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After the stifling atmosphere of the television studio, the night air felt cool, too clean and refreshing. In the background and across the water, the city was going dark. There was still only so much power to go around.
She was glad for the puffer jacket she’d bought with the bonus from her last payday. In a way, she’d needed to push herself to start thinking about the cold weather and what it meant. Her hands and face were cold, now, but her body was warm, and that helped the rest of her. It meant she could stay outside in the cold and the quiet.
Her breath made her glasses fog up, the lenses catching the small amounts of orange light from the nearby streetlight, illuminating her entire visible world with orange light, which would fade as the condensation receded. She could avoid it by directing her breath to one side, or controlling the output, but as soon as she turned her thoughts to something, she would forget and her glasses would fog up again with that alarming amber glow. Tonight had been important- more important than she’d anticipated.
She’d heard the discussions, the insinuations. She’d been asked once or twice to chime in with her opinion on things. She had been the escort for Kenzie to go to the television studio, and she’d waited in the darkness of the wings as the show started.
Even up to that moment, she hadn’t expected the gravity of it.
If she was anything more than an idle smoker, she would be puffing away right now. If she were a drinker, she would be tipping something back. Maybe, anyway- she still had work to do. The right-now wasn’t so important. It was that if she were anyone else, anything else, she would be able to do more than stand in the dark, her hands in her pockets, fogging up her glasses with her eyes wide.
It wasn’t that she didn’t know what to do with herself, exactly. She knew. If she were asked, she could have spouted off a checklist of things, ordered them by priority, and given the go-ahead, she would do it.
It was the herself, the she. It was the notion that she liked capes. They were neat and she’d always been enchanted by the notion of them. She’d told herself that she had no major illusions when it came to what capes were. They were human but they were humans with a lot of power. That could be a very bad thing and it could be a terrific thing. It depended on the person. She’d told herself they were flawed. Even when Mrs. Dallon took the gloves off and made it look like she was a superhuman lawyer, not just a superhuman in costume, Natalie had kept her perspective in check, or so she liked to think. Mrs. Dallon was a person to look up to, one with a lot of talents, but she was a person.
Those were things she could watch out for. The awe, the hate, the seeming perfection, the perspective or lack thereof. Early work, past classes, upbringing, everything in her life up to this point had primed her to watch those things. She could point to just about any bad incident in her upbringing or past and think of the big lesson she’d taken to heart.
This… she’d always thought capes were cool. It felt like just yesterday that she’d been Kenzie’s age, utterly enchanted by the idea of getting powers and doing something. That moment when she saved people. The moment when the villain was about to win. The moment when bystanders depended on her, or clapped for her because she’d won. She’d been enchanted by the magical powers of one book, the biological alteration scenario of a television series. When she reflected on the fantasies of childhood and adulthood both, it was the moments that stuck with her. Endless replays in her head of a given monumental scene, the crux of a decision.
Not even all good moments, either. Just moments, the key scenes. When she’d wanted to be a lawyer, it had been with a mind to having those moments in the courtroom. When she’d started working with the capes, a part of it was that she’d wanted to be adjacent to those moments.
Tonight had had a few of them. She’d been adjacent.
Except they weren’t any moments. Time didn’t stop, and there was no room to think about each decision. Events came, they went, things moved on, people adapted, conversations led to them and from them.
Standing here in the cold, glasses so fogged up and amber-tinted she couldn’t even see through them, she wondered if she was trying to stand in that current and find or create a moment.
But it couldn’t be manufactured. There was no moment here, only a checklist of things to do, each thing with its own priority.
Best not to leave Kenzie alone too long, either. She cleaned her glasses of condensation while walking from her car to the building.
Her hands remained in her pockets even though the steps of the fire escape were narrow. She knocked, and it was Victoria who opened the door.
“You don’t need to knock,” Victoria said.
“I’m thinking I should take Kenzie home.”
“Let me get my stuff,” Kenzie said. “I want to take stuff home to work on.”
“Go easy,” Victoria said. “Don’t work on your things too late, or spend too much time watching feeds.”
“Okay, I can take stuff to work on in the morning though, right?”
“Not too much,” Natalie said. “Whatever you can take in one trip. We’re all tired and we don’t want to be going back and forth from the car to unload.”
“Okay. One trip, hmm.”
“I’ll take one bag,” Natalie said.
“Thank you,” Kenzie replied, almost sing-song, already gathering her things.
Rain and Ashley were offline and gone. Byron was packing up. Sveta was with Victoria, and Chris- sometimes Natalie had to look twice to spot him. He was sitting in a different corner than his usual.
“Do you want a ride, Chris?” Natalie asked.
“No thanks, I live close.”
“I’m close too, but thanks.”
“I live in the other direction,” Sveta said, “I’m going to hang with Victoria for a bit.”
“Okay,” Natalie said.
“Thank you for coming tonight,” Victoria told Natalie. She looked down, Natalie observed. Like it was a week after her cat had died, and she had just reached the point where she could hold it together.
Eight arms? Three heads?
She had questions and she couldn’t ask. Others had questions and they wouldn’t ask. It felt almost like a moment and it was gone by the time she’d recognized it.
“Take care, Nat,” Byron said, in passing. The air felt colder in his wake.
“You too,” she told him. She stepped out of the way so he could leave.
Kenzie hurried over to her, a bag in hand. “Laptop and cords.”
“Got it,” Natalie said, taking the bag.
Then Kenzie was gone, back to her desk, sorting through lenses and components. Some of Rain’s things, maybe? Natalie tried to keep track of them so she could be a better guardian, but she wasn’t sure if she could really demand that of herself. There were tables and corners of tables where it looked like a television, radio, and a few flashlights had been dismantled and broken down into their constituent elements. Kenzie’s work areas were sorted by color, with a collection of bits of glass, bulbs, and lenses.
Rain’s work areas that hadn’t been cleaned up were in piles, crowded in by the wolf trap, chains, and knives Rain had brought in. There might have been an emphasis on the sharp-edged, ragged breaks where plastic or metal had snapped off.
“Victoria,” Natalie said, pulling her eyes away from those ragged edges. “How are things?”
“Do you mean overall or with me, specifically?” Victoria asked.
She’d meant Victoria, specifically. “Both, I guess.”
Victoria’s gaze was heavy, searching.
When Victoria did answer, she said, “Same answer for both. It’s going to sting at first. We anticipated that. But we’re already seeing the hero teams responding, and it’s the reception we wanted. It’s gratifying. My parent’s team, Mayday sounds like a yes. Shorewatch is a yes. Auzure is yes.”
“Some civilian responses too,” Sveta said. “People without powers, supporting our side.”
“I don’t really get it,” Natalie said. The show didn’t seem to go that well.
“It’s what we expected, with a couple of unwanted surprises along the way, obviously,” Victoria answered, checking her laptop, then stretching a bit as she turned away from it. “I’d hoped for a bit of a healthier balance of positivity to negativity.”
“It’s only one good message for every twelve bad, I think, but the number should improve as the night goes on,” Sveta injected a note of hope into her voice.
“It might, and only up to a point,” Chris said. “The bad is going to keep outnumbering the good.”
“Thank you, Chris,” Sveta was a bit sarcastic.
Victoria seemed to mostly ignore them, fixing her attention on Natalie, “this is what we wanted.”
Was it? How?
But Natalie didn’t miss those fleeting moments, when Victoria was mid-stretch or talking about how this was expected or wanted, when she looked a lot like Carol had a few times back at the Wardens’ office. Not happy, far from happy in this case, but fully confident.
“Yeah,” Sveta said.
“I hope it keeps that course then,” Natalie said. The words felt hollow when she still wasn’t sure about it all.
Victoria smiled. She turned to Kenzie, who had stopped bustling and rummaging and now stood still. “Are you ready?”
“Got my stuff,” Kenzie said. She had a very full cloth shopping bag full of junk, slung over one shoulder. She’d grabbed a bag of snacks.
“Alright,” Natalie said. She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder, guiding her to the door. “Good night, Breakthrough.”
Victoria smiled in response, while it was Sveta’s turn to look wearier as she smiled as well.
Because Natalie had addressed them as ‘Breakthrough’?
Emboldened, Natalie added, “Keep me on speed dial, in case there are issues. After shows with that ideological a bent, people sue, threaten, or otherwise use lawyers to try to bully or influence the narrative. Cries for censorship, cries against. Don’t respond and don’t panic. Call me and let me call the people who can handle it.”
“Got it,” Victoria answered her, all tired seriousness. “You have Gil’s number?”
“Gil? Oh, Gilpatrick? Yes.”
“Drive safe. I’ll be patrolling, burning off restless energy, starting when the messages start slowing down.”
“Next month then?” Chris asked.
“Go home, Chris,” Victoria said. “We’re done for the day, and you’ll be missed if you’re out too late.”
Natalie turned away from everything, stepping back outside.
All of the tech stuff went into the back seat of Natalie’s beetle, seats folded forward to provide access. Nowhere near as much space as Tristan’s truck, which she had driven earlier. Feeling how cold the car was as she leaned into the back to set the bag down, Natalie was sure to grab a blanket while she was in the back seat.
“I like your car,” Kenzie said, settling into the passenger seat. She looked surprised as Natalie draped the blanket over her lap. “Thank you.”
“Heat and fan struggle if I need to accelerate a lot while going up any hills,” Natalie explained. “Let’s get you cozy.”
“I still like it, struggle or not. Ooh, I wonder if I could soup it up somehow. I wonder how I’d do it.”
“Ask before you do anything, please,” Natalie said, as she got belted in. The steering wheel was cool, but not so much that it would be bothersome over the long term.
She drove. The amber of the streetlights swept into the car, followed by a sweep of darkness, lingering just a fraction of a second too long, before the next sweep of amber. It was as though the city had adjusted the spacing to save on resources, and so it was somehow less than what she’d grown up getting used to.
At least the roads were more or less clear.
Another her would have made tonight the sort of night she would have sped down the highway, letting her foot rest more heavily on the gas, letting herself experience the thrill.
She drove the speed limit, sticking to the right-hand lane, only moving to allow ample space for mergers. Hers was the car that other people zipped by.
In the other seat, Kenzie leaned her head against the window, staring not at what was beyond, but at the hypnotic play of light against the glass just in front of her eyes. Light from the dash, light from the city beyond.
No happy smiles, no bubbling vivaciousness, no excitement.
“Are you okay?” Natalie asked.
“Yes. I’m super,” Kenzie replied, her head not moving.
“You sure? You don’t sound super- it’s allowed to not feel super.”
“I mean it,” Kenzie said. The amber light of streetlights swept into the car’s interior. A chance trick of light played off of her eyes, making the natural moisture appear to be glowing yellow-orange. Light passed over the little girl’s face, and there was a line below her eye where it looked like her face was a thick mask, a hole had been cut in, and the glow of the streetlights came from within the mask, not outside.
Kenzie turned her face away, pulling the blanket up so it covered her shoulders, and gripped it from within to tug it close to her body. “I feel more okay than I have since Ashley and Rain turned themselves in to go to jail.”
“Because my friends had my back. I got to spend the day with my favorite person. Did you see the emails? People are cheering for us- for me.”
“It’s good you’re happy. I don’t want to take away from that, but-”
“But some people are being awful? Hateful? Scared? All my life, people have been that way. For a long, long, looong while, everyone was like that,” Kenzie said. “If five million people watched that, and one in thirteen people that care enough to say something about it are saying something nice? That’s a times-infinity improvement. And Breakthrough had my back.”
“Got it,” Natalie said.
“Infinity times six,” Kenzie said, sounding almost like she was falling asleep. It was nine o’clock at night, so she wouldn’t have been faulted, but Natalie knew she usually stayed up well past that point.
A long day, in other ways.
“Infinity plus five, maybe. Chris sucks sometimes, and he didn’t really help. But then there’s you and you’re part of Breakthrough, and you have my back?”
“Yes,” Natalie said. “I don’t know if I’m part of it, but I will have your back. Best I can.”
“And it’s not just because you’re getting paid?”
“Or because you get to see more of Tony?”
“No idea what you’re talking about.”
“It’s Thursday tonight. He’s staying over. He’s your boyfriend, isn’t he?”
“He definitely isn’t,” Natalie said. “And don’t- don’t try playing matchmaker.”
Oh please God, don’t try playing matchmaker.
“No promises. My current score is infinity and six. I think that’s pretty amazing. Who wouldn’t be psyched to have someone with that good a record giving them some help?”
“No, not right. Kenzie, it’s complicated. I like things the way they are now.”
“But he’s not your boyfriend.”
“And you want him to be your boyfriend.”
“Yes, but. It’s weird and it’s fragile and I don’t want to ruin a good thing by trying to shoot for a maybe-great thing.”
“I like that. It’s a good way of putting it.”
“Thank you,” Natalie said. The drive remained quiet, the lights sweeping through the car, the traffic denser closer to the broken portal in Norwalk, but still manageable and polite. All the same, her heart was pounding.
“I’m mostly teasing, by the way,” Kenzie said. “I know I’d be the worst relationship doctor.”
“Please don’t tease me, Kenzie,” Natalie answered, gripping the steering wheel, her heart still racing. “Today has been stressful enough, and we don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”
“We’re okay,” Kenzie said. “This is all according to plan.”
“You think so?”
Kenzie nodded, serious, before hugging the blanket tighter to her body again. The car wasn’t even that cold anymore. The girl’s expression was solemn.
“You’re really okay? You’re happy with this outcome?”
“I told you!” Kenzie raised her voice, blanket falling from her shoulders to fold across her lap. She was indignant, adding, “I said!”
“Okay, okay!” Natalie replied.
The trip continued, with idle chatter, and no mention of Tony, thankfully.
Kenzie’s neighborhood was dark, her home illuminated by flashlights, lanterns, and candles, by the look of it.
“No power, ugh,” Kenzie said. “I won’t be able to build tonight, or check on things.”
“That’s not a complete tragedy. You might get a full night’s sleep,” Natalie said.
They let themselves in.
“Hi Tony!” Kenzie called out.
“Hi!” the call came back. “Did you eat?”
“A while ago. Do you have snacks?”
“I’ll put something together. Get yourself ready for bed, okay?”
“Is Dave still around?”
“He left a while ago. The game you guys were playing is still where you left it. Your move, apparently.”
Kenzie carefully put her bag down, kicked off her shoes, and bounce-skipped to the living room. Natalie took her time getting her jacket off, boots off, and putting away Kenzie’s shoes. She was relieved in a way to see Kenzie being a bit messy and normal.
When she looked up, Tony was there, at the door to the living room. Natalie felt a bit of trepidation as she joined him. Seeing what Kenzie was up to meant standing right beside Tony.
He was intimidating. Doubly so by candlelight. He was growing out his red hair, and it was long enough that locks curled around the tops and to the backs of his ears. His red hair and beard looked amazing in the warm light, and the play of light and shadow made the shape of his face, his neck and his adam’s apple very noticeable. He wore a long-sleeved t-shirt, what might have been silk pyjama bottoms, and slippers.
Approaching to stand closer meant she wouldn’t stare at him, but now she could smell his body soap, shampoo, and whatever else it was he used. He’d just showered recently.
“Laser chess,” Tony said, by way of explanation. The corner of his t-shirt sleeve at his bicep brushed her shoulder as he raised a hand to point.
“Kenzie mentioned it on one of our car trips,” Natalie replied. “Hard to visualize, hearing about it.”
Kenzie moved a piece, then hit a button. A visible laser reflected across the various pieces, leaving the board to stab toward the easel where Kenzie’s mother had once had her paintings.
“Move decided?” Tony asked.
That got a nod.
“Good. Get ready for bed,” Tony said. “I’ll get your snack.”
Kenzie ran off to do just that. Tony and Natalie didn’t move from their positions, looking into the now-unoccupied living room.
“You’re better at the kid-handling than I am,” Natalie said.
“I raised my littlest brother. You’ve crossed paths with him. When you were at my apartment?”
“Oh. Yeah. I thought that was your roommate.”
Tony shook his head, but the way he shook it- not just because she was wrong.
“Today was kind of a holy shit day,” Tony said.
“You watched the show?”
“Everyone did. The five of us were in group chat discussing. You didn’t look in?”
Natalie shook her head.
“I don’t blame you. You probably had your hands full.”
“I wish. I would have liked to be able to do more. I just… tried to keep an eye on Kenzie, give feedback.”
“That’s important,” Tony said. “Do you want a snack too? I’ve got blueberry muffins.”
“Sure. Please,” she said. “I’m going to go get changed, I’ll grab it when I come back downstairs.”
“I’ll warm it up,” he said. “Coffee? Tea?”
“Coffee. I have work I should do,” she said. She didn’t leave right away. “I was wondering-”
“The reception. What did the group think? What did you think?”
“Of the show? I think a lot is going to depend on what others say. Some pretty freaky, wild stuff. The powers and the…”
“The lies,” he said. “The Triumvirate lied? Legend, Alexandria, Eidolon? The secrets being kept? I mean, we knew there were secrets, but this is something else.”
“Yeah. Were the others upset?”
“Not upset. Wondering. Processing. Why? Is there backlash already?”
She nodded, eyes widening for emphasis.
“Are you okay? Are they okay?”
“I’m fine. A bit shell-shocked. Kenzie’s… as happy as I’ve seen her. The others… it’s not my place to say.”
“We’re on their side. Nobody’s leaving Kenzie’s rotation here or changing how we do it.”
She felt her forehead crease as she thought on that.
“Go get changed. I’ll warm up your snacks. We’ll get her put to bed like responsible caregivers, and then we’ll talk. Or you can do your work and we can… you want to hook up Saturday or Sunday? Or both?”
Both, was her immediate thought. She did her best to switch to unflappable lawyer mode, like Carol so often did. “Saturday? My apartment? We’ll figure out if Sunday works from there. We can chat then.”
“When not otherwise occupied,” he said.
Aaaaa, she thought.
“Perfect,” she said.
He smiled, “I’ll look forward to it.”
Aaaaa, she thought, again. She wasn’t sure she trusted her legs not to go out on her if she tried to walk away, but she knew she’d look like an idiot if she stayed.
She headed up the stairs without wobbly knees failing her, grabbing one of the electric lanterns from a stair on the way up, and headed to the room that she shared with one of the other girls- a daughter of one of the family law administrators. Their schedules overlapped by the one day, at the tail end of Natalie’s shift, but they’d only crossed paths with a couple of seconds of contact shared with them each time. As a result, Natalie only knew the girl by the things left in the one corner of the room she’d claimed. Natalie had her own corner, with clothes, toiletries, books, and some of her computer stuff.
She had two sets of sleep-clothes, which included a flannel two-piece set with a buttoned top with a collar, and then the nightie she’d bought but never worn. Modest enough to wear around Kenzie without feeling weird, but… Tony would like it, if he liked anything she wore.
She agonized over the choice, and she wished she had some sense of what was right, or appropriate, or good. She second guessed herself, then second guessed herself again.
Natalie picked a piece of lint off of the flannel as she emerged from her room. Kenzie was just down the hall, leaning over the counter, brushing her teeth. The girl wore a silver silk nightdress with a silk headscarf wrapped around her hair, the hairpin she’d been wearing earlier in the day helping to keep it in place.
Natalie waited until Kenzie was done.
“You do have to take that hairpin off at some point.”
“I know. I’ll take it off before I go to sleep. Is Tony sleeping upstairs?”
“I don’t think he is. He usually takes the couch downstairs. Why?”
“I was just thinking, if you wanted to share the same room, you should. I wouldn’t mind.”
“N- no, Kenzie. That would be weird.”
“But you guys do that when I’m not in the way or around, I’m pretty sure, and so I don’t want to hurt that by being in the way or being around. He’s great and you’re great, and you’d be great together. If it’s because you’re worried I’d watch you on camera, I wouldn’t. I took cameras out of the bedrooms and turned them away from places people sleep because I like you guys and trust you.“
Apparently there had been no need to dance around the subject of her physical-only or physical-mostly relationship with Tony in the car ride here.
“Because I’m not really paying attention to that stuff and I could do much less creepy research online if I was, that didn’t involve anyone I knew. I think if really wanted to figure it out, I’d start with studying videos of kissing I’d do that and work my way up, so I’m good at the general stuff before I get to the advanced-”
“There are blueberry muffins downstairs.”
Kenzie practically flew down the stairs.
A heavy crash downstairs made Natalie freeze.
It was a moment, not a fleeting one, not a missed one, or the sort that hit so hard it rippled, making the decisions that were to come after that much more difficult. It was the kind that she’d thought about as a kid.
There were voices below. Multiple male ones. Another crash.
“Kenzie!” she hissed the word.
Kenzie was already coming up the stairs on all fours.
The moment Kenzie was confirmed upstairs and safe, Natalie ducked into her room. Phone.
She had numbers. Police. She texted rather than call. If she had to call, if there had to be a back and forth, it would take too long.
Glass shattered downstairs.
Victoria’s contact, Gilpatrick. A repeat of the prior message.
She was in the middle of typing a message to Victoria when she heard footsteps on the stairs, with voices, a back and forth between a guy and a girl. Kenzie tried to put herself between the stairs and Natalie, but Natalie pushed her back.
“I’m the hero here,” Kenzie said, insistent, dead serious. “Let me protect you.”
“Do you have your gear up here?”
Kenzie shook her head. “Some in the bag in the hallway, but that’s mostly scrap. I didn’t bring the eyehook or any of the really useful stuff because you said you didn’t want to make too many trips.
The pair came up the stairs. A twenty-something guy and a teenage girl with bleached hair. The guy had a knife.
Natalie had seen knife wounds, once. It was so, so easy to do horrendous amounts of damage.
“Can I have your phone?” Kenzie asked.
“No,” the guy said. “Don’t be stupid.”
Natalie looked down at her phone in her left hand. The screen had a large red ‘connect’ icon with a slash through it.
No power in the building, no service. If service had dropped like this, the texts might not have gone through.
Natalie bent down, letting the phone fall the remaining distance. She winced, hearing the sound. Phones were too expensive.
As the guy moved, knife in hand, she put herself between him and Kenzie.
“Kid,” the guy said. “Make this easier on all of us. We’ve got capes, and we’ve got you outnumbered. Come with us, and we’ll leave this chick and the guy downstairs in one piece.”
“Deal,” Kenzie said.
“No deal!” Natalie said. “What’s wrong with you guys? She’s a kid.”
“She’s got enemies, and she’s not exactly popular right now. As far as a lot of people are concerned, a lot of people who watch television, she’s fair game. If you get in the way, so are you. ”
“That’s not how it works. There is no ‘fair game’.”
“If we can get away with it, it’s fair,” he said.
“It’s really, really dumb to attack a tinker in her workshop or home,” Kenzie said. “You’re being recorded on cameras.”
“No,” Natalie said, quiet. “Not a good approach.”
“But they’re being idiots. They’re not going to get away with it, so it’s not fair or good.”
“You’re just making them desperate,” Natalie murmured.
“She’s not making us anything,” the guy retorted.
“I’m not making them desperate and I’m not making them anything,” Kenzie said. “Because I’m giving myself up.”
“No,” Natalie said, seizing Kenzie’s arm as Kenzie walked past her. “No.”
“Yes. You and Tony are cool and you don’t deserve this.”
“They’re going to hurt you.”
“Probably. Or kill me. That girl over there is Colt, hi Colt.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Her mom misses the hell out of her, since she left home to go be a henchman for Nailbiter. Nailbiter is in Love Lost’s group, and Love Lost’s group is all about violence and threats. Protection rackets, debt collection and doing hits on people. Sometimes hits with prejudice. Making it hurt.”
The guy smirked. Colt looked away, down the stairs.
Kenzie smiled back at the guy. How could she do that?
Natalie, already glancing back behind her to see Kenzie’s expression, glanced down. If her phone had landed screen-up, then she might be able to see if there was a signal. If so, could she grab her phone, grab Kenzie, and get into one room, barricading themselves in there?
The phone was gone.
Was Kenzie doing something? If so, Natalie could-
She had no idea what she was supposed to do. It was another moment and…
She could only trust.
“Colt,” Natalie said. “If you want out, if you’re trapped, you can call. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done, we can get you the best possible result.”
Stupid, to say it in front of the guy.
He advanced on her. She backed up, and she bumped into Kenzie. It let him close the distance by another step, the point of his knife moving toward her chest. She raised a hand, ready to defend herself in the meager way that a hand could fend off a knife, and he swiped out in the direction of that hand. She let it drop.
The knife’s point penetrated skin, stabbing her in the sternum, just below the collarbone. It might have been the particular spot, but the contact of metal on bone was surprisingly painful.
“Move,” he said.
How could she feel so weirdly calm like this, and panic to the point of crying over an exam for a class she was doing well in? She could be held at knifepoint with zero idea of what to do and be almost okay, and yet when her sex buddy said he wanted to fuck her, she didn’t know how to deal.
As a kid, she’d imagined getting powers and facing down impossible situations and weirdness like this made her think maybe it was what she was meant for. She could trigger, especially if it was only during the bad events, and-
And people who thought they might trigger didn’t. Wasn’t that the rule?
She was finally here and she might die or be maimed for it.
No, that wasn’t even the worst possibility.
She was here, finally, and Kenzie or Tony might die, with her left intact, agonizing over how she’d had no heroism in the end.
For that, she couldn’t move.
She watched the man’s expression twist. A twist of the knife followed, point still against bone, edge still in flesh. As she reacted in pain, her hands moving involuntarily, he flicked the knife out again, slashing at the hand as if it might reach. She backed away, hands dropping.
The pain followed a second later. Blood. He’d cut her as part of that slash. She started to react, and saw him brandishing the knife.
“No!” Kenzie said. “Please. Okay? I surrender for real, ignore her.”
“Don’t you dare,” Natalie said.
“Just- here,” Kenzie said. She pulled the silk scarf from her head. “Press this down on the cut. That’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Please.”
Natalie took the scarf.
Kenzie turned to the guy, hands out and to the sides. “Please?”
The guy didn’t wait. He bent down, reaching for Kenzie, seizing her by the shoulder. She ducked out of his grip, and pushed at his arm, knocking it away.
He brought the knife around- and for just a second, there was a distortion, three or four Kenzie heads and shoulders, a body at an angle.
As the distortion passed, Kenzie was gripping the man’s wrist with two of her hands over her head.
Natalie got to her feet again, stepping forward to help, to follow through before Colt could step in. Not that there was a real point. Kenzie held the wrist with one hand and moved the other, the hairpin held within, point raking along the length of the guy’s arm, wrist to elbow.
He dropped the knife, and Natalie hurried to pick it up. He kicked Kenzie, one hand gripping his wound, and Natalie, still rising to a standing position, hurled herself into him. She was smaller, but she caught him off guard- there was a chance that he could have resisted her or pushed back, but she had the knife, and she could see his eyes widen as he realized it. He let himself be driven back, to where he tumbled down the stairs, stopping as he collided with Colt, who was just around the bend in the stairs, positioned to brace herself.
“You don’t want this,” Natalie said, to Colt.
“They’re up here!” Colt hollered.
Natalie hopped down to the stair that was broader because it turned the corner, and kicked Colt. It helped the guy fall down a few extra stairs.
She thought about taking one hostage, just to buy time for help to arrive, if it was even on the way. Time-time for Kenzie to build something. Was that even possible?
Then she saw the man at the base of the stairs, wearing a shattered porcelain mask. She could see it in his eyes. He didn’t care.
He moved his hand, and there was a lawn dart in it.
It hit the wall behind her as she hurried back upstairs.
Buy time, bide time.
Into the parent’s bedroom. She shut the door, then worked to move the dresser into the way of the door. She sat with her back to the dresser.
Thuds hit the door, at varying intensities. Something hit it hard enough to splinter wood above.
Natalie grit her teeth. Something hit the door with an impact that made the dresser move, Natalie’s head flying forward as the third object moving in the chain of conserved energy, then naturally moving back to crack against the wood.
“Can’t do much about it right now. Did you call help?”
“I gave it a try. And I did the projector thing, and glanced at the cameras. It was four people, two capes. Hookline’s got Tony.”
“Kid!” Kitchen Sink raised his voice.
“I’ve got a burning plank in my hand right now. I’d say you have until it gets too hot for me to hold before it becomes your problem.”
“Um! We moved furniture, and my friend is bleeding enough she might be too weak to move it away.”
There was a sound of wood clattering.
“You’re not bleeding that badly,” Kenzie said. “Come on. Window.”
Natalie started to stand, and then fell, more out of the surprise of how difficult it was than out of the actual difficulty. She was actually weaker.
And it was actually a good amount of blood, now that she could see what she’d deposited on the floor in the short time since sitting. In the unlit room, it looked black on a gray floor.
Stay calm for Kenzie and Tony.
She climbed to her feet with Kenzie helping, and she made her way to the window.
Kitchen Sink was already outside. As her head popped up, he hurled something.
“I wish I had my stuff,” Kenzie said.
“Oh, don’t- I don’t blame you. It was smart and right to not want to bring everything. It’s just- being a tinker sucks sometimes.”
Natalie chanced another look outside. Kitchen Sink was creating and tossing away things. One in each hand. Utensils, vases, toys.
He’d found one he was keeping. She could barely see it in the dark.
A stick? A stick of dynamite, unlit.
“We need to throw something out there. Don’t let him figure something out,” Natalie said.
“Got it. Books?”
Natalie did what she could to open windows. Kitchen Sink threw something at the window, but it only cracked the glass. She got the window open partway.
Kenzie had hardback books. Natalie reached for the first.
“I’m pretty sure I’m still stronger than you.”
“Well, that’s rude.”
With a two-handed grip on the book, Natalie heaved it through the open window, in Kitchen Sink’s general direction.
There was a return throw. She checked immediately after. He’d moved a step to the side.
Another throw- her shoulder hurt with the movement, but adrenaline carried her through.
After her third throw, she heard vehicles. She could hear Kitchen Sink shouting. She chanced a look – he’d lost the dynamite at one point.
The group of capes were running off to one side, all together. Colt, the guy from the top of the stairs.
The focus of the vehicles was on the house- they didn’t give chase. But they weren’t alone.
A shape like an eel crossed with a large wolf paced into the scene, weaving between the trucks, where patrol officers were just emerging.
Kenzie leaned out through the window, past the broken glass before Natalie could stop her, and pointed in the direction the bad guys had gone.
The eel-thing, which had to be Cryptid, ran off.
“He came,” Kenzie said. Her voice was soft. “Infinity and seven.”
Natalie nodded. She reached for a pillowcase beside the bed, and pressed it to her cut.
“I’m sorry you got caught up in this,” Kenzie said.
“It’s what I signed on for.”
“I don’t think it is. I think we really kicked the hornet’s nest.”
Natalie nodded. “Tell them about the fire.”
Natalie wasn’t sure if she could. “Conserving strength.”
“Guys!” Kenzie called out. “There might be a fire upstairs!”
People broke into a run, a straggler emerging from the patrol truck with a fire extinguisher.
The shout had drawn attention. Victoria appeared, landing on top of a truck, eyes searching, before she found faces peering through the window of an unlit room. She flew to them.
“Are you okay?”
“Got cut,” Natalie said.
“She’s bleeding a lot.”
“Let’s get you out of there. I’ll lift you down. Come on.”
Natalie began to work her way through the window, which didn’t open all the way. Nice house as it was, there were still shortcuts in construction. Victoria helped her.
Victoria’s voice was reassuring. “We’re getting our forces together. Same as Trial and Error. This doesn’t go unanswered.”
“My-” Natalie started. She wasn’t sure how to label Tony. Stupid, to have that be the thing she stumbled over in this moment.
“Tony’s scraped up and scared, but he’s otherwise fine,” Victoria said.
Natalie nodded. With that, she could pass out.
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