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Wake

Chapter Text

Another person had entered the room. A girl, white, short black hair with a longer swoop at the front and the slightly-misshapen ears of someone letting extensive piercings heal closed. She was wearing baggy cargo pants, a faded dark green bomber jacket, and an oversized shirt from the same memorial line as my Brockton Bay dress. She was from New York, it seemed, or she wanted to represent. Her work boots looked old and worn, but sturdy, stained with what was presumably mud or some other agriculturally-related substance. Her nails were painted a simple black, chipped with wear, but the right thumbnail was completely clean, and in noticing that I couldn't help also noticing that it was the only one of her digits to be covered in tiny pockmarks and scars.

Despite an air of weary gauntness, and what seemed like an active effort in her fashion choices to work against it, she was still stunningly pretty. There were women where someone’s first thought might be ‘they could be a model’ and there were women where the first thought was ‘they have to be a model, it’s not fair if they aren’t’. She was the latter, although presumably some lifestyle changes would have to be involved first. 

“But yeah, damn, I don’t look good enough in a dress, so I have to concede. Hey Erin,” Tristan said.

“Heya,” the girl who was apparently called Erin said. She took the empty seat next to Tristan, sitting very carefully and deliberately. Almost immediately, she had raised one hand on her mouth, and the source of the scars became evident as she started to absently gnaw on the thumb. “Why are you wearing a dress?”

“Just joking around.”

“Ah, shame. You could pull it off.”

There were still two empty seats. One would be Jessica’s. There’d be one more, then.

“You made it here okay?” Tristan asked.

“Yeah. Rain came with, he's off getting some stuff.”

“How are things?” Kenzie asked Erin. She gestured at her head in a way I didn’t see, with her head blocking my view of the hand on the other side.

Erin gave a haggard smile. “I'm getting by, chipmunk.” I couldn’t help but notice the way her eyes kept darting towards the door and windows, as if anticipating someone bursting through one of them.

“Better or worse than last week?” Kenzie asked.

“Let’s save the therapy-relevant stuff for the session,” Mrs. Yamada interrupted. “Small talk and catching up for now, please. We don’t want to get started before everyone’s here, and I want to go over ground rules and expectations before we ask anything too personal.”

“Alright,” Erin said. She turned her attention to me, inasmuch as that was possible in between her routine of glances. “You’re the heroine?”

“Ex-, kind of,” I said. “But yeah. Victoria.”

“Hi. I’m Erin. With an ‘E’, not two ‘A’s.”

She’d said it with exhausted humour, as if it were a common, worn-out joke she’d received, despite it being a pretty big reach. I threw up my hands in mock surrender, my mouth firmly shut.

“You said ex, but...” She trailed off, and I saw a glint of recognition in her eyes. “Victoria as in Victoria Dallon? Glory Girl?”

I couldn’t quite manage a smile, so I settled for a nod. “From New York but you recognise another city's local hero?”

“I used to be a bit of a cape geek.” She didn’t seem so much embarrassed about it as… sad, or regretful.

“Lost interest?”

“If only. It’s… not really about being a geek anymore, with my situation being what it is.”

“I can relate to that, I think. It’s always been front and centre for me, but there was definitely a shift.”

“Yeah,” she said, as if I’d said something very heavy, and she’d felt part of that weight. “I’ve… it’s very much a ‘pre-’ and ‘post-’ kind of thing.”

“You’ve had powers for a while, then? If I can ask?”

“Just under a year,” she said. “I’m the- novice, I guess. Or, me and Chris are.”

Post-Gold Morning. That helped put things in context.

Chris, too. By process of elimination, he’d be the boy roughly Kenzie’s age.

“Family thing. You said that once,” Kenzie said. Erin acknowledged that with a tight little smile.

“Second gen?” I asked. I wondered if I had any kindred on that front.

“You’re a veteran, right?” I winced a little at the word choice, but she didn’t seem to notice. “Of cape stuff, I mean. The answer to most questions you can ask is ‘it’s complicated’.”

“That’s fair,” I said. “For a while now I’ve thought that parahumans should get a membership card, materialising in our hands when we trigger, or arriving in the mail at the first opportunity. A warning on one side, ‘handle with care’, and then on the other side, ‘shit is complicated, don’t ask’. Something that we can flash now and again, like a get out of jail free card.”

“Ha. I’d like that, I think. Even though it’d probably get so much use I’d have to replace it every few months.”

“I could get good mileage out of the ‘shit is complicated’ side,” Tristan said.

“Now I feel left out,” Kenzie said. “I’d like to think mine would be nice and neat, stored away as a just-in-case.”

“Really?” Tristan asked. “Really?”

“Ruh-heally,” Kenzie said, with exaggerated emphasis and a roll of the eyes. Tristan mirrored her pose some.

“I do like the idea,” Erin said to me, a little distractedly. “The card.” 

Some of the nervous energy had dissipated as she’d engaged in the conversation, but her eyes continued to dart around at irregular intervals. It made me think of saccades, for whatever reason; the uneven jerky way human eyes move before our brain smooths it out. 

-----

“Weld was there for a lot of it,” Sveta said, backing me up. “I’ve heard some of what happened. Things got scary.”

In all fairness, as fond as I was of her, I did find something amusing in how it was Sveta saying that last bit. “Scary’s a good way to put it.”

“But you’re still wearing the shirt,” Erin observed. “You’re attached to the city?”

“Sure. It’s my city. I grew up there.” That got a knowing nod, one of her hands absently picking at her own memorial shirt. “The city isn’t defined by what happened to it. Just like we aren’t the bad experiences that happen to us,” I said.

“Aren’t we?” Chris asked, leaning forward in his seat, elbows on his knees. “We’re the sum of the things that have happened to us, good or bad.”

“We aren’t,” I said, firmly. Then, on a moment’s reflection, I added, “We can’t be. There’s a lot of other things going into it.”

“Oh gosh, what was it called,” Erin said. “I liked science in school, but it’s completely escaping me now. Nature or nurture?”

“Nature versus nurture, yeah,” Chris said.

“That’s it,” Erin said. “Versus, I should have remembered that. Are you all about the nature, then?”

I thought of my family. I’m not sure that’s much better.

Amy had agonized over that one.

“We’re getting into territory that’s close to being therapy again,” Mrs. Yamada said, rescuing me from the line of thinking. “So I’m going to interrupt. But it’s a good point to keep in mind for our discussions later today. I’m keeping an eye on the clock, and we’re ready to start.”

-----

“It’s not my intent to change your minds,” I said. I could see some sceptical looks on some faces as I looked around the circle. “I’m here to give another perspective, and maybe to equip you guys with knowledge. If you change your minds because of that- and I think Mrs. Yamada might be hoping for that, then that’s fine. If not, then I’d hope you were all going into this with your eyes more open about what you’re doing.”

“I’ve addressed my feelings with the group,” Mrs. Yamada said. “At the end of the session where the topic first came up, and for a portion of the last session. We had other things demanding our attention, so we weren’t able to cover it in any depth.”

Erin raised a hand. “Me, I think. Sorry.”

-----

“And,” Tristan said. Again, that one word, almost a pronouncement, volume and emphasis shifted just a bit to get attention. “On the topic of rounds and games, I feel like Mrs. Yamada is up to something, so I’m going to play this on a meta level and I’m going to shut myself up. I recognise I’ve been trying to win this conversation with Victoria and I’ve been monopolising things by jumping in every time there’s an opportunity. I’m supposed to be listening more and trying to ‘win’ social interactions less, so I’m going to shut myself up. The others should chime in, I trust them to say what needs to be said.”

“I’m proud of you, Tristan,” Mrs. Yamada said.

Tristan nodded.

Erin said, “Me too, but also I’d like to point out that you took, what, ten seconds? Ten seconds to go from ‘I need to try to win social interactions less’ to ‘this is a meta-scenario I can win’.” Her tone wasn’t malicious, but it wasn’t quite ‘friendly banter’ either.

“What, did I?”

“And the fact he used so many words to say he was going to shut up,” Chris said.

Tristan frowned at Chris. “You guys are harsh.”

-----

“You’re welcome,” I said. “I do want this to be a chance to share what I know and for you guys to gain, if that’s possible. Maybe there are places where you might realise there are gaps in your knowledge that you could then take time to brush up on. There isn’t a rush.”

“There is a deadline, though,” Erin said

Heads turned.

“I’ve mentioned this before, a bit. I have people after me, out for blood, and there are factors that mean I can’t really do anything except try and stand my ground. Having a team is the difference between doing that alone and dying, and maybe having a chance of surviving without… the other factors coming into play.”

“People are after you?” I asked.

Erin held up her free hand, two fingers close together, like a showy, flashy dealer might hold a card. “It’s complicated.”

I smiled despite myself. “And these guys are okay with taking the risk involved there?”

“I’m not scared,” Ashley said.

“I’m breaking my vow of silence again,” Tristan said, “But I think I’m doing it for the right reasons here. I like, respect, and/or trust each of these guys who would be my teammates. But in particular, I consider Erin a friend. I’m already willing to throw my helmet into the ring and do what it takes to help save her life. We’ve got some similar garbage going on with… people we can’t get away from, and she’s had my back in the past when it came to my issue.”

“Yeah,” Erin said. Without removing her thumb from her mouth, she extended her pinky finger and tilted the hand upwards so it tapped her forehead.

“People?” I asked.

“I’m a bit out of date - is the term still mosaic powers?” Erin said.

“Oh,” I said. I paused, taking stock of that. “I can see where that warrants playing the ‘complicated’ card, yeah. And it’s usually cluster or multitrigger, these days.”

-----

“You were motioning toward your head before,” I said, to Erin. “Are you referring to bleed-over, kiss and kill? That sort of thing?”

“Huh,” Erin said. "I knew who you were and I still kinda half-expected you to not know this stuff, for some reason.”

I’d pulled my hand away from Sveta’s at one point, and I only realised it because she reached out and took my hand again, placing her hand over mine and giving it a congratulatory squeeze.

“Is it part of it?” I asked.

“I’m not being evasive when I say I don’t know,” Erin said. “Probably, maybe, possibly? I’ve changed since triggering, they’ve changed even more, but it was kind of a big deal, and all of our lives have been pretty wildly different since then. People change plenty without alien supercomputers hooked up to their brains, you know?”

“We like to give things hard labels, but sometimes they’re blurry around the edges,” I said.

Erin nodded.

“If your own cluster is coming after you, I’d say you could chalk it up to kiss and kill. Again, blurry, might as well throw it in that bucket.”

“Sure, end result doesn’t change.”

“And while I’m on that subject, I’d feel compelled to stress that the term uses the word ‘kill’ for a reason.”

“I know,” Erin said.

“People die. Friends of people die. I’m still figuring out what you guys are doing, but… you want to bring kids into that?” I asked. I looked over to my right, at Kenzie and Chris.

“No, absolutely not,” Erin said. “Tristan is saying he’d help, Ashley is offering a hand, and Sveta might do what she can? That’s a hell of a lot better, compared to the same circumstance with me alone.”

“There’s more peace of mind in talking to legitimate authorities,” I said.

“I don’t know if I’d agree, honestly,” Erin said. “I’ve sounded some stuff out, I’ve found some points of contact, I have some precautions set up if things get to a point where I think it’ll be worth it, but only then. I don’t have a lot of information, they’re not quite villains in the sense I could point heroes at them. Once I’ve got a claw buried in my throat, sure, they’ll help out, but I’d rather not get to that point.”

“Everyone’s busy,” Tristan said.

“Claw?” I asked. “Tinker claw?”

That got the room’s attention.

“You’re thinking of the man with the tinker arms you ran into at the community centre, Victoria?” Mrs. Yamada asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

She explained, “Victoria mentioned that she took him for a multi-trigger, given the powers he displayed and the common links to a woman with claws she’d read about. I was going to bring it up at the end of the session, to avoid the lengthy digression like we had last session, and I hoped to extend it to a discussion in another venue, possibly with less people.”

“I derailed us early, it seems,” I said.

“Small world, apparently,” Erin said. She didn’t seem very pleased, for whatever reason. “What did he look like?”

“Big guy, beard, heavy coat.”

“Long hair, hood, smoker’s cough,” Erin said, “and a hellfire glare? Uh, figuratively speaking, I mean.”

“No hood, glare… I don’t know. He wore a mask with a built in glare, but he seemed like the scowly type. Definitely on the voice.”

“Mm,” Erin said, pulling out her phone. “When was this?”

“When?” I asked. “Um. Thirteen days ago. First Monday of September. High school had just started.”

Erin held up a finger, focused intently on the screen.

“Why?” I asked.

“Timing matters.” It was Tristan who had replied, while Erin was busy.

“He would’ve been strong then,” Erin said, slipping the phone back away.

“He was a bit of a bastard, if I’m being honest,” I said. “Not fun to go up against. He’s one of the ones who was after you?”

Erin nodded.

“What did you need to check?”

“We have a carousel,” Erin said. “Complicated, obviously. I have a spreadsheet, keeping track of who got what and when. He would’ve had a lot of everyone’s power but mine, a little bit weaker than normal with his own.”

“Right,” I said. “Which is yours?”

“Blaster power, nothing special. It’s a thick beam, about yea big.” She gestured with her hands, making a circle about the size of a basketball. “It basically acts like a water cannon, pushes things back. Pretty mediocre.”

“Mediocre is sort of the name of the game when it comes to clusters,” I said.

“There’s a tinker power as well. My version is hands and digits, fingers and thumbs, but they’re pretty shoddy, tend to break or fall apart. I think it was why I was added to the group, though.”

“It was,” Mrs. Yamada said. “We thought there was a chance of insights across designs.”

Sveta would be one, obviously. Ashley raised a hand, slender, with black-painted nails.

I couldn’t tell that her hand was prosthetic.

“Didn’t end up amounting to much, because of the aforementioned shoddiness,” Erin said. “The big guy has a mover power; my version is basically just like the thing you do as a kid, running and sliding across floors on your socks.”

“Wait, his power was the mover power? The arms and emotion power were his secondaries?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Erin said. “He should’ve had about 30-40% less strength on his own power that day, compared to normal. My last one is an emotion power, but it’s pretty much useless. An aura that builds up to very mild panic over time. Not from mild panic, mind; to mild panic. At best.”

“We’ve tested it out some,” Tristan said. “‘Mild’ is about right. Feels like the moment you realise you forgot your keys at its absolute strongest.”

“And it waxes and wanes, you said?” I asked.

“My power, the beam, can get a bump some days, but the rest are pretty much stable. The others change it up more, they’ll act on days they’re strong.”

“We may be getting distracted,” Mrs. Yamada said. “I might suggest you carry on this discussion later. Victoria can fill you in on…”

“Snag,” I said. “Sorry. This is actually really interesting though. I’d be happy to talk it over another time.”

“Mm. It’s good to have one name, at least,” Erin said. “If we’re getting back on topic, though, then I’ll fully admit to having selfish reasons for doing this. Wanting to improve my own chances of survival.”

“We all need people to have our backs,” Kenzie said.

“It can be selfish without being wrong or bad, I think,” Erin said. “It’s… well, I’m not going to say complicated again. It’s messy. And I’ve spent a lot of time being selfish but at least now I can maybe leverage that into helping other people. Or at the very least, righting some of the other stuff it’s caused.”

-----

“This is me,” Erin said, gesturing to vehicle parked further up the road. I got a better look at it as we approached. It wasn’t a pretty vehicle – a van with rust around the right headlight. “We have a long drive to get back. Victoria, nice to meet you.”

“Good to meet you, Erin,” I said. I was about to question the ‘we’, when I saw the person leaning against the front of the van.

A boy, Caucasian, with shoulder-length brown-blond hair. He had a cut under one eye and another cut on the bridge of his nose. His jeans were ripped at the knee and his shirt was baggy, a size too big for him. The sleeves were long, red where the torso was white, and they had been rolled up to the elbow. His sneakers had seen a lot of abuse, by the looks of it. The white parts were brown and grey in a way that made me suspicious that even a thorough cleaning wouldn’t get them purely white again. He looked sixteen or seventeen.

“Rain,” Erin said, “you remember Kenzie and Sveta?”

‘Rain’ nodded. “Hey.”

“And this is Victoria. The group is talking about her maybe being a coach for us.”

“Hi,” Rain said, pushing off the front of the van and turning to face us, briefly looking like a deer in the headlights as he looked at Erin for the first time. “It’s cool you’re doing this.”

“I’d like to think so,” I said. “Sorry, but- Rain?”

“Yep,” he said miserably. “Spelled like the water that falls from the sky. I know. It’s unusual, I’ve heard the jokes.”

Like I had with Erin before, I raised my hands. “Not a word.”

“We good to go?” Erin asked Rain as she unlocked the van. For some reason, I’d expected her to pass him the keys, but she headed around to hop into the driver’s seat.

“Yep,” Rain said, taking the passenger seat.

Erin started the car, then gestured at Rain to roll his window down. “You want a ride somewhere convenient, chipmunk?” she said, looking at Kenzie.

“Sure!”

Kenzie climbed in behind Rain, giving us a wave before the door was closed.

Just Sveta and me left.

We watched as the van pulled away.

Chapter Text

“Kenzie? Do you want to report what you were doing?” Tristan asked, once he was done explaining what he’d done to Sveta.

“Wait,” Kenzie said. “Erin’s here. I’ll point the way.”

It took a couple of minutes before Erin and Kenzie’s camera-drone arrived at the base of the hill. 

Chris was half the size he had been, and his proportions were returning to normal. As he shrank, he rearranged the voluminous shorts he’d been wearing, ensuring his modesty was protected. His old outfit was contained within a pocket on the inside of the shorts, and he gathered it together, folded up, the clothes piled on his lap, along with what looked like a pencil case.

Even though he was returning to the person he’d been, physically, his smile lingered.

“Erinnnn!” Kenzie called out, while Erin was still making her way to us, her jumpiness seemingly made worse by being out in the open. “Did you bring tinker stuff!?”

“Yeah!” Erin responded. She was dressed similarly to how she’d been at the therapy group, but had replaced the t-shirt with a loose, billowy top in greens and oranges that seemed entirely incongruous with the rest of her outfit. Or at least, with the sense of her I’d gotten in general. It still worked, but only because she was pretty enough that she could probably make just about anything work.

“Yusss,” Kenzie said. “This is the best day.”

“You could have waited twenty seconds for Erin to show up and asked her in a normal volume,” Chris said.

“I wanted to know now.”

Chris groaned at her, putting his face closer to hers.

Kenzie groaned louder, exaggerated, putting her face closer to his.

Chris groaned even louder, guttural, using some of the residual transformation to play up the sound. His forehead pressed against hers, hard enough she had to push back to avoid being pushed over.

Rather than try to top it, Kenzie sat back down. “I like you when you’re like this.”

“Naked?” Chris asked.

“No!” Kenzie said. “Geez.”

“I need you guys tell me straight,” Erin said, joining us where we sat on Tristan-created seats and benches. “Do they make up weird conversations every time I arrive to mess with me, or is it real?”

“Which answer are you hoping for?” Tristan said

“I genuinely don’t know,” she sighed.

“I like you when you’re happy,” Kenzie was saying to Chris. She fussed with her hair, looking down. “I like you a lot like this.”

I was put in mind of her comments about Chris before she’d gotten in Erin’s car, after leaving the group meeting. Like she didn’t have the worldly experience to know people didn’t say stuff like that in such an unguarded, dead obvious way.

-----

“I think we did too. It would have worked except Tristan and Byron are strong and Victoria is oof and Sveta was the best counter to what we were doing. We should fill Erin in.”

“Being kept in the loop would be nice,” Erin said, almost but not quite sounding like a rejoinder. “It was you two and…”

She glanced around the group, saw Ashley, and didn’t finish the sentence.

“And me,” Ashley said.

“Here, I can show you the replay,” Kenzie said. “But I want to see your tinker stuff too, before we run out of time.”

“There’s plenty of time,” Tristan said.

“Wait, here, you take the remote, and Erin, you can hand me the tech, I won’t break anything, I promise.”

Erin rummaged in her duffel. “Don’t stress too much, Kenz. If you get something productive out of it, it’s probably worth it getting broken.”

“I might! But I’m really interested in the interface. You like to have a bunch of smaller stuff, you said?”

“Yeah. Seems like the best way to get any sort of use out of it.”

“Aww, don’t be like that! You control them all with your brain, once they’re connected up?” Erin nodded. “How does the brain know how to control it?”

“I map the brain patterns for input and output and the panel here, between the attachment and the actual arm, it acts like an extension of the brain.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sveta said.

Tristan was fiddling with the remote, and seemed to be having trouble with the progression of time, with images jumping all over the place. Sveta, Kenzie, and Erin were all focused on the device, with Ashley periodically joining in when prodded. It looked almost like a prosthetic finger or thumb, with straps to hold it onto a hand, but I couldn’t quite picture what that would look like or how it would work.

-----

Ashley. Count down from ten,” Erin said. She actually seemed calmer than I’d seen her at any point until now.

Ashley whirled on her. I left the ground, flying closer, stopping when things didn’t escalate further.

“Count down from ten,” Erin said. “That’s what Mrs. Yamada says, when you’re wound up.”

“It’s fine when she says it.”

“It’s not about who says it,” Erin said. “Count?”

Ashley tensed. I could see it in her shoulders and the way the tendons stood out in her hands.

Everyone was silent.

I waited. Ten seconds passed. Then the fifteenth, then the twentieth.

“Feel better?” Sveta ventured.

Ashley turned, staring Sveta down. “No.”

“Count down from a hundred,” Erin said.

“I’m not going to-”

“Count,” Erin said, her voice soft. “Please. You said before, when you get like this, there’s a part of you that’s saying you don’t want to act this way, and you can’t listen to it. So listen to the numbers first, then listen to that part of you.”

“It’s not that easy.”

“It’s-”

“It’s not that easy,” she said. “And I’m going to walk away. You do your thing. Let me do mine.”

“Okay,” Erin said.

-----

“Ooh! Me next!”

I held out a hand, stopping Kenzie before she could run forward. “I’m not sure that’s safe.”

“It’s definitely not,” Erin said, shaking her head. “Not happening, Kenz.”

“But it doesn’t hurt! What’s the big deal?”

It doesn’t hurt,” I jumped in, “but hitting the ground still can. You weigh a lot less than me, and I can fly.”

“Aww,” Kenzie pouted, but quickly recovered her usual cheer. “Can you blast the wall, then?”

Erin glanced at Tristan, who nodded. “Sure thing, chipmunk.” 

She took a step back, bracing herself, and held out one hand in front of her. A messy, bronze-coloured beam shot out from it, curving slightly through the air. Right before hitting the wall Tristan had created, it split into a spray of smaller beams, fragmenting off in different directions. When Erin had hit me with the solid beam earlier, it had felt like getting shouldercharged - more of a push backwards than a damaging impact. As the spray impacted the wall, I got the impression that the damage had been lost entirely in the split - rubble and dust that had already been loosened went flying away, but no new damage had been done to the wall itself. 

“Crap,” Erin said, lowering her hand. “Sorry, Kenz.”

“It didn’t do that before,” I noted. “Is it a distance thing?”

“Kind of,” she said, wiggling a hand. “It almost never happens before it’s gone a foot or two, but after that it’s… fickle. Depending on the day, I can kind of control when it’s going to happen, and the direction of spray a little, but it’s just random otherwise. Mostly it’s just safer to not try and use it at range.”

“It doesn’t peter out?” I asked.

She shook her head, and shot another beam out, aimed slightly higher so it sailed above the wall. With more distance to travel, the curve and wobble in its trajectory was much more noticeable - almost like the way a paper plane would be affected by the air around it. Sure enough, it split after a few seconds, turning into a cloud of bronze streaks that were actually quite pretty as they disappeared into the trees. 

“It probably would stop if it went long enough,” Erin said, walking over, “but the curve means it pretty much always hits something eventually.”

“Have you tried measuring how much force the main beam has?” I asked.

“Around one hundred and fifty pounds!” Kenzie chimed in. “We measured, but it goes up and down on different days, and also there's some other kind of aspect to it because things tend to fly a little farther than they should based on that amount.”

I turned to my laptop and I started typing that up. “Can you explain the schedule, then? The powers wax and wane?”

Erin sighed.

“Sorry, if I’m grilling you a little too much. I’m trying to get my head around this.”

“We have… well, you probably know about cluster dynamics. Ours is a dream room.”

“Dream room?”

“Every night, instead of normal dreams or a normal night’s sleep, I see them and they see me. Standing in a room, in our own little sections, and the powers get distributed. Everyone has a turn, and when it’s their turn they get a boost to their primary.”

“That’s how you knew Snag’s description, before you knew his name.”

Erin nodded. “So my power is stronger every fifth day, but depending on some of the other factors, sometimes the others get a bit of a boost.”

“Every five? There’s four others?”

“Four total, including me,” Erin said.

“What’s…?”

“The dream room, it’s split in five, but one fifth is just black. I maybe thought it was another person who triggered and died before the first night, but it doesn’t really work like that, does it?” I shook my head. “Yeah. So everyone gets a powerup on their own day, and then the fifth day is completely random. Not only in who it goes to, but in which power gets stronger - could be the tinker power, could be the mover power, any of them. It’s… frustrating, to say the least.”

“Once every twenty days, on average.”

“I wish; I could count the number of times I've gotten it on one hand,” she said, then frowned. “Which doesn’t seem right, statistically, but I guess even the passengers are working against me.”

“It’s… a possibility,” I said.

“Figures. The others, they see me in there, every night, unmasked, and they hate me.” She stretched the word out, in a way that almost sounded amused. “I’m not particularly fond of them, either, and it’s not unjustified, but being there, every night, with people who despise you down to your very core? It’s- not great. That’s what Tristan and I have in common, I guess, though without the hate part.”

“People you can’t get away from,” I said.

“You’re talking about your cluster?” Tristan asked, joining the conversation. Sveta was behind him.

“Yeah.”

Tristan sat down on the rock beside Erin. I scooted over so Sveta could sit beside me.

“These people want you dead? How likely is it they go forward with this hit?”

“One, unless some outside variable changes that,” Erin said.

“Like what?” Sveta asked.

“They all die or get arrested before they get around to it,” Erin said. “Give each other typhoid or something.” She laughed at that, despite it not being particularly funny.

“You seem pretty cavalier about travelling around,” I said. “You aren’t worried about them tracking your van?”

“I have a couple of sets of plates,” Erin said. “And I can throw them off some in the dreams, pretend to let things slip, lay false trails. The one good thing about being outnumbered is that they have to communicate with each other - I can just say whatever stuff I like, and still get details about them.”

“Details like?”

“Snag needs to repair one of his arms, and the woman is recovering from an injury.”

“The third one won’t come after you alone?”

“Nah. He’s a guy, glasses, probably about your age, Victoria. He looks like someone you’d expect to see flaming people on the internet, except he’s doing it in my dreams instead. Not very social, gets out even less than the other two, which is impressive considering Snag is an uncontrolled bundle of rage and the woman is mute.”

“There’s an advantage in that,” Tristan said. “If they aren’t socially adroit and you are-”

Erin laughed. “I appreciate the effort, Tristan.”

“You’re better off than they are and that counts for something,” Tristan said.

“They have money and resources, and that more than makes up for it,” Erin said. She looked at me. “I’m pretty sure they hired Tattletale to track me down.”

“Ah,” I said. I thought about that. “I honestly can’t think of someone worse to have on your trail.”

“I can probably think of a few, but only because I sat down and researched it one time.”

-----

“How’s Rain?” Tristan asked.

She sighed. “He’s… Rain.”

Tristan winced. “Ah. Yeah.”

“Who is he?” I asked. “Can I ask?”

“A… friend, I guess. ‘Ally’ is maybe a better word.”

“Ouch,” Tristan muttered. “That’s a bit cold, Erin.”

“Mmh,” she said, absently gnawing on her thumb. “...a friend, then. My family were city folks, New York, but Gold Morning broke something in them and they ran out here and dragged us along with them. Me and my siblings ‘us’.” The venom in her voice caught me a bit off guard. “Wanted the ‘simple life’, or something like that. And don’t get me wrong, New York wasn’t perfect, but when you look like this,” she gestured to herself with a sneer, “it’s a damn sight better than out here.”

“Now imagine what it’s like when you’re brown and gay,” Tristan muttered.

“Oh,” Erin said, immediately mollified, “crap, I’m sorry, Tristan. I just-”

“It’s fine,” he said, waving her down. “You’re not wrong either.”

Erin nodded, then took a second to collect her thoughts. “Right, okay. Anyway, Rain’s folks are more rural, took advantage of the farming incentives and ended up in the same place. He’s…” She sighed, rubbing her forehead with one hand. “Look, he’s a teenage boy - he has a crush on me, along with every single other one in the- town. But he at least knows how to be normal about it, unlike the rest of them, so he and I would hang out a lot, even before my trigger, and since then he’s been helping me get some stuff set up, and keep it hidden from the others.”

“Erin,” Tristan said, “I really think you’re being…” He glanced at me, trailing off. “We’ll talk later,” he said instead. “Sorry, Victoria, nothing to do with you, it’s just-”

I raised a hand. “It’s fine, I understand. Personal stuff.”

Chris snorted loudly. “He’s helping Erin ‘cause he wants to fuck her and she resents that it’s his motivation. Nothing private about that.”

Erin made a rude gesture at him.

“Whatever you’re doing, I can’t see it!” he said, almost gleefully.

 “How long’s he going to be blind?” I asked.

“Could be ten minutes, could be an hour or two,” Kenzie said, as she skip-walked over to sit down at Ashley’s side as Ashley took her seat.

An hour or two?

“You got anywhere to be, Chris?” I asked.

“No family, nobody that cares that much,” he said. “I’m one of the lost boys, living in the institution.”

-----

“You can’t take Kenzie back?” I asked Erin.

“Going in the opposite direction,” she said. “My own exclusive section of the compass.”

I considered offering to fly above her, keep an eye on things, but given the level of twitchy paranoia I’d seen from her thus far I didn’t think it’d be appreciated.

“Oh! I have cameras,” Kenzie said, “And you could use them to communicate. They’re not too obvious.”

“I could carry a camera,” Erin said. “Just so long as I could turn it off when I need to.”

“Why would you need to turn it off?” Kenzie asked.

“Because, chipmunk, I’m going to have to go to the bathroom or shower or change clothes at some point.”

“Why would anyone use a camera to watch someone go to the bathroom?” Kenzie asked. “No, wait, I don’t want to know. I’ve learned my lesson about those sorts of questions. But you can trust me, that’s not what I’m about.”

“I’m glad. Off switch or no camera. And by off I mean off, not just in standby or waiting for signals or something, yeah? Fully, fully inoperable.”

-----

I wasn’t the only one waiting for a break in the conversation. “I should probably go. The traffic’s going to start getting bad soon.”

I knew I’d regret it if I didn’t at least offer. “If you want, I could fly with you some of the way,” I said. “An eye in the sky, if you think you’ll need it.”

“No,” Erin said immediately, no hesitation. “I’d rather-”

She stopped at that.

“What?” Tristan asked.

Erin went on, “I’d rather keep a hard boundary. It’s you coming all of the way or none of the way and if it’s all of the way then quite frankly I’d like to save that for when I actually need it.”

“It’s an open offer,” I said. “No expiry date, no limited number of uses.”

Erin gave a humourless little smile. “I’m sure it is now, yeah.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked, a little put off.

She shook her head, not so much a ‘no’ as a dismissal of the whole conversation. “Forget about it. I appreciate the offer but I’ll be fine.”

“You think we’ll get bored of this and not help you later?” Tristan asked.

“Forget about it,” she repeated, a little more insistently.

“Cause I think that’s pretty unfair,” Tristan continued.

Tristan,” Erin said, then made a gesture I couldn’t parse, like she was pulling down on an invisible handle. “Really not up to getting run over right now.” Oh, a train horn. 

He sighed. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry.” 

“Victoria, I appreciate it,” Erin reiterated. “But if it really is ‘open’, I’d rather save that first-time urgency for when my life is on the line, instead of when I’m going to be spending an hour listening to the one butt-rock CD Rain left in the van while I sit in traffic.”

I thought about reassuring her, pointing out that I’d travelled from the Bridgeport span to the portal in New Haven to Brockton Bay, several times a week, to get notes, check on the wreckage of the house and visit Crystal’s family. I didn’t.

“Gotcha,” I said. I’d pushed, I wasn’t going to push harder now that the boundary had been raised.

-----

Erin was another issue.

The team supported and insulated its members, they protected one another from the interlopers and the outside stresses. There were times and places that could be good, but I could just as easily see things go in a direction where outsiders weren’t sufficiently protected from the group, while the group carried on like this.

My job, in a way.

I’d keep an eye on all of them, of course. Kenzie could be a danger, and I could see even Sveta going to a bad place, however much I liked her. Tristan was strong, and he spent half of his life locked away in a lightless, motionless prison, only a window that looked out through his brother’s eyes and listened through his brother’s ears. It would be so easy for him to go off the deep end. Ashley was unpredictable and dangerous, pure and simple.

Chris I could only keep an eye on. Erin-

I didn’t fly back to Crystal’s.

I flew back towards the library, following the roads in the direction she had left in. 

I was paranoid, and too many things today had prodded at my paranoia. There were many I was helpless to do much about, but I could act on these suspicions.

The battered exterior of her van was distinctive once you knew what to look for, which was helpful - she’d changed directions almost as soon as she was out of sight, and I would've missed her without it.

I followed her as she drove around, making rapid turns and doubling back on herself. I had a pit in my stomach, doing it, but I had a gut feeling that this was part of why Jessica had reached out to me, and why she had been relieved that I was keeping an eye on things.

Yes, they knew things about each other. But they kept secrets. There were evasions, walls that were thrown up.

I just didn’t understand what Erin was doing. Or, I understood what she was doing, but I didn’t understand why. To have a hit out on her head and reject an escort, holding firm to that rejection even after having the danger driven home? Even with her seeming paranoia, I would have thought that it was a safer bet than going alone.

“What are you doing, Erin?” I asked. Where I was, suspended in the sky, wind rushing past me, there was nobody to hear.

I was prepared to follow her to Greenwich. It was a lengthy trip, and it left me to think about grabbing dinner, possibly on the trip back. I tempted myself with thoughts of a burger or a good souvlaki roll. Something warm, as I thought on it. This high up, there was no heat radiating up off the ground or nearby surfaces, less sunlight bouncing around with light energy dissipating and becoming heat, and the steady wind flowed past me to swipe the warmth that my body put out. As stakeouts went, this was liable to be cold, and I’d have to figure out something for bathroom breaks.

As self-imposed missions went, it wasn’t just hard for me to justify doing this, it was a pretty rough experience. The mind-numbing dullness of a sit-and-watch stakeout combined with the hypnotic nature of a long-distance drive. Drivers, at least, had to watch the road and be mindful of other drivers. I had nothing to help keep my thoughts centred.

From Stratford to Bridgeport. I had my binoculars out, and I watched for trouble, studying the cars merging and exiting, yawing far enough off to the side that I could see the occupants.

Nothing obvious.

She kept driving, travelling from the Bridgeport neighbourhood to Fairfield span, close enough to Norfair that I could see the community centre that had been attacked, and then onward to Norwalk station. Kenzie’s neighbourhood.

'Going in the opposite direction', huh?

My thoughts were preoccupied, thinking about what I was doing, my doubts, my frustration that I couldn’t effectively watch out for trouble while doing this the way I was doing it. It was too easy for someone with powers to take out a car, or even just manufacture a breakdown and get Erin alone when she had to pull over. Was it likely? No. But I wanted to justify what I was doing.

There was a chance, though, that when Erin got off the main roads, she’d be followed until they could attack her without witnesses. I could watch out for that.

With my thoughts caught up in things as they were, I nearly missed it when she turned off abruptly, cutting across multiple lanes to take the exit at the last possible second. I corrected course and followed as she drove down increasingly disused roads, doubling back a few times, until finally she parked under a modest little bridge in a town with one gas station, where Rain was waiting for her.

I didn’t feel good, watching them interact. I felt guilty for spying, even though her actions proved she was being dishonest. I watched Erin make conversation with her ‘ally’. Minutes, where he did most of the talking, pacing some, while Erin leaned against the side of the vehicle, drooping slightly with exhaustion.

He must have asked something, because Erin shifted position, reaching through the window. A second later, she drew her hand out. She had a handgun.

It didn’t mean anything. This was justifiable, given her situation. Lying about where she lived and where she was going was justifiable. Even carrying a gun made sense, when she was being hunted, especially when her cluster had threatened to do what they had.

Her story about how she and Rain met and where he came from… I wasn’t sure. It didn’t feel like I knew the whole of it.

If they’d travelled again, I might have watched to see where they went. If they’d gone to one of the smaller equivalents of Hollow Point, it might have told me something. If they met certain people, it might have proven out my suspicion.

They went to get ice cream in the dinky one gas-station town, and I couldn’t conscience staying to watch.

I flew home.

Chapter Text

Erin stepped away from the conversation. Grabbing a marker from the packet, she wrote her name at the top corner of her whiteboard.

Below that, she wrote, ‘names’, then paused for a few moments before writing ‘Whiteknuckle’, ‘Rebuke’, and ‘Clutch’.

I approached, looking.

“No homework?” I asked.

“Saving it. It’s one of the few valid excuses I have to dodge being put in charge of my siblings, so I take advantage of that.”

I nodded. “Sounds like you have a system then. If you ever need help with studying, I’m happy to lend a hand.”

“Like you said, I have a system. I’m fine.” Her tone was light, but the rebuke, appropriately enough, was evident.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Besides, I’m starting to wonder if it’s even worth the effort at this point.”

“You’d be surprised at how education comes into play,” I said.

“Sure. I can make sure I have a very well-researched quote picked out for my tombstone.”

“Because of your cluster?”

“Because capes- because people don’t tend to live long these days. Because Golden Morning wasn’t a victory, it was just- a respite. I mean, if nothing else the Endbringers are still out there and if that isn’t a good enough reason I don’t know what is.”

“There’s heroes. People stopping those things. Maybe you’ll be one of them. People die- it sucks but not all of them die. Not all of us.”

“Has to be somebody, right?” she said. “I’m not asking for a pep talk, Victoria. I know where I’m at, I know where things are at. I have other things to focus on. Like a name.”

That was my signal to back off, clearer and more explicit than the earlier one. Fine.

“Clutch is a fairly decent name. Could work with the right costume. I’m not sure it feels right with the blaster power.”

“I was thinking of holding something, grasping something, but it doesn’t really work with any power except the tinker… Ugh. No teasing, please. I regret ever making fun of capes for their names.”

“I’m not going to make fun,” I said. “I have no idea what I’m going to call myself when I get back to the costumed heroics.”

“Glory Girl’s retired?”

I nodded.

“Can’t say I blame you, yeah. I’m thinking along the lines of… resistance, pushing back, that kind of thing, because it covers the mover and blaster. The other two don’t quite fit with that, though.”

“Rebuke’s taken, by the way,” I said. “I’m not sure of the others.”

She reached down to the pile of stuff at the foot of her board and picked up one of her tinker devices, the same prosthetic thumb I’d seen back at our training session. This time, though, I was able to get a better idea of its purpose, as she strapped it onto her hand on the opposite side of the palm. She bit her lip, then activated something on the device with a wince. 

“Hurts?” I asked

“Very small needle, gives it direct access to the nerves, but I can’t get the alignment quite perfect without worrying I’m going to throw everything else out in the process.”

“You might be better than you think.”

“I am exactly as good and bad as I think, don’t worry. When it comes to my estimation of myself, the problem is the second half, not the first. My power is about as useful as shoulder-charging someone - a mild annoyance 90% of the time, unless things line up just wrong and I end up breaking their neck and killing them, which I am still erring on the side of not doing.”

“Okay,” I said. “The mover power, it lets you…”

“Slide, kind of.”

She stepped back, then jogged a few steps before jumping. When she hit the ground, her feet seemed to stick slightly, and her momentum carried her across the ground, like she was wearing socks on freshly-waxed hardwood.

“Any limitations? Does it work on rougher surfaces?”

“Rougher, yes, more uneven, no. Has to be flat enough that the entire bottom of my foot maintains contact with the ground. Or at least something close enough to the entire thing to be academic. It does last for as long as I have momentum, though, so I can use it to bleed off a decent amount of speed as long as I keep my balance.”

She seemed to read something in my expression, because she had further criticisms, “It’s pretty mediocre. It lasts but once I stop it has a long downtime, and it’s not really something I can build an identity around, not that I’d want to anyway. Same goes for the emotion power - it’s basically just a ‘mildly stressed’ field, no visual component to work with.”

“A few of the multi-triggers I’m aware of tend to have more… I’m not sure what the word is. Esoteric or abstract names. The one villain in my town was Circus. The solution to a disparate set of powers is to just create something more out there that has its own identity, and then fit your powers to match, instead of trying to fit your identity to a random set of powers.”

“Identity like a character?”

“Like… if you’re standing back and using your blaster power, maybe something like a warlock aesthetic. You could have a robe, you have the strange hands, you’ve got your ‘magic’, both with the blaster power and the emotion one.”

“Nah,” she said after a moment’s consideration. “Not me, I think, and I don’t want someone mistaking me for Rune.”

I frowned. She was right, in that the aesthetic was similar to the ex-E88 member, but it was a very specific, very out-of-left-field comparison to bring up, even for a cape geek. 

“Okay,” I said. I folded my arms, looking at the names she’d put down. “You like sci-fi, right? Is there an aesthetic or character or something you could tap into?”

“I’d be worried about choosing something I get tired of a month from now.”

“Just…” I started, trying to think of a good argument. “Just as a starting point, to get you thinking.”

“Hm. There was a space opera, a bit ago, something to escape into. Chris, what were the… the little drone things called? The ones that they were hacking to assassinate people with?”

“Kits, and also, spoilers.”

Erin nodded to herself, ignoring the second part, then looked at the board.

She started to write something down. She got as far as ‘Ki’ when I said, “Kit and Kitout are both taken.”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then sighed, deflated. “Yeah, that seems about right.”

-----

It was Sveta who said it, not Erin. “If they go inside, we’re going to lose track of what they’re saying.”

“Have they said anything yet?” I asked.

“No,” Erin said. “The woman doesn’t talk so it would be a one-sided conversation. If they’re here, they’re here for something. I have to know what.”

“Anything you guys do risks blowing your surveillance,” I said. “You might gain more information if you leave it alone. Just saying.”

“I need all the information I can get,” Erin said.

“You might,” I said. “It’s really up to you guys. If you need help, I’ll back you up.”

Tristan walked forward, and half-sat on the desk, head turned so he could keep one eye on the image. “Hypothetically, if we did act on this, what would we be doing? Picking a fight?”

“We could,” Ashley said. “Erin said they were injured and needed maintenance. It would be timely, it would keep them injured and out of the picture.”

“On their turf?” Tristan asked. “With who knows how many villains in the immediate area?”

“And it would blow our surveillance, like Victoria said,” Sveta said.

“You’ve been quiet on why they’re after you, Erin,” Chris said. “You never talked about your trigger event.”

“As a rule, it’s not good to ask people about their trigger events,” Sveta said.

“As a rule,” Chris said, “It’s vital information about who we’re fighting and why they’re doing what they’re doing.”

“Chris,” Sveta said.

“Sveta,” Chris said. “Detach from your emotions, focus more on their emotions. Are they passionate? Driven? Is it personal? If any or all of the above are true, it changes the rules of how they act. They might act even if they are injured or needing to do some maintenance.”

“People don’t act by rules,” Tristan said.

“Some people do,” Chris said. “Byron does, or did, based on what you said. They might. But we need more of what Erin knows about who and what they are and where they come from to know that.”

Kenzie turned around in her seat. “I was just telling Victoria I didn’t like the idea of her prying into my past or where I come from. It would feel pretty gross and unfair if we pushed Erin to do it now, when she obviously doesn’t want to.”

“Hypocritical might be the word you’re looking for,” I said.

“I’m learning so many words today,” Kenzie said.

“Regardless of what ‘we’ decide,” Erin said, tone making it clear what she thought of that ‘we’, “do we actually have any way of listening in? They’re close to where Prancer was - can we work with that?” 

So now you’re fine with ‘we’.

“I could rig something,” Kenzie said. “But it would be fragile and iffy.”

“I can’t help but notice we’re changing the subject,” Chris said.

Chris.” Just that, nothing else, but it seemed to work. “My life is on the line here. Tristan knows some, Sveta knows a little less, if they think they can explain without spilling everything, they can try, but I need to be making preparations, I am making preparations, and every bit of information is going to make them more effective.”

-----

“But I do think Chris may be right. If the group is extending a hand to you and you’re not extending trust back, that may not be fair. You should share something.”

She took a deep, frustrated breath, but nodded.

Kenzie spun around. She grabbed one of her flying eyes and pried open the side, pulling out a black rectangle. She swapped it with a spare.

“It’s not Kiss/Kill,” Erin said. “Not… shard manipulations or something more esoteric, it’s very much a mundane, human sort of thing. The dreams probably aren’t helping, maybe there’s some bleedthrough, but it’s not artificial.”

I listened, my expression still, arms folded, mostly watching what Kenzie did while Erin talked. I was going to have to deploy this thing.

Kenzie popped open the jewellery case with the camera she’d put in Ashley’s eye, then tore off the section under the lens. She flicked at parts with her fingers to get them spinning and then held onto others, unscrewing them in the process.

“They blame me for how our trigger went down. Not fully justifiably, but not completely unjustifiably either. Sveta knows this part - we see everyone’s perspectives before the trigger on their night, but for mine at least, it’s selective, highlighting certain things and minimising others. Making me out to be a worse person than I am.”

“I don’t think you’re a bad person at all,” Tristan said.

She sighed. “Tristan, I appreciate it, but I’m not going to pretend I’m a good person either. I’ve… done the things I’ve had to in order to survive, and some of it is justified by that but not all of it is, not all of it should be. And I’m just trying to survive but I’m just exhausted while they keep getting angrier and more focused and I keep thinking that it’s all draining out of me and into them, and-”

“What happened?” Ashley asked.

“I fucked up. I had so many chances to save them, to stop things, but I just ended up making things worse,” Erin said.

I looked away from where Kenzie was spinning things to screw in the eye-camera beneath the major lens of the flying eye, looked at Erin, and saw how on-edge she was.

“How does Rain fit in?” Sveta asked.

“He doesn’t. He knows the story but hasn’t seen the dreams, which… good. I don’t know whether it would change his view of me or not, I don’t even know which one I’d want to happen.”

“And ‘take five?'” Chris asked.

I turned my head.

“My username, online,” Erin explained. “My old PHO username was... embarrassing, and like I said to Victoria, I used to think the fifth room was another member who died before the first night. Made sense at the time, plus..." she waggled her fingers. "Five, y'know?"

"I've heard worse," Chris said.

-----

“It’s not kiss-kill,” Erin said again. “Or, like Victoria said a few days ago, it’s kiss-kill with good cover. I’m weaker than them, and the dreams give them a reason to hate me. The situation gives them a reason to hate me.”

“I’m good to go?” I asked.

“I think so. Thanks for doing this,” Sveta said.

I gave her a pat on the shoulder as I passed.

“Thank you,” Erin said, startlingly sincere.

-----

“I don’t like phones, where I can’t see faces or reactions,” Ashley said. “I’m fine. This is good.”

“Same about the phones,” Erin said. “The good, not so much.”

-----

“You really want this kid to suffer.”

“We want her to understand exactly what she’s done to us,” Snag said. “But if we have to pick between that and dead, we’ll take dead. Ideally with suffering, understanding, in the process, but dead.”

“If you’re paying, we can satisf-”

The message cut off as Kenzie hit a key. She looked back at me, shooting me what might’ve been an attempt at a reassuring smile. Not so reassuring.

“We’ll figure something out,” I said, to myself as much as them.

Chapter Text

Erin slumped back down onto the seat that she knew would be there, because it was always there. Her section of the room was a parking lot, covered in rubble and debris, smoke wafting up into the air from the wrecks of vehicles. A van, the van, was close to the centre, rear doors hanging open, one of the wheels missing and half the front end crumpled in by a large chunk of concrete. Her 'seat' was its rear lip - uncomfortable and slanted, but better than standing.

“Still alive, huh?” she commented. “Well, there’s always tomorrow.” One of the others, the third, had started saying it early on, every single night, until she’d started repeating it back at him. He’d given up, she’d stuck with it, and there was a small part of her that felt like maybe if she said it enough times it would come true.

Like the bench, she didn’t even need to look or check the position of the others. She knew where they would be.

-----

Erin approached the dias. She kept a wary eye on the others as she picked up the debris, destroying it in his hands. Almost everything was so old, burned, water damaged or rusty that it disintegrated with firm contact. She cast it aside, letting it litter the floor. The items scraped and cut her hands-on contact, but the pain helped keep her focused.

There were only three items that didn’t crumble away. Individual links of heavy chain, twisted and distorted like they’d been melted and crushed before being roughly pounded back into their original shape.

The others collected their tokens at the same time. Snag's were uneven shards of glass, and it didn't take a genius to connect that to the end of the memory they'd all witnessed. Five shards this time- his memory, his day, his turn to be powerful. 

The others, like her, had three tokens. For the manchild, coins; for the woman, human teeth, clean of blood and viscera. She’d already handed over two of them, keeping one for herself. In the early days, she had been the only one of the three to look at Erin with something other than pure rage, but whatever it had been, it was long past.

Now it was three sets of eyes that bore into her, radiating pure hostility.

“I need to update up one of my arms,” Snag said, his voice low. He glanced at Erin and turned his back, leaning against the table as he leaned closer to the manchild, lowering his voice further. “I made a replacement, I want to make the other match it.” She pretended not to be able to hear him.

“Today?” the manchild asked, picking up one of the tarnished coins.

“Hmm. I’m not sure I’ll have time.”

“It’s fine either way, for me. You?” The manchild turned toward the muzzled woman for that last bit.

The muzzled woman nodded.

Snag slid a piece of glass across the table, to the manchild's side. His fingertips stopped at the boundary, and the recluse reached over to slide the glass the rest of the way.

“I guess I get to be pretty strong today,” the manchild said.

“You won’t need your workshop,” Snag said. “And we could use a better sense of tech, for reasons we discussed on the phone. Give me your share tomorrow, too, and I won’t need it for a while.”

“I don’t mind,” the manchild said. He passed the coins over to the others. Two for Snag. One for the muzzled woman.

Erin ran her fingers over the chain links. They hadn’t asked, and she hadn’t offered. She had, early on, trying to curry favour. It had never received direct reciprocation, but the woman had thrown her a tooth once or twice. That had stopped quickly, though, and she’d never figured out the reasoning behind it in the first place.

She kept her three links of chain to herself.

She’d tried reasoning. She’d tried screaming, she’d tried attacking them, tearing into them. She’d tried begging and pleading and crying and saying nothing at all and none of it had made any difference, so all that was left to her was to listen, to hope that something they mentioned could make a difference, and wait for dawn.

She looked over to her left at the dark fifth of the room. No details, no debris, no light. No tokens on the table.

She lifted one of the links to her mouth, and gnawed on it absently even as it drew blood from her lips and gums, running down her face and her hand and dripping to the floor. 

The rattle of the door woke Erin, bringing her from asleep to awake with no transition.

“Dammit, Erin,” Lauren said, continuing to try and push the door open. Erin had jammed a broken tinkertech finger underneath it, though, and her efforts just drove the metal deeper into the floor. “You need to stop doing this.”

You need to stop trying to barge into my room. 

“I’ll be down in five,” Erin said, rubbing at her eyes. She had a splitting headache, and despite having slept like a rock, felt more tired than she had when she’d gone to sleep. Whatever benefit dreams were supposed to provide for the human brain, the dream room seemed to override it. Or maybe it was just her, and the other three all woke up feeling rested and refreshed. She figured it would be about typical.

“Erin,” Lauren said, “I know you’re supposed to have some more leeway, but we are still a family, and I am still your mother.”

“And this is still my room,” Erin said. “I will be down. In five.”

She heard Lauren sigh, then her footsteps as she started walking towards the kitchen. Erin knew she’d pay for that later, but keeping the sanctity of her space was more important. Her attempts at installing locks, mundane and tinker-made, had met with more serious backfire, so it had become a balancing act of making sure that her methods of keeping other out were effective but not enough so that they’d inspire A Conversation. 

The term used to be a joke, kind of. For big decisions, or when someone had messed up but not royally, one of the parents would say it was time for “capital-A A capital-C Conversation capital full-stop”, and then they’d all laugh, or at least groan fondly. 

No-one laughed anymore.

Erin checked the clock on her night-stand, then the one under her pillow. Both read 8:05 - safe to get up. 

Her privacy wasn’t the only reason she needed to keep her family out of her room. Erin fell asleep at the exact same time every night, knocked out by the dream room, and while she in the dream room, she was dead to the world. Presumably, the same was true for the rest of the cluster, but she wasn’t about to take any chances - even if they couldn’t take advantage of that fact themselves, they could still hire others to do so. It was the time at which they were all the most vulnerable, Erin especially, and so she’d set… defenses. Anything sophisticated enough to distinguish between an intruder and her family was beyond her capabilities, though, so she’d instead had to ensure that it would never have to. 

Standing up, she stretched quickly, then began checking her powers.

Top to bottom, in order of the rotation. Her mover power felt like pushing grease out through her feet, but on good days there was also a slight ‘snap’ when she activated it, like her feet were securing themselves against the surface. Today was not a good day.

Emotion. She pushed the aura out, feeling it seep towards the edges of the room, filling and saturating the space. Felt about normal, in terms of range, but it didn’t affect her, so she couldn’t test the strength.

Tinker. Images flashed through her mind, fingers and thumbs, joints and leverages and apparatuses. Basic, but functional, and she did get a brief glimpse of something like a ligament that intrigued her. Hopefully she’d be able to find the time to pursue that thread today, before she had to roll the dice on her powers again tomorrow.

And finally, her own power. Testing it without breaking anything was tricky indoors, but using it on her pillow was generally safe. The bolt of bronze light that shot out of her hand was flickery and inconsistent, with a drastic curve to its path, nearly missing the pillow entirely. Dammit. Even with all three tokens, hers was always the most inconsistent of her own powers. She’d gotten the sense that the others’ versions of it were, too, but that was cold comfort when they had their primaries and each others’ tokens.

Sitting back down, she pulled out her phone and recorded the day in her spreadsheet. No messages had been waiting for her - she kept the network capabilities turned off if she wasn’t actively using them, and never when she was in or near the compound. Tristan and Byron could reach her in emergencies through a set of pagers she’d managed to refurbish on a rare day of good tinkering, but she had set out very clear guidelines to them for what did and didn’t constitute ‘emergencies’. So far, at least, they hadn’t been met.

These days, dressing only took a matter of moments; she slid open the top two drawers of her dresser, ignoring the rest, and assembled an outfit from the topmost items.

Those two drawers contained what she’d come to think of as ‘safe’ clothes; practical underthings, formless tops and bottoms, the sturdy workwear she’d started to gravitate towards recently. Everything else in her closet had remained untouched for almost a year, the remnants of a dead girl’s life. Throwing or giving them away had seemed to risky, too likely to draw attention, so she’d hidden them away and done her best to ignore them. 

Lauren’s voice was growing louder and more insistent, so she took a second to flip the switch by the door that reactivated the traps before closing and locking her room and trudging downstairs to evade A Conversation.

Chapter Text

“Erin!” Lauren said as she entered the kitchen. “You’re going to be late!”

“Nope,” Erin said, walking over to the counter and pouring a glass of water from the tap. “I already am late. Big difference.” The water was brackish, and slightly brown, tasting of earth and metal. Out of all the things she thought she’d miss from New York, from Bet, the taste of the water never even crossed her mind, and yet here she was.

She chugged the rest of the glass, conscious of Lauren’s eyes on her. 

‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ didn’t feel appropriate anymore, hadn’t since world ended, and in the last year Erin had given up the pretense entirely. Their parents had died on Golden Morning, leaving Erin and Bryce in the care of an entirely different Lauren and David Whitmore, ones whose care and affection had been so fractured and twisted that it could only be expressed through control and fear. The walking corpse of Lauren Whitmore had grown gaunt, hair prematurely white in a twisted mirror of-

“Young lady,” her mother started, but Erin had already dropped her glass in the sink and turned to leave. “Erin!”

“Thought you didn’t want me to be late?” she shot over her shoulder.

“You-you haven’t even eaten!”

Without turning back, she lifted a hand to show the muesli bar she held. “Bye, Lauren.”

It was easier, if she played the part of a moody, rebellious teenager. Lauren’s mind was grasping for comfort, for easy narratives that satisfied her worries and vindicated her fears. David, on the other hand...

She reached for the door, but it swung open on its own, nearly smashing into her face as she jumped back, and there he was, one hand clasped around a surly Bryce’s forearm.

David Whitmore had grasped for much simpler ways of feeling in control of his life.

“Erin,” David said. 

“David.”

A slight flare of the nostrils. “Erin, I’m sick of having-”

“I’m late for school,” she interrupted, moving to push past him. “Sorry.”

If she was smarter, she’d manage him like she did Lauren, giving him something he could work with, but Erin had run out of patience with contorting herself for men.

Even when it would be easier.

David prevented her from leaving, even his slight frame enough to fill the doorway. “Take Bryce to church.”

She stared up at him, willing herself not to flinch away, subtly resting a hand on Bryce’s forearm. “One, why? Two, no.”

David’s face tightened, almost imperceptibly. “Mr. Jean says he’s been spouting insults about- Mr. Mathers.”

Erin almost laughed at that, reaching out to chuck Bryce under his chin. “Hey, nice going, squirt.” He blew a raspberry at her, and she reciprocated in kind.

Erin,” David snapped.

David,” she shot back, mimicking his tone and expression. Then, to Bryce, “Come on, squirt. We gotta get going, cause I’m late.

When she pushed past David this time, he let her pass, and oh how it grated that she needed him to let her. A small, vicious part of her fantasised about shoving him out of the way, about using her powers or her fists or the boxcutters hidden at her waist and ankle to hurt him, to bring him just a little bit closer to understanding what her life was like-

But she didn’t, because it had been a stupid, naive fantasy for as long as she’d been having it - for her whole life. 

“We’re going to talk when you get home,” David said, as she led Bryce down the driveway and onto the road.

“No, we won’t,” Erin said.

Lauren appeared behind him, and he turned to speak to her in hushed tones. Erin’s stare bored holes in the back of his head, and she took a vicious little comfort in the knowledge her aura had been slowly soaking into him the whole time. She’d started keeping it on constantly around the compound - most people couldn’t even tell it was there, and if it made it even a fraction as unpleasant for them to be around her as the reverse was for her, good. In a perfect world, she’d give someone a heart attack or aneurysm.

“Erin?” Bryce asked. “Let go, please?” She was still holding him by the forearm - her power didn’t affect her, and she could extend that to a certain degree to someone she was touching. She’d never tried it with anyone else except him, though, so maybe the shard just got confused by their nigh-identical DNA. Lord knows there’s precedent. 

“One sec,” Erin sighed, turning off her aura. It took a while to turn on, and in turn slowly faded out instead of disappearing instantly. 

“Erinnnnn,” he whined, tugging at his arm.

“Bryyyyyyyyyyceeeee,” she mimicked, letting go once she judged it was safe. “You fucked up, squirt.”

“All I said was-”

Instantly, Erin slapped a hand over his mouth. “Don’t,” she hissed urgently. “Don’t tell me what you said, just- you have to be careful, Bryce. You have to think very carefully about the things you say, okay?”

He glanced away, sullen, but she pulled his head around to meet her eyes again.

Bryce-

“Erin?”

Hearing Rain’s voice always elicited a complicated mix of emotions in Erin, and now was no different. She looked back to see him half-jogging to catch up with them, an expression of concern on his face.

“Hey, Rain.”

Erin didn’t dislike Rain. Well, she did, but only to the degree that she disliked everyone. He was… fine. Good, even. He’d been good to her, helped her out - she’d never have been able to meet with the group without him running interference, and providing a ‘chaperone’. Even though she was the one with powers, she still needed someone responsible (read: male) around, right?

She knew she hadn’t been fair to him, that she wasn’t being fair to him. The last two years had been… uniquely horrifying, and while it wasn’t the exact same, he’d been dealing with that for his entire life. For him to be even marginally well-adjusted was an achievement; hell, it was almost laudable he hadn’t turned out worse

Every time Erin looked at him, though, she didn’t see any of that. It wasn’t his fault that he was a reminder of all the worst times in her life by association, of course, but it happened anyway.

Add that onto his irritating crush on her and, well. Like she’d said to Tristan, he made a better ally than he did a friend.

“You’re… late for school," Rain said.

“Nope.”

“...what do you mean? School’s already started.”

“Being late,” Erin said, “implies that you had planned and or were obligated to show up at a particular time, and have arrived later than that. So, I’m not late until I actually show up…”

“...which you’re not going to,” Rain finished, biting his lip. He was… a little bit cute, she had to admit, when he did things like that. “Erin-”

“Hey, Rainy Day, you’re not there either, so I think it’s a bit rich for you to get on my case.”

“You’re not going to school?” Bryce asked her from up ahead. He’d found a large stick, and was dragging it back and forth through the dirt.

“Nope. And you ain’t going to church either.” ‘Ain’t’, Erin? That’s what you get for spending two years living with hillbilly rednecks.

Bryce considered her words, then frowned. “I wanna go!”

Erin let out something that could only generously be described as a laugh. “No, Bryce. You really fucking don’t.”

“Yes, I do.” He pouted, folding his arms. 

“Why are your parents sending him to church?” Rain asked.

Lauren and David are sending him cause he was dumb enough to shit-talk where a teacher could hear him.”

Rain frowned. “Erin, you really shouldn’t swear around him so much.”

“What,” she replied with a snort, “cause he won’t hear it anywhere else?”

If there was one thing she could say for Rain, it was that he knew when to back off. “Are you going to work today, then?”

“I wanna go to church!” Bryce interrupted, stomping his foot petulantly. 

“Yeah,” Erin answered Rain, as he bent over and scooped a protesting Bryce off the ground. The cries died out, though, as Rain swung the younger boy up onto his shoulders, holding him steady by the ankles.

Okay, two things.

“It’s a good day,” she continued. “Need to wring as much as I can from it.” She didn’t have an actual job, obviously; ‘work’ was her workshop, where she kept most of her assets, both tinkered and non-.

“I- well.” He laughed awkwardly, sticking his hands in the pockets of his hoodie. “Guess it would be hypocritical of me to worry about your attendance record, huh?”

Erin chuckled. “It really would. What’s up, anyway?”

“...family stuff.”

What else? “Still trying to get you hitched with your cousin, huh?”

His lack of response was telling, and she hissed through her teeth in sympathy. “Hey, look at it this way - you’ll never have to stress about meeting the in-laws.”

Rain made a noise halfway between a cough and a laugh. “Jesus, Erin.”

She grinned. “Silver linings, man.”

The rumble of an engine interrupted them, and they all stepped off to the side of the dirt road to allow the pickup to pass. Instead, though, it slowed, until it was keeping pace with them.

“Rain-man! Erin!” Jay stuck his head out the window, grinning broadly.

“Hey, Jay,” Rain replied.

Erin rolled her eyes. “‘You’re gonna be late, Erin’," she muttered to herself.

“Y’all want a ride?” Jay asked, thumbing the already-packed bed of the truck. 

“We’re good,” Erin replied flatly. 

“I wanna ride!” Bryce protested from his perch atop Rain.

“You’re coming to school with us?” Rain asked, and her brother blinked, suddenly reminded of what was at the end of the ride he wanted so badly. “Yeah, thought not.”

Jay shrugged. “Your funeral. See you later, sweet-tits!”

“Jay-!” Rain protested, but the truck was already pulling ahead.

Erin blasted the back of the truck with her power, causing it to swerve slightly. She'd been aiming for the back right tire, but the way her power was currently, she was just happy she'd hit the truck at all. Some of the kids in the back yelled at them, but she flipped them off with a sneer.

“Guessing you’re not actually going to school?” she asked Rain, once they could hear each other again.

He shook his head, but didn’t elaborate.

“Great. Do me a solid and take care of the squirt today? I’m not letting him soak up any more of that bullshit than he already does.

Bryce perked up. “I get to hang out with Rain?”

Rain looked reluctant, but Bryce’s excited tone cut off any protest he might have made. “...sure.”

“Sweet.” She punched him in the shoulder, and he winced. “Make sure he doesn’t eat too much crap, yeah? Or, you know. Not more than you do.”

“I don't eat that much crap,” he protested.

Erin reached up and pinched her brother’s cheek, eliciting a squeal of protest. "Sure you don't." She split off from them, heading off the road at an angle.

“Erin?” Rain asked, and she paused, turning around. “Do you really think you should be… you know, flaunting your powers like that?”

She rolled her eyes. “Rain, are you seriously telling me not to use my powers to put myself ahead?”

“It’s… not right. Making it a show of strength or whatever.”

“Do you know something else the fucking Fallen will respect, Rain?”

He looked away.

“That’s what I fucking thought.” She turned back and continued walking. “If you’ve got another way to get them off my back at least a little, I’d love to hear it.”

Again, the silence spoke volumes. “...stay safe,” Rain replied instead.

She sighed. “...not exactly like it’s up to me.”

Chapter Text

“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.

Chapter Text

[CW: Implied threats of sexual violence, violence with sexual undertones]

Erin never left her van in the compound, so the last leg of the journey was always on foot. 

She’d gotten into the habit of sketching while she walked, a cheap pad and chewed-up pen serving as the main vector for the conceptual side of her tinkering. Dipping into the tinkering fugue helped keep her grounded, helped keep the worst of the panic at bay, and after the day she’d had, she’d needed that more than ever. Once she had the ideas, she could execute on them consistently, but the inspiration was fickle, and she scrapped five ideas for every one she used. 

Still, she’d had her powers for a year now. Even the ones started to add up after a while.

The ligament she’d seen that morning had yet to reappear, but when she’d been watching Ashley’s hands earlier, they had sparked something, and it seemed to have stuck, because she was beginning to see the shape of it. Something to do with… magnetics, she was fairly certain, on a micro-scale, perhaps to allow for extremely fine movement? It wasn’t within Bonesaw’s specialisation, but from what she’d been able to see of her work, that didn’t stop the younger Tinker much. 

Her cast-offs were proving useful, though, so Erin couldn’t bring herself to complain. 

She weaved between trees, head bowed, mutilating the pen’s cap with her teeth as she worked. The forest backed onto the compound, even enclosing certain areas, so it wasn’t suspicious or particularly noteworthy for her to walk in or out of it. All she had to do was always leave through it, regardless of where she was actually going, and it had quickly become the norm, just what Erin does. 

For better or worse, a lot of things were that way these days.

The sun was halfway set, casting dim orange beams through the trees, and so she held a pocket flashlight between her teeth as she worked, adjusting it occasionally to swallow. It was doing hell on her night vision, but she was close to home - it’d be fine. 

Almost immediately, as if the universe had decided to punish her for her hubris, there was the crunching of dry leaves from behind her, and a drumming noise that Erin had learned to recognise in her bones. 

One: push her aura up to its max. Two: drop the flashlight into her hand. Three: spit off to the side, as loud and foul as she could manage.

Four. “Fuck off and die,” she said, not turning around.

There was a low, hoarse chuckle. “Nice to see you too, sweetheart.”

Erin tucked her things back away into her jacket, then finally turned around. “I’m sorry, Timothy, I don’t think you heard me clearly. Fuck off. And die. Preferably screaming.”

“Aww,” Seir smirked. “Y’always say the nicest things.”

Erin clenched a fist, nails digging deep into flesh, but forced herself to remain calm. She met his eyes, and imagined, as vividly as she could, tearing his neck open with a knife and watching him bleed out and choke on his own blood. She made no attempt to control her expression, and although Seir didn’t visibly react, she saw the tiniest flicker in his eyes.

“Why are you here, Timothy?” Erin asked, her voice flat. The full name was one of the few things she’d found that actually got to him, and she deployed it as often as possible.

He grinned a crooked, yellow grin, flicking out the blade of a pocketknife. “What, I can’t just want to see your beautiful face?” Erin ignored the knife - if he was going to hurt her, it wouldn’t be with a blade.

“No. You can’t.”

Casually, Seir began using the knife to scrape the underside of his nails, flicking the debris off to the side. “Well, sweetheart, we’re gonna be doing another little home visit tomorrow, and I thought it’d be just wonderful to have you along. After all, you’ve always been so… eager.”

The way his gaze dragged down her body made the double meaning all too clear. “You know that’s not the fucking deal, Timmy-boy,” Erin snapped, suppressing the bile rising in her throat. “I’m handling my cluster, remember? You don’t get to drag me along on whatever two-bit, hillbilly, psychopathic bullshit you’re pulling this week.”

“Oh, is that what the deal was?” He wasn’t even trying to lie convincingly. “Must have slipped my mind.”

Without breaking eye contact, Erin spat on the ground again. 

The smile slowly seeped off of Seir’s face, like plastic melting in a fire.

“‘Parently, you ain’t been to visit her in a while,” he said.

Erin winced at his words, one hand clutching briefly at her upper arm. “...like I fucking said. I’m busy.

He grinned. “Too busy for your-”

The blast of rust-coloured light hit the ground in front of Seir’s feet, showering him with dirt.

“...okay,” Seir said slowly. “I see how it’s gonna be, then.”

Erin stared him down, trying not to let her panic show. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. Today, of all days? Today, when she was at her most useless, when she was already worn out and tired, this happened today?!  Of course it did, her mind immediately reminded her. Because he’s been watching you! Because he knew that you’d be vulnerable today, because you got sloppy. 

You made this bed, Erin. 

Step the fuck up and lie in it. 

Every single time this happened, it was the same. Every single time, for the last year, he backed her into a corner and got off on it. It was a no-win situation for her. Do nothing, and he gets the satisfaction of controlling her. Fight back, he gets the satisfaction of brutalising her. Give in, and he-

The point was, if Erin had to go down, she was going to go down kicking

The stampede-esque noise of Seir’s power began to ring out, shadows springing up out of the ground, but Erin was already moving, dashing forwards to the original. One of the shadows tried to grab her as she passed, but a blast sent it reeling backwards before it made contact.

Seir grinned as she approached, and Erin bared her teeth - not a smile, but a warning, like a wolf. As she drew close, she blasted the ground again, creating another spray of dirt, and used the brief moment of obstructed visibility to throw herself forward, lunging for Seir’s legs. He swapped out just in time, and it was a shadow that Erin bowled over instead of him. She scrambled to her feet, recovering before the shadow, and buried her knife in its head.

“Ooh,” Seir mocked, as two more shadows rushed her. “That knife make you feel big?”

The shadows, Erin knew from experience, were dangerous, but not particularly clever. Funny, that. A blast delayed one while she stabbed the other in the chest, black smoke billowing out as she dragged the blade down and the shadow collapsed. The other one had recovered, and Erin pointed her hand at it-

-then fired a blast from her other hand at Seir. 

For a second, she actually thought it would work. She’d caught him off-guard, the bolts travelled quickly, and once she’d landed a hit-

Then the hope was gone as quickly as it had arrived, as the blast arced in the air, slamming harmlessly into the ground.

Seir’s laugh echoed through the trees, and Erin growled in frustration as she grabbed the shadow by the wrist. It tried to punch her, but she took the blow on her shoulder as she yanked it forward onto her blade. Another shadow grabbed her from behind, and she elbowed it in the stomach, but then a black cord hit the ground in front of her, and the new shadow grabbed her by the throat and lifted her into the air. 

“Almost got me that time.” Seir circled into Erin’s field of vision as she kicked and flailed, clawing at the meaty arm that held her. Then, in an instant, it was Seir himself, grinning up at her behind his unkempt, greasy hair. “Don’t worry, you’ll get it eventually.” One finger stroked along her jaw, but drew back as she snapped at it. “After all, we’re gonna be spendin’ a lot of time together real soon.”

Erin spat in his face.

It was stupid, reckless, baiting the man who quite literally held her life in his hands. But as she watched the sadistic humour drain away, leaving him snarling and vicious, she couldn’t bring herself to feel anything but satisfied at finally getting to him.

His free hand clamped over hers, crushing her fingers against the handle of the knife and dragging the blade up towards her face. The glint of steel as it drew closer to her eye, her efforts to push it away futile, called back memories, bands around her chest, sweat and tears and snot dripping from her hands, the glint of light off of metal chains-

Except this wasn’t the same, was it? 

It would never be the same.

Not again.

Grabbing her other hand had forced Seir to pull her closer, and while he was distracted with the knife, Erin brought her leg up in a wild kick. It didn’t quite connect properly, nicking the edge of Seir’s jaw, but he jerked back in surprise anyway, pulling Erin closer still as his arm curled instinctively.

With a feral snarl, she slammed her free hand into Seir’s head, open palmed. Before she even made contact, he was replaced by a shadow copy, just in time for the blow to send its head whipping back with a flash of rust-coloured light. The shadow staggered, dropping Erin as it disintegrated away into smoke.

Her landing was rough, neck and hand throbbing with pain, and in an instant Seir was there again, towering over her, face twisted in a vicious scowl.

No time to get clever, not when he was right there. Erin activated her mover power, feeling her feet snap onto the ground. Bracing herself as best she could, she pressed both hands together and channeled as much power as she could through them. The light that shot forth was larger and messier than normal - but, unlike the smaller blasts, it didn’t curve, and it persisted, a bar of energy and light the size of a tree trunk.

Seir swapped out with one of his shadows before it hit, but hitting him hadn’t been the point. The recoil of her power was manageable in short bursts, barely noticeable, but when she sustained the effect, it was enough to knock her off her feet.

Or, if she braced right and her mover power was active, to act as propulsion.

Erin shot backwards, struggling to keep her balance on the uneven ground. The dirt wasn’t a problem (though the sensation of her feet sticking while moving up and down was a little disconcerting) but the tree roots were. Tripping at 20 mph and going headfirst into a tree wasn’t the worst way to die, but it certainly was one of the more humiliating.

She cut the beam after a few seconds, and kicked one leg out to spin herself around, bleeding the momentum for a moment before hooking her arm around a tree and deactivating her power with a short hop, letting it pivot her straight into a low run. 

As much as she wanted to, running wasn’t an option. Seir had made that extremely clear the first time around. Well- everything wasn’t an option, but that one was worse than most. 

Options, options, what are my fucking options? She’d had her aura up since the start, of course, but it was a useless piece of shit so that didn’t help. Her power hadn’t worked, and she wasn’t about to slide or tinker Seir into submission-

Her hand flew to her pocket, and the weight there. 

...only one shot, Erin. Then again, it was one more than she’d had seconds ago.

The shadows were lashing out faster now, their movements more feral - which was saying something. One lunged at Erin from behind a tree, but tripped over a root and burst apart before even getting close, and she had to suppress a snicker. The next two that came at her, though, she let herd her backwards, hearing the drum of more shadows forming behind her. She had to-

There. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see one of the shadows had gained definition, becoming flesh and blood. She pretended not to notice as she let herself be surrounded, hand clutched tightly at her side. 

“Been gettin’ a little cocky, Erin.” Oh for fuck’s sake, learn the element of surprise, you walking pile of smegma. She turned to face him. “Forgettin’ your place.”

Witty banter wasn’t her thing, and even if it was, she wouldn’t waste it on him. “You’re going to die slowly, Seir. Screaming.

“That so?” he spat.

Erin met his eyes. “If it’s the last godforsaken thing I do,” she swore.

He growled, low and ugly, and one of the shadows leapt at her, but Erin was already moving. She stepped to the side, letting the shadow crash to the ground, and spun around behind her, just in time to catch Seir appearing there. She fired a blast at him, and a shadow sprang forth to take the hit, but as it burst apart, she used her power again, from the hand at her side this time, and with a meaty thump, Seir went staggering backwards, clutching at his head. 

The gauntlet she’d had in her pocket was basically useless as tinkertech - Erin had only had it on her because it was a burner. 

As a projectile, though, launched by her power? 

It worked just fine. 

Blood was streaming from Seir’s nose, and judging by the way he was clutching at it and grunting, the blow had broken it, which Erin felt just terrible about. She kicked him in the stomach, and the reverberation in her bones was the best thing she’d ever felt.

Seir tried to grab her ankle, but she kicked him again, in the face this time, and he went crashing back to the dirt. 

“What did I say?” she hissed as she crouched, grabbing him by the hair and pulling him up to expose his neck. “Screaming.”

This time, the glint of the blade was hers, as she held it against his throat. 

Seir gurgled something, and she pressed the blade in slightly. A single bead of crimson rolled down the metal. “Sorry," she simpered. "Didn't quite catch that."

“Bryce,” Seir gurgled out.

Erin froze.

"Didn't think-" Seir continued, so smug despite the blade at his throat. "-thought of it?” He let out a choked laugh, and his hand grabbed hers at the wrist, pulling the blade away. “Nice try, though, sweetie.

Erin did nothing, his hair falling free of her limp fingers. She did nothing as Seir got to his feet, as the drumbeat of his power sounded out over and over. They’d done this routine enough times that she knew better. Not when it was her brother’s life on the line. Her- Lauren and David’s.

And so she did nothing, as the blows started to fall, as Seir and his shadows kicked and spat, biting down on her lip to force herself from crying out.

Eventually, the assault ended, and Erin found her head being lifted off the ground, a hand along her jaw. Through her bruised and bloodied eyes, she saw Seir looking down at her, looking like- “Soon,” he murmured, stroking her cheek in a twisted mockery of affection. “Soon, you and I’ll have all the time in the world.”

Then, with the sound of drumbeats, he was gone, leaving her beaten and bruised and bleeding and alone in the dark.

Chapter Text

“Erin?!” Rain scrambled to his feet as she staggered into her workshop. “Jesus, Erin! What-”

"M'fine," she mumbled, waving a hand. Just getting here had taken most of her remaining strength, and she had to lean against the wall to stay on her feet.

"You're very clearly not! What happened?!"

“You know what happened,” she snapped. The words came out muddled, wet and sticky with blood. “Same fucking thing that always happens."

Rain hesitated. "I assumed..."

"Yeah, we both did." Erin spat, getting rid of the blood that had been welling in her mouth. "And look where that got us." 

She tried to push herself off the wall and move towards her desk, but her legs gave out, and she would've fallen if Rain hadn't caught her.

She'd never admit it to anyone, least of all him, but the sensation of his arms encircling her was… nice. Comforting.

He gently lowered her to the ground, propping her back up against the wall, then carefully removed her jacket. “I’ll get the first aid kit. Don’t move, okay?”

Erin nodded, and immediately tried to get up.

“Erin!” Rain snapped, then immediately cringed. “Sorry, I didn’t… just, please, don’t move, okay? You’re going to hurt yourself.” She shot him a look. “Hurt yourself more.”

Erin would’ve continued to try, but she wasn’t physically able to make herself do anything more than sit up slightly. Hell, keeping her eyes open was a challenge on its own. Judging by the way time seemed to blink and Rain was suddenly there with the kit, she hadn’t entirely succeeded.

“I’m sorry, Erin.” Rain’s voice was quiet as he got to work. Giving her painkillers and water to swallow them with, wiping away blood and cleaning out wounds, his touch gentle and hesitant despite the fact that she could barely feel anything anyway. 

“Why?” Erin managed to mumble. She hissed as the burn of antiseptic on her forehead cut through the haze. “Not your fault.”

He shook his head slightly. “Just… I’m sorry that… that this is happening to you. That it’s happening at all.”

“I…” He lifted her hand, and Erin lost her train of thought. “...thanks,” she said, voice hoarse as he began to clean out the dirt from her skinned knuckles. “I don’t… you…”

“It’s okay,” he replied, not meeting her eyes.

Erin stared at him for a second, then began laughing. Almost immediately, it turned into a bloody, ragged cough that left her doubled over in pain.

“Erin?”

“You…” Erin rasped. “You need to… get the fuck out of here, Rain.”

He shook his head. “If I leave you, you might actually kill yourself trying to get up.”

“Not… here.” She waved a hand at that. “Here. All of… this. The Fallen, your stupid-” she broke off into another coughing fit. “Your stupid fucking family, all of this garbage.”

“...I can’t-”

Why not?! What’s there for you here? You could... go right now, and no-one would miss you.” She saw the way he flinched. “Fuck. That’s a good thing, Rain. You really don’t think… the Veras wouldn’t take you in? They’re good people, and… and so are you.”

“...I’m not,” Rain whispered. “You don’t… before you came… you never saw me when-”

Erin splat blood to the side. “You were a piece of shit, I know. But now you’re not.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“It is.” She grabbed his forearm. “Just leave, Rain. What’s… keeping you here at… this point?”

Slowly, Rain looked up to meet her eyes. 

“...Oh,” Erin said hoarsely. “Oh, Rain…”

He shook his head fiercely, tears welling in the corners. “I know-” he choked, took a breath. “I don’t… you don’t…”

Hesitantly, Erin raised her hand, cupping the side of his face. “You should leave, Rain,” she repeated. “There’s- nothing for you here.”

He barked out a laugh, empty and hollow, and her hand fell away with the movement, leaving behind a blood-stained thumbprint on his cheek. “That’s not your decision, Erin.”

They both fell into silence as he continued to clean and dress her wounds, the atmosphere too heavy, too loaded now, to allow speech. 

“Help me up,” Erin rasped once he was done. Rain glared at her, and she met it with one of her own. “Help me up, or I’ll try and do it on my own.”

With him supporting her, she managed to get on her feet, and together they stumbled over to her workbench. 

“Erin…”

She waved him off. “Get me a stool, if you’re so worried.” The… moment, whatever it had been, had passed, and she found herself retreating back into their usual dynamic. Erin is a shit to Rain, Rain puts up with way more than he should. It felt a little hollow, now.

Once she had her stool, Erin got to work. She pulled out her crumpled pad from her jacket and set it on the table, tearing out pages and flattening them out with practised efficiency. If they were still readable, they went on a crowded cork-board - if not, they went in a pile to be restored. It was a good use of her bad tinkering days - she didn't have to come up with new ideas, just parse and copy over ones she'd already had. 

And it wasn’t like she had a shortage of bad tinkering days.

She could hear Rain, off in the shop, hitting something metallic with something else metallic. Obviously, he wasn’t a cape, but Erin had been surprised to learn that he was a half-decent machinist and woodworker. He found it soothing, she was pretty sure, and it still let him feel ‘manly’ or whatever. Came in handy, whenever her well of space-alien engineering ran dry, or just decided that to fuck with her. And it was more of a puddle than a well, anyway. 

Today, though… today was a good day. One of the best she’d ever had without the fifth day giving her coins to boost it, so of course it happened on the day she got beaten within the inch of her life. All she could do was try and make her notes as thorough as possible, and hope that she’d still be able to understand them when it came time to actually start making things.

“-rin. Erin!”

She was startled out of her fugue by Rain’s voice, practically in her ear, and she jolted away for more reasons than one. 

“Your alarm’s been going off for a few minutes now,” Rain pointed out, and she swore as the beeping faded back into her consciousness.

“Help me down,” Erin said, hurriedly finishing her drawing, “then get out of here.” 

She let Rain support her and lead her down to the ground, arms warm and gentle. "Are you sure-" he started.

Erin waved him off, even as a small part of her missed the contact. "Go. Lock up on your way out and I'll be fine - don't want you getting bashed again for staying out." And, she didn't need to say, for staying out with her.

Rain was… very close to the bottom of the totem pole, as far as the Fallen were considered. Erin wasn't anything special, but she was still a cape, and that meant that she was a Better Class Of Person than him. She wouldn’t necessarily be punished for being his friend (and if she was, eh), but Rain would be. Had been. 

“Do you need a pillow or something?” he asked, and she waved him off again, rolling up her jacket and tucking it under her head.

Go,” she repeated. 

He hesitated one last time, met her eyes, and then darkness swept over her vision, and she was gone.

Cradle’s night, his memories. 

Fractured, faded. Erin hated him for it, how he got to have the faded faces and muted words, that he got to have that relief. He didn’t have to relive every detail of the worst night of his life in excruciating detail.

If there was any justice in the world, the others would hate him for that too - and maybe they did.

They just hated her more.

They all stood in their rooms. Erin made her joke, the others tried to murder her with their eyes. Just another night.

“Hey,” Erin said out loud to no-one in particular as she stepped through the debris towards the dias. “Do you think if I learned to juggle in here, I’d be able to do it in the real world?”

The injuries hadn’t carried over - she was exactly as she’d been that first night, black clothes and that stupid fucking demon mask and the hand-shaped bruise on her neck that the turtleneck didn’t quite cover. Mentally, though, she was exhausted and at her limit, and it tended to make her kind of… loopy. 

“I mean,” she continued, “three tokens, hand tinkering, it just makes sense, right? We could’ve been juggling this whole time!”

Love Lost turned to stare at her as she grabbed her three chain links from the table. Another average day, but she’d already known it was going to be. 

“How does it go, anyway?” The silence in the dream room seemed more physical than in reality. Thicker, more oppressive. Talking to herself helped, humming or muttering or scratching at her skin or gnawing on her thumb. 

Screaming. Crying.

Anything that made noise.

None of the others responded, not that she’d been expecting them too. Snag and Love Lost leant on opposite sides of their barrier, foreheads resting against it. Love Lost had both hands against the wall, tension and anger in her posture, while Snag slumped, a single hand placed over one of hers. 

Cradle was staring at her. Harrowed, raw. Even though he had it easy.

Erin bit her cheek until it bled and gave him a crimson smile. “You’ve probably tried it, right? What is it? One, two-” She tossed one of the links up, then a second one from the opposite hand, but she didn’t know where to go from there, and both fell to the floor with a dull clink. “Shoot. Guess that’s not it.”

She bent over to grab them, and when she straightened up, Cradle had moved right up to the barrier. Still staring.

Erin let her fake cheeriness slough off her face, let the links of chain clatter to the ground. Without breaking eye contact, she walked right up to the barrier - not as close as Snag and Love Lost were, but closer than would have been comfortable in real life. 

He quivered with barely-suppressed rage, but Erin knew better by now. The rage was real, it was very very real, but underneath it there was something else. Something dark and cold and entirely familiar, because she’d seen it enough in the mirror.

Erin broke eye contact first, turning away and beginning to pace the border of her room. She hated seeing that, hated knowing it, but letting herself forget was worse.

It felt like an hour passed before any of them spoke again. 

“Cradle. I’d like the coins before we run out of time.” Snag had moved to the dias in the centre, looking across at Cradle.

Without moving, Cradle flung out a hand, sending his coins flying into Snag’s space.

“Are you happy yet?” he asked. Not speaking to Snag, or Love Lost.

Erin turned to him and gave the broadest, fakest grin she could. “Feeling peachy,” she said through her teeth.

Cradle ignored her. “Is it enough?” he spat. “Have you hit rock bottom yet? Or are you going to keep digging, and drag us all down with you?”

Erin spat on the ground. “Fuck you,” she said, because it didn’t matter what she felt, didn’t matter if she agreed with him - she couldn’t back down, couldn’t give him an inch. “Get over yourself already.”

“We were good people,” Cradle snarled, slamming a hand against the barrier. “Snag was a hero, Love Lost was an officer of the law.”

“And I was a fucking fifteen-year-old,” she shot back.

“We all had our lives destroyed,” he continued, “we all suffered and lost, but you? You’re the only one who did it to herself. To us. To them.” He gestured out, into the void around the dream room, but Erin knew who he meant anyway. “You should have done us all a favour and just died at the mall.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“You should have done the world a favour and killed yourself before doing it again. Every single time, you should have killed yourself instead. Every-” he slammed his hand against the wall with each word, “single- time!”

Erin sat down on her bench, and began tossing a link up into the air.

“You were never a good person. Because a good person - a decent person - would have killed themselves instead of spreading fucking misery and destruction everywhere you go.”

Erin yawned.

“You want to be fucking redeemed?! Kill yourself.

“You first,” Erin said.

Cradle slammed his hand against the wall again. “You’re already killing me! Killing us! Do the right thing for once in your miserable fucking life and kill yourself.”

The chain clinked as she caught it.

“Kill yourself,” Cradle said.

Chapter Text

Erin almost wished she drank. At least she would’ve had some fun before the misery the morning after.

She came to a stop just outside the church, leaning on a rickety fencepost as she caught her breath. She didn’t have any broken bones - Seir may have been a thug, but he’d been a thug for a long time, and you didn’t do that unless you had a very good sense of exactly how much you could get away with. 

Service had already finished, of course. It wasn’t like she’d been planning to attend, she’d rather let her cluster draw and quarter her, but the plan had been to get there before it ended, so she could do what she needed and slip away without being noticed. 

‘Course, that relied on her being able to move at a pace faster than a fucking three-legged geriatric turtle, so she really should’ve known better.

The congregation had already spilled out onto the street, a throng of people in their Sunday best - which, for the Fallen, meant more than a few wifebeaters. Scratch that, it meant mostly wifebeaters.

David and Lauren stood near the edge of the crowd, talking with some people Erin was probably supposed to recognise but didn’t. Bryce stood between them, awkwardly fidgeting but held in place by David’s hand on his shoulder. 

As good a place to start as any. Erin took a deep breath, then began limping over towards them.

The other group caught sight of her first, and there was the usual flicker of shock and horror, immediately masked with casual affect.

"Morning," Erin said as she reached them, not missing the way Lauren and David flinched at her sudden arrival. Bryce immediately broke free of David and rushed over to her, mouth already spinning up with stories of what he'd done with Rain the day before as he bounced up and down. She put one hand on top of his head, and waggled him from side to side."Cool it, B-man."

"Erin," David said.

“You didn’t come home last night,” Lauren said. Points for effort, but she hadn’t managed to conceal the tremor in her voice. “We were worried.”

Oh, I’m sure you were. Just not about me, huh? “Well, good news!” Erin replied hoarsely, spreading her arms. “I’m totally fine!” She grinned, then started to cough, turning to the side so she could spit out a wad of phlegm and blood.

“...I’m glad to hear that,” Lauren said, and Erin could’ve screamed. She knew, she knew they wouldn’t, but some small part of her still held out hope that this time would be when it broke, when it was too much for them to rationalise away-

-but it wasn’t. It would never be, because doing that would mean acknowledging every time beforehand that she’d come staggering home bruised and bloodied and they’d ignored it, every time they’d passively allowed her to be preyed upon because they were so desperate to feel like they belonged somewhere that they wouldn’t jeopardise what they had for something as insignificant as their fucking daughter.

“Anyway,” Erin said, faux-cheerily, “just thought I’d show my face and say hi, before I head out today. Have a good time!” She gave her biggest, fakest grin, and began to hobble away.

“Erin!” Bryce ran up alongside her. “I wanna come with you!”

“Nooope, absolutely not, kid.” She tried to push him lightly away, but couldn’t manage it without throwing off her awkward gait. “I gotta do some boring bullshit today. Go find some of the other kids and go look for mushrooms or something, yeah?”

Bryce pouted, but apparently being injured was a great way to get obedience out of him, cause after a moment, he ran away without protest.

Erin staggered on, sticking to the edges of the crowd until she found what she was looking for.

Rain and Lachlan were talking, which had become surprisingly common recently. Rain seemed to find some odd sort of kinship in Lachlan, an inverted version of himself still providing more familiarity than most, and Lachlan was… Lachlan. He liked everyone you were supposed to like, hated everyone you were supposed to hate, and apparently Rain still fit the first category. 

And, despite all her efforts, so did Erin.

“Erin!” Lachlan waved with a cheery smile as she approached, and Erin had to suppress the urge to vomit as she met his eyes. “How are you?”

Shockingly enough, her horrific bruises hadn’t miraculously healed overnight. “Just peachy,” she replied dryly. “I need to borrow the Rainman, kay?”

“Yeah, of course!” 

The good news was, the urge to vomit was now being held in check by the urge to punch him in the face. “Great.” She grabbed Rain by the forearm and started dragging him away.

After a second, she met resistance, and glanced back to see him hesitating.

“What?” she snapped. “Don’t tell me you want to spend more time around that brainwashed freak.”

“It’s not his fault, Erin.”

She sneered, and spat to the side. “Does it matter? We still have to deal with it.”

Rain just shrugged one shoulder. “You see your- you see Lauren and David?”

“Uh huh.”

“How’d they handle…” he gestured at her face.

“Oh, they were horrified. Said we’re going to leave tomorrow!”

“Erin,” Rain said, reproaching.

She rolled her eyes. “Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. They did exactly what they always fucking did, Rain. Why wouldn’t they? At this point if they ever acknowledge they were wrong they’d have to own up to every-fucking-thing that’s happened to me in the last year and that’s not going to fucking happen so they’re just gonna pretend forever!”

“...you shouldn’t swear so much,” Rain said quietly.

“I’ll fucking shit-ass swear however cunting much I want, thank you very much.”

The laugh she got from him was barely recognisable as one - closer to a sob than anything.

Oh fuck.

“...Rain?” she asked cautiously. “You, uh. You good, bud?” She was… Fuck, this shouldn’t be this hard, should it? She wasn’t a fucking robot, she knew how to be comforting, she’d been comforting in the past, but now she just felt- flat, like she was going through the motions, and the shape of the words she was supposed to say felt awkward and wrong in her mouth.

“I’m- fuck.” Rain wiped furiously at his eyes, trying to hide the tears. “I’m fine, it’s not…”

Better to do something instead of just standing here. Awkwardly, she slung an arm around Rain’s shoulder, pulling him into a side-hug. “Do you… want to talk about it?” God, she sounded like a fucking joke.

She felt more than saw him shake his head. “God, no,” he croaked out, and she couldn’t help but laugh a bit. 

“...it’s Allie, isn’t it?” The words hit him like a physical blow, and she knew she’d gotten it correct. “Shit. When?”

“...soon. ‘Within a month’ soon.”

Shit.

“Shit,” he echoed. “Yeah.”

“Want me to kill her?”

That got a shocked laugh out of him. “Jesus, Erin. Don’t joke about that.”

Joking. Sure. She didn’t dislike Rain’s cousin, but she didn’t like her either, and if it came down to one or the other-

She wouldn’t kill either of them, because Jesus! What was wrong with her, that she’d been seriously considering it?! “...yeah. Sorry.” She squeezed him a little tighter, but pulled back when he flinched. “What are you going to do, then?”

“...what can I do?” he said, defeated.

“Uh, leave.” She didn’t want to rehash their argument from the night before, but she wasn’t going to let him get dragged in deeper because of- because of her. 

“I won’t do that to Allie.”

“What, deprive her of the wonderful experience of being married to her cousin?”

“You know what I mean.”

She did. “Rain, look. At some point... you have to accept that bad things are going to happen- that bad people are going to do bad things no matter what. It’s not your fault just because you didn’t let them use it to manipulate you.”

He looked down at the ground. “...is that how you justify it?”

She let her arm fall away. “...low fucking blow, Rain.”

He met her eyes, but refused to apologise. “Is it?”

Yes,” she spat, “fine, it fucking is, Rain, because otherwise I would’ve blown my own fucking brains out! Is that what you want, huh?! Is that fucking preferable?!”

He didn’t respond.

“Of course.” She stopped walking and after a second, he did too, turning to face her. “Well good fucking news, then! There’s officially nothing keeping you here! You think I wouldn’t leave in a fucking second if I could, Rain?! Do you even know how lucky you have it?”

Something hot and angry flared in his eyes, and Erin felt a vicious, ugly satisfaction at having scored a blow. “...I’ll see you later,” he said quietly, turning and walking away.

Erin watched him go, stomach churning and injuries throbbing. Why couldn’t he just- why did he have to be so stubborn? Couldn’t he just let her have one single victory? Do one thing right?

Instead, she’d just burnt one more bridge, right before she was supposed to go burn some more, at a time when she really needed to be crossing rivers.

Which only left her one option, really.

She pulled out her phone, loading up PHO and scrolling back through the messages from last month.

♦ Private message from 17593Q183H17953R9713E714693

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: 974641T17953A8209746413R173901761R796520

take5:

you good?

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: Had to check.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: If you were one of mine.

take5: if this is a pimp thing im not interested

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  you’ve been looking for info on multi-triggers

take5:

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  don’t worry

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: you did a good job hiding

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: my friends are just better

take5: still not convinced this isnt a pimp thing

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: sorry, too young for me. You want info.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: I can provide 

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: we can collaborate

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: important to have people watching your back

take5: i manage just fine, thanks

take5: also, you fucking know how old i am?!

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  maybe I’m just very old. but yes, I do. ask yourself what else could I know

take5: well its certainly not how to be non-creepy

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: Maybe so.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: I know which cluster you’re from. unless you just triggered, which

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: unlikely

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: I found most of the group at I-275. Rest of them wouldn’t be searching online like you are.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: I found two members of the shipwreck group. They might be doing what you’re doing with the searching but they know the code. They’re friends of mine. Third member of that group is dead.

take5: get to the point

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: The lecture hall: if you

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: fine

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: you’re from the mall cluster

take5: or maybe im just interested in clusters

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  then i suppose you wouldn’t care that i reached out to one member of that cluster already

take5:

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  thought so. the one i spoke to said there was him, a woman, another teen. and you.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: The woman is gathering funds to hire mercenaries and come after you. The one I talked to hired an information broker to find you. Her name is Tattletale. She’s good. She has resources. including the mercenaries I just mentioned. She’s also preoccupied for now.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: A favor from me to you.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: That leaves you & the last one. It sounds like all 3 are coordinating vs. you.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: I can just about guarantee the people they’re gathering together are better than the ones you got.

take5:...

take5: information appreciated

take5: this is where you make the pitch, right?

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  ha. I like you, I think. but yes

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: You need help. You’ve got a case of Kiss/Kill like I never saw and I don’t think they’re reaching for the chapstick.

take5: not quite

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: ?

take5: not quite kiss/kill

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  Ah. Well the lines are often blurry anyway

take5: doubt it

take5: what do you get out of this

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: You. 

take5: again with the pimp thing

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  And a chance to deal with some mutual enemies.

take5:

take5: ill keep it in mind

Erin hesitated, then sighed, and began tapping out a new message.

take5: alright

She didn’t like how quickly the response came.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  Is that a yes?

take5: its not a no

take5: i need information and resources

take5: help me out here and

take5: we’ll see

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693:  Oh, I’m very glad the others turned me down now. I suspect you are going to turn out to be more interesting.

17593Q183H17953R9713E714693: *Much* more interesting.

Chapter Text

I flew around the area before settling down. The others were already there, but Erin was just arriving now, her beater of a van rattling down the dirt path towards where the team was assembled.

I landed next to Sveta just as Erin pulled up, a small bit of intentional timing on my part. Sveta smiled at me, and I gave her hand a quick waggle. 

Kenzie was practically bouncing as the engine shut off, but one of Ashley’s hands on her shoulder kept her in place - not physically restraining her, just as a reminder. 

After a moment of silence, the driver’s door opened and Erin half-fell out of the door.

I had to suppress a wince. She was alone, and looked like she’d been beaten to within an inch of her life. One eye was completely swollen shut, the other not looking much better off, and there was a quality to her gait that made me think moving was causing her pain and she was trying to hide it. For the first time, she wasn’t wearing oversized, baggy clothes, but a burgundy tank top and shorts, leaving her skinned knees and the numerous tiny cuts and scabs over her arms and legs exposed. They weren’t all fresh, either - there was no way she hadn’t had the majority of them the entire time I’d known her.

“Hey,” she said, a bit croakily.

“You’re hurt,” Kenzie said. 

“I am?” Erin joked.

Kenzie shook her head. “That’s not funny.”

“You get jumped?” Chris asked.

“Yeah. Not by my cluster,” she clarified, “but- yeah.” She glanced over at Tristan. “Same as usual.”

“Usual?” I couldn’t help but speak up. “This has happened before?” How had Jessica not known, how had she not done something?

“Well, the face thing is new,” Tristan said. “Usually, it’s all stuff that’s hidden by clothes. Classic fifties housewife bruises, y’know?”

Erin chuckled at that like it was a running joke, then winced in pain. “Oh, don’t make me laugh, I think one of my ribs is bruised.”

It was hard, to pull back and watch. I’d tried for the call with Dido, stepped back to observe, letting Tristan take point with directing the others. He was good at it. Sveta being the one who had struggled had pulled me in a bit. 

But here, now, seeing this? I was increasingly unsure that it was the right approach in the first place. 

Sveta looked grim, but not surprised. Erin had said she knew some of the story. “Have you seen a doctor?”

“Not yet. That’s the next stop after this.” There was a barely-perceptible growl, which got a laugh out of Chris. “Okay, next-after-one stop.” 

I was there, but I also wasn’t. That line of thinking, about objectivity, had lead me down a dark path. My sister, and the sick, hollow, angry experience of being betrayed, of the lies.

I stood across from Erin and I felt like I had in the bank. The bank had been dusty, partially my fault, the floor scratched up by the passage of giant dogs, littered with discarded pieces of paper and dropped belongings. It had been dark, the rain pattering outside.

Much like Erin stood by the front of her van, hurting, my sister had stood a distance away from me, a knife to her throat. Like Erin, she’d put on a face, making threats and jokes, albeit bitter ones. 

I was really hoping she wasn’t like Erin in other ways.

It wasn’t that I held Erin close to my heart or anything. It wasn’t even that I particularly trusted her. In fact, I didn’t trust her - I trusted that Sveta trusted her, and even that was starting to stretch a little thin. But I recognized the pattern.

“No point in drawing this out, huh?” Erin said, leaning back against the hood of her van. 

“That would be best,” Ashley said.

“We’re all caught up, right? Byron and I?” Tristan asked.

Erin nodded. “Only new thing is this.” She pointed to her face.

“Good. The bits I know are bad enough on their own, I don’t know that I could handle there being more.”

“You seem cheerful,” Ashley observed. It was a bit of a non-sequitur, but at the same time, I was pretty sure I could follow the train of thought that lead her to it.

“Yeah, I guess. It’s a bit of… nihilistic cheer, I guess? The landslide’s started now, so there’s no more stressing about trying to stop it, just- trying to ride it out.”

“Is telling us the ‘landslide’?” Sveta asked.

“Some. Some other things, including the injuries. Some new stuff.”

I was silent. I could only see the parallels. I held my tongue because I didn’t trust it. If this was an echo of that situation in the bank, I had no better idea on how to handle it now in the present.

No rain, no enclosed area. We were at the edge of a park. It was sunny out.

No knife to anyone’s throat, and Erin was relaxed and almost happy.

“You’ve been hiding with powerful people,” Ashley said. “Capes, probably.”

“Less ‘hiding out’, and more ‘living’, but yeah.” Erin turned to me. “Victoria, that bit that I told you about my parents, back at the training exercise? It was... almost entirely true, I just left some parts out.”

I had the suspicion I knew where she was going already. “Such as where they ran to?”

“Yeah. Or, you know. Who they ran too.” 

She let me be the one to say it out loud. “The Fallen.”

Erin nodded. “Yeah.”

At that, and her subsequent confirmation, I could see a ripple run through the group. Tristan looked resigned - he’d already known, of course. Sveta, too, didn’t look surprised, exactly.

“Oh,” Kenzie said. She was utterly still now.

“I kind of connected the dots already,” Sveta said. She put a hand on Kenzie’s shoulder. “There was the church thing with Tristan.”

“Church thing?” I asked.

“My parents were looking for a new church,” Tristan explained. “Erin was kinda sleep-deprived, she made a joke that I didn’t realise was a joke, and she ended up having to explain the whole situation to avoid a really bad misunderstanding.”

“We’d already talked a bit outside of the group,” Erin added. “Me and the two of them, power stuff messing with your self, sticking people in your head. I was probably going to tell them anyway.”

“No, you wouldn’t have,” Tristan said, amused but with an edge.

Erin sighed. “No, I probably wouldn’t have. Like I said, though, powers messing with your head.”

I could connect the dots, to borrow Sveta’s phrasing. Power-related emotional shifts, the way she and Tristan had described her emotion power, her general twitchiness. “They make you more paranoid?” I asked.

She raised her hands up weakly before letting them flop back down. “Life made me paranoid. The powers make me panicky - paranoia is just the only semi-productive way I can channel it.”

“That doesn’t seem like a good idea.”

“You didn’t see Erin when we first met her, Victoria,” Tristan said. “To be blunt, she was an absolute wreck, no offense.”

“None taken,” Erin said. “I was.”

“So yeah, trust me when I say this is the better alternative.”

“But you’re not Fallen?” A non-sequitur, but judging from the almost plea-like tone, it had been weighing on Kenzie while we were talking.

“No, chipmunk. Never.” Kenzie physically sagged with relief, leaning against Ashley slightly. “It’s… My parents. My little brother. They got Rain when he was little, but he isn’t anymore.”

“He’s trying hard,” Tristan cut in.

“I sort of figured that one out,” Kenzie said quietly. “He flinched the first time he met me.”

“Yeah,” Erin said. “But I’m here to make excuses for myself, not him.”

“That’s not funny.”

Erin sighed. “I’m only half joking.”

“Don’t joke,” Tristan agreed. “I’m on your side, Erin, but… don’t joke.”

She nodded silently, composing herself.

“How does your cluster fit into this?” Ashley asked.

“It’s- complicated.” She realised what she’d done and chuckled, doing the ‘card’ gesture. “They want to wipe out the Fallen because of what they did at our trigger, which I would be on-board with if they also didn’t want to wipe out me. I’m- my hands aren’t clean, but they seem to view me as almost wholly responsible for- our trigger, for everything else.”

“Everything else?” Sveta asked.

Erin took a deep breath. “I said the visions, the memories in the dream room, were subjective, right?. And they are, but it’s- it’s not just that. Everyone else, it’s the same on their night, right from the beginning. Mine are the only one that changed.”

“What do you mean, changed?”

“They… update.” She laughed bitterly. “Make sure everyone’s getting their regular fix of the Erin Show.”

I wasn’t fond of how often she was leaving things to us to explicitly state. “It wasn’t just the mall, was it.”

“No,” Erin said, staring down at the ground. “It wasn’t.”

“You’ve been working for them as an enforcer,” Ashley said, “in exchange for protection.”

“Not quite an enforcer, but yeah. And not the whole time. The last few months I’ve managed to get out of it by convincing-” she winced, “-certain people that I need to deal with my cluster, but I could only do that because I’d been… useful.”

“Define ‘useful’?” Chris asked, sounding far too amused for the situation.

It wasn’t him Erin looked at, though, or even me, but Sveta. “Maywater span, the synagogue. New Rochester, the cinema. Berwith. Tarotroot.”

At the final one, Sveta stiffened.

With the Fallen as a point of reference, I was pretty sure I knew what the incidents were. In Maywater, a synagogue had been boarded up from the outside, and feces and other sewerage thrown in from windows and holes punched in the walls. New Rochester, a group of Fallen had taken a cinema essentially hostage, forcing anyone who wanted to leave to perform some kind of blasphemy or hurt another patron to ‘prove their faith’. 

Tarotroot was a Case 53 who had been brutalised and left on the steps of Berwith city hall. Up until now, the culprits had been unknown. 

“You were there?” Sveta demanded. 

Erin nodded, staring at the ground. “Yeah. I could say I didn’t have a choice, but I don’t really think that matters, does it?”

“Why not?” I asked. It felt like a slight betrayal, to not immediately take Sveta’s side, but I was trying to be a good friend in a different way, and make sure she had all the facts.

“My family.”

“Hostages?”

“Willing ones. Even after everything, they’re still buying into the party line.” She sighed. “At this point, I’m just about ready to let them lie in the bed they’ve made, but- Bryce is eight. He doesn’t deserve to suffer for their mistakes, or mine.”

“We can get them out.”

Erin shook her head furiously. “No, no, you can’t, there’s-” she winced again. “Please, just trust me that you can’t. Besides, they don’t want to go.”

Was there a power effect, preventing her from speaking, or harming her when she did? I glanced over at Tristan, who was clearly thinking the same thing.

“So you’re going back,” Sveta said.

“Yeah. I’m sorry, but yeah. I don’t really- I don’t have options, right now. I have to help my brother.”

“Just the one brother?” I noted. “You told me you had siblings, plural.”

She winced. “Ah, yeah. That was… a lie. I’m sorry, it’s- I won’t blame it on the powers, but it’s become a hard habit to break.”

Was someone more or less trustworthy when they told you that they weren’t?

“What did you do?” Sveta’s voice was as cold as I’d ever heard it. The same way she sounded when she talked about the people she’d killed. 

“...stood guard, mostly. Kept people from running, knocked them around a bit.”

“Did you kill anyone?” Chris asked casually.

For some reason, I’d expected an immediate dismissal, and the moment of hesitation caught me off guard. “...not for them,” Erin said. “But yeah.”

“As the person who’s known the details for the longest,” Tristan interjected, “it would be manslaughter at worst in a fair trial.”

He kept doing that, I’d noticed, interjecting to divert things when Erin was starting to get too dejected. It was a good example of the worry I’d had, about the group protecting itself even when that might not be a good thing. Right now, Erin needed that protection in a physical sense, but in a moral, legal one? 

I still wasn’t sure.

“...don’t trust them to not just hand me over in exchange for getting the rest of my cluster on their side,” Erin was saying.

“They wouldn’t do that,” Sveta replied.

“Sveta, you know I have a lot of respect for Weld, but Weld isn’t the Wardens.” 

Erin looked at me, with something almost like hope in her eyes. 

“Victoria,” she asked. “Are you...”

“Yeah,” I said. A disconnected answer, but I was feeling fairly disconnected right now.

I was aware of the silence that followed my statement.

“Snag’s army. They’re after the Fallen first,” I said.

“Fallen and I are tied for first, I’d say.” Erin always looked nervous, but it felt deeper now. 

“Because of the kids, and the others you killed. Because you stuck with the Fallen.”

“...yeah.”

I nodded. “I’m going to go,” I said. I was aware of the looks I got. “Tell Kenzie everything’s cool. I’ll be back. I just need to think on this.”

No actions out of instinct. I’d think, piece everything together.

I flew away from the scene before I could say or do something I’d regret.

Chapter Text

Erin watched Victoria fly away, a sinking feeling in her gut.

It wasn’t that she didn’t care about the opinions of the others - she did, she actually wished she cared less. But they’d gotten to know her, and Victoria hadn’t. Victoria wasn’t biased. If she didn’t abandon Erin, it meant- it would have meant that maybe she wasn’t a lost cause. If she hadn’t abandoned Erin.

She tried to convince herself that it didn’t necessarily mean the worst, that Victoria was just taking some time away to think, that she’d be back soon. 

She failed.

“Erin,” Tristan said. “She’ll be back.”

“I know that,” Erin snapped. 

Tristan huffed out a small laugh. “Come on, you think I don’t know what’s going through your head. She’ll be back. Right, Sveta?”

No reply came, and when Erin looked over at Sveta, the sheer fury in the normally-sweet woman’s eyes was enough to make her flinch.

“I was prepared to chew you out, you know.” Sveta’s voice was quiet, and dangerously cold.

“Sveta,” Erin started, “you have to-”

“I had a list of things, that the Fallen had done. I’d connected the rest of the dots already, I knew.” Erin winced at that. “I wanted to make sure you understood the gravity of the situation, of who you’d aligned yourself with.”

“Sveta-”

“Instead,” and she took a step forward, prompting Erin to step back in turn despite the good few feet separating them, “it turns out not only are you aware, but you’ve personally had a hand in doing worse. To one of my people.”

Erin couldn’t meet her eyes. “My family, Sveta, my brother. It was that, or watch them suffer-”

“So, what?” Sveta demanded, black tears brimming in her eyes. “You decided to trade their lives for Tarotroot’s, for the people you actually care about?! The ones who count?!

“They’re alive!” Erin’s shout, louder than she’d intended, rang through the clearing. “Tarotroot’s alive, Sveta. The things that happened to them were horrible, and I’ll probably be paying for my part in that for the rest of my days, but they’re not dead, they’re not permanently scarred or injured. So yeah, I chose them, not because they don’t count, but because if I chose the other way, my fucking family would be dead. Worse than dead! You have no idea some of the things that the Fallen-” she broke off, wincing as she resisted the urge to wrap a hand around the thin band of metal on her upper arm, hidden by her shirt.

“Erin, are you okay?” Tristan asked. “You keep doing that.”

“Fine,” she lied. “Pulled something, I think.” She’d gotten caught up in the heat of the moment, let her control slip, and now she had to take a second to re-establish it, enduring another few stabs of pain as her brain tried to pink-elephants itself. 

Erin was pretty practiced by now, and reining herself back in only took a few seconds, but the interruption had killed her momentum, and Sveta didn’t seem particularly interested in picking it up again. She was staring at the ground now, arms clutched tightly around herself in a way that made Erin feel like absolute shit. 

She let her gaze wander instead, over the other members of the group. Kenzie was… Kenzie. The bit about Rain had taken some of the wind out of her, but she’d probably stand any member of the group no matter what they did. Which was… pretty worrying, but that was more Jessica’s problem to deal with, hers and Ashley’s. 

Who, incidentally, was mostly unreadable, arms folded loosely in front of her chest. She hadn’t been the one Erin had been most worried about, but she’d probably been the most uncertain. They’d bonded to a degree - recently, getting to the point of Ashley allowing Erin to take a look at the guts of her hands for power inspiration; more initially, over uncontrolled emotions, the moments where your body seemed to be out of control, the coin flipping in the air. Anger for Ashley; panic for Erin. 

Apart from that, though, Erin had never had a good read on her. It felt like looking at a magic-eye puzzle, where you know there’s a pattern in the noise, but no matter how hard you squint or change angle, it refuses to emerge. 

For now, she merely inclined her head. “I said I would help, and I stand by my word.” 

Erin breathed a sigh of relief. She wasn’t about to mistake that for unconditional support, but- Ashley was scary, and she could really do with scary.

The buzz of a phone interrupted her thoughts. “Ah damn,” Tristan said. “That’s my time. Byron, you okay to take over here?”

He blurred, replaced with the other Vera twin. “Yeah,” Byron said quietly. “Hey, Erin.”

“Hey, Byron.” She grinned weakly at him. “You like the new look?”

“I thought you said you’d be careful.”

She grimaced. “This was careful.”

He acknowledged that with a half-shrug, hands finding pockets.

She’d already known the Capricorn brothers were on her side, even as her brain had tried to whisper doubts as to the contrary. Victoria- well, that was a bridge to be burned later. Sveta’s bridge might have already been burned, and Ashley was sticking by her word, which only left Kenzie and-

Chris.

Weird little fucker, he was. In some ways, he was the most fourteen-year-old boy she’d ever met, but in others, he couldn’t be further from normal. When the group had just been starting out, and she’d still had difficulty speaking to any of the others outside the structure of therapy, he’d been the one to reach out, silently keeping her company before and after sessions. Not talking, not even attempting to, just sitting. It’d helped - later, he’d made a snide joke about it being basically a dog-training technique and Erin had actually laughed, catching him off-guard. That had probably been the moment they actually connected for the first time, she thought, found some common ground in bitter, mean humour. From there, though, Erin had found him surprisingly good company when he wanted to be - he wasn’t a cape geek, exactly, but neither was she anymore, and they talked a lot about the more mechanical side of stuff.

She’d fully admit she’d picked up more than a little of his sense of humour, but she liked to think she’d influenced him slightly away from the more puerile jokes he’d tended to go for at first. 

"Chris?" she asked, hating her weak she sounded. How much she cared about the answer.

He took a second, eyes mostly hidden by his hair. "You really think I'd care one way or the other? Couldn't give two shits."

"Bull-" She cut herself off, conscious of Kenzie's presence. "Cut the edgy nihilist act, Chris. Are you on my side or not?"

"Oh, so that's how we're framing it now?" Sveta asked, acidly. 

"Can I count on you," she amended, shooting Sveta a glare, "or are you sitting this out?"

Chris made a show of inspecting his nails. "I guess it could be interesting.”

“You’re bringing the kids into this now, Erin?” Byron asked. His tone was mild, but his tone was always mild, and Erin had gotten to know him well enough to tell he disapproved.

“Kenzie? absolutely not.” She saw Kenzie start to protest. “Chipmunk, don’t argue. It’s not happening.”

Kenzie smiled, wide and toothy. “I thought-”

Ashley’s hand on her shoulder squeezed slightly. “You’re not getting left behind, Kenzie. This is just a situation that no-one wants to be involved in.”

“But-” 

“No buts. We’ll talk about it later.”

Kenzie went silent, but Erin could recognise her jitteriness as the nervous kind, not the excited kind.

“That still leaves Chris,” Byron said pointedly. 

“Well, yeah. Have you met him?” Erin asked. “Byron, he’s going to get involved in this no matter what we do. At least this way we know it’s happening and can keep an eye on him.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Chris admitted shamelessly.

Byron sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. “...for the record, I still think all of this is a bad idea.”

“Oh, it’s a terrible idea,” Erin agreed. “There just aren’t any better ones.”


Erin winced, another dull spike of pain shooting through her as the hands at her ribs continued to prod and poke.

It had been one of the things she’d asked Numbers, the cluster-creep from PHO, to provide her, a line to a reputable but discreet doctor. She’d been going out on a limb, but she was banking on the stranger’s obvious interest in her to make her stay on the straight and narrow, at least for now. She was being baited, that much was obvious, but if you were starving and desperate, a piece of bait was still food. 

“Good news,” the young doctor said as she straightened up from where she’d been pushing on and prodding Erin’s ribs. “Nothing’s broken, and as far as I can tell, there are no major fractures.” She was South-East Asian, and was wearing a labcoat and gloves over the pajamas she’d had on when answering the door. Despite the obvious unexpectedness of Erin’s visit, she’d been perfectly composed and professional, which was a relief. Something about the woman made Erin’s gut clench up every time she drew too close, and the quicker the entire affair was over, the better. 

“No major fractures?”

The doctor nodded. “I’d need an x-ray to see hairlines. If the pain doesn’t fade at roughly the same rate as your other bruises, you should go to a hospital. I’d say to try and avoid any intense exercise, but...”

Erin gave a nod, grudgingly impressed. “Not up to me, yeah.”

“Okay,” the doctor said as Erin pulled her shirt back on, relieved to have the protection of the baggy fabric again, “you’re not going to keel over dead in a week’s time, so just make sure to keep the cuts clean and change the bandages daily, or as close to that as you can.” She really was experienced with capes, it seemed. “Take one of these,” she continued, holding out an unmarked pill bottle, “if the pain gets too bad, but if anyone asks, you stole them, understand? I’ve worked with scarier people than you, and they wouldn’t be happy if I got my medical license revoked.”

Erin took the bottle carefully, slipping it into a jacket pocket. “Heard and received. Any ideas for excuses?”

She’d meant it as a joke, but the doctor actually thought for a second, pursing her lips. “Leftovers from a refugee camp, or scavenging during Gold Morning. Impossible to prove, not like there are records, and painkillers last forever.”

“Didn’t expect an actual answer, but thanks, I guess?”

She shrugged. “Just covering my own ass.”

“I can respect that.” Erin hopped up onto her feet, grimacing as her wounds were jolted. “How much do I owe you?”

“Your contact covered it.” Erin blinked. “And just so you know, she’s the only reason I didn’t slam the door in your face. You need my services again, you can send advanced notice like everyone else.” 

She, huh? That was the first concrete piece of information Erin had gotten about Numbers, and it was still barely anything. “Sorry,” she said, not entirely insincerely.

The doctor didn’t seem particularly put out. “Just don’t do it again. Remember, scarier people than you.”

“I heard the first time, yeah.”


Erin clutched her jacket closer to her, shivering against the wind. Her final stop of the day, before she’d have to head back to the compound, had brought her to a small coastal town; closer to New Brockton than New York Central, but only slightly. Rather than the usual urban sprawl that made up most of the City, or the ramshackle frontier construction of the Fallen compound, there had been an attempt to recreate what Erin presumed to be the aesthetic of the town that had stood in its place back on Earth Bet. It was charming, to a degree, and Erin wasn’t familiar enough with the locale to pass judgement - before Gold Morning, she’d never lived anywhere but New York, which was an edge case even compared to other large cities. But, if she were to take a guess, she’d say that the attempt had failed, and the buildings and streets felt more like a failed recreation of something lost than an homage. 

The instructions she’d been given had been for this pier, at sunset, which she would have found charmingly quaint if it hadn’t been so imprecise. Of course, she wasn’t an idiot; she knew the risks of being in an expected spot at an expected time. She’d done her best to case the area beforehand, and her usual system of dead-drops remained extant.

But as with the doctor, she’d already taken the plunge of trusting her mysterious contact, and so as the sun set in the distance, it found Erin leaning against the railing of the pier, staring out into the water.

The metal was cool under her fingers, and she distracted herself with the sensation of her calluses rasping back and forth against it. 

"I came here once, you know."

Erin started. She hadn't heard anyone approach, and she'd been listening carefully. But sure enough, a young woman emerged from her peripheral vision as she walked up to the railing and leant against it, looking out at the horizon. She was East Asian, short and petite, with straight black hair cut into a sharp bob. The collar of her leather jacket was turned up against the wind, and both the boots and jeans she wore looked well-worn with use. 

"On Bet, I mean," the woman clarified. "New York was getting a bit too dicey, so I went on a road trip up the coast, doing odd-jobs along the way. They had great crabs, I remember."

Erin wasn’t stupid. Paranoid and bitter and spiteful and prone to panicking, sure, but not stupid. “...I wasn’t expecting you to come yourself,” she said slowly. It was just a guess, but one she felt confident in. “Or alone.”

The woman laughed, glancing at Erin over the rim of her sunglasses. “Alone. You are funny.”

Erin tightened her grip on the metal railing. “Is that a threat?”

“Oh, no. No, if I threaten you-” there was a blur of movement, and before Erin could react, a single finger was hovering directly in front of her eye, “-you’d know it.”

Erin breathed out slowly, heart racing. “...message received.” She hadn’t even seen her move.

The woman grinned, dropping the hand. “Good. Now, come on, Erin. Let’s go somewhere a bit more comfortable.” She pushed herself off the railing, and Erin instinctually followed, not realising until a second later that she’d never told the other woman her name. “We’ve got a lot to talk about.”

Chapter Text

“So,” Erin said as they entered the coffeeshop, “what do I call you, then? Cause if you expected me to memorise that username, you’re in for a disappointment.”

The woman considered for a moment. “Let’s go with… April.” That was apparently amusing, for whatever reason.

The cafe was small and unassuming, but doing a brisk trade despite the lack of traffic outside. At first glance, all of the seats were full, and there was a line at the counter to boot. 

Erin could think of things more awkward than standing in line to order coffee with her possibly-supervillainous internet contact, but not many. And not by much. Thankfully, ‘April’ led them over to a table near the window, moving through the tangle of chairs and elbows with a perfect confidence and ease that Erin failed to match. The table in question was occupied, but just as they drew close, the couple using it stood up, their conversation not breaking as they made towards the door, and April slipped effortlessly into one of the chairs as if it had been planned.

Erin watched the couple leave before she sat, heart racing. “You own everyone in this shop, don’t you.”

A smirk crept onto April’s face. She raised a hand, paused dramatically, and clicked once-

-and absolutely nothing happened.

“Couldn’t resist,” she said, winking over her glasses. “You totally believed it for a second, though, admit it.”

“You expect me to believe that the people at this table just happened to leave?”

“I never said that.” 

“Long black, side of hot milk?” A server had appeared without Erin noticing, holding a ceramic mug and saucer in each hand.

“Ah, wonderful.” April indicated for them to set the drink down in front of her, and the other in front of Erin. Tea, it looked like.

Erin looked back up at the other woman as she poured the milk into her mug.

“Did you just steal someone’s drinks?” she asked.

April raised an eyebrow. “Of course not. I ordered this earlier.”

That… made a lot more sense. Erin took a sip of her tea to cover her embarrassment, and made a face.

“Nice try,” April said with a grin.

At this point, it was hardly even a surprise. Erin conceded the point with an irritated wave of a hand, and took another sip, not bothering to feign dislike any longer. Black, oversteeped, loaded with sugar. The exact same way she’d always taken it. 

She bit down on her tongue, hard, and focused on the pain instead of the rising wave of panic. 

“So,” she started, hoping that the tightness of her voice came across as hoarseness instead of fear, “seeing as you apparently already know everything about me, why don’t we just get to the point.”

“Fair enough.” April took another sip of her coffee. “Considering that you actually showed up, I’m assuming you were satisfied with the contacts I provided? I’ve gotta say, I gave it even odds you wouldn’t show, considering how jittery you are.”

“I considered it,” Erin admitted, running a finger around the rim of her cup. “Then I figured, probably not the best idea to make even more enemies, with my current situation. Worst-case scenario, I still get a quicker death than my cluster’s planning.”

“Oh,” April said, with another one of those predator smiles, “I don’t know about that.”

Erin shivered.

“But you made the right decision, so there’s nothing to worry about. Yes, let’s get down to business. You want help killing your cluster, obviously-”

“Whoa, hey. I never said kill.”

April pursed her lips. “And I’d just started to think you were interesting. Do you really think the rest of your cluster are going to have any compunctions about, say, flaying you alive and crawling inside the skin?”

Erin gagged, forcing the tea back from where it had threatened to come back up. “Excuse me?!”

“Just a hypothetical.” It very clearly wasn’t, and now Erin was starting to worry she’d traded one problem for another. “My point is, you’re hobbling yourself, when you’re already so far behind.”

“No need to rub it in,” Erin muttered into her tea. “I’m not-” She broke off, glancing around. “Should we really be talking about this here?”

April waved a hand. “If someone was going to take offense, the thing about the skin would have done it.”

“And definitely not because you secretly own everyone in this restaurant, huh?”

April eyed her over the rim of her sunglasses. “You’re not going to let that one go, huh?”

“Trust me,” Erin said sourly, “if you’d lived the life I have for the past year, you wouldn’t be so flippant.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. I’m well aware of your situation - not pleasant, but trust me when I say it could be so much worse.”

Erin dug her nails into her thigh to hide her wince. 

“So you know,” she said carefully, “why I have to be- circumspect.” That seemed to be abstract enough.

“Not only that,” April said, “I have a potential solution.”

Erin allowed herself a single moment of hope before furiously squashing it back down. “Oh sure, very convenient. Everything just lines up, all neat and tidy.”

“That is a specialty of mine, yes,” April said with a smirk, and-

April. 

Erin buried her head in her hands. “...you’re March, aren’t you.”

The woman in question grinned. “I was hoping you’d figure it out.”

March. Villain, clustermate to Foil of the Undersiders. That had actually been how Erin had come across her - not her research into clusters, but into the Undersiders after she’d found out it was Tattletale that her cluster had hired. 

Erin had actually had a few pieces of merch for the then-hero, back in the day - she’d been the kind of cape geek who wanted to support all of her hometown Wards, even if they weren’t one of her favourites. She’d always liked Jouster more. 

There hadn’t been much on March. A red box, a costume description, some basic notes. Conversation had noted her seeming interest in then-Flechette, but cluster triggers hadn’t really been as well-understood back then. She was supposed to be unstable, whimsical in the murderous kind of way that you only really got with capes, but so far, she’d seemed entirely lucid. Which wasn’t necessarily reassuring - the reports had to come from somewhere. 

When Erin looked back up, the other woman was staring at her, amusement dancing in her eyes. 

“Hopefully that establishes my bona fides, then.”

“I don’t think it’s pronounced like that,” Erin said before she could stop herself.

“Honestly, I’ve heard it both ways,” March replied, not seeming particularly bothered by being corrected. The longer it took for her supposed volatility to emerge, the warier Erin felt. 

“What do you want from me?” Erin asked slowly. “What do I have that a supervillain needs?”

“Nothing.”

“...excuse me?”

“I don’t need anything from you, Erin Whitmore.” 

The use of her full name sent a shiver down Erin’s spine. Logically, she knew that it didn’t mean anything, didn’t give the other woman any power over her; this wasn’t a fucking Maggie Holt book or anything. But it certainly felt foreboding.

“Then why are you here?” she asked cautiously, heart hammering.

“Because not needing anything and not wanting anything are very different, and I only said the former.”

“Fine,” Erin said. “What do I have that a supervillain wants?

“You. I’m something of a connoisseur of cluster triggers. A collector, you could say.”

Erin opened her mouth, but March got there first, raising a finger in warning. 

“If you were about to make yet another joke about me being a pimp, I will be really disappointed.”

“I would never,” Erin lied. 

“From one perspective, I want every cluster, more than you specifically. It’s always nicer when they can get along - the more the merrier, and all that. So, of course, my preference would have been to work with the rest of your cluster, trading my assistance in killing you for an alliance.” Erin felt a shiver run down her spine. “Nothing personal, of course.”

“No, of course not,” Erin muttered. “It’s just aiding and abetting murder and torture. What could be personal about that?”

“Petulant isn’t a good look on you.” The cup clinked as she set it down. “It’s moot anyway - they weren’t interested, and to be fair, they definitely seem to have the situation in hand.”

“Which leaves me.”

“Which leaves you,” March agreed. “The consolation prize. You asked what I want, Erin? I want access.”

“To what?”

“To you.” 

Erin couldn’t even bring herself to joke about the phrasing.

“Let’s keep it simple. I do a favour for you, you do a favour for me. Not immediately,” she added, pre-empting Erin’s protest. “Call it a… float. Me and mine help tip the scales in your favour, and someday I’ll have some use for you to pay it back. I provide you with a solution for your privacy issues, and when the inclination strikes, I get to… run some tests, or go for a jaunt into your little dream room.”

“Of course you know about that,” Erin muttered sourly. “This all seems… suspiciously fair.

“What can I say?” March said with a shrug. “I guess I inherited a sense of fair play somewhere along the line. Do we have a deal?”

“...guess I don’t have much of a choice, huh?”

“Oh, you have a choice. It’s just that one of the options is much worse than the other.” 

March spat in her hand and held it out, then laughed when Erin recoiled.

“Kidding,” she said, turning her hand to show it was clean.

Reluctantly, Erin took it, and tried to suppress the feeling that she was shaking hands with the devil. Can’t say you’re only kidding now.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” March said. Her grip was just firm enough to be uncomfortable, and as soon as she noticed, it grew even tighter.

“...sure,” Erin said, going to stand. “I should- go. Before someone recognises me, or, something.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that,” March said dismissively, waving a hand.

Erin narrowed her eyes.

“...you said you didn’t-”

Erin felt something tug at her hand, interrupting her. She glanced around, and saw a short, dark-skinned woman with glasses, who nodded at her before turning back to her drink. 

March smiled. It was a little too wide, a little too… teeth. Too much, too many, just… too teeth. “I only said I didn’t own everyone.”

“Right,” Erin said, trying to hide her sudden fit of pants-shitting terror and failing miserably. “Wordplay. Always fun. Are we talking like, all but one? Everyone but the staff? Every other person, just for the novelty?”

March laughed. 

“Run along, Erin,” the supervillain said, raising her now-empty cup. “I’ll be in touch.”

Erin did her best not to appear like she was running away as she left, and failed miserably.

Chapter Text

It was dark by the time Erin trudged up the path into the compound, sore and weary.

She knew that with the level of information March had displayed, there was very little she could do to try and keep her privacy, but that thought had filled her with a horrible, jolting kind of nervousness, and going through a set of extra-stringent measures against being tailed helped calm her somewhat. Like a security blanket, except instead of a blanket, it was taking the same turns four times in a row, going on massive and pointless detours, and spending half your drive looking out the rearview rather than at the road ahead. 

After all of that, after the day she’d had and the night she’d had before it, it was almost torturous to park her van away from the compound and walk the rest of the way. She wanted to drive right up to the door, reduce the amount of steps she had to take to the bare minimum necessary to get from there to her bed, and collapse. It didn’t even matter that she never slept anymore, not really - she was so tired, right down to her bones, that even the dream room seemed more appealing than being upright for a single second longer. 

And yet, she did it anyway. She’d sleep when she was dead, and these days that was significantly less figurative than it used to be. 

There were lights, of course, as she came up the main road - lights and chatter and people. The lights didn’t fade or grow dim as she approached, but it almost felt like they should - the chatter grew hushed, the people gave her a wide berth, so it would complete the trifecta. 

Except, of course, that she’d gotten a little bit arrogant. As much as she’d grown to despise being surrounded by people who knew her and knew her to be Not One Of Them, there was also a small part of her that had gained a vicious sort of satisfaction from how much of that response was wariness - wariness or fear. And so she hadn’t considered that, in this particular instance, it might not be her they were shying away from.

“Erin.”

She stopped in her tracks, too annoyed to be properly scared. “Oh, fun. Not even gonna let me heal up first, huh, Tim? Too eager to get your ass whupped again?”

“Don’t seem to recall losing,” he growled.

Erin laughed. “Oh, please. I had a knife to your fucking throat. If you fought fair, I’d kick your ass seven ways to Sunday, Timmy boy. You’re such a pathetic fucking snotrag that you have to resort to threatening a child in order to beat a seventeen-year-old girl who’s half your size. Hell, next time just cut out the middle man and go pick a fight at a junior karate dojo, find an opponent who’s actually on your level.”

“Enough,” he spat, and the drumbeat noise of his power thrummed out, but Erin was already turning around, and when Seir appeared right behind her, her knife was already at his throat. 

He was gone a moment later, swapping with a shadow a few feet to the left, but she’d managed to make him hesitate.

“No, you,” she hissed, pointing at him with the blade. “I have had a very long day, because I’ve been busy actually doing my job for you inbred sons-of-bitches, instead of wandering around sticking up convenience stores and indulging my ephebophilia or whatever the fuck it is you actually do around here. So you wanna go, Tim-Tam? Cause I’m still pretty beaten up from last round, so I don’t have the energy to put on the kid gloves for you, and I’m fucking tired and pissed enough that I might just put this knife through your throat and deal with the consequences myself.”

The bustle around them had already been clearing rapidly; Erin was the local pariah, distrusted and disliked, and while Seir may have been a prominent figure in the community and popular with certain sections of the Fallen, he was still their main axeman, and the average Fallen knew well enough that they could get trampled underfoot. Now, though, the remaining audience disappeared almost amusingly quickly - except for a few, who Erin recognised with a sinking in her gut. Nell and Ruby, as well as a few of Seir’s favourite thugs and minions.

Well, fuck.

Fucking… fuckity fuck.

Seir was obviously enjoying the sinking dread that must have been visible on her face, and decided to kick her while she was down.

“She wants to see you.”

Erin staggered, pain shooting through her. “No thanks,” she managed to gasp. “Schedule’s all full up.”

“Not how it works.”

His hand closed around her upper arm, and she stabbed it, nicking herself in the process. The shadow that replaced him was destroyed by the wound, but there was too much blood on the metal to just be hers.

"Touch me again and lose the hand, Tim. I am all out of fucks to give."

“You wouldn’t,”

“Fuck around and find out,” she spat, smacking a closed fist against her chest. 

She knew without even looking that the others would have drawn weapons, or brought their powers to the fore. She was bluffing; of course she was bluffing, she’d only taken down Seir with a lucky shot, and she’d been relatively fresh and on her own. In her current condition, she wasn’t sure she could beat up Kenzie. Her arm felt like it was on fire, her ribs flared with pain every time she moved, she’d probably reopened at least half of the dozen stitched-up wounds across her body, and her purple-and-blue eye was maturing nicely into a proper black one.

But they’d never seen her back down. She never had backed down, not when it came to the other Fallen, not when they were watching. And while she very much doubted any of them actually believed she had a chance, they all knew she would go down kicking and screaming and clawing for all it was worth. 

And if there was one thing that unified the Fallen, it was that they were cowards.

Obsessed with the end of the world, still gnawing on that bone even after the actual event had come and fucking gone, and they tried to act fearless about it but that was just another form of cowardice - and that one, Erin knew all too well.

They were afraid.

Not of her, but they were afraid.

“I know the fucking way,” she ground out, starting to limp forward. “I know where I’m fucking going. You’ve delivered the message, you know I’ll suffer if I don’t go, fuckity-bye.

“You think you’re going alone?” Seir growled, almost amused.

“Oh, come on, Timmy boy,” she said, grinning through the pain, “ain’t you heard? We’re never alone.”

She hobbled forward, and Seir still followed her. 

The others didn’t, though.


The house looked like shit, and considering the surrounds, that was saying something. It wasn’t old, of course it wasn’t old, but it looked old, with a shitty paint job that looked like it had spent half a century flaking away despite the fact that it had been done less than two years ago. 

Erin had only been there once. After she’d triggered. Her recollections of that time were… fuzzy, at best. Most of her memories from the first two or three months were, more tied to emotional peaks and valleys than actual events and details. Sometimes, though, moments or details would bob up to the surface, like a corpse in a lake, and so as she moved down the path to the front door, she was struck with a powerful, vivid memory of panic, and fear, and also liquid trickling down the side of her leg, as she took the same path, Seir’s hand firmly on her shoulder.

Not this time. Never again. Whatever it took, whatever it cost, she wasn’t going to be that person again. She couldn’t.

The front door was unlocked, but in such poor condition that she had to use her shoulder to force it open with a painfully loud squeak. Some of the Fallen leadership were in the living room, utterly silent as their animal-masked heads turned towards her.

“What’s good,” Erin said, doing a two-finger salute. 

Seir entered behind her, closing the door behind him with another tortured rasp. No-one spoke, and Erin could feel their gazes boring into her. She’d probably cop it for that, later - you didn’t mouth off to the Fallen leadership without consequences, but hey. It’d be hard for them to do worse than-

Erin gritted her teeth, and started the trek down the corridor, her uneven footfalls deafeningly loud in the silence. She stopped in front of the closed door at the end, nails digging into the palm of her left hand. With her right, she pulled out a boxcutter, staring at it with fear, hesitation and hope. It was an idea she’d summarily dismissed before, but standing where she was now, there was a part of her brain that screamed that it was the better option. 

Except that, when it came down to it, she was a coward. Just like everyone else here, she was a fucking coward.

The knife went back in her pocket, and Erin took a deep breath before opening the door.

“Hey, Mama.”

Chapter Text

I'm not gonna go ahead and say 'abandoned' just yet, but dont expect any new content for a bit, as I will be too busy being Extremely Angry over recent ward developments. ive stopped reading and i honestly recommend you do the same, cause this is just pathetically insulting.