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Wake

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“Thirty, forty people?”

“As a rough estimate,” Snag said. “We don’t want you for that part, though. Not exactly your style, I’ve been told?”

“No.”

“Beast of Burden recommended you as more of an assassin. Thirty five to sixty individuals with powers. Plus armed henchmen, drones, minions. We go to war, we do it with the sanction and assistance of the major names, and we intend to leave no room for any result except the one we need.”

“You want them wiped out?”

“Broken, scattered to the wind, if need be. But this one…”

The distorted image projected on the wall of the headquarters shifted. Snag pushed a piece of paper across the table. It looked like a sketch-artist’s impression, a slightly-off but still-recognisable drawing of Erin. "Somewhere between sixteen and eighteen. Four powers - minor tinker, mover and emotion powers, and a stronger one, something to do with pushing back or breaking things. Blaster or striker."

“No name, no photos. Vague description of her powers, at best. Vague age.”

“Is the age a problem?”

“No. The lack of information could be.”

“She’s… paranoid.” A few photos slid across the table, grainy telephoto shots of a figure with black hair. “The sketch is accurate, though.”

“Hm. You want her dead?”

“Yes. The others, we’re handling. Scattering to the wind, killing, disabling - doesn’t matter, as long as they’re gone. Her, though - whatever happens, she has to die. Not willing to leave it to chance.”

“Not just die, if you came to me.”

Love Lost’s claws drummed against the table, and Snag glared at her as he slid over a check. “Ideally, yes. But dead is the first priority.”

The man at the table inspected the table. “Hm. I can include quite a few priorities, for this.”

“Then yes, we want her to suffer. Psychologically and physically.”

“If your money’s good, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“It’s good.”

“Then it won’t be a problem.”

The conversation paused as something grabbed their attention.

Damn, Erin. What kind of shit did you do to them?” Chris asked. “Gotta admit, I’m kinda impressed. I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Shut up, Chris,” Sveta said. She tried to give Erin a compassionate look, but it went unnoticed as the other girl paced.

“Victoria’s in a fight,” Kenzie said. “I hope she’s okay.”

You hope Victoria’s okay? Erin bit down on her thumb slightly too hard, and the taste of blood filled her mouth, mixing with the bile at the back of her throat.

“I hope we’re okay,” Kenzie continued, oblivious. “This is a bit much to deal with just us.”

Erin laughed at that, flecks of blood flying out. “Trust me, chipmunk, it really isn’t.”

Kenzie beamed. “Aww, thanks!” 

Not what I meant. She smiled back, though, or tried to.

Sveta didn’t seem as convinced, and Erin could see her mind working. You knew this would happen, Erin, don’t try and pretend. You knew that the others would say something, and you insisted Victoria go out there anyway! What did you think was going to happen? It wasn’t exactly like there were any other groups out there with ‘thirty-five to sixty’ capes that would also inspire this level of vitriol. Worse than that, though, was that she could see Sveta connecting dots, and she could see her connecting them wrong. If Erin corrected her, then she’d know, and if she didn’t, she’d figure it out eventually, they’d all figure it out eventually, and then it wouldn’t be just Hollow Point and her cluster coming after her but the therapy group as well and-

She took a deep, shuddering breath, heart thumping unevenly, vision going dark around the edges. She’d been learning how to manage, she’d been getting better, but now the reality of her situation was rushing back in full, and with it, the panic.

“Erin?” Kenzie asked. “Are you-”

“I’m sorry,” Erin gasped, stumbling towards the door. “I’m- you have to-” Words weren’t coming, she had to get out, she had to-

“Erin?” Her vision had narrowed down to a speck, and it felt like there was a band wrapped around her chest, crushing the air out of her lungs. “Erin, you need to breathe, okay? Remember the exercises - in, 2, 3, 4, 5, out, 2, 3, 4, 5.”

She followed the voice’s instructions, slowing her breathing even though it felt like she was only getting a scrap of air each time, and eventually she found herself returning to her senses. 

They were on the fire escape, she realised, though she couldn’t remember leaving the room. She had her back up against the door, and Tristan was sitting opposite her, legs crossed and leaning against the railing.

“You back?” he asked gently.

“...yeah,” she breathed, voice still shaky. “...yeah, I’m- thanks. How did we-”

Tristan smirked, flexing a bicep. “Enhanced strength, remember?” She rolled her eyes, and he laughed. “Thought you could use some space. And, uh. Privacy.”

Erin’s heart was still racing, and she still felt more than a little nauseous, but now that she had her breathing back under control, both were fading. With that, though, came the return of the reality that had induced the spiral in the first place.

Fuck,” she hissed. 

“You have to tell them,” Tristan said calmly.

“I don’t have to do anything, Tristan. Except, apparently, get tortured and die.”

“You have to tell them,” he repeated, not budging an inch. “They’re going to put their lives on the line for you. Would you be able to live with yourself if something happened to one of them, and they didn’t know the full story?”

“...maybe.”

That caught him off-guard, which wasn’t a small thing. They’d talked, in therapy and outside, about how he was like a train - barrelling forward one his path, impossible to slow or stop. But, if you came in from an unexpected angle, it was possible to knock him off the tracks.

If only briefly.

“What were you going to do if Snag or Love Lost mentioned the Fallen?” he asked, changing tacks.

“Lie. Something close enough to the truth that they’d buy it, but still far enough away that they wouldn’t back out.”

Tristan blinked. “Jesus, Erin.”

“Fuck off,” she shot back. “I’m trying to avoid a fucking fate worse than death over here! Excuse me if I’m not being completely pious, but I have other goddamn priorities!”

“This is just going to make things worse, Erin! What if the truth comes out in the middle of a fight? What if it makes them hesitate, gets them hurt or killed? What if, fine, they actually do turn on you? Even though I know, and I haven’t.”

Erin kicked him gently in the shin. “Let’s be real, man. You need to be okay with me, cause it means there’s hope for you.”

“...maybe,” he admitted. “But can’t that work in reverse, then? Do you think I deserve to die for what I did?”

“I-” the snarky comment died in her throat as she met his eyes. “No.”

Tristan nodded. “I know this is hard, but at some point you’ve got to extend a measure of trust. If not to them, then to me. Don’t believe in the them that believes in you, believe in the me that believes in them believing in you.”

“That fucking sucked.”

“Hey,” he laughed, “I’m a hero, not a writer. Now come on. You’re going to go in there, you’re going to explain the whole situation, and then-”

“And then what, Tristan?!” Erin snapped. “What possible end is there to that sentence, apart from ‘and then Erin got killed by her cluster and the Fallen tortured her family for failing them’ or ‘and then Erin had to be the property of a fundamentalist psychopath for the rest of her life’?! Cause if you have one, I’d really fucking like to hear it!”

“‘And then Erin trusted in her friends and the heroes, and maybe everything didn’t go perfectly but no-one died’, how about that?”

Erin laughed bitterly. “Tristan, I love you, but if you think we’re getting out of this without someone dying, you’re kidding yourself. Like Victoria said, it’s called Kiss/Kill for a reason.”

“Then…” he said, “then we can at least make sure it happens because there were no other options, and to someone who deserves it.”

“Byron better be careful, with you talking like that.” She realised what she’d said and winced. “Fuck. I’m sorry, that was out of line. It’s just- everything. All of it.”

“Yeah,” Tristan said. “Yeah, it was.” He stood, shaking his head, and was about to say something else when he was interrupted by the beeping of his watch. “Shit. I really don’t want to leave it here, but-”

She waved a hand. “Not your fault.”

“Look after her for me, Byron,” Tristan said, and then blurred.

Byron was wearing a long-sleeved, slate-blue shirt with a snake on the front, and jeans. He didn’t seem to be in any real kind of mood, but she’d learned that still waters ran deep with the quieter Vera brother. 

“Hey, By.” She held out an arm, and as he sat down beside her she drew him into a tight hug. 

“Hey,” he said, in that soft, measured voice of his. “You doing okay?”

Erin squeezed him even tighter against her, trying and failing to grin. “Just peachy.”

“Yeah,” he said. That was what she liked about Byron, the main thing that Tristan, for all his good qualities, could never quite manage. He knew when to just… acknowledge that things were bad, without immediately leaping to trying to cheer up or problem-solve. 

Fuck,” she croaked, squeezing her eyes closed against the tears. “I can’t- I can’t do this, Byron, I can’t-”

“Okay,” he said simply. “What are you going to do, then?”

A manic, terrified laugh bubbled up from inside Erin, forcing its way out of her mouth and spilling her fear out into the air. “Fuck!” she screamed at the top of her lungs, raw and hoarse, the sound bouncing and echoing off the walls of the alleyway below them.

“Feeling better?” Byron asked.

“Screw you,” she laughed, wiping her eyes with the back of one hand. “Smug asshole.”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

“I’ll feel even better when I beat your ass.”

His lip twitched, and the hand around her shoulder reached up to flick her in the cheek. “Sure you will.”

“What, haven’t you heard? We’re gonna take on four dozen parahumans! That means we’ve all gotta be worth like, six or seven each, right?” She was trying for humour, but based on the way Byron glanced at her, it came out closer to panic.

“It won’t be just them.”

“It might not even be them!”

“It will.” He said it with such absolute confidence. “You have to tell them, though.”

Erin stared at her hands, at the scars. “...I know.” Maybe Tristan would be offended she’d fought him on it but not Byron. Maybe he’d be right to. But that was how Tristan was - he fought every single battle, and you had to fight back if you ever wanted anything. 

Byron, though, he held back, and that meant when he did pick a battle, it mattered.

“Doesn’t have to be today,” he offered. “Go out, clear your head. Get some shit done, then come back tomorrow and lay it out.”

“...Maybe. I have to go back tonight, though,” she said, pushing herself onto her feet. Byron took her offered hand, and she pulled him up with a grunt. “Can’t leave them there alone.”

“Yeah.”

“I trust you, but… don’t tell them anything, okay? Just, I’m coming back, tomorrow or day after, and I’ll explain. Hopefully I can find some stuff between now and then, sweeten the pot and slash or soften the blow.”

“Stuff?”

She shrugged. “Intel. Info. Secrets. Stuff, you know?”

“Right." He nodded solemnly. “Stuff.”

Erin wrapped him in a bear hug. “Asshole."

“Love you too.”

“Sap,” she said affectionately, as they broke away.

“That’s me,” he said with a shrug. “Overly emotional. You gonna be okay?”

“Nope!” she replied with false cheer. “...I’ll try and call Mrs. Yamada, I think.”

“Good idea.”

Erin took a deep breath. Some of her things were still in the room, but nothing she’d need urgently. “Thanks. Both of you, thank you. I owe you.”

“Pay us back by staying alive.”

She nodded. “I’ll… I’ll do my best.”

Then, with a wave, she started down the fire escape, pulling up her hood.

Back to her home, with all the other monsters.