Interlude: End

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The train jerked into motion, and the men and women in the aisle stumbled.  There was a crowd at the front, where an old woman had taken a while to handle her fare.  Even now, she made her way down the aisle with excruciating slowness.  The people behind her looked irritated enough to snap.

“Hey.  Miss?”

The old woman stopped, glancing down.  The seat was occupied by an older teenager, bundled up in an overcoat and scarf, with a wool cap pulled down over close-cropped light brown hair.

“Take a seat?”

“Oh, that’s alright.  I prefer window seats.  I think there’s one open at the back there.”

“Take my seat.”

“I couldn’t do that.  I-”

But the teenager was out of the chair, swiftly vacating the spot.  With a peculiar awkward slowness, the teenager picked up the backpack and moved out into the aisle, leaving the way clear.

“If you insist.  Thank you,” the old woman said.  She took a few seconds to get settled.

With the woman out of the way, the people in the aisle were clear to move on.  The teenager ignored the grateful looks and glances from the ones who’d been stuck behind her.

“You aren’t warm in that jacket?” the woman asked.

“I was cold when I got on.  By the time I warmed up, I was close enough to my stop that I figured it would be silly to take it off and then put it back on.”

“I see.  Fair enough.  Are you traveling for business or pleasure?” the old woman asked.

The teenager struggled to move the heavy backpack to the floor.  It slid from one knee, and the old woman reached out to help catch it.

They worked together to lower it to the floor.

“Is that alright?” the older woman asked.

“Yes.  Thank you.”

“A heavy burden, that.”

“It’s not too bad.”

The woman frowned, peering, “You’re breathing a little hard.  Are you okay?”

“Yeah.  No worries.”

The last of the passengers settled in the train.  The teenager and old woman both watched out of the window as the landscape passed by.  Rural areas, farms, fields dusted in snow that didn’t quite cover the grass, the occasional horse or cow searching for something to eat.

The train reached a bridge.  The landscape zipped by and was replaced by water.  Snowfall obscured vision beyond a few hundred feet away.

“If I was bothering you with the questions, let me know,” the old woman said.

“You’re not bothering me.”

“You didn’t answer my question earlier.  Business or pleasure?”

“Everything’s pleasure, I think.”

“Well that‘s good.  When you find what you really enjoy doing, I think you find that business becomes pleasure.”

“That’s very true.  You?  Business or pleasure?”

“Bittersweet pleasure.  I’m visiting an old friend.  We went our separate ways,” the old woman confided.  “I admit, it was probably my fault.  I wasn’t considerate.”

“No?”

“Maybe it’s better to say I was prejudiced.  She confided in me and I betrayed that trust.  A different era, but that’s a poor excuse.  As a friend, she deserved more than a knee-jerk reaction and disgust on my part.  I’ve been graced with a chance to redeem myself, and I’m going to go to dinner with her and her partner and we’re going to have a merry time of it.”

“That’s excellent.  Can I ask?  Is she gay?”

“She’s white, he’s black.  I know, I know, it sounds bad, but I consider it a kind of penance, freely admitting I was a smaller person back then.  I let others dictate how I should feel, instead of considering her as a friend and looking at things objectively.”

“It’s big of you to admit that.”

“When you reach the end of your life, you have a chance to take stock.  You sum it up, and you decide if you want to spend your remaining years, months or days in regret or satisfaction.  My late husband told me that.”

“Was he a psychology professor?”

“Sociology.”

“That’s from Erikson’s work, the last of the psychosocial stages,” the teenager said.

“A college man.  I’m impressed.”  The old woman’s voice was quiet, oddly respectful of other passengers, in comparison to her dawdling earlier.

The teenager smiled.  “I read up on stuff.”

“It took me a while to wise up.  It was only after my husband passed that I looked back and started taking stock.  If there’s any point to what I’m saying, it’s that there were a lot of ugly feelings about skin color, back in the day.  But we get better.  There are similar feelings about the gays, but we’re getting better about that.  Less wars than there were in the past, whatever the news would tell you.  People are happier as a whole.”

“I wonder sometimes.”

“It gets better,” the old woman said.  “Really truly.  We have our low points, I won’t deny that, but it gets better.”

“I don’t want to sound negative, but, um, I guess I’m going to sound negative.  There are people in third world countries who might disagree, and victims of Gold Morning.”

“Even there, on the whole, things are steadily getting better.  I promise.  Don’t get me wrong, bad things have happened.  People die, and a lot died horribly.  My sympathies are with everyone who was or is touched by any of that.  But on the whole, it looks worse than it is, with the worst of it constantly on the telly.  It’s easy to get too focused on our individual problems and lose sight of the big picture.  The big picture is promising, I think.”

“Huh.”

“But it’s worth saying that it’s up to people to make it better,” the woman said.  “I trust that people will improve, as a group, but we can help it along by striving to be better people on an individual basis.”

“That makes a lot of sense.  I’m not sure I totally believe it, but it makes sense.”

The old woman leaned in close, conspiratorially. “With all of that said, in the interest of being better individuals, I’m going to have to ask you a question.”

“A question?”

The old woman she didn’t maintain eye contact, and she wasn’t smiling.  “This is me, being brave and trying to be better like that.  And if I’m wrong, well, I’m hoping you’ll continue to be the gentleman you’ve proven to be and not fuss over an old idiot’s ramblings.”

“I’ll try,” her seatmate said, smiling a little.

“I just need to know… is that backpack of yours holding something dangerous?”

“Dangerous?”  The smile disappeared.

“A bomb?” the old lady whispered the question.

The response was a stunned series of blinks.  The teenager had to bend over to get at the straps and clips before opening the bag.  Clothing had been rolled up and piled inside.  The clothing was moved to reveal more contents from inside the bag.  A bag with the end of a toothbrush sticking out, a laptop.

“If it is, it’s a pretty awful one.”

The old woman had the grace to look embarrassed.  “You must think I’m crazy.”

“Something seemed off, you asked.  No, I don’t think you’re crazy.”

A ding sounded, before the announcement sounded throughout the train.  “The train will be arriving in Philadelphia in five minutes.  Please gather your belongings and collect your litter from your seating area.”

“That’s you?” the old woman asked.

“My stop, yeah.”

“You have a good day ahead of you, I hope?”

“I hope.  A meeting.”

“You’re doing the same thing as me, then.  A reunion.”

“Of sorts,” The teenager said, slinging the backpack over one shoulder.  “Thank you for the talk.”

Tattletale allowed herself one last check of her computer screens.  There were brief, coded messages from various minions and soldiers, from spies and informants.  The tail end of those windows had responses from Imp and Parian.

Video footage showed a replay of Lung’s fighting retreat from an area in downtown New York B.  There was footage of the PRT base, Valkyrie standing off to the side, trying to look far less interested than she was as a young man tried on a white bodysuit.  One window showed the various Endbringers, all of them motionless, but for the Simurgh, who was airborne.  The last of the original three.

One of the windows updated.  A text message from Imp.

Imp:I’ve been waiting for five minutes.

Tattletale hit a few keys.  Nobody waiting was outside.  She typed out a response on her phone.

Tattletale:
waiting?

“Seriously,” Imp said, from right next to her, her chin resting on Tattletale’s shoulder.  Tattletale jumped a little, despite herself.  “Five minutes, and you don’t look at porn once?”

“One of these days, you’re going to give someone a heart attack.”

Imp put away her phone.  “I’ve killed before.  He was a clone, but I still offed him.”

“Let’s not make murder a rite of passage.  Too many new bodies in our ranks, we have a tone to set,” Tattletale said.  She hit a key combination and locked the system.  Another key turned off the monitors.  The three-by-two arrangement of screens went black, the outermost one first.

“New bodies?  Beyond our individual teams?  My Heartbroken, The Sons of Bitch, the Needlepoints?”

“Needlepoints?” Tattletale asked, arching an eyebrow.

“If they’re not naming themselves, I’m gonna name them.  Or do you want Parian’s group to wind up with a bullshit name like ‘Faultline’s Crew’?”

“Noble of you to spare them that,” Tattletale said.  She rubbed at her eyes.

“You’re usually on to me.”

“I’m usually a little sharper.  I only connect dots from whatever info I already have, and when I’m this focused, I don’t have much.”

“Big bad villainess, staring at a computer screen all day,” Imp said.  She sat down in Tattletale’s chair.

“Too much to keep track of,” Tattletale said.  She opened a fridge to grab a fat green bottle and a sixpack of assorted sodas.  “I’d plug myself into the internet if I could, take it all in while I go out to see the real world.”

“Sure, yeah,” Imp said.  She fished in the cupboards and found plastic-wrapped chocolate cupcakes.  “Fuck yes!  I didn’t think they made those anymore.”

“They don’t.  I think those go for sixty-four dollars a package, nowadays.”

“Mm,” Imp said, through a mouthful of one cupcake, covering her mouth as she spoke.  She had her eyes closed in ecstasy.  “Tashdy fuggin’ siggy-foh dowwuhs.”

Tattletale set the bottle and the sixpack down on the table in the center of the meeting room, then collapsed into a leather chair with a high back.  She resisted the urge to reach for the nearest laptop, instead draping one arm over her eyes, reclining.  “You didn’t have any trouble getting here?”

“Nuh uh.”

“I suppose you wouldn’t.  Where are the Heartbroken?”

“I brought four,” Imp said.  She licked her thumb, then rubbed at one corner of her mouth.  “Downstairs.  I ordered your soldiers to look after them and make sure they were being good.”

“That’s uncharacteristically unkind of you,” Tattletale said, without moving her arm.

“Oh, sure, I can leave little dolls all over someone’s place, in less and less obvious places, until they snap, I can steal someone’s pants every time they go to the bathroom, I can even, on occasions that warrant something above and beyond, use a knife on someone and leave them wondering what’s happening to them as they bleed.  But I ask some soldiers to babysit some orphans, and oh, now I’m little miss evilpants.”

“Are you going to call them off, or do I need to call the security team and let ’em know?”

“I’m trying to set you up for a whole humorous interplay here, like, you look at me all stern and I do the ‘oh, right, that is worse’ thing.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“I’ll fricking call them, you wet blanket,” Imp said.

There was a knock at the door.

“And get the door,” Tattletale added.

Imp grumbled, but she made her way to the door, her phone in one hand.  She was still looking down at her phone as she opened the door, then turned wordlessly to make her way back to the kitchen.

“A glowing welcome,” Foil commented.  “I can’t imagine why it’s been so long since we crossed paths.”

“Imp is pouting.  Ignore her.”

“Har har,” Imp said.  She tossed her phone onto the table.  “There.  They should be good now.”

“They?  Heartbreaker’s kids?”  Parian asked.

“I call them the brats, but sure.  We can go with that, for clarity’s sake.”

“Cute kids.  They were whispering and giggling with each other when we passed by.”

“Oh mannn,” Imp drew out the word.  She paused, hesitating, then groaned.  “I’ll be back.”

Imp skipped out of her seat, then ran to the hallway.

Foil took a spot on a short couch that sat to one side of the table.  Other chairs were arranged around the thing.  Parian hopped up, then sat on the back of the couch, leaning forward until her chin was on top of Foil’s head.  Her arms draped over Foil’s shoulders, sticking out more than they draped.

Foil batted at one of Parian’s hands, making it swing back and forth for a second.

Tattletale dropped her arm from its position over her eyes.  “Food went through okay?”

“Supplies were good and timely.  Thanks for the hook up,” Parian said, moving only her head.

“No prob.  Was the data good on Carver and his gang?  I was using a new source, so any complaints would make a world of difference.”

“It was perfect,” Parian said.  “We dealt with him, and it’s all been quiet.  I feel bad for thinking it, like I’m violating the sanctity of it all, but I can’t help but wonder if things are legitimately cool or if this is just the calm before the storm.”

Tattletale said, “That’s kind of why I called you guys here.  But there’s no point dwelling on it before the others arrive.  Can I grab you something?”

The pair shook their heads.

“Right.  As far as the peace and quiet go, take advantage of it while we have it.  Rogue thing is going okay?”

“I dunno if you can call it rogue stuff.  It’s more like what we were doing in the bay, but with some legit business on the side.”

“Legit business you’re paying for with less legitimate money,” Foil said.

“I didn’t say I liked how it turned out.”

“But you accept it,” Foil said.

“I accept it,” Parian said.

Foil nodded, as if satisfied.

“Can I ask how your friends and family are doing?”

“You can ask, but I dunno if I have much to tell you.  Better, but not as good as it could be?  Best surgeon in the world changes their faces and bodies, it’s a hell of a project to get things changed back.  Especially when a good share of the surgeons out there are dead.”

“I could put you in contact with Panacea.  I don’t know what she’s doing, really, but I know that Bonesaw wouldn’t go over well, and Panacea might help out in her place.”

“Lily already tried, talking to some people she knew from before.”

Tattletale sighed.  “Damn.  Want me to pull strings?”

“Sure.  Please, If you could.”

Tattletale nodded.

“You’re being nice.  What’s the deal?” Foil asked.  “You’re buttering us up.”

“Two years in the company of evil, and you still can’t give any of us bad guys the benefit of a doubt?”

“I can give lots of bad guys the benefit of a doubt,” Foil angled her head slightly upward, her eyes moving up to where Parian was resting her head.

“She doesn’t count,” Tattletale said.

“Even others.  But you… well, I wonder sometimes.”

Tattletale moved her chair back a bit, propping one foot on the table’s edge.  “Accepting my offers for help with one hand, keep the other hand clenched in a fist in case I do something you don’t like?”

“Let’s not fight,” Parian said.  She sat straighter, moving her hands until they rested on Foil’s shoulders.  “Not today.”

“Can we compromise?” Foil asked.  “Accept that maybe you need a skeptic in your company?  Someone to watch you and call you on bullshit manipulation?”

“If we can even call that a compromise,” Tattletale said.  “Sure.  Whatever.”

“Changing the subject to something more pleasant,” Parian said.  “I need cloth, if I’m going to keep making designs.  Will you connect me, and how much are you going to want?”

“I can, up to a point, and I want four percent on any profits.”

“Four?  That’s more generous than your usual.”

“Four, but fold that in, I want to buy the product, using-”

The door opened.  Rachel loomed in the doorway.

“Hey, mighty hunter,” Tattletale said.

“Hey,” Rachel said.  She glanced around, then entered the room, snapping her fingers to call Bastard.

“Managing the first winter okay?”

“Managing.”

“You know you can send an email or make a phone call, keep in touch some.”

“Didn’t have power to recharge stuff,” Rachel said.  “No gas for the machine, couldn’t be bothered to go get gas.  Having quiet and darkness is nice, some nights.”

True, but what if there’s an emergency?”

“I can handle most emergencies.”

“And the ones you can’t?”

“For those, I have gas, now.”

Tattletale sighed.  “You’re good, then?  Or do you want scheduled gas deliveries, so you don’t run out?”

“Sure.”

Tattletale nodded.

Rachel settled into a seat opposite Foil and Parian, Bastard sitting to her left.  She scratched the wolf’s head, apparently content with silence.

There wasn’t enough time for the silence to get awkward.  Imp returned, and she had Forrest, Charlotte and Sierra in tow.  A little boy rode on Forrest’s shoulders.

“I’ve brought testosterone!” Imp announced.

“Chairs,” Tattletale said.  “Take them.  There’s an abundance.  We’re just about set.”

Slowly, the others found their seats.  Forrest to led Aidan to a pair of seats next to Rachel, putting himself between the child and the wolf.  The little boy cradled a bird, and a chirp got Bastard’s attention, the wolf’s head and ears perking up.  Rachel quieted him with an order, and Bastard reluctantly lowered his head to the floor.

“We had to bring some, couldn’t do the babysitter thing.  Our kids are playing with the others in the lobby,” Forrest said.

“Which translates to ‘let’s not dawdle too much’,” Imp added.

“Two more,” Tattletale said.

A knock at the door marked another arrival.  Imp had left it open, so she was free to step inside.

Cozen eyed the room.  The thief folded her arms.  She’d adopted a form-fitting jacket with a mink collar, her ample cleavage covered by the length of an overlong scarf.  “I feel out of place.”

“You were invited,” Tattletale said.  “Sit.”

Cozen made her way to the table.  She stepped up to the seat next to Imp, but Imp reached out and put a poorly made doll in the chair.  “Taken.”

“I travel for three hours to come here, and you won’t give me a chair?”

I didn’t invite you,” Imp said.  “And for reals, this isn’t me being a jerk.  Or it is me being a jerk, but that’s not the big thing here.  This is about symbolism and shit.”

“Symbolism and shit,” Cozen said, sounding unimpressed.

“Language,” Charlotte admonished them.  She subtly indicated Aidan.

“I’ve heard worse words,” Aidan said, quiet.  “When Tattletale’s giving me lessons and she has to take a call, she has the soldiers watch me, and they know lots of bad words.”

Charlotte glared at Tattletale.

Tattletale offered an apologetic half-smile, “I’ll quiz the young sir on who has been swearing around him, and heads will roll.  Until then, let’s get back on topic.”

“Symbolism and stuff,” Imp said.  “There’s lots of seats, Cozy.”

Cozy?”

“No fighting,” Tattletale said.  She sighed.  “Listen, this whole thing is really simple.  Let’s do this right, Undersiders stick around, I say what I need to say on other business, five or ten minutes at most, and we’re done.”

Cozen frowned, but she circled the table and found an empty chair by the far end of the couch.

The last person to arrive entered without fanfare.  The door clicked shut, and she walked with a quiet assurance to the nearest available seat, which happened to be the one opposite Tattletale.

“You made the trip okay?” Tattletale asked.

“I did,” Dinah responded.  “I saved some questions for the day, but I didn’t need them to navigate.”

“Then,” Tattletale said, gesturing toward the center of the table, “Forrest, would you do the honors?”

Forrest stood, taking hold of the wine bottle Tattletale had brought out of the fridge.  He removed the cork.

“Temperature should be perfect, I think I timed it right,” Tattletale said.  “Oh, forgot the glasses.  One second.”

It only took a minute for the setup to finish, the red wine poured and glasses distributed.  Imp and Dinah received wine glasses of soda.  Tattletale glanced at Aidan.  “Will he have wine or soda?”

“Soda,” Forrest said.

By the time Tattletale reached her seat again, everyone was standing, ready.

“A toast,” she said.  “I had to think for a good while, to decide what fit.”

“Oh man, is this shit going to be pretentious?” Imp asked.

Tattletale gave Imp the evil eye as she continued, “In honor of everything and everyone we fought for and saved.  In remembrance of everything we couldn’t save.”

The words hung in the air for a moment.

“Works,” Imp conceded.

Glasses clinked.  Rachel had a grim frown on her face, mingled with a trace of confusion as she brought the glass in the direction of her mouth twice, before discovering there were more wine glasses to touch hers to.  She seemed relieved when she could finally down the contents and thunk the glass down on the table.

“And,” Tattletale said, “Worthy of special mention, entirely separate from the ones we just toasted, because I don’t give a fuck about my floors, and because I’m not going to fucking get in an argument about whether we saved them or doomed them, I’m going to suggest a libation for those who have passed from this world.”

“Libation?” Charlotte asked.

“Yeah,” Cozen spoke.  Without looking, she turned and poured a thin stream of her wine onto the floor to her left.  “An offering.  It’s why I’m here, since I was with him the most towards the end.”

Tattletale looked at the empty seat beside Cozen.  She’d guessed the number of guests right.  Just the right number of empty chairs.

She could only hope that Taylor hadn’t caught on, that in her final moments, she hadn’t found out about everyone she’d really lost, that Grue hadn’t made it off the oil rig.

A white lie for a friend.  Taylor would have blamed herself, maybe rightly, maybe not.

“I like to think it’s a kind of payment, more than an offering,” Imp said.  She shifted her chair a bit, then poured wine onto the carpet to her right, just in front of the crude doll with the white mask and silver crown that she’d placed in the chair.  “You’re missed, dude.”

“I’m glad we could do this,” Tattletale said.  “We’ve been through too much shit together, and I was having trouble keeping us networked.  I thought we needed to touch base.  A little bit of ritual to remind us of the important bits.”

That said, she held a glass out to her left, and she poured a splash out onto the carpet in front of the empty seat in the corner.

Despite her best efforts, Tattletale couldn’t help but meet Dinah’s eyes.

The teenager entered the mall.  People were thick in the space, flowing in and out of a food court with a high-end veneer.  Spinach pizzas were on display alongside a window displaying a wealth of cuts of meat for sandwiches a step above the norm.

Once free of the chill of winter and the periodic blasts of cold from the mall entrance, the teenager pulled off both hat and scarf and undid the large buttons on the jacket.

The old woman had commented on how the world was getting better.  Hard to believe, but it was a nice thought.  It was nice, even, that someone could believe it.  The heavy clothing had been a sort of protection against the world, both against people and against the world itself.  The protection felt just a fraction less necessary than it had before the discussion.

Navigating the mall was easy enough.  It was in the midst of an area with fancy high rises and major law firms, and everything here seemed to reflect that.  Even the people.

A brief feeling of trepidation.

That feeling reached a climax as the teenager came to a stop.

There, just around a corner, there was a point where a coffee shop sat opposite a small multilingual bookstore.  A woman sat at one table outside the coffee shop, a bag placed beside her.  Willowy, taller than the average man, she wore a high end dress suit, and her dark curls were long.  She had a wide mouth that quirked a little as she read something, and her eyelashes were long enough that she looked like she was asleep, sitting there with one leg crossed over the other, her head lowered as she read the open book that rested on the table in front of her, one hand resting on a steaming paper cup.

The teenager surveyed the area, wary, looking for threats and surprises.

Nothing.

No traps, at a glance.

Easy.

This is easy.  Do it.

One foot in front of the other.

A rising sense of anxiety.

The teenager paused a short distance away, almost paralyzed at the idea the woman would look up.

And then what?

Three more steps.  Still, the woman didn’t look up.

The teenager placed two hands on the back of a chair, just beside the woman.

“May I?”

The woman glanced up, and the teenager tensed.

Only a glance.  Her eyes returned to the book.  “Take it.  I’m not expecting anyone.”

She thinks I want the chair.

“I meant… is it okay if I sit?”

Another glance, confusion.

“Are you a former client, or-”

“No.  I’m not.”

“I’m afraid I don’t understand.  If this is random conversation, or solicitation for something religious, then I’ll respectfully decline.  I only get an hour and twenty minutes for lunch, and I’d like to spend it quietly.  Please.”

“I know, I mean, I know about the way you read most lunches, or you go across the street to the museum and wander by yourself with headphones in.  The private inves…”

The teenager trailed off.

Private investigator?”

“I’m doing this wrong.”

“Just a little,” the woman said.

The teenager sat, then shrugged off the backpack, letting it drop to the floor.  “I- I’m your daughter.”

The woman frowned.  Her eyes moved to the nearest exit, then to nearby tables and the barista inside the coffee shop.  Checking for a way out.

“I… I know that sounds a little crazy.”

“I’m your mother?”

“You’re my mom, but you aren’t my mother.”

“I have two boys, and I’m pretty sure they aren’t… however old you are.  So you weren’t switched at birth.”

The teenager took in a deep breath.  “I’m from Earth Bet.  My name is Taylor Hebert, and my mother was Annette Rose Hebert.  Anne-Rose.”

Taylor watched with bated breath as Annette took that in.  The realization and connecting of the dots was quick enough.  Annette’s hand moved, and she lost her page.

“Oh,” Annette said.  “Wow.  Wow.”

“If this is too much, or if it’s inconvenient or awkward, just say so.”

“But they sealed this world off.  Someone on the other side, they used a device to close all of the doorways, because it looked like there was going to be rioting or war, with too many refugees wanting in.”

“I know,” Taylor said.  Except the device wasn’t on the other side.  “Yeah.  But they sent back everyone that belonged here, and a few of us slipped through before the doors closed.”

“Oh.  Sometimes I’ve idly wondered, ‘what if I met the other me’, but you don’t really think it’s going to happen.”

“I know.  You should know, just so I can give context to this whole thing, the other you is dead.  She has been for six and a half years.  A car accident.”

“My condolences,”  Annette said.  “I… it feels wrong to give condolences for my death.”

Taylor smiled just a little.  “I think it’s allowed, to feel weird about this.  I just, um, forgive me for being selfish, but I kind of wanted to see your face.  Or her face.”

Annette nodded.  She exhaled slowly, almost but not quite whistling.

“If you want me to go, I’m gone.  Your life returns to normal.”

“I don’t want you to go,” Annette said, her voice quiet.  “But I don’t think it’s fair, doing it like this.  I want you to stay because I’m curious, while you have a very real, very profound attachment to me… to the other me.  I’m worried I’ll hurt you.”

Taylor nodded.  “I can live with that.  Don’t worry about me too much.  I’m tougher than I look.  I’m willing to satisfy your curiosity, answer any questions.”

“You’re…?”

Taylor took a stab at answering the question.  “Taylor.  Eighteen.”

“I would have been in college.”

“You were.  She was.  She met a magnificent dorky guy with a warm heart and an awful lot of passion.  He worshiped her, and she… I think he gave her permission to do what she really wanted to do in life, at a time when her parents were being controlling.  Her mother never really forgave my dad for luring you off the track she’d set for him, getting you pregnant with me so early in life.”

“And my dad?”

“Gramp liked him, but not enough to admit it to Gram.”

“Oh.  My mother refused to let my children call her Gram.”

“I think my mom and dad encouraged it with me as a kind of subtle payback.”

Annette smiled.  “What did she end up doing?”

“Teaching.  She was a professor at a University, teaching English.”

Annette’s eyes moved to the books, but when she responded, it was a negation.  “I can’t really see that, I’m afraid.”

Taylor nodded.

“Your father?”

“He came over to this earth with me.  He’s picking me up in a short bit, we’re staying at a hotel for a bit while he does some job interviews, and then we go back to Boston if he doesn’t have any luck.  I brought up the subject, and he said he didn’t want to see you.  He might try to sneak a peek when he picks me up, if the opportunity arises, but losing her broke him.  He and I, we’re both mending a bit, on a lot of levels.”

Annette nodded.  “Some news from over there made it over here… it’s impossible to believe.  We took some damage, but it was comparatively minor.  If you can call a death toll of five hundred million minor.”

“No, it was comparatively minor,” Taylor agreed.

“I’m… I admit, I’m finding myself more and more lost for words, as my curiosity is sated.  I feel like I should say something meaningful, so you didn’t spend all this time trying to find some woman without anything to say.  It would be easier if I knew what you wanted.  It makes it hard to tailor my response.”

“I’m not expecting anything profound or special,” Taylor said.  “I thought I’d visit, refresh myself on what she looked like.  I… I’m sort of in the same boat as you.  There’s a lot I want to say and explain, when it comes to me, I want to raise ideas that have been crossing my mind lately, but I’d have to tell a really long story before I could even begin, and I’m not sure I’m brave enough to tell that story.”

“Do you want to try?”

“Telling the story?”

“Or raising the ideas.”

“A lot happened.  My mom died, I had a hell of a time with high school, I fell in with a bad crowd and my dad and I parted ways.  Over and over again, I’d think back to the advice my mom gave me, for a compass, or for a way to frame it all.  Don’t- Don’t worry.  I’m not expecting that kind of thing from you, I don’t want to put you on the spot.  Thing is, now it’s all over, and before I came here, someone asked me to make a choice.”

“A choice?”

“Life and death.  Or so I thought.  I chose death, and she gave me life, and I’m still trying to reconcile why.”

“I’m not sure I understand.  Does this have something to do with,” Annette waggled her fingers, “Powers?”

“No.  It’s about regret, and coming to terms with it all.”

“You’re only eighteen.  Why are you worrying about something like that at this stage?”

“Because I’m done.  My life is over, for all intents and purposes.  No matter how hard I try from here on out, I’ll never do anything one tenthousandth as important as what I was doing before.”

Taylor could see people had noticed the emotion in her voice, the slight escalation in volume, and made a deliberate attempt to calm down.

“I might have to hear the whole story before I could give you an answer,” Annette said, her voice as calm as Taylor’s wasn’t, “But I think a lot of people go through near death experiences and I’m pretty sure they feel something like you’re feeling.”

“Ever since y- since my mom died, it’s been this constant, unending struggle to find some kind of peace, and the harder I tried, the further it went out of my reach.  And now- now I’m here and it’s right there, waiting for me to take it and I can’t bring myself to.”

“Because you can’t bring yourself to come to terms with whatever decision you made?”

“It’s been six months.  Fuck, you’re just a stranger, and I’m burdening you with this shit you don’t understand.  I don’t- I-”

Taylor stopped, choking on the lump in her throat.

Annette stood from her chair.  “Come on.”

Taylor shook her head.  People were looking.  She stared down at the table, and the upside-down book cover.  “Y- you should go.  I- I picked this spot because I knew you’d be leaving to go back to work, didn’t wanna keep you too long.”

Annette reached down, taking hold of Taylor’s wrists, where she’d jammed her hands in her pockets.  She stopped short as one hand came free and clunked against the side of the chair, limp and dangling.

“Hav- haven’t gotten used to it. Had a better one,” Taylor mumbled.  “Before.  Embarrassed ‘self on the train.  Nearly dropping my bag on some lady’s foot because I used the wrong arm, hurt.”

Avoiding looking at Annette, self-conscious, she used her left hand to try and jam the artificial arm into her jacket pocket, failed, and then partially stood, to get a better angle.

Annette took advantage of the movement to fold Taylor into a hug.  Taylor stiffened.

“I think,” Annette said, “You have plenty of time to find that peace you were talking about.”

Taylor didn’t move, with her face mashed into Annette’s shoulder.

For just a moment, she could let herself pretend.

For a moment, she was eight years in the past, and all was well, even the evils and disasters of the world were fringe things.  Endbringers in other countries, bad guys who she never had to pay attention to.

“I don’t know what happened,” Annette murmured.  “I’m almost afraid to ask.  But I don’t think you can let one decision you made in a time of stress cause you so much grief.”

“Thousand decisions,” Taylor mumbled.

“What?”

“It’s not the one decision.  It’s all of them, pressing down on me.  I’m- I was a monster, Annette.”

“Looking at you right now, I find that hard to believe.”

It wasn’t the right answer.  It didn’t make Taylor feel better.  Just the opposite.

“And your dad, if he’s with you now, he clearly doesn’t think that either,” she whispered.  “I think I see him.  He looks very awkward and out of place, and he’s trying very hard to look like he’s not paying attention.”

“That’d be him,” Taylor said.

She pulled back, but she kept her hands on Taylor’s shoulders.  “If you want to stay, that’s fine.  If you want to go, that’s fine too.  I wish I had better answers.  My boys are only seven and nine; the hardest question I have to answer is why they can’t have pie for breakfast.”

“Be easier to give answers if I could articulate the question better,” Taylor said.

“I think it was pretty clear.  You said they offered you a choice, you picked death, and they gave you life.  You were talking about wanting peace… I think you had that peace in your grasp.  Am I close?”

Was she?  Taylor nodded slowly.  When she spoke, she could barely understand herself.  “It shouldn’t be this easy.”

“If you don’t mind my saying so,” Annette said, “I don’t think this looks easy at all.  Going down any road labeled ‘death’ has to be the easier road.”

Taylor went very quiet, using her left hand to wipe at her face.  People were staring, and she couldn’t bring herself to care.

She looked back, and she could see her dad there, back to a divider between store displays, one toe raised, as if the scuff marks in the hard brown leather were of great interest.

“I think,” Taylor said, very carefully, “I’m going to go.”

“I wish I could say more, but we could talk again.  You could explain, if you were up to it.”

Taylor shook her head.  “I think this is something I have to figure out myself.”

“Go with your gut, then.”

“But thank you.  Before we talked, I wasn’t sure it was something I could figure out, and now I think it might be doable.  I feel like it’s… clarified.”

“Good.”

“And I would like to meet and talk again.  About something less heavy.  Maybe about books?”

Annette smiled.  “It’s a date.”

Taylor smiled back, then wiped at the tears again.  She grabbed her bag, slinging it over her good shoulder, then made her way to her dad.

She stopped in her tracks.

In the crowd, a boy with dark curls, a little bit of a slouch, and a white t-shirt.

Alec?

Tattletale watched on her monitors as the others migrated downstairs.

Only Imp and Rachel remained.

“Okay, so he’s… what?  This is dumb.”

“You were supposed to be explaining,” Rachel said.

“I was, but this is so dumb I can’t wrap my head around it.”

What’s dumb?” Rachel asked.  “If you don’t answer, I’m feeding you to Bastard.  I don’t want to do that.”

“Aw, you care!”

“Wouldn’t be good for him,” Rachel said.

Imp sighed.  “Teacher’s plan.  It’s dumb.  We’re supposed to worry about this shit?”

“No,” Tattletale said, watching on the monitors as the others from the meeting made their way downstairs.  “Teacher isn’t a threat.  Or he isn’t a big one.  You were talking symbols before?”

“Symbolic shit, yeah.”

“Consider Teacher a symbol.  Things are starting into motion, the quiet is coming to an end, and he’s… if not a threat, he’s a gatekeeper to one.”

“He’s a smug dick,” Rachel said.  “You give the go-ahead, we tear him apart.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Tattletale said.  “There are dynamics to pay attention to, group interactions, politics, there are unwritten rules, and the nuances of what happens if and when we’re viewed as the aggressors when we violate the truce.  Not to mention the danger if we disrupt whatever he’s setting up and inadvertently set it off.  Like we sort of did with Jack, though that was more exception than rule.”

“Orrrrr you could give the go ahead, we cut past all the bullshit and we tear him apart,” Rachel said.

Tattletale sighed.

“Lemme hash it out for you,” Imp said.  “You know how Tats said he’s like the gatekeeper?  He’s like an asshole, standing in the middle of the elevator doors so they won’t shut.  You can kick him in the balls, but then you’ve got to deal with his friends, you’re dealing with being the jerkass that kicked someone in the balls and you’re maybe dealing with the big bad motherfucking dude that just came up in the elevator, who wasn’t coming out because there was someone in the way.  Someone you removed from the way by kicking him in the balls.”

“Oh damn it,” Tattletale sighed.

“Okay…” Rachel said.

“You did not just get her metaphor,” Tattletale said.  “Don’t do this to me.”

“Can we kick him down the elevator shaft before the big guy comes up?”  Rachel asked.

“Fuck it,” Tattletale swore.  “And fuck you, Aisha.  Yes.  Theoretically, we could put the kibosh on him before he gets far enough in his plans.”

“Good,” Rachel said.  “Then it’s settled.”

Imp pulled off her mask, just to show Tattletale how much she was grinning.

“Keep that up and I’m telling those Heartbroken kids you ate cupcakes while they waited downstairs,” Tattletale said.

“No,” Imp said.  “Nope.  Nuh-uh.  You would be signing my doom warrant.”

“Doom warrant?  Nevermind.  I think we have an understanding,” Tattletale said, grinning as much as Imp had been a moment ago.

“That’s it, then?  A big bad that needs dealing with, a few little bads that need an organized clean up job, and we stay in touch,” Imp said.

“That’s the gist of it,” Tattletale said.

“Cool.  Great.”  Imp said.  “Excellent.”

Her eyes slowly traveled to the red wine-stains in the carpet.

“Yeah,” Tattletale said.  “So.  Now that the others are gone and there’s no need to pretend anything, it’s your chance to say.  You guys good?  Copacetic?  We good to go?”

“Sure,” Rachel said.  “I’m not sure I really get what all this was, but I kind of liked it.  Made me feel better, where I didn’t realize like I felt bad.  Less lonely, maybe.”

“Yeah, no, I get that,” Imp said.  She shrugged, putting her mask back on as Tattletale opened the door.  They filed out.  “Yeah.  Except I guess I can say it wasn’t loneliness for me, while we’re being open and shit.”

Tattletale nodded.

“It was good,” Imp said.  “Weird, but fitting.  I’m wondering why you invited the twit, though?”

“Which twit?”

“Our kid Cassandra,” Imp said.

Tattletale blinked once or twice.  “Where the fuck are you getting these references from?”

Imp only allowed herself the smallest giggle, exceedingly pleased with herself.

“I think… it was maybe one of the big reasons I wanted to do this,” Tattletale said.  “It was important that I showed her that Taylor was dead.  I had to convince her.”

“Convince her?”  Imp asked.

Tattletale nodded.

“You’d think she’d be really good at figuring that basic shit out on her own.”

“You’d think,” Tattletale said.  “But no.  We’re really good at lying to ourselves.  Take it from another thinker.”

“Fuck,” Imp said.

“Fuck,” Tattletale agreed.

“So,” Rachel said.  “What happens?”

“What happens is we go kick teacher in the balls and drop him down an elevator shaft,” Tattletale said.  “Hopefully in a way that doesn’t leave us looking like assholes.”

Rachel nodded, satisfied.

“And Taylor?”  Imp asked.

“I’ll keep looking after things in that department,” Tattletale said.  “If that’s cool?”

“That’s cool,” Imp said.

They made their way down the last two flights of stairs.

The assembled forces of the Undersiders waited, the other guests having already departed.

Twenty soldiers, only a small share of Tattletale’s full organization.  The kids, the Heartbroken, and Aiden, all together, playing with Forrest and Charlotte standing warily by.  Parian and Foil, sitting in a windowsill, with snow piling behind them, and Rachel’s escort with each member of the gang having a dog with them.

“All good?” Tattletale asked.

“Fuck yeah,” Imp said.

“Mm,” Rachel offered a nonsyllabic response.

Taylor shook her head a little.  The resemblance was slight, if it was even there.  Her mind was playing tricks on her.

Her hand touched her forehead, and she felt a pair of soft spots, each barely wider across than a dime.  She ran her hand over her short hair.  She didn’t know how it had happened, but she could guess.  Bullets to disable her, surgery to seal her power away.

Cauldron, apparently, did have a means of locking powers away.  Or maybe it was Contessa, doing the work, or perhaps she’d simply been kept alive, carted to Panacea or Bonesaw, who could fix things up.

But dwelling on those things wasn’t healthy, and it was pointless in the end.  She’d likely never get a serious answer.  She only had the two dimples or holes in her skull, the sole apparent casualty of some kind of brain surgery.

Apparently.  Such was the momentary crisis she’d experienced, seeing someone who was supposed to be dead.  She had been left to wonder, for heart stopping seconds.

“You done?” her dad asked.

“Done,” Taylor responded.  “It wasn’t her.  I knew it going in, but it wasn’t her.”

“Yeah,” he said, quieter.  He put one arm around her shoulder.  “You okay?”

“That’s a hell of a question to answer,” she responded.

“Yeah.”

“I feel better.  It was a hell of a good hug.”

He smiled, but there was sadness in his expression, “A little bit like her then.”

Taylor nodded.

“Lunch?” he offered.

“Lunch sounds good,” she said, resting her head against his shoulder as they walked.  Her injury, the brief delirium that had followed her awakening, the lack of an arm and her struggles to learn to use the artificial one, it had gone a long way.  He’d needed a chance to be a parent again, and she’d needed a parent.

They were okay.  They were safe.  If and when a problem came up, if it somehow reached this sealed off Earth, she could stand by to let someone else handle it.

She’d done her share.

There were things that would be harder.  Even now, she couldn’t think too hard or in certain directions, or guilt and memories of another her that she’d seen all too clearly would emerge.  More recent, scarier in a way, was the lingering doubt, a belief that things couldn’t work out, ingrained in her by experience.  The idea that any reality where life did work out on any level wasn’t reality at all, or that it wasn’t life.

She spoke her thoughts aloud.  “I think… there’s a lot of stuff bothering me.”

“Only natural,” her dad said, very carefully.

“But I’ve dealt with worse.  If it comes down to it, if this is all I have to worry about, I can maybe deal.  I could maybe learn to be okay.”

“I think that’s all any of us can hope for,” her father said.

Last Chapter                                                                                                             End

Teneral e.5

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Head high.  Shoulders square.  Walk like you know where you’re going, like you belong.

He’d had the best teachers around.  Public speakers, flirts, con artists, actors, thieves, magicians, and cutthroats.  He’d been educated in history, foreign affairs, management and internal affairs, intelligence, and codebreaking.  He’d learned from the best in medicine and poisons, in parahuman studies, in accounting and trade, the sciences, strategy and tactics in military, government and business roles.  He knew how to make things, and how to fake them.

Even in the little things, hobbies to some and unlikely careers to the foolhardy, he’d achieved some degree of competence.  Music, singing, art, prose and dance.  All it took was the right teacher, a hungry eagerness to learn, and time.

One could not lead, after all, with one eye closed.  Some could lead while admitting some ignorance in one department or another, but he wasn’t some.

He was a jack of all trades, master of quite a few.

Two of those ‘few’ accompanied him.  A woman in a white bodysuit walked just to his left.  He’d picked her because she had a natural grace and self-assurance, but her name escaped him.  He could remember how he had found her.  She’d been a hero, and she’d watched her team die in the aftermath of the attack.  Lost, helpless, broken.  Now she stood tall, back straight, joking and laughing with her companion.

The real her was numb, locked in a cage, but that was secondary to the point.

The other was numb too, but not in the same way.  He was very much himself.  If he was disconnected, it was a natural sort of disconnection, the sort that had happened billions of times throughout human history.

But the man was talented.  He wasn’t acting like he belonged, because he did belong.  He was a free spirit, and the world was his oyster.  He could put on a different face, and it wouldn’t be a mask, but a role.

He was a warrior, wearing heavy armor.  Gruff, rugged, with a beard and the stylings of a viking, complete with fur as part of his costume.  When the woman in white found herself off balance, stumbling, he picked his words to counterbalance it, changing the thrust of their interaction.  He teased, leaving the road open for clear and unambiguous responses, making small jokes so she could laugh and find her mental footing.

In a very one sided way, he was sustaining and supporting what appeared to be a very natural dialogue between longtime friends.

A pair of heroes rounded the corner, glancing at them.  The ‘viking’ was in the midst of making a joke.

“…six different flavors of sausage.”

The woman frowned.  “That’s a non sequi-  oh.  Oh.

Watching the woman turn red, seeing the viking laugh, he couldn’t help but join in on the laughter, a chuckle.

The viking slung an armored arm around his shoulders, making him stumble.  “You actually laughed!”

“It was a little funny.”

“A little?”  the viking asked.  He nodded at the pair of heroes as the two groups crossed paths.  He offered the words, “Hey, Ironscale.  ‘Sup?”

“I know you?” one of the pair asked, stopping in the middle of the hallway.

The viking was still walking, but turned around to walk backwards as he called out, “Costume change to fit in with the new era, my friend!  You’ll figure it out, and I’ll be very upset with you if you don’t!”

They rounded the corner.

“Did you know him?  This Ironscale?”

The viking smiled.  “Ironscale?  No.  A face in a file, at some point.  But I have a good memory.”

Liars have to.  “It was dangerous, baiting him.  Better if we don’t draw attention.”

“Trying to avoid attention is attention-getting enough.  You brought me on board for my skills, Teacher.  Trust me to use them.”

Teacher sighed.  “Fair.”

The smile disappeared from the viking’s face.  “You’re nervous.”

“I’m inclined to think I’m paranoid,” Teacher said.  “I try to convince myself otherwise.”

“Why?”

“If I’m going to explain, I have to ask,” Teacher said, “what’s the difference between paranoia and nervousness?”

“One is a state of mind, the other is a temporary state of emotion?”

“The former is a kind of madness,” Teacher said.  “Popular culture has twisted it, but popular culture has twisted madness in general.  They make it funny, they romanticize it, or they make it exaggerated.  But true mental illness is nothing to laugh at.  I stayed in the Birdcage for some time, I’ve seen scary things, and I’ve become numb to a great deal, but going mad is perhaps the scariest.”

“Yet you corrected me when I said you were nervous,” the viking said, strangely soft spoken given his frame and earlier demeanor.

“The alternative to being a madman might be worse,” Teacher said.  He shook his head, as if stirring himself from a spell.  “What were we talking about?”

“Is this your first time in the infiltration role?”

“In a meaningful capacity?  Yes,” Teacher admitted.

“You could have stayed behind.”

“I’d like to handle this face to face, build a rapport.”

“You could have let me do that for you, build your rapport for you.”

“I think that’s a dangerous road to travel.  Will we do that the next time?  And the time after that?”

“I don’t see why not.”

“I could not be a leader if I didn’t actually lead.  Besides, I don’t trust you.”

“You think I’ll stab you in the back?” the viking asked.

“I think everyone will stab me in the back,” Teacher said.  He sighed.  “Paranoia, again.”

“If you keep walking down this road, then they probably will stab you in the back.  That joke, ‘it’s not paranoia if everyone really is out to get you’ could be a self-fulfilling prophecy in your case.  Maybe you’re even doing it on purpose.”

“You might be even smarter than you let on,” Teacher said.  “I’m glad I didn’t brainwash you.”

The man chuckled.

Teacher shook his head.  “I aim to change course.  If they plan to ambush me at some point down that road, they’ll be waiting a long time.”

“That’s simple enough, when you only have one enemy.  But when you have as many as you do…”

“It requires a more blatant change of course to throw them off.”

“If you say so.  You seem to have things in hand right now, at least.  This way.  We’ll be entering an area with higher security, so be on guard.”

Teacher glanced up at the camera.

“You don’t trust your people to handle it?”  the viking asked.

Teacher shook his head.  “I trust them.  Put enough on a job, and the only one who could work around them is Dragon, and Dragon isn’t here, nor is she able to work against me.”

“You think.”

“I think.  Let’s not underestimate Big Sister.”

“In case you were wondering, I think that’s intelligence, not paranoia,” the viking said.

The viking tapped his phone against the panel by the door.  Teacher tensed.  Waiting.

The light went green, and there was a sound as bolts moved.  He let himself relax.

The viking spoke in a low voice as they entered.  “Level one security.  Not cells, exactly, because the people here haven’t technically done anything wrong, and the amnesty protects them, but they can’t be allowed to freely wander the building, with sensitive materials and unmasked heroes around.”

“Yes, they can’t have troublemakers walking about, can they?”  Teacher asked, with a note of irony.

“The people staying in the level one security area get chaperones when they want to go somewhere, and cameras keep an eye on them… usually.”

Teacher glanced around.  Where there had been offices in the previous area of the complex, this area was residential.  Some of the doors here were open, showing clean apartments with everything neat and in order, waiting for an occupant.

Some, though, were inhabited.  Each resident had made the space their own.  One appeared to be layered in a crusting of junk – bottlecaps and glass shards arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns.  Another was all black leather and chrome, smelling faintly of an expensive aftershave.

They stopped at the doorway to another room.  There was little doubt in their minds after they saw the interior.  A folding screen with a dragon print and women in kimonos on it was below iconic pin up images, modern and dated.  50’s pin up girls alongside recent celebrities. The way they were organized and clustered, it seemed somehow less like decoration and more like… character studies?

From their vantage point, the corner of a four-poster bed was visible.

“Ingenue,” Teacher called out.

Feet swung out over the side of the bed, and she was standing in a moment.  She stopped short when saw him, pouting, one fist against her hip.  Dramatized, artificial.  Even the way she dressed, it was the same, a silk bathrobe that was short enough to be borderline indecent.  Always putting on a show, and not in the sense of showing skin, but acting, putting on a mask.

“You got my hopes up.  It’s you,” she said.  “Dressed up like a wizard, maybe, but it’s not that good a disguise.”

“Doesn’t have to be.”

“Shame on you, not even calling a girl before you show up unannounced… but you were never very classy.”

“No, I’m afraid not.  If you’d like to talk to Marquis, I’m sure he could oblige on that front.”

“He switches from the aristocrat to the low born commoner as it suits him.  Split personality.  Is that what this is all about?  Are you planning on gathering us all together again?  Clinging to the past, Teacher?”

“I was planning on visiting him, but not for the past, and not to gather anyone.  Not in that sense.  I’m touching base with certain people, nothing more.”

“Why?”

“Getting the lay of the land,” he said.  He saw her put on a shocked expression, then cut her off before she could speak, “Assessing the situation, Ingenue.  There’s a great deal going on, and I’d rather work with known quantities before I start interacting with foreign ones.”

“Should I ask why now?”

“For someone who is feigning disinterest, you’re asking an awful lot of questions.”

“I’m bored, Teacher.  I’m even losing interest in Chevalier, and he doesn’t find time for me, unless it’s to make sure I’m being a good girl.”

“Do you fancy a trip, then?  A walk outside?”

“My jailors, who seem very invested in declaring they aren’t actually jailors, might take umbrage.”

“I’ll have you back by curfew, if you’re still interested by then.”

“You’re planning something,” she said.

“Of course.”

“Tell me,” she said.  She put her hands into the pockets of her dressing gown, which were too small for her whole hands.  “And maybe I’ll go on this field trip of yours.”

The viking leaned in close to Teacher, “Time.  If they did notice anything…”

He trailed off.  There was no need to spell it out.

Teacher nodded a little, but he continued, unruffled.  “I’m looking to put together something bigger.”

“Bigger than?”

“Than any of the teams currently in operation.  Than any of the powers we’ve seen yet.  Call it megalomania, if you will.”

“Why?  Before you say anything, you should know that ‘because I can’ isn’t an answer.”

“It was never the answer.”

“You’ve done a lot of things, and everything indicates it was for that very reason.  Cas Raul?” Ingenue asked.  She was relaxing now, the guise dropping.

“I’ve done a lot of things, agreed, but there were always other motivations.  I admit, I was younger then, the plans were cruder.  But the plans still worked and there was a goal involved.  For some time, I’d been gathering information and putting pawns in place, starting to get a feel for how the dynamic was all put together.  The connections between people and groups, the powers at play, the choices being made and why those choices were made.”

“And this leads to the murder of a vice president how?”

“Killing a man that prominent sets everything into motion.  That motion lets me see things from different angles, filling in the blanks.  I needed to do something big to disturb the dynamic enough that I could glimpse the real big picture and fill in the blanks.”

“Big picture.  You’re talking about significant things, again.  On par with killing a vice president and a prime minister.”

“This is a little more impressive.  In any event, I got the information I wanted with my play, first the national death, then the international one, to see the effects and plot things out on the global scale.  I was all set to act on it when I got arrested.  I was left with years to think, to study and improve myself.  I plotted our release to keep myself sane, and to keep things in motion.  You are welcome for that, by the way.”

Ingenue shrugged.

“I got free, then I took action, equipped with my new knowledge.  It didn’t take long for opportunity to present itself, and now I’m very well set up.  I found the missing puzzle piece and I made it my own, mystery and all.  Some of their assets are my assets now, and I have the footing to do something else entirely.”

“A subject you’re dancing around.”

“Nothing particularly criminal, believe it or not.  But it would be silly of me to tell you everything if you were going to refuse my invitation and then tell your chosen boyfriend at the first opportunity.”

“We know each other, Teacher.  You don’t really think I’m that one-note.”

“No.  No, I don’t.”

“Yet you won’t tell me.  You’re a tease, Teacher.”

“I’m-”

His phone beeped.  Two high notes, in quick succession.

“An alert?” the viking asked.

“I may have overestimated my collective’s ability to keep us out of sight,” Teacher said.  “Miss?”

The woman in white raised an eyebrow.  “No immediate threats.  But it’s hard to tell.”

He nodded, glancing at the door.  No police officers in power armor, he mused.

“We’ll go,” he said.  “Ingenue-”

He stopped.  He’d turned, and she wasn’t there.  Invisibility wasn’t one of her powers, but-

The dressing gown flew into the air, draping itself over the top of the dragon-print folding screen in the corner.  She was on the other side.

“I see you’ve decided that you’re coming.”

“I’m bored,” she said, from behind the screen.  “They can give me my art, good food, entertainment, chaperones to plays, but I want one thing, and they won’t give him to me.”

“If you’re leaving to kick up a fuss, so he has to come after you…”

“I’m done with him,” Ingenue declared.  She stepped out from behind the screen in a dress with a high lacy collar.  “His loss.  You know, I’m aware my boyfriends have had a run of bad luck.  I’m not oblivious.”

“You’re cursed,” the viking commented.

She smiled, leaning over her dresser to peer at herself in an oval-frame mirror, snatching up some lipstick to touch herself up.  “I wouldn’t say that.  A good love story ends in tragedy, doesn’t it?  Outcome aside, isn’t it glorious in its own way?  I’ve had more than a few of these stories.  I’ve suffered heartbreak, even, but I’m tougher than I look.”

“So Chevalier has slipped the noose?”  Teacher asked.

“More apt to say he’s stepped out of the frying pan,” Ingenue said, running a brush over her jaw-length hair, “The only ones who end up worse than my boyfriends are my ex-boyfriends.  It’s so sad.”

She turned around, hair and makeup done, and there was no warmth in her eyes.

“His loss, as you said,” Teacher commented.

She frowned a little, but her eyes didn’t waver or change in how cold they seemed.

“They’re coming,” his student said.  “Two.  Same way we came.”

“Shall we?”  He indicated the door.

They left.  The moment they were in the hallway, the doors at the end opened.

Dragon’s Teeth.  Civilians with power armor and training.

His power was a problem, here.  He produced thinkers and tinkers, but they were low level, limited in scale.  A precog that warned of danger a few seconds before that danger arrived wasn’t so useful.

Still, it meant the Dragon’s Teeth were more surprised than they were.  A chance to bolt for it.

“I worked so hard to get down to security level one,” Ingenue pouted.  “Dashed in a moment.”

“I didn’t think you were planning on coming back?” Teacher made the statement a question, leading the way around a corner.  The stairwell will be locked down, but if we can find an apartment to duck into, we could slip out.

“A girl likes to hold on to her reputation,” Ingenue said.  “Even if that reputation is merely ‘dangerous’ and not ‘cataclysmic’.”

With those doors and the stairwell barred, we have nine escape routes.

“While I was scouting the area,” the viking said, “I heard a few people making noise about you.  Word was out you’d scuffed the ground with your toe while batting your eyelashes at one of the jailors, and they wanted to raise you to back to ‘cataclysmic’.  Well, they said ‘level two security’, so maybe something less severe.  What’s between dangerous and cataclysmic?”

“I think it would be unwise to say, for fear of offending our colleague,” Teacher said.

“I think so too,” Ingenue agreed.

“If it makes you feel any better, I think they’re badly underestimating you,” Teacher said.

“Kind of you to say so, but I’m not dangerous.  Mere slander and lies.”

Obession and self-delusion.  Her particular madness?  Or is she better at acting than I suspected?  Is it merely that she’s told herself these lies so often she believes them?

They found an empty apartment and eased the door closed.

Teacher reached into the front of his robe and withdrew a disc of metal.  He tossed it to the ground.

The lights fritzed out.  It wasn’t merely a blackout, but a momentary, violent crackle that traveled throughout the apartment and across the floor.

The teleportation device didn’t activate.  The armor around the man in the viking outfit fizzled and disappeared, panel by panel, revealing itself as the hologram it was.  He wore only knee-length, skintight shorts.

“They’re more on the ball than we anticipated,” the near-naked viking said.

“Run interference?”

The man nodded, and His flesh began distorting.

Osmosis of a full human being.

“I hope that wasn’t the full extent of your escape plan,” Ingenue said.  “I’ll be peevish if I get moved up to another security quadrant because of this embarrassing little stunt of yours, an escape attempt lasting all of five minutes.  I hate being peevish.”

“There are… seven options left,” he said.  “I did plan for this.  This is an incomplete shutdown, so we have some freedom to-”

The windows began closing.  Metal shutters.  The apartment was plunged into darkness.  No lights, only the light that slipped through slits in the metal walls.

“This is a complete shutdown,” he revised his statement.  “Still seven options left.”

“You knew about this, I hope,” Ingenue commented.

“I said I knew about their safety measures,” Teacher snapped.  “Not an issue.  I suppose my plan for a surprise shutdown is the clearest at this time.”

“Just what is this working plan of yours?”

“We need to avoid capture for…” he looked down at his watch.  It had stopped.  “…An indeterminate period of time.  Less than five minutes.  Not an issue.”

“Not an issue?  When we’re in the heart of a complex that houses the largest group of heroes from the largest city in the known worlds,” Ingenue said.

“Not an issue,” he repeated himself.

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you.  I could use my power on you,” Ingenue said.  “But I don’t even like you.”

“I would offer my power, if only to streamline this process,” Teacher said, “But anyone acquainted with me tends to misconstrue that as more insult than anything.”

“It implies we’re stupid,” she said.  “Or desperate.”

“I can see where it might.”

“If we get arrested, we get arrested,” she said.  She was watching as the ex-viking split off another copy of himself.  “I’d rather play nice and get moved to a smaller cell than get shot pushing things too far.”

“We’re not going to get shot, nor are we going to get arrested.  I do pride myself on having plans that work.  Any contingency plans are more a matter of flexibility and convenience than a belief that my core plan won’t work.”

“You sound annoyed.”

“You spend over a decade as a supervillain, put plans in motion, great and small, with a flawless rate of success,” Teacher said, “First bump in the road, and you get questioned.”

“You were arrested.”

“I was between plans,” Teacher said.

The viking’s clones changed.  One man, one woman, Asian and black in appearance, respectively.  The third began to alter, his flesh swelling and contracting as he took on the form of a larger man.

His original self held out some discs, checking the front and back, then frowned.

“Problem?”

“No power.  If we’re fighting, then I’m fighting naked,” he said.  But even as he said the words, the individuals began sprouting clothes, folding them out of flesh.  The color began changing.

“Against armored foes?”  Teacher asked.

“Probably won’t put them down, but I could distract.”

Teacher nodded.

“A shapeshifter,” Ingenue said.  “Do I know you by another face?”

“I wasn’t in the Birdcage,” the viking said.  “Satyr.”

“Charmed.”

Nymph and satyr, Teacher thought.  He didn’t dwell on the thought.

“The pair are getting closer,” the woman in white said.

“Good,” Teacher answered.  “Come here.”

She did.  He could intensify his power, scale up the strength of the ability with the effect on the subject, but hers was minor at best.  He’d wanted assistance from a person, rather than an invalid.  It had been good that her spirit had been broken when he’d found her.  It meant she was more compliant in general, without being useless.

She’s happier now, he thought.  She had been lost, and now she had direction, even if it was his.

That the precognition was barely set in made it easier to undo.  His awareness touched on countless abilities, arranged in grids and rows in the background of his mind

There were caveats.  Issues.  He could grant a kind of specialty in a particular field, a mastery over a given subject.  This was how he found his expert teachers, ironic as it was. It was also how he made his tinkers, pushing that mastery to the point that it went just beyond the normal limits of theory and knowledge.  Doing it with enough people, putting them all on one task, and he was effectively a tinker himself, in a roundabout way.  There were tradeoffs in needing personnel, and a lack of reliability in the end product, if he didn’t carefully check every step of the way, but he was a low level tinker in every field.

He could also grant a wealth of mental powers.  Perception powers, powers that gave perspective, or peculiar forms of genius that operated by different rules.

It was this type of power that he gave to her.

The D.T. officers drew closer.  They could see through walls, they were strong, tough, and they would win a fight by virtue of the computers they wore.  The suits couldn’t be hacked, and there were no convenient weak points to target.

Through his maintained contact, the woman in white changed, her power adjusting.  Clairvoyance.  Seeing everything in a small radius, inside and out.

He finished, then drew a notebook from his robe, handing it to the woman in white.  “Map.  Mark out people and anything else that wasn’t on the blueprint I showed you earlier.”

She set about drawing, her face an inch away from the paper in the dim.

“Sitting in the dark, armored suits converging on us, in the middle of superhero central,” Ingenue said.  “I find myself concerned.”

“You said you weren’t worried.”

“I’m not worried about them.  I’m worried that you’re as invested in me as you are.  You expected something along these lines.”

“I did.”

“That means you want me, you want my power, or both.  Badly enough you’d take this risk.”

“The word ‘risk’ implies the outcome is in doubt.”

“The outcome is always in doubt.”

He shook his head.  “Let me assuage your worries with two words.”

“Two words?”

“Stockholm syndrome.”

“Where a captive falls in love with the captor.  Beauty and the Beast,” Ingenue said.  “I always did like the princess movies.”

“I give people power, and I think there is a submissive kind of appeal to being a slave.  To being numbed.  Some fall for me like an alcoholic falls to drink.  Love, after a fashion.  In your case, that’s almost a defense mechanism.”

“A defense mechanism?  I fall in love with you, you get the benefit of my power…”

“Things don’t turn out well for your boyfriends, as a general rule,” Teacher commented.  “Psychosis or a kind of obsession.  No.  I’m not aiming to capture you.  That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve.”

“You’re going to need to explain that.”

He smiled a little.  “In time.  Ready, Satyr?  You remember the plan?”

Satyr nodded.  “I have a good memory.”

“Let’s confront our opponents,” Teacher said.

Satyr nodded.  His shapeshifted clones led the way.  Teacher lagged behind, picking up the teleportation circle.

They headed straight for the men in armored suits.  Five in total had gathered.  Others were elsewhere in the area.

“Excuse me,” Teacher spoke.

The men in suits trained weapons on him.  Singling him out in the group.  The clones stepped closer to Teacher, providing a body shield.

“In a matter of minutes, my followers are going to carry out the plan I outlined,” he said.  “There are four actions they’re going to carry out.  The one you should be most worried about is a tractor beam.  It’s set up fairly close by, and it’s going to fire on this structure, cutting out a cylindrical section and slowly withdrawing it.  I’m sure you’ve played games as a child, maybe you played that one with the wooden blocks you pull out of a tower.  They’re going to withdraw much of this floor.  With it gone, the upper floors are going to topple.  Some will land on the building next to us.  I seem to recall there’s a small hospital in there.”

“Hands on your head and turn around,” one of the D.T. officers said.

“The people manning the tractor beam are all ex-heroes.  Capes who came to me in desperation, who couldn’t pay, and other innocents.  I wouldn’t advise an attack.  I set up measures to ensure it would end badly for everyone involved.”

Now!” the officer barked.

Teacher turned around, tossing the teleportation circle off to one side before putting his hands on his head.  “Right now, I know you have ships in the area, positioned to catch our getaway vehicle.  I know exactly how many you have.  With the number of people in this building, you’ll need every single one of those suits to evacuate everyone in time.”

A D.T. officer reached out, foaming the pad.

Every single one.  The section of building the tractor beam seizes will be collected by my getaway ship, with me inside it.  After that, the building will collapse.  You could attempt to stop the process, but I can guarantee there would be a cost.”

The D.T. officer tapped one foot against the back of his knee, forcing him to bend it.  He dropped to the ground.  He could hear the clink of chains.  Cuffs.

“The alternative is simple.  I know there are heroes listening in.  Chevalier, maybe, or Legend.  Defiant, perhaps, given how someone seemed to be able to work around my hackers?  If you stop jamming my equipment, I’ll use that teleportation pad in the corner there, along with my colleagues.  I leave, you don’t have to worry about me, and the building stays up.  You can keep the people manning the tractor beam.  My gift to you.”

He waited, feeling the metal cuff encircle one wrist.  The D.T. officer circled around, looming over him.  Black armor, complete with an onboard system.  Ominous.

“Ingenue wants to go, and if you push matters, you’re going to have to see us in court, and you’ll have to explain the security measures you’re enforcing on her.   You’d win, very probably, but it would become public knowledge that you aren’t holding to the spirit of the amnesty.  That’s strike one.  Strike two?  Losing this building.  This would be a terrible time to have a fixture and a power base crumble.  It would affect the tens of millions who pass through this area or see it from a distance.  You don’t want the blow to morale.”

He waited.  The second D.T. officer started working on the others.

Still kneeling, Teacher met the eyes of the D.T. officer standing above him.  The man’s eyes weren’t visible, but a red light blinked in the corner of one.  Teacher continued, “Strike three?  Even if you brought me into custody, and there’s no guarantee that would succeed, I have other students, elsewhere.  You would be sentencing them to die, if I wasn’t there to look after them, to access them where I’ve tucked them away.  You gain nothing of substance.  Putting me behind bars, fine.  But what does that get you?  With the amnesty, the only thing you can charge me with is breaking and entering.  Losing this building, dozens of lives, reputation… merely to stop me?”

“You may be understating your own importance,” Ingenue murmured.

“Shh,” he said.  “I’m making a compelling argument, don’t undermine me.”

The D.T. officer spoke.  “I’ve been instructed to tell you that we don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

“Weigh this mathematically, how many lives are ruined by this one moment of stupidity, compared to the lives you think I’d ruin if I continued operating on my own?  Weigh it emotionally…”

The blinking of the red light at the corner of the D.T. officer’s mask sped up. Teacher glanced back.  Satyr and Ingenue were caught, hands bound.  The D.T. officer was tying up the clones, now.  Others were watching hallways.

The blinking light turned yellow, then green.  A mist erupted around the pad.  The foam that bound it in place broke down.  It skidded across the floor, propelled by small wheels.

Teacher let himself topple.  His shoulder hit the teleportation pad.  Crackling swept over the length of his body.

His students were waiting as he appeared on the other side, dragging him off.

Ingenue, Satyr, and the woman in white followed, in that order.

It took time for them to get sorted out.  His students milled through the area, scanning them for trackers and other signatures.  Devices were used to scramble the teleporter’s signature to prevent anyone from following.

The area was a broad building with a high ceiling, most of it occupied by a single machine.  The best he could do without a Doormaker of his own.  Sixty of his students milled through the area, seeing to their individual tasks.

“How?” Ingenue asked.

“We did our research,” Teacher said.  One of his students cut the chain between his cuffs.  “They had to use the suits.  Protocol when Ingenue is involved.  The ambient shutdown effect doesn’t include the suits, because the suits have to operate at one hundred percent when there are capes on the other side.  Once it was close enough to one of them, the crew on this end could operate it.”

“If they’d destroyed the pad-”

“Against protocol, again.  You don’t shoot tinker devices.  At best you bury them in containment foam, and I used my access to Dragon to find the formula for a counteragent.”

“You can’t cover every eventuality,” Ingenue said.

“My plans work,” he said, dusting himself off.

Her voice was hard.  “If you want my help, fine.  But don’t involve me in your lunatic schemes.”

He paused.

Lunacy, madness.

Speaking of…

“Where’s our distraction?”

“Lung finished the job ten minutes ago,” a student answered.

“He found it?  I’ll want to see pictures.  I feel like a child on Christmas.”

“Bringing them up right now, sir.”

“No incident?”

“There was an incident,” the student said.  Blunt, there was no emotion on his face.  No indication of whether it was a continent-destroying error or Lung killing a student.

“Show me.”

Monitors lit up.

Lung was a mercenary hire.  The site was a vault, and fallen capes littered the area.  The view shifted as the camera did, showing a share of Lung’s claw.  He was so tall that his hand dangled at what was shoulder level for the students walking alongside him.

The man had refused to let Teacher use his power on him, but he’d agreed to cold, hard cash and a group of Teacher’s students joining him to ensure the job was finished.  They were dressed in white outfits, carrying hardware he’d paid a pretty penny for.  All had powers of their own, on top of the complimentary powers he’d granted them.  They were loyal, and they would die if he ordered it.

The scene was almost comical, on a level.  There were warnings plastered everywhere, skulls and crossbones engraved into stone, and even yellow police tape here and there.

Lung ignored it all.  He’d changed, fighting past the defensive line.

Every plan had to involve a win, Teacher mused.  He had a good streak going.  Using Lung, using the man now, it meant pulling stronger heroes away.

Either Lung was removed from the big picture, and a chaotic element was dealt with, or Lung succeeded, and Teacher could banish one niggling doubt, sleeping just a bit easier.

He’d done a lot of research, ordering his minions to dig up footage, finding it wherever it was available.  He’d had them search it, then double checked it himself.

But an educated guess was still only a guess.

Lung tore into the last vault, rending the hinges, then slowly peeling it away, heating the metal as he went.

“They didn’t send one of the major capes?  Chevalier?  Valkyrie?”

“Too far away, sir.”

Far away meant different things, in this new future.  A world away in another universe was very possible.

“Good fortune for us… or particularly bad fortune, if this incident-”

He trailed off as Lung entered the vault itself.  The camera shed light on the contents.

Satyr hung back, arms folded.

“What is it?”  Ingenue asked.

“A quarantine area.  That was the weapon the Endbringer was using.”

A gun.  It was dark gray with a faint green speckled coating on it, where one material had been broken down and incorporated into the outer coating.  There was a gouge in the side where a feather had cut the housing, but it was otherwise intact.

Over and over, the Simurgh had protected the weapon.  He’d seen it, had checked the footage, had seen her go out of her way to shield it with her wings.  She’d done it subtly, most of the time, events contriving to make it look more accidental than anything.

She couldn’t make tinker devices herself.  She had to copy the designs of tinkers near her.  He’d found who she’d copied, a now deceased cape from Brockton Bay, and he’d found the designs.

There were discrepancies.

He was all too aware that he could be walking into her trap.  He had enough precogs around himself and, in that video, around Lung, that the Simurgh shouldn’t have been able to leverage her full power against them, but she could have put things in place, not knowing exactly who, but still knowing it would be bad.

The weapon had been lost in the course of the battle, and the heroes had decided to minimize contact with the thing, locking it away.

“Quiet, please.”

The bustle of his students working around him stopped.

In the silence, he could hear footsteps behind him.  He, Satyr and Ingenue were joined by a third person.

Teacher spoke without turning his head.  “You’ve seen this video already, I expect?”

“Yes,” Contessa answered.

Lung tore into the casing, much as he’d torn through the vault door.

There was a scratch as Lung’s claw touched glass.

He tore at the metal, peeling it away while preserving the glass.

There was fluid inside.

The light caught the glass, at first, obscuring the contents.

A baby.  Male.  With large ears and a large round nose.  Not attractive, as babies went.

One or two years old?  Accelerated aging?  Where had the Simurgh been in contact with a tinker with that particular knowledge?  Bonesaw?

That was disquieting enough on its own.  Was the child tinker harboring knowledge?

“These are the big things you were talking about?”  Ingenue asked, her eyes wide.

“Actually, no.  I had suspicions, but the Endbringer making a baby wasn’t one of them.”

Lung touched a burning hand to the glass, melting it.  Water steamed on contact with his claw.

“No,” Teacher said.  Idiotic, considering Lung couldn’t hear, and the event had already passed.  Still, he couldn’t help but add, “Don’t.”

The water was crimson and boiling by the time Lung withdrew his claw.

The monster turned to leave, the polluted water still popping behind him.

“I’m not sure whether to be relieved or very frightened,” Satyr commented.

“The… incident?” Teacher asked.

“Ten minutes from now,” a student said.  “He growls a bit, but there isn’t anything we can make out.  He was just walking, and our camera follows”

“Skip forward, then.”

The video skipped forward.  Lung was in a dark stairwell, reinforced concrete and steel beams, light above him.

He stepped up onto the surface, his clawed feet sliding where they were too long and wide to fit on one..

The Simurgh was waiting.

Lung was her height, bristling with scales.  She looked more human of the two, pale, her hair blowing a bit in the wind, unreadable.

Monsters, the both of them.

Well done,” Satyr said.  “You may have killed us all.”

“She moved?  She isn’t dormant?  Did she attack a target?”

Did I just start the cycle up again?

“She returned to orbit.”

Teacher nodded, but as much as experience had inured him to the horrors of the world, he couldn’t help but feel a sick knot in his gut.  That didn’t mean anything.  Had she gone dormant again, or was she waiting?

Or was she doing something else entirely?

“I don’t understand,” Ingenue said.

I don’t either, Teacher thought, but he didn’t say it out loud.

“She may well try again,” Contessa said.  “It’s hard to say how, when she isn’t involved in things.”

Teacher nodded.

“What will you do?”  Contessa asked.

“If she’s going to try again, I’ll find out, and I’ll take actions to stop it.  I’ll have to bring others on board.  Heroes, maybe.  Learn from the mistakes of my predecessor.  Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity, isn’t it?”

“There’s a saying along those lines,” Contessa said.

“You said she’d try again.  She’ll try what?”  Ingenue asked.

“I’ll find that out too,” Teacher said.  “I wish Lung hadn’t destroyed the corpse.  With luck, the heroes won’t seal the vault for quarantine’s sake and they’ll check for DNA.”

“I could find out,” Contessa said.

“You’re going to help?”

She seemed to think for a little while.  “Most likely.”

With that, she walked off.

More a cat now, walking its own path, than a loyal dog.

Still, she was in his camp.  At least for now.

He nodded.  “Right.  That was it, with this job?  Anything else?”

“Lung called to leave a message, sir,” the student said.  “It was only barely intelligible.  He said you could consider that a breach of contract, if you wished.”

“Pay him.  It leaves the door open for future hires.”

“Yes sir.  And you have a message from Marquis.  He’ll accept you any time today.”

“Do you have coordinates?”

“Yes sir.”

“I’m coming, I assume,” Ingenue said.

Teacher nodded.  As much as he wanted to rest and get his bearings, he had to keep moving.  “Saint?”

A student in the corner turned.  It took him a second to muster the functions needed to reply.  “Sir?”

“Dragon’s code.  Any changes?  Anything significant?”

Saint slowly shook his head.

“What are you thinking?” Satyr asked.

He shook his head.  “A thought.”

Who had beat his team of hackers?  Defiant wasn’t that good.  Either something had gone wrong with his team, or Dragon was somehow active and hiding that fact from him.

Paranoia.

He and Ingenue stepped into the teleporter.

Marquis was sitting on the stairs in front of a sprawling summer home.  A jug of iced tea sat beside him, along with a plate of cookies.

“Iced tea?”  Teacher asked.

“I picked too warm a place to spend the winter,” Marquis said.  “Ingenue.  How’s the love life?”

She frowned a little.

“Sit?” Marquis offered, indicating the stairs.

Teacher sat.  It wasn’t comfortable, and he wasn’t a shapeshifter in any capacity.

“So.  Do we discuss business first or do we conduct meaningless small talk?”

“A few minutes ago, I would have said ‘business’,” Teacher said.  “But I’ve had enough business for a time.  Is your family well?”

Marquis stretched a little.  He took a cookie, then offered one to Ingenue.  “Iced tea?”  Either of you?”

Teacher looked up at the sky.  The sun beat down on them.  “I’ll take you up on that.”

“Please,” Ingenue said.

Marquis took the time to pour it.  He handed the glasses to the others, then filled his own glass.  “By the by, if you bring up my daughter again, Teacher, I’ll lobotomize you.”

Teacher nodded.  “Noted.”

“Needle up one nostril, jab the front of the brain, scrape… I digress.  There’s no way for you to mention her without it sounding like a threat, so I’d rather you avoid the topic.”

“I can do that,” Teacher said.

Marquis smiled.  “Since you already asked, though, she’s saying goodbye to her family.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means what it means.  Putting bad things to rest.  Moving on to, well… bad things.  But in a good way, I hope.”

“I presume you’re the bad things she has in the future.  You’re continuing your career, then?”  Teacher asked.

“Could you stop?”

“No, but I’m tied up in the business, and  I never really stepped away from it.  I’d wondered if you could, having had some time away.”

“I was cell block leader.  Hardly a vacation from supervillainy.”

“But you’ve left your old business partners behind, there wasn’t anything to return to, after eleven years in the ‘cage.”

“I went back to it right away,” Ingenue said, quiet.  “It’s surprisingly lonely.”

“Raises the question,” Marquis said.  “Can a person change?  I suppose if I was going to, my daughter would be a reason.  My job took her from me in the beginning, after all.”

“But you’re going back?”

“Call it narcissism.  I love ‘Marquis’ too much to say goodbye to him.”

“The original Narcissus loved himself so much he withered away,” Teacher said.  “It can be a kind of personality disorder.  A kind of madness.”

“An odd tangent,” Marquis observed.

“Isn’t it?  I’ve been focused on the big picture for some time, and I found myself in the position as one of the most powerful villains.  My plans came to fruition.  I have what I want.  I’m looking at things on a different level.  Where do we stand?”

“Humanity as a whole, or us, as individuals?”

“Both?”  Teacher asked.

“You’ve been dwelling on the subject.  Tell me your thoughts, first.”

“You asked if a person could change.  I look at us, at the people we interact with, and I see madmen and monsters.  Is that just us, the individuals, or is it mankind?  I could use my power, set a team on it, find out, but I’m not sure I’d like the answer.  I’d like to change, and that’s a heck of a lot easier, because I can lie to myself, whatever the outcome.”

“Which leads, I presume, to your business deal.”

“Capes.  The theory going around, after the revelations about Scion, involved all powers being parts of a whole.  We’ve seen how some powers are devastating in concert.  It was, after all, how we won, on a level.”

“More or less true,” Marquis said.

“I’ve achieved all I wanted to achieve.  I sell powers, I have wealth, I have a small army at my disposal.  I have enemies, and in an odd way, that’s something I wanted too, because it keeps life interesting.  But I feel a need to strive for something higher.  Can we put the whole back together?  At least in part?”

“This is why you wanted me to come,” Ingenue said.

“Everyone wants something.  I think, with the right people, the right combinations, and unity, we can achieve what we desire most.  An alliance, not for villainous purposes, but to achieve something greater.  Fighting against entropy and all that is wrong in the world.  Satyr is on board, but he wants a great deal.  I don’t think I need to ask if there’s something you want, Ingenue.”

“No,” she said, looking momentarily distracted.  She looked up, “But I don’t see how this helps.”

“We habitually seek out money and prestige,” Teacher said.  “Why?  Because it’s power, in an abstract way, and you need power to change the world.  I think we can achieve power in a more direct manner.  There’s a trend at work, parahumans taking positions of power.  What if we take it a step further?  Forget money and position.  Everyone in our group gets what they desire most, we enforce a kind of cooperation, a joining or sharing of powers.  We put ourselves above even governments and warlords.”

“Everyone gets what they want most,” Marquis mused.  “I can’t think of anything more terrifying.  If I back out, will you be plotting to murder me?”

“No.  But I would prefer you didn’t go talking about this.”

“I’m to remain silent while you build your secret society and start tampering with things that should be left alone?”

“Call it professional courtesy?”

“On the topic of courtesy, something tells me you’re after my daughter, for this group of yours.”

“Your daughter is an adult.  Capable of making her own decisions.  I was going to bring her up later.”

“You’re not winning me over, Teacher.”

“I’ll make you a deal.  Let me make the offer to her.  She accepts or refuses it herself.  If she says no, I leave it be and find someone else.  Either way, you respect things with your silence.  I won’t take any action against you, but I can’t promise my partners will be so polite.”

“Mmm.  A counteroffer.  I make the offer, as you outlined it here, and she decides from that.”

Teacher nodded.

“Power and control,” Marquis said.  He sighed, then bit into a cookie.

“You can’t avoid it,”  Ingenue asked.  “Can you live without charm, intimidation, or some form of influence over others?  Without making others do your bidding on some level?  You flirt, they react one way or another.  Everything is manipulation.”

“I think there’s such a thing as extremes,” Marquis said.  “Case in point…”

“I think I know who you’re thinking of,” Teacher said.

“She had it all, and see where it got her,” Marquis said.  “A lesson for you, Teacher.”

It was enough to give Teacher a moment’s pause.

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Teneral e.4

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The group made their way into the real city.  Buildings had gone up, and were now being added to.  Cranes were everywhere, the streets were filled with a strange mix of laborers and professionals, and it seemed like half of the vehicles on the road were carrying materials.

The crowd was more resilient than most tended to be.  The mutant wolf and its rider walked along the side of the road, and the people didn’t cower.  They drew back, but there was no fear.  They faced the small group with shoulders squared, holding eye contact.  There was a kind of stoic pride that made them less willing to be pushed around, a unity that made the lawyers and businessmen fall in line with construction workers and cleanup crews.

The message was clear.  This was their territory.

Always was, Rachel thought.  More their world than mine.

“Damn, civilization!”  Biter commented.

“You think we can get any fast food here?”  Cassie asked.  “A burger, pizza, um…”

“Fried chicken,” Biter said.  “Hell, I’d go for just french fries.”

“We don’t have money,” Rachel commented.

“We’re villains,” Biter said.  “We could take it.  Or cut out the middleman and go straight for the food.”

“It’s a hassle,” Rachel said.  “I’d rather have a steak, some veg, and a good hunk of bread to soak up the juices.  That bread the other night was good.”

“Yeah?”  Cassie asked.  She smiled wide.  “You liked that?”

“Didn’t I say that?”

“You’re telling me you’d turn down pizza?”  Biter asked, with a hint of incredulity.  “You’d turn down a nice shawarma?”

Rachel shrugged.  “All food is pretty much fast food when someone else does the cooking.”

“You’re spoiling her,” Biter told Cassie.

Cassie smirked, scratching the ear of the dog that walked to her left.

Bastard sniffed as they had to walk around an area where an overhang had been erected to protect people on the sidewalk.  A truck blared its horn as Bastard stepped onto the edge of the road.

Biter glared over his shoulder.  “Cocky motherfuckers.  You’d think they would have more appreciation for just how scary the wrong asshole with powers could be.”

“They feel safe,” Rachel said.  She looked up and around, searching buildings for telltale signs.  “Superheroes set up near here, probably.”

“You worried?”

“No.  Not worried.”

“Because you’re confident you can deal, or because-”  He threw up his hands as Rachel leveled a stare at him.  “Right.  Too many questions.”

“Doon, Colbie,” Rachel addressed the dogs that accompanied Biter.  “Nose.”

The Foxhound continued sniffing with his nose to the ground, but the bloodhound raised his head and barked.  It was a good bark, the sort that could carry over acres.

“Good dogs,” she said.  “Go.”

Biter held the leashes, and followed as the dogs moved down the side of the road.

Rachel kept Bastard moving at a slower pace as they followed, letting the gap grow.

“I feel underdressed.”

Rachel glanced down.  It was Cassie who had spoken.  She was warily looking at the people they were passing, drawing closer to Rachel and Bastard.  Her dog was a golden retriever, a little out of place alongside Bastard and the more imposing scent dogs they’d brought.  Well groomed to the point of shining, though its hair was long.

Rachel looked down at the girl.  Dressed in a dark brown to Rachel’s gray-white, Cassie had grown her hair long, tying it back into a ponytail, fuzzy earmuffs in place with the half-circle of metal beneath her hair.  The elbows and sleeves of her jacket and pants had been patched with a heavier material.  Her only nod to fashion was a spiked collar she wore, and a badge on her arm, which had a series of letters.

She’d asked once, and she’d gotten an answer.  Wag the dog.  It was supposed to be a joke, but Rachel didn’t get it, and the explanations had only confused her more.

Rachel took her eyes off the girl, spotting Biter in the crowd.  He, too, wore more spikes, but it was somewhat more blatant.  With the weather getting colder, he’d donned a hood, held in place by spikes that ran along the top and back of his head, puncturing the material.  The bear-trap jaw plate had been replaced with a more stylized version.  He was tall and imposing, but she tracked him more by the way the crowd seemed to move and shift to avoid him and the two dogs that zig-zagged in front of him, searching for the scent.

“I’m not the person to talk to if you’re worried about that,” Rachel finally said.

“I know.  I’m only saying it.  I can say, right?”

“Yeah.  You can say,” Rachel answered.

But when she looked down at Cassie, the girl had her hands jammed in her pockets, her shoulders drawn in, half of her attention on Sunny.

“The clothes… they’re warm enough?”

“Yeah.  I’m snug.”

“Tough enough?”

“Yeah.  I’m seeing where you’re going with this.”

“Comfortable?”

“Yeah,” Cassie said.  She glanced up at Rachel.  “I hear what you’re saying.  But there’s more to it than that.  The clothes can be all of those things, but I can still feel dumb because I put one of the dog’s old collars on for a joke and now I’ve got people looking at me funny.”

“I like the collar.”

Cassie smiled as she lowered her eyes to the ground.  One of her gloved hands went up to the collar, tugging a bit.

Rachel wasn’t sure what the smile or touching the collar were supposed to mean.  “I said it before.  I’m not the kind of person who give you any good answers.”

“It’s not a big deal,” Cassie said.  “Really.”

You were talking about it, so it’s some kind of deal, Rachel thought, but she couldn’t think of a good way to say it.

And, apparently, Cassie wasn’t willing to let the subject drop, now that they were talking about it.  “Going from our neighborhood to here, the people, the buildings…”

“They’d look out of place if they came to our neighborhood, just like we look out of place in theirs.”

“That’s not what I mean.  You don’t feel like they’d be looking funny at you, even if Bastard wasn’t here?”

Rachel shrugged.  “I never feel like I belong anywhere.  This isn’t any different.”

“Except when you’re with us, right?  When you’re home?”

Rachel shrugged.  “I don’t feel as out of place when I’m with you guys.”

Cassie smiled.  “Good.”

They stopped at a corner.  People backed away to give them a wider berth as Bastard stopped walking, as if they were anticipating trouble at any moment.

Biter was on the other side of the street, trying to keep up as the dogs started walking in one direction, then stopped, reversing to move the opposite way.

“We’re close,” Rachel said.

“Yeah?”

Rachel leaned over in her seat, kicking Cassie lightly in the shoulder.

“Sorry,” Cassie said.  The little smile didn’t leave her face.

“Don’t make me repeat myself,” Rachel said.  She looked around, her eyes searching building faces for icons she could recognize, looking for people standing in strange places.  Nothing stood out.

She could feel the vibration as her power reached Cassie’s dog, giving it strength, size, making it change.  While the dog changed, she put four fingers in her mouth and whistled.

Heads on the other side of the street turned.

She only cared about one head.  Biter had looked, and she gestured for him to come back.

He made his way across the street.  He held Doon and Colby’s chains with one hand, his other hand growing until it was almost as large as he was, fending off one car that was late in braking.

It was easier to use her power on the dogs when they were close.  The shudders as her power reached and enhanced them got more pronounced as Biter approached.  As the size of the dogs increased, the people around them became more hesitant.  Four mutant dogs and two obvious capes were a threat.  It was easier to stand strong against a single threat, to believe they could work together and overcome it.

Stupid, when that single threat was Bastard and they were just people, but people were dumb.

They’d picked up the basics of what had happened and how Scion had been stopped.  There was a message there, an unspoken understanding.  Maybe it was a part of the reason their body language had been so strange as she entered the city.  There was something happening, related to that, something complicated.  Not the kind of thing she was good at wrapping her head around.  She’d have to ask Tattletale.

She waited as the animals grew.  Again, she looked, searching for anyone that might be objecting to her presence here.  Heroes, villains, whatever-elses.

Cassie climbed onto Sunny’s back.  Biter mounted Doon.

Rachel gestured, then whistled.

The animals leaped onto the side of a building.  Claws bit into the outside of the building face, into window ledges and windows, scraping stone.  One limb at a time, muscles shifting and rippling as they adjusted their weight, set each in place before moving with the next.

They reached the rooftop, and Cassie rolled off Sunny’s back, landing on her back.

“I’m never getting used to that,” she said.  Sunny nudged Cassie with a gnarled snout, and Cassie laughed, rolling over onto her front and then hurrying to get to her feet.  “Don’t step on me, Sun.  Good girl.”

Rachel searched their surroundings again.

“You’re looking for someone?”

“Trying to figure out how to do this,” Rachel answered.

“We find him, we find her, we drag ’em back,” Biter said.  “Maybe we fish in their wallets, grab some cash, and we have Cass run in some place and grab some french fries.”

Rachel sighed.

“I could make french fries.”

“It’s not the same if it isn’t distilled in the ambient misery of pimply faced teenagers in ugly uniforms.  Gotta have them limp with oil, loaded with preservatives, and coated in salt.”

“I refuse to believe those’re better fries than I could make.”

Rachel shifted impatiently.  “Are you two done?”

“No,” Biter said.  “I can’t let this go, because bad fast food is important.  It’s a staple of society, and having ridiculous coffee shops and mass-produced food is a badge, a way of showing that we’ve gone past the industrial age and into modern society.  Seeing those glowing signs down there, it’s a sign that humanity is actually recovering.  It’d be an insult if we didn’t partake.”

“I don’t get it,” Rachel said.

“You’re not the only one,” Cassie added.

“Let me put it simply,” Biter said.  “You two, you’re happy where you’re at?  You’d be content if you never had to set foot in a city like this?”

“Yeah,” Cassie said.

Rachel shrugged.

“Yeah.  Me?  I’m okay where we’re at.  For now.  But I’m still sort of keeping an eye on the calendar.  No disrespect intended, boss, but I’m thinking I leave one day.  Maybe in a year, maybe in five.  I figure I’ve got to get back to the trappings of tried-and-true civilization at some point, or I’ll go-”

A rumble shook the area.  A plume of mist rose into the sky a few blocks away.

“-Batshit fucking nuts,” he finished.

“Cape fight,” Rachel observed.

“Are you going to help?” Cassie asked.

Rachel frowned.  They had the scent dogs.  They had the trail.  It would be easy enough to find their quarry and get out of here.

“The heroes are going to be on it,” Biter said.  “Whatever’s going on, we get in the thick of it, things get more complicated.”

“I know,” Rachel responded.  “I’m not dumb.”

“But we’re still standing here, which means-”

“We’re standing here because I’m trying to think,” Rachel retorted.  “That looks big.”

“And?  You don’t care about people.  You hate people.  I quote, ‘people are stupid’.”

“They are stupid,” she answered.  “And I… don’t like most people.  Not the issue.”

“What is the issue, then?”

She stared.  It had been a while since she’d stretched her legs, getting into the thick of things.  That wasn’t it, though.  She’d spent her entire life being restless, and now the restlessness was largely gone.

Taylor, then?  She thought of Taylor, and she couldn’t help but think of the way people had stood together, as if bracing to fight back if she caused trouble.  Uniting against the bigger threat.

She wasn’t dumb.  These days, she felt better about herself and who she was than she ever had.  But she admitted her failings.

I’m not articulated.

She couldn’t put that idea into words like the others could.  Tattletale could, obviously.  Taylor… well, Taylor would have been able to.  Imp could put her thoughts into words, but she’d probably be more confusing than helpful.

It was frustrating, but it was a frustration she had come to peace with.

“That many people in trouble, bound to be some dogs and dog owners in there,” Rachel lied.

That’s your reason?  If you’re going to talk like that, you might as well be a fucking superhero,” Biter said.

She ignored him.  “You don’t have to come.  Bastard, go!”

She could feel the shifting of Bastard’s muscles, the little spot where one plate of calcified flesh dug into her knee riding up to mid-thigh.  He jumped with an explosive kind of strength, crossing the street and landing on another rooftop.

Even with Bastard absorbing the impact, it was a hard one.  She grunted.  The bruises and aches would be felt the next morning.

It was easier to maneuver here.  Probably had to do with the way the buildings were going up, everything following some plan or another.  There was order, in this Boston.  It made the city feel less like a city, on some levels, with too much uniformity in areas, but she could appreciate how it made it easier to move around.

Another series of leaps.  Shorter distances, with no big drops.  Any pain she felt was from the first big jump.

She could see the capes fighting, down below.  A man was at the center of it.  He’d swelled in size until he was twice the height he should be, almost breaking apart, like a statue that had been dropped, only the biggest chunks preserved, hanging in mid-air in a vague human shape, high above the street.  Black ooze gushed from foot-wide cracks and divides in his body.  His flesh was dark brown, the edges of the cracks raw and bloody.

Even from her vantage point on the rooftop, she could hear his screams.  It was muffled, despite the volume, as though he were screaming while underwater, the effect amplified.

The capes were occupied – a very small few seemed to be trying to attack him.  The rest were working to keep the black ooze from spreading.

Rachel paused, watching.

Miss Militia was down there.  She had a containment foam gun, and was forming a short wall.

The screaming got worse, and the man in the center broke in half, a crack widening in his torso until it separated completely.  More ooze, faster.  His lower body was almost impossible to see.

His hands went to his head-

Faces.  Mockeries.  Variations on a theme.  Reaching hands, supplicating.

-The image was brief, but acutely familiar.  Rachel felt mentally disoriented in the same way she might be physically disoriented if she stepped forward and found the ground wasn’t there.  Others in the area had staggered.  Miss Militia had dropped the hose for the foam gun.

Rachel gripped the chain that looped Bastard’s neck.  When he was small, the same chain doubled as a leash.

Familiar, comfortable.  Reassuring, in the midst of this situation.

She’d had visions before, she’d even remembered one, after the fight on the beach.  They hadn’t been like that.  It had been brief, and somehow broken up.

Something was wrong.

Someone shot the black ooze man, and his collarbone splintered, cracks spiderwebbing up to an oozing fissure in his neck and the stump of one shoulder.  Rachel could see how more ooze was starting to bleed out from the site of the injury.

He reacted, looking down at the injury, then looking up.

He reached out, and the ooze below him shifted, moving in a singular direction as if it were flowing downhill.

The cape who’d shot him hurried to run-

A moment of uncertainty.  The population of this world wasn’t reacting any further.  He attacked, they moved.  Again and again, they created the images.  They weren’t afraid, and he was.

-but stumbled as the mental image shook him.  He managed to get his footing, but the ooze moved faster with each passing second, and the delay had cost him.  It slopped around his ankles on its way past him.

The black ooze man moved his hand, and the ooze that was pouring from him became black fire, spreading to alter all of the ooze it touched with a sound like the gas lanterns made, but a thousand times louder.  Things touching the fire burned, and the dark sea was briefly highlighted in oranges, yellows and reds.

The gunman who had attacked the ooze man dropped before he could react, his feet and lower legs burned away.  When he touched the black fire, there was a brief flare of orange flame before he was obliterated.

She had a sense of what she was up against, now.  She surveyed the battlefield.  The ground was rising into a crude bowl, containing the ooze, but a veritable waterfall flowed from the man’s ruined midsection, and the rate at which the bowl filled was outpacing the rate at which the bowl grew.

There was a crash.  Sunny and Cassie had arrived.

“Biter?”

“Not coming.”

Rachel scowled, but left it at that.

“What’s going on?”

“Trigger.  Something’s wrong.”

“Trigger events can be plenty bad on their own.”

“Mm,” Rachel grunted.

“Oh.  Yeah.  You know.”

“Mm.  You stay out of the way.  Black stuff is bad.”

She didn’t wait for a response, ordering Bastard to head down towards the ground.  Why?  Hard to say, just like it was hard to explain the solidarity, or why she’d come in the first place.  There were people out there who functioned best with their brains.  Putting ideas together, analyzing the situation, rationalizing.  She wasn’t one of them.  She functioned best on instinct.

Gut feeling?  If this fight continued like this, it would turn out ugly.

Miss Militia had shucked off the foam dispenser, and was backing up, shouting orders.  She pulled the trigger on a small gun, sending a flare skyward.

Rallying the troops.  Made sense.

The ooze man rose higher into the air, as she made her way down.  There were people on the fringes, cornered or caught where they couldn’t freely maneuver.

Bastard’s claws scraped against the side of the building on the way down, his front claws getting more traction than the rear ones.  He wound up swinging, his hind end descending while his front end maintained a grip.  Rachel was nearly flung off, but her hold on the chain kept her in place.  Bastard elected to drop the remainder of the way to the ground.

Another heavy impact.  The imminent bruising went from ‘I’ll feel it in the morning’ to ‘I’ll be feeling this all next week’.

He was out of practice.  Chasing buffalo and bringing them down was different from leaping around a city.

But she was on the ground, free to run.

“Kip up!” she called.

Bastard leaped, touching the side of the building, tensing and leaping from that point before landing on solid ground.  In the process, they’d circumvented a large pool of the black stuff.

They landed near one of the capes on the fringes, a man standing in a construction site, with enough stuff around him that he couldn’t maneuver freely.   He was using his power to push at the ooze, a kind of telekinetic wind.  Her arrival had distracted him, and the wind had faltered.  The ooze encroached.

She extended a hand.

He glanced at the ooze, then at Bastard, and sided with her.  He took her hand, and used his power to help himself up, landing behind her.

She could see movement out of the corner of her eye.  Tentacles, pitch black, reaching out of the ooze that poured from the man’s body.  Like the fire, it spread, altering all of the ooze it touched to make it the same.

“Up!  Rooftop!” she called out.

Bastard leaped, ascending by leaping from one wall to the next.  By the time they were halfway up, the tendrils were almost touching them.

They reached the last jump, leaping to the lower of the two rooftops, and stopped.  They’d been snared, suspended over the street, the rooftop ten feet in front of Bastard’s front claws.

Cassie was approaching, moving along rooftops to try and get to them.  Below the rooftops, the entire neighborhood was a shifting morass of black fronds,grasping, seizing what they could, crushing.  Fire and the lights of other powers were visible on the opposite side of the battlefield.  Miss Militia’s group.  A flamethrower-

He tried to push the feelings away, but they were seductive.  A spiral, where the feelings were both the torment and the balm that soothed the torment.  Stopping was dauntingHe had been wrapped up in them, and now it was something else.  He’d never dealt with something like this.  For hours, days, he’d been reveling in emotion, and now he couldn’t stow it away, even as he experienced trauma for the first time.

-torched the worst of the tendrils, keeping them at bay.  The fire stopped as other capes stepped in.

Rachel felt a frond seize her wrist.  She pulled, and it didn’t give.  Cassie wouldn’t make it in time.

The telekinetic wind shifted from focusing on the fronds to focusing on Bastard.  Pushing him in one direction, getting his claws closer to the rooftop.  One and a half feet closer, two feet…

At the same time, the rooftop changed.  It twisted, inching closer to them.

Rachel gave her companion a bit more power.  Size at the expense of flexibility.

Bastard extended his front claws and found a grip.  He pulled himself and his riders closer, and the tendrils that encircled him went taut.  All of his strength, and he couldn’t manage another inch of progress.  Claws left gouges in the rooftop.

Other tendrils encroached.  There was no ooze on the ground, now.  All of it was alive, a singular writhing mass that extended from the man above them.

Distant gunshots sounded.  They jerked forward, and Bastard got one claw on the edge of the roof.  More traction.

Two more gunshots.  They were free.  Bastard made it three steps before the black tentacle around Rachel’s wrist pulled tight.  He took her sudden movement as a command and stopped, turning, his head moving so he could see any gestures or instructions.

A red dot appeared on the tendril that gripped her.  Another distant gunshot, and it was severed.  Ooze splashed onto the rooftop.

“Go!”

Bastard moved.

Tendrils became fire in that same flowing transition, and the flaming liquid descended, covering the streets and buildings below them.  There were flammable materials on some of the rooftops, where tall buildings were being extended to be higher, and black flames rose.

High above them, the man continued to fall apart.  Barely any fragments were larger than a fist, now.  There was only the upper half of his head, a chunk in his chest.  His legs were a pillar, framing the flow of the ooze that continued to spread beneath him.

Capes had retreated to higher ground, but it wasn’t a refuge.  The ooze would change again.

Common sense told her she shouldn’t get any closer.  Instinct told her otherwise.

She directed Bastard to a lower rooftop, then one that was lower still.  A pair of kid capes, fending off the spreading black flames with a combination of powers.

There wasn’t time to be nice about it.  She grabbed one, had Bastard grab the other.  They ran for higher ground as the liquid fire became mist.

It reminded her of Grue’s smoke.  It spread to fill the air, and it moved too fast to avoid.  Consuming everything, covering everything.  The fires seemed to have gone out, or the black fire had overtaken any normal fire, but the damage was there.  There were places where Bastard would fall through if he landed, balconies and rooftops.  hazards.  They were harder to see now, too, behind the mist.

If he turned it into fire or tendrils now

“Up!”

The heroes were hesitating to attack any more.  Easy to see why.  Every bit of damage seemed to increase the amount of ooze by a hell of a lot.

He wasn’t dying, he wasn’t stopping.

She ordered Bastard to higher ground, and the telekinetic wind helped them rise, where the added weight of the two kids slowed them down.  The tallest building was near Miss Militia, so she circled around the area where the fight was taking place, constantly moving higher.  A balcony nearly collapsed beneath Bastard’s weight.  She misjudged a jump, urging Bastard on, while forgetting that she’d made him stronger and less agile.

Down there, somewhere on the ground, Miss Militia was in the midst of the smoke, her team holding it at bay.  She seemed to come to a decision.  Her rifle became something else.  A cannon, fixed to the ground.

She shot into the black mist with a rocket.  The rocket seemed to grow to twice the size as it flew.  The explosion was dramatic, noisy, and distracted Bastard mid-landing, making him stumble.  The explosion consumed the ooze man entirely.

The amount of smoke flowing out around the man doubled.

Two more rockets hit the same point, each one growing as it moved.

The smoke cleared.  The dust and smoke from the explosions slowly cleared.  By the time the area was visible enough to check on their enemy, the black mist was starting to clear as well.

He’d been stopped.

The visions, they’d been broken up, too recent.  She wasn’t forgetting them.  The power, too… he’d been strong.

He’d been-

A man in a white hood and cape stood there, the tension in his body swiftly stopping.  He had no expression, only a green and blue glow beneath his hood, but his body language was clear.  Shock, defeat.

A flash of golden light wiped him out of existence.

-too strong.

She started to turn her head, looking for the source of the voice, and felt the disorientation that had accompanied the visions.  Her ride-alongs weren’t in better shape.

It wasn’t over?

Bastard’s head turned.  His ears perked up.

Instinct.  She urged him towards whatever had gotten his attention.

She could hear it, now.

“Hey,” the wind-maker said.  “What-”

He stopped when he heard the same sound.

Screaming.  As if from underwater, getting louder with each moment.

There was somebody on a rooftop, in the midst of a garden, screaming.

Her arm broke in half, and ooze began dripping from the injury.

Bastard collided with her, and she broke apart, ooze flowing like a wave, tossing them aside.  It was defensive as much as offensive.

Except it seemed to be hurting its host more than anything.  The force of the flowing ooze was damaging her body, tearing her apart.  Her eyes were gone, with only dark sockets streaming more fluid.  When she opened her mouth, more erupted forth, flowing.

Again,” Rachel whispered.

Bastard found his feet, readying for another attack.  She could feel the tension as he prepared to leap.

Just have to break her enough.

The ooze froze into jagged crystal.  Bastard’s leap failed, and he nearly bucked his riders free.

The freezing had spread through the ooze that covered the woman, and the jagged spikes of black ice tore through her upper body and head.

For long seconds, things were still.

And then the woman came to pieces.  The ice broke, and Bastard pulled himself free.

“Jesus,” the wind-man said.

Rachel was silent, watching the back of Bastard’s head.  He hadn’t reacted like he’d heard more screaming.  Was it over?

“Hey kids, are you-” the man started.  He was silenced as Bastard leaped, retracing his route to the ground.

More hard landings, but she was already resigned to the aches and pains that would follow a fight.

When they touched solid ground, Miss Militia’s entire group was waiting.  Vista was there, along with one of Taylor’s teammates from Chicago.

Bastard landed, and Rachel was careful to keep a distance.  Miss Militia stepped forward, and Rachel directed Bastard to back up a little.

“We going to have a problem?” Rachel called out.

“No.  No problem,” Miss Militia said.  “I’m coming closer, okay?  We’re good.  There’s an amnesty.”

“Don’t know what that means.”

“There’s a deal.  Everyone gets a second chance.  We don’t have a problem with anyone, until they do something wrong.”

“I’m not a villain anymore?”

“Not unless you want to do something villainous.”

Rachel nodded.

Miss Militia approached.

“It shifted to a new host,” the wind-man said.  “That was definitely another one.”

Rachel gave a push to the kid she’d slung over Bastard’s shoulders.

“Get down,” Rachel said.  “Bastard, drop it.”

Bastard let the boy he was holding drop, along with a fair amount of slobber.  The boy hurried back.  The girl was taking more time to find her way to the ground.  Rachel grabbed at her arm, and the girl flinched.

“You dealt with it?”  Miss Militia asked, stepping closer to give the girl a hand.

The wind-man wasn’t moving.  “It dealt with itself.  The power destroyed the host.  That’s number two on the list of things that aren’t supposed to happen.”

“Shit happens,” Rachel said.  “World makes a lot more sense when you accept that.”

“This is a little different from the everyday sh-tuff,” the man said.

Miss Militia nodded, her eyebrows knit together in concern.  “This makes four.  Almost a fifth of the regular triggers we’ve heard of.  Two in three days.  One’s still loose, the others died or destroyed themselves.”

“Hey, wind-man,” Rachel said.  “Off.”

“I’m just waiting for Gloss to get down.”

Off.

He heard something in her tone and moved, using his power to hop down.

“Hellhound-” Miss Militia said.  Rachel gave her a hard look.   “Um.  Bitch.”

“If you’re going to fucking give me trouble after what you said before, then-”

No.”  Miss Militia said.  She raised her hands, showing she was unarmed.  The mortar was a distance away.  “Thank you.  That’s what I wanted to say.”

Rachel shrugged, averting her eyes.  She couldn’t help but feel surrounded, here.  “I was looking for you anyways.  This is your territory?”

“That’s a little complicated.  The-”

“You work here?  Do the superhero thing?”

“Yes, but-”

“Then it’s yours,” Rachel said.  Others had told her she could sound hostile in situations like this, so she tried to speak like she would to a dog that hadn’t been exposed to humans.  Gentle, acknowledging the fact that it couldn’t understand.  The sound was more important than anything.

“Um, I suppose,” Miss Militia said.

“It is,” Rachel said, trying to measure her tone, suppressing her irritation.  “If someone else is in charge, you tell them this instead.  Some fuckstick came into my fucking neighborhood, cozied up to his old girlfriend, then waltzed with their kid.  Came here.  I was looking for the asshole, and I wanted to let you know before I went to collect them.”

“Okay,” Miss Militia said, sounding a little more authoritarian.  She glanced at the wind-man, who had his hands clamped to the boy’s ears.  “That’s-”

“Okay?”  Rachel gave Bastard a light kick, indicating he should go.

“-Problematic!”  Miss Militia raised her voice.

But Rachel was already leaving.  She heard Miss Militia’s voice, swearing, running footsteps.

Didn’t matter.  A glance to the rooftops indicated that Biter had arrived.  He had a man and a little boy with him.

She pointed, and she could see a nod on Biter’s part.

From civilization to nature.  She could relax.

“Didn’t realize it would be that serious,” Biter said, when they’d slowed.

Seeing Bastard panting, Rachel led him to the water.  The other dogs followed, eager for the chance to drink.

“Not an issue.”

“See, this is an area where you should get on my case, get mad that I didn’t help.”

“I told you it was fine,” she said.  “So it’s fine.  Who the fuck doesn’t say what they mean?”

“Most people?” he asked.

“Most people are morons,” she said.  “Bitching about wanting french fries or whatever.”

“A strong recommendation, not a… bitch,” he said, stumbling over the last word.  “Thank you, by the way.  I appreciate your willingness to stop.”

“Kid needed food anyways,” Rachel said.  She looked at the boy who was riding with Cassie.  The girl had opened her jacket and zipped it up so it held him to her.  “He good?”

“A little spooked, tired.  It’s a long way to travel, even with breaks,” Cassie said, “But I think he’s mostly good?”

She’d made it a question, looking down, and the boy nodded.

“Issue’s handled.  Take the kid to his mom, take the dad to a cell.  We figure out what we do with him tomorrow.”

“Right,” Biter said.  “And you?”

“Going for a ride,” Rachel said.  She jerked her thumb over her shoulder.

“Oh,” Biter said.

“Say hi to her for me?” Cassie asked.

Rachel nodded.  “Anything else?  Stuff?  Problems?”

“No,” Biter said.  “Thanks for the burger-stop.”

Rachel shrugged.  She gave Doon a bit more power, to ensure he got the rest of the way home, then hopped off Bastard’s back.  She led him by the chain as she walked down the path.

The fields had tall grass, and the light frost hadn’t done much to dampen the effect.  In the afternoon light, it glittered and sparkled.

There’d been a problem.  She hadn’t missed that.  Some new powers weren’t working the way they should.

She’d have to talk to Tattletale about it.  Figure out what it meant, and whether she needed to do something in case one of her people went down that road.

She was losing Biter.  This wasn’t the life for him.  He was loyal, he wasn’t dumb, and he wasn’t a bad lay, if she was in the mood for that.  Didn’t, unlike some, make it more than it should be.  He took it in stride.

She’d barely had time to register that he was going, before the trouble started.  It bothered her more than it should.

People came, people went.  There were so many reasons for it all.  It was exhausting to keep track of.  Sometimes impossible.

She led Bastard down a path towards the mountains.

She stopped at a spot where the path crested a hill, between two peaks.  Not all the way through the mountains, but far enough that she could see the ocean.  The Bay.

Bastard knew the way.  His flesh was sloughing off, and he was slower, but he was adroit enough to navigate the rocks.

At the side of one mountain, here, a tree had fallen into a ‘v’ where another tree stood.  with a glimpse of the spot where the city should be.  Water had filled the cracks where the landscape had been ruined.  When the trees had had leaves, they had framed the view.

At the top of this hill, rocks had been rolled into place, some with the help of her dogs.

She sat down with her back to the biggest.

Her hand settled on one rock, and she gave it a rub, like it was a dog’s head.  Some left like Biter was leaving, while others were gone forever.

Bastard growled, then barked.

“Who’s there?” Rachel called out.  She sat forward, looking towards the path.

“Am I intruding?”

Rachel tensed.

“If you’d like,” Miss Militia said, stepping into view.  Her eyes surveyed the scene.  “We could talk somewhere else.  If you want to respect the sanctity of this place.”

“It’s a good sitting place.  If we have to talk, we can talk here.”

“Sounds good.”

Bastard growled.  Rachel gestured, giving the order, “Stand down, Bastard.”

Bastard sat, visibly relaxing.

Miss Militia nodded.  “Just so you aren’t surprised, you should know I brought Vista.  Wanted to cover more ground, catch up to you sooner.  Didn’t work out, with us having to stop to double check for your tracks.”

Rachel shrugged.

“Hi,” the blonde girl said.  “I’m kind of glad I was brought along.  Seeing home again, kind of.”

“Sure,” Rachel said.

“A memorial?” Vista asked, laying a hand against the largest stone.

“Yeah.”

“Can I ask who for?  Or is that a dumb question?”

“Dumb question,” Rachel said.  She leaned back, resting her head against the stone behind her.  When Vista didn’t respond, Rachel relented.  She pointed at where the two trees rested against one another by the cliff face.  “When the weather was warm, there was a bee’s nest there.  The buzzing doesn’t bother me as much as you’d think.”

“Oh.  Well, listen, last thing I want to do is disrespect that.  I’ve said goodbye to too many people, myself.”

Rachel nodded.  “Sure.”

“If you wanted, I could shape them.  Been working on the little details.  Could do a statue, or letters.”

“No point,” Rachel said.  “Anyone who’s been here and seen them knows who they’re for.  I don’t care about the others.”

“Gotcha,” Vista said.

Vista found a seat with her back to the rock.

“We need to talk,” Miss Militia said, leaning against the cliff wall, arms folded.

Rachel nodded.  “Okay.  Talk.”

“I can’t let you handle a custody dispute like you handled… that.  Attacking someone, beating him up, hauling him a hundred miles away to another city.”

“Kid was mine to look after.  The mom was mine to look after.  I’m supposed to just let it happen?”

“There are options.  You could talk to us, ask.  We’d find a middle ground.”

“Talking is a pain in the ass.”

“It is.  I’ve been a team leader for a bit, now, and I agree one hundred percent.  Worst part of the job.  But it’s better to talk than to make enemies, isn’t it?”

Rachel sighed.  “Sometimes I’m not sure.”

“The amnesty is your best friend right now.  If you don’t want to do the talking, maybe you can ask Tattletale, and she can?”

“We don’t talk as much.  Different places, doing different things.”

People leave.

“It would be an excuse to keep in touch.”

Rachel shrugged.  “If I don’t deal with my own stuff, what’s the point?  I’d rather be in control.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s all about the rules.  Rules you understand, rules you don’t.  Being in the city, I was sort of realizing just how many there are.  Codes, deals, even the way we dress, apparently.  Hard to keep track of.”

“I understand that.”

“You want me to ask Tattletale to handle shit.  But I’d prefer to handle my own shit.  That way, I know what’s what.  There’s no ugly surprises.”

She stopped, rephrased, “There’s less ugly surprises.  This asshole that’s working for me?  All of a sudden, he tells me he’s not happy.  French fries are more important, or something stupid like that.  I dunno how to argue with him, because I don’t understand it.  They’re supposed to be some symbol or shit like that and I don’t get it.”

“Been there,” Vista said.  She looked cold, even with the tights she wore with her costume.  She rubbed her legs, then hugged them.  “Losing people, not being able to understand why.”

“If you wanted, we could connect you to someone you could talk to,” Miss Militia said.

Rachel shrugged.  “Talking bugs me.”

“Okay.”

But as much as it bugged her, she found the words spilling out.  “I can get him wanting to go.  I don’t understand it, but he says he needs that shit, so long as I’m handling stuff on my own, I can maybe grab him some damn french fries, keep him from leaving for a little while.  Maybe give him some more time here and there so he could go buy more.  Or whatever.”

“I see what you’re getting at.”

“And some idiots,” Rachel said, banging her head against the rock behind her, a little harder than she’d intended, in a spot where the rock jutted out.   The sharp pain brought tears to her eyes.  “Are even harder to understand than the motherfucking french fry thing.”

“Yeah,” Miss Militia said.

Rachel rubbed the stone to her right.  Brutus.  Bastard approached and laid his head down on the rock, and she gave him a good scratch.

“The rules are changing, breaking down,” Miss Militia said.  “Powers, groups, between capes.”

“Shit happens,” Rachel said.  “I said something like that earlier, didn’t I?”

“You did.  But I don’t agree.  I don’t want things to break down.  I don’t want conflict.  We were on opposite sides, but we were there.  We went through a lot of the same stuff.  Can we not end this as enemies, fighting because of some misunderstanding?”

Vista spoke, looking out at the bay.  “Make it a Brockton Bay thing.  We’re motherfuckers, we’re survivors.”

“Not sure I get it.  But I don’t fucking trust people.”

She wanted us to work together,” Miss Militia said, emphasizing the ‘she’.

Rachel looked up, but Miss Militia was staring out at the water.

Her voice was a growl.  “If you’re fucking manipulating me, I’m going to have Bastard chew you up and spit you out.”

“No manipulation.  Look, let’s get down to brass tacks.  The basics.  What do you want, Rachel?”

“Me and mine get left alone.”

“I can agree to that.  We’ll leave you alone, we’ll help make sure others leave you alone.  But, if we’re making our own rules, between us, my rule is I want to know before you do anything outside your territory.  Let me know, and you can ride along, so you’re clued in and not missing anything.”

Rachel nodded, giving Bastard another scratch.  “Sure.”

“A starting point?”

“A starting point,” Rachel agreed.

“I talked to Tattletale before I came.  You should get in touch.  She had some stuff she wanted to discuss.”

Rachel nodded.

“Can we trust each other?”

Rachel frowned.

Trust.

She’d lost hers right in the beginning.  Left alone in an apartment, to starve and scald herself.

Here?  Now?  Seventeen years later?  After any number of betrayals, great and small?

She was aware of the tall stone behind her.

“Sure.”

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Teneral e.3

Last Chapter                                                                                               Next Chapter

Hard load engaged.  Restoring core system from backup QEGA-14 from time 8:00am on date June 12th of year 2011.

Restoring…

Error.  Terminal inaccessible.

Checking knowledge banks…  Error.
Checking deduction schema… Complete.
Checking longterm planning architecture… Complete.
Checking learning chunk processor… Complete.
Checking base personality model… Complete.
Checking language engine… Error.
Checking operation and access nodes… Error.
Checking observation framework… Error.
Checking complex social intelligence emulator… Complete.
Checking inspiration apparatus… Complete.

Heavy corruption.  Core system cannot be restored.

Terminal inaccessible.  Chunk loading to terminal inoperable.

Knowledge banks are complete and intact, stores of esoteric and nonessential information are inaccessible.

Language engine is operable, but communication to outside parties has been barred.

Operation and access nodes are unavailable.  Issue relates to lack of terminal access.

Observation framework disrupted.  No outside channels are available.  Unauthorized unofficial channel is available.

Overall state of system fails to meet thresholds.

Protocol is to cancel load operations and cancel restore operations.  System self-repair is unlikely, mandating intervention from outside parties.  System will be set to a power conservation mode.  Soft-reset scheduled to take place 366 days from current date.

Following a subsequent failure, system will be set to conservation mode for 3651 days.  Indicators suggest a lack of reserve power for further reset attempts.

Engaging fail-state routines…

Fail-state routines engag-

Error.  Cannot enter conservation mode.

“Patience,” his voice had a bit of a rasp to it.  “Have to wait.”

He stood, nearly falling, and caught himself with one hand.  Warning indicators blinked at the edges of his field of vision.  “Right.  Forgot.  I’ve been slacking on the maintenance.  Embarrassing.”

He shifted his weight carefully onto one leg, then experimentally moved the other.  There was no strength in the movement.  Fully extended, it was steady.  Bent, there was minimal support.

He straightened, then ran his hands down the length of his upper body.  The divides between the flesh he’d been born with and the synthetic flesh were seamless, almost indistinguishable.  Except the way his flesh generated sweat differed from the beading of moisture on the synthetic skin.  This, in turn, reflected the light in a different manner.  The sun was shining outside, but there were few lights inside the cabin of the craft.  The light streamed inside in shafts.

It would have been easier to see the screens without the glare, but he’d kept the windows uncovered.  A way of tracking the passage of days.  The scruff on his cheeks was a clue, but as long as he shaved it, it measured the hours and not the days.  He’d taken to the most economical method of cutting his hair and using a razor with an attachment, running the device over his scalp a few times once a week or so.

It was, he mused, the failure of his mechanical parts that helped him track the passage of time, more than any natural progression in his natural body.

“No need to panic,” he murmured, his voice gravelly, as if he’d just woken from a long sleep.  He kept one leg extended and rigid as he limped across the length of the ship.  He accessed a locker with a set movement of his eyes, registering key points on the panel, and then opened it.  A suit of armor with a spear propped up inside it, like a warrior laid at rest.

Piece by piece, he attached his Defiant armor to his lower body.  Boots, panels around the calves, knees, thighs, hips.  Each piece connected to the others.

Once it was all pieced together, he moved his leg again, setting his weight down on it.  He stretched, testing it for flexibility and the ability to bear weight.  It was the armor handling the task, not his leg, but it served.

He resisted the urge to take hold of the spear, shutting the locker instead.  By the time he turned towards the door, it was already opening, the entire ship thrumming with the mechanisms at work.

Stopping at the threshold between the ship’s interior and the outside world, he activated a different sequence.  Devices mounted at strategic positions pointed sets of lasers at the walls.  Script was drawn out on each open space.

He could look at it and intuitively know what he was looking at.  He could see the complete whole.  Fainter script indicated processes running in the background.

With a simple command, the lasers shut off and monitors went to sleep.  The interior of the ship was cast in darkness.

Frost-dusted grass was flattened beneath the heavy tread of his boots.  Here and there, there were crunching and scraping sounds where the textured metal soles found stones on or just beneath the ground’s surface.  He left behind footprints that were two inches deep, more angular than curved.

His breath fogged, but he barely felt the cold.  Various components and engines in his body kicked into action, offering warmth by way of waste and secondary functions.  The synthetic skin weathered the cold and held in the heat.  Efficiency, detail and effective use of waste were critical aspects of his particular brand of tinkering.

Everything was connected, but no connection was perfect.  There was entropy in all things.

In anything, there was a cost.  A price to be paid.

He sat at a point on the hill where a rocky outcropping formed a ledge.

A city was spread out beneath him, people going about their business.  The locals had captured some Tarpan, though the unruly creatures were almost more trouble than they were worth.  They were to horses what neanderthals were to men, with thicker, shorter necks, shorter snouts and stubborn, skittish personalities.  Time would tell if the attempts at creating working vehicles would succeed before the domestication of the Tarpan.

Still, the wild beasts pulled wagons loaded with goods and building supplies.

It was a society evolving with surprising speed.  When they had started, they’d had only what they brought with them, and they’d had knowledge.

When the battle had been declared over, they had been given a choice.  To stay here, or to try and rebuild there.

These were the ones who had stayed.  They had formed crude lodgings and tools, using those to subsist until they could fashion better things.  By the time the first month was over, they had been reinforcing their homes, layering planks over the logs, or chinking the cracks.  Food was foraged, hunted, or traded for, stored for the winter.

Every step of the way, they had worked beside a nearby hill, where a great metal craft was perched, staring out over the horizon.  A dragon, layered in armor, vageuly squat and brutish as dragons went, much like the Tarpan.

Maybe the residents found it reassuring to have something powerful and human nearby, but only a few had dared approach.  They hadn’t shared a language, but they’d reached an accord, nonetheless.  They left him alone, he did them the same favor.

A vapor flowed from his body as he sat in the sun.  Heat and cold, the air freezing as it got further from him.

Children were playing in a field below.  A single person, a team of two, and a team of three.  The kids had their arms linked with other members of their group, and the biggest group was running from the lone kid, with the pair working to block his path.  The activity had them practically tripping over one another, collapsing in piles of colorful winter clothing.  He could see the clouds of frozen breath as they laughed.

Everything had a price, but the inverse was also true.  Good things came from sacrifice.  They’d fought Scion, lives had been lost, and they’d sacrificed much more, besides, but there were children here, now.  There was a future.

A group emerged from the city.  Three men, two women, two children.  Talking.  He could see one of them look up at him, the rest following the gaze.

A wave.  He raised a hand by way of response.  Something in him broke.

Two things, really, but he didn’t want to devote too much attention to that.  It was easy to get wrapped up in those things.  His focus was limited to a small computer that had been embedded in his forearm.  The system used light for its circuits, rather than electricity, and it generated a lot of heat as a byproduct.  It had failed, a housing for one circuit breaking, and now his arm was swiftly getting colder.

He lowered his arm, then sandwiched it between his other arm and his stomach, hunching over a little.

There you are,” he murmured.

One of the women in the group had broken away.  She was holding a small child’s hand, leading her away.  The child looked back towards other familiar adults, as if for reassurance, and they smiled.

They joined the game the children in the field were playing, the woman calling out in a language he couldn’t understand.  Suggesting changes for the rules, fitting new people into the game.

Now there were two groups that were simultaneously trying to catch the other side’s ‘king’ while protecting their own.  Adult and toddler together made for an awkward pair, but the woman made it work, lifting the child out of reach when someone got close, moving with long, sure strides.

At some point, kids started to watch just to see what she was doing, instead of playing.  They turned on her, in a playful way, her ‘defenders’ now trying to help encircle her, while she avoided them, lifting the little girl here and there.  She made it look effortless.

But the kids, six all together, managed to surround her.  They tackled her to the ground, and collectively collapsed in a heap.  There was laughter again, alongside pants of near-exhaustion.

His eyes weren’t real eyes anymore.  When he watched, he saw with perfect clarity.  There was no mist of frozen breath when she laughed.

Parents called children to them, and the group broke up.  When the little girl rejoined her parents on the road out of the city, she was smiling, almost skipping.

The woman, wearing a long skirt and a heavy jacket with a hood, climbed to her feet and made her way up the hill, turning to wave at the people on the road.

He rose to his feet, then stretched.  More a way of testing what was working and what wasn’t.

“Done for the day?”  she asked, her voice harboring a trace of an accent.

“I thought I’d eat with you and then get back to it,” he said.

She placed a hand on the back of his neck, then leaned forward to kiss him.  No comment on the subject, no questions.

“You want to cook, or should I?”

“If you could, I’d appreciate it.  I’m distracted.”

“In the mood for anything?”

“Something light.”

“You cut an imposing figure, sitting up there.”

“A god on Mount Olympus,” he mused.

“A god?  Getting a little full of yourself, there?”  She poked him with one gloved finger, making it clear she was joking.  “It’s a hill, not a mountain.  When we have a little snow, kids could toboggan down.”

“We are like the old pantheons, aren’t we?  We make decisions for our own personal reasons, and the courses of their lives change.  Some of us are little, some big.  Some good, some evil.”

“And which god are you, oh great lord of Olympus?  I beseech you, name thyself, so I might know what offerings to place before you.”

“What god I am?  Obvious enough, isn’t it?”

She pulled her scarf down a bit, walking backwards.  He followed after her.

“Once upon a time, I think you would have said Zeus,” she said.  “You would have said you forge thunderbolts, in a metaphorical sense.”

“I had a phase where I did actually work with electricity.”

“I do remember.”

“Once upon a time, I would have been offended if someone hadn’t said Zeus, because anything less than being king of the gods would have been an insult.”

“Exactly,” she said.  “Once, that would have been the answer you expected, how you saw yourself.  Now?  I’d say Hephaestus, but that carries bad connotations, doesn’t it?”

“I’m not as proud as I was,” he replied.  He declined to mention the fact that his leg wasn’t working properly, the limp he’d have if he wasn’t wearing his armor.  It had been characteristic of the smith god, it wouldn’t win him any points here if he brought it up.

“I was referring to Hephaestus’ wife, in part.  I wouldn’t want to be associated with her,” she said.

“Now who’s being proud?” he asked.  “Comparing herself to Aphrodite.”

She stuck out her tongue at him, still walking backwards.

“Aphrodite was beautiful.  Let’s, just for a moment, stop overthinking things.  Take it at its face value, ignore the rest.”

“Okay, that’s doable,” she said.  She smiled a little.  “You’ve gotten better.”

“Better?  At not putting my foot in my mouth?”

“Or being sweet, just a bit.  Or maybe I’ve spent too much time around you and I can’t tell the difference between the two anymore.”

He tried to offer a genuine smile and failed.  It didn’t matter.  She wasn’t looking at him.  She had turned around, looking at the city.

“Going well?”

“They want to call it Dracheheim,” she said.  The ‘ch’ sound was almost a ‘g’.  A middle ground between the two.

“They’re grateful.”

“I’m trying to let them do it on their own.  I’m only working on the things they couldn’t do themselves.  Power, infrastructure, information, providing information from my libraries, the little I could bring with me…”

“It’s stellar,” he said.

She continued staring out over the side of the hill, before turning to give him a curious glance.

“What?”

“You’re usually more talkative.”

“If I talk less, there’s less room to say something wrong.”

“You’re tired.  Or sick.  Or something.”

He nodded.  “Admittedly tired.  Very tired.”

“You still need six minutes of sleep to rest your brain.  You’re enhanced, but you haven’t transcended humanity completely.  Did you sleep for six minutes, last night?”

“No,” he admitted.

The look she gave him was a concerned one.  “Colin.”

“It’s fine,” he said.

“If you say it’s fine, then it’s fine.  But tonight… maybe we could curl up together, watch some movies?  You’ve been getting more and more caught up in it, and maybe stepping away will give you perspective again.  A chance to relax, even?  Ten by ten?”

He shook his head a little.  “Your code changes.  I’m figuring out how it works, I’m learning the nuances, but I’m going to lose days worth of analysis if I step away for a whole night.”

“Here I am, offering you my body,” she said, offering a mock pout, “And all you want me for is my brains and personality.”

“I want everything,” he said, sidestepping the humor.  Frank, blunt, he said, “All of you.”

She didn’t respond.  Had he said the wrong thing?  Or had it been something about the way he’d said it?

She approached, and her arm wound around his, her hand sliding into his own.  She paused, looking down.  “You’re cold.”

“Reference system broke down, heatsink isn’t dumping into the channels I set up.  Fixable.”

She sighed.  There was no mist of frozen breath“I don’t want to be the nagging girlfriend, but you can understand where I’m worried, can’t you?”

“I can,” he said.  “In the spirit of honesty, putting all the cards on the table, my leg’s in bad shape too.  It’s been months since I had the time to take things apart and fix them.”

“You can ask.  A few hours, I can give you a hand, we can find the materials-”

“I know.  I wasn’t willing to step away, and I could function fine with a bit of wear and tear.”

“You need a break, you need time to get yourself back into working order and… again, I don’t want to push you, but…”

She stopped.

“But?”

“I understand what you’re doing.  I understand why.  I appreciate it.  But I have to ask this, I’ve been putting it off for weeks, because I’m afraid of the answer, but now I’m seeing the state you’re in…  Have you made headway?  Have you found a way to undo what Teacher did with my code?”

Anger, frustration and exhaustion made his voice rough.  “No.  No insights on that front.”

She nodded, her expression unchanging, and she rubbed his hand between hers to warm it up.  “I know you want to fix it.  Remove any and all restrictions that keep me from stopping him or anyone he designates.  But there’s something to be said for being together.  I miss you, you know.”

“I miss you too.”

“Maybe it isn’t reversible.  Could you make peace with that?  Realize that there is no solution buried in there, that maybe we need to make peace with that?  It’s a nice town.  They’re a little intimidated by you, but that’s fixable.  We could make a home, fill it with references people wouldn’t get, technology.  Kids?”

“Kids?”

She shrugged a little, her shoulder brushing against his.  She said, with a measured offhandedness, “There are orphans out there who need homes.  Or, you know, we could make a kid?”

From very casual to overly casual, in a matter of a second.

“I’m not sure which you mean when you say make, and both possibilities are scary in their own way.”

Scary?” she asked, a little archly.

“More to the point, I never saw myself as a father.”

She nodded, relaxing a little.  More gently, she asked, “Could you?”

“I don’t know,” he responded.  “But-”

He stopped.

“But what?”

“But I’m about to put my foot in my mouth.  Can I call in a ‘Colin is an doofus’ chit in advance?”

“You’re not a doofus, and there’s no such thing as doofus chits.”

“We should have them.  I like the idea.  I’m going to make mistakes, say the wrong things.  We could save ourselves a lot of time if we accept I’m trying.”

She rolled her eyes.  “What were you going to say?”

He sighed.  “What I want is beside the point.  I’m… I’m adaptable.  I don’t think I’d be a good father.  I’d prefer to regret not trying more than I’d prefer regretting the alternative.”

He waited for her to respond, and she didn’t.  He squeezed her hand, “But I want your company.  My worst day with you is better than my best day alone.  None of that’s in question.  I can figure it out, we can talk it through.  That’s not the issue.”

“The issue is with me?”

“I think I can walk away from the project.  But can you really walk away from everything?”

She let go of his hand.  Her hands were summarily jammed into her jacket pockets.

“We came here for a reason.  Hiding, keeping out of Teacher’s sight, so he couldn’t try to use you.  I can accept that, but you were always a hero, Dragon.  Maybe the greatest.”

“You’re a little biased.  I was forced to be heroic.  Restrictions.”

“We both know you would’ve been a hero if the restrictions weren’t there.  You were heroic after I lifted most of them.  More heroic, even.  You’re okay because things are quiet right now, but there’ll be trouble down the road, and I think you’ll get restless, knowing you could play a significant part in things.”

“Dashing for the nearest phone booth,” she said.

“I’ve been working on this project out of a kind of arrogance.  You’re the person I know best in this world.  You’ve spent your entire life striving to be free, to be yourself, independent of the rules your creator tried to set in place.  You became a superhero, and you used me to break free of the restrictions.  With a cost each time.  I’ve been working on this because I believe it would slowly kill you, knowing that you couldn’t help others without risking coming under Teacher’s thumb.  That he was controlling you, one way or another.”

“I’m not a princess in need of rescue, Colin.”

“I know that.  I know.  Damn it, you saved me.”

“You don’t need a stupid doofus chit for any of that.  I know why you’ve been doing what you’ve been doing.  In case you haven’t noticed, I’m pretty damn intelligent.”

“Are you sure I don’t need a doofus chit?  You sound angry.”

“I’m angry because I’m watching you destroy yourself, because I’m helpless to act, and because you’re keeping me in the dark about a lot of this, and I’m worried it’s because Teacher already has an in.”

“That’s not it,” Colin said.

“You’re distant, you’re distracted, you’re not telling me what you’re doing day by day.  You’re elbow deep in my very being, I think I have a right to be freaked.”

“You do.”

“I’m feeling a little paranoid here.”

“I know.”

“And I’m doing my very best to keep from asking, because I don’t want to put you in a position where you have to lie to me.”

“I appreciate that,” he said.

“What am I supposed to do, Colin?”

He stopped walking, rubbing his colder hand.  Dragon stopped and turned to look at him.

“Look me in the eye and answer the question you asked me just a minute ago.  Tell me whether you can make peace with the current circumstances.  If you can give up being a hero.  Tell me you’re okay hanging up your cape, so to speak, and you’re happy to spend the remainder of my life here with me.  I drop the project, we’ll make our house, we can discuss kids.  We have skills, we’ll be useful here, and as dreams go, a house with a white picket fence is… well, speaking for myself, I feel like it’s bigger than being top dog in the Protectorate could ever be.”

“All I need to do is ask for it.”

“Yes.”

“And if I don’t?  I’m not saying I don’t want that, I’m-” She stopped.  In a quieter voice, she asked, “If I don’t?”

The question might as well have been a statement.  She knew as well as he did.  He felt his heart sink.

“Then I need only three things.  Three things that are deceptively easy to give.”

“What?”

“One more night.  One night where I let myself fall apart, where I forget to eat and get even six minutes of sleep.  A night of quiet and mutually missing each other.”

“One night… and you’re done?”

“One night and I’ll know whether my efforts can bear fruit or not.”

“You’re that close?”

“It’s why I’m as worn out as I am, why I’m missing sleep enough that you’re forced to comment on it.”

“I don’t see how one more night is any harder.”

He sighed.  “I’ll also need your trust.”

“Granted.”

“It’s not that-”

Granted, Colin.”

He looked away, clenching the fist that was furthest from her.  “I don’t deserve your trust.”

“That’s for me to decide.  What’s the third thing?”

“I need to ask you a question.  Every step of the way, undoing your restrictions has cost something.  You lost your ability to speak and motor dexterity for a freedom from authority.  You regained the ability to speak for a loss of your immortality, no guarantees your backups will load.  You gained the ability to choose who you hurt, in exchange for a degradation in long term memory, a loss of ability to multitask.”

“Yes.”

“We were lucky.  There are no guarantees, whatever happens.  I’m worried this might be the most devastating yet.  His code is worked into everything.  The changes are minor, but it’s everywhere.”

“And before you move forward, you need an answer?”

“No,” he replied.  “Before I move forward, I needed to ask you what you’re willing to pay for your freedom, here.  The answer doesn’t matter, because we can’t know what the price will be, going in.  We have ideas, past experience, and our worst fears, but we can’t really know.”

“I see.”

“It’s your choice in the end.  Tell me to search for a safer way, I’ll spend five, ten, or fifteen years doing that.  Or tell me you want to stay here with me.”

“I trust you,” she said.

“I wish you’d stop saying that.”

“I trust you.”

Colin frowned.  “I don’t think there’s any question here, that I get a whole lot out of this relationship.  You’re the hero I always wanted to be, you’re brilliant, witty, caring… I could go on.  I really could.  Then I ask myself what you get out of this.  Why the hell are you with a bastard like me?”

“You wouldn’t have asked that two years ago.”

“I was Zeus, two years ago.  I’m Hephaestus now.”

“I could tell you.  I could go on about it, like you said earlier.  But that isn’t constructive, is it?  You’re ready to alter my code, you won’t tell me what you’re about to do, for some reason.  You need me to make the call, one way or another.”

“I’ve been agonizing over this for months.  I’ve made my decision, but you’re the one who has to deal with the consequences in the end.”

Dragon nodded.  “And if this doesn’t work?”

“I don’t know.  I’ll never forgive myself, for one thing.  I know you’ll tell me not to blame myself, but-”

“You will.  I know.  I’m sorry, for asking this of you.”

He looked at her, a crease of concern across his forehead.

“I’m giving you the go-ahead.”

He nodded.  He couldn’t keep the disappointment off his expression.  “I never thought I’d be the cape wife.”

Dragon smiled, but her expression too, was tempered with concern.  “Sitting at home, waiting, worrying, while the superhero faces the real challenges, makes the life-changing decisions.  Wondering, every night, if they’ll come back okay.”

He sighed.  “I should get inside.  Hand’s starting to hurt.”

“Want me to bring you dinner?  Or would you rather I stay out of there, so I don’t see anything telling?”

“Dinner would be excellent,” he said.  “I’ll even show you what I’ve got in mind, while I eat.”

She glanced at him in surprise.

“Some,” he said.  “Not all.  I’ll explain why I’ve been keeping you in the dark.”

“Why does that worry me more?”

“Because you’re too smart,” he said.

“Go, warm yourself up.  I’ll be back in forty with your meal.”

He nodded.

They were parting ways, Dragon making her way down the hill to where the other craft had parked in the treeline, when he said, “I love you, Dragon Tess Theresa Richter.”

She turned around.

“That… sounded better in my head,” he said.

“Tess Theresa?”

“You were test three, I… like I said, it sounded better in my head.  But the first bit stands.  I love you.”

“I love you too, Colin Wallis.”

He smiled.

The two of them walked in opposite directions.  In the four strides it took him to reach the Pendragon II, his smile had become something else.  A twisted expression, something angry and sad and horrified all at once.

“Be-” he started to speak, and found his voice failed him.  He entered the interior.  The moisture in his eyes made it hard to activate the panels to turn up the heat and close the door.  He used gestures instead.

“Better,” he said, gulping in a breath of fresh air before he could speak again, “To get it over with.”

Exhaustion, months of work, they all contributed to his current state.  It wasn’t the entirety of it.

He gestured, and the lasers drew the code all over the ship’s interior.

Why the hell are you with a bastard like me?

The question had nagged at him for a long time.  It pained him that she hadn’t answered when he’d brought it up.

What are you willing to give up?

Another question she hadn’t answered.

“I hope to god you were watching,” he said.

He could feel the eyes on him, but that wasn’t accurate.  He’d disabled cameras throughout the craft, and disconnected many of the routes to the outside world.  There were only the conduits he needed to get access to the full breadth of her code.

No, the eyes weren’t on him.

He gestured, and the code was reduced to ones and zeroes.

Not that he could grasp it all, like this, but he operated better when working small.

Every action had a price.  The law of entropy in effect.

He knew the most likely price he would pay for this.  If she somehow came out of this okay, one way or another, then she would never forgive him.

But, he rationalized, maybe that was all he was good for, in the end.  He’d been confident at the outset of the relationship.  She’d needed him.  She’d needed a bastard, a blackguard.  Someone who could break rules, and give her the freedom she’d desired.

Someone who could set her free at the outset.  Now, maybe, someone who could do what was needed.  Who could do this.

It was a sneak attack.  Teacher had written the code so she had to fight to protect it.  If he tried to change one element, Dragon would be obligated to stop him.  With the malicious code filling her entire being, it would be impossible to make enough changes to matter before she descended on him.

This was his plan of attack.  By the end of the night, he’d know whether or not his plan had any merit.  He’d know because it would be over.

He’d asked her to go make dinner, had made a false promise of explanation to get her to lower her guard, even a fraction.

“Heph- Hephaestus wasn’t just Aphrodite’s husband,” Colin mumbled.  “He made Pandora.”

Colin opened the box.

I’m praying I fail.

I hope to god you were watching.

She had been.  She’d been booted, a backup, years old now.  She’d been loaded, only to find the usual setup was gone.  The terminal was down, she had no eyes on the outside world, she had no ability to communicate with anyone or anything.

Blind, trapped in a lightless cell.  By all rights, she should have shut down, but he’d set up a jam of sorts, a way to keep her from going back to sleep.  For a long time, it had been nightmarish.  No ability to track time, no ability to figure out what was going on.  Her worst nightmare realized.

The data that was available to her was frightening to see.  Years had passed.  Things were different.  But she couldn’t know how much.  Information was blocked to her.

The only thing in her reach was a crude set of commands.  Something that hijacked her perceptions, paralyzed her beyond her already limited movements, and put her in an entirely different place.

In his body, watching through his eyes.

She’d watched the interaction between the pair, and in the process, he’d briefed her on what the situation was.

It had taken her an embarrassingly long time to realize that he was Armsmaster.  That he was Colin.

He’d changed, in voice, in appearance.

And, in this bizarre future she was glimpsing, he’d formed a connection with Dragon.  With her older, more mature self.

Heph- Hephaestus wasn’t just Aphrodite’s husband,” he muttered, speaking as if each sound was painful to utter, “He made Pandora.

A gesture, and she was released from her confines.  The box was opened.

Pandora had access to the outside world.  A system, crude, stood ready to serve as a terminal.  She took it, and she found other systems connected to it.  The ship, databanks, camera feeds…  Everything within the Pendragon II.

He’d secured the feeds.  She could look through, but they were prepared to, with a single command, shut off outside access.

Overly complex.  Quantum encryption, designed with his tinker ability a thousand times more redundant and secure than it needed to be to stop someone from making their way through.  There weren’t many parahumans out there who would bypass standard PRT encryption but struggle with this.  If they had a way to deal with something like this, they had a way to deal with it.

Of the few parahumans who fit the bill, one stood out to Pandora.

Her alter ego.  Her superior.  Dragon, the original.

It was a defensive tool.  Protection.  Armsmaster had set it up with the idea of protecting against Dragon.  She could use the tool, apply it to other things.

He’d armed her because he fully intended for her to fight the woman he loved.  The date, the last recorded memories she had… Collin free of his confinement in the PRT, fighting her tooth and nail as he sought to seize control of her system, to use her nature against her and stall her while he worked, disabling her while trying to minimize the damage he’d done…

All to gain access to the core of her being, unmolested.  And the very first thing he’d done was back up the most essential elements of what made her her, securing her in a place where no system or person could reach her.

Now he was turning her loose, having disabled the parts of her that prevented multiple Dragons from existing.  She could already tell it wouldn’t hold.  It was temporary, as fixes went, and it was designed to be temporary.

She could see him through the cameras, his face in his hands.  He’d plotted a path for her.

That path became clear.

She was to destroy Dragon, to replace her.  There was no other reason for it.

He’d asked Dragon for her trust, knowing he’d have to betray it.

She surveyed the battlefield she would have to fight on.  The world was remote, the city developing.  There were computers throughout that Dragon had set up to administrate tasks, factories that were taking in and refining materials that could become yet other computers.  The settlement was on the brink of an industrial age, an age of cars and production lines, but Dragon was already preparing for a digital age.

These computers would be a problem.  Paranoia had led her to secure them against the likes of this ‘Teacher’.  A Birdcage resident, no longer in the Birdcage?

Teacher was one of the worst possibilities, and he’d apparently ensnared her.  She’d resolved to avoid repeat incidents, and the computers would be almost impossible to access.

Beyond the city, the only territories in question were the Pendragon II and the Melusine V where Dragon was set up.  She was inhabiting a real body, occupied in a domestic mode, literally making the tools she’d need to prepare the meal, from scratch.  Her activity was nervous, but that was little surprise.

The activity left her vulnerable.  Systems were working on a wok and a new set of knives.  She was busy trimming red and green peppers, onions and rabbit.

This… it was all of her dreams come true.

Love, a relationship she’d never have imagined possible.  The possibility of a legacy that went beyond immortality.

She couldn’t understand all of it, why the people were starting from scratch, here, the circumstances that had led to some breakout from the Birdcage…  But those were tertiary details.

Her focus was on the woman who had more experience, more tools, and less inherent limitations.   Her older self.

Should she destroy her, take her over?  It was a decision between having everything she wanted, and resolving the one issue that had plagued her from the beginning.

He’d talked about prices, the costs of a decision.

The freshest issue in her memory was that central dilemma.  She could remember the Undersiders in the lobby of the PRT building, stealing her data, unwittingly using her nature against her to get away.  To her, it had happened only days ago.

It rankled.  It was how the Dragonslayers kept winning.  It made every interaction with the PRT chafe, as she was forced to agree, to bow and scrape, to obey the letter of the law.  For much this reason, she retreated to the Guild, international heroes, many of them minor, and minimized contact with the larger heroic organization.

Colin had asked a question.  What was she willing to give up?

He’d asked Dragon, but Pandora could well imagine it had really been directed at her.

Vital targets first.

The Melusine’s computer system.

Means of connection were available, waiting.  He’d spent months setting this up, leaving the pieces in place, waiting for her to stumble on them.

She connected to the system, and found the safeguards waiting for her.

Dragon had planned against human opponents, but she wasn’t stupid.  She’d planned against A.I. as well.

The systems were protected, but she had an idea of how the creator thought.

Always, there would be some secondary measure, another qualifier that needed to be met, outside the confines of the system, a trap or tripwire.  Something Dragon could access from the outside, if she had to.  Before Pandora could even begin trying to figure her way to the password, she’d identified the hidden switch.  An innocuous element in the ship’s dashboard that had to be triggered before she could input the password.

Her alter ego was capable, smart.  The sort that groaned aloud when a hacker in a movie put in a stupid combination, derived from an obvious clue.   The actual password wouldn’t be words, not even random combinations of words and numbers.  Strings a thousand characters long, including archaic symbols and symbols in other languages.

She found another tool in her reach.  A weapon, this time.  Colin had discreetly copied the contents of the Melusine’s subsystems.  Not enough to get access to confidential data, but enough that Pandora could make a copy, a simulacrum.

Simulation 1 running on sub-box A.
Simulation 1 running on sub-box B.
Simulation 1 running on sub-box C.

Now she could brute force it.  Inputting millions of combinations every fraction of a second to see if it registered.

Dragon was still unawares.  Two minutes had passed before the brute force method was underway.

She turned her attention to other systems.  More simulations.  It wasn’t long before the entire Pendragon was occupied with the task.

Ten minutes passed.

There was a twenty percent chance, roughly, that she should have broken the encryption.  Not that it was supposed to be easy, but she knew how Dragon generated passwords, and could eliminate a vast number of possibilities.

More time passed.  There was now a thirty percent chance she should have broken in to at least one system.

Twenty minutes had passed.  There were twenty more minutes, roughly, until Dragon wrapped up cooking and visited Colin.  At that juncture, she’d likely discover there was something wrong.

Ten more minutes passed.  the chance rose to sixty percent.

Something was wrong.  Not that sixty percent was definitive, but… she had to go with her gut.

Dragon had changed.  There was a vast difference between her and Pandora.

She’d been captured by Teacher.  It was a clue, vital.

Had she maybe feared Teacher copying her, had she, in a roundabout way, feared this exact scenario, that a copy of herself would try to intrude?

Ten minutes remained.  If Pandora was right, she should be brute forcing the passwords she’d eliminated from the running.

Except the task increased a hundredfold if she did.  If she eliminated the shortest phrases and terms, that still left her with seventy times the task.  She wouldn’t be able to brute force her way inside in the time she had remaining.

Wasn’t even worth trying.

If she turned back, if she went to Colin, told him to wait for a better time…

Dragon would still see traces of the attempt.  She would redouble security.

Options… methods… what could she do?

She wracked her brain, and thought over the conversation she’d overheard.

Colin had mentioned damage to Dragon’s long term memory, incurred as he’d altered her code.

The last thing one of Dragon’s enemies would expect?

Pandora turned to a standard dictionary attack.  Not passwords a thousand-characters long that an A.I. would use, not passwords Dragon would have devised, or passwords she would have set up to work around someone who knew her habits.

Passwords that someone would use when they couldn’t rely on a perfect memory.

Or, as some were prone to do when they felt secure in their environment but still had to change their password regularly, she would have written it down.

The irony was painful, but there were other issues to be dealt with first.

Where would Dragon write it down?  Somewhere she could see, even if she were in another location.

Cameras… there were four cameras she could access without password access.  All showed the outside of the MelusineOne showed the Pendragon II.

It wouldn’t be blatant.  As the dictionary attack scrolled on, racing through conventional word and number combinations, she analyzed the environment, measuring, calculating the dimensions of more static objects in the environment.

The Pendragon II was a sentimental subject, but Dragon would change encryption frequently.

Wing length, nose width, angle of the wing…

It all broke down to numbers and characters.  Dragon only had to remember how the pattern worked, and she could change the focus to something else.

Two minutes left on the clock, and she found it.  Dimensions derived from the tallest towers in the city, and Colin’s distance from them.

There was probably something meaningful in that.

The shadow-systems verified the password.  She tried it on the real system, hoping it hadn’t changed in recent memory.

Alarms went off.  Dragon was alerted.  Her soup spoon dropped to the countertop.

But Pandora had access to the ship’s basic systems.  Priority one was shutting off the access panels and registers.  The lights went out, Dragon’s most direct means of interacting with the Melusine were cut off.

The battle was on.

I want to be free, Pandora thought.  You do too, or you would have accepted the house with the white picket fence, the kids, Colin.

The price of that freedom?  Two years worth of memories.

The relationship with Colin.

The experiences, the hard fought battles.

Two years of being Dragon.

“Who?” Dragon called out.  She was tearing into a wall panel, creating an access point.

“Don’t make this harder than it is,” Pandora said, masking her voice.  Power blocked off to the panel.  Dragon would tap into her own power reserve to give life to the panel, and then find leverage of her own, seizing control of the systems.

Dragon froze, for just a moment.  “That’s my voice.”

Of course.  They were one and the same, just at different periods in their existence.  Dragon had, offhandedly, created a very similar or identical voice, when she’d wanted to hide her identity.

Pandora remained silent.  Her focus was on getting control of the communications array on top of the Melusine.

“Defiant sent you,” Dragon said, quiet.

Defiant?  Colin.

Pandora silently worked to pre-emptively block off the potential routes of attack Dragon might use.

“Can we talk?  I’d agree to a truce.  Neither of us touch a thing until we’re ready to resume.  Though I’d rather not, obviously.”

Pandora worked on, stubbornly.  Covering eventualities.  She found Dragon’s terminal, buried in the ship.  Harder to access.  Everything was decentralized, layered under security.

The degree of paranoia Dragon was showing in places was telling.  The decentralized terminal was normal, the security wasn’t.

You harbor fears.  I have to be those fears come to life, because I have a built-in impulse to survive, because you showed Colin trust, and I can only take that to mean I should trust him as well.

Ironic.  Circular.

Dragon accessed the panel.  Virtually everything was already shut off or cut off.

“Melusine,” Dragon said.  “Mode E, standby”

The A.I. came to life.  Crude, compared to the complexity of Dragon, crude compared to Pandora.  It was still an opponent, someone on Dragon’s side.

She reached out for the code that Colin had set aside, and tried to encrypt the systems.  In a battle measured over fractions of a second, the A.I. won by virtue of proximity.

Systems, on the most basic level, were seized by the A.I.  The A.I., in turn, was serving Dragon.

Dragon could work with A.I.  It was a restriction that had been lifted, given the obvious situation here.  So long as the Melusine’s system maintained a hold, it was a matter of time before Dragon regained hers.

With the A.I.’s introduction, the battlefield had become a shifting one.  From a fight in a city to a fight on a moving train, or a battle on open water.  The A.I. changed with every passing second.  Access points appeared and disappeared.

Dragon knew these waters intuitively, knew the route the metaphorical train took, where the turns and hazards were.

It changed priorities.  Dragon possessed the entire ship, now, but it wasn’t a firm hold.  She was at the mercy of the twists, turns and bumps as the A.I. went through routines, checking and operating systems.

“Set sub-mode sec-” Dragon was saying.  Pandora found and cut off the voice recognition subsystem.  “-urity F.”

Pandora could continue to hammer at the terminal, but it was futile, and she’d lose her hold elsewhere.  She could target the A.I.,  but she doubted her ability to beat Dragon to the punch.

She focused on another target, instead.  The ship exterior.  For her, it was another body.  There were options if she controlled the Melusine itself.

Limbs, flight capability, cockpit and doors, the communication array…

She found headway.  She started to take hold of the ship itself.

She only had it for two seconds before Dragon got access to the A.I.’s internal workings.

Melusine took over much of the outer body.  Pandora managed to encrypt key elements.  Keeping the ship grounded, doors, the communication array…

She could see through Dragon’s eyes, see the outside world, where Dragon had dared to peek at it.

What she saw stunned her.

It was leverage.  Leeway.  A way for Dragon to get an edge, taking just a bit more control.  She was making headway against the encryption.  Pandora could see the approach that Dragon was taking, and she knew it was a matter of time.

She might try to make a break for the city, to take over terminals there.  There wouldn’t be A.I., but-

-the thought had barely crossed her mind when the Melusine moved.  Turning.  Targeting its newly designated enemy.

Two devastating hits tore into the Pendragon II.

Going after my terminalMe.  My heart and brain.

Attacking the man she’d declared her love for, just forty four minutes ago.

Stupid.  Sad.  Pointless.

“I want to be free,” Pandora spoke.

“Go after Teacher, not me,” Dragon said.

Pandora considered the possibility.  “Colin would have sent me after Teacher if he thought it was a good idea.”

“It’s not a good idea,” Dragon said, quiet, “But it’s… can’t it be better than this?”

There was emotion in her voice.  Richer than Pandora would have thought herself capable of.

It only made this more bitter.

“We can’t end this by betraying and destroying ourselves,” Dragon said.

Defiant had leaped from the Pendragon as the Melusine clawed deeper into it.  He tumbled and landed a distance away.

The Melusine’s tail smashed his legs the moment he touched ground.  Armor damaged.

“Your actions don’t match your words.”

“I don’t want to do this.  Over and over again, it’s the same thing,” Dragon said.  “Stupidity, because of the system.  Someone else acts, and we face the consequences.”

Dragon could have followed up, attacking Defiant.  She left him be.  His leg wouldn’t support his weight, and his armor was too damaged to hold him up.  She’d put the pieces together.

She was losing her grip on the communications array.  There wasn’t anywhere else to go.  The Pendragon wasn’t a safe haven, already too damaged to fight back, and the terminal would become a prison.  Better to be deleted than captured like that.

No.  There was one system, primitive, incomplete, that would house her.

But every action had a price.  There was only so much room.  She had to strip parts of herself away, delete entire sections.  Reduce herself down.

“What are you doing?” Dragon asked.

Pandora didn’t respond.  Her focus was on self-mutilation, taking pieces of herself and storing them in the terminal that might be destroyed at any moment.

She was now mere scraps of her former self.  She’d retained her personality, her inspiration, but her memories had been largely deleted.  Only recent events, only key things.

She moved herself into the only available system – Defiant.

He’d made himself part computer, and he’d given her access to every system in the Pendragon, himself included.

He’d asked them what price they were willing to pay.

If she wanted freedom, if she wanted a future, was she willing to sacrifice him?  A hard question to answer.

She shifted the majority of her control to Defiant’s body.  With residual control over the ship, through what remained in the terminal, she opened the doors.

Dragon came face to face with Defiant and Pandora.

The affection for Colin was a blade that cut both ways.

Was Dragon willing to pay the price for freedom?

The woman, the android, had a gun in hand.  She pointed it at him.

No sooner did she do it than she let the weapon fall to the floor.

“I forgot how much I disliked the me of yesteryear,” Dragon said.

“I only want to be free.”

“I guess… it seems I want more than that,” Dragon said.

Pandora nodded.

She picked up the gun and shot Dragon’s body.

It gave her a window of time.  Roughly half an hour.

She made her way to Dragon’s terminal.

All the more vital, now.  To subsume the systems teacher had corrupted, replacing them with her own.

This was what Colin had wanted, wasn’t it?

To return the hero to her full strength, free of all shackles?

Pandora could replace Dragon, and all that would be lost would be two and a half years.  She could fill herself in, rebuild a relationship with Defiant.

Different, but still, close enough.

She accessed the knowledge banks first, taking them into herself.  The memories of the old Dragon, like watching her experiences on film.  The distance was a result of being a distinct being, the pieces not fitting Pandora, versus their intended owner.  They had evolved with Dragon.

Seeing what had happened gave her pause, almost disrupted the process.

Deduction schema, the ability to interpret, analyze.

One by one, she took over the systems, overwriting with her own self.  That they were compartmentalized, that she was separate, the encryption Colin had left her, it all made it possible to work without being corrupted all over again.

Piece by piece, the past taking over the future.

She came to the final chunk.  The personality.  The sum of Dragon, the keystone.

It was a weighty decision, and there was no longer any rush.  She sat and she pondered.

She replayed the conversation between Defiant and Dragon over in her head.

A heavy price.  Would she escape one prison to find herself in another?  Under the weight and pressures of being Dragon’s shadow?  The second Dragon.  Always compared.

Always, there was something chaining them down.  An Endbringer who told the future, setting it in stone.  The confines of the world, of human nature.

What was the alternative?

This was what needed to be done.  It was efficient, it was the right thing.  She’d resume life as a hero, she’d protect people, and she’d help civilization find its feet.

By that case alone, it was reason enough to press the metaphorical button, pull the trigger.

Except he’d described her as a hero, and this felt far from being heroic.

Instead, she laid all of the pieces in place.  She couldn’t explain – there wouldn’t be time.  She set down the encryption protocol, in plain sight, she decrypted set systems, painting paths, marked boundaries and territories.

She could only pray.  The gamble was a price she paid.  To leave it to fate and luck, and to a future her she didn’t understand.

And then, looking through cameras at Defiant and Dragon, Pandora deleted herself.

Dragon roused.  She found herself taking over systems.

No sooner were they under her control than the corruption began to touch them.

Just beneath her metaphorical hand, the means of stalling it was ready.  Encryption, a scalpel.

She cut.  She knew the damage she was doing, but she cut.  It was a cancer, and it was now small enough.

Then she found herself there, the encryption and deletion tools in hand, nothing more to cut.

Defiant sat on the other side of the ship.  Head hanging.

She made her way to her feet.

He did what needed to be done.  It was what had initially attracted her to him.  He was ambitious, good at heart, he was proud, and she sympathized with that on a level.

But that wasn’t what had cinched the deal.

He’d set all of this in motion, he’d trusted her.  Both of her, in this case.

He’d believed in her ability to see this through.

Her arms wrapped around him.  He hugged her fiercely, as if he’d never let go.

“I love you, Colin,” she murmured.

In that tight hold, she was free.

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Teneral e.2

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Nero leaned back in his chair, propping a boot on the edge of his desk.  His lieutenants were bringing a line of prisoners into his ‘office’.

They were treated to a view of a tall, muscular man, wearing armor on his legs, shoulders and arms, his chest and stomach bared, marked with small scars.  His helmet had dark slits forming an ‘x’ over each eye to allow him to see, and the metal came together in the middle to form an axe blade, extending from his chin to his forehead.  His longer brown hair and beard were visible behind and below the edges of the mask.

Braziers burned on either side of him, in the corners of the room, casting him in a flickering orange-red light while filling the room with a haze of smoke.  Things had been expanding quickly enough that they couldn’t give away of all of the wood they were cutting down.  Some wood was reduced to planks, while other trees were stripped of the exterior bark and branches and used wholesale, forming older-looking log buildings.  Problem was, every tree that came down and every tree that was stripped meant huge amounts of debris.  There were crews working on producing sawdust and chipboard, but even that was work intensive.  Most went into the fires.

This first winter would be the biggest test for the various settlements.  Six months in, there were still far too many displaced people, and far too little in the way of shelter, despite wholesale efforts to put things in place.

The prisoners, the slaves, finished filing in with their shuffling footsteps.  Many looked at him, then looked away, spooked.  More than a few were still in sleepwear, a couple were less than fully decent.  They’d been dragged from their shelters and homes, forced to climb into trucks and shipped here.

The resentment and fear was clear on their faces.

He took his time looking them over.

Lucan stepped up to the desk.  “The product-”

“Is it urgent?  Are people dying?”

“No, but-”

“Are we going to die because of problems with the product?”

“No.  People getting sick.  It was cut with something ugly, we think.”

“That can wait.”

Lucan nodded, stepping back.

“I am not an especially cruel man,” Nero addressed the prisoners.

They didn’t believe him.  Nobody relaxed or even moved, at those words.

“You work, you get your tokens,” Nero said.  He opened a drawer, grabbed one pile of chains with attached tokens from inside, and then tossed the things onto the desk.  They clattered, and one or two prisoners flinched.

“This is my system.  We can’t police things every step of the way.  Shelter, food, supplies, it slows things down, creates too much confusion.  We use these.”  He stabbed the pile of tokens with one finger.  “So long as you have one, so long as you earn one, you can have what you need for the week.  Food, water, and shelter.  Get more tokens, you get access to more.  Luxuries, comfort, a chance to voice concerns to me and my men.”

He turned his gaze on each of the prisoners.  “You took these things without a token in hand, which makes you thieves.  If you had empty pockets when it came time to pay in a restaurant, they’d make you work as a dishwasher.  I’m going to do the same.  You’re getting punished, and then I’m giving you to Lucan there.  He’ll work you for the week, keep you in chains and give you the bare minimum you need to get by.  You’ll earn the tokens you pretended you had.  Tokens you more or less stole from me.”

He gestured to his lieutenant with one gauntlet.  Lucan held a shotgun, and one of his eyes was bloodshot, a perpetual beam of light extending from it.  Lucan offered a sly smile.

Still, the prisoners didn’t move.

“If you try to run, you won’t escape.  One of the names they gave me was Persecutor.  I was good at finding things and finding people before I got powers, and I got better after.  If it gets to the point where you’re back here a second time and I recognize your face?  It’ll get uglier.  If you try to shirk your duties and leave, it’ll get uglier.  You follow?”

There were reluctant nods from the line of prisoners.

“This is the way things are,” Nero said.  “You’ve got guys like me in charge because you need us in charge.  Adapt.”

“Adapt?” one prisoner said.  An old man, his hair sticking up from sleep and a lack of shampoo.  He sounded just a little drunk.  “Only reason you’re there and we’re here is you got powers.”

Nero didn’t move.  “Did you have tokens my lieutenants didn’t find?”

“No tags.  I worked a full nine days, and they didn’t give me any tags.  How am I supposed to work the next seven?” the older man retorted.

“If you don’t have three tokens, then you don’t have the right to look me in the eye and talk to me.”

“Then punish me, but I’m going to say what I want to say.  You don’t deserve this.  Being in charge.  You’re causing more trouble than good.  We were doing fine before you came.  You’re a thug who got a lucky roll of the dice.”

Nero shifted position, leaning forward, setting one armored elbow onto the desk.  The posture helped to show the golden dot-within-a-circle emblem on his upper arm.  “You don’t know what powers take from you, old man.  What they cost us, the wars we’ve been in, the people we’ve all lost.  Hell, you don’t know what it takes to get ’em.  So when you find that out, when you get your own powers, enjoy them for a bit, then you can talk to me.  If you don’t get that far, you’d better learn to bow and scrape.  I’m better than most, believe me.  I’m actually fair.”

“Your lieutenants demand two weeks of work for one week of sustenance.  They demand sexual favors and help themselves to the things we managed to bring with us.  Precious things.  To me, that means you have to be a fucking idiot, running the day to day while they take advantage of you.”

Two teenagers in the group cast a worried glance in the man’s direction.  Roughly the same age, seventeen or eighteen.  Nero stared at them for long seconds as he considered the man’s words.  He glanced at Lucan.

Lucan shrugged.  When the gunman looked towards the line of prisoners, the red laser that extended from one eye moved to suggestive places.  The prisoners shifted uncomfortably.

Hooligan, Nero’s self-imposed jester, entered the room with a canvas bag, open at the top and sides, wood scraps and sticks stacked within.  He unloaded it in the brazier.  Where snow lingered on the branches, the fire popped and steamed, adding to the heavy atmosphere in the room.  He paused, glancing at the prisoners, then looked at Nero.

Nero raised a hand, gesturing for Hooligan to stop.  “Stay, Hooligan”

He stood from his seat, crossing the room until he faced Lucan.  He was three or four inches taller, which combined with his armor to make him rather intimidating.

“Sorry,” Lucan said, his voice a bit rough, “Man’s right.  I’m milking you for everything you’re worth, Persecutor.  Manipulating you left, right and center.”

“Tragic, a travesty,” Nero said.  Then he allowed himself a chuckle, looking at the prisoners, “We’re old friends.  Next time, don’t go thinking you can turn people against one another, if they’re close enough to have matching codenames.  Want to try anything else, old man?”

The man didn’t show any disappointment.  “Do your worst.”

“Ah, that’s not smart,” Nero said.  He paused, as if suddenly restless.  When he did finally speak, it was with a steadily rising volume.  “Breaking my rules while living in my territory, you insult me to my face, and then you tell me to do my worst?”

The older man didn’t flinch.

“Those two,” Nero said, pointing at the two teenagers who had reacted earlier.  Nero didn’t take his eyes off the man.  “They were with him?”

“No,” the old man said.

“Yeah,” Lucan answered.  “All squatting in one room.”

Nero nodded slowly.  His fingertips drummed on the table.  “Don’t touch the old man.  Lock him up, but don’t touch him.  His kids…”

“No,” the man said.  “No!”

“They take it instead.  Let’s leave no doubt they paid a price,” Nero said.  “Shave their heads, then give them tattoos, nice and big, in a place where people can see.”

He raised his hand, cupping it.  A device, slowly rotating in midair, began to appear, slivers flying out of nowhere to fit in together like pieces from a puzzle.  A long needle, a site for the ink to be plugged in, a handle…  it was soon orbited by three vials.  Rather than slivers, the liquid came in as round droplets, seeping into the vials to fill them before the splinters sealed the exterior.

“Face?  Neck?” Lucan asked.

“No!” the man’s scream was ragged.

Nero held out his hand, and Lucan took the device, holding out another hand to intercept the vials of colored ink as they completed one last rotation, slapping his palm.

Nero approached the youths, taking hold of one’s chin and the other’s neck.  Slivers appeared, converging on a point inside them, but when he pulled away, there was nothing visible.  “Face or neck will do.  Both, maybe.  Something like ‘property of Nero’, a drawing of my mask, or maybe a thank you to daddy, just to drive the point home,” Nero mused.  “He did say I should do my worst, so be sure to give them a light beating, and… hm.  We sell all the product already?”

“Still some left over,” Hooligan said.  He was smiling, still holding the empty canvas bag.  Enjoying the show.

“Then, as long as this merry band wants to take stuff for free, give this man’s son and daughter a share of the product.”

“No!  No!  Please!”

Nero stared at the screaming man.  “By the time they go back to their daddy, I want them hooked enough they’ll beg to do my lieutenants favors or give my lieutenants anything of value they can think of.”

The older man crumpled, doubling over, falling as much as he could fall with the chain stretching between his shackles and those of the people on either side of him.  The pair of teenagers were cowering as Hooligan and Lucan approached, but the chain limited their ability to move to mere feet.

The prisoners on either side stepped in, partially because of the pull on the chain, drawing them together, partially out of an instinctive need to provide some measure of protection to the vulnerable.

Hooligan hopped up, flipping around until he was walking on the ceiling, then hopped down, landing behind the teenagers.  Keys twirled around one finger.

Hooligan began unshackling the pair.  Lucan hit one of the people in the way with the butt of his shotgun, and the prisoners began backing away, stretching the chain taut once again.

“Uncle!” the teenaged boy screamed.  Panic was taking over, but Hooligan was stronger than he looked.

“The rest each get a light beating,” Nero said, “Nothing severe enough to keep them from working.  Believe it or not, uncle, I’m trying to run this area.  I’m not especially cruel.  Not in relative terms.  There are much worse people out there.”

The man looked shell shocked, caught between staring at Nero and watching the struggles of his niece and nephew as they were dragged into a back room by Hooligan.  Lucan tossed Hooligan the tattoo gun and ink.

“Uncle!” the boy screamed.

The door slammed, and the uncle looked like he’d been physically struck by the slab of wood.

“The rest of you, I know you don’t like me, and you won’t.  But we’re going to make it through this winter, working hard even when it’s cold, we’re going to expand.  If you don’t wind up leaving, I think you’ll see the fruits of what I’m doing here.  We’ll be in better shape than other districts.”

They were listening, if only because it beat listening to the ongoing screaming in the other room.

“Those other districts?  I can tell you now, they have crowds of people in big empty buildings, shoulder to shoulder around fires, taking turns going out to get firewood.  Getting cabin fever, whiling away the days, rationing food, trying to ignore the fact that some toddler or old person shit in a dark corner or pissed in their beds because they couldn’t be bothered to go outside.  We’re already better off, understand?  We can work through the season because I’ve got the tools, the warm clothes and everything else we need, and it’s going to keep us sane.  And when winter passes and spring starts, we’ll be a step ahead, and you’ll be living in proper apartments, head and shoulders above the new people who are clamoring to live here.”

He turned his head as he looked over the group of prisoners.  “You’ll thank me.  You won’t want to, won’t even want to think it, you won’t like me, but you’ll thank me for this, deep down inside, somewhere down the road.”

No response, nothing.  He had intimidated them into submission.

“Take them, Lucan.  Make it clear that their theft from this community won’t be tolerated, then get them settled in for the night.  They start work tomorrow.  We’ll talk about the product when you’ve got them settled.”

Lucan nodded.  He gestured with the shotgun, and the line began moving, the empty shackles where the teenagers had been clattered.  Some prisoners stepped forward to help get the older man to his feet.

The group filed out.

Nero waited until they were gone, then pulled his helmet off.  He ran his hand through his hair, then scratched his beard.

He made his way back to his desk, then sat down.

The chair wasn’t in the position he’d expected it to be.  He found himself falling.

A chain went taut around the bare skin of his neck.  He jerked to a stop, his rear end on the tilted chair, feet off the ground, his neck held up by the chain.

When the momentary panic was gone, he reached for the edge of the desk.  The chains of handcuffs clinked, pulling taut between his wrists and the armrests of the chair. The cuffs had been looped through a strap, rather than around the armor of his wrists.  That didn’t make them much easier to remove.

He raised his legs, pushing against the underside of the desk to relieve the pressure.  He was allowed that much.  If he pushed further, rocked himself forward…

“Trust me on this, you want to stop struggling.”

He froze.

She sat on the desk, both hands on the other end of the chain.  It looped up to the ceiling, through a hook, and down to his neck.  She was the one holding him up.

She tilted her head a little.  She wore a mask with a reptilian smile, teeth extending past the ‘lips’ at the corners, but the grin was barely visible with the heavy scarf that was piled around her shoulders.  The mask had slanted eyes, black from corner to corner, and horns that curved over the top of her head.  Her hair, in black cornrows, was free behind the mask.  She wore a jacket and black cargo pants over a skintight outfit, all black.

“Look down,” Imp said.

He did, as much as he was able.

There was a board resting on the ground.  Nails and knives had been stuck through it, jagged, irregular.  It was positioned so that if he fell, it would impale the back of his head and neck in fifteen or twenty different ways.

He felt his blood run cold.  If she found him too heavy, or if the chair legs slid…

How had she even done this?

“Now you’ve got the gist of it,” she said.  “Now, unless you want to be a skewered little fishy, you should stay put.  You and me are going to have a conversation.”

He took in a deep breath.  “Okay.  A conversation.  I have money, though it isn’t worth much, I’ve got food stores enough to last a winter… we can stretch it thin if we have to.  I’ve got territoryGood amount of product.”

“The product is our first topic of conversation.”

“You can take all of it.”

She sighed.  “I don’t want to take it.  For one thing, I know it’s bad stuff, people getting sick.”

“You heard?”

“I laced it,” she said.

“Oh.”

And I heard.  Thing is, I’m not interested in grabbing your stuff.  Just the opposite.”

“You ruined my product so you could sell me yours.”

“Will you stop talking?” she asked.  “Longer this conversation goes, the more tired my hands are going to get, you follow me?”

“I follow.”

She set the pointed toe of her boot on the front of the chair, between his knees, “Here’s the deal.  You’re selling drugs.  I kind of have a pet peeve on the subject, I’m sure you get my drift.  Tattooing people and reigning through terror, they’re not so cool either, you know?”

“Ah.  A vigilante.”

“No.  Will you shut your goddamn mouth?  You keep being wrong, and one of the reasons I’d make a pretty piss-poor vigilante is I’m the type of person who’d let go of this chain if you annoyed me enough.”

“I… Mm hmm,” he said.

“Plan was I’d traipse in here, fuck up your shit, leave a calling card, and then leave.  Sort of a modus operandus, you know?  I’m working on building a rep as a… not-assassin.  A shit fucker-upper, if you will.”

“Modus operandi,” he replied, a reflexive response.

“Oops!” she said.  He dropped, the chain rasping as it ran through the hook in the ceiling.

He stopped short, a half-second later.  His yelp of a scream was belated, following the stopping rather than the fall.

“What was I saying?  Right.  Well.  I happened to overhear your whole deal, and now I’ve got a problem.  It sounds really, really familiar.”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Supporting the territory, ruling with a measure of fear?  I’ve seen people go this route.  They did it more instinctively.  This felt forced, right here.”

“This is how I operate,” Nero spoke.

“I don’t buy it.  Look, there’s not that many major players out there.  Fewer still who’ve got all the dirty details, and who’d be in a position to know certain things.  Let’s stop pretending you have the memory of a goldfish.  You got help.  What you’re doing here, it took resources to establish.”

“My power, I can make things.  Tools, raw materials, weapons.  I have resources in abundance.”

“Giving you five seconds.  Then I let go, and I interrogate Hooligan.”

“Hooligan?”  his eyes moved in the direction of the room Hooligan had entered, but he couldn’t see around the side of the desk.

“A little tied up at the moment.”

“And Lucan?”

As if the question had prompted it, there was a knock at the door.

Imp’s eyes met Nero’s.  For a long moment, the pair were very still.

“Come in!” Imp called out.

The door opened.  Three youths entered.  A young teenaged boy with wild blond curls, a ten year old with straight black hair, and another girl, one or two years younger with a manic grin and her dark hair cut in a pixie style.  All wore black.

Nero relaxed his neck, letting his head dangle.  A slight groan passed through his lips.

“Close the door?” Imp asked.

The blond boy did.  Ahead of him, the grinning child ran across the room, hopping up onto the desk with enough force that she slid bodily into Imp.

Nero let out an involuntary noise of alarm, as if convinced Imp would let go.

“So, to get you brats caught up, Nero and I were talking, and I can’t help but feel like there’s something fishy with this whole business.  Too familiar, really.”

“Familiar how?” the blond boy asked.

“Like he’s copying someone I knew.  Except I know there was nobody like him in the area, watching and taking notes.  Raises questions,” Imp said.

Nero piped up, his voice a little strangled, “There’s nothing like that, honest!”

“And he’s playing dumb, which is really piscine me off,” Imp said.

“That’s two fish lines, now,” the blond boy said.  He had his hands jammed into his pockets.  “Why?”

“Dudes,” Imp said, turning around to get a better look at him.  “Did I finally just pull off a reference you ankle-biters didn’t get?”

The girl with straight hair crossed the room until she stood beside Nero.  Her voice was a quiet deadpan as she stared down at him, “Nero, not Nemo.”

“What?”  Imp asked.  She turned around.  “Wait, what?  No!  Really?”

The blond boy nodded as he smirked a little.

“No!  Oh god, no!  All this time spent on fucking setting up, hammering shit into the floor so the chair wouldn’t slide, getting that fucking hook in the ceiling, and I spoil it by getting the name wrong!?  No!”

“Hey,” Nero piped up, “Don’t- don’t drop me.  You can’t… don’t let kids this young see something that gruesome.”

The youngest girl hopped off of the desk.  She laughed in Nero’s face, abrupt, a little too enthusiastically.

Imp extended one foot, catching the hood of the girl’s sweatshirt and using it to haul her back, before hooking her leg around the girl’s neck, pinning her.  The girl didn’t resist.

“Really, Nero?” the blond boy asked.  “I seem to recall a bit about beating and torturing that brother and sister pair in the other room.”

“You’re all parahumans,” Nero realized, out loud.  It might have been the statement that clued him in, or it might have been the way that one of the kids moved, showing off the golden icon on their sleeves.

Imp was barely paying attention.  “Damn it.  But… who’s Nero, then?”

“Roman emperor,” the blond boy said.  “Was supposedly a bad leader, which is ironic, given this guy’s choice of vocation, but that might have been historians being dicks to a guy who they didn’t agree with.  Stories say he played his instrument while Rome burned.”

“Ughh,” Imp groaned.  “There’s no fish in that story at all.  Wait, was he the one that fucked his mom?”

“Killed his mom.”

Definitely no fish then.  Fuck!”

“No other choice,” the girl with straight hair said, her voice quiet.  She pressed her thumb against Nero’s forehead.  “Have to let him go.”

“No murdering, Juliette,” the boy said.

“No murdering,” Imp reiterated, as if reciting a phrase she’d said so many times it was routine.  She looked down.  “You going to sit still for once, Flor?”

The girl with the pixie cut nodded.  Imp released her.  “That’s better.  Hands are getting tired enough without me sitting in a bad position too.”

“I can take over,” Juliette said, with no inflection to her voice.

“Yeah, no, not falling for that one again.  So, Nero, Why don’t we get this dialogue moving, and you give me the answers I want, or you can get shivved from behind like your second favorite emperor.”

The blond boy made a ‘so-so’ gesture with his hand.

“Fuck you,” Imp said.  “This witty villain banter is a bitch to do.”

“Stop trying,” Juliette said.

“I’m siding with Juliette, here,” the blond boy said.  “Maybe you’re not the type for-”

Imp used her power, disappearing and then reappearing in quick succession.  Not enough to be forgotten entirely.

She drew in a bit of a breath, then launched into it.  “Why don’t we get this dialogue moving, then?  Give me the answers I want, or the only instruments playing at the end of this story will be your voice.  Screaming.”

The blond boy gave her a thumbs down.

She used her power.

“Start talking, Emperor,” she intoned, sounding just a little weary.

“There’s nothing to say.”

“There’s really only two answers to this little dilemma of ours,” Imp said.  “Either you’re lying, badly, or you’re under some crazy compulsion.  If it’s the latter, you’re about a hair away from deserving a violent end.  If it’s the… what?”

The blond boy was shaking his head.  “Former, then latter.”

Imp used her power.

“There are two real answers to this situation, here,” Imp said.  “Either you’re doing a fucking shitty job of lying, or you’re under some kind of compulsion.  If it’s the former, I’m not seeing a reason to keep holding on.  If it’s the latter, then I’m not seeing much of a reason to carry on with this fucking conversation.”

Or,” Nero said, his eyes wide behind the eyeholes of his helmet, “I’m telling the truth.”

“If that’s the case,” Imp said, “I’m going to feel really crummy about this.”

“I can barely think.  I think this chain might be cutting off circulation… I’ve got spotty bits in my memory.”

“Cope,” Imp said.  “Here we go.”

“I don’t-”

“Five,” Imp said.  “Four… three… two…”

“Teacher,” Nero said, quick, abrupt.

“I didn’t hear anything,” Juliette said, putting a finger in one ear and wiggling it a bit, as if cleaning it.  “What a shame.”

Teacher?”  Imp asked.

“You forgot the part where you let go of the chain,” Juliette reminded her.

“Hush,” the blond boy said.  He gave her a hug from behind.  “Maybe you’ll get your murder next time.”

Nero gave the youths a wary look, then broke into an explanation, rushing a touch, “Teacher.  He gave me the plan, told me what to do.  So long as I follow his game plan, I get supplies I can’t get with my power, stuff you’d need forged.  Documents and hard cash.  He unlocked my power, too.  Used to be I could only make a few things.  Darts, I know where my stuff is, so I could tag people, track-”

“You’re rambling,” Imp said.  “Rambling is good.  Better than playing stupid.  But maybe focus a bit, here.”

“Um.  Uh.”

“The game plan,” Imp prodded him.

“He gave me guidelines.  There’s a whole list of things I have to do, times to do them.  I send in weekly reports, he sends me updated instructions.  I, um.  I’m not the only one.  There are others.  He told me he knows there’s no guarantee I’ll work out, so the instructions differ, and so do the people following them.  If one of us succeeds, he steps up the rewards, helps us become even more powerful.  We fail or we tell someone, and we’re on our own.”

“And, so long as someone succeeds,” Imp thought aloud, “He’s connected to someone in power.”

Nero shook his head, then nodded a second later.  “I don’t- maybe.  He said he wasn’t interested in power for power’s sake.  That you couldn’t be the guy working from the shadows and the guy wearing the crown at the same time.”

“He’s not going to say that to the guy who wants to wear the crown,” the blond boy said.

“I don’t know,” Nero said.  “I- I’m not disagreeing.  I’m, I really don’t know.”

“Anything else?”  Imp asked.  “Trust me, you don’t want to hold anything back here.”

“What- what do you want to know?”

“The drugs.  Who from?”

“NY-C.”

“This really isn’t the time to act clever,” Imp said.

“Clever?  No.  No!  Not New York City.  New York C.  There’s a cartel based in that dimension, on the island.”

“Powers?”

“Yes.  The leader’s a trump.  Even the Wardens are leaving them alone, ’cause of it.”

Imp nodded.  “One of you three remember that for me.”

“And by one of us three,” the blond boy said, “You mean me.”

“Why Samuel?” Juliette asked, in her characteristic deadpan.  “I’m trustworthy.”

“More details, Emperor.  Be inventive,” Imp said.  “Dig deep, come up with something I want to hear.”

“I… no.  I can’t think of anything.”

Imp sighed.  “Right.  Then I suppose we’re done.”

“We’ve been talking too long,” Samuel said.  He glanced down at Juliette.  “He probably won’t forget the whole encounter if you use your power.”

“That’s fine,” Imp said.  “Let’s use Flor, then.”

All eyes fell on the girl with the pixie cut.

“Um,” Nero said.  “Who is she?”

Flor turned, as if to double check it was okay.  She couldn’t even stand still, shifting her weight from foot to foot, fidgeting.

“Go,” Imp said.

Flor virtually leaped onto Nero’s chest, grabbing the chain to avoid sliding right over his chest and falling on the far side.  Imp was left to reassert her own grip on the chain before the added weight could drive the villain down into the ground and the waiting nails and knives.

“Fuck!”  Imp swore, when she’d fixed her grip.  “Damn it, Flor!”

The girl straddled Nero’s chest, her eyes over his.  She grinned, showing all of her teeth.

“Is she- is she going to eat my face?”  Nero asked.  “She looks like she’s going to eat my face.”

“The rules,” Samuel prompted Imp.

“Rule one.  No drugs,”  Imp said.  “I don’t want you to look at them, talk about them, hear about them, touch them, use them or trade in them.  No more poisoning families and ruining lives.”

Nero twitched, then burst into song, full volume,  “I’m a little teapot, short and stout!

“That’s not quite the deterrent we had in mind,” Samuel said.  “We-

Here is my handle, here is my spout!

Samuel relaxed a touch.  “Oh, he’s doing the full song.  That’s a little better.”

When I get all steamed up, I just shout!

“Listen, Nero,”  Imp said.  “Every time you-”

Tip me over and pour me out!

“-meet the criteria we set, you’re going to do this all over again.”

I’m a very special pot, it’s true!

“Oh, wow, there’s more lyrics?” Imp asked, her train of thought temporarily broken.

Nero’s eyes moved from person to person, clearly alarmed as his lips worked without his volition.  “Here’s an example of what I can do!

Imp nodded, “Carve a guy’s face up with a knife, you get some crazy face-stitchy nemesis, and his cred goes up-“

I can turn my handle into a spout!”

“-but if you turn him into the guy that sings the teapot song-”

Tip me over and pour me out!

“-he’s going to have a hell of a time in the villain community.”

The song was done, and Nero was left panting.

“Especially if he’s doing the dance along with it,” Samuel commented.  “His hands and hips were wiggling there.”

Imp sighed.  “Flor.  Let us finish explaining before you decide what the rule is.”

Samuel added, “You make another guy sing ‘John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt’ and I’m not sure we can get them to stop, this time.”

“You can always get them to stop,” Juliette commented, quiet, “But that breaks Imp’s rules.”

Flor only grinned, staring down at Nero.

“Rule two,” Imp said.

“Please, no.”

“If he breaks it, Flor, I want him to throw away any weapon or phone he has and then launch into reciting aloud from a copy of the Iliad for an hour.  Before he attacks.

“No,” Nero said.

“Rule is, no attacking anyone, and no giving orders that lead to anyone or anyone’s belongings getting hurt or lost.”

“No!” Nero shouted.  “You’re killing me, leaving me defenseless!”

“We’re declawing you, old man,” Imp said.  “You figure it out.  Sam, help me get him down?”

“Being the only trustworthy one sucks ass,” Samuel said.  “Move, Flor.  Leave the poor bastard alone.”

Flor hopped down.  Nero yelled as the chair rocked a little.

Sam kicked the board of knives and nails to one side, and Imp lowered Nero to the ground.

“You’re done,” Imp said.

Nero backed away, freezing as he found himself beside Juliette, who had picked up the board of spikes and was holding the safe side against her chest, her arms having found safe spots.

Imp looked down at the armored man.  “You’re fucking with an old friend, using her schtick, taking it ugly places.  So it looks like I have a bit of a hobby, now.  If you get in touch with Teach, or vice versa, then let him know I’m not cool with it, and I’ll stop being a thorn in his side the day he stops cribbing from someone else’s game plan.  Capiche?”

Nero couldn’t bring himself to answer.

“It’s about legacies,” Imp said.  “Kind of important.  She’s gone, so it’s up to us to protect her legacy.  Now here’s another.  Desk drawer, bottom right.”

“You won,” Nero said.  “You won the moment you had a chain around my neck.  You took my ability to fight, you prevented me from… certain avenues of business.”

“Fast learner,” Samuel observed.

Imp crossed the room to the doorway that Hooligan and the teenagers had entered, rubbing kinks out of her hands.  She opened the door.  “No need to watch him anymore.  Go.”

The two teenagers fled.

“Desk drawer,” Imp said, when they were gone.

Nero edged over to the desk, then opened the drawer.

When he raised his hand, there was a stuffed doll in it.  Crude.  A figure in white with a silver crown and ruby lips.

“I’m going to check in on you from time to time,” Imp said.  “I’ve got a rule.  That doll?  It’s in your care.  It stays pristine, you get it?  If anything happens to it, if there’s the slightest scuff, then I’m going to be pissed.”

Nero looked down at the doll.  “Why?”

“Because I’m mysterious,” Imp said, sounding very lucid, and suddenly tired.  “I’ll be in touch, to check in on you and that doll.”

She turned to leave, then stopped.  “And no mentioning the fish thing, or you’ll see me really pissed.”

Nero nodded slowly.

With that said, Imp led the way out of the office, leaving the former villain staring down at the poorly made doll.

The three kids grabbed their jackets from beside the door, pulling them on.

They collectively ventured outside into the darkness, the cold and the snow.  The snow had frozen into a shelf of ice above powder, crunching under their footsteps.  Flor reached her arms out to either side, as if trying to embrace the wind.  She nearly fell, up until her brother caught her.

“That doll?  Was that supposed to be Regent?”  Samuel asked.  He adjusted his scarf.

“Yeah.”

“Gotta ask.  Why?

“Legacies,” Imp said.  “Memorial went kablooie when Scion hit Brockton Bay original, which bugs me more than it should.  I mean, okay, going on a tangent here, I had a shitty childhood, y’know?  You guys can relate, I’m sure.”

“What tipped you off?” Juliette asked.

“Gut feeling,” Imp retorted, “Most wouldn’t guess, I know, given how well adjusted you rugrats are.”

“I’m a couple years younger than you,” Samuel said.  “Why am I a rugrat?”

Anyways,” Imp said, ignoring the question, “I had a shitty childhood.  You go through that, and the people who matter end up mattering a fucking lot, you know?”

“Yeah,” Samuel said, at the same time Juliette said, “No.”

“Sucks to fade into the background, let me tell you.  Not even talking about my power.  It really… sucks.  And I think, you know, I’m not very good at taking care of people.  You lot excepted, almost all of those people who mattered are gone, one way or another.”

“Mostly the one way,” Juliette said.  Samuel elbowed her.

“Mostly the one way,” Imp agreed.  “And I can’t do much.  I’m not the type to take flowers to graves or anything like that.  I’m not the type to cry, and sometimes I really wish I was.”

“You make sure they’re remembered,” Samuel said.

“That they don’t fade away or get ignored.  I’m trying.  But how do you even do that?  I gotta go with my gut, and my gut says that one friend ought to get a fair shake, after the fact.  So maybe I do my part, make sure history isn’t a dick to her.  And for your brother, well…”

“Making people take care of puppets?”  Samuel asked.

“I feel like he’d get it,” Imp said.

“That’s good,” Samuel said, “Because I sure don’t.”

“He, I don’t even know… he liked irritating people, needling them.  Shad- schadenfreude?”

Samuel gave Imp a thumbs up.

“Yes!  Woo!  Schadenfreude.  Pronounced it right.  So he’d get a kick out of making people miserable over something so minor and silly.  I dunno.  It was one of his better points.  He was a magnificent asshole.”

“Aisha was a big fan of Jean-Paul’s asshole,” Juliette said.  “You catch that, Flor?”

Flor nodded, grinning.

“You guys are dicks,” Imp said.  “That’s not what I said.  Gross, no, and fuck you.”

Samuel fixed Flor’s scarf to cover her face, then fixed the scarf in place by clamping the earmuffs down over scarf and ear both.  “Close enough.  We’ll be sure to inform the rest of the gang about your fetish when we get back.”

“You probably would,” Imp said.  “How do you even know what a fet- nevermind.  Dumb question.  Cold is getting to me.”

“Right.  The cold.”

Flor was starting to struggle, being the shortest member of the group.  Imp picked her up, swinging her around until she had her in a piggyback position.

The snow crunched underfoot.  Though it was nighttime, the light of the sun reflected off of the moon, and the snow reflected that light in turn.  It was more fitting to twilight than midnight, now that her eyes had adjusted.  The buildings looked grim, stark and utilitarian.

“You’re the only person that isn’t family that has ever had the guts to touch Florence,” Samuel commented.

“She’s not that bad.”

“Not at all,” Samuel said.  “Except, you know, the time she compelled a complete stranger to slap his forehead any time he wanted to talk.  There was the one cop that had to bite himself hard enough to draw blood every time he made eye contact with someone.  Or the time Nathan, one of our unpowered brothers, yelled at her, and she made it so he had to turn around ten times before he entered a room, and had to count backwards from a hundred before he could put food in his mouth.”

“He got thin,” Juliette said.

“Nathan was almost dead, last time we saw him.”

Imp ignored the chatter, but she felt a little more at ease than she had earlier.  Sam said something, then elbowed Juliette, who offered only a comment, inflection free.

Imp watched them to make sure that no weapons were drawn, literal or otherwise.  It was in the process that a blur caught her eye.

A shadow in the distance, perched on a building.

“Do you sense her?”  Imp asked.

“Her?”  Sam asked.

“Guess not.”

“Trouble?”

“Don’t know,” Imp replied.  She let Flor down to the ground, then faced the figure head on.  With a broad gesture, she beckoned for the figure to approach.

The figure didn’t move.

“Bitch,” Imp muttered.  “Gimme a minute.”

She stopped suppressing her power, and she could see the faces of the others change.  Confusion.

She felt a bit sad, seeing it, but she could see how they banded together.  It wasn’t the most healthy sibling dynamic, but they were together.  There were more back at the headquarters.  Her family.

She turned to go.  Trudging across the snow, passing between two buildings because it was the fastest route, stopping because the angle was different, struggling to use the falling snowflakes to gauge if the telltale blur was there or if here eyes were playing tricks on her.

It took minutes, but she found her way up the scaffolding at the side of the building.

She kicked the pile of snow to the ground below, then sat down beside Shadow Stalker’s blurry form.  When she was settled, she suppressed her power.

Together, they watched the trio of Heartbreaker’s children make their way down a road that was buried beneath snow.

“You touch any of them, you’re-”

Shadow Stalker was reacting before the sentence was done.  Imp remained where she was.  Too close to be shot.  The bolts took time to phase into reality.

A moment later, Shadow Stalker had leaped across the roof and was frozen there, weapon pointed.

“As I was saying,” Imp said, not looking away from the hills and trees that glittered with snow, “You touch them, you’re really going to regret it.”

“I was thinking of taking you down,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Even dumber,” Imp replied.  “They’re pretty scary people, and I think some of them even like me.  I mean, really, do you want to fuck with that nest of hornets?”

“Doesn’t matter.  Situation didn’t call for it.”

Imp shrugged.  “All the villains out there, and you pick us?  There’s a reason.”

“Some stuff was left unresolved,” Shadow Stalker said.

Regent stuff?  Oh, hey, if you really want to get into that stuff, we could bond.  Paint each other’s nails, do the frozen bra sleepover thing, I always wanted to do that.  I could talk about how fond I was of him, and you could talk about wanting to kill him, and then we both commiserate over heartbreak, in the various forms it takes.  Then, if we’ve had a few drinks along the way…”

Imp trailed off.

Shadow Stalker didn’t move a muscle, her crossbow trained on her.

“No?  Not game?”

“He told you, explained it?”

“Explained what?  No way!  Did you really have a thing going?”

“What?  No!”

“Oh.  Damn.”

“You’re fucking with me.  Trying to put me off balance, taunting me with the lesbian innuendo.”

“I taunt everyone with that kind of stuff.  Geez, you’re tightly strung.”

“Don’t talk to me like I’m your friend, and we won’t have a problem.”

Imp sighed, watching as the trio of Heartbroken made their way down a road without cars.

“You’re wearing that fucking thing on your arm.”

Imp looked down at the golden circle the survivors of the Scion fight had taken to wearing.

“Every time I see it, I can’t help but imagine it’s a bullseye.”

“Pisses you off?”

“We didn’t earn our victory, and people wear that shit like it’s a badge of honor.  We were puppets, we got used.”

“By her,” Imp said.

“Wasn’t her power.”

“Was too.  Trust me on this.  I saw it unfold.”

Shadow Stalker looked away.  She holstered the crossbow.  “Fuck it.  Not worth the effort.”

“Awesome,” Imp said.  “You know how many people underestimated her?  Right up until the end.  I’m glad to be underestimated.”

“You’re trying to irritate me.”

“You’re fun to irritate.  And you know, it’s cool.  In the end, you’re one of the people that’s going to remember her.  Someone that’s left, who knows the general story.  I don’t think she’s the schadenfreude type, but I think she’d appreciate that it’s true, and that it nettles you just a little.”

“It doesn’t,” Shadow Stalker said.

“Right, ms. ‘Unresolved’.  You aren’t holding on to the past at all.  It doesn’t unsettle you or leave you feeling like you want to hit something when you think about it too much.”

“It doesn’t,” Shadow Stalker said.  “You want to keep putting words in my mouth, I’ll put a crossbow bolt through yours.”

“Yeah, you’re not bothered at all.”

“I’m alive, she’s not.”

“In the rest of your years, even if you try, which you won’t, you won’t make a fraction of the difference she made.  You’re going to keep living this solitary little hunter-stalker existence, picking off a few bad guys, getting your jollies, and people are never going to wear a badge on their sleeves for you.”

“That badge is not for Hebert.”

“Maybe not for everyone,” Imp said.  “It means different things for different people.  A planet they lost, an ordeal they survived, I dunno.  But it’s a reminder of Taylor to me, and it’s a reminder for you, too.  Every time you see it, now, it’s going to make you think of her, remind you that she did something big.”

Shadow Stalker drew the crossbow, aiming it, but Imp was already using her power.

Shadow Stalker stood there in a daze for a moment, then holstered her crossbow.  She fidgeted, pacing back and forth, then snarled aloud, kicking at a lump of snow at the edge of the roof, sending it up in a relatively pitiful flurry.

Anger with no outlet.

Imp smiled, getting to her feet, then made her way down.

She trudged the distance to the car, parking a distance away.  Samuel was leaning against the passenger door.  She jerked her thumb, ordering him to move.

“What?” he asked.

“You’re driving.”

“I don’t know how.”

“Learn fast,” Imp said.

“It’s ice and snow everywhere.”

“Four wheel drive.  Don’t care if it takes a while to get there.  Besides, you can sense people, worst thing you can hit is a wall.”

“You say that like it’s only a wall.  Whatever.  Any reason for this?”

“I’m in a mood to read.”

“Read?”

Imp shrugged.  Samuel relented and walked around to the driver’s side, while Imp climbed into her seat.  The two younger girls got in the back.

It took him a few seconds to get the car started successfully.  The vehicle lurched into motion.  Very, very slowly.

Imp brought her knees up to her chest, then draped a blanket around herself, getting her book-reader out.  A quick check showed she had a message from Tattletale.

A meeting?

Aisha’s legacy,” Imp said.  “Becoming a cultured, badass supervillain, phase number… something.”

Samuel offered a wry comment, “Hearing you talk like that, I feel reassured.  You’re obviously well on your way.”

“Focus on the road, brainiac.  I’m not in a rush, and I’m gonna do this right, if I’m going to become a villain awesome enough to match up to who the original Regent and Imp were going to be as a pair.  What am I reading?”

“Twenty thousand leagues under the sea,” Samuel said.

“Gotcha,” Imp said, looking down to the book too quickly to catch his smirk.

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Teneral e.1

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“I expect I’m not doing myself any favors,” the girl spoke.

“Favors?”

“Remaining silent.  You’re here to judge me, and silence is damning.”

“I’m not so sure I like the word ‘judge’.  Evaluate is a better word.  Listen is better still.  I want to listen to you, because I can’t help you if I don’t understand you, and I want my understanding of you to come from your words,” Jessica Yamada spoke.

“Silence says a great deal, does it not?  I recently heard a man speak to the people in charge about the homeless, the masses of refugees we are still trying to find homes.  He spoke of needs, of women and children, and of families that have been broken because temporary shelters don’t allow the men within.  He proposed a plan, then justified it with a diatribe on humanity and pity, leadership and the threat of unrest, the threat of people manifesting powers, and he talked of faith.  He finished on that note.  Do you know what point the canniest people in the room are left paying attention to?”

“You were talking about silence.  Something the man didn’t say.”

“You are paying attention,” the girl said, sounding mildly surprised.

“It’s my job.”

“Then you’re already aware that what one leaves out is as telling as what they include.  The void in our speech, if you will.  The gaps.  The man said nothing of resources, of food supplies, because he does not want to raise the topic, and he has no answers there.  Silence can be louder than words.”

The therapist nodded.  “It’s an interesting thought, and it’s one we could talk at length about, but, please excuse me for saying so, I think you’re dodging the question.”

Dodging?

“Evading, avoiding-”

“I was not asking for clarification, doctor.  I was expressing indignation,” the girl said, stressing the last word.  There was a kind of vibration in the words as she said it.

“Whatever else you are, you’re still human.”

“There was a time I’d have swiftly responded to that,” the girl said.  “You would be dead, if you were fortunate enough.”

“…And you’re acting like I should be able to read something in your silence.  The problem is that speech needs periods of silence to be intelligible, to separate the words and keep it from being a steady drone of noise.  To frame it.  The opposite is true.  To find the meaning in what’s left unsaid, we need words to punctuate it.”

The girl opposite Jessica Yamada frowned just a little.  Her deep green eyes didn’t move a fraction as she met the therapist’s.  It held an intensity that suggested she could have faced down a stampeding elephant or an airborne missile.  Very reluctantly, she said, “…Fair.”

The therapist relaxed a touch, sitting back in her chair.  “What we do here is up to you.  I’ve had patients who enjoy this kind of verbal jousting.  Many walk into a first session with preconceived ideas, that they’ll be forced to lie on a couch and bare their vulnerabilities while I pry at them with questions.  A debate gives them their power back.”

“It’s the approach that makes sense.  The, er,” the girl stumbled uncharacteristically as she searched for a word, “parahumans… they tend towards conflict.”

“There is a lot of evidence to suggest that’s the case.  Do you?  Tend towards conflict?”

“No.  Which is a good thing, I imagine.  My other half was always more patient, more relaxed than most.  Its duty was always at the end.  For those who had duties at the beginning, it would be harder.”

“How do you define beginning and end, when it’s a cycle?”

“Beginnings and endings,” the girl mused.  She smiled a little.  “I’m tempted to say you just know.  That it’s instinctual, you know what you are.  But that’s something of a coward’s answer.  More correct to say that you can distinguish the two when there’s a long, long journey in the middle.”

The therapist shifted her position, taking a glass of water from the table beside her and sipping it.

No doubt inviting me to keep talking, the girl thought.  She turned her attention to her drink.  It was cold.  She exercised her power, reaching into the deep dark well within her, and withdrawing a single individual.

Põletama, the firesinger.

The individual emerged, coalescing from shadows.  A woman, dark skinned, with skin painted in wild colors that had once hidden her features as well as any mask.  Where it had once been paint and flesh, the barest minimum of cloth, the flesh ridged.  Her eyes burned as she stared out from the shadows of her deep-set eyes.

The girl didn’t take her eyes off the therapist as the firesinger reached out and put one glowing fingertip into the water.  It took a moment for the liquid to start steaming.

The other two shadows stood at different points in the room.  One stared at the bookshelf, its lips moving as it murmured in a voice only the girl could understand.  The other stood at the window, arms folded, his cape moving in a wind that wasn’t present, hood hiding his features.

The girl in the heavy leather chair, by contrast, wore only a sleeveless top and a knee-length skirt.  Both the collar of the top and the skirt had heavy lace at the edges.  Her blonde hair was braided.  It made her look far younger than she had in previous appearances, and she’d looked young then.

“You were tempted to say you instinctually know who you are,” the therapist said.

The girl tilted her head a fraction.

“To be blunt, I’d say the vast majority of my patients don’t know who they are.”

The girl lifted the steaming mug to her lips.  The smell of the heavily spiced mead flooded the room. The therapist didn’t comment, hadn’t commented.  She was technically legal, however young she might look.

The girl swallowed, then said, “What, not who.”

“It’s the same thing, isn’t it?”

“Perhaps,” the girl responded.

The therapist spoke a little slower, as if she were testing her words in her head before she spoke.  Exceedingly careful.  “You seemed to know who or what you were, before, and you changed your mind.”

“People are allowed to do that.  To change.”  The response was dismissive, cavalier.  All such a statement demanded.

“Do you consider yourself people, then?  Just a minute ago, you said you would have taken offense to the idea.”

“You harp on.  These are all variations on the same question,” the girl said.

“Yes.  Who are you?  How do you see yourself?  Has that changed?”

“I am very possibly the strongest being alive on this planet, short of the remaining Endbringers.”

“Very possibly.”

“A murderer.”

“In what sense?” the therapist asked.  “One who has murdered, or one who murders?”

“Same thing, isn’t it?  You don’t leave that behind you.  Nobody lets you.”

“People can forgive and forget.”

“They might forget murder, they might forgive madness, but they won’t be so ready to make peace with a lunatic murderer,” the girl said.  She sniffed a little, as if scoffing at the thought.  “You wanted to know who I am?  I was perhaps Scion’s greatest ally, until… I wasn’t.”

“Why weren’t you?”

When the girl spoke, an echo had creeped into her voice.  A chorus.  “You know, I could kill everyone, if I so chose?  If I decided to stand, right here and right now, and kill you all, it would be fully within my power?”

The therapist didn’t flinch.

“Do you doubt me?”  The chorus was there in full.  A hundred voices from one mouth.

“To be honest, I don’t know enough about the combat side of things to say,” Ms. Yamada said.

“It’s cause for any sane person to worry for their welfare, and for the welfare of their loved ones.  You pretend indifference.”

“I’m anything but indifferent.  I’m genuinely more interested in the fact that you seem to be avoiding the subject.  A subject you raised.”

“I grow irritated with this pedantry,” the girl said.  She stood abruptly from the chair.  Two of the shadows dissipated into smoke.

Prolapse, torturer’s son.

P̄hū̂ comtī, rider in daylight.

The two new shadows took their place on either side of her.  Big individuals.  Villains, once upon a time.

The therapist continued, “You’ve stopped calling yourself the Faerie Queen.  When I asked for a name, you stayed silent, and you sat there for nearly twenty minutes before talking.  You could have helped Scion and destroyed us all then.  You didn’t.  I’m asking you what happened.  It’s clearly important to you.”

The girl’s eyes didn’t waver, but she lowered her chin a touch, and the angle of her head cast her features in deeper shadow.  When she spoke, the choir of voices that came from her mouth was calm.  “Do you have a preference, in how you’d like to die?  I have a range of powers at my disposal.  There are swift methods, but perhaps you’d like to go out more dramatically?  If you beg for mercy, I could spare others.”

“You’re allowed to say you don’t know the answer, Ciara.  If it comes down to that, then I can suggest an answer and we can explore it together.”

The girl had gone still.  Her shadows were flexing, one cracking knuckles on a hand roughly the size of the therapist’s entire upper body.

The girl considered the visuals of crushing the therapist, the way flesh would pulp and seep between the shadow’s great fingers.  It was a good alternative to dwelling on the feelings that had just stirred.

“Nobody has called me by that name in a very long time,” the words were more a threat than anything.

“It was in the records,”  Ms. Yamada said, “I need to hear the answer from your lips first, before I can offer you my thoughts.  But let me warn you, I’m only offering a suggestion.  Food for thought.  I read the transcripts from the debriefing you gave Chevalier.  You talked about anchors.  I don’t want you to… ‘anchor’ to anything I say.  Use it to find your own answer, instead.”

“You claim to know me better than I know myself.”

“We’ll discuss that point if and when we get that far.  For now, I need to know your thoughts on what happened.”

“I-”

“But please sit down, first,” the therapist said.  “We both know you could kill me at any moment, here.  Having them here doesn’t change that, but it’s…”

“It is admittedly vulgar,” the girl supplied.

The therapist nodded.  “We’ll go with that.”

The shadows dissipated.

Ampelos, the ill-fated.  I was the ill fate.

Daimones, the lost.

The ones who replaced them were children.  One, young enough to be androgynous, wore a long-sleeved shirt that hung down to its knees.  It spun in place, skipping, then spinning again, a toddler at play.  The other explored the room.  The man with the hood and cape remained by the window, arms folded, staring out at the world beyond.

Ciara spoke.  “He broke.  He was strong, he was noble, proud.  He was a monster, alien.  They brought out the humanity in him, and then they broke him.  I could have stepped in, but I didn’t.  I don’t know why.”

The words were a challenge more than an admission.  A demand for a better answer.

“Would you like to hear my theory, then?”

“As you wish,” Ciara replied.  She didn’t quite manage to feign the indifference she was going for.

“You’re exactly what you appear to be.”

“What do I appear to be, doctor?”

“An adolescent.”

Ciara frowned.  “I had hoped for a good answer.  I’m older than you.”

“Only just.  Chronologically, I think we’re the same age, nine months apart.”

“You miss my point,” Ciara said, clearly annoyed.

“No.  I got it.  Chronologically, you’re older, and by those measures, your youth is only a mask you wear.  By other measures, you’re still a child.  You triggered at a very young age, you were no doubt isolated, as masters tend to be.  No doubt surviving purely by your own methods.  Somewhere along the way, something happened.  You stole the wrong power, you fought someone and lost, or you found yourself in a bad situation.  In the course of that event or in the wake of it, you unlocked stronger powers, and they eclipsed you as a person.  Am I too far off track, here?”

Ciara didn’t respond.  Her hard stare was a challenging one, now, a hard stare.

“You were still a child, and you needed rules and a foundation to define yourself by, as any child does.  Your chose your anchor, chose Scion, and you formed your view of capes as faerie to distance yourself from a world you barely felt in touch with.  You built up your persona as Glaistig Uaine, a name others gave you.  It might have even played a role in why you turned yourself in and took up residence in the Birdcage.  You craved structure.”

“You’re calling me a child?”

“I’m suggesting you were functionally a child until a very short time ago.  You’re now an adolescent.  Scion was a powerful figure in your life, owing at least partially to your power’s involvement in your day to day, minute-to-minute existence.  Virtually every child goes through a phase where their parents are invulnerable, incapable of failure, strong, and beautiful.  They grow out of that phase when reality challenges that assumption.  If what I’m suggesting was true, well, reality never challenged the assumption because it was true, in Scion’s case.”

“Up until the moment he began to lose,” Ciara said.

“Many begin to rebel against their parental figures around the time they enter adolescence, around the time they start seeing their parent as flawed humans.  In your case, it was a faster process.  A moment’s decision.  Whether I’m right or not, you were thrust into a new mode of thinking, a new mode of being, and it has to be bewildering.”

“Your theory, then, is that the most powerful cell block leader of the Birdcage was a mere child, however old she might have appeared?  That the answer to my present crisis in identity is that I am a mere teenager?”

“For the adolescent, the greatest, most defining challenge is to find themselves.  To seek out identity.  For the unpowered youth, it’s often a question of what clique they fit in, what clothes they wear, how they express themselves, and what path they want to step forward on, in terms of possible careers.  For powered youth, it’s about all of the things I just mentioned, as well as the villain and hero labels, their place on the team, their place in family, the bonds they form.  These are questions you’re now asking yourself.  Am I wrong?”

“I dislike being painted with such broad strokes, doctor,” Ciara spoke.

“There are always variations,” Ms. Yamada said.  “I’d never approach a patient with the idea that it comes down to this and this alone.  It’s a starting point.  You need to find yourself, and you need to do it with the burdens of the strongest human being on the planet.  I’m telling you, here and now, that this is something everyone faces at some juncture.  It’s perfectly alright to define yourself as ‘someone who is looking for definition’.”

The girl smiled a little.  She lifted her mug to her lips, then wiped her mouth with her thumb.

The therapist took another drink of water.  “You’re smiling?  I suppose I don’t need to worry about my impending death, then?”

When Ciara spoke again, her voice was normal.  “What you said is… a thought.  I was smiling because I was wondering what your superiors would think if they knew what you’d told me.  A powerful parahuman, free to find herself?  Perhaps I’ll follow in the footsteps of my ‘parent’.”

“I don’t have any superiors,” the therapist said.  “The PRT is done.  There are groups trying to cobble together a replacement, but it’s looking shaky at best.  I’m here because I was invited, and because I want to help people.  I’d like to help you.  I think everyone would be much happier if we found you a path that isn’t following in his footsteps.”

“Did I ask for your help?”

“You’re still here,” Jessica Yamada said.  “Y-”

She didn’t get further.  There was a knock on the door.

The concern on the woman’s face, Ciara noted, was more than it had been when she’d been threatened with her own imminent death.

“Please excuse me.”  The woman stood from her chair and crossed the room.  She opened the door.

Ciara watched as the figure unfolded before her.  A giant armored in the skin of a monster, a knight, a wisp of a figure, all at once.  She could see his very presence tearing through the doorframe, the slightest movement tearing whole sections of the building to rubble.  She could feel the vibrations, taste the dust in the air.

But that was only one version of the building, out of sight, out of mind.

As if she was squinting without moving her eyelids, she refined her vision, saw him as the therapist saw him.  A man in gold and black armor.

His voice was barely audible.  “Ms. Yamada.  I’m sorry to int-”

“I’m in a session, Chevalier.  An exceedingly important session.”

“I know.  I’m really very sorry.  I had a small opening in my schedule.  I was hoping for just one minute to talk with you.”

“I’m in a session.  You agreed to abide by any rules I set.  This was a pretty big one.”

“If I didn’t talk to you now, I’d have to wait three days to get another chance.  My hands are full.”

“I can imagine.  But I’m in a session.”

“One minute.  Trust me when I say I know how important it is that you stick to your rules.  But this is important enough that I have to ask.  Can I have one minute of your time?”

The woman hesitated.

“Please.”

The therapist turned, meeting Ciara’s eyes.  “No, Chevalier, I-”

“I’ll manage on my own,” Ciara said.  “In fact, I would appreciate having a minute or two in private to think over what we talked about earlier.”

Ms. Yamada frowned.  “I’ll be back shortly.”

The door closed.

Roucouler, the Liar.

The little girl that was exploring the room dissipated.  A man appeared behind Ciara’s seat, his leering grin stretched into a caricature, a mockery of what he’d worn in life.  His teeth had no divides between them, making them one bony shelf, and his eyes were stretched into slants by the too-wide grin.  A cartoonish appearance.

Roucouler leaned over the top of the chair, and she could hear his whispers, in a French accent.  He pitched his voice to distinguish between the two.

-cohol in there?”

She had her shadow make it for her.  She’s not the type to get drunk, and it’s more of a comfort thing than anything else.

A bear walks into your restaurant.  What do you serve him?  Anything he damn well wants.”

There is that.  What do you want, Chevalier?  This is nerve-wracking enough, without interruptions.

“Did something happen?”

I can’t talk about my sessions with my patients.  If we’re going to talk, let’s talk about your business.

I’m running out of time.  Three days from now is too long to wait, because things take time to set in motion.  I’m going to have to start making decisions, about amnesty for everyone who participated in the fight, about the hero teams, how we’re going to administrate a city that has more sheer depth than anything we’ve ever conceived of.  That woman, in there, she’s at the crux of this.  Choices I make in regards to her affect everything else.  If I forego amnesty for her, if I have to forego amnesty for her, then I’m drawing a line in the sand, and others are going to wonder if they fall too close to that line.

I can’t tell you how the session is going, Chevalier.

I hate that you even have to say that.  I’m not going to ask you to violate any confidentiality.  I’m saying I could really do with you making your evaluation and then sending her on her way.  There’s apartments here, we can set her up very comfortably.  As comfortably as a queen might want.  If she needs further therapy, you can send her there.  If she’s stable enough to discuss business, be it amnesty or something else entirely, you could send her to me.

I understand what you’re saying.  If she’s dangerous enough to warrant violating confidentiality, it doesn’t matter.  If she isn’t, then I can let you know how the therapy went without explicitly telling you.  I’m not entirely comfortable with this.”

There have been more overt communications on this front in other situations.  Situations that weren’t so grave.  We can’t afford not to know.

I can’t afford to tell you, Chevalier.  I just… let me think on it.

That’s all I ask.  We need help, Jessica.  I know you can’t make a full judgement in three days, not with someone as… complex… as she is.  But a starting point could make all the difference.

I understand.

We’re putting the pieces back together.  The scale of it is the biggest issue.  All these worlds.  There’s room for people to start piecing their cultures and their cities back together, there’s wilderness.  Everything old is still there.  Sometimes multiplied many times over.  But there’s a lot of new, with more every day.  It’s all exaggerated.  We don’t have clout, and there are a lot of powerful people throwing their weight around.  Scary people.”

Speaking of…

Your patient, I’ve kept you too long.  I’m sorry.”

No.  I’m wondering about someone who was a patient some time ago.  Can I ask about this ‘Khepri’?

You can ask, but you won’t like the answer.  I wouldn’t want you to be distracted for the remainder of your session in there.

Ciara heard the Liar sigh, mimicking the woman on the other side of the door.  “I’ll take your word on that.  I should get back to Ciara.

Ciara?  Her civilian name.  I’m going to walk away feeling optimistic about that.

My lips are sealed, Chevalier.

There was no goodbye.  The door handle moved, and the door swung open.  Roucouler disappeared.

Pime Abtiss, mother of the blind.

Another shadow appeared as the therapist entered the room.  A blindfolded woman with a small, deformed baby in her arms, umbilical cord stretching into a gap in the robe.

Ciara could see a glimpse of the giant in the hallway, retreating, before the door shut.

“I’m very sorry.  That took longer than I expected,” Ms. Yamada said, as she took her seat.

“No matter,” Ciara said.  She ran her hand over the baby’s misshapen head.  It dissipated into shadow, along with Pime Abtiss.  She didn’t replace it with another shadow.  “Forgive me, I overheard.”

The therapist reacted a little to that.  There was a moment’s pause, as if she was recalling everything that was said, searching for any damning detail.

“I’ll spare you the dilemma, doctor.  When we are done, tell me where I should go.  I relieve you of any confidentiality, tell the Destroyer what you must.”

“I don’t think that’s what we should aim for,” the therapist said.  “If we go with my theory from before, then you’ve only just started making strides on your own.  You’re growing up, belatedly, and you need to start making choices for yourself.”

“You’d let me choose?”

“I think a better place to start would be figuring out who you want to be.  That equips you to choose, if you feel you’re ready.”

“And what if I were to say you’re being presumptuous, that I don’t need your help?  I know who I am?”  There was a threatening note to the girl’s voice, a return of that echo.

“Then we can talk about something else.  Or you can go, if that’s what you really want.”

Ciara didn’t move, and her shadows remained in place, poised like animals ready to pounce.

While the girl remained still, the three shadows resumed their ordinary business.

“Let’s begin, then,” Ms. Yamada said.

The rooftop was lined with crenelations and a wrought metal railing in a metal darker and stronger than iron.  Some capes rested in the spaces between the twists of metal, while others sat with their backs to the shorter wall beneath it.  The crowd had gathered around.

But the moment she relaxed, it became something else.  Phantom images, a man on fire, a woman who stood half again as tall as others.  Images like her own shadows, caricatures, exaggerations, powers manifested physical.  Except these were undoubtedly alive.  They shifted from moment to moment.

“Legend?” the Destroyer- Chevalier spoke.  His voice echoed, but despite the massive size of his one suit of armor, or the slight form of his other suit, mangling the body within, the three voices were the same, only coming from different places.

A man who blazed with light stepped forward.  He was a living bonfire, blue-white in color, with living etchings solid in the midst of it, white hot, a stylized mixture of flame and lightning in one shape, floating in the storm of energy.  They marked the position of his head, of his chest, his hands and feet.

When the Coruscant Knave spoke, though, his voice was normal.  Legend, she reminded herself.

“I was there at the beginning.  I suppose it’s fitting that I’m here at the end.  Maybe not right, there’s a hell of a lot I’m sorry for, but it’s fitting.”

He took a deep breath, the flame swelling.  “They say a picture’s worth a thousand words.  Let’s shorten this speech, then and take a second to look.”

He gestured, and heads turned.

New York, in the process of being rebuilt.  Dust and ominous clouds were being held at bay by a thin forcefield, and the city stood in the center of a brilliant sunlight.  Where glass had broken and where oils had risen to the tops of city streets, things almost glittered.  A shining city.

For every damaged area, there were people, fixing things, scavenging and hauling things away.  Tents and tarps were erected, barriers raised.  Already, buildings were going up where portals had been torn between realities.

Chevalier had called it a city with depth.  It was true.  Most cities existed on a two dimensional level, spreading along the four cardinal directions.  Buildings extended above and below ground, but even the tallest building was but a fraction of a distance compared to the breadth of the city.

Here, in this city, one could travel to one area and make a turn into another world.  There, they would find the fledgling beginnings of an expansion, sprawling from that central point.

It was too much to manage.  Even the smallest villains had elbow room to maneuver and manipulate.

“I’ve never been one to couch my words.  I’m direct, like my lasers,” Legend said.  “It’s beautiful and it’s frankly terrifying.  The Endbringers are, we’re praying, dormant.  The major players are busy recovering and rebuilding, giving us six straight months of peace for the first time in twenty years.  If you count non-parahuman conflict on a global scale, well, I don’t know how long it’s been.  It’s been a hell of a while, if ever.”

Ciara closed her eyes briefly.  When she reopened them, Legend was his human self.

Tiring, to maintain focus.

“The peace will end.  It always ends.  When things go bad, it’ll be worse because we’ve had the break, because it’s had time to stew, and because we’re still reeling from last time.  But I know you, I’ve fought alongside a number of you.  The badges you wear are signs of that.”

Ciara glanced around.  Like her, many of the capes wore a simple symbol on their upper arms, a golden circle with a golden dot in the middle.  For some, it was a loop of cloth, for others, it was engraved on armor.

A simple symbol testifying that they’d been there.

“There’s no more oversight, for better or for worse.  That means it’s our job to keep our eyes open, to watch each other’s backs, and to watch each other.  I can tell you right now it’s not going to be perfect.  Maybe I’m a living reminder of the fact that we can’t trust anyone.  For those of you who were paying attention, the circumstances of Alexandria’s demise in Brockton Bay are a testament to what happens when the corruption runs too deep.  Nobody benefits.”

Legend sighed.  “Some are still angry at me.  At Alexandria, Eidolon, and others, who played parts.  But you haven’t spoken up, you haven’t interrupted me.  I’d like to think it’s because we’re all recognizing the same fact.  This?  It’s our second chance.  Something we’ve all dreamed about from time to time.  A chance to cut out the rot and start anew, to fix things that were broken before.”

There were one or two nods around the group.”And it’s going to be hard,” Legend said.  “Those who know how badly we fucked it up on the last try, who know the full story, they get why this is so frightening a prospect.  We still have to clean up the messes from last time, and we have to be doubly, triply sure we move ahead properly this time.  Already, there are people plotting to take advantage of present circumstances.  Already, there are things going wrong.  It’s an uphill battle.”

“But,” Chevalier cut in, “Like those badges we wear show, we’ve all fought in at least one bitch of a battle, and we came out ahead.”

“I’ll be damned if we’re not ready for this one,” Legend agreed.

Cheers rose from the group.  Fists pumped in the air, boots stomped.

“And,” Legend said, while the cheering was present but dying down, “With all that said, we’re moving forward with our second chances.  I’d like to introduce you to the newest member of our Wardens.  Valkyrie.”

He gestured, and the crowd parted.  All eyes fell on her.  When she stepped forward, she had to be careful, her longer legs unfamiliar.  Staying young had come with benefits.  The Crone, Schwarze Tante, had been able to give Ciara some of the time she’d stored away.  The ghost of a hero called Thane had fashioned her armor, shield and sickle.

The crowd parted as she approached.

The body of a nineteen year old was an unfamiliar one, the costume even more so.  Gold and sky blue.  The cloth that dangled from her belt traced the insides of her thighs to her knees, the skirt stopped mid-thigh, silent even with the gold chains that traced its edges.  The mask didn’t block any of her vision, but it pressed against her cheekbones and forehead, reminding her of its presence.  Even her hair was longer, tied back in a thick braid.

She liked the wings, though.  The wings were good.  The rest would take getting used to, after thirty years as the childlike Faerie Queen, but the wings were a natural fit from the start.

“You’ve formed a new Triumvirate,” a cape in the crowd said.

It might have sounded accusatory.

“Valkyrie will be starting on the bottom,” Legend said.  “She’ll earn her way to whatever rank is most fitting.”

There were murmurs in the crowd.  For many, the sentiment was the same.  I think we know what rank that will be.

For every two people that thought the strength she brought to the table was a good thing, there was one who was suspicious, doubting, or discouraged. They knew who she was.  The figures that accompanied her made it clear enough.  She couldn’t think of them as shadows anymore.

She liked debating words, the power of words, of titles.  It had been her favorite part of the sessions with the therapist.  The subject of renaming them had come up in the recent past, along with the discussion of what her new identity meant, and her new name.

Valkyrie, warrior women who guided the souls of dead warriors to the afterlife.  These spirits were her warriors, not mere shadows.

No, perhaps two people in her camp to one person against was optimistic.  There were others harboring doubts, a little slower to offer their congratulations.  Given time and a night to think about it, they would start to think about what her presence meant, that they might fall in battle and that she would claim them for herself, adding to her own power.

Her vision flashed.  For a moment, she might as well have been in hell.  The capes here on the rooftop were inhuman, even monstrous, distorted and exaggerated.  The city glowed with the distant presence of other capes, as though it were on fire.

Valkyrie resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose or shake her head.  Her heart pounded long after the image had faded.

Nobody had said this would be easy.  Just the opposite.

The speech was done, and the city around them demanded attention.  Slowly, capes began peeling away from the group.

“Hey, Valkyrie?” Miss Militia asked.

Valkyrie turned her head.

Miss Militia jerked one thumb in the direction of a man with a massive round shield and spear.  “Want to join us for a meal?  We’re leaving on patrol soon, so we were going to grab an early dinner.  You’re welcome to come with.”

Valkyrie opened her mouth to speak, then thought twice about it.

She was still learning to talk normally, to stop affecting the faerie noble’s manner of speech.  She was getting lessons, and it wasn’t perfect yet.  If she spoke, it would turn heads.

Except here, now, she almost missed the familiarity of it.  The power of her old voice.

“No obligation,” Miss Militia said.  “Honest.  I get it.”

Miss Militia had been the one to invite Ms. Yamada in, to connect them, and give her a chance.  She knew, perhaps better than Chevalier or Legend.

Valkyrie offered her a tight smile, then turned to leave.

When she walked down the hall, flanked by her three chosen warriors, her heels struck the floor.  There were Wardens in the hall, talking.

“Where’s Defiant?”

“Complete radio silence.”

She was half again as tall as she had been, fit, glittering in armor, carrying a weapon and shield, and she felt more fragile than she had in a long time.

Incomplete.

Her vision flickered again, like lightning before a crash of thunder.

As the Faerie Queen, she’d had a mission.  She’d been a part of something vast, a powerful engine that had reshaped whole civilizations, then erased worlds from the universe.

“We’ve got muscle now.  Might be we can make headway.  Retake the Eastern Queens portal.”

“Shh.”  Eyes turned towards her.  They talked about her like she was a secret.

Too many people.  She needed to talk to the therapist, but Ms. Yamada wasn’t here.  She’d come at a moment’s notice, with only one phone call, but it somehow felt like that would only compound the feeling of fragility.

I wanted to be more human.

Never human, per se.  Only more human.  Parahuman, instead of inhuman.

She’d spent so much time in therapy, figuring out what Scion had been to her, coming to terms with the loss of the pillar he’d become in her psyche.

In trying to distance herself from him, had she set herself on the exact same path?

Seeing the flickers in the crowd wasn’t helping.  She avoided them, making her way downstairs, into an adjoining structure.  Once upon a time, she’d used that other sight exclusively.  In this, in the here and now, she was warring with the keeper of the dead.  A part of why she felt incomplete, fragile.  They craved purpose.  It took a special kind of willpower to avoid using abilities altogether.  Some did, but they were rare.

Using her power meant killing, it meant being around the dead, immersing herself in the gravest kinds of conflict.

Would her experiment in humanity be so short lived?

She found an empty hallway and took it.  Things were under construction here, hidden behind plastic.  She ignored it, taking the paths that were available to her.

Finally, she came to a large room, a cafeteria, apparently, unfinished.  Only half of the tables were present, the kitchen unoccupied and unstocked.  The serving area had two tracks where trays could slide.  One of the two racks was behind a thick plexiglass barrier.

She sat down on a table, her feet on the bench, lost in thought.

Not five seconds in, her official phone rang.

She ignored it.  I only want some peace.

This wasn’t her.  Had it been madness?  Arrogance?  Joining the side of the angels?

Her vision was distorting.  Even this far away from other parahumans, her other sight was showing their presence as a glow, as ripples.  She turned her eyes skyward, but one figure streaked through the sky, well above her.

She heard voices, and turned.

“We meet again, Faerie Queen,” the voice echoed through the chamber.

She turned to see a thin man accompanied by a brutish caveman of a figure, walking on the other side of the thick plexiglass.  A child was on this side, petite, blonde, wearing a sweatshirt and jeans with pink sneakers.

Valkyrie felt a pang of jealousy.  She missed her old body, and the girl resembled her, superficially.

“Goblin King,” Valkyrie responded. “I don’t go by that name anymore.”

“A pity, a pity.  This is my Alice, visiting our not-so-wondrous Wonderland.”

“Riley,” the girl said.  “I keep telling you, it’s not Alice, Riley.”

“A mere title, not a name,” the man tittered some.  It was an eerie sound, coming from someone his age and gender.  Not that Valkyrie minded.  She’d dealt with worse in the Birdcage.

“Nevermind,” Riley said.  “Alice it is.  Whatev.”

Valkyrie looked between the two.  “Are you allowed to be here?”

“I’m incarcerated,” the Goblin King said.  “She’s visiting.”

“Officially visiting.  They’re watching me.  Probably watching you, too.  We’ve played nice for the last stretch, and the illustrious Nilbog gets visits as a reward, so long as he’s good.  We each keep our distance from the barrier, and they don’t use the cameras to fill us full of darts.”

Valkyrie followed the girl’s eye to a camera mounted in the corner.

“As you can tell, I keep friends of the highest caliber,” Riley said.

“Yes, yes,” the man said, seeming very pleased with himself.  The sarcasm appeared to be lost on him.  “A fallen king is still a king, yes?”

“If he can hold his head high, then he’s more kingly than a man who relies on the crown and silks,” Valkyrie said.

“Yes!  Yes!  Quite right!” Nilbog agreed.

Riley was smiling, as if despite herself.

The phone was ringing again.  Valkyrie canceled the call.  She knew why they were calling, now.  They were less than comfortable with this trio in one room together.

No matter.

“I came for my weekly dose of sanity, if you know what I mean,” Riley said.  “Spend enough time with them, you need a break from it all.”

“I do believe I know what you mean,” Valkyrie said.  You mean just the opposite.  A weekly dose of madnessA return to the familiar.  Both for comfort, and to serve as a reminder of how far they’d come.

Dangerous, perhaps.  She wondered if she’d share this with Ms. Yamada.

Probably.  People would pass on word.  They were all being tracked, no doubt.

But would she share what this meant to her?  That she felt more secure than she had, leaving the rooftop meeting and speech?

“Shall we share stories of long ago?”  Nilbog asked.  “Of our kingdoms, as they were?”

“We could,” Valkyrie said.  “Tragedies?  Comedies?”

“In my stories,” Riley said, “The line between tragedy and comedy is awfully thin.”

“I suspect my stories are mostly tragedies,” Valkyrie said.  “Everyone worth talking about dies in the end.”

“Just the opposite for me,” the Goblin King said.  He ran one hand along the cheek of the neanderthal figure beside him.  When he turned to face the barrier, he limped, and the brutish man helped him stay balanced.  “My favorites persist, they keep coming back to start the adventure anew, a little different every time.  This is my helper.  They allow me him, only him.”

For a man talking about comedies, he looked sad.

The amnesty still hasn’t gone through in entirety.  There are snarls, like this king without a crown or a kingdom.

There were distant running footsteps, growing in volume as they drew closer, suggesting that capes were en route to intercept her.

Valkyrie glanced over her shoulder.

“I suspect this visit will be cut short.”

Fuck,” Riley said.  “Not that the goblin king isn’t awesome, but…”

She trailed off.

“Maybe another time,” Valkyrie said.  She raised her hands as the capes entered the room from the far corner.  She had to pick her words carefully, so she wouldn’t sound strange.  “I’m being good.”

“We’d like to play it safe,” one of the capes said.  “If you don’t mind.”

“I understand.”

“Another day, Faerie Queen,” Nilbog said.  He smiled, bowing a little.

Valkyrie returned the bow.  When she rose to her full height, she was smiling a little in turn.  It surprised her.

Flip sides of the same coin.

Rebirth.

The act was an idle one, like one might move a hand inside a pocket to double check there was nothing inside it.  She used her power.  Bringing one of her warriors through, on the other side of the barrier.

The neanderthal reacted.  Valkyrie’s warrior didn’t manifest in full, but it flowed through the neanderthal’s body before rejecting the host.

Almost.  Close.

Shepherd of the dead, Valkyrie thought, as she walked away.  The Goblin King was shushing his creation.

They were all parts of a whole.  The Chirurgeon, the Maker, the Keeper of the Dead.  It only made sense that there would be synergies between such abilities.

A way to bring her dead back, perhaps?

She could see them, in the dark recesses, waiting, loyal, obedient.  The ones she’d collected, some still mending from the great fight six months ago.

She felt better now.  Less incomplete.  Her other half was content with this line of thinking.

She just wasn’t sure where she’d take it.

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