my hands.”

He held out a gauntleted hand, where it could catch the light.  Amy had tattoos.  Tristan had metal that had been tinted orange-red, with a wash that let the tint collect in crevices and cracks.

“I’m going to need you to keep me in check,” Tristan said.

“Check?”

“There aren’t many things that get to me, but we managed to press a few of those buttons tonight,” Tristan murmured.  “The last few times I felt like this, I did things I wasn’t proud of.”

“Got it.”

“Keep me from doing something stupid, and I’ll have your back.  Yeah?”

I nodded.

Goddess lifted up her disc.  With a gesture, she picked up Lookout by the satchel, then deposited her on the disc.  Sveta accepted a hand of help from Tristan and I.

While we waited for Natalie, Tristan stood with his eyes on the group.  Quiet, he stated a simple pass phrase.

“Master-stranger?”

“Yes,” I said, barely audible.

“Okay.  I think I remember the rules.  Who’s our person?”

“Natalie,” I whispered.  “Until replaced.”

“Replaced?”

“Byron was affected.”

“I felt it.  Yes.”

“Then the first untainted, trustworthy cape we can find.  We should keep them unaffected where possible,” I whispered.

“Crystalclear?”

“Maybe.”

The disc was ready.  Tristan stepped up onto it, and then he offered a hand to Natalie, lifting her up with no apparent difficulty at all.

The disc levitated- a chunk of ground fifteen feet across that rained a bit of gravel down on the ground far beneath.

I flew.  Goddess landed at the midway point of the disc, and she lifted it, carrying herself with the rest.

Another thing to file away.  She could lift herself, and she could lift a lot of weight, but in the here and now, she was using that power one at a time.

The rain didn’t let up, and being airborne didn’t help.  There were less buildings to break up the flow of the wind, less sources of heat that could warm us up.  My costume was covered in a thin sheet of ice before we were halfway to our destination.

Five minutes after that halfway point, my armor began to crack.  The weight of the ice was its own downfall, and it came away in Victoria shapes, cascading down to empty streets below.

We reached the first portal and passed through.

The weather was different.  The lighting from the now expired sunset, the sky bright even though it was night and it had been raining.

Eerily tranquil.

We approached the second portal in the airlock-like arrangement.  Lookout deactivated the scrambler, and we had a clear shot through, the ability to see through the gate to the other side.

With that clear shot, we had a view as well.

The guards, their guns, and apparently prisoners that they’d released to assist them.  Capes standing at the edges of the group of correctional officers, ready to back them up.

The wave of telekinetic force that reached out struck at them one by one. It had its own pattern, like a series of numbers that matched to the earlier pattern we’d seen.  It swiped over guards and it disarmed them of their weapons.

A moment later, like a fractal pattern cracking the wall before the shape took its form -a pattern not too unlike Tristan and Byron’s power- Goddess tore an entire wall out of the side of the building.  People who had been standing ready to defend this place now scrambled to get clear.

“We tear it all down before we leave,” Goddess said.

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Gleaming – Interlude 9.x

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“What the hell is wrong with you?” Tristan asked.  “What the hell?”

Byron stared his brother in the eyes, incredulous.  “What’s wrong with me?

“Did you take drugs or something?  You’re all aggro, not making any sense.”

“You’re not fucking listening!”

Tristan made a face, shaking his head a little.  “Then I guess we’re not going to get anywhere, huh?  I’ve got stuff to do that isn’t being yelled at for random shit.”

He headed for the door.  Byron stepped into his way, grabbing for his brother’s shirt-collar.  Tristan’s attempt to shove the hand aside produced a small ripping sound.

“My shirt!  Let go!”

“Sucks to lose stuff you care about, doesn’t it?” Byron asked.

“Oh fuck you, you didn’t lose anything.  Now let go.  If you want to bitch and shout about stuff, the parents will be home soon, you can share your feelings while we eat and they can tell you that you’re making no fucking sense!

Tristan’s attempt to push Byron aside and leave didn’t get him anywhere, except to risk tearing his shirt further.  He grabbed Byron’s wrist, hard.

“Tried that.  They take your side.”

“Because I’m right!”

“You’re not right!” Byron raised his voice, which went a note too high.  There were tears in his eyes.

Tristan screwed his face up in disgust.  “Come on, By.  Name one person we know who would look at what you’re doing right now and say ‘hey man, cool.  Good for you for handling this this way.”

“That’s the whole fucking issue!” Byron jerked his hand, tearing the shirt on purpose this time.  Tristan grabbed him with his other hand, fingers digging into Byron’s shoulder and wrist, and shoved him against the door.

Through grit teeth and pants of breath, Byron growled the words.  “Do you know how hard it is to make friends?  To get people who have my back?”

“It’s not hard at all!  And that’s the furthest thing from the issue!”

“It’s the issue!” Byron shouted the words into his brother’s face.  “It’s what I’m trying to get into that thick skull of yours!  Ever since sixth grade, I’ll make the effort to make friends and then you’ll show up to a party or even a place where we’re sitting around and talking and you’re in, you’re part of the group!  It’s only easy for you to make friends because you take mine!”

“It’s not a transaction, you dipshit!  Just because they’re my friends doesn’t mean they’re not yours!”

“It does!  It always fuck-” Byron pulled his hand to the side, ripping the shirt more.  He stuck his other elbow into Tristan’s shoulder, partially shrugging free of the hand that gripped him.  What followed was flurry of him wrestling for a grip and striking out in half-push, half-punch hits, and Tristan doing much the same.  Tristan prevailed, just a bit bigger, a bit stronger.    Byron found his breath.  “It always fucking did, Tristan!  You join my groups of friends and then you make fun of me!”

“Reality check,” Tristan, his face inches from Byron’s, breath hot against Byron’s face.  “Ninth grade, little brother.  That’s what people do.  Dad and our uncles rib each other.”

“Rib!” Byron shouted.  “Not fucking destroying each other!”

His voice cracked at ‘destroying’.  He hated that.

“Destroy?” Tristan asked.  He started to laugh, but he didn’t even get a sound out before Byron pulled his fist free.  Byron bucked, trying to dislodge his brother, and brought a knee up to hit him in the side.  When held back, he scratched- anything to hurt, to convey what words couldn’t.  Tristan winced.  “Fuck, that hurt!  Stop!”

Byron panted.  “If there’s a new thing in clothes, you beat me to it.”

“That’s not destroying you, you shit.  That’s me reading the fucking magazines and paying attention!”

“If I beat you to the punch, wear my hair a way that looks good, you do the same and say I copied you!  I can’t say things without you saying I’m copying!  I can’t talk about a movie I watched or say a slang word without having to wonder if you’re going to use it to get a laugh, or if people will do the pecking order inside joke shit and say you were there first, you beat me to it!  They say it because you keep hammering it in!”

“I’ve been trying to make a point!  You need to walk your own path!”

You’re the fucking parasite!  You’re the one who follows me!  You’re the one who’s walking on my path and calling me the copycat!  You’ve been doing it for years and there’s nothing left for me!  That’s what’s destroying me!”

He pulled his wrist free and punched Tristan in the side.  Tristan grabbed his hand.

“Having nothing I can choose to do with my hair or clothes without you or someone in the group using it as ammo!”

He punched, and Tristan deflected, shoving his arm off-target.

“Every time I say something, you have to edge your way in, say something better or louder or cut me down, every time!”

None of the hits seemed to be really making any impact.  None of this did.

“Not being able to sit down with my friends, because you’re there and I know you’ll all joke about me, and they never did it before you entered the picture!”

“It’s called getting closer to people!  You figure each other out and you know where the lines are and you prod them!”

“You break my lines!  You kick them down and say things and they make fun of me for weeks!  They’ve been calling me ‘little brother’ for a year!”  Fueled with adrenaline, Byron punched out.  Even with Tristan holding his arm, he was able to clip his chin.  “And then you go out with Katie!?”

That?   That’s what this is about?  It was going together to the stupidest fucking movie!  it was one thing!  It didn’t matter!”

“It mattered to me!  I’m trying to convey to you that it matters and it doesn’t get through if I say it, hit you, or scream it!” Byron’s voice was reaching a fever pitch.  “I liked her and now she’s your best friend!  Your beard!”

Tristan’s expression changed.  His voice was as cold as Byron’s was hot.  With a surge of strength, he pushed Byron’s arms down.  “We’re going there?  You’re going to scream it so our parents might hear it if they come in through the door?”

“They know!  Everyone fucking knows because you’re really fucking bad at hiding it!  It’s why they treat you with kid gloves and give you the extra attention while you ‘figure yourself out’!  Katie’s more excited to have you as a gay best friend like in the movies, than she is about having me as an anything!  Even when you’re not there it’s about you, because they talk about how brave you are because you’re out to people, and then they joke I’m weak, I’m lame because they think I don’t have the guts.  I’m not fucking gay!  I’m not weak!  It’s fucking ridiculous that I get the flack!”

Byron started to win the hand-to-hand struggle once again.  Tristan was stronger, but in the sheer emotion that Byron brought to bear, he forced his way forward, arms straining.  He got his leg forward and pressed it against the side of Tristan’s knee, so Tristan couldn’t stay standing.  Inch by inch, he pushed back and pushed Tristan down.

“You’re a fucking- fucking gay basher, then?” Tristan’s voice was strained.

“Fuck you!  Fuck you to hell, Trist!  Fuck you, no!” Byron shouted, his voice a snarl.  “You don’t get to play that card when I have backed you up!  I have gotten in fights for you because they kept saying shit!  Gaylord, gaylord, gaylord, back in seventh and eighth!  Gaylord, gaylord fucking faggot gaylord!’

“Shut up!”

“Sucks to hear, doesn’t it!?  But you know I was shutting them up, back then!  I took the harder path so you’d have it easier and it doesn’t matter!  You don’t care!  It never counted for anything and you even used it against me!  You were the one who called me a pussy after I told them to shut it on the ‘sissy’ shit!  You just take!  You have to win, you make this a competition!  Except when I win, if you can call it that, I don’t get anything except normal, and when I lose I lose people that I care about!”

He pushed Tristan onto his back, and in the moment Tristan put his hand back to push himself to a standing position, Byron moved forward, pinning the arm under one knee.

Both of his free hands fought with Tristan’s free one.  He hit and deflected.

“I.  Lose!  Katie laughs at me!  Rob and Jem call me weak!  Mama and papa talk to you more than they talk to me!”

“Stop!”

“You first!  Back the fuck off!  Stop taking!”

“I’m not taking!”

“You are!  Why can’t you listen?  Stop talking and listen to me for the first time in your shallow, selfish life!”

“It’s not on purpose, you moron!  It’s life!  You’re quiet, I’m loud!  You’re lazy, I’m actually out there talking to people!  So they listen to me more!  Nature and school fucking politics and fucking logic favor those who do and say stuff!  Now stop fucking hitting me or I’m going to hit you back!”

“I’m saying give me a chance,” Byron said.  The volume was going out of his voice as the emotion shifted to something else.  “You don’t have to speak up, you don’t have to butt in!”

“Give yourself a chance!”

“Shut up and listen!” Byron couldn’t get anywhere with the arm, but Tristan was lifting up his head.  With a shove, Tristan’s head cracked against the floor in the basement.  Seizing the opportunity, Byron gripped his brother around the throat, still kneeling on one of his arms.

Tristan’s reply was choked, a non-word.  His one free hand groped, while Byron hunched over, denying him anything he could get much of a grip on.

“Shut up for one fucking minute,” Byron said, calmer than he’d been, though his voice was warped by the effort.

Tristan made a longer, strained sound, trying to get a word out and failing.

“You’re not even capable of shutting up.  Learn to step down.  Learn to give some ground, any ground, okay?  Please.

Fumbling to break Byron’s grip, Tristan was scratching now, groping for weak points.  He wasn’t putting up half the fight he had been.  He hadn’t even been choked for that long.

“All I want is my own space.  Give me room to figure shit out,” Byron said.  “I’m not asking for the world here.”

Tristan’s hand fell to his side.

“Just… nod, okay?  Nod, agree.  Or tap out, show me you can tap out.”

Tristan moved his arm.  Byron felt a piercing pain.

He’d been stabbed.

What followed was nonverbal, almost animal.  His grip tightened, because there was no other way this would end in his favor, because he was worried that Tristan would keep stabbing with whatever he’d just stabbed him with.

An impulse or thought ran through the background of it, he knew it was unrealistic on a fundamental level, but he couldn’t afford to lose this last one time.  He’d already been beaten down so much, people he’d once liked had turned ugly, turned on him.  ‘Ribbing him’.

If he lost here, he wasn’t sure he wouldn’t break.

Tristan’s stabs, more aimless, caught on the underside of his arm.  A worse cut than before, but it didn’t seem that much worse.

The blood, though.  What followed was a ridiculous, outright scary amount for the size and depth of the cut.

In desperation, he maintained his grip as best he could, fingers digging into flesh.  Tristan flailed, a flash of gold and black, a sharp point dragging against and puncturing skin.

He felt his own consciousness slip, and it wasn’t because of the blood loss.

He saw silhouettes, paired.  Human, with something to them that he recognized on a fundamental level, or because the vibrations in the background of it all spoke to him.  Warrior and scholar.

Another pair of silhouettes.  Not human.  Not a warrior and a scholar, but a creator and a destroyer.

Another pair…

He opened his eyes.  They widened a bit further as he saw the amount of blood soaked into the carpet.

Mama and Papa were going to be pissed.

He coughed, and in that small action, everything felt wrong.

He coughed again, and when his hand came to his mouth, it wasn’t because he wanted it to.

His lips moved and pronounced a single hoarse word.  “Fucker.”

His vision swayed.  His limbs moved.  He found a standing position, before coughing again.

He hadn’t bid any of these actions to happen.  He was… an inside observer, viewing through eyes, feeling sensations, hearing the hum of the fan upstairs.  He could smell the blood.

He felt cold horror of an almost alien sort as he began to absorb what this might be.  The horror didn’t extend to gut, to the dilation of eyes, to breathing.  The coldness of the emotion was at stark odds with the heated, breathless “Fucker!” that passed through his lips.

Through Tristan’s lips.  The horror welled.

Byron watched as the eyes, not his, moved across the room.  Looking for- for him.  Searching for some sign.  They moved to the blood puddle, then scanned the surroundings, tracing a line up the stairs, zig-zagging in a search for a trail of blood.

Every movement of the eye felt like someone was taking his eyes, wresting them to one point of focus, then to another.  Muscles fired into action, felt alien around the edges because the configuration was right, but the scale and pattern was that one percent to ten percent different.  The muscles forced the body into movement, into balancing to stay upright.

There were more coughs as Tristan rubbed his throat.  He made his way up the stairs, into the kitchen, then wandered through the house, hands running through hair, around the neck, fidgeting.

Byron wanted to struggle, to push out, to find a way free.  There was nothing.  He could feel, he could think, and he could sense what Tristan sensed.  There was nothing beyond that.

Having finished searching the house, checking the small bedroom for Byron, Tristan made his way back to the kitchen.  He took a seat at the kitchen table, and buried his face in his hands, coughing once or twice.  His throat hurt, and Byron felt the hurt.

With every second that passed, not even able to control the focus of his vision or sharpen his awareness on any point within the eye’s field of vision, Byron felt his thoughts growing more confused.  There was nothing here, only void, and everything in thought and emotion bled out aimlessly into that void, with no perspective, no grounding, no action he could take.

Please no, he thought.  Whatever this is.  Please.

Emotions welled, but without a heartbeat, a stomach, muscles, and breathing to give substance, they were like blots of watercolor, bleeding out and into one another.

“Tristan?” Papa asked.  He put down his bike helmet, stepping into the kitchen.  He was sweaty from his ride back from work.  The biking was because he was trying to lose weight, but he was only part of the way there- everything about him from mustache to build were heavy and thick.  Heavy eyebrows furrowed in concern.  “What happened?”

Tristan stared off into space.

“Tristan?” Papa asked.  He seemed to see something that alarmed, because he turned toward the front hall.  “Anita!  Come fast!”

Mama came into the kitchen, still wearing her own biking outfit, her long hair damp near the scalp.  It was Tristan’s eyes, not Byron’s, that searched out the little details that made her her- the shock of white hair by one temple, the twin moles that Tristan had called ‘vampire bites’ as a child.  Byron had felt bad about that, even being the observer to his brother as Tristan unwittingly evoked a look of faint hurt on their mama’s face.

Help, Byron thought, as they turned their attention to his brother.  Please help me.  This is hell.  It’s already hell.

“Byron flipped out on me,” Tristan said.  He coughed, forced the cough, then touched his throat.  “He was upset because I took Katie to the movies.”

That wasn’t it.

“I told you not to,” Mama said, her voice soft.

“He strangled me.  Scratched me.  Punched me,” Tristan searched his arm, pulled back his t-shirt sleeve with one hand to see where Byron had hit his shoulder.

“That’s too far.  That’s too far and then some,” Papa replied.  “We’ll talk with him.  Where is he?”

Please help.  Please notice that something’s wrong.

“Um,” Tristan said, sounding very disconnected.  He wasn’t looking anywhere in particular.  To an outside observer, it might have looked like a thousand-yard stare.  “He stormed out, I think.  I looked through the house.”

“Look at me, Tristan,” Papa said.

Tristan did.

See me in here.  Isn’t that how it works in the movies?

Tristan’s eyes watered.  “Something’s fucked up.  A lot of things are fucked up.  I’ve been sitting here trying to process, but my thoughts are sparks and I can’t think straight.  When I can think straight, I’m worried I have brain damage because it’s really intense.”

“Tristan-”

Tristan stumbled through, not stopping.  “And I’m worried he’s going to the cops or something-”

“Cops?”

“Because I got scared when he was strangling me and I couldn’t even hear anything except the ringing in my ears.  I stabbed him with the pen I had in my pocket to try and make him let go, and he was so angry.  So angry.”

Tristan dropped his eyes.  The thousand-yard stare again.

“Tristan.”  Papa took Tristan by the shoulders.

Tristan made eye contact again.

“He wasn’t making any sense,” Tristan said.

I made sense, you weren’t hearing it.

Their mama rubbed Tristan’s shoulders.  Their papa gave him a kiss on the top of the head.  Byron felt it all and he didn’t feel better in the slightest.

“We’ll get this figured out, mi hijo,” Papa said.

Please help.

“I don’t know,” Tristan said.  “I feel like something broke inside of me.  I can’t think straight- I think in…”

The orange-red light flared between him and Papa.  A will-o-the-wisp from a video game, The diffuse light of a tinted lightbulb without the glass to encase it, condensed into a ball a couple of inches across.

“…sparks and lines.”

Dios mio,” Papa said.  He stepped away.  Mama’s hands dropped from Tristan’s back.  The lights traced thin lines through the air, just as intense as the lights were at their center, but without the diffuse glow around them.

Byron might have been the least surprised of all of them.  Deep down, he’d realized something like this had happened.

Tristan seemed to belatedly realize what was happening.  He pulled away, and the lights and the lines drew together into something solid – a tangle of metal that had been twisted and bent, with razor-thin strips twisting and branching up and out.  It crashed into the kitchen floor, and Tristan nearly fell from the stool in his haste to move away.

In the retreat, Tristan receded.  Byron felt the void he was in fill up, pushing him out-

Byron emerged, and the metal growth exploded into a spray of steam with no heat to it, only a sharp chemical smell.  His parents backed away to the far end of the kitchen.

Byron gasped, much as if he’d surfaced after being held underwater for a very long time.  He found his breath, and then he screamed.  Neither parent could do much more than stare.

“My boys,” Papa said, his eyes wide, his voice filled with heartbreak.  “What have you done to yourselves?”

He felt the void he could slip into so easily, more a sentiment than anything he could touch.  It was as if he was standing with his back to a ledge, an impossibly long drop below that ledge.  With that knowledge came the realization that Tristan was inside him.

Nausea and shock overwhelmed him, and he vomited onto the floor.

Danger.  How much risk do we face?  Is there a chance we get hurt?  What’s medical care like?  Does it involve fighting Endbringers?

Organization.  How many people in the group?  How are arguments resolved?  Is there a human resources department?  Manager?  Team leader?  How is that stuff handled?

Secret identity.  How many people will see our faces?  Know our names?

School.  What do we do about school?

For that matter, what happens schedule-wise with holidays?  Church?

Ask, damn it!  Ask or swap so I can ask!  You’ve only talked about money and costumes!

“Any more questions?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  The man had  shaved head, light brown skin, and both a mustache and beard that were trimmed down to a series of lines, the beard being little more than a narrow arrow that pointed down.  His jacket hung on his chair, and the sleeves of his button-up silk shirt were rolled up, showing only hints of the tattoos at the upper edges of his forearms.

Byron knew because Tristan kept glancing at the guy’s arms.

“Nah.  No more questions,” Tristan said.

“Some,” Papa said.  He hesitated.  “But this is a lot to take in.  I need a moment to get my thoughts in order.”

Mr Vaughn smiled.  “Instead of that, why don’t you hold onto any questions you might have, go home, sleep on things, and you can email our department any time.  We will answer any questions- if you want to send us a hundred, it won’t be a problem.”

No.  There’s a big difference between what they say to our faces and what they say if they have time to compose an email and word things carefully.

“I think we covered most of it,” Tristan said.

“…Yes,” Papa conceded.

No!

“Great!” Mr. Vaughn pronounced, with a smile.

Byron had to bite back his annoyance.  Danger, management, secret identity, school, schedule, holidays.  It was a mantra he mentally recited, so he could fire off the questions when he had the opportunity.

Mr Vaughn leaned back.  “Tell me, what do you think?”

“I’m very interested.”  There was no hesitation in Tristan’s reply.

“I’m not sure,” their Papa said, sounding hesitant.  “To be honest, our number one priority is getting this whole situation fixed.  The PRT has resources.”

“The PRT absolutely has resources,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I would say they’re above average in what they can offer.”

“Alright,” their Papa said.  He looked at Tristan.

What’s the pitch?

“If you look into it, however, you’ll find they’re strictly above average.  They’re exceptional and consistent at holding things to that level.  You won’t get the exceptional wages, service, or attention from them.  The people at the top have been in the PRT since before Tristan was born.  There’s something called upward mobility, how many promotions you can get or how high you can rise in the hierarchy.”

“I know what upward mobility is,” Papa said.

“Then it should please you to know that when it comes to Tristan and his brother, we can give them mobility, and we can give them something the PRT won’t.  We can give them exceptional.”

“With more risk, I’m guessing?” Tristan asked.

“Yes,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Being on a corporate team is like being in sales, except you’re selling your own brand.  We’ll pay you handsomely, and you stand to gain much more if you hit our reward points.  You’ll get extra for media events, a stipend for holding higher rankings on the right sites on the internet and any cape ranking lists in magazines.  You’ll get a thousand dollars for every headline you net, five thousand if you get a positive headline in a major paper.  But it’s more work, and not everyone’s cut out for it.  If you don’t think you can sell and you can’t handle the risk, then the PRT is a safer bet.”

“I’m a risk taker,” Tristan said.  Byron could feel his brother’s face stretch in a smile.  “And I think I’d be a good salesman.”

I’m not a risk taker.

“I get that impression,” Mr. Vaughn said, smiling back at Tristan with something resembling a twinkle in his eye.  “It’s why we’re so willing to reach out here, if you’ll excuse the pun.  Costume, starting salary, branding push.  You hit all the marks and then some.”

“Marks?” Papa asked.

Tristan shifted, almost as if he was uncomfortable with their Papa’s participation in the conversation.

“He’s the right age to match the others.  He’s hip, attractive, he has a background in drama, good presentation, and a visually interesting power.  Byron brings a different attitude, good academics, and their interplay is an interesting twist on an established formula.”

Damned with faint praise.

I don’t want to do this.

“I’m excited to do this,” Tristan said.

“We need to consider Byron,” Papa said.  “Don’t jump to making a decision, okay?”

“Of course,” Tristan said.  “I think he’ll be down for it.”

I’m not down for this, but you saying that makes it harder to say no.

I’m still going to say no.

“Let’s hope,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “He can hear me, right?”

“He can,” Tristan said.

“We draw big money.  We pay it forward.  The PRT labs are very good, but every cape under their umbrella needs power testing at one point or another.  It’s in their requirements.”  Mr Vaughn leaned forward.  “Byron, with the contacts we can provide and the money we can pay you, we can give you more help, and you won’t spend years in a queue after getting your requisite, everyday power testing appointment.”

Years.  It was horrible to think about.  A month had been hell.

He hated to admit it, but just the fact that Mr. Vaughn had said his name, addressing him directly, it meant so much.  Only his parents really did it when Tristan was out there. Yet when the tables were turned, he didn’t miss that Tristan was so often addressed directly, with the odd person speaking right past Byron.

But he wanted to say no.

“Come, I’ll show you the facilities,” Mr. Vaughn said.

They all stood.  Mr. Vaughn walked around his glass desk, opening the door to let them out into the main offices of Reach.

“We should let Byron out,” their papa said.  “He needs a say.”

“After?  Please?” Tristan asked.  “He had all yesterday. I’ve barely had today, and I spent a lot of it in the car.  I’m so restless.”

Byron was left to wonder why he had such a horrible sinking feeling at that.

“Okay,” their papa said.  “But he gets a say when we’re done the tour, after you’ve stretched.”

Tristan’s face stretched in a smile that didn’t match Byron’s feelings in the slightest.  This was the hell.  If there were bars to this cell, Byron might have grabbed them, shaken them, screamed.

But there were no bars.  To react like that and be in that state when he emerged was something that pushed others away, which made it impossible to enjoy the time spent with family.  It made them fret, worry.

Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule.  He held onto his list of questions.

“Would I be staying here?” Tristan asked.

“Reach travels.  You’d have nice accommodations if you were out of town.  We accommodate your parents if they wish to chaperone.”

“Oh man,” Tristan said.  “I love you, Papi, but-”

“That might be a problem,” their papa said.  “I have work.”

Byron was aware of Tristan’s faint exhalation of relief.  He’s thinking like this is a done deal.

“And your wife?”

“We work in the same office.”

“Ah, I envy you,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I’m sure we could work something out if we needed to.  Come, let’s walk. Tristan, you should wear this mask, temporary, to protect your identity.”

Tristan pulled the mask back on.

“And Mr. Vera?”

“I might as well.  I feel ridiculous.”

The walls of the entire building were decorated with a stylization of Reach’s logo, a symbol that was clearly meant to strike a middle ground between a flame, the loose silhouette of an outstretched hand, if that hand were drawn with a very limited set of swooping lines, and an arrow.  The symbol stretched diagonally across walls, separating the bold color on the bottom half from the white on the top. Tiles on the floors had whatever colors were on the walls at one edge, dissolving into less and less squares. It was the kind of thing that could have been tacky, but so much of the rest of the building was high quality, with high resolution images on framed posters, benches, railings, and other things in striking designs.  It looked more like an art museum than an institution.

They’d been to the institution, the PRT offices.  Past the lobby, there hadn’t been a lot of polish.  The room where the staff worked on computers had smelled like stale coffee and printer ink.

But Byron was wary of things that presented a polished facade to hide their flaws. He knew well enough because he was inside a living embodiment of it right this moment.

Mr. Vaughn waved to a musclebound man who was standing beside a computer in a gym.  The man waved back.

“Gym.  Free to use.  We have one staff member who is there at all times, professional trainer, and between nine and four there’s a second person in the building who can turn up in five minutes, if the man on call is busy with someone else.  You look like someone who hits the gym.”

“I am.”

“What sports are you into?”

“Right now it’s rock climbing, mostly.  Some snowboarding, some surfing, but that’s only doable if we’re in the right place at the right times.  I was into football in grade seven, but I got injured, had to sit out for the season, and lost interest.”

“A lot of injuries,” papa said.  “Too dangerous.”

Byron felt Tristan’s eyes move over papa’s face.  No doubt worrying as Byron was hoping.

Ask.  Danger!  What’s the risk?

But their Papa was silent.

“There’s a pool as well, if you surf, you probably swim.  It’s a very, very nice pool.  Some of the members of Reach will use it as a place to take selfies or, ah, ‘selfless’ shots.”

“Selfless?” papa asked.

“Another kind of selfie, papa, don’t worry about it,” Tristan said.

“For heroes,” Mr. Vaughn explained.  “They will have social media. The face is hidden, shots are taken from behind, or below the shoulders only.  It teases the fans, gets them thinking about the person beneath the costume. The boys and girls will take these ‘selfless’ photos by the pool, or while standing on rooftops.”

“I’m not sure I like any part of that,” papa said.

“I’m sure you raised Tristan and Byron to be smart about these things.”

Papa laughed, abrupt, which looked like it surprised Mr. Vaughn.  He looked at Tristan. “I think you might have misjudged my son.”

Papa!

“He is very smart, but not about that sort of thing.”

Byron felt Tristan turn his head to look at Mr. Vaughn, felt the heat in the face, the clench of a hand that indicated emotion more than anything in his voice betrayed it.  “I think what my dad is saying is that if it sells, I’ll probably end up doing it. But if it’s about modesty or… whatever other issues my dad has with it, yeah, it’s probably not me.”

“Why would you want to get people to think about who you are under the mask?  Keep it secret, Tristan,” Papa said.

“I will, I’ll just… tease.  Misdirect.”

“All posts to social media are held for a short period of time and run past our staff,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Each will be scrutinized to make sure there is no danger, nothing that can be misinterpreted.”

“See?” Tristan asked.

“I do see.  I see so much of my younger self in you,” papa said, one hand cupping Tristan’s chin, shaking it.  “And this is why I’m worried.”

The longer this goes like this without me getting a say, the more likely I am to say no.  Not that I’m sure it’ll matter.

Danger, management, identity, school, holiday schedule.

“I love you too, papa,” Tristan said, reaching up no to push the hand away, but to fix the mask.  But as they rounded a corner, he pulled back a little, breaking the contact.

“The cafeteria,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “And… the young members of Reach.”

Byron was forced to look where Tristan looked.  He’d seen the images in passing, enough to know the names.

A helmet that consisted of a face-shaped plate at the front with chiseled features, hinges at the brow, the back and sides of the helmet fashioned to look like rolling locks of hair- all ivory and silver.  The bodysuit of the costume wasn’t skintight, but a material thick enough to hold the armor plates that were worked in rigid. the armor’s edges and the pattern along the suit’s chest and down the legs echoed the rolling waves of hair.

The white of the costume’s face was supposed to draw the eye, but Tristan’s eyes touched on the face, then shoulders, arms, chest, down the side of the body, as if noting silhouette, then pausing for a tenth of a second on the package between the guy’s legs before moving and across to the person just behind the teenage guy.

Figurehead, Byron thought, with a bit of exasperation.  The glances were something he’d had to get used to.

Tribute was taller, and again, he had a high quality costume, sleek and form-fitting down the body.  A decoration extended up from a disc at the chest, like a raised collar, but gold, and with nothing joining it to the shoulder.  More gold and more disc motifs decorated belt, mask, gloves, and formed a pattern on the inside of the fabric that draped down from the belt to the ankles.  The skin that was visible was a cool black. Byron would have thought Tristan would pay more attention to the guy, given his apparent fitness, height, but no- Tristan’s gaze paused for that tenth of a fraction on Figurehead’s mask as it cut across again, to the man standing to the other side of Figurehead.

Then there was Boundless, all angles, athletic, muscular, but in a lanky way, like a basketball player.  His mask and the pattern on his bodysuit weren’t shaped like anything, but instead had a pattern that started from a ridge at the center of face or chest and swept back in sweeping lines.

Another person Byron couldn’t identify, hadn’t seen in marketing.  Newer, maybe.  Lean, skinny, and fidgety.  Her mask was like a cat’s, with ears that were worked into the side, sweeping back.  Chain links ran down the black-bodysuit-covered neck and draped over the shoulders and over a flat chest.  More chain decoration extended down the hands to oversized claw-gauntlets, which dangled from the elbow, leaving her hands free.

Steamwheel was a girl tinker with a mask that was hard metal, starting at two rectangular frames and extending down, leaving the forehead uncovered and mousy, greasy brown hair free.  Short, flat-chested, maybe young.  In full costume she was a titan of metal with a dramatic wheel mounted on it.

Then, more eye catching, there was a another girl, with a veritable mane of silver hair, a bodysuit that clung to the body, styled in a complex weave of jet black and silver locks that made it look like her hair was worked into her costume- the harlequin-ish design had one arm covered in the metal molded to look like hair, with blades extending up and sweeping back from the rigid structure.  Tristan didn’t look, but Byron knew from pictures that she had a very generous chest. Coiffure.

And, beside Coiffure, the last member of the junior team.  Raven-haired, wearing a dress-ish costume that she wouldn’t have gotten away with in the Wards, her legs long and slender.  Like the others, fine molded metal was persistent across the design, and hers had crescent moons and discs with crescents worked into it, extending up from shoulders and from her mask in a diadem or crown style.  She could have played a princess in a movie.

Her mask left more of her face exposed, enough that Byron could see her lips, painted with lipstick. For whatever reason, Tristan noticed it, focused on it, and Byron was treated to a view of the slight smile.

When he had been looking at photos of the team, he hadn’t even paid much attention to her.  Seeing that small smile? He was paying attention.

“So this is the guy we heard about,” Figurehead said.

“Is he joining?” Tribute asked.

“I’m tempted,” Tristan said.

“Discussion is pending,” Papa said, firmly.  “And I have questions about things like school, other things I’m apparently supposed to email about.”

The adults left.

Let me out.  I should meet them too.

Tristan approached the group, all smiles, shaking hands.  There was a brief demonstration of his power.  The newer member was introduced as Furcate.

Let me out.

It was everything that had happened with his prior friend groups.  Tristan bullying his way into things, elbowing Byron out.  If Byron knew them first, Tristan knocked him down a peg on his way into the group dynamic.  If Tristan knew them first, Byron never had a shot.

I’m going to say no, you asshole.  I’m going to veto.  I’ll ruin this any way I can, if you fucking don’t give me a chance to get to know these people.

“We’re going to have to adjust tactics, with Boundless leaving in a few weeks.  Less mobility on the team, more stand-in-place-and-mess-them-up types,” Figurehead said.

“I’m pretty mobile,” Tristan said.  “You get in fights then?”

“We’re supposed to be careful about how we go about it,” Coiffure said.  Then she winked.  “We have a lot of ‘accidental’ run-ins with villains and crooks.”

“Perfect.”

“If you want food, by the way, we’re totally stocked.  There’s a microwave too,” Figurehead said.

“Oh man, thanks,” Tristan said.  “I’m ravenous.  It was a long car trip, and we grabbed gas station food.”

“Figured,” Figurehead said.  “I’m going to grab something too.”

Byron’s anger mixed with disgust.  Eating was a singularly unpleasant activity when one had zero control over their body.  The mastication of food, the involuntary nature of the movements, the acute awareness of how the mouth felt different, the food dissolving into slurry.  Byron’s tastes were slightly different from Tristan’s, too.

The entire team ducked into the cafeteria.  Tristan got a sandwich loaded with cheeses and deli meats, and had Tribute show him how to use the panini press to heat it up.

With every chew, Byron felt his patience tested.  He couldn’t see what he wanted to look at, couldn’t ask what he wanted to ask, couldn’t rejoin or add an anecdote as he saw the moment, watched it pass, and left it well behind.

He would get his turn, right?  He’d be able to meet these guys for more than a few moments?

He talked about sports.  He talked about movies, and shows, and the team talked about heroics.

“It’s a bit of a head trip, when you get your head around how the corporate side of it works,” Figurehead explained.  “You hear about the ridiculous money they bring in for having us show up for a company’s event or putting on a show at a convention, right?  Six figures, and we only get six thousand each?  That’s what took me the longest to adjust to.”

“I don’t really care about the money,” Furcate said.

“That’s because you’re weird,” Moonsong said.

“Yep.”

“We’re a corporate team, hon.”

“Reach had the best costume design,” Furcate said.

“That was the deciding factor, huh?” Coiffure asked.  When Furcate nodded, Coiffure shrugged, before using one hand to flick her hair over one shoulder, to better expose the silvery waves and whorls along the shoulder.  “Well, it’s not like you’re wrong.”

Tristan extended a fist toward Furcate, “I think you and I are going to get along.”

Furcate hesitated, then slipped one hand into the oversized cat’s-paw gauntlet, before tapping it against Tristan’s hand.  “I’m going to get something else.”

“Eat something that isn’t shitty candy,” Figurehead said.

“I’m going to get seconds,” Tristan said.  “That was the best sandwich I’ve ever had.”

Byron hadn’t even noticed the taste, he’d been stewing over being trapped within, too busy trying not to think about slick tongue rolling through masticated food.

The realization that Tristan planned to take the time to make and eat a whole other sandwich -not even a small one- made him want to scream, to lose his mind.

His thoughts were a storm of fuckery, of vitriol and plots to get his brother back, to maybe finally get through to him and score one win, when Tristan realized that his selfishness in this moment had cost him a chance to sign up with this team.

Meanwhile, oblivious, Tristan made another sandwich, then put it in the press.  He plated it up, grabbed some napkins, got another drink, and then sidled up to Furcate, who was grabbing what looked like lemon drop candies, of the sort grandmothers might buy and keep in a ceramic bowl, collecting dust.

“Do you have a preferred pronoun?” Tristan asked, voice quiet.

“Hm?” Furcate asked.  Her entire posture was immediately more defensive.

“Sorry if I’m totally wrong.  I was listening to see what they said, but they dodged around it.”

“They,” Furcate said, guarded.  They looked over at the group, then added, “I’m saving the ‘she’ for when I feel done.”

“You know if I have a shot with any of the guys on the team?  Figurehead?”

The tension in Furcate’s neck and shoulders relaxed.  The response was a head shake.

“Damn.”

Tristan returned to the table.

“Welcome back,” Coiffure greeted him.

Tristan held up his sandwich, like he was toasting the group.  Byron knew that if he tried to do the same, it wouldn’t work, somehow.

“I was remarking to the others, you look very interesting to my power,” Figurehead.

“Ah,” Tristan said.  He sighed a little, almost resigned.

“Is there a story?  Does the boss know?”

“The boss knows.  I’m kind of a special case.  Literally, I think there’s a label for it.”

“Fifty-three?” Coiffure asked.  “Is it only obvious if we get your clothes off?”

“Ha ha,” Tristan said.  He winked at her.  “Hate to disappoint.  No.  Case seventy.”

“I don’t know that one,” Figurehead said.

“I share a body with my brother.  He would be joining the team too.”

“Yeah?  Shouldn’t we meet him then?” Moonsong asked.  “Come on out, brother.  Don’t be shy.”

“I have to let him out, just like he has to let me out.”

“Then what the fuck is wrong with you?” Moonsong asked.  She moved her hands dramatically.  “Let us meet him already.”

Byron was so stunned by that line that he had trouble processing it.  He felt only confusion as Tristan held up his sandwich, pronounced, “Goodbye sandwich, I’ll miss eating you,” with dramatic flair, and then stood from the table.

Tristan took off his mask, turned his back to the group, and tossed it up, before releasing Byron.  Byron only barely managed to catch the mask.

He put the mask against his face, holding it there as he turned around, still putting the cord back behind his head.

He saw Moonsong smile, red lipstick, almost pleased with herself, or pleased with him, and he felt his heart skip a beat.

He realized he’d been looking at her, just her, in a way that would have been very obvious.  He dropped his eyes.  He looked at the others.

“So.  You interested?” Tribute asked.

The list of questions he’d meant to ask had already flown from his mind.  With them went his reservations about joining the team, his anger, and the intent to stick it to Tristan.

“I think I might be,” he decided.

The team was dusty, battered, and bruised, with a few cuts here and there.  Nice costumes were damaged, and where they weren’t damaged, they were soaked through with sweat.

Tristan walked them through the door, limping slightly.  Steamwheel clunked off in the direction of the garage.

Reach’s staff was waiting for them.

“Injuries?” Mr. Vaughn asked.

“Nothing serious,” Figurehead said.

“Event report?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  “It’s late, so make it a short one.”

“Do you want to hear how the fight went or how the media’s going to report on it?” Coiffure asked, one eyebrow arched.

“Time spent asking that question could be spent telling me both.  Then you can give your costumes to the design team for repair and go to bed.  It’s been a heck of a week, let’s rest when we can.”

“We did okay,” Tristan said.  “Scritch, Scratch, Snicker and Snack all got away.  We got one of the other powered ones, Hell’s Belle, and the civilians didn’t get a scratch on them, despite her attempts to pull some hostage stuff.  I think the cameras will be kind, when they report the news in the morning.  Extra kind if they get surveillance video from inside the building, because that hostage stuff was some of the best caping I’ve seen.”

He put out a hand.  Furcate tapped their cat’s paw to his gauntlet.  He moved his hand in Coiffure’s direction, and she did much the same.

“Anyone disagree with the assessment?” Mr. Vaughn asked.

There were head shakes here and there.

“Good.  We’ll see if you’re right about the media tomorrow, Capricorn.”

“I always am.”

“You’re getting cocky.”

“Deservedly.”

“So far.  Not that I don’t like that.  Mr. Bigs loves you for it.  Anything else?  Questions, any resources you need to request?  If there are disputes about the team or issues you can’t bring up here, you bring them to me or the appropriate staff member.”

With a sweep of the hand, Mr. Vaughn indicated the other staff- trainers, spin, social media, design, and accounts.

“Tristan’s taking over as leader,” Figurehead said.  “Someone’s going to mention that.  I’m not bothered, though.”

“He’s the least experienced member here,” Mr. Vaughn said.

“He’s good.  Really, I don’t mind.”

“I hate to admit it, but he’s good,” Moonsong said.

“Why do you hate to admit it?” Tristan asked her.

“Enough,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Get costumes to design as soon as you’re back in civvies, then rest, do your things.  It’s been a tough few weeks.”

The team began to break away.  Tristan hung back to unstrap his armor, where a blade had cut through pauldron and the entire length of the arm.  He handed it the guys from design.

“How’s the power?” Mr. Vaughn asked.  The others had left.

“Metal and rock,” Tristan said.  “More rock than before.”

“I want to set you up for another appointment with the lab.  We should stay on top of this.”

“Not going to complain,” Tristan said.

“It’s working okay for you?  Things aren’t harder.”

“Well, they’re harder,” Tristan said.  “Ha ha.”

Mr. Vaughn smiled.  “Puns don’t do well in front of press, online, or anything of our other marketing battlefields.  Don’t you dare do that to the team.”

“I won’t,” Tristan said.  He smiled behind his helmet.  “It’s fine.  Easier to be cautious, avoid hurting people.”

“And Byron?”

Tristan gave his armor a once-over, then passed over control.

Byron was even more ragged and battle-damaged.  His costume was trashed.  Funny how that worked.

“Almost entirely water now,” Byron said.

“And putting aside the power things… how are you?”

Byron had no idea how to answer the question.  “I’m- things are better than they were.  The schedule helps.”

It was only after the words had left his mouth that he realized the lie.  Did Tristan sense the lie, feeling the slight changes in body language?

No.  For Tristan to notice, Tristan would have to pay attention to him.

“You know where my office is,” Mr. Vaughn said.

Byron nodded.

He made his way to the showers.  He took off his costume, rinsed off, and experimented with his power.  Sprays of water.  When he contrived to get some in his mouth without spraying himself, it didn’t have that chemical smell or taste to it, like the suffocation gas had.

Rather than give the damaged pieces, he decided the entire costume needed attention, and deposited the whole suit of scale mail with the design guys.  They would be pulling an all-nighter.

On his way back to the dorm rooms, he saw and waved at Figurehead.  Then it was back to his room.

He couldn’t sleep.  More accurately, he couldn’t bring himself to lie down in the bed, couldn’t bring himself to give up the time he would spend unconscious.  It wasn’t supposed to count, but-

Suffocation gas, the thought crossed his mind.  It was hard to breathe, to swallow.  It had been a heck of a week, as Mr. Vaughn had said.  Something practically every day, whether it was fights or showing up at an event for law enforcement.  As fun as the cape stuff could be, with the banter and the team interplay, the emotional highs and lows had their cost.

And he had so very little available to spend.

He made his way to the desk he shared with Tristan.  Homework.

He felt like if someone said one mean word to him, he could burst into tears.  Homework felt just masochistic enough to punish himself for not going to bed.  Just enough to not break down into sobs.

At least with homework, he could tell himself that the time he spent in the here and now was time that he was freeing up later.

While the questions were easy and mindless, it was a good distraction.  But they weren’t all easy.  There was a paper he needed to write, and he was supposed to frame a thesis.

Try as he might, he couldn’t think to put the thoughts into action.

Pen tapped.

Frustration welled.

Pen jabbed.  Stabbed his thigh.  The pain was a shock, like a wake up call.

There’s something wrong with my brother, like the piece that can get him to compromise and understand just isn’t there.  And I’m stuck with him.

The pen jabbed again, near the same spot.

There’s something wrong with me.  I felt like I was going to lose my mind from all of this months ago.  Things haven’t gotten better.

In a fit, like he wasn’t in control of his own body, he brought the pen down ten times in half that many seconds.

He released his hand.  The pen fell to the floor.  Rather than pick it up, he kicked it.

He jumped, hearing a knock at the door.  He hadn’t shut it.

It was Kay.  Furcate.  They wore pyjama bottoms and a t-shirt, hair tousled like they’d just woken up, rather than like they were just about to go to sleep.

Byron’s hand pressed over the spot where blood was seeping into his pyjama shorts.  “Something up?”

“Can I come in?”

“I’m not really up to company right now,” he said.  “Is it important?”

Kay nodded.

“Okay,” Byron said.  He swallowed hard, then nodded.

Kay approached, until they stood behind him.  “Open.”

“Wha-” Byron started.  A hard object was pressed between his teeth.

One of Kay’s old lady lemon candies, that tasted like menthol, citrus, and ass.  Kay’s favorite.

Just as he was coming around to the idea that this too could be masochistic, he felt Kay’s arms around his shoulders.  A hug from behind, Kay’s face smushed against the side of his head.

His fingers gripped the fabric of his shorts, tight around the oblong spot of blood.

They gave him a pat on the shoulder as they broke from the hug.

“Good work tonight,” Furcate said.

Then they were gone.

He didn’t let go of fabric, find another pen, or even think about much as he sat there, trying to summon up the strength to- to what?  Go to sleep?

“Byron?”

His feelings leapt into another paradigm, where they shuffled around in confusion.  He twisted around to look.

Brianna, at his bedroom door.  She was wearing clothes, not nightwear.

“Want to get some fresh air?” she asked.

He nodded.  “I need to change.”

“I’ll be waiting by the front door, then.”

She shut his door as she left.

He released the fabric that he’d clutched in his hand for long enough that the blood had stuck to his palm.  A bandage covered it, and from there, he was quick to get his clothes on, fixing his hair with his fingers.

Fresh air was… very much what he needed, when being where he was felt so suffocating.

Jacket on, boots on, and… yeah.

They left through the front door, and then they walked.  It was late enough that there could be trouble, a good hour for muggers.  Silly to think about, when they were as capable as they were.

“Kay sent you?” he asked.

“Kay?”

“They stopped in for a minute.”

“I think Furcate checked on everyone.”

“Oh.”

At the center of the little park was a fountain, and around the fountain were stairs in concentric circles.  Brianna sat on one stair.  He sat down on the step her feet rested on, his shoulder near her knees.

She slipped down one step, so she sat down beside him.

“I want to talk to you, not the back of your head.”

He smiled.  “Alright.”

“Thank you for agreeing to come for this walk.  If you’re half as tired as I am, you must be dead on your feet.”

“Too tired to sleep.”

“Yes,” she said.  She smiled, red lipstick parting to show white teeth with the bar of a retainer across them.  He felt that emotional jumble again.  “Yes, exactly.”

“I can’t promise I’ll be a very good conversation partner.”

“No,” she said.  “Me either, probably.  When I joined the team, Mr. Vaughn was on about how I was the daughter of a politician, I should be very good at the speech and the presentation-”

“You are.”

“Yes, but there’s pressure!  And even now, there’s pressure, you know.  I invited you and now I’m obligated to not make you regret it.”

“We could sit here for two hours, keeping each other company without saying a word, and I wouldn’t mind,” he said.

Words he immediately regretted.  Words he wouldn’t have said if he weren’t as tired, as emotionally raw.

“Good to know.”

Her shoulder touched his as she leaned a little closer.  She turned to look the other direction, and her hair brushed his ear.

The entirety of his focus, every inch of his being, was consumed in that oval-sized point of contact, where her shoulder shared its warmth with his.  His head swam with the smell of her shampoo.  Something like tea, but refreshing.

“I’m going to suck and say something that might be really lame,” she said.  “Then you’ll think less of me.”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

“I think you’re really strong.”

He shook his head.

“Really.  You’re managing despite a situation that would drive anyone crazy.”

“I’m not managing,” he said.

“Aren’t you?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“This,” he said.  “This is nice.”

She reached out.  Her fingers worked their way between his.  She clasped his hand.  “Like this?”

“Yeah.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I wouldn’t even know how.  I’m not sure what I’d say.”

“I can’t imagine,” she said.  Her voice was a whisper and it sent tingles through to the core of his body.  Like the stab of the pen, it sent a shock through his body, as sure as anything.  It reminded him that a girl this pretty and this amazing was sitting with him, so close that she could whisper and he could hear in that nuanced a way.

“I’m glad you can’t.  It sucks.”

“That it’s your brother, that can’t make it any easier.”

He allowed himself a slight laugh.  “Oh man, you have no idea.”

“I have some idea,” she said.  “I’m pretty sure everyone has some idea.”

“Now you’ve lost me,” he said.  He wasn’t sure she had, but he didn’t want to be right about his initial take on the statement.

“He’s doing the whole gay thing, because he likes to be bold and out there and-”

“No, Brianna.”

“-it’s weird.  It’s creepy!  That’s all I’m saying.”

He pulled his hand away.  He saw the look on her face, like he’d slapped her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“No,” Byron said.  All of the warm, fuzzy emotions, everything that made everything feel okay was now something black and bitter.  Disappointment was the predominant feeling in that stew.  “That’s- I have a hundred issues with Tristan.  But that’s not one.  I think I’m going to go.”

He stood.  Brianna grabbed him by the wrist.

“And he’s listening.  He sees everything I see and hears everything I hear,” Byron added.  It was intended as a way to get her to let go, to break this and- and…

…To go back to that room where shorts stained with blood were lying in the corner.

She didn’t let go.

“Stay,” she said.  “Fuck him.  Just… stay?”

“I can’t betray him like that.”  I have to live with him.

“I worry about you,” she said.

I worry about me too, he thought.

“…And I really enjoy your company,” she added.  “I would like to sit for those two hours in silence.  If- maybe we could?  And that way there won’t be problems?”

Byron turned his thoughts over in his head.  He was so tired, so heartbroken.

“The only way…” he trailed off.

“Yes?”

“Give Tristan a shot.  Try to be open minded about his being gay.  Okay?”

“It matters to you?”

“It- I think really highly of you, Brianna.  You’re good at so many things, you’re smart, you’re stylish, you kick thorough ass.  But this makes me think less of you.”

He could see the hurt on her expression.  He was stunned, bewildered that she cared enough that she could even feel hurt at all.

She tugged on his arm, as if to get him to sit again.

“Yes?” he asked.

“If it matters to you.  Yes.”

He allowed himself to be coaxed to a sitting position.  She took his hand like she had before.  She leaned into him more than she had before.

“Tell me about your family,” she said.  “Tell me everything about you.”

Everything is a lot.  That would take a very, very long time,” he said.

“Perfect,” she whispered.

They talked until the sun was rising.

“I thought for the first time that I was legit going to lose my mind!” Tristan’s voice was raised.  He paced.  “Holy fuck.  Holy fuck!”

To experience Tristan like this was to be in a plane with an erratic pilot.  There was no way to wrest control, to change the course, to pull up from a nosedive.  There was only remaining in the seat, helpless.

“Like the most boring movie in the world!” Tristan said.  “Nothing happening for hours!  You can’t- no!

Had Byron been possessed of blood, that would have been a moment that his blood had run cold.  Had he had eyes, they would be widening.

A moment of realization.

In the wake of last night, spent with Brianna, the issue wasn’t that Brianna had been homophobic.  Conversely, the fact that Byron had stood up for Tristan wasn’t even a point of data in this moment.

It wasn’t even the time spent.  Yes, Tristan was mentioning that, but Tristan had gone days with even less happening.  Days of silence, when Byron had been almost nonfunctional in the first weeks, the two of them trying to find their way.  Tristan had given up control at their Papa’s orders.  Byron had spent hours just staring at the television, at repeats, nothing going on.  Then Tristan had retaken control and without comment he’d taken care of the eating, resumed his day with only the periodic freakout.

Tristan had been able to deal with that.  In this, something was different.

For the large share of those hours, Byron and Brianna had talked about themselves.  Byron had done most of the talking.  He’d even tried to keep the topics relevant to Tristan’s interests when he could.

That was the issue, in the end.

For his brother, listening to him was so impossible that it was literally harder than doing nothing at all.

And with that, a realization of just how insurmountable the obstacle was.  The fact that Tristan might never understand, because he wasn’t even willing to begin trying.

That was what would make blood run cold, eyes widen, if Byron were anything more than a watercolor splotch diffusing out into a void, along for the ride.

A half-dozen hours of listening to Byron explain his perspective had Tristan more on edge than Byron had ever seen him.  Byron had ran out the remainder of his day, deferred control a couple of hours early… and Tristan was seemingly unable to get over it.

“I can’t,” Tristan said.

Tristan shucked off his bodysuit, and then donned civilian clothes, with a clear intent to go out.

The plane with its erratic pilot dipped.  Tristan made his way out of the building.

“Capricorn,” Coiffure said, noticing him as she entered.  She was costumed, and she looked like she’d just come off a patrol shift.  “Everything okay?”

“Nothing’s okay.  I’m losing my fucking mind.”

“I can get the boss.”

“No,” Tristan said, stopping in his tracks.  He fidgeted.  “I can’t do this, but- that would spoil things.”

“You’re supposed to run a patrol tonight,” she said.

Byron could feel the emotional impact of that realization rolling over Tristan.

He felt his own, really.  Tristan wasn’t one to lose track of the team stuff.  On the usual day, at a snap of the fingers, Tristan could probably recite the next month’s schedule and then produce an essay on what it meant for team strategy.

A slight exaggeration.

“I’ll cover your shift,” Coiffure said.

“You’re sure?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah,” she said.  “Just… do what you’ve got to do.  We all have our bad days.”

“You’re the best hero I know,” he said.

“You’d better believe it,” she replied.

“A week ago,” he said.  “We crossed paths with some of the other local heroes.  The Wards, the guys from Haven.  There was talk of a thing.”

“A thing,” Coiffure said.  She glanced up at the security camera.  “I’ll text you from my personal phone.  To yours.  You’re not going to be doing anything in a Capricorn sense, right?”

“Right,” Tristan said.

The thing.  Byron connected the thought.

It was late.  Nearly twenty-four hours from their patrol last night.  In crossing paths with various teams, there had been talking about just how intense things had gotten, with teams breaking up, villains banding together, and crime spree following crime spree.  The various kid heroes had talked about needing a break, a chance to cut loose.

And Tristan, it seemed, needed to cut loose.

Tristan had dialed for a ride before he was the rest of the way out of the building, and he moved with the speed and assuredness of someone with an enhanced physique.

The message appeared on his personal phone.  An address, and a note.  Kay was already there.

The ride showed up, and Tristan climbed into the back.  He provided an address on the same street.

“Want to earn some extra cash?” Tristan asked.

“Maybe,” the driver said.

“Grab me a drink from the store,” Tristan said.  “I’ll make it worth it.”

“I dunno,” the driver said.

“I have a lot of cash,” Tristan said.  Leaning forward, he began putting bills down on the console between the driver’s and passenger’s seats.  Byron couldn’t track the amount because Tristan wasn’t bothering to.  “And I really want to get drunk.”

The plane with the erratic pilot spiraled.

Byron felt only the experience of suppressed panic akin to imminent suffocation, bleeding out into the void where his body and physical sensations should be.

No more than ten minutes later, with a paper bag tucked under one arm, Tristan was walking up the driveway of a house.  There were guys sitting on the porch.

“Got someone who can vouch for you?” a heavyset, twenty-something guy asked.

“Kay,” Tristan said.

The guy twisted around in his chair, opening the door and leaning in.  “Kay?”

There was a pause.  Then Kay appeared at the door, wearing skinny jeans and a top so small Byron suspected they’d have trouble breathing.

“Hi,” Kay said.  They held the door open.

Tristan stepped through.  Into his medium.  His world, of throbbing music and crowds of teenagers.  He put the paper bag onto the counter of the lake house’s kitchen, then removed the two bottles- tequila and whiskey.  People cheered, they jostled him, and his face stretched in a smile.

What followed was a roller coaster ride with no stopping or option to get off, a series of scenes that was soon blurred around the edges, as Tristan drank.

Kay danced with abandon, with boys and girls, and when nobody else was dancing, they continued on their own.

There were jokes, conversations, all loud, spoken over music.  Tristan watched but didn’t participate in a drinking game.

Byron saw faces and many were familiar, or on the bounds of familiarity, though the haze of drink didn’t help.  Capes he’d met.  Haven.  Wards.  Young protectorate members.  There were times, though, when he thought he might have pegged one or two, only to see what had to be a sibling or cousin.  This had been planned as a chance for the young capes to get out, to cut loose, but they’d brought enough others along that it was safely anonymous.

“Why do you look familiar?”

It was Tristan’s voice, but Tristan’s addled senses were Byron’s addled senses, and it took him a moment to realize the fact.  Another moment to recognize the look of alarm in the face of the person Tristan was talking to.  It was one person out of twenty or thirty Tristan had talked to in recent hours, and Byron was tuning much of it out, focusing on tolerating all of this.

But this- the look of alarm, it made this significant.

It’s a party of semi-anonymous heroes.  We aren’t supposed to bring up secret identities.

The guy Tristan had addressed was blond, wore glasses, and had a metal stud below his lower lip.  At the ‘v’ of his v-neck t-shirt, the top of a cross was visible.  Tattooed on, not worn.  A skinny nerd type more than anything.  He glanced over his shoulder.

“I think we met briefly, a few months ago,” Tristan said.  “At the… airport?”

“Ahh,” the guy said, before smiling.  “All hands on deck?”

“All hands on deck,” Tristan said.

“Had a, uh, sports injury,” the guy said, leaning in close enough to speak into Tristan’s ear.  “Been a while since I’ve been out there.”

“Understandable,” Tristan spoke in the loud, overly clear voice of someone trying to be heard in a cacophony.  “I didn’t figure you guys for the partying type.”

“Feast and famine.  Some of us are as pure as the driven snow.  The rest of us need regular breaks from those guys and girls.”

“The girls too, huh?” Tristan asked.  “Your girlfriend here?  I don’t want to keep you.”

“No girlfriend,” the guy said.  He paused.  “You can keep me.”

The lingering eye contact made the meaning of that clear.

“You saying that just made my month,” Tristan said.

Subtle, brother.

I can deal with this.  I can deal.

Fair’s fair.

It didn’t help shake that feeling, of being a passenger in an out-of-control plane.

“Tristan.”

“Nate.  Want to step out?”

Tristan got a refill of his drink.  As a pair, he and Nate stepped outside onto the expansive back porch.  A set of stairs with lockable gates led down to the beach, which was more pine needle than sand.  Byron could have interpreted Tristan turning his attention away from couples who were sitting in the shadows as being polite.  He felt trepidation, all the same.

“You’re… a fan of goats, I’m guessing?” Nate asked.

“Yeah.  Good guess.”

“Figured I had a one in two chance.  I know most of the other faces.”

“And you’re the… you’re Reconciliation.”

“Just Nate is good,” Nate said.  “The names are something you sort of learn to live with, working with those guys.”

“Hey, not judging,” Tristan said.

“You’re judging a little, I’m sure.”

“A little,” Tristan agreed.

“It’s fine.  It’s a cost of doing business.  We have to deal with the crummy names, you have to… I don’t even know.  Wear tight athletic shirts on social media?”

“You’re getting judgmental on me, now?”

“I’m not saying I don’t like it,” Nate said.  “I’m… well acquainted with those pictures.”

Byron was aware of every muscle firing, of the movement of Tristan’s arm, the contact, fingers running through the coarse hair of Nate’s forearm.  “Limiting it to just seeing it seems like it would be a shame.”

Nate was silent.  Tristan’s fingers made their way down to Nate’s hand, which he maneuvered to his stomach.  Nate’s hand ran up across muscle and skin, to collarbone.

Tristan kissed him.  Byron felt the contact, felt lip brush against sandpapery skin where faint stubble was growing back in, find purchase on smoother lip.

He hadn’t wanted to see or experience this side of his brother.  He’d become too intimately acquainted with Tristan, with the physiology- that was unavoidable.  But this?

“Where have you been for the last four months?” Tristan asked.

“I spent a few of them in the hospital, after running into Paris.”

“Paris,” Tristan said.

“He’s a lunatic,” Nate said, his voice a whisper.  “Steer clear, you know?  He’s dangerous, and he came after me.  He came after Long John.  A little less successful then, but I think Long was spooked.  He was making noise about going after Furcate, toward the start of the year.  They ended up benched, waiting for Paris to get bored.”

“Asshole,” Tristan said.  Acting more drunk than before, like he was drunk on Nate, he kissed Nate’s neck.

“He’s kind of the reason I’m taking my time putting the costume back on again.  He could go after you, so be careful, okay?”

“Okay,” Tristan said.  “Thanks for the warning.  I’m sorry you had to deal with that.”

Nate ran his hand up and down Tristan’s upper body, exploring the muscles, finding the lines of the ribs.  This time, he kissed Tristan.  Tristan returned the favor, and pressed in.  The kiss became a makeout session.

Byron floated in the void.

He tried to turn his thoughts away.  To be happy for Tristan.  If he just had to endure this for an hour- if he had to accept that in the future, kissing Brianna might require the same tolerance from Tristan- then he would accept this.

That acceptance was gone the second he felt Tristan’s hands reach down, meeting at the buttons of Nate’s jeans.

Nate’s hands clasped Tristan’s firm.

“No,” Nate murmured, practically saying the words into Tristan’s mouth.

“No?” Tristan answered.

“I’m not that kind of guy.  I’m not even usually this kind of guy.  I’m really happy to meet you-”

“Oh, I can tell.”

“But I’m not… going to do that.  I want a husband, kids, a nice house, dogs.  I want those things and other things, and us doing this on the first night, or the third, or even in the first few months, it feels like it would put all of those things further away.”

Tristan pressed his forehead against Nate’s neck.  “You might not be this kind of guy, but I’m not sure I’m that kind of guy.”

“There aren’t many of us out in this neck of the woods, Tristan.  If you want to take some time, figure it out, I’ll probably still be here.”

Tristan nodded.

Byron could feel the guilt, the disappointment, surging through a body that wasn’t his.  He had little doubt the emotions had absolutely nothing to do with him and his own part in this.

With that, he felt anger.

“You’re two of my best capes,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “It was one mistake.  I don’t want this to be a problem.”

“It was not a mistake,” Byron said.  “No.  If cooler heads hadn’t prevailed, that would have been something much worse than a mistake.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured, fingers extended, moving in a tight circle.

Byron shook his head, pacing across the fancy office with its fancy colored tiles.  He switched, forcing himself to dive into the void, to displace Tristan and give Tristan a body.

“He’s making a big deal out of nothing,” Tristan said.  “He does this.  Gets unreasonable.”

“It doesn’t sound like it’s nothing to him.”

“Not many things are nothing to him.  The difference between him and me is that when I have a feeling, I feel it.  When he has a feeling, he bottles it up.  then the bottle cracks and it fires off steam in some random direction for some random excuse.  He hung out with a girl for hours and hours at a detriment to me.  I kissed someone.”

“What were you doing?  What was your mindset, Tristan?”

“For just a couple of hours, I wanted to get reasonably drunk, and forget… everything.  Forget that I had to worry about my brother, forget the power issue, that I’m living half a life.”

“And did this forgetting extend to forgetting about your brother as you pursued… potential relations with a partner?”

“No.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured.  Tristan switched.

Byron was free.  “Yes.

“You can’t know what Tristan thinks or plans, Byron.  I think you’re being a little bit unreasonable.”

“I live in his body and look out of his eyes more than a hundred and eighty days a year, Mr. Vaughn.  He doesn’t pay much attention to me, but I pay a ton of attention to him.  Because I have to.”

“We’ve enforced some loose rules that keep a balance between you.  These aren’t sufficient?”

“No!  No, not at all.  I want- I need something more.  That keeps things like last night from happening again.  Until this situation between us is fixed, there need to be restrictions.”

Mr. Vaughn gestured.  Byron stepped into the void once again.

“We talked to you, we established rules,” Tristan said.  “Now he wants to change the rules?  No.  I am not cool with that.”

Another gesture, another change.

“Is there no room for compromise?”

“Compromise?” Byron asked, incredulous.  “I don’t see how you compromise on that.  I thought I was being pretty cool with tolerating the extended touchy-feely make-out session.  What are you thinking the compromise is?”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “But my issue is that it seems very unreasonable to expect total abstinence for the indeterminate future.”

“That’s insane.  It’s not that.  It’s that he wants to go have sex or do whatever with randoms, and I have a front row seat.  I have to see it.  I have to feel it.  And that’s- you can’t change that.  You can’t make it not the case.  I know you’re not a stupid man, Mr. Vaughn.  You have to understand this.”

“I…” Mr. Vaughn said.  “Find myself in a difficult position.  On a certain level, I very much agree.  Where I’m leery is that we have had attention from the Youth Guard.  Gender freedom, freedom of expression, sexuality- they are touchy subjects.”

“So is me being subjected to that!”

“Byron,” Mr. Vaughn said, his voice firm.  “My concern is that if I take a stance or take a side, I am opening myself up to issues, no matter what I do.  I suspect you are right, though you may be acting unreasonable or operating on too many assumptions when it comes to your interpretation of your brother’s actions.”

“That-”

“I don’t know,” Mr. Vaughn said, less of an admission of ignorance and more of a statement of direction.  “Probably not.  You’re probably right.  But I don’t and can’t know.  I don’t want to abandon you either.  If I wash my hands of this and say it’s between the two of you, I think I know the outcome.”

“Oh yeah,” Byron said.  “I think so.”

“Before it comes to that, before I’m forced to make a choice that hurts my relationship with one of you, or before I make a choice based on things I can’t know, I would like for the two of you to talk.  Discuss.  Let me step out of the office.  I’m going to go to the cafeteria, I’m going to grab my dinner, I’ll come back, and if you have found a resolution, my respect for the two of you will redouble.”

“And if we don’t?” Byron asked.

“Then…” Mr. Vaughn said.  “We will discuss.  And we will make hard choices.”

Byron nodded.  Mr. Vaughn stood and left the room.  Byron tried to think of what to say, what argument he could make.  But before that, he had to know.

He had to confirm his suspicions.

He switched to Tristan.

“I can’t believe you brought it to him,” Tristan said.  Switch.

“No choice.  We needed a mediator.”

“He’s the boss, and he’s not stupid.  When you talk about me having a partner, he can connect the dots.”

“You did it first.”

“You’re so demented, By.  Seriously.  I was already having a shitty day, and… God.”

“Is this about Moonsong?”

“I really don’t give two shits about Moonsong, By.”

“Are you sure?  Because you went off rails and made a beeline to that party right after I talked with her.”

Byron switched out.  Tristan had the body, but Tristan didn’t respond.

His finger traced his leg, at the thigh.  “If she makes you happier, then whatever.  She can say whatever she wants about me if she keeps you in one piece.  I just- I really despise the fact that you’re not understanding that this is what I need to keep myself in one piece.”

“Tristan, he doesn’t want to sleep with you.  This isn’t the hill to die on.  Date him.  Kiss him, stick your tongue down his throat if that’s what you want, if you can do it while being aware your brother is there and watching and feeling it all.  If that’s what you want… I’ll deal with it.  But I have to draw the line at anything that goes under the underwear.”

“No,” Tristan said.  One word, curt, and then switching out.

No?

Byron switched.  Tristan switched back a moment later.

“You fucking child,” Byron snarled the words.  “You can’t even justify it.”

He switched.  Tristan switched a second later.

Byron was left standing in the office.  He knew Mr. Vaughn would arrive soon.

“You know he’ll back me.  I think that’s what kills you.  You know you’re wrong, and what you’re wanting here is unjustifiable and unreasonable.”

He switched.

There was a long pause.  Then Tristan switched back, not a word spoken.

“Tristan,” Byron said.  He hesitated.  “Tristan, I have to draw the line here.  Tap out.  Give.  Accept my terms.  Or I’m going to reach out to Nate, and I’m going to tell him everything.  That I was there, that I could see him- I’m pretty sure he didn’t even think that was possible, because he’s an actually decent human being and he would have stopped you well before, if he’d thought of it.  I will tell him, and he will think you are completely and utterly fucked up.  Which I’m pretty sure you are.”

Byron let those words hang.

Then he switched.

Tristan was very quiet and very still.  That motionless silence lasted the remaining three or four minutes before Mr. Vaughn returned.

“Did you make a decision?” mr. Vaughn asked.

Again, a pause.  Long, as if Tristan was having to rewrite his priorities, and find a way to act and form words when everything was reset to zero.

“I agree,” Tristan said, his voice soft.  “Nothing beyond kissing and holding hands.”

“I can’t tell you how much I respect you for coming to this compromise.”

“I just wanted hope,” Tristan said.  “I wanted to be a regular teenager for a couple of hours, and feel like there were silly, stupid, good things over the next horizon.  I didn’t- I wouldn’t have done anything.  I just wanted to be able to pretend it was possible.”

“I thought it might be something like that.  But you got close enough in your pretending that you spooked your brother,” Mr. Vaughn said.  “I admire you for agreeing to this, for his benefit.”

Tristan shook his head.

In a sea of doubt like watercolor bleeding out into endless darkness, Byron counted his first real victory against his brother.

There’d been no fixes.  The power labs had scratched their heads.

For half of his waking hours, portioned out in four hour chunks now, existence still resembled a kind of hell.

For the other half, however, things were good.  Moonsong sat beside him, her hand finding his, giving it a squeeze.  Off in the corner, Coiffure and Furcate were being silly.  Furcate had been weaned off of their shitty lemon candy and had now adopted strawberry flavored drops, still of the grandmother’s candy bowl variety, but without the lingering taste of armpit.  Their arm was in a sling, but they seemed to be doing okay.  Tribute and Figurehead were chatting about team rankings, and they seemed happy enough with where Reach stood.

But mostly it was Moonsong.  Mostly it was finally having an equilibrium.  Rules had been set, reaffirmed.

Figurehead’s phone rang.  The conversation was short.  Figurehead paused to think after hanging up.

The chatter of the team stopped.  Everyone looked, sensing the gravity of the moment.

“We found that asshole Paris,” Figurehead said.  “He went after Furcate once, after Long John twice, and he got Reconciliation from Haven a second time, just a week ago.  This is an all hands on deck thing.”

There was no discussion or thought really needed.  Byron reached out for Moonsong’s hand, and he gave it a squeeze.

This was Tristan’s fight.

He passed control.

Immediately, he was aware that something was wrong.  Aware, and unable to act on the fact.

“Whatever you need,” Moonsong murmured to Tristan.  “We’re with you.”

Tristan was silent, not responding.

When he stood, heads turned.  Something in his energy, in his expression.

When I get mad, I bottle it up, it releases explosively, indiscriminately if the person is a moron like my brother who can’t see how things add up.

But it was different for Tristan.

Tristan… when he got mad, he became unreasonably mad.  There was no upper limit, and the usual boundaries seemed to slip away, much in the way that led to him stabbing at Byron multiple times.  When he set his mind to something, he got it.

And when the two coincided?

Byron had a gut feeling it was worse than a vehicle with a reckless pilot at the helm.  This pilot knew what he was doing and he was on course; he just didn’t give a damn about the damage he’d end up doing.

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