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Crystal landed, startling others on the street. Trying to startle me. She had a small smile on her face, and a sheen of sweat on her skin. Her top was sleeveless, hugging her body, and she wore tight-fit pants with gill-like slits in the sides, each slit framed with a slash of color. It was an aesthetic that hadn’t aged all that well, starting in the early 2000s, when kids’ fashion designers worked costume-like features into clothing, and it carried on as a subculture from there, with its variety of flavors. More in LA or New York than Brockton Bay, though.
Of course, Crystal could get away with it when she was a superhero. More of course, was the fact we couldn’t exactly be picky. The world had just ended, after all.
“Hug?” she offered.
“Sorry,” I said, feeling like I was too quiet.
“Sure,” she said.
Conversation died, just like that. I regretted saying no and I knew I would have regretted saying yes. There had been a day, once upon a time, when I hadn’t had maybes in my vocabulary. It hadn’t been a question of this or that, or ‘should I do X or should I do Y’?
“Good flight?” I asked.
“Great flight,” she said. “I flew over a restaurant, and wow, could I smell what they were cooking. Any other day, I would have stopped there, but I thought maybe you hadn’t eaten.”
“Shoot,” she said, snapping her fingers.
Again, the pause, the awkward feeling where we couldn’t get into stride. Two people with ankles tied together for a three-legged race, trying to find their rhythm. Except that didn’t usually take as long as it had taken us. My fault.
I was very aware of people looking at us. Crystal’s flight and landing had turned heads. I knew objectively that they were looking at her, but even if I could logically put two and two together, my traitorous brain told me they were staring at me when their eyes pointed in my direction, and they were averting their eyes from me when they weren’t.
I saw a woman in a sundress walking her dog, and I thought of a quiet voice outlining some warnings. No donating blood. Avoid any sources of healing that aren’t her, because the wrong source of healing could awaken latent materials that were used to rebuild this body. Stray dog. Stray cat. Rodents.
It made my stomach hurt. A constant gnawing feeling, hollowing me out. I was outside and active because I knew how easy it would be to do anything else. I stayed standing because I was already standing. I could keep from screaming because I hadn’t yet opened my mouth to scream. I went through my day because I hadn’t stayed inside with a blanket pulled over my head. I wore nice clothes because they were what I’d worn before, back when I’d either been Glory Girl or I’d been Victoria Dallon. I met with Crystal because I hadn’t yet cut myself off from the world.
“It’s a wonderful day, isn’t it?” Crystal asked, looking skyward.
I looked up at the blue sky. Summer heat beamed down on us, pulsing off of the concrete. I could put together the individual pieces, and say it was warm without being sweltering, the sky was clear, the city smelled like fresh wood and car exhaust, and a strong wind blew clean through the city. Clean like there were thick, rich forests just beyond the city boundaries, and the wind picked that up to refresh the city.
I could take all the individual pieces and I knew they were the sort of thing that added up to wonderful weather. I felt aware of every set of eyes in the vicinity, pointed at me or otherwise, including Crystal’s one visible eye, which was looking skyward, her hair sweeping over the other side of her face. Each one was a condemnation or penetrating stare. Each one implied emotions I didn’t want to deal with. I felt aware of the clothes against my skin, and how they hadn’t been washed enough times to lose the stiffness that came from being folded in a box or the trace chemicals after they were pumped out by a factory line.
I was aware of my body, and nothing felt exactly right. Proportions, how my own body weight rested on different portions of my own body, head on neck, hip on thigh bone, leg pushing down against foot, foot inside a sandal that pushed into the earth. I couldn’t escape the visceral notion of meat against bone, grinding, crushing, like stray animals had been ground and crushed together, turned into a scrambled egg slurry of proteins and fats that were then pulled together to make a monstrous body. Reshaped again, hundreds of pounds of me pulled away and cast off, left behind to be devoured by scavengers. Animal meat returning to the animals.
“You zone out a lot,” Crystal commented.
“I’m going to do that. Can’t really help it.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to make it a criticism. I hope it’s because you’re enjoying the day.”
I looked around. The city being built with a scary swiftness. Double-wide trucks rolled in from various portals, commissioned materials and building segments stacked along each. The city we were in was completed buildings to the east of us, and skeletons to the west of us, concrete and tinted glass finding their way onto the bones by the moment.
I could remember the day I had triggered, how I’d walked a line before a look at my parents and their avid disinterest had tipped me over the edge. I felt like that with everything now. A woman walking her dog, certain colors, hair types and clothing styles. People that walked in certain ways. Areas that were too sterile. Areas that were too dirty.
“Trying to,” I said, to fill the silence. Then, to explain why I was trying to fill the silence, I said, “I know I’m a bit of a wet blanket right now. I know I’m hard to talk to.”
“You’re family,” Crystal said. “I’m not doing very good at this either.”
I shook my head.
“We’ll figure it out,” she said. “And we’ll talk so easily it’ll annoy people.”
“Did you send the University thing?”
“The application? Yeah. I took it in to the application center. But I won’t get in.”
“You never know,” she said. “You’re pretty fantastic. Smart, good grades, special case…”
“I won’t get in this year. I rushed it, my head wasn’t in the right place, and it might not be in the right place if I got in. Mostly I used it as an excuse to figure out what to do for next summer.”
“What to do?”
“Prerequisites to meet. Having work experience would help. I used putting in the application as an excuse to visit and get a sense of the place, calibrate my expectations. They’re a mess right now, and ninety percent of what they’re doing is making sure they’re prepared for a larger cohort next year.”
“I can’t believe you used the word cohort.”
“It’s a good word,” I said, smiling.
“It’s a good goal. Getting in next year?”
I nodded. I didn’t miss the faint pity that came with first half of what she’d said. How good it is that you have a goal, Victoria, you need a goal. It felt like I was being handled with kid gloves, and I hated it.
I knew I needed the kid gloves, but I hated it.
“I know this is shitty of me,” Crystal said. “But even though you’ve eaten already, do you mind taking a detour?”
“A long detour?” I asked. “To that restaurant you flew over?”
“Fast food place,” Crystal said, pressing her hands together.
“Absolutely,” I told her. “My curiosity is piqued.”
“Fly?” she asked, floating up a bit. One or two bystanders who hadn’t seen her arrival looked shocked.
Again, more attention, more feelings that all contradicted one another, and left me feeling like I was standing on the tracks as the train made its approach.
“Walk?” I asked. “It’s a nice day.”
She landed. “Okay.”
She didn’t ask why, and I wasn’t sure I could tell her if she did. It was an extension of why I was going out, why I wore clothes like my old ones, and why I faced the day. If I stayed inside I might not be able to go out again. If I changed up my wardrobe I might lose my last traces of myself.
If I flew, I might keep flying, because it was hard being down in the guts of the city, surrounded by its people.
Crystal linked her arm with mine, and I rolled my eyes, but I went with it. Compromises.
We walked through a sunny, brand-spanking-new city, half of it still seemingly in construction, with girders and beams and little connecting those things. Cranes seemed to stand up everywhere.
It was a long walk, which was a mercy in a way. The monotony made it easier to zone out, and to just take the day in without focusing in on the details, like people looking over, or the countless little things that made me think of Amy, meat, family, or hospital rooms.
When we arrived, there was a crowd in the place. A crowd on the benches outside the place.
“I’ll go in, if you’ll wait.”
“I’ll wait,” I told Crystal. “I don’t have anything to do.”
“Sorry again!” she raised her voice to say it as she went to find the tail of the line.
I hung back, leaning against a metal post that bounded the patio, providing some protection should a car go off the road.
There was a gang of people from the Patrol occupying three tables. I couldn’t help but feel it was a little… dark. Old PRT uniforms painted over, the friendlier white sections of the uniform and body armor made black, identifying numbers and labels gone, replaced by place names.
“…can and probably does overlap with others, then why have it as a label?” one of the people with less armor asked.
“Because the labels are for our use,” the boss said, a woman with gray in her hair. “If I tell you there’s a Stranger present, what do you do?”
The guy with the armor shrugged, shaking his head.
“Anyone?” she asked. “They have the firepower, they have a good sense of what we can do, and we’re in the dark about them. We have numbers and we have the ability to gather information and train. Protocols and communication are essential, so you need to know the language and you need to know what to do when you hear it.”
They were all high school kids. Months after the end of the world, they were putting on painted armor and pretending they knew what to do to fill in a space left by the now-absent PRT.
“What’s the context?” I asked.
The woman twisted around, giving me a searching look. “We’re sitting right here. I say ‘Stranger’.”
“Nothing else? Are you pointing?”
“Watch out. Strangers infiltrate, surprise, approach from oblique angles. Stealth, trickery, subtlety. It’s not my favorite classification, too broad and too niche at the same time.”
“It is,” I said. “It still annoys me.”
“Strangers do that. What’s your first thought if I say master-stranger?”
I thought of the black hole in my memories, extending from when I’d been injured by Crawler to when my mom and my aunt were attending to me, talking to a team of paramedics who were preparing to load me into an ambulance.
Composure, Victoria, I thought. Back straight, gaze level. It’s especially important that someone who is supposed to be invincible doesn’t let the enemy see them hurting.
My mother’s voice, more than my own.
“Regret every choice in life that brought me to that point,” I said.
“I’m not one of your uniforms, I’ll editorialize if I want.”
“Okay,” she said, raising her hands. Surrender. “But really. Do you know what to do? Master-stranger. What’s the protocol?”
“Means you watch yourself. If you’re shouting it, you’re compromised, you don’t trust yourself, so the Patrol listens to the next person in charge. Meanwhile, don’t trust your eyes or brain, don’t take any high-impact actions like using a gun or attacking someone. Lean on untainted sources and extend trust to them, even if it’s hard. Trust solid things- walls, doors, limit the Stranger’s movement, get somewhere safe and stay there.”
“Watch the walls. Communicate, trust people. You’re looking for traps, routes of entry, or changing environment. Focus on details. Cracks under the doors, images, text. Look for oddities and discrepancies. In an ideal world, you’re communicating a bit more than just those two words.”
“It’s not always ideal,” she said. She gave me another look. “You’re too young to be ex-PRT.”
“I’m into Parahuman Sciences.”
“That doesn’t include the protocols. Science and response protocols are very different things. Which was what started our discussion here, if you didn’t catch that.”
“I didn’t. It includes the protocols if you’re so into it that you drop off an application at the University, and you buy two textbooks for a class you probably won’t get into, just to read them. I dig into anything I can get about parahumans.”
“Why?” she asked. “Capes are cool?”
As a somewhat gray-haired, body-armor wearing woman with a gruff, stern tone, those words sounded very strange coming out of her mouth. Almost but not quite derisive.
“Capes are important,” I told her.
“There’s a statement with a lot of meanings,” she said.
“I think all of them might apply,” I told her. Then I gave her an alternate answer. “Capes are terrifying. You fight fear by figuring it out.”
“Where are you working?”
“Do you want to be?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Depending on how my application to school does.”
She turned to her two tables of rookies. “Here’s one example of where a smart team leader might say ‘master-stranger, protocols in action.’ Here we have a young lady, dressed up nice, with very specific, useful knowledge that I wish any one of you had, because it’s going to be a royal pain to drill you in it, and she isn’t employed. How Strangely convenient.”
“If it helps, I don’t think I want to work with the Patrol.”
“Still suspicious. I think we’d have to have a long discussion, miss…”
“Karen Vick. We’d have to chat for a while before I changed my mind about how suspicious you are, Victoria.”
“If you wanted to talk about powers, I’d probably come across more suspicious by time I’m done talking your ear off.”
“Because you’re the type to buy expensive textbooks you don’t have to?”
“Yeah. I have a box of old files and info in my apartment, too.”
“What if I wanted to talk about why you don’t like the Patrol?”
“That’s harder to put my finger on,” I said.
“It feels like a disaster waiting to happen.”
“The disaster already happened,” one of the boys at the table muttered.
“Speak up, Mahon,” Kelly Vick told him.
“It happened. Gold Morning.”
“Doesn’t mean things can’t get worse,” I said. “Why are you doing this, if it’s not to protect people and prevent things from happening in the future?”
“Powers are cool,” he said.
“Different reasons,” a girl told me.
“There’s always been more question marks than periods when talking about parahumans,” I said. “We need to dig for answers, get the info, use it. Now more than ever. I don’t think the Patrol is doing that.”
“What do you think the Patrol is doing, then?” Kelly asked.
“…Not that. Not studying.”
She leaned back in her seat, looking at her rookies. “See? You guys need to study. You can start by reading up on protocols, and ways of dealing with different parahuman.”
“Not quite what I meant.”
“It is, but I think your confusion, Miss ‘powers are important’, is because you’re confused about something very basic about the Patrol. And I find that really interesting.”
I shook my head. All of a sudden, I felt very on the spot. Being analyzed, studied with multiple sets of eyes. The illusion was dispelled, and I was no longer getting to dive into classifications and protocols, paperwork and parts of my lifelong passion that were strictly and safely relegated to paper.
I looked for my escape, and I saw Crystal on the sidelines, her food in hand. Watching from a distance.
She walked over.
“My cousin,” I said.
Crystal raised her hand, chewing on a peanut butter chicken kebab.
“She has powers,” I added.
Crystal raised an eyebrow. Then she floated up a bit.
“Never wore a mask,” I said, to clarify why I was giving away Crystal’s nonexistent secret identity.
“That would explain it,” Kelly told me.
Crystal made a quizzical sound, but she didn’t seem to want to stop eating long enough to outright ask the question.
“She’s-” she indicated me, elaborating, “-Too close to it.”
“Oh yeah,” I agreed. “No denying that.”
“Now I’m not so suspicious. Master-stranger protocols lifted. There’s an explanation.”
“I don’t suppose you’d give me your not-too-close-to-it opinion on what the Patrol is about?”
“Join and find out,” she told me.
“I don’t… no. Sorry.”
“We have too many rookies and not enough people who can instruct. You’ll need a job. Take… let me dig out my card here. I can’t take you onto my team, but I’ll point you to someone who handles training. Think about it, at the very least. It’s an option.”
I waited for her to fish in her utility-style belt, getting wallet, some brochure-like folded papers that, at a glance, seemed to be resources for people in need, and then a creased business card, as simple as business cards got.
I took it.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I told the group. “Really didn’t intend to butt in like this when I first commented.”
“Email,” Kelly said, indicating the card. “And take care. Enjoy your chicken. It’s great.”
Crystal nodded enthusiastically, as she and I left the conversation.
We walked while she ate. I took an offered kebab.
“That is the most animated I’ve seen you since… years,” Crystal said.
I looked at her.
“Fuck,” I muttered.
“Bums me out a bit that you can have a conversation with them more easily than you can with me.”
“I love you, you know that? I don’t want to be bad at having conversations.”
She gave me a one-armed hug, holding the kebabs.
“But I guess, kind of, I get it? I mostly understand them, and I don’t think I could have said that two years ago.”
I don’t get it.
My old Patrol was quiet, as they unpacked stuff, pulling back tarp, and undoing cables. Here and there, there were some comments, but there wasn’t any particular camaraderie or connection. Certainly not more than what the hero teams had.
But they plugged along, they kept working, everyone with a job to do. The internal crises were nonexistent. There were even occasional lighter comments from Jester.
I’d been thinking back to years ago, remembering, trying to get a handle on what I was feeling and why I was reacting in the ways I was, from my freakout at the hair loss to my anger.
I held it together because I had to hold it together. I steered my thoughts and it was hard, as hard as it had been those years ago. I didn’t want to think about the hair loss and the implications, so I didn’t. I stayed quiet, lost in memory and in the drawn out moments.
Checking my phone, I saw it had been nearly twenty minutes.
“I’ll be back,” I told them. “Going to get my tinker.”
“Cool,” Jester said. “How’s she doing, by the way? With Swansong…”
He trailed off.
“Not great. Lookout is hard to read, but… it’s pretty obvious it’s not great. It’d be best if you didn’t raise the subject, I think.”
“Got it. Swansong was obviously fond of her, I thought it might go the other way too.”
“It did. Absolutely.”
“I thought she was really cool.”
“She liked you too, Jester, and she didn’t like a lot of people. You were good to her around a time she wasn’t feeling so great about things, around the prison.”
He seemed to take that hard, in a way, like he hadn’t expected it, or the fact she was gone had just hit him, or hit him again.
I could have stayed to discuss it more, but my thoughts were on my team, supporting them where they needed support. Even in the little things.
I took flight.
Over the trees, high enough I could see Titans in the distance, against a dark sky that was getting darker. With most of the city without power, the buildings were blocky shadows. Distant water with high waves was visible when the waves crashed against one another, or where lights from parts of distant harbor that still had power struck the water. More alive than the city was.
I gingerly touched my scalp, testing with fingernails, and finding the skin sensitive. There were some strands of hair from even that contact that stuck. Losing some hair when running fingernails through my hair to comb it or sleeping without my hair braided was natural, but this…
It left me with a sick feeling in my gut. I flipped my hood up, securing it in place, feeling self conscious.
I flew over toward the midpoint between the stables and the compound center. I did some searching, and saw Kenzie making her way down the path, wearing a snow jacket over her costume, smiling helmet encasing her head. The irises of the oversize eyes on her helmet glowed red in the gloom.
I landed next to her, one-footed, my sore foot kept out of the way.
“Victoria! You spooked me!”
“Sorry. Came to pick you up and ask a favor. I got sidetracked, but I wanted to keep my promise.”
Her expression unreadable behind the smiling mask, “I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Victoria,” Kenzie said, channeling ‘exasperated teenager’ into her tone, in a way I could one hundred percent believe Candy or Chastity had helped her refine. “You could ask me infinity favors.”
“Just, um, without making a big deal of things, do you have the equipment to measure radiation? For me and for others?”
“I absolutely do. Light is a kind of radiation, obviously, and if I couldn’t measure, capture, or manipulate light then I’d be an awful camera tinker. I gotta get to my workshop first though.”
“Which gets to the second thing,” I said. “Any way you can postpone your workshop time? Dragon sent me stuff and we need you to send her some data.”
“Aw, shucks,” Kenzie said. “Collaborating with Dragon, postponing workshop time? That sounds like a pain.”
“I… honestly don’t have any idea if you’re being sarcastic. One of those things is a bother, but the other isn’t.”
“Of course I’m being sarcastic, dummy. Postponing workshop time to hang out with people? Collaborating with Dragon? Yuh.”
“Yuh,” I echoed her.
“Want a ride?”
With my forcefield, I picked her up. I flew her over to the workshop area. She seemed to take being carried by the forcefield better than anyone else to date, but, well, she was Kenzie. Hard to read, especially with her helmet on. Her tone was bright, but she wasn’t bouncy; she got restless and energetic when she was happy.
“How’s Tristan?” I asked, careful.
“He’s okay. He was pulling away again, you know, like, he said before he wanted to go to the church, then he wanted to sit by the fire, and then he said he’d go back to the church. It’s like… super obvious, um…”
“That he’s not okay?” I asked.
“That he’s pulling back. He’s trying to deal with stuff on his own, but like, every therapy session we had, he was all, ‘I’m a people person, I need my maximum extroversion, I need connections and parties’.”
Kenzie had adopted a fake-macho voice as she said it. It didn’t seem mocking so much as an attempt to mime Tristan.
“Doesn’t make sense,” I observed.
“We all have our bad days. I think maybe he was hoping Byron was better than he ended up being? Maybe?”
“Vista and Byron paired up earlier.”
“I saw! That was cool. Maybe that’s it.”
“But you don’t know.”
“No. But Sveta and Tristan always got along because they were Weld fanboys, and that opened the door to them talking, and they were always more… hero, I guess, than everyone else? Like, naturally wanting to do good, no ulterior motives?”
“You’re pretty hero.”
“I’d like to think I’m pretty and a hero,” she said, affecting a tone. “That sounds so much better when others do it. I’m okay. Anyway, Rain and Sveta get along with Tristan best. And they wanted a more serious talk with him. Any more people and it might have been too much.”
We landed, and immediately, she made a beeline for the squat mech with the eel in the tank. Kenzie speed-walked up to it, sans-bounce-in-step, and banged on the glass. The eel opened its mouth, baring teeth.
“Fishtank!” she exclaimed.
Through the mech’s speakers, a voice came through. “Yes? Is that Lookout? I don’t recognize the costume.”
“You want my workshop shift!? I’ll take yours so long as it’s before ten.”
I didn’t hear the response, but Kenzie turned my way, thumbs up.
We made our way into the workshop, which seemed like any mundane workshop on the surface, with a sliding barn door and a number of counters, with lots of tools in questionable condition mounted on the walls. A tinker had taken over one end of the downstairs area, and stairs led upstairs. Boxes and various packages were sitting in another corner. Some had signs or papers stuck to them.
Kenzie’s was stuck under the workshop bench closest to the door. She crouched by it, smiling mask looking up at me.
“What am I diagnosing?”
“Anything and everything you can give to Dragon, I think. Unless it’s time consuming.”
“Okay. Can you carry?”
I did, gathering up the stuff she indicated, and carrying it with my forcefield.
Kenzie’s tone was bright, “I said we have to go before ten because Rain conks out at ten thirty-six.”
She said it so casually, like it wasn’t life-threatening. Like we didn’t have Titans to deal with on top of everything else.
Ten-thirty-six was about four hours from now.
I really hoped he’d be okay.
“We were talking about it briefly, while you stayed behind to fight. I wanted to ask what you think we should do.”
“I think we shouldn’t tick Defiant off by repeating what we did last night. I think he’d blow a vein in the side of his head.”
“I’m already all set up to make sure we’re just watching,” Kenzie said. “We won’t get sucked in. Promise.”
The tinker in the corner of their workshop gave us an annoyed look. I covered my mouth.
Right. His time.
I picked up the stuff Kenzie indicated, and lifted it outside. People were looking, and the quiet calm I’d been enjoying since this morning felt very, very shaky, like a wobble in my stomach when I’d just had the flu and anything even slightly rich could make me hurl, but it was in my heart.
I refocused, putting more of my attention into the task at hand, thinking about the question Kenzie had asked. I made sure I had everything secure before I picked Kenzie up and took flight.
“Other side of it,” I said. “I’m thinking we keep tabs on him through the camera, and we stay ready to dive into the cracks and help out that way.”
“Ooh,” Kenzie said. “That’s an idea.”
“So yeah, we did talk about it between ourselves,” she said, “But the idea the others were talking about was trying to brute force our way in mid-dream instead of joining in at the start, just in case Rain got into trouble. I’d have to tinker a lot to see if I could do it, and it might mean we run right up to the deadline before I can say if it’s doable, which is scary.”
“What if both options were possible?” I asked her. “Compare and contrast.”
“Umm. So breaking in, it puts us inside the crystal. It’s like a giant mirror, and we’d be traveling to the other side of the mirror. We can do more, but it’s scarier and messier. We’re really in the guts of things. No guarantees I can do it.”
“Your idea, I don’t think we really discussed it because, like, doy, just fly in, obvious. We’d be on the wrong side of the glass, I think we could either see what was on the other side or my tech could, or I could relay-”
We flew over the end of the compound where my old Patrol group was.
“There’s interference. I fell in, the phone wouldn’t work.”
“Okay. Good to know. I might have to ask you to quickly fly over and take a dip. But it should be doable! It’d be like punching a mirror so the face on the other side doesn’t really exist anymore.”
“Two options. Good.”
“Really good,” Kenzie said.
“Then,” I felt so nervous, because the wrong answer could be ‘you’re fucking dying Victoria‘, “do you mind doing that quick radiation scan?”
“Me. And everything.”
“Here, uh, we can do that here. If you’ll hand me that box…”
I felt a little weird about floating in the air above the compound, holding a toolbox, knowing a bit of butterfingers could see tinkertech flying down to the ground below, possibly to explode or do weird tinkertech things on impact.
But I did oblige. I was freaked, even though I had trained myself to some extent in steering my thoughts away from freakiness.
“Say something clever that isn’t cheese,” Kenzie said, holding up a device to her face. “Because stupid me is getting that you’re a bit spooked all of a sudden, and we should lighten the mood.”
“Really putting me on the spot, Kenz.”
“Puppies!” I said, forcing a smile, while facing the false smile of her mask.
“Best answer!” she exclaimed, her device rapid-clicking for a few seconds, before she turned to look down at the settlement, repeating the process.
“Thought it might be. Seemed to be just what you needed at the right moment.”
She didn’t make a noise, looking down at the data.
“Anything?” I asked, nervous.
“Radiation levels are high.”
“High in… very alarming sense, or…?”
“Twice the normal level. More toward the epicenter. But I’m looking some stuff up in some books I saved to my onboard computer systems, and that doesn’t seem like it’d be that big a deal.”
I nodded, not quite able to breathe a sigh of relief. “I’ve lost a bit of hair, I was worried.”
“I could check other stuff, do full diagnostics. Or we could ask Tattletale.”
I winced, but I nodded.
I took us down.
Into the area of the compound where my old Patrol team was gathered. They were standing around a set of trucks, and one of those trucks had my new stuff.
The key thing was a laser cannon, as long as the rear container of the truck, with a tarp draped over top of it, partially folded back. It was painted black, with two gold stripes along its housing. The entire thing was about ten feet long from end to end, with the barrel being long and thin, and the gun itself pear shaped and heavily armored.
Kenzie immediately focused in on it. “Woo!”
She snapped a picture with the little device before we even reached the ground, then hurried over.
Still without the bouncy step.
“Okay,” she exclaimed. “Time to dig in.”
“Don’t fire it!” Gilpatrick called out.
Gilpatrick looked nervous as Kenzie carefully made her way up onto the truck bed, then motioned for Camisola to go watch her.
Jester walked over to me, and we watched from a bit more of a distance.
“What are the odds that you let me pull the trigger on that thing at some point?” he asked. “After all of this, isolated area, point it at a mountain or something.”
“I’m not even sure if there’s going to be an ‘after’,” I said, without thinking. I self-corrected. “Not like I think we’ll lose, but…”
“Things are going to be messy, whatever happens.”
“Yeah,” I told him.
“I really want to try firing that thing sometime,” he told me. “I’m a bit of a goofball, I know that, but I’m a determined goofball.”
“I set goals, I go for them. Sometimes they’re things nobody else would get. Like trying to get a poster on every square inch of wall in my room, after Gold Morning, when some stuff’s hard to get. But it got me up at five thirty to help my dad at his work for some extra cash before school.”
“Didn’t know you did that,” I said.
“I do it with people, too. Find that weird, dark girl who seems like she’s struggling to deal with the situation she’s in, and find an inoffensive way to be there for her.”
“Swansong appreciated it, I’m sure.”
“I’m talking about you,” the guy said.
I looked at him.
I wasn’t sure what to say, except, “I appreciated it too.”
“We get through this,” he said, standing a little straighter, “And you’ll let me try firing that thing. Make it up to me for standing out in the cold, guarding this thing until you could take custody of it.”
Jester was a goofball, with a priority system I didn’t and would never really grasp. We didn’t have a lot of common interests, and we’d really only spent time together because we’d spent time together. Not even convenience, but habit, and the fact we didn’t really argue or struggle to get along. If I were uncharitable, I knew he’d sort of liked me and his goal had probably been to win me over, but he’d never pressed, so I could forgive that. To tap that part of me that had once been a judgmental twelve year old girl, Jester had bad acne at the corners of his face and around his nose, his hair was a little greasy and too long at the top, his choices in fashion puzzled me more than anything, and he was just the furthest thing from my type overall.
But standing there, at the edge of the world ending, he could talk about tomorrow and wanting something and I could respect that. The guy sounded like a man, juvenile as the ‘want’ was.
I gave him a punch in the arm.
“Is that a yes?”
“Depends,” I told him. “Gilpatrick insinuated something earlier. I had the impression you were in on it.”
“Uhhh… remind me?”
“You guys… you’re staying sane, you’re reasonably calm. What am I missing?”
“Ugh,” Jester said.
“Ugh,” I repeated. “That’s not an answer.”
“It’s… he clarified when you left. I could say, but I don’t want to be rude.”
“Rude?” I was a bit shocked at that. Gilpatrick had been, all considered, pretty fucking fair to me in the past. What the hell was it that he thought that would offend me?
“Vic!” Kenzie called out.
I floated over. Jester followed.
“Hey! So… super cool,” Kenzie said.
“It is,” I admitted. “I’m not sure how big a difference it will make, but I’ll really love to have an option in a fight that isn’t me getting in the thick of things, running into stuff that penetrates my invincibility, and adding new injuries to my collection.”
“How much can you lift?”
“When I was Glory Girl, it was fourteen point six tons. But it wasn’t easy, and it gets weird when you express it as strength that isn’t straight lifting.”
Thank you, PRT power testing.
“This is twelve tons,” Kenzie said, patting the side of the gun.
In the background, Gilpatrick looked a bit nervous with even that limited contact.
I asked for big.
“She might have read your files, because she shaved off weight, took out internals, and gave it reinforcement,” Kenzie said, pointing at the underside of the pear-shaped part of it. “There are handholds. Lots of them.”
“She was paying attention,” I said.
“But I think I see why she wanted scans. Some of this is hard to calculate, especially if your lifting strength distributes weird across multiple hands, or if it’s uniform, or… any number of things. Should we try seeing if you can move it?”
I nodded, floating up to the truck bed. Kenzie climbed down, taking Jester’s hand.
I walked around the weapon, undoing straps, getting a better look at it. Armor with a wavy texture that only appeared in specific, direct light.
With my forcefield, I seized the edge, and lifted it up, aiming the barrel skyward. I found the handholds, framed with gold paint, and adjusted my grip.
Metal creaked as I lifted twelve tons of gun with only eight handholds. To figure out where to put the handholds, Dragon would have had to scan and record my body shape. I worried that one handhold would pull free of the housing and I wouldn’t be able to hold the gun up with what remained.
But I could lift it. My flying was a bit sluggish.
“You’re not even touching it,” Jasper told me. Kenzie was right between him and Camisola, device held up to her face, taking pictures or recording.
“Scans show some yellow-tier stresses,” Kenzie reported. “I’ll let Dragon know as soon as the phones connect.”
“Translate?” I asked her.
“It’s… safe but it could be better. If the wrong parts on the underside took battle damage, it might not be safe to hold. Some of it can be tweaked, but I’ll let Dragon figure that out.”
“Perfect,” I told her.
A short, sharp whistle turned my head. Gilpatrick.
Jester and Camisola went for their weapons.
“Hold up!” I called out.
At the edge of the clearing, looking a little more hostile than friendly, a snarling dog-mask flipped down to cover her face, Rachel stood with one wolf and one dog at high alert to either side of her. Yips hung further back.
“Rachel,” I called out.
She indicated Kenzie. “My business is with her.”
“She knows what she did,” Rachel growled.
“Um!” Kenzie started. “Uh, sorry? I-”
“Hand him over.”
“Um…” Kenzie looked very on the spot, even with her face covered. “I won’t make any sudden moves, so maybe don’t send the dogs after me?”
“Can you make them stand down?” I called out.
Rachel didn’t budge an inch.
“I’m going to move verrry slowly,” Kenzie said. She reached up to the side of her helmet and tapped it twice.
From my position above the truck bed, carrying fourteen tons of tinkertech, I couldn’t really see. I noted that Jester did, though.
He put his gun away, moving with care, and then reached down to retrieve ‘him’.
Kenzie had had a puppy zipped up into her jacket, camouflaged with her projector tech.
Explaining the lack of bounce or exuberance.
Jester carried the pup over. The wolf growled as he got closer, and he stopped.
“Sorry,” Kenzie called out. “I was absolutely going to bring him back. But he was sleeping and-”
Rachel walked the distance over to Jester, and took the pup.
“-He was warm and safe, and I was super, super careful, so-”
Rachel looked at each and every one of us, as if we’d perpetrated the crime in question, and didn’t so much as look at or respond to Kenzie.
“-so I didn’t even realize it was a problem, I’m sorry, I am, I was distracted-”
Rachel stormed away, snapping her fingers for her dogs to follow.
“…Oh,” Kenzie finished.
“Lookout,” I said, not even sure what to say.
“I was going to take him back! It took me forever before I could even bring myself to touch him, and then I couldn’t just put him down because it would have woken him up. I don’t know how to feed him anyway, so it’s not like I’d ever keep him, right? I wouldn’t risk hurting him that way.”
“I think it’s going to take more than that to convince her,” I said.
“It might be worse than that,” Kenzie said, turning the smiling mask my way. “It might be I can’t ever convince her now. She isn’t exactly the kind to let grudges go. I wasn’t really thinking.”
“Fuck, come on,” I said. “Let’s get ahead of this before it gets worse.”
The truck groaned with the burden as I put the gun down. I flew over to shift the tarp.
“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Gilpatrick told me. “We won’t go too far, but I’ll need to get my squad fed. It’s about that time.”
“Thanks. Really. I appreciate you guys going to the effort.”
I didn’t get to ask him for the answer that he and Jasper had both denied me.
“Lookout,” I said. “Let’s go find Imp or Tattletale.”
She nodded. “My stuff.”
“Can some of it go under the tarp?”
She began pointing, looking a little robotic in how she moved, stiff and methodical, like she was running on autopilot. The peace of earlier in the stable spoiled, the exuberance about having a project to work on with Dragon. Even just enjoying herself a bit because she was secretly cuddling a puppy. Replaced with movements like she was a doll with limited range of motion.
Once we were carrying the bare essentials, I carried her into the air.
With no clear idea of where to go, and Kenzie not having her eye stuff in to help us track, I headed straight for the city center, hoping I could get updated directions.
I spotted Rain, Sveta, and Tristan, with Natalie in their company. Natalie wore a jacket in a familiar style- Patrol issue, black and bulky enough to be worn over body armor, but with Natalie’s frame it was just worn.
I set Kenzie down.
“Freaky how you can do that now,” Tristan observed.
“Have you seen the Undersiders?” I asked. “Mini-crisis.”
“No,” Sveta replied. “What’s the crisis.”
“Kenzie borrowed a puppy from Rachel without asking.”
“Ohh,” Sveta said. “She’s angry.”
“Real angry,” Kenzie answered.
“Why?” Rain asked.
“I don’t know why I do things!” Kenzie answered, with enough energy and volume that it turned heads. “I didn’t think of anything except he was warm and sleepy and fuzzy and I liked that and-”
“And you hid it with projector tech.”
“-I realized it probably wasn’t great after, but by then I was already gone and I had a time slot at the workshop, and I thought I’d take him back after.”
“Fan out?” I told the group. “Younger kids and Kenzie’s team were with Rachel at the stable, so they’d still be there, but if Tattletale or Imp were with Rachel when she realized, they would have come with her. We’re looking for Imp, Tattletale, maybe Foil… where are Roman or Juliette?”
“They got hurt, so they got medical care, but that was a while ago,” Kenzie said.
“Before I stopped in.”
“Yeah,” Kenzie said.
“They count too.”
“Damage control,” I said. “We’ll apologize, see what Lookout can do to make amends or patch things up-”
“There might not be anything,” Kenzie said.
The group started to split up. I indicated Kenzie to Natalie, and Natalie walked over, putting a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder.
“Thank you,” I told Natalie, as the others all headed in different directions. “You didn’t come bearing worse news?”
“I wanted to do something to help.”
“You’re awesome,” I said.
Having a mission helps, even if it’s the actions of an overly attached child running headlong into a savage ex-warlord who hasn’t had any reasons to be especially savage in recent years.
I still had worries about my hair loss. I still felt that shakiness, emotionally, around my heart. I still felt like I could jump at shadows.
Like nothing had changed in years.
But having a mission kept my focus elsewhere. This was me, it was what I was made to do, trained by my parents. Helping. Fixing.
What the fuck could Kenzie do that would make things up to Rachel? It couldn’t even be a promise of chores, because I had a gut feeling that Rachel would forbid Kenzie from going near dogs until things were okay again. And depending on the severity of the situation, it could complicate Kenzie’s relationship with her team.
Such a small thing, that somehow mattered so insanely much to two people.
I flew to large groups, stopping in, asking.
It went back to what I’d noticed with the Patrol. That they were okay. They weren’t crumbling internally, all the things they’d been holding in or dealing with being turned into actual crises, big and small, by the application of the insane pressure the Titans posed.
“Have you seen any Undersiders?” I asked a group from the Girls at Bat. I saw only confused stares.
“Blonde, purple and black costume, eye on the chest, black mask?” I tried. “Gray demon mask, black bodysuit, snarky?”
More confused head shakes, even as I went on to describe the nuances of Roman’s stylized, lopsided armor, Juliette’s elegant queen aesthetic, and Chastity’s ‘high boots, elbow-length leather gloves, whip, and captain’s jacket’ look.
Deathchester, a group of them sitting on a fence, smoking, while others stood at the edge of the road, arms folded, huddled.
“Damsel,” I called out, as I landed.
Power flickered around her claw as she turned my way. She didn’t blast. “Don’t surprise people with powers as dangerous as mine.”
“Mini-emergency. Have you seen Imp, Tattletale, any of the older Heartbroken?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I’ll owe you a favor.”
She hesitated, then extended a claw, pointing at a house. “We’re staying there too, so don’t bring trouble to our doorstep.”
I flew over, crossing a field, a large yard, and stopping at the door. I knocked.
Tattletale opened it. From the looks of it, she might have been napping or sleeping off a thinker headache.
“Rachel,” I said. “Lookout.”
She was immediately alert, turning to pick up her coat. “Take me.”
Imp’s follow-up comment was cut off, as I immediately took flight, carrying Tattletale into the dark settlement, illuminated by patches of orange and yellow from fires and lamps, all so small that I could block out my view of them with my hand stuck out.
“Could have waited until I had my jacket on.”
I adjusted my grip on her. Looking a little nervous, phantom hands gripping her by the waist and hips, she pulled on the jacket.
“Kenzie took a puppy,” I explained.
“Fuck. Okay. Should be fixable.”
“Given the state of things? Stress? That Rachel’s hurt.”
“Might be fixable,” Tattletale amended her statement.
“Where would she go?” I asked.
“To her dogs.”
Tattletale nodded, her face not so visible in the gloom, but her blonde hair was.
She reached over and her hand bumped into my forcefield. I saw her tilt her head, looking at me.
“What is it?”
I felt a weird kind of relief, dramatic considering my history with acid, and the suggestion that what I had suffered might be a scar that would permanently affect my hairline.
But it wasn’t radiation, at least.
Funny, that Tattletale’s less certain word made me feel more secure than Kenzie’s expertise.
“I was freaking out about it,” I said.
“Mm. You’re going to have to see a healer at some point, you know.”
“Tattletale,” I said, through grit teeth. “My control over my forcefield is good now, but… maybe don’t say stuff like that while I’m carrying you.”
She didn’t respond.
It was weird, how I felt relieved, but I didn’t feel better. I couldn’t let go of the bad, and my feelings still felt tremulous. I’d run up against a wall just like Switch Hitter had, the thing that had brought me to that wall was gone, but… the wall was still there.
And I had no idea what to do.
We flew to the stable, removed from the rest of the settlement, set at the base of the hill. I set Tattletale down on the ground, then dismissed the forcefield.
I could hear Rachel barking out orders, and I could see the kids leaving the stable. Aiden and the younger boys looked spooked, Candy looked more distressed.
“Out. Go,” Rachel said.
“We didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You’re on her team, you’re all responsible. You told me she was fine to have around the dogs, I believed you. Now I don’t believe you.”
“Shit,” I heard Tattletale whisper. “Factor in that we’re in a strange place, one she associates with fighting and her dogs getting hurt…”
“Yeah,” I whispered back.
“Rachel!” Tattletale raised her voice. “Hey, listen.”
Rachel called in the two dogs who were in the way, then hauled hard on the sliding door at the front of the stable, leaning into the motion with her whole body. She was more muscular a build than ninety-five percent of people I knew, more than Tristan or my dad, even, and the effect of her using every major muscle in her body to slam a massive wooden door was pretty dramatic. It rattled after closing.
Tattletale stared at the closed door, then looked over at me. “Maybe take the kids into town? Get them some food?”
“I really don’t know,” she said. “But get them fed and taken care of, keep them from getting too mad at Lookout, and maybe we’ll just have the one person who’s having a crisis, instead of a whole gaggle of them.”
“Two people having a crisis, at least. Lookout’s going to have a tough time with this.”
“All the more reason. Let me handle my teammate, you handle the kids.”
I led the kids away, though they were periodically protesting, questioning me, or turning to try to go back or look at what was happening. Not that there was anything except Tattletale talking to a door.
Down the path, along the road.
I could have offered to carry them, but I needed a moment to calm down before we got there, and I couldn’t help but feel like picking them up, then immediately dropping them off in Kenzie’s vicinity would be disastrous.
Such a smart kid, but she could do such paradoxically dumb things when feelings got in the way. Stealing a dog from Rachel Lindt.
“Hold off on any actions or accusations,” I told the kids. “We’re going to go get food, and we’re going to stay out of Lookout’s way, she’s going to stay out of your way, and when we’ve figured out what happened-”
“She stole a dog,” Amias chimed in.
“-Yes. But the why, and the consequences… we need to figure it all out. Let’s let Tattletale handle it, and everything else.”
Candy gave me a long, searching look, while her teammates kept their heads down. Darlene looked disgruntled, but it had been just last night that she’d brought the full wrath of the Heartbroken down on the girl. She had to be thinking of that now. Chicken was just plain quiet.
I led them into the city center. I spotted Sveta, waving to her, and she waved back, before going to get Tristan’s attention- he was barely identifiable by his armor at the edge of a clearing. Vista was with him.
I identified where food was being served, and led the kids into the dining area. Kenzie wasn’t there, so I was safe to stand by the door and watch them get into line. I kept an eye and an ear on them, making sure they weren’t plotting. Not that Chicken Little was a plotter, but the Heartbroken as a whole…
Stopping the Titans is hard enough without us falling apart all the time, I thought.
Mostly they were just trying to figure out what was going on, by the sound of it. This had to be the most exhausting day for them.
“Lookout is in her workshop.”
I turned and looked at Natalie. Then I decided to step outside to chat with her instead of the two of us standing in the open doorway while people filed in.
“Good,” I said. “Good distraction.”
“She’s upset, I think. Hard to tell.”
“I saw you come in through the window. I figured I’d get updates before going back.”
“Tattletale is talking to Rachel. Other kids are banned from the stable, at least for now. They’re upset but still digesting.”
Natalie nodded. The orange light from the building interior reflected on her lenses.
“I don’t know how we’re going to handle everything,” I said, quiet.
“No idea,” Natalie said. “Let me know what I can do.”
“Question’s been bugging me,” I said, not taking my eyes off the kids, searching them for any sign of rising anger, frustration, or anything that might indicate I needed to step in. For now they seemed content to be getting an early dinner and talk amongst themselves.
“I could try answering if it’s a legal question,” Natalie said.
“Not legal. Human question.”
“You are human, Victoria.”
“But I’m too close to powers,” I told her. “At least, I might be. I asked my old boss from the Patrol how they were able to stay so calm and together when everything went to shit like this.”
“Oh?” Natalie asked. “I don’t… no idea, sorry.”
“And I asked a friend, and he told me that the answer would have offended me or something? Which doesn’t sound like him or my old boss.”
We watched as the kids filled up their plates with stuff from the buffet-style serving area, then made their way to a bench. Candy said something and the group of them looked up at me.
Natalie didn’t seem to have my answer, so I motioned for the door, “Want to get a bite to eat?”
“I think I know what it might be,” she said. “But I don’t want to sound like a bitch.”
“Really?” I asked, exasperated.
“Outclassed, outgunned, feeling underequipped- I heard about your gun.”
“Beaten down, with no end in sight for a war where you have no idea at all what the dangerous ones might be capable of, if they go all out? Worried that if something goes wrong, then some members of your team, anyone, could end up one of them?”
I nodded slowly. “Got it. Thank you. I- really appreciate you spelling it out.”
A reality they’d been living with all their lives. They’d learned to deal. The Patrol existed to deal.
“It’s why you brought me on board,” she told me. “So I can say the inconvenient things you don’t want me to, and then you figure out if you want to listen to it or ignore it.”
“Now you’re being a little…” I made a hand motion.
“A little,” she said. “I’m going to get a plate of food for Kenzie and grab something for myself while I’m at it.”
I held the door for her, glancing at the clock on the wall as I followed her in.
T-minus three hours until Rain sleeps.
Tonight only gets harder.
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