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Roots

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Perhaps it was a whim.

He sat in a rather old and withered chair, staring at a television. He had never been a fan, too much of a distraction, but Brockton Bay was a hot topic. He couldn’t allow himself to miss the show. Leviathan’s destruction provided...fun, to be had. He had nearly made the decision to revisit, to set a reminder that their boot would always lean ever so slightly on the city’s neck.

Except something had caught his eye.

A hero, from the looks of it. The footage that circled the screen sang praises to one ‘Blacklight’, a man in a gaudy black costume with a white spiral design in the middle, reaching out to cover his body. The man himself was forgettable, visually cluttered, and uninteresting.

His actions, however, spoke for him

‘BLACKLIGHT SAVES THE LIVES OF DOZENS OF CAPES, INSTRUMENTAL IN DRIVING LEVIATHAN OUT OF THE BAY.’

That was no small feat. He nearly had reason to doubt it until he saw the proof.

The skies above the bay flashed with light, and his eyes followed the ball of white that sped down to leviathan. The comet, nearly instantaneously, transformed into something with the vague shape of a man, colored black enough to swallow the light around it.

And then the shape slammed into the head of Leviathan, and Leviathan rocked with enough force to collapse into a nearby building. That had turned the proverbial tide, with Leviathan attempting to rip Blacklight apart, and Blacklight seemingly dancing out of the way each time.

It was there, he knew their next move.

Visiting Brockton Bay would only be more of the same, and that was a realization that was near uncomfortable in its significance. He wanted to prove that, no matter how hard a person fought, no matter how they struggled, they could be broken. Yet the ravaged body of society seemed to stand on two shaking legs, over and over again.

But Blacklight had stirred...something, within him. Brockton Bay had seemed so 
obvious to him now. Formulaic. And as much as he loathed to admit it, he was hitting a wall. He needed not just inspiration, but a return to form.

He had never looked back, not once, but what was the harm in going back to your roots?

He’d need to do some research. The town of ‘Santa Mosemar’ was credited as being the home of the small-town hero, so step one was already complete. Lucky him.

Blacklight represented a special kind of hope he had seen before. A burgeoning hope that people clung to like a lifeline. That maybe, just maybe, things would become better for them. That someone like him could turn the tides.

He couldn’t have that, could he? He fancied himself a teacher, and it was time for an education.

“Please…”

Jack Slash glanced at the man, a hero named Jackalope, nailed to the wall.

He smiled, standing up and tipping the television over with a boot. The poor idiot had attempted to save this shithole of a town from them, and Jack had planned to flay that ever so slightly infuriating protective instinct from him over the course of days. But now?

Now, he had other plans.

“It’s your lucky day,” Jack began, twirling the knife around his fingers, over and over. He paused, as if lost in thought as he stared out of the window. The sun was just starting to rise over the horizon.

New beginnings, how appropriate.

“Me and my friends had planned to spend days here in this backwater. You, I was going to make you watch as I tore open the stomachs of every man, woman, and child here. But now? I think it’s time we went on a little trip.”

The man, Jackalope or whatever it was, gazed at Jack with an interesting combination of fear and relief. He opened his mouth several times, trying his best to sound out a sentence. Jack waited, his eyes never leaving his victims.

Then, the million dollar question;

“You’re...you’re letting me go?”

Jack had to laugh at that. A genuine chortle that, by the time he was done, made his stomach hurt.

Instead of answering, he merely placed the knife upon the hero’s skin.

“Well, I’d say I have a few more hours to spare.”

Jack would never get tired of hearing a new scream.



========================================

May 17th, 2011.

...It was there that previously small-time hero, Blacklight, landed a decisive blow on Leviathan as it attacked Brockton Bay. Although Blacklight was unable to keep fighting, his intervention saved lives, leaving Brockton Bay with the lowest recorded amount of deaths in an Endbringer attack in over a decade.”

I glanced down at the radio as I drove, the quiet of the highway unable to distract me from the report. At five in the morning, everything felt distant, but the words had the unfortunate effect of dragging me back into my mind.

“...Blacklight, while gravely injured for a time, was generously healed by Panacea of New Wave. Although we were unable to reach the rising star for comment, many are speculating that as a Triumvirate level hero, Blacklight will continue to protect those in need…”

“Triumvirate level my ass,” I grumbled, wiping my eyes. I had never liked West Virginia itself all that much, but I had to admit that the rolling hills of green were nice to look at. In the distance, the sun began to rise, lethargic but unimpeded.

I checked the time. Five-Fifteen in the morning. That only left me twenty minutes. I knew right then that there was no use lying to her.

I’d have to tell her that I had nearly died trying to kill Leviathan.

That...wouldn’t make for fun dinner conversation, unfortunately.

“...We’d like to take a moment of silence for those who put their lives on the line to fight Leviathan. Although many were gravely injured, only twelve lost their lives. These include Erudite, Brandish, Assault, Vista-”

That’s when I shut it off.

It was one thing to live through it. To see the fear on a person’s face when you failed to save them. On a child.

It was another thing entirely to be reminded.

And I just wanted to go home.

The rest of the drive was, thankfully, calm. I distracted myself by looking at the clutter in my seat.

Car registration. A book I had bought from Pageturners. My wallet. A crushed and sad-looking fast food bag, and my backpack carrying the bloody remnants of an abused costume.

At least my helmet had kept itself together.

I’d have to thank Evelyn. Again.

Eventually, Santa Mosemar reared its head as I rounded a corner, and with a heavy sigh I realized just how exhausted I was.

Home.

Seeing it brought a wave of relief, then apprehension. This was a failure I had to face. I had gone to Brockton Bay for nothing. It didn’t matter if ‘only’ twelve people had died. It didn’t matter if those numbers were ‘exceptionally low’ for an Endbringer fight.

Nobody should have died. But they did. How could I have thought I had the answer?

A strange anger washed over me, then. It raged with nowhere to go, nobody to direct it to, so it was vaguely pointed both at the newswoman I heard and myself. How fucking dare she even imply that the fight was anything less than a tragedy? She should have been angry. Pissed off. I’d understand if she had said ‘Arrogant bastard can’t even save a kid’, but she hadn’t. It was-

It was over. I was home.

Santa Mosemar, as always, had a way of calming me down. The town was just as simple visually up close as it was far away. But what it lacked in apparent extravagance, it made up for with being there. Someplace consistent, warm, inviting. A place that wouldn’t turn you away. My refuge.

Santa Mosemar, no matter how many times I came back, served as a pleasant distraction.

And a pleasant distraction was more than enough.

The streets were only now just waking up, people milling about them with sluggish bodies and light smiles. I recognized a few faces as I drove slowly, waving to them as I took in the atmosphere, my eyes drawn to the mountain only a few miles away.

Marianne, walking with her kids to what I could only assume was their dad’s house. They all waved back at me, almost giddy.

Frank, briskly walking on his way to work. The wave I offered him was met with a curt nod before he continued.

Abigail, Harry, and Michael, three teens who I’m sure shouldn’t have been on the street corner with cigarettes in their mouths. They met my wave much less enthusiastically, although I was sure I could see their smiles.

With a population of just under twelve-hundred people, you’d have a good chance of seeing someone you’d never really get to know more than once. It was a community, close knit, and while some people would call it boring, I was just glad to be in a place that didn’t seem on the verge of collapsing in on itself constantly.

But Santa Mosemar couldn’t keep me from my house. As I parked on Hannigan Street, I frowned at the fact that the lights were mysteriously...off. Maybe they were still asleep, and I could…

I sighed. What, explain? That wouldn’t go well.

Tomorrow. Then I’d...figure something out.

Sure.

I eased out of my car, shrugging my wallet into my pocket and my backpack over my shoulder as I walked the sidewalk. A few fallen leaves scattered the ground, and I kicked them idly as I reached the door.

Now for the hard part.

The key I had still worked (I purposefully ignored the fact that it wouldn’t matter in a few months) and I eased into the house. The dark was oppressive, and I coughed as I set my backpack down on the floor, moving towards the couch.

Then, a click. Metallic, sharp, my eyes widened.

Gun. Gun.

My skin shifted as I moved, the brown sliding to black as I dove for the light switch. I felt my body shift to something hard, ridges forming as I covered myself head to toe in my signature armor. I’d have to subdue them first, and once I saw them I’d have a better chance at-

The lights clicked on, revealing a woman with a pistol leveled at me and panic clearly evident on her face. She was dressed in light blue pajamas with a rubber duck pattern, and her hair was up in a hastily put together ponytail.

Rosa Diaz. As beautiful as the day I saw her, and my soon to be ex-wife.

Her eyes widened when she got a good look at me, and the pistol was lowered in an instant. “Russ?”

I grimaced, and my body slowly shifted back into my best approximation of normal. “Hey, Rosie.”

“That’s not-” she began, before sighing and turning around. “Jesus, why didn’t you fucking call me? I could have…” she trailed off, shaking.

I wanted, so badly, to reach out and hug her. I should have. Instead, I coughed and ambled back to the couch. “I didn’t want to wake you and Hector up.”

“Oh? Well you’re doing a great job so far,” she sniped back, and I sighed. I was good at clashing words, usually, but not with people I liked. I was even worse at it with people I loved. So I just sat there and waited for her to sit next to me, silently thankful as she kept the light on and sat next to me.

For a while, we just sat, and I was...okay. Rosie was pissed off, that I knew for sure, but she at least seemed to understand how I was feeling. We’d talk in the morning.

Except we didn’t.

“Hector and I saw you on the news,” she began. Through the quiet, I was all too aware of the bite in her voice. There, it simply couldn’t be ignored.

“Oh?” I responded lamely. I fished a blanket from the floor and draped it over myself, sighing.

“Mhmm. Hector was...we were really worried.”

That’s what I was dreading.

I didn’t bother telling her that if I wanted, I could either take punishment from Alexandria herself (maybe) or run faster than Velocity (I was pretty sure at least). It was beaten into my head now that I wasn’t invincible, that all it would take was someone who could take away powers or hit me hard enough to kill me or some other esoteric shit to end every single one of my withering hopes and dreams. Plus I needed time to get to either of those levels anyway, time I wouldn’t always have, and time I didn’t have before.

But I needed to reassure her. Worrying over me was what got us here in the first place.

“I’m fine. I always make sure not to push myself too hard, and I wouldn’t have felt right with myself if I hadn’t tried to help them.”

Despite the fact that I did push too hard. Despite the fact that I hadn’t saved the one person I tried to.

“You always say that. ‘I’m fine, I’m okay, I didn’t just almost die fighting a giant fish, you worry too much Rosa.’”

“I never said you worry too much.”

She didn’t answer. We both knew I had never said it, but…

Words never said speak for hours.

It never made sense to me. Getting my powers had been a wake up call. There was finally something I could do with myself that didn’t involve the police, or a cell. Ever since that day, I tried my best to make a difference.

If I could do that, if I could change something, it’d all be worth it.

Silence reigned again before she spoke, her voice level. “Um...Hector got accepted to Bluefield.”

Oh. “Oh?”

She chuckled. “Oh, in-fucking-deed. Fastest I’ve seen anybody get an acceptance letter.”

A swell of pride grew, and I smiled. “That’s...holy shit, you’re serious?”

She rolled her eyes. “Why would I bother telling you if-”

I never let her finish. I swept her up in a hug as I stood, and her protests quickly turned to a shriek as I spun her around. “Holy shit! Holy-”

“Russ, shut up,” she hissed, holding back a smile. “Let me-”

She was back on her feet after only a moment, and I tried my best to match the glare she gave me with a toothy smile.

College. Holy shit.

I had never gotten the chance, not after my mom walked out. My dad just couldn’t afford it, and then he couldn’t afford to see me throw my life away. But Hector was getting something I never got. An opportunity.

It was all I could do not yell. Maybe sing a song. Both, from past experience, would be rewarded with a glare from Rosie.

“He’s...pretty excited,” she continued, a fond and far off smile now gracing her features. “It’s just kind of hard to think about. I mean, in one more year…”

“He’ll still be here for you, Rosie.”

A pause, and then, “I know.”

“And we’ll support him, won’t we?”

The look she gave me told me that I hadn’t slipped that under her radar. “We?”

I coughed, although I couldn’t quite erase my smile. “We. I mean, separately. Separately together...separately.”

Rosie didn’t laugh much, but the twinkle I saw in her eye was when I knew she was close. She walked over to one of the window’s and opened the blinds, peering out at the morning sun. “Separately together separately, huh?”

“Look, it’s only...” I checked the time on my phone for a moment, “...six thirty-seven. This is the best you’re gonna get out of me.”

She hummed, and I took a moment to collect myself. College. It was...something. The concept to me seemed so far away. I had thought about trying. Once.

“It’s just,” I began casually, “I dunno. I thought he’d want to do what I do, since his powers...I dunno.”

Silence.

I glanced at Rosie, seeing her still staring out the window. I could see the outlines of the edges of the mountains from where I sat, and I knew she liked looking at the mountains. But the silence felt...off.

“Rosie?” I tried again. Standing up. “What’s-”

“My name is Rosa.”

Shit. “Ah-yeah. You’re right, I’m sorry. It’s just that, we were together for so long-”

“Can I ask you something, Russ?”

I trailed off, staring at her as she turned to me. Her expression was blank, but I knew by now that only meant she was trying not to get angry. For me. Even as apprehension welled inside of me, that was only something I appreciated about her.

I nodded, sitting down slowly and clasping my hands together. “Yeah. Shoot.”

She seemed to hesitate, maybe wanting to spare my feelings, but she steeled her expression and took a breath. “Did it ever occur to you that maybe, it’s about time you quit?”

I was never one for the dramatic.

My pain and my troubles were mine alone, and I didn’t find it easy to talk about them. It was one of the first things my old therapist had me acknowledge. I liked to think I was better than I was before, because at least I knew how fucked up I was.

But my reaction, somehow, must have been physical, because Rosie sighed. “Russel...”

“I know. I just…I don’t know. I don’t think so,” I admitted, leaning back. “I’m good at this. I’m good at what I do. And...I don’t know if I’ve done enough.”

She looked at me like I grew a second head, and I could tell she was getting annoyed. “I saw the footage. You slammed into an Endbringer hard enough to bring it down, if only for a little bit. And I know you need time to do that.”

I only shrugged my shoulders. “I don’t mean to sound rude, but what does that have to do with anything?”

“I know you. If you think you’re not making a difference you think you may as well be wallowing in your own shit. Well newsflash; You did enough to save lives. What else were you expecting?”

To kill it, I thought. Outwardly, I only shrugged. “I...it was a lot. How could I have done enough if...there was someone I tried to save, Rosa. I couldn’t. That’s-”

“I know, Russ,” she interrupted, her expression softening.

If I was angrier, younger, perhaps more idiotic, I would have told her that she didn’t understand. After all, she didn’t have the same power I did. She didn’t have to deal with something like Leviathan.

And then I had learned, years ago, that you didn’t need to turn into light or shoot fire from your fingertips to see someone you know die in front of you. Rosa was a cop, used to be at least, and she had always been better at dealing with it than I had.

“But this,” she continued, searching for the right words, “is just...what’s stopping you from staying here? If you want to support Hector 'separately together separately’, then it’s going to be a lot easier if you would just stay put.”

I mulled it over, and she gave me time. Eventually, my answer was almost completely certain. “I am staying put. I’m just going out to make sure I can help people from time to time.”

“By fighting an Endbringer.”

“If...If I have to.”

She sighed, and I grimaced. I tried to think of something, anything, to reassure her that yes, I would be okay. And even if I wasn’t, if I could change something, anything…

Instead, I was blindsided once she crossed her arms and spoke again. “You know I won’t lie to you, Russ. I think you’re ruining your life, or you’re getting close to it.”

What.

“What?” I countered, and for a moment confusion warred with irritation as I stared at her. She only stared back, and I took that as a cue to continue. “My...my life is better. Actively. I have Hector. I have my friends. I have Santa Mosemar and I have you. I’m happy.”

“I’m not denying that you have a better life. What I’m saying is I think, if you thought you had to, you’d throw it away.” When I didn’t answer, she continued, walking over to a window and opening more blinds. “And if you’re happy, why not just let yourself be happy?”

“Rosa,” I began, my words coming out in a jumbled mess, “You of all people should know what it feels like. If there’s people that need my help, I can’t just turn my back on them.”

“I know. But has it ever been about just helping for you?”

I looked at her helplessly, and she continued on to explain.

“I know what addiction looks like. More importantly, I know what addiction for you looks like. There’s nothing you have to prove. There are people out there who fight because they either have nothing left or they’re trying to protect something. You don’t have to do either.”

“I-”

“We live in Santa Mosemar for god’s sake, Russ. We have a total of three capes. Nine if you count the ones that either aren’t public, don’t stay in town for too long, or are retired. Nine. Crime here is almost the lowest in the entire country, and it’s so quiet and peaceful and picturesque here that the SMPD actually get bored. We are safe here.

With a sigh, I shake my head. “Hector-”

“Hector,” she interrupted, crossing her arms. “Is my son, Russel.”

“We both raised him.”

“And now you’re trying to get yourself killed. You won’t ever be seeing him again if you do that. I have half a mind-”

She cut herself off, but the damage was done.

My mind was a fog, after that. We both ushered out apologies and shared a hug, promising to talk about it more when we weren’t quite so tired. She left me there with my hands in my pockets, alone. Realizing you have nothing to do with yourself wasn’t a comforting realization.

Then, a text.

I read it, and let out a sigh. Looking back now, if I had ignored it, I never would have forgiven myself.

Minutes later, I was out the door, my backpack slung over my shoulder and a headache making itself known.

========================================

The hills just outside of Santa Mosemar were beautiful, green and yellow grass swayed gently under the sky, and the forested trees and bushes of the countryside served as a natural complement to the giant mountain that seemed to loom over the town. I gazed upon them in wonder.

This, of course, was instantly soured by the first face I saw.

The gathering was in a copse of trees, far from prying eyes but still close enough to town for us to get there in case something happened, secret identities be damned. It had served as a meeting place for us for years, after Evelyn had offered it. A capes only club, incidentally, but not out of any self-perceived ego or self-importance.

In a way, having someone who understood what you were going through was a unique comfort all its own.

But Mathew Patel seemed to always do his best to fuck with that.

As I approached the copse, I saw him sitting on a stump, idly petting one of Beatrice’s...creations. Poppet, I think she called it. It was an odd mixture of a dog, a fox, and a raccoon, colored a neon green, and engineered solely to be friendly to any and all it encountered.

Of course, it couldn’t leave this little hideout of ours. Tinkers who worked with flesh weren’t exactly looked upon favorably, and there wasn’t any point in risking herself. One of the many rules we had engineered between ourselves was that no matter what, we would never out each other. It took us a long time to be friends, but we would never let ourselves be enemies.

Case in point. Sometimes, I was sure Mathew was more dangerous than Beatrice ever could be.

As I approached, he stopped petting Poppet and looked up to me, a smirk on his face. The designer clothes and purple dyed hair contrasted almost comically with my plain jane jeans, t-shirt and shaved head. “Well, if it isn’t the hero of the hour.”

“Asshole,” I sniped, walking past him.

“Egomaniac,” he shot back, getting up and following after me.

This was our routine. Annoying, but...familiar, at least. Comforting, in an infuriating way.

Inside the copse, I saw five more people, and as they saw me and waved me over excitedly I hid an embarrassed smile.

Mathew and I drifted apart, and I found myself wandering to Ennui and The Grafton Monster first, although here I was more than comfortable calling them Cody and Graf. Talking to Evelyn and Beatrice would have to wait, at least for now.

Graf swooned as I walked over, earning an eye-roll from me as she put on the usual theatrics. “Russ. Russel. Russie. You’re going to have to explain to all of us why you didn’t tell us you were going to punch out Leviathan.”

I shrugged, sitting down in the patch of grass. Graf looked nearly straight out of the 70’s, with a blue jean jacket, jeans and hoop earrings ‘enhanced’ by the numerous patches, rips and tears. With the silver of her hair and the lines on her face, I wagered she had probably seen the 70’s when she was younger.

Cody O’Hannigan, on the other hand, always seemed comfortable with the tank top and shorts he wore, both the same red and white as his walking stick. His blonde hair was cut short, and his sunglasses rested on his forehead as he smiled directly at me.

“I didn’t have time. I figured I’d see you guys there if you were going, but…”

“Or,” Cody began, “He just wanted all the glory to himself.”

I rolled my eyes while Graf cackled. “Say it ain’t so! I thought you were better than that Russ. I guess when you’re in the big leagues, you forget about the little guys…”

I fought back a smile as they both leveled a shit-eating grin at me, stretching out and laying in the grass. “You got me. I’ve been chasing glory this entire time. The small-town evil therapist and old lady have got me dead to rights.”

Grafton pinched my arm, ignoring my yelps and complaints as she fixed her perm. “I’m not old, Youngblood. I’m aged. I’ve been around longer than you have and I’ll probably be around after you’re gone, too.”

I glanced at the space next to her that usually would’ve held a left arm. “I’m sure.”

“Don’t think I didn’t see that,” she hissed. “I lost this arm on purpose. Everyone knows you don’t fuck with someone who has an arm missing.”

“She’s right, someone with a missing limb is definitely terrifying for us regular folk,” Cody quipped.

Graf’s expression soured, then she smiled. “Exactly. And I always look on the bright side. For examples, those trees over there are beautiful...ohhh, sorry, Cody.”

Their bickering continued, and eventually I found myself joining in as we jabbed and poked at each other, each of us managing to get a rise out of the other filled with faux anger and fabricated outrage.

Our cape lives and our lives together were different, and it was here that I saw it in action. Cody may have been a small-time 'advisor' to a number of villains he owed debts to, but his heart was in the right place. Grafton may have been a retired villain, but I could see the way she acted when she was with us.

For some of us, this small group of ours was the only family we had left.

My thoughts were interrupted as Evelyn, Beatrice, and Mathew made their way over to us, joining us in the patch of grass. Beatrice looked nervous, her wild brown-black hair and the full-moon glasses giving her a distinctly...small, look. She joked, often, that she could pull off a great mad scientist.

“M-Mr. Ray! Hi! Is...is Hector here?”

I grimaced, and shook my head. “No such luck, kid. He may show up later, but right now he’s with Rosa. He probably just didn’t get the text, or maybe he’s asleep?”

“Oh. Okay, I just...had something for him,” she murmurs. It’s then that I notice her carrying Poppet, with him trying to comfort her by licking her face.

I hid a smile. Teenagers. That was certainly nostalgic.

“I’m sure,” Evelyn began, drawing attention to herself, “that you’ll get to give it to him soon, Bee.”

Beatrice practically preened under the nickname, and I allowed myself a small chuckle, even as she gave me a half-hearted glare. I raised my hands in surrender as I turned to Evelyn, and smiled.

She was our rock.

Evelyn was never what you expected. The piercings and earrings, the short black hair, the tattoos, they all suggested a much less approachable person than who she was. She was the one closest to my age, younger and older than the rest of us. The only public cape in Santa Mosemar besides Cody and I, she spent her time using her power to help, not to hurt. She was more of a hero than I was in a lot of ways, maybe in every way that really mattered.

I knew there were no such things as pure good or pure evil. I wasn’t a kid anymore. Even so, Evelyn was the closest thing to the former I had ever seen.

She smiled back at me, laying a hand on my shoulder. “It’s good to see you back Russel. We missed you.”

“It’s good to be back. I missed you all too,” I offered, unable to stop a smile. I looked around and frowned, tilting my head. “Where’s?...”

“Dana and Sam are out of town,” Cody offered, rolling a flower between his fingers. “Dana’s doing a job for Accord up in Boston, or at least I think she is. Sam is being Sam, and they’re coming back from Louisiana, of all places. They should be home soon.”

I nodded, my frown remaining. Accord. Some Boston villain, if I remembered correctly. The fact that Dana was doing something for him worried me, but she was nothing if not sure of herself. I trusted her to handle it.

“The sooner the better,” Graf mumbles, tossing a rock towards a tree. “If I can’t annoy Miss perfect then what am I here for? And Sam is the only one nice enough to bring me doughnuts when I ask!”

“That’s because Sam is too nice,” Mathew countered. “They don’t know how to say no.”

“Maybe you’re just bad at saying yes?” Beatrice offered with a rare mischievous smile.

Mathew made a grab for her, with Beatrice dancing out of the way with a shrieking laugh. Evelyn shot me an exasperated smile, and I returned one.

It was good to be home.

“I just wanted to say,” Evelyn continued, shifting into another sitting position, “that we’re glad you’re safe. When we saw your name on the news, we thought maybe…”

News. Brockton Bay. A kid who just wanted to be saved, reaching out with a tiny hand-

No. Fuck. Fuck. I forced myself to push those thoughts down into the dark.

“I’m here now,” I reassured her, laying down. “That’s...enough, right?”

After a moment, Evelyn laid down next to me. Graf grabbed Cody’s arm and pulled him down with us a second later. After a moment, I saw Beatrice and Mathew ease themselves to the ground as well.

Evelyn touched my arm with a smile, and nodded. “It always was.”

I didn’t cry.

It was a near thing.

As we stared up at the stars, a thought of how bizarre this was came to my mind. It’s not like we were all heroes. Cody had debts. Dana was a mercenary. Graf was a former villain. Mathew was a villain, even if he was conscious enough to keep his shit out of town. Sam was a shut in, Hector wasn’t public, and Beatrice never wanted to go public.

That only left Evelyn and I, and Evelyn wasn’t a traditional hero. She wore a mask, sure, but her help was personal, and she changed lives every day. In a way, I was the odd one out.

But this was home. And we all knew it.

Santa Mosemar kept us coming back. The world outside was enough to keep us busy, but when we came back here it all seemed to fade away. That itch to do something with myself never gripped me as much when I was here. Being out there in the world made me restless, agitated.

Deep down, I knew I’d probably be away soon, again.

But I knew, in my heart, that I’d always be back. Leaving town permanently just wasn’t an option, because then you’d be leaving behind family.

I glanced at the others, and I felt myself smile.

And family was always more important.

Chapter Text

Jack was excited.

She could tell. There was something different in the way he carried himself after leaving Valentine. They hadn’t even announced their presence, leaving the town behind before they had a real chance to cause trouble. She hadn’t even got to scream.

At first, she considered it perhaps a change of heart, however unlikely that was. That was quickly proven wrong when he gathered them the day after leaving, explaining their next stop.

Not Brockton Bay, no. Maybe some other time, that place was a shithole after all.

Santa Mosemar.

The name was new to her. A small town in the middle of West Virginia, easily overlooked. As far as she could tell, there wasn’t anything about it that would draw them to it, except maybe for some idle fun while they figured out their next destination. All it had, by her estimates, was Blacklight. A no-name cape from a no-name town, only recently pushed into the spotlight.

But that was enough for Jack.

In very certain terms, he explained that there wouldn’t be any nominations of the usual sort, not for a town with three capes. Jack couldn’t care less about the other two, weak as they were. He’d be sure to use them appropriately, but no, he was only drawn to the new celebrity.

Some were indifferent. That stupid bitch Cherish was actually relieved. She was disappointed that she was smart enough to complain once. Only once.

Bonesaw spoke up. ‘So we aren’t recruiting him? What are we doing with him then?’ she asked, disappointed. She had to admit, she was a bit disappointed too. She wanted to see for herself if he’d be a good fit for them. She already had someone in mind she wanted to replace.

But then he spoke, and she was enraptured.

Their massacre was middling. You couldn’t call yourself a slaughterhouse if you didn’t finish the job. No, there would be no recruitment when they found him. First they’d find him, then they’d chase him, through every fucking building and every fucking street, until he couldn’t run any more and his legs gave out. Then they’d make him watch while they tore apart every single person in that stupid piece of shit town.

Then, they’d make sure the world saw. How quickly a rising star and a hope could be snuffed. It was a return to form, Jack had said, breaking the very concept of the nine down before rebuilding it. It was time to make a statement. Something so everlasting that not even their deaths would be enough to erase it.

Santa Mosemar would become a true icon, and the nine along with it as they forged into the future.

Shatterbird hid her joy behind a book.

There were times she wondered why she followed Jack. It wasn’t the handsome smile, or the charm. She wasn’t that simple, even if she didn’t bother denying the allure. Sometimes she felt as if, no matter what they did, they never did enough.

But she was reminded in that moment, as a stolen RV trudged along the road, the blue above them swallowing the sky.

And soon, everyone else would be gifted the same reminder.


========================================

May 18th, 2011.

Dana Murata stared at herself in the mirror.

Her dress was black, as clean as could be. She wore a black bob cut so severely symmetrical that she wondered if she would hurt herself with it. Her usual black and white mask had been replaced with a uniform gray, with the only features visible being her eyes.

She thought she looked ridiculous, nevermind the fact that she hated dresses. But this was a price she had to pay. Accord paid well, after all.

Yet, as she left the bathroom, immediately flanked by two waiting guards, she wondered if she’d live long enough to see that money.

She glanced ahead of her, noting the waiting form of Citrine that stood at the bottom of the stairs. Everything about her was yellow, from her mask to her lipstick to the evening gown she wore. Small gemstones decorated her mask as well, Dana recognizing them as, appropriately, citrines.

They didn’t bother saying anything to each other, with Citrine only beginning to walk with them up the stairs. Dana didn’t miss the way she was surrounded on all sides. Smart. Bad for her, but smart.

They ascended the mansion and walked the halls in complete silence, broken only by the clack of heels and dress shoes, the surprisingly apparent breathing, and the eventual creak of a door they found themselves in front of, opening to reveal...him.

Dana hated Accord.

It wasn’t something that he had done to her in particular, as this had been the first time he had ever contacted her, requesting her ‘services’. No, Accord wasn’t an enemy, but she had heard the stories. The only reasons she was here now was because she was afraid of what would happen if she refused to help him.

He sat stock still behind a wooden desk, his mask morphed into a quietly neutral position, if not a bit annoyed. Citrine entered the room and took the spot to his right, holding every part of herself in perfect form.

The man to his left was a bit more reserved with what he wore, wearing a jet black suit and an expressionless white and black mask. While the woman was content to stare straight ahead, she didn’t miss the way the man gazed at her, evaluating, judging. She did her best to ignore it.

Accord himself wore white, cleaned and pressed, and his stature did nothing to take away from the fear she felt.

Silence. Behind her, she heard the door close, and she was left alone with three people who wouldn’t blink twice at killing her for sneezing at the wrong time, or saying the wrong words, or some other nebulous shit that she wouldn’t have time to comprehend before everything ended.

So she only waited, controlling her breathing and looking at Accord, not daring to break eye contact.

Accord, after a moment, spoke in a tone so clipped and neutral that she wouldn’t have been surprised if she was told he was some sort of machine. “You know me as Accord. To my right is Citrine. To my left is Othello.”

Dana, after a moment, nodded stiffly. “I’m Firefly.”

“And you are a professional,” he continued for her, leaning back in his chair. “A skilled mercenary, and experienced as well. You’ve yet to fail a job you’ve been given.”

“I do my best,” Dana said after a moment, silently groaning before pressing on. “If I’m given a job, I do everything in my power to make sure it’s done.”

“That’s commendable. And a large part of the reason I requested your services.”

And there lay the crux of the issue. Dana didn’t dare attempt to haggle or bargain like she usually did, feeling that she’d be cutting herself out of the deal entirely so to speak.

Instead, she nodded again, and took a deep breath before continuing. “Which I am curious about. What can I help you with?”

Accord didn’t answer immediately, instead leaning forward and gazing at her. She wanted to look away, she almost had to, and she was about to readjust her position before she saw a slight, imperceptible shake of the head from Citrine.

‘Stay still,’ it seemed to convey. ‘Or you’ll regret it.’

Dana wasn’t sure whether she should feel grateful or annoyed.

Accord eventually spoke again, his tone becoming decidedly irritated. “The balance of power in Boston is fragile. I would always prefer if the...troublemakers in this city were either gone or under my employ. Nevertheless, I don’t tolerate it.”

Accord looked down to his desk, wiping away what she could only assume was a speck of dust before he continued. “A group of parahumans, The Titans, have emerged and have begun causing trouble. Already they have tilted the balance of power ever so slightly. Already they have begun to throw a wrench in what needs to be done, however unknowingly. I need that to end.”

No.

No no no.

Dana kept a scowl from her face, her words coming out slowly. “If you want me to kill them, that’s not-”

“No,” Accord interrupted. “That is not needed yet. I find myself in a particularly good mood today. You will pass along my message that they have one opportunity, only one, to either leave the city or die.”

Dana felt herself calm down, and after a moment schooled her tone into practiced neutrality. “What are you offering?”

Citrine moved forward immediately, more than likely waiting for her cue, and picked up a suitcase only to open it and swivel it around, revealing the contents to Dana.

She kept herself from whistling.

“Forty-thousand dollars. We trust this is sufficient,” Citrine explained, before closing the suitcase and setting it down again. Dana nodded, not daring to speak against the amount, before she added one final question.

“Why me? With your resources, I am sure you have others you can trust with this sort of work.”

Accord nodded. “You’d be right. But I haven’t gotten where I am by being afraid of new things. I am cautious, extremely so. But I know when to strike out. I’ve planned for this, after all. And something tells me you’ll get the job done. We have information on their location, their powers, and anything else you may need. If you accept, you’ll have a week to complete your task.”

Accord paused, before nodding once. More than likely to himself. “It goes without saying, but keep our dealings between us. Your answer?”

Inwardly, Dana sighed. They both knew what she’d say next.

========================================

Torchlight. Flashpoint. Quartz.

A group of three capes that made up the newly formed ‘Titans’, who seemed to be dipping their toes in the water when it came to crime. All three had relatively dangerous powers, each enough to make them a threat on their own, nevermind in a group.

However, they all had one inescapable flaw; they were new. By Accord’s estimates, two had triggered within the past two weeks, and one within the past three.

She shook her head. It didn’t matter now.

She sat in the passenger seat of a uniform black car, Othello sitting in the driver’s seat and looking straight ahead into a small wooded area. They were a little less than a mile away from the Titans ‘hideout’, an abandoned factory that sat on the very outskirts of Boston. She was dressed fully in her costume now, which consisted of little more than bulletproof armoring she had bought years ago from Toybox, a black trench coat, and combat gear.

Outside the entrance, in the distance, she looked through her binoculars to find two new gang recruits with six-shooters. Their clothes were mostly personalized, save for a bright yellow ‘T’ on their shirts that they apparently decided they needed. She was a bit more relieved by the guns; if they were the best they had then she wouldn’t have to worry about being shredded by some anti-tank rifle or something equally as ridiculous.

She and Othello didn’t bother talking. She was a professional, she knew that, but she never trusted herself enough to speak without letting something slip, or saying something she didn’t need to. She doubted it would go over well if she asked Othello why he was working with such a maniac.

So she waited on his signal, something that had been explained only twice and something she had taken it upon herself to beat into her brain. She tried not to think about how much this place reminded her of her first night out, how she had run into some abandoned building just like this one, looking for a fight. For a distraction.

She’d found one, and almost a decade later she had made sure to never make that same mistake, and had tried once to form a team.

Idly, she thought back to her friends. It was true that she surrounded herself with other parahumans, but to call them a team was inaccurate at best and ridiculous at worst. The closest thing to accurate was a support group. She wasn’t even officially connected to Santa Mosemar, and made sure to keep it that way.

No, she wondered what they would think if they saw where she was now. As much as she liked Russel, she knew he would approve the least of what she was doing. He was a hero, no matter how much it would hurt him. The rest would either tell her to be careful or would offer to join her, both with concern plaguing their faces. Beatrice didn’t even like when she left town, something she still felt somewhat guilty about.

Then, two snaps, and a low whistle.

She glanced away from the entrance, staring at Othello and receiving a single nod in return. It was time.

No more distractions. She needed to do this now.

She got out of the car without another word, approaching the factory at an angle that made it hard for the guards to see her. They’d get a good look once she got closer, but the extra time to prepare never hurt.

Dana took a deep breath, then in half a second twelve neon pink orbs manifested and began to slowly rotate around her, glowing dimly.

She took stock.

Her orbs, depending on what she did with them, either destroyed matter they touched and stayed near her if pink or turned into explosive...grenade things, turning yellow when she willed them forward. They were useful, but she wasn’t exactly immune to their effects, and she’d have to be careful of how she used them.

Then there was her regeneration, slow, but able to keep her alive in the long run. Less something used for combat and more generally useful.

Finally, there was her ‘Dangersense’ and her ‘Strikesense’, the first warning her if she was about to get crushed or sliced or anything sufficiently deadly and exotic. The second telling her the best way to attack someone, or at least that felt right to her.

One big power, and a bunch of small ones.

It was time.

The two guards glared at her as she approached, one raising his gun to lazily point it at her. “You might wanna fuck off, dude. This isn’t-”

Dana flicked her hand forward, and two of the twelve orbs flew forward and impacted the both of them, knocking them off their feet. One flew a good three meters and landed on his ass in the nearby grass, groaning. One slammed into the wall of the factory and slid to the ground, hacking up a lung. Both lost control of their guns as they slid away on the pavement.

There was no doubt in her mind she was heard, and she wasted no time in disintegrating the lock with one of her orbs before she kicked the door open.

The room was sparse, a worktable awash with a yellow light dimly illuminated the whole room, containing little more than two couches, three chairs, a TV, and a miniature fridge. And the occupants themselves.

Eight People. Four were only now getting up, three had various pistols pointed at her, and one wore a red and black mask, dressed in a simple lab coat...and a red hoodie.

Torchlight. A tinker with a particularly interesting specialization in light and heat. He was new, that was for sure. However, no less potential to be trouble.

Then the noise began again.

Bullets rained down upon her, tearing through her trench coat before stopping dead at her armor. She threw three orbs at the two women and single man that shot at her first, earning pained screams and a single low, wheezing groan as they fell. Torchlight struggled with some sort of red clunky tinker pistol, turning various knobs and dials with shaky hands as he looked between her and his gun, the red-pink aura of her Strikesense illuminating the space behind him.

Too slow.

With a flick of her wrist, she sent an orb curving behind his back, the explosion knocking him towards Dana with unsteady feet, where she stood waiting for him. She stepped in close, reaching forward and prying the gun from his hand, tossing it down and stepping on it before slamming a fist into his chest. Torchlight wheezed, doubling over and curling into a ball on the ground. Dana whirled around to face the remaining four, bringing up her orbs to-

"S-stop! Wait, please…"

Everyone in the room froze. Dana glanced down to see Torchlight, doing his best to raise his hands in surrender. "P-Please don't kill us. I just, we were, oh god-"

"Call off the goons," Dana interrupted. Then, in a practiced gentler tone, she continued. "I'm not gonna kill you. Give up, and you'll be okay."

A beat passed. Dana turned to see the rest of the titan members glaring at her, fiercely, itching to start the fight again.

Then, Torchlight spoke again. “E-Everyone put your weapons down please…”

Slowly, agonizingly, they all complied. Dana wasted no time in reaching for Torchlight’s hands and feet, cuffing them with zipties. Slowly, one by one, she went through the rest of them and ignored their halfhearted glares and muttered curses. She distinctly heard one younger girl call Torchlight a 'pussy', not having the patience to explain to her that he had done more to save all of their lives than she had to save her own.

Eventually, after a muttered reassurance that his pistol wouldn’t explode if she broke it, Dana placed it on the ground and stomped on it twice, reducing it to an unusable mess. She told them not to move as she reached a nearby door, opening it and finding herself staring up a flight of stairs.

One down.

The stairs themselves were needlessly cramped, and Dana slowly edged up them with a single glowing pink orb to guide her way. It eventually led to another door, which she pushed open to reveal an abandoned factory floor, rusted and creaking with obvious age. She took stock of her surroundings, noting the catwalk above and the numerous conveyor belts that seemed to cover the entire floor. She moved to the only door she could see, across the other side of the large room and slightly ajar. She narrowed her eyes and moved forward, slipping inside to find herself in another hallway. Dana paused, listening.

Silence. Either they were pretending not to know she was here, or they were gone. She hoped that it was the first option as she began a slow advance forward.

Dana was surprised Accord had agreed to her refusing to kill anybody, but she was sure it was more so because of her presentation and his good mood. One thing was clear: upstarts wouldn’t be tolerated, Accord liked his partial stranglehold on Boston too much to let someone take it from him.

She hadn’t much cared for his reasoning.

Dana reached into her pocket as she trudged down the hallway, retrieving golden knuckle dusters and placing them carefully on her knuckles. She sighed, resigned, at the prominent silver letters spelling out ‘BOSSY’, and quietly lamented that, no, nothing about her costume, her powers, or this annoyingly useful tool meshed well together.

Mathew was always a fan of stupid gifts, but maybe it was her fault for having used it for this long.

There was-

Power. Pillar. Bludgeoning. Dive.

Dangersense.

Dana threw herself backwards as the floor exploded, stumbling before rolling into a messy crouch to face...whatever had just happened. She got the answer to her unspoken question as a hulking form rose from the dust, shadowed in the cloud that formed. The cloud settled only a moment later, revealing what she could only describe as a ten foot tall golem of yellow-white diamond, stepping out of a gigantic pillar of crystal that had erupted from the ground and slammed into the ceiling, both it and the golem blocking her way forward as it crossed its arms.

Quartz. A supposed Case 53 with a particular talent for taking on larger temporary forms for a few seconds at best.

“You should have stayed home,” he mocked, his voice coming out as an impossibly deep vibration, more than likely impossible to replicate. “You don’t fuck with The Titans.”

‘Who?’ an immature part of her wanted to reply, instead keeping her mouth shut as she stared the newcomer down. Mouthing off wouldn’t help her, something she had learned, painfully, when she went after them all those years ago. Quartz was new. She knew it. He knew it. She’d leave the grandstanding to him.

Instead, she formed four orbs behind her back, keeping them small as she slowly stood. She couldn’t fuck up here. Her armor would protect her, but not against being hit by what basically amounted to a giant truck. She was sure that the last part of this little gang would be showing up any second now.

She needed to act fast. She took a second to stare down at her knuckle duster and removed it, sliding it back into her pocket with a groan. It wouldn’t help her here.

“Names Quartz,” he continued, stepping forward. “And you’re about to have one hell of-”

She didn’t let him finish.

She shot her arm forward, her orbs turning yellow as they rocketed towards Quartz. She didn’t wait to see the outcome as she ran back to the factory floor and slammed the door closed behind her, anticipating the worst as she began the process of re-summoning.

Door. Projectile. Dive.

And the worst, of course, came.

The door exploded from its hinges just after she dove to the side, nearly hitting her as it slammed to the floor and slid along with a grating metallic screech. A spiked ball of crystal rolled after it before it came to a stop, Quartz shattering the crystal around him as he emerged once more.

‘Okay’, she thought sullenly, the orbs rotating around her lazily. ‘Time to evaluate.’

Her regeneration, as thankful as she was to have it, wouldn’t do anything to save her if Quartz hit with that transforming bullshit correctly. She couldn’t rely on it. Out of all of his forms, she’d only seen the pillar and the spiked-ball so far, but she didn’t count on those being the only ones.

She paused her line of thinking as she saw him run forward before generating more crystal around him again, shaping a ball around himself as he rolled towards her at a quite frankly terrifying speed. She had plenty of time to get out of the way, even throwing three more orbs that did little else other than throw him off his course, but she knew he was trying to keep her busy. On her toes.

As if to prove her point, Quartz suddenly broke free from the ball and formed a spear, breaking it off from his arm and throwing it at her with enough force to blow scattered paper and trash away.

Spear. Projectile. Erase.

She made her orbs do the work of, just barely, erasing the weapon midair as she ran to a ladder, scrambling to climb it and throwing four more even as she resummoned them all. Quartz was good at what he did however, quickly forming a wall as her orbs impacted it, leaving Quartz, of course, unharmed.

Okay.

So.

As she found herself on the catwalk, Dana gave Quartz her best glare as he looked up at her, pacing back and forth in a twisted imitation of a lion waiting for its prey.

Her Dangersense was working wonders. It only ever warned her when her life was in true danger, and even then it took a few seconds to ‘recharge’ as it were. With how much it was being used now, she figured the new guy didn’t know that killing other capes was frowned upon. Sometimes, she lamented the fact that it just happened, and that she couldn’t control it.

But right now, she couldn’t just sit here on the backfoot. She needed to throw him off balance, surprise him somehow.

She figured she’d gotten all the time she would have when Quartz apparently got tired of waiting, taking a few steps back before reforming into a pillar, rocketing up to stand next to the catwalk. He was pulling himself out and onto the catwalk moments later, beginning a slow walk towards her. Dana focused in a panic, and the telltale pink-red aura of her Strikesense radiated not from him, but from the catwalk beneath him.

That...gave her an idea.

Dana shot three orbs again, enough to make Quartz go on the defensive with another manifested wall. By all accounts, he had her cornered, something he seemed to be proud of as he let out a rumbling laugh.

Then Dana ran at him.

Even without an obvious face, she could see the surprise in his stance as he tore his wall down and took an uncertain step back, but that was all the time she needed as her pink orbs revolved around her. She couldn’t shoot them at him without having them bleed yellow, but she didn’t need to. She got as close to him as she dared, trusting her power to guide her.

Fist. Bludgeon. Dive.

Perfect.

Quartz threw a wild haymaker, and Dana responded by diving between his legs. Six of her orbs flowed underneath the catwalk to follow her, but three sheared straight through it, weaving around him and destroying the support that held a square section of it in place.

Right underneath Quartz.

Dana scrambled to her feet, seeing Quartz now falling to the floor below. In a panic, he began forming a flattened crystallized ball around himself. She guessed that he wasn’t sure if he’d be okay or not. She decided on not as she flung eight of her orbs down to his form.

The explosion rocked the factory, shaking her and the catwalk she stood on and forcing her to regain her footing with a muffled ‘shit’. The effect on Quartz was much worse, forcing him out of his half-attempted form and propelling him to the far wall, where he sat in a heap.

Now to finish it.

Dana didn’t let up, throwing one orb at a time at him, at the wall behind him, at the floor underneath him, and anywhere in his general vicinity. Each time, he tried a new form. Each time, he was interrupted by a concussive blast, strong enough to reduce the wall and the floor around him to rubble. She cycled through forming more, new ones sprouting as she threw the old, carefully managing her timing and power.

Then, with four orbs, she aimed a spiral-like blast at his arm, shattering it.

Quartz screamed, a tortured sound akin to a rockslide, and Dana winced. She was thankful to know that wouldn’t kill him, and that at some point, he’d regenerate. No matter his faults, Dana trusted Accord’s information was accurate. It never meant she particularly enjoyed hurting people.

No matter who she was before.

Still, she had to end this. Taking the seconds to resummon her ammunition, Dana aimed at his other arm, preparing to-

Power. Energy. Piercing. Jump.

No no no-

Dana leapt off the catwalk, not fast enough to ignore the large oval-shaped missile that clipped her foot, sending her spinning ass over teakettle in a flash of deep purple light. She landed on her wrist, hard, on the metal guard of a nearby conveyor belt.

She felt something snap, and she bit back a scream.

She forced her eyes up and took a deep breath, glaring at the woman in a skintight purple costume, a white helix pattern running from her legs and meeting at her stomach before splitting off again to follow her arms. She had nothing more than a domino mask, letting purple dyed hair fall lazily over her eyes as she leaned on the catwalk, rapidly retreating mists of purple rising from her form.

Flashpoint. She was the one who could turn herself into a purple hard light missile, mostly contained to a straight line but with some variation.

This was bad.

“Sorry I’m late, I just needed some good old fashioned beauty rest is all. I hope you’re not too banged up, Quartz?” she cooed, turning back to him with a smile.

Quartz only stood, pushing rubble of himself with a grinding laugh. “I’ll be fine. Let’s just break the bitch,” he replied.

Flashpoint stretched, then brought herself to a crouch. “If you say so. I almost thought you’d leave me out of it.”

Anger and calculating indifference swelled inside of her as she blinked, memories of that day forcing themselves to the surface.

Fuck this.

Seven yellow orbs flew to Flashpoint. In a burst of purple light she became a missile once more, flying to the other end of the catwalk. The section she previously stood on nearly exploded from the force of her powers, sending chunks and strips of grated metal in all directions.

This was bad.

One asshole Dana was confident she could handle, as long as she took them by surprise or knew what they did, and even then it depended on who you ran into. Two assholes were a problem. Three assholes would be game over, depending on if the kid from earlier woke up.

She didn’t have a choice. She wouldn’t kill, but fucking this up wasn’t acceptable. She’d make Accord angry, and then there wouldn’t be a place she could run unless she took the fight to him. She couldn’t afford that.

She’d just have to be careful.

Dana forced herself to her feet, trusting her regeneration to fix her fuck-up as her eyes darted between both Quartz and Flashpoint. Flashpoint held a lazy grin, casually crouching down to get ready for another ‘burst’ while Quartz was much more cautious, slowly advancing towards her with his remaining arm raised.

Dana resummoned her orbs, then made them flash green.

Flashpoint burst towards her in a straight line. Dana ignored her, running towards Quartz, even as she stumbled from the impact behind her. She’d only have a few more seconds before Flashpoint hit her from behind. Quartz stumbled back and raised his hand to strike her as she concentrated on her Strikesense, a red-pink aura surrounding his lower body.

His leg. Both if preferable. Strikesense told her the best place to hit, leaving the heavy lifting to her.

And Excalibur was no stranger to heavy lifting.

Her orbs coalesced into each other, forming an unstable, singular orb of neon green light that hovered just above her palm. Then, she thrust it forward.

A verdant flash, always just bright enough that she had to turn away, flew from her hand. A resounding boom filled the room, the sound almost identical to a torpedo from some of the old aleph star trek movies she and Evelyn had watched before. It was powerful enough to throw her back, only just barely managing to stick a three point landing.

Then, she opened her eyes fully, and lost her breath.

Quartz’ legs were erased from the knee down, and he dropped immediately. So was a large chunk of the floor beneath him, revealing cleanly cut pipes and concrete. So was the conveyor belt behind him, a section of it completely gone. So were the remnants of his previous creations, as easily destroyed as paper.

So was most of the far factory wall, concrete destroyed in a clear, giant semi-circular shape.

Immediately, she wished she hadn’t used it.

Quartz screamed, and Dana turned to see Flashpoint staring at her in shock, stepping back.

Two down.

Dana summoned twelve more orbs, wincing as they emerged from the air slower than usual. Excalibur took energy, and she didn’t dare think of using it again so soon. Not after the first time she tried. Instead, she stared Flashpoint down, her wrist finally mending itself just enough for her to reach into her pocket and idly slip her knuckleduster back on her fingers.

Flashpoint hesitated, staring at the orbs as they slowly rotated around Dana, with her making sure to make it obvious that anything that touched them would be destroyed. Not as violently as when they formed Excalibur, but almost just as deadly. Dana noted with grim satisfaction that Flashpoint understood, just based on her expression, and for a moment she was hopeful that she would give up.

She was wrong. Flashpoint suddenly formed a crouch and became light once more, flying towards her.

Dana was only a second slower. She threw five orbs at her, one at her directly, while the others flew in four directions around her. The remaining seven formed an impromptu ‘shield’ to protect herself, shaping themselves into a line.

Flashpoint was powerful. She was fast. And she could maneuver from her ‘straight line’ path surprisingly well.

But, despite her bravado, she was new. And she couldn’t maneuver well enough to escape.

Flashpoint dodged the first orb easily. Not so much the second above her, exploding just close enough to knock her to the ground and out of her light state with a panicked yelp. Flashpoint landed hard on her hands, awkwardly maneuvering herself into a rough roll that hurt more than it helped, stopping just in front of her orbs.

Then Dana punched her in the face, and Flashpoint let out a strangled cry.

She punched her again in the stomach, then brought a foot to her neck as she summoned all of her orbs again, watching flashpoint struggle to stand. She stopped as she eyed the orbs around Dana, no longer rotating around her. Instead, they formed a sort of ‘cage’ around Flashpoint, ensuring that whatever move she made next would be the wrong one.

Then, silence. Both Dana and Flashpoint drew heavy breaths, with Flashpoint throwing what amounted to a silently pleading look her way. Her hair was a mess, her costume was torn, and she was bruised to all hell. Dana knew she probably didn’t look amazing either.

Three down.

Then, she felt her anger...wash away. That quiet rage that had threatened to build to a breaking point and then cold indifference that threatened to rule her both subsided until they were nothing more than dull throbs in the back of her head. Dana cleared her throat, trying to find the words before she spoke.

“Boston isn’t open to new gangs,” she began, keeping her voice level. “You have two options. Either you leave the city now and pick up business elsewhere, or you get someone else sent after you. Someone not as nice as I am.”

Flashpoint’s expression twisted into a tired anger, and she glanced at the still groaning, barely moving form of Quartz. “Nice? Jesus, are you fucking serious? You almost killed him!”

A twang of sympathy flew through her heart, and she made sure to crush it before she continued. “Almost. He’ll recover. And so will you. I need an answer, Flashpoint.”

Then she spat blood at Dana’s mask.

Dana could have flew into a rage and stomped on her neck, or destroyed an arm or something just as fucked up. But she was a professional. And she never wanted to be cruel.

Instead, she stared, waiting.

Flashpoint, as defiant as she seemed, sagged and closed her eyes, silent for a moment before answering. “Fine. Fine, you fucking psychopath.”

“You’ll leave?”

Flashpoint narrowed her eyes. “We’ll leave.”

Good enough for Accord. But she wanted to make sure. She didn’t want blood on her hands.

Dana’s foot left her neck before she grabbed her shoulders, heaving her up. “Good. Then I’ll be making sure you leave by tomorrow.”

Flashpoints’ eyes widened, a protest forming on her lips. “But this is our shit! We’re not just gonna-”

“You will. Or you’ll die,” Dana interrupted. “Won’t be me. But it’ll be somebody. Somebody worse. You don’t have a choice.”

Flashpoint only groaned, and Dana sighed in response. It would be a long couple of days.

========================================

May 21st, 2011.

Dana sat on a hill.

Santa Mosemar was home. And she always felt better here.

She had texted Evelyn once she got back, not yet ready to talk to the rest of her friends. As much as she liked them, she had never been too good with crowds, even small ones. Evelyn was her roommate, her ex, and probably the best person able to deal with all of the strange intricacies that made her...her.

She saw her an hour after she arrived, the sun just beginning its rise as Evelyn’s car parked at the foot of the hill. She got out of the car, and Dana somehow found the tea set she had gathered from the back seat more baffling than the black dress with a pink flower pattern she had decided to wear. Evelyn waved up at her, and Dana offered a shy one in return.

Of course.

Dana waited as Evelyn trudged up the hill, who took it upon herself to start. “I wasn’t sure when you’d arrive,” she began sitting next to her before setting the tea set down. “Russel, Beatrice and Hector were really worried, and it took a bit of convincing from Cody and Grafton that you were fine.”

Dana hummed, looking out over the town. Hector. She’d have to get him a gift for that Nineteenth birthday of his. She had the money for it, after all. “They worry too much. Bee I can understand; she doesn’t even like going outside if she can help it, and Hector is...new to all of this. But Russel?”

Evelyn wore a faint smile. “He worries like that for all of us. It’s endearing in a way.”

“And yet he’s the one going to fight Endbringers,” Dana countered. None of them had bothered to hide their frustration and worry over that. “...I’m glad he survived though.”

Evelyn nodded, and neither of them spoke of what they would do if he hadn’t.

“...How about Mathew? Sam?”

Evelyn gave a simple shrug. “Mathew wanted nothing more than to come with you, even when we all told him that was a bad idea. Sam...We don’t know. They haven’t spoken to us in a bit. We’re worried.”

Dana sighed. So was she. In a lot of ways, Sam was still a kid, nevermind what they had gone through.

Nevermind what any of them had gone through.

Dana struggled with what she wanted to say next, not trusting the conversation to not turn sour. Eventually, she murmured. “I don’t think I can lose anyone like that again. I was angry. Less at him and...more at myself for not watching his back.”

“He’s strong. And it’s an Endbringer. Just volunteering-”

“That’s not an excuse,” Dana bit back. She had gotten long past the point where she was afraid to admit that she was scared of fighting an Endbringer. What worried her is that, deep down, she knew she mostly hadn’t gone because she couldn’t handle seeing someone she cared about dying in front of her. Not again.

Evelyn didn’t answer, and after a moment Dana looked to Evelyn to see her regarding the porcelain teacup in her hands with a quiet expression.

Then, the teacup changed shape, twisting into a helix, then a cube, then back to its original shape. Dana then watched Evelyn change the cup to granite, to steel, to glass, then finally back to Porcelain. She’d never get tired of that.

“I was worried too,” she whispered. “But I didn’t know how to tell him to stay, without…”

Dana stared at her before looking away. “Yeah.”

Evelyn decided then to pour their tea, Dana picking up her cup and staring down at the black beneath her. They sat silently for a while, looking at a sky full of clouds as they drank.

Then, Evelyn asked the million dollar question.

“How was...working with Accord?”

Dana grimaced. “It went...well. Too well. He asked me if I was interested in a working relationship.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him to fuck off, as politely and robotically as possible. He wasn’t very happy about that, but I’m still here so apparently it wasn’t too bad.”

They sat silently for a moment, before Dana allowed herself to continue. “He reminded me of that McVeay asshole. The one who I had to kill to get out of Georgia.”

Evelyn only offered a shoulder, and after a moment Dana took it, leaning over and resting her head there. Evelyn hummed before speaking up. “I can understand why that would make you agitated.”

“Yeah.”

“Trauma can do weird things to us,” Evelyn continued quietly. “Something that maybe looks very reasonable to us at the time might-”

“Ev.”

“...Sorry,” Evelyn replied after a moment, sighing. “I’m doing the therapist thing again, aren’t I? I just…”

“It’s your day job. I know,” Dana offered, sighing and drinking from her cup. She hated tea, but somehow never found the nerve to turn it down if it came from Evelyn.

“I wanted to kill him. Can you imagine that? I thought about trying to off Accord right then and there. I hate him, and I hate people like him.”

“What is it about him that you hate?”

Dana only stared at the ceiling. He was a reminder. Someone who thought he could just...play with people’s lives. Why couldn’t he just leave people the fuck alone?

He was just like them. The McVeay piece of shit. The assholes who had killed Tenn. She had only stuck around and pretended to be their friend for so long so she could figure out a way to end them. To show them what happened when you disrespected her and hers. She hadn’t known they weren’t from the fallen. She hadn’t known that they weren’t bringing her into a trap at the time, that they had been just as blindsided as her.

Somehow she knew. That even if all of that information was available to her, she wouldn’t have cared.

She killed three people right after she had gotten her powers, and right after they had gotten theirs too. She killed thirteen more just to get out. She hadn’t bothered to check if some were trying to run or stay, fight or surrender. She had just...kept going. She hated them all, and that had been the beginning.

She wanted people to respect her name, so that nobody would ever fuck with her again. It had taken years before she realized she wasn't happy, with plenty of people that feared her and nobody that loved her.

It had taken her longer to realize that the deaths of her first three victims hadn’t made her feel any better.

She’d never stop thinking about it. She’d never forget. And she'd never not regret that she had taken a life.

Outwardly, she just shrugged. “He’s an asshole supervillain. Do I need another reason?”

“Maybe not,” Evelyn replied evenly. “I’m just glad you’re back home.”

After a moment, Evelyn continued. “I only wish...I don’t know. Sometimes I feel like I’m an outsider. When I got my powers, I thought about what I’d do with them for a long time. Then I got here, and any drive I had to do something with them just...Faded. I wanted nothing more than to stay here.”

Dana frowned, looking up at her. “Do you not like it here?”

“I love it here,” Evelyn replied, staring up at the sky. “I just feel like an imposter, sometimes. My life is easy, I think, compared to all of yours. And whenever I try to make someone feel better, I just think to myself, ‘how could you possibly understand what they’re going through?’ Sometimes I feel worse because there’s a part of me that just wants to stay here until I get old, and let my life be easy. Is that wrong?”

Dana chewed over her answer, feeling that she owed Evelyn that at least. Was it? Her first instinct was to say no, and her second was still to say no.

“...First of all, we all know how we got powers. I don’t think any of us have had easy lives, not even you, Ev. Honestly, you deserve some peace. Not everyone gets to have that. Cherish it as long as you can.”

“...You’re right,” Evelyn replied.

Silence.

It was times like this, knowing her friends were nearby, that Dana found the bad thoughts melting away. She had the town, she had people she cared about. People that she loved. People that loved her.

She wouldn’t let anyone take that from her, ever again.

“Ah,” Evelyn spoke up. “Cody is inviting us all over tonight. Sam should be back by then, If I’m remembering correctly.”

Dana frowned. “I mean, I can make it. I just wish he’d warn us ahead of time. Then again, it’s Cody…”

Evelyn laughed, a light and muted sound. “It’s Cody indeed. Want to go get something from the Alleywalk?”

Dana thought, only for a second, before she nodded. “Alleywalk it is.”

She deserved some peace, every once in a while.

Chapter Text

She had been relieved, when Jack made the call.

Doing something as mundane as getting gas seemed like the start of a bad joke, but it was her job. Something to do. She figured it was some sort of twisted extension of hazing. That was fine. She could handle it.

And the place they were going actually had running water. Electricity. That was a plus.

She turned a slow gaze to the night sky, a tiny bit in introspection playing at her mind. This, she decided, was a good idea. Daddy would have never let her go otherwise, and as petty and weak and small as he was, he hadn’t been caught yet for a reason. It was one of the things that, at the end of the day, she liked about him. Or at least she thought she did.

But no. He had never gotten caught because he thought small. For so long, she had thought that she was doing something with her life. But no, Daddy had made it clear that he’d stagnated. He could have been moving pieces behind the scenes, paying a visit to heroes, something other than sitting in that fucking mansion of his.

Leaving had been hard, physically and surprisingly emotionally. Some siblings she missed, even now. Some she would’ve been glad to see die. It was too bad she probably wouldn’t see Jean-Paul until much, much later. Not until she had taken control of The Nine.

A task that seemed to get more interesting as time went on.

She had learned quickly that Jack loved to hear himself talk, yet in all of his confidence and swagger, she could tell he was nervous. She hadn’t even needed her power to see it, the way he shifted when he spoke about Santa Mosemar, the light in his eyes and the rapid pacing of his steps, back and forth. He was planning, overthinking maybe, and that made the old man sloppy.

This was her chance. The perfect opportunity, and it had thrown itself into her lap.

Cherie held the pump in her hands, letting it fall to the ground as gas trickled to the asphalt below. She glanced inside to see Jack, Bonesaw, and the Siberian staring inside the store, that freaky fucking thing Murder Rat taking it’s sweet, sweet time with the people inside. She looked away, fishing her phone and earbuds out of her pocket and pushing them in, smiling as an old familiar song began to play.

Not Cherie. Cherish.

Cherish climbed into the RV, ignoring a glaring Shatterbird and quiet Burnscar as she closed her eyes and settled in a seat. She had a lot of planning to do.


========================================

May 21st, 2011

Mathew Patel hated waiting.

He never meant to be a heavy smoker, but it was something that seemed to come naturally to him. A ‘talent’, so to speak. It wasn’t that he was good at it or anything, it just...happened. He had given up trying to stop it when he left Seattle, and even the odd looks he got when he hung around street corners wasn't enough to deter him.

He figured, if he thought hard about it, that he was almost making a statement. ‘Don’t like the smoke? Then fuck off.” Maybe not in so many words, and not as callously, but he wasn’t known for being a gentle voice.

At some point, however, he had to admit that he was stalling.

Mathew threw the butt of his last remaining cigarette to the ground before crushing it under his foot, stared at it, then quickly picked it up and threw it in the trashcan before dragging himself into the Cafe.

He felt better here.

Fulliger’s Winter Wonders had previously, some odd hundred years ago, been a distillery. Now it was for families, and the brass and copper drums, canisters, buckets, and other weird shit supposedly gave it a ‘personality’ that Mathew had never been privy to. He had to admit though, there was a certain novelty in seeing something reshaped and molded into something new, something more approachable.

To change. Mathew could get behind that.

Behind the bar turned counter stood Sixer, an extremely tall man with a full black beard and a severely receding hairline that Mathew was sure he would get to laugh at one of his jokes. Soon. Someday. He eyed Mathew and gestured him over, leaning on the counter as soon as he approached.

“Hey Six,” Mathew greeted, easily sliding into a stool. “How’s business?”

Sixer answered his question with his own, clutching a water bottle and humming to himself. “It’s business. I saw you outside. Smokescreen? Shitty brand.”

This shit again? They were cigarettes. They were all shitty. “Is Cody around?”

Sixer took a long drink before answering, eyeing Mathew with a none-too friendly eye. “You didn’t pay for your last meal.”

Mathew winced. “Yeah. I said I would. I mean, it’s only been a week-”

“Or the one before that. Do you actually have money today?”

Mathew stared at Sixer. Sixer stared back. There wasn’t any chance Mathew was winning this particular test of wills, but he at least wanted to try. Eventually, he brought out his wallet and opened it, peering at the scarce amount inside. “I have...thirty-six dollars. I’ll pay the rest when I get back, alright?”

Sixer kept his half-hearted glare on Mathew. Then, blessedly, a smirk formed on his face. “I almost feel bad taking it from you.”

Flipping him off, Mathew slapped the money on the bar counter just before Sixer scooped it up, making a show of counting each and every individual dollar before nodding and slipping it into a jar behind him. Mathew rolled his eyes, which only turned Sixers smirk into an easy grin.

Deciding to try a different approach, Mathew coughed and idly pulled a toothpick from his pocket, balancing it on one finger as he asked his next question. “Are you and Architect still working on that bomb shelter of yours?”

“Not a bomb shelter,” Sixer groused, his smile fading. “For doomsday shit. Endbringers, weird cape shit. Even things like tornadoes, earthquakes, and wildfires. If it needs to be. It’s important.”

Quietly, he agreed. Architect, Evelyn to him, had done more than enough to explain why it would help. The people in town loved her for the ideas she had, yet he suspected that was partly due to the fact that she did most of the actual work.

“Not saying it isn’t,” Mathew replied. “Just curious, man. From what I saw you’ve been arming that place to the teeth.”

“Yep.”

A silence fell between them as Sixer looked down and pulled out his phone, promptly forgetting that he existed. Mathew held back a sigh. Okay. He just had to remember the guy wasn’t much for conversation. “So. Where’s...where’s Cody?”

“I dunno. Tell me when you find him,” a voice called from his right.

Mathew turned and felt himself crack a smile. The one guy in the room that had the burden of being labeled his best friend strode towards them, walking stick in hand. Dressed in an orange shirt and brown cargo shorts, Mathew had to admit that no matter what he did, he made the sunglasses work.

With a dramatic sigh, Mathew stood and clapped Cody’s shoulder. “Cody. Light of my life. Apple of my eye. I was just looking for you. Tried to pry where you were out of some asshole I know.”

Sixer glared, and Cody gave him an apologetic shrug. “Sorry about this guy, he’s basically feral,” he drawled, enduring a swipe from Mathew before turning back to him. “You caught me at the end of my songs for today.”

Mathew gave what he hopes was a mischievous grin. “Huh. I'll try and catch the next one. You ready to go fuck up the town?”

“Sure,” Cody replied. “If you’re ready to ask me a year from now. That’s how much time I’ll need before I ever consider a suggestion from you.”

There was the Cody he knew and loved. “How do you manage to so expertly stomp on any fun I’m having?”

Cody gave a thin lipped smile, taking a moment to pat Mathew on the shoulder and walking past him out the door. “I try my best. Come one, we’ll stop and get some pizza on the way back. And yes; I’m paying.”

Well. How could he say no to that? Mathew returned a grin, spinning on his heel and following after him. “A man after my own heart.”

===================================

“I’m thinking,” Mathew began as he stepped off of his motorcycle. “That having Evelyn build your house in the roots of a giant tree was pretentious as fuck.”

As stifling as Santa Mosemar was, there were parts of he couldn’t deny were absolutely fucking stunning. A giant sugar maple tree sat on a hollowed out hill, Cody’s cabin nestled in between its roots. The sun hung high in a clear blue sky, open and inviting.

“And I’m thinking,” Cody replied, reaching into his bag and retrieving his walking stick as he re-adjusted his sunglasses. “That she owed me a favor. But who cares what you think? It’s cool. Kinda goes with my whole 'mysterious guy in the woods' schtick. We all have our hobbies.”

“Uh-Huh,” Mathew continued, not wanting to admit to the wave of quiet shame he felt as he fished another cigarette from his pocket. The words hadn’t meant to hurt, he knew that, but he had heard them before. All the way back in Sandusky.

We don’t care what you think, Mathew. This is what you need.

‘Thanks Dad,’
 Mathew thought, fishing out his silver lighter and frowning at the reminder. ‘Asshole.’

Outwardly, he shook his head. “You’re ‘schtick’ is that you’re an evil therapist, Cody.”

"'Evil' implies that I like what I do, or that I ever take really bad jobs," Cody responds after a moment. "I don't. It sucks. But I do it because I have to."

Mathew rolled his eyes. “Yeah? I know. Still fucking weird though.”

“Like I said, we all have our hobbies.”

Mathew gave a snort, choosing to light his cigarette and place it between his lips instead of answering. Cody sniffed the air, pausing a moment before shaking his head. “Smokescreen. Shitty brand, dude.”

As if to prove him right, Mathew suddenly felt a coughing spell surface, so sudden and violent that he dropped his pack and lighter. Sullenly, Mathew picked them both up and threw the cigarette on the ground and crushed it, paused, then picked it back up and stuffed it in his pocket. “Anyway, your 'your life has no meaning' shit isn't ever gonna not be creepy.”

Cody gave Mathew one of his patented looks. Impressive, considering he was blind. “You’re calling my power creepy? You?”

“Just because I do creepy shit doesn’t mean I have the monopoly. My power’s cool. Actually, what the fuck are we even talking about? Can we get inside?”

Looking back to the house, Cody gave a slow nod. “If you say so. If it feels like I’m wasting time...I guess I’m just a bit nervous.”

“About? It’s just us, dude.”

Cody frowned at him, mulling over his words before speaking again. “I don’t know. You never really know when you’ll do something for the last time. See your mom before she’s gone, or go to your old highschool and never come back. Sometimes, I realize that at any point, any point at all, this can just...end. Spending time with you guys makes me happy.

Mathew frowned. Jesus. “Yeah, that’s ominous as fuck. But we like spending time with you too.”

A stray gust of wind blew between the two of them, both of them hurrying inside as Cody smiled. “Yeah. Sorry, that was a bit ominous. Don’t worry about it too much.”

Mathew wasn’t convinced, and allowed a small bit of worry to cross his mind as he glanced at Cody, studying him.

His thoughts trailed off as he gazed at the inside of the house. The first thing that always seemed to jump out to him was that everything was smooth, with none of the rough grain and uneven edges of normal buildings. The interior itself was simple, with a small kitchen connected to a sparse living room that at first glance was filled with little other than a couch, a couple of rugs, a desk, a bookcase, and a record player.

That is, until Mathew saw the paintings on the walls.

Mathew had never been particularly invested in art. It was pretty, sure, but you could only stare at a still image for so long before you got bored. That was all blown away when he saw Cody’s work. A painting of the Triumvirate stood out to me first, of Eidolon, Alexandria, and Legend in all of their stone-faced muscular glory.

He couldn’t pretend to be a fan. The three greatest heroes on earth, and they couldn’t stop things like The Endbringers or The Slaughterhouse. He didn’t even hate them, he was just disappointed. Like always.

The other paintings were a bit more grim in tone, three more showcasing detailed portraits of the Three Blasphemies, Moord Nag, and what Mathew could only assume was Nilbog.

Charming.

Despite the subject matter, the paintings all had painstaking detail and a haunting beauty, and Mathew found himself staring before he turned his eyes back to Cody with a frown. “‘So. When did you start your ‘maniac killer’ series?”

Cody only looked confused, then looked away with an expression between troubled and irritated. “Ah. Yeah. That’s my bad, I should have put them in the basement. Just a hobby. They help with...you know.”

Mathew was about to retort, when he realized yes. He did. Mathew knew for a fact that everyone coped with shit in different ways. It was one of the various reasons why he’d give Russel shit about being a hero, but not about drugs. Why he’d joke with Dana about her being a robot, but not about The Fallen. Cody himself had told them he was okay with jokes about him being blind, but only Mathew knew that had taken him years to reconcile. Mathew never joked about his Cody’s other shit, and he didn’t let anyone else do it either.

Mathew was an asshole. He knew that. But he wouldn’t let himself be that kind of asshole. If Cody wanted to do his creepy paintings, then he’d let him. He’d encourage him, in fact.

“You’re good,” Mathew insisted, he looked up at the paintings and frowned. “If you need me to, I can...use my power to get them down?”

Cody smirked, a bit sadly if Mathew was interpreting right. “Yeah, and do your weird nightmare shit in the process. How about we just get a ladder instead?”

“It’s not weird,” Mathew mumbled, eventually sighing and helping Cody get a ladder from his attic. As they worked to remove them, Mathew found that the paintings were lighter than expected, something he had to adjust for when he nearly fell off the ladder leaning on the wall. He swore he could hear Cody stifling a laugh below him. Prick.

The sun was just beginning its dip into the sky when they were done, the mountains in the distance already robbing the last bits of light from reaching the windows. Sooner than Mathew thought, the two of them were sitting on the couch and waiting.

Then, the first knock.

Mathew was already up to grab the door, and opened it to reveal a smiling Evelyn and a frowning Dana, holding six-packs. Idly, he noted that they couldn't look more different, the first wearing what looked like a wide-brimmed witches hat and a black dress and the second in her usual fare of jeans, combat boots, and a t-shirt.

Mathew leaned against the wall, smoothing his hair back and smiling. "Ladies."

"Child," Dana responded casually, brushing past him. Evelyn only gave him a sympathetic smile in return, and offered only a small hello as she followed. Mathew blew a raspberry, that’d show them.

Cody, much less interestingly in Mathew's opinion, offered the two of them a warm smile as they got in. "It's good to know you guys are okay. You especially Dana, we were worried."

Dana shook her head, setting a bag down Mathew had failed to notice before. "It's my job, the more I do it the safer I'll be. I’ll get smarter. Can't say the same for Russ.”

Mathew didn’t miss the rare irritated frown Evelyn shot Dana’s way, who for her part caught it before shaking her head. “Russ is smart, Dana. I just mean that....that if he’s gonna pull something like that again, it won’t matter how smart he is. It doesn’t matter how smart anyone is,” Dana amended, an apologetic tone intermingling with her usual clipped one.

Evelyn visibly wilted. “I know. Maybe I can talk to him about it later?”

Nobody had a chance to respond before the doorbell rang again. This time, Mathew got up and made his way to the door as Cody and Evelyn entered the kitchen, opening it to reveal the newcomers.

Russel, Hector, Beatrice, and Graf. Mathew grinned, standing up and striding over. “Do my eyes deceive me? Has Hector finally left the dungeon that is his room?”

Hector gave a small smile, and Mathew gave a more genuine one in return. He had to remind himself, constantly, that Hector and Russel weren’t related, given that the kid looked just like him. The only difference he could ever see was the fact that Hector’s hair didn’t curl as much as Russels (ignoring the shaved head) and his skin was a lighter shade of brown, closer to Mathew’s own.

In all other ways, Russel was his dad. Russel had raised him since he was a baby, done all the dad shit Mathew never got to experience. No matter what he thought of the guy, Mathew had to give him that he wasn’t fucking up in that department.

“Hey man,” Hector responded, his voice coming out in a whisper. “I uh. It’s good to see you man. I said man twice, didn’t I?”

“Shock and awe,” Mathew responded, accepting a tight and quiet hug from Beatrice, as if she was afraid he’d run away.

“Are you okay? You look distracted.” she whispered, looking up at him. That worry of hers was common, something that had taken a while for him to not find so stifling.

He rolled his eyes. “I’d tell you if I wasn’t. I’m okay, Bumblebee. Scout’s honor.”

Bee smiled while Graf scoffed. “If you even try telling me you were a scout I’ll call bullshit so fast you wouldn’t even know who said it.”

“And I call bullshit on that,” Mathew retorted, flipping her off. “I’d do it faster.”

Graf smirked, slinging her arm over a protesting Bee and bodily moving into Hector’s space as she guided them past Mathew, yelling for Dana to ‘fetch her the wine.’ She earned a robotic ‘eat shit’ for her trouble. Hector and Bee both sported different sweaters, a safe option for the strangely cool day. Graf, of course, had decided to go all out. She held her usual combination of high waist pants and her shirt tucked in, although the side tail was new. The perm wasn’t.

“Does anyone got a smoke? I’ll do it outside,” Graf promised, eyeing him with predatory hope. Mathew reached into his pocket as Cody called from the kitchen.

“You might not want the ones he’s got. They’re Smokescreens,” he warned.

Graf wrinkled her nose, and Dana raised an eyebrow. Mathew scowled at Cody and slid one from the pack. “I know, I know. Shitty fucking brand.”

“I’ll take one anyway, smokes can’t do shit to me,” Graf decided after a moment. She plucked the unlit stick out of his hand before walking outside. “Don’t get me wrong, they still taste like shit,” she called, just before she slammed the door. Mathew couldn’t disagree.

Russel, for his part, only gave him a nod. Mathew returned it with a tested smile, then they separated. The urge to needle him was tempting, but he didn’t want to fuck up the atmosphere. Not here.

Movie night was sacred, and this had been the only spot they could do it, the copse being unable to attend to that specific need. That’s where they practiced their powers, and they couldn’t risk the noise they’d inevitably make drawing unwanted attention.

Something they had only discussed after they realized Evelyn couldn’t figure out how to make a working electrical outlet.

Everyone, eventually, began to intermingle. Drinks were passed around, with one given to Hector by an extremely reluctant Russel, only to be chided by Evelyn. Graf had somehow wrangled Dana into an arm-wrestling match, with Bee begging them to be careful. He turned to Cody, and watched him smile. Peace.

The only person missing was-

The door knocked. The air stilled.

Mathew smiled, stood up and made his way to the front, opening the door and feeling a cheer build in his throat.

Sam O’Hannigan was by all means, an anomaly. From the way they carried themselves in suspenders and a tweed jacket to the way that nearly everything about them remained a mystery. Sam was the missing piece.

And, he wouldn’t say it aloud, but he had missed them.

Sam smiled up at him, reaching up and fiddling with Mathew’s hair. “Hey there, punk.”

The effect was immediate, some rushed to the door to pull them in, others only giving them customary nods and smiles. Here, Mathew had to admit; It was only now things felt right. They were all together again.

‘And Isn’t that scary,” A traitorous part of him whispered. He stuffed that as far down as he could, joining the rest.

The night started off strong. Watching ‘The Amityville Horror’ had been first on the list, and it went about as well as it could with nine people watching a movie at the same time. After that, Bee had suggested they play twister, and Mathew knew that nobody had the heart to say no to Her. Honestly, however, it was worth it just to see Bee contort herself into a pretzel with Hector and Sam, the three falling into a heap of laughter soon after beginning.

With nothing else on the agenda for the night, Mathew found himself wandering onto the patio outside, deciding against a smoke as he stared into the night sky. The moon stared back at him, pale white and brilliant against the black of the night sky. Mathew smiled, feeling himself relax.

“Mind if we join you?”

Well. It was fun while it lasted.

Mathew turned around, peering at Russel and a surprisingly nervous Sam. Graf trailed behind them, nursing a pink bottle of something and offering Mathew a wink. Mathew shrugged, and soon the three of them joined him to stare up at the sky.

Russel was the first to break the silence, sighing softly. “I’m glad we’re all together again.”

Mathew couldn’t even find it in his heart at the moment to disagree, nodding. He was glad, too. “Sure.”

Sam stretched, looking over at Mathew with a tired grin. “Yeah. Sorry I didn’t tell you guys much. It’s...It’s my sister, she...you know how she is.”

Graf, Mathew, and Russel nodded. They all knew a sore subject when they saw one.

Russel sighed. “At least we knew you’d be relatively safe. Dana was working with Accord, about two or three days ago.”

Sam frowned. “Jesus. Why’d she go and do that?”

“She didn’t have a choice, apparently. Or at least it was implied. She told us he contacted her directly.”

After a beat of Silence, Sam’s eyes hardened as they looked into the woods that stretched in front of them. “Well. Then he’s lucky everything went well.”

“He’s dangerous,” Russel warned. “I’ve heard the stories. Guys got plans upon plans upon plans.”

“They’re just saying that whatever he tried, we wouldn’t let Dana get hurt,” Mathew interjected, settling his gaze on Russel. “We look out for each other.”

He returned a frown, then sighed and leaned back. “I know, I know. Just...let’s keep that in mind for the future. We stick together.”

Mathew said nothing, leaning back. If he knew Russel, then the man had sincerely meant that. but it was precisely because he knew him that he knew he was the type to worry over everything, stretching himself thin to account for every little possibility. He didn’t know how someone could be so cautious and so reckless at the same time.

Graf spoke up, and Mathew looked over to see her studying her arm. “Dana’s a smart cookie, kids. She’s a professional, in other words, not like us. You guys need to not worry so much. You’ll get wrinkles.”

Sam nodded quietly, and Russel gained a sour expression. “She’s more than capable of taking care of herself. I know. But there may be a time she might not get as lucky. I’m thinking that maybe I should talk to her about it.”

There it was. That infamous overprotective streak that only Evelyn seemed to love. Mathew could tell; everyone else only ever tolerated it, because they liked Russel for who he was. Mathew tolerated it because he didn’t feel the need to start shit every time they talked.

However, now, he felt something stirring within him. An irritation that threatened to boil over into genuine anger as he spoke again. “That’s a bit rich, coming from you.”

All eyes turned to him, and Mathew immediately regretted speaking up. Russel frowned, tilting his head. “I-sorry? What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Let’s not play dumb here,” Mathew responded. “If you want to talk about safety, you’d be the last person I’d ask.”

Sam stood up, walking over and placing a hand on his. “It’s fine Mathew,” they said with false cheer. Graf just frowned, looking over the proceedings with a critical eye.

Russel, however, wasn’t willing to let it go. He wasn’t sure he blamed him. “If Mathew wants to say something, we should just let him say it.”

There was a challenge there, masked as a level headed attempt at communication. Mathew had to give him props; a lot of other people would just call him an asshole and tell him to fuck off.

Well. If he insisted. “What Dana and the rest of us do is like kicking sandcastles compared to what you did. What the hell were you thinking, going off to fight Leviathan? Freaking us all the fuck out?”

Russel sat stunned, then he shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I...the only thing I was thinking about was saving people, Mathew. That’s it.”

Mathew barked a short laugh. “By trying to punch out something arguably stronger than The Triumvirate. I’ve never seen a hero complex as woefully fucked up as yours. You wanna save the world? Fine. More power to you, full steam ahead. But what Dana and Cody and I do is a hell of a lot safer than what you do.”

Russel stared at him for a moment before turning back to the trees. “I’m not arguing about this with you again,” Russel said simply, leaning back in this chair. “We should just enjoy tonight.”

“Because you know I’m right.”

That got a reaction. “It’s not right,” Russel hissed, “to be a villain. It’s just not. How long until you accidentally hurt somebody? Someone innocent? Before you have to stare someone in the face and tell them ‘I’m the reason your life is worse’?”

“It’s not like that.”

Mathew. I’m not trying to fight you. We have this argument every time, again and again, because I get worried about you. Do you not want me to be?”

“The last person I want worrying about me is a hypocrite. You-”

Then as he saw the genuine hurt in Russel’s expression, his anger fled. In an instant. Like it had been ripped from him by a scolding parent.

Mathew trailed off, staring up at the sky. Here, in Santa Mosemar, he always lost steam fast when he was angry, despite what others thought. He didn’t really understand why. He could handle being angry. But where in the hell had it come from?

He wasn’t too sure he could handle other people being angry at him. Not even Russel.

Mathew got up, carefully avoiding looking at the other’s faces as he fumbled for his pack on the table. He noticed that Graf was gone. She probably had gone to go find Evelyn. Unfortunately, Mathew wasn’t exactly in the mood for a therapy session.

“Yeah, I’m out. I don’t wanna make this a big thing.”

“Mathew,” Sam began, seemingly digesting their words before continuing. “Don’t shut us out. We-”

“I’m fine. It’s Fine. Sorry for killing the mood. Russ, I’m sorry for being a dick, okay? You didn’t deserve all that.”

He reached the patio door just after he heard Russel cough. “Yeah. I’m sorry too. Let’s...let’s talk later.”

Mathew nodded, and trudged back into the cabin. Already, he could see Evelyn shooting him a look. Thankfully, she gave him space.

Bee wasn’t so perceptive, practically dashing to stand in front of him and holding up another movie. “Mathew! H-Hey! Wanna watch terminator? Sylvester Stallone has-”

“As much as I’d like to,” Mathew interrupted, giving her a practiced smile. “I’m just...feeling a bit off at the moment. Head’s fucking me up. I think I’m gonna head out, okay?”

“Um. Um. Okay,” Beatrice muttered. “Is it the movie? We can watch something else if you want. Or, um, I’m sorry if something happened. Can I help? I-”

“Bee,” Mathew stressed, placing two hands on her shoulders. “I’m okay, alright? Chill.”

Bee nodded, and Mathew instantly felt like shit. They all knew that she was prone to panicking over things like this. He knew almost better than anyone, and here he was sending her spiraling. Maybe he hadn’t meant to, but here they were. He wanted, in that moment, to just sit with her and calm her down. If he could just-

“Beatrice,” Evelyn interjected, surprising the both of them. “Why don’t we go sit on the couch, hmm?”

Bee nodded, letting Evelyn lead her over and sitting with her. She and Mathew shared a knowing look, and he ignored the small tears forming in Beatrice’s eyes as he trudged out into the summer night air, biting back a loud groan.

He needed to be somewhere else. Not here. Not Santa Mosemar.

And he had just the place.

As Mathew mounted his motorcycle, he was suddenly very glad he hadn’t gotten drunk yet.

===================================

Santa Mosemar was his home.

The place wasn’t exactly big or developed enough to have the economic and social divide of other cities and towns in the country. Sure, there was your occasional person without a home or errant criminal, but everyone seemed to have a particularly strange and rare drive to help the people around them. Almost no crime, almost no clutter, Mathew was hard pressed to say he didn’t like it there. Santa Mosemar was his home.

And sometimes, he hated it.

The atmosphere of the town, at least to him, was stifling. When he was there, he wanted nothing more than to just sit and relax, go out for a drink with his friends and maybe Sixer if he wasn’t in one of his ‘doomsday closet’ moods. Go Hiking with the rest of the troublemakers, rest, and just be.

That was fun. That was good. But that couldn’t be all he was.

More than anything, Santa Mosemar made him afraid. Afraid that, in the end, he’d be just like his dad and mom. Wasting away their years in a suburb, pushing him to be an engineer, using their disappointment in him to hide the fact that they were disappointed in themselves, and each other. The town reminded him of his old one.

He had left Sandusky behind and he had never looked back, and that place had a way of pacifying you. Sapping away whatever amount of inspiration and life you had. Santa Mosemar was better and it was worse, and right now it was the last place he needed.

Which is why he found himself at a middle of nowhere bar-slash-motel at eleven at night. The Mothman's Nest, hours from home.

Calling the trees here thick would be an understatement, their branches and trunks akin to the vibrant energy of a packed crowd. Mathew couldn’t help but notice how tall they were as well, leaning overhead and giving him the distinct feeling that he was trapped, somehow.

Mathew eyed the glowing ‘welcome’ sign above him, reaching into his bag and fishing out a can of beer from the bottom after several attempts. He opened it, downing it in one go and feeling the burn course throughout his entire body.

Well. He definitely wasn’t driving back tonight.

He forced himself to his feet, nearly losing his balance before using the forward momentum to push himself into a brisk walk. The place was always bigger than he had expected, big enough to attract more than the occasional traveler or vacationer. Indeed, as Mathew stepped closer he saw several people milling about and talking to each other in the parking lot, enjoying a quiet night.

Maybe he could too. Mathew stepped inside the bar, the various patrons inside all giving him a passive, uninterested glance before turning back to each other or something else to distract them. Mathew strode over to the lady behind the bar, Lisette, a dark skinned woman sporting a harsh ponytail and what seemed to be permanent frown. “Can I get a drink?” He tried, slipping into a chair.

She looked Mathew up and down, clearly unimpressed. “I don’t know. Can you?”

Mathew gave a wan smile, shrugging. “Ah. No worries, I’m not drunk, and…” he made a show of peering in his wallet, showing off the money he had only barely remembered to get from home. “...I got money. May I get a drink?”

Lisette scoffed, but nodded and turned around. “Whiskey?”

To be honest, Mathew wasn’t the biggest fan of alcohol. He figured he’d need something to take the edge off before he passed out, however. “Yeah. Or anything really, doesn’t matter much to me.”

Lisette only nodded, and as she prepared his drink Mathew took in the scene of the bar. Nothing to write home about, three women and seven men spread around and engaged in various things that were decidedly not him. Three men sat in a far booth, all heavily tattooed and at least two heavily drunk. From here, Mathew caught sight of a skull and crossbones design on one of them, sporting close cropped brown hair.

Yeah, he’d be avoiding them if he could.

Another guy drew his attention however, with black wavy hair that reached just above his shoulders, glasses, with an expression as if he had just sucked on a lemon. From the way he sat, staring at his drink, he seemed a bit lost.

Mathew hummed, keeping his gaze locked on him. Fuck it. He was always in the market for a new friend.

He paid for his drink as soon as he got it, picking it up and making a beeline towards the stranger. The stranger caught sight of him before he got close, staring him down until Mathew slid in the seat across from him, adopting a wary frown. “Uh. Hi?”

“Hey yourself,” Mathew replied, sipping at the whiskey and wincing. The burn was somehow even worse. Why did he drink this shit? “You just seemed like you needed a friend is all. Someone to talk to?”

The stranger’s eyes widened, and he leaned forward after frantically looking left and right. “What made you think I was interested in that? I’m not. Just, I don’t-”

“Hold on,” Mathew interrupted, fighting back a laugh. “If you’re implying that I’m trying to fuck you, then you got it all wrong dude. I’m just curious, and you’re literally the most approachable guy in the whole bar. I’m sorry if I freaked you out.”

“...Oh,” the man muttered, leaning back in his seat.

“...But I mean, if you’re offering-”

“Do you just go up to any random person to bother them?” The stranger interrupted, frowning. The flush he wore now and the glare he gave Mathew was an interesting combination.

“Depends on the person. I’m Mathew, by the way.”

“...Aiden,” the man offered after a while, sipping at his drink.

“That...is one of the most bible-belty names I’ve heard in a while.”

That got a small laugh out of Aiden as he adjusted his glasses. “Ain’t that the truth. And your name is the definition of ‘Plain-Jane’.”

“I make up for it by being the most interesting asshole around,” Mathew countered.

Their conversation continued like that for a while, and Mathew let himself relax. Apparently, Aiden was some sort of economic consultant, or something equally as boring. He himself was fun to talk to though, once he got past his hang-ups. Now he was apparently taking a break from an injury about a year ago, although Mathew couldn’t tell what kind at first glance.

Eventually, the bar thinned, leaving only a few people around. Mathew was in the middle of a particularly embarrassing story involving a dolphin and mud when he noticed Aiden looking down at his drink, quiet. Mathew leaned forward, raising an eyebrow. “Aiden? You good? Are you high or somethin-”

“Want my number?” Aiden interrupted, looking up at Mathew.

A silence passed between them, broken once Mathew pushed forward his best evil grin as Aiden sighed. “To talk. As friends.”

Mathew set a stare upon him, resting his chin in his hand. “That was fast. What are you afraid of?”

“Nothing,” Aiden replied quickly. “You seem...cool. Nice. I’m still confused as to why you decided to talk to me of all people.”

Mathew frowned. “Why does anyone talk to anybody? I don’t know man, don’t overthink it.” He nursed his bottle for a moment before letting out a sigh. “I mean, if you gotta know, I’m just having a weird day, I guess.”

“A weird day?”

Mulling it over, Mathew nodded. “Yeah. I made things weird with some friends of mine. Don’t know how to apologize to them.”

Aiden smirked. “Say you’re sorry?”

“Haw haw, hadn’t even considered that one. You’re telling me you give advice for free?”

“Maybe I should start charging, you’re right.”

Mathew gave him his best stink eye, and Aiden smiled and adjusted his glasses. “I’m just saying, ain’t that complicated. These people important to you? All of them?”

“...Yeah.”

“And you’re important to them too?”

“More or less.”

Aiden gave him a flat look, and Mathew rolled his eyes. “Alright. Yeah. They’re my bestest friends in the whole fucking world.”

“Then talk to them. Your friends aren’t gonna shut you out if you don't try to keep them away. That’s, uh, family’s important. They should have your back. Even when you fight sometimes, you know? I bet they love you.”

Mathew nodded slowly, being wise enough not to mention the faraway look in Aiden’s eyes. They could talk about that somewhere down the road.

Speaking of...

Mathew gave him a smile, warmer this time. “About that number…”

“Yeah,” Aiden spoke up after a moment, “Alright. I’ll write it down for you.”

Mathew grinned.

Aiden left soon after that, with Mathew sitting alone in the booth. Closing time was sooner rather than later, and he’d have to get a room at some point. Mathew pushed himself out of the booth, stretching a particularly stubborn knot out of his back and preparing himself for bed.

Or at least he tried, but with the way one of the three guys from the booth earlier were approaching him, he didn’t think he’d be getting there yet. Mathew mentally dubbed the new guy ‘Skinny’, tall and blonde and with an expression somewhere between a cocky and annoyed. His other pals, who Mathew couldn’t figure out a name for yet, were watching him with expressions he couldn’t quite place.

Was it?...

No way. Maybe? Maybe.

He’d figure it out.

“Hey,” Skinny began, offering a smile. “You alright friend?”

Mathew made a show of nearly losing his balance, laying a hand on the table and frowning. “Y-yeah, I just...shit, I had a lot to drink.”

Skinny chuckled, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Ain’t that just the way. Come on, I’ll help ya to the motel.”

“That’d be nice,” Mathew mumbled, letting Skinny direct him towards the door. He waited until they got outside, right in front of the bar, and instinctively checked his pockets.

Empty. Bingo. He was actually quite impressed that he managed to do it so quickly

Mathew stopped, and put on a nervous smile as he turned to Skinny. “Uh, hey, I have a question?”

“Hm?”

“So. I dunno, why’d you think lifting me like this was the best way to do it?”

Skinny froze, the hand on his shoulder slipping away and his expression turning quiet. Contemplative. Tense. That wasn’t good.

“I’m just saying,” Mathew continued, shrugging. “I mean, look at me. I’m pretty much the picture you get when you look up ‘street-wise punk’ in the dictionary.”

“That supposed to scare me?” Skinny countered, detaching himself from Mathew and staring him down. He knew, at least, how to use his height to scare people. Intimidate them. He’d probably gotten pretty good at it.

No,” Mathew groaned, stepping back. “Do I look like I could go toe to toe with you? I’m just saying there’s ways to do it better.

It was at that moment that the other two walked out of the bar, all doing their best to casually congregate around their friend. Mathew decided at that moment to call the shorter one Sunshine, just based on the easy smile he wore, and the last one Glass because of...the glass of whiskey he had in his hand.

Yeah, he was drunk.

“You alright, Don?” Sunshine asked, leaning against a brick wall and staring up at the sky.

“I’m fine,” the so-called ‘Don’ replied, cocking an eyebrow at Mathew. “This guy’s trying to teach me how to lift.”

Glass glared at him, and after a moment of silence Mathew took that as an invitation to continue. “So. It’s too late now, but usually in a less crowded area you wanna work together somehow. Distract me. Show me something, tell me about a thing, try to pick a fight, whatever. Then your other guy,” he continued, pointing at Sunshine. “Can get at me while I’m not paying attention. Easy, right? Oh shit, can I also have my wallet back?”

Skinny gave me an impressed half-smile, tossing his wallet back to him after a brief moment of silence. Glass still held a glare, pushing himself off the wall and correcting his balance as he addressed Mathew. “You got a head on those shoulders then. You experienced?”

Mathew nodded. “Picked up a few things when I was in Seattle and Dallas. Now I’m here.”

“Yeah? Good for you. Now take your shit and fuck off.”

Skinny shot Glass a disapproving look, who very obviously ignored it. Mathew sighed, turning on his heel. “You guys were the ones who tried to steal from me, dude, but you don’t gotta whine about it. I’m going.”

“Whine? Do I fucking look like I’m whining to you?”

Mathew stopped, turning back to get a better look at Glass. He was muscled, sure, but the unfocused and wild look of his eyes suggested an added layer of bad news. Unpredictability. Was he just looking for a fight? Mathew didn’t miss the way Skinny was inching towards Glass, maybe trying to keep him from trying something. Sunshine only leaned on the wall, raising an eyebrow at the sudden shift in mood.

“Frank, chill out,” Skinny warned, turning to Mathew with an apologetic expression. “He’s drunk. Really drunk. He’s had a rough week, alright? We’re sorry for being assholes.”

Mathew could have walked away. It was probably a smart thing to do, all things considered. Even now, he could see the mounting frustration of ‘Frank’ subside, if only a little bit.

And yet, Mathew was still a little bit pissed off. Too many things reminding him of the past.

He’d get a few more kicks in, just a few, then he’d leave them behind.

“As long as you keep your dog leashed,” Mathew said after a moment, shrugging. “I think he’s got rabies.”

Glass’ frustration came roaring back. He pushed past Skinny, drawing himself up to his full height to try and tower over Mathew. It wasn’t as effective as when Skinny did it, Mathew mused, but the muscles certainly helped.

“You got a fucking problem? You stupid fuck, say that to me again,” Glass hissed, pushing Skinny’s hands away. He didn’t miss the glare Skinny sent his way, as well as the frown Sunshine sported.

“You,” Mathew continued, his voice rising. “Fucked with me first. You guys tried to steal my shit. I deserve to keep my shit. Don’t cry just because someone’s giving you a few licks.”

Glass stopped struggling, a retort dying on his lips as Mathew focused on him exclusively. “You talk a lot of shit, But I don’t care how tough you think you are. You think I’m being an asshole, but at least I’m not being such a fucking loser that-”

“Hey,” Skinny interrupted, talking over him. “Hey! We get it, alright? Sorry. Let’s all calm down.”

Mathew turned to Skinny, fuming as more words formed on his lips. Just who did this beanpole think he was? Calm down, after having his stupid fucking friend try and start shit? After almost getting robbed? An angry ‘you’ faltered on his lips as he took in Skinny’s expression.

Skinny only returned a smile, tired and hopeful.

And just like that, the tension bled away. Mathew’s shoulder sagged as he let loose a sigh, eyeing Glass as he turned away from them and downed the rest of his whiskey in one go. They had drawn a small crowd, particularly a worried pair consisting of two blonde women, one holding the hand of a kid with a mop of brown hair and wide eyes. Skinny hesitated before offering Mathew a hand to shake, with one clear intended meaning. Reconciliation.

“You’re angry at us. That’s fair. We’ll get out of your face. We’re just...you know how it is. You get desperate,” Skinny admitted, his tone suddenly taking a turn for the subdued.

He knew. It didn’t mean he wasn’t still a bit pissed off, but he’d been in their place before. Doing anything to make the next quick buck, just trying to stay afloat. He knew.

In that moment, an errant thought wormed its way into his head.

What the hell was he running from?

Disappointment,’ he thought instinctively. But was that right? His friends weren’t his parents, and no matter how hard it was to deal with them sometimes, he knew that only happened because they actually gave a shit about his ideas. What he felt.

It wasn’t perfect, not by a long shot, but they cared. And that scared him.

But he wasn’t sure fucking around out here was gonna make him feel better.

Mathew sighed and clasped Skinny’s hand in a firm shake, shrugging his shoulders. “Yeah, alright. I kinda went on the attack there, too.” He turned to the side, eyeing the trees to save himself at least some embarrassment. “Hey, uh, Frank right? I’m sor-”

Then he was falling.

The first thing he felt was the odd sensation of being moved, pushed, suddenly and without warning.

Secondly, he felt the pain. Piercing more than anything else. With a shaking hand, he reached up to his face and fingered the tiny shards of glass now embedded in his skin. Blood. A lot of blood. His head. Heads bled more. Didn’t they?

Someone screamed as he looked up, seeing the bystanders now yelling at Glass. Mathew noted the shock on Skinny’s face as he stared after Glass, who was already running to a red pick-up truck on the far side of the parking lot. Skinny cursed, reaching a hand out. “Holy fuck, holy fuck are you-”

“Fucker needed to learn respect-”

“What the fuck did you do that for-”

“Jesus, the blood-”

Mathew closed his eyes, and he could briefly hear Sunshine say something, frantic and whispered as their voices drifted away. When he opened his eyes, they both of them had already followed Glass, running to the truck. He swore he heard Skinny call Glass a ‘useless fucking moron’ before they peeled off into the road, speeding around a bend and disappearing behind the trees.

The night air was still, panicked murmurs reaching his ears as he fumbled for a wall and hoisted himself up. The woman with the kid approached him, using her other hand to hold up a paper towel she had gotten from somewhere. "Um. Sir? Are you…"

Mathew didn't answer immediately, staring at the road. He numbly took the towel, holding it to his face as he took a deep breath. They’d just left him there.

On the ground, cowering like a dog. With a raised fist, dad was yelling something. He didn’t know what. Shocked. He never thought-

An anger built, impossible to control and threatening to burst. Thoughts washed away as, on instinct, he reached for his power. It was there, waiting, begging to be used. It wasn’t a good idea. Not here, not now. Mathew didn’t care.

'Fine,' Mathew thought suddenly, taking a shuddering breath. ‘Fine, you stupid assholes.'

He needed a bit of stress relief.

Outwardly, he gave the woman a smile, making sure to hide his face from the kid. “I’m good. Thanks for the help.”

Then, taking a deep breath, he began the walk to his bike.

Mathew ignored the worried calls for him to stay, increasing his speed as he got closer. Eventually, he was nearly sprinting for his motorcycle, and sped away from the parking lot as soon as the engine started. Following them.

The trees seemed to lean in closer as he raced down the road, even as they rushed past him in a black, green and brown blur. Mathew wiped a worrying amount of blood from his face before he used a hand to reach into his backpack, fishing around for-

There.

His mask.

He hesitated for only a moment before he forced it on his face, momentarily balancing with his legs as he used both hands to tie the clasps back together. He nearly lost balance before he corrected himself, embarrassment warring with fierce anger. The dark clouds above him let loose the first few tiny drops of rain, and he groaned as the already forming water began to attach itself to him and his skin.

With the mask fully on, Mathew let himself become Poltergeist.

Then he saw them.

The truck wasn’t moving as fast as it had been before. Perhaps they thought they got away, leaving behind a bad memory. In any other case, they probably would’ve been right. Poltergeist took a deep breath, focusing on his power for the first time what felt like nearly a week.

Tiny blue-black motes of dim light began to form around his body as he drove and left them behind, leaving a vivid trail of color. It always took him a few painstaking moments to reach for his power, yet as he inched closer and closer to the truck he could already see the effects, and the building panic on their faces as he got as close as he dared to them, keeping speed. Through the window, he saw lights inside their truck flicker. He saw loose change and a stray key float through the air towards him, settling on the windows softly. He saw their movements become a tiny bit slower. Sluggish.

Then, he let go.

And‌ for them, Everything became worse.‌ ‌

The‌ ‌truck‌ ‌almost immediately came to a stop.‌ ‌The‌ ‌lights‌ ‌inside‌ ‌failed‌ ‌completely,‌ ‌and‌ ‌the‌ ‌occupants‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌truck‌ ‌screamed‌ ‌as‌ ‌it‌ ‌lost‌ ‌momentum,‌ ‌suddenly‌ ‌being‌ ‌pulled‌ ‌‌towards him as it slid across the asphalt and gave a rubbery whine of protest.‌ That was the first aspect of his powers, a push-pull telekinesis that got stronger the closer he was to something, depending on how hard he concentrated. He’d gotten good at using it.

Then, the second.

The‌ ‌unmistakable‌ ‌distortion‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌space ‌around‌ ‌him‌ ‌settled‌ ‌like‌ ‌a‌ ‌blanket,‌ ‌his‌ ‌surroundings‌ ‌gaining‌ ‌the‌ ‌telltale‌ ‌blue-black‌ ‌hue‌ ‌of‌ ‌his‌ ‌powers.‌ ‌It‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌much‌ ‌worse‌ ‌for‌ ‌them.‌ ‌Every‌ ‌movement‌ ‌would‌ ‌be‌ ‌slowed‌ ‌the‌ ‌closer‌ ‌they‌ ‌were,‌ ‌something‌ ‌they‌ ‌didn’t‌ ‌seem‌ ‌to‌ ‌realize‌ ‌as‌ ‌they‌ ‌came‌ ‌to‌ ‌a‌ ‌stop,‌ ‌spilling‌ ‌out‌ ‌of‌ ‌the‌ ‌truck‌ ‌in‌ ‌a‌ ‌panic‌ ‌as‌ ‌they‌ ‌attempted their escape.‌ ‌

Good.‌ ‌

Poltergeist ‌lessened‌ ‌the‌ ‌‘slowing’‌ ‌as‌ ‌much‌ ‌as‌ ‌he could,‌ ‌allowing‌ ‌them‌ ‌the‌ ‌brief‌ ‌hope‌ ‌of‌ ‌escaping.‌ ‌Skinny ran ‌into‌ ‌the‌ ‌woods,‌ ‌the‌ ‌fuck‌ ‌who‌ ‌glassed‌ ‌him‌ ‌and‌ ‌the ‌other‌ ‌one‌ ‌into ‌a‌ ‌seemingly‌ ‌empty ‌church‌ ‌he‌ ‌had‌ ‌failed‌ ‌to‌ ‌notice‌ ‌before, sitting lonely and old on the side of the road. ‌The rain began to fall more generously now, making the asphalt slippery and mixing with the ground to create the first suggestions of mud.

Then, ‌in the blink of an eye, Poltergeist was behind Skinny, clutching his arm and earning a pained howl.

To ‌any‌ ‌observer,‌ ‌it‌ ‌would‌ ‌seem‌ ‌as‌ ‌if‌ ‌he‌ ‌had‌ ‌teleported,‌ ‌but‌ he had‌ ‌gotten‌ ‌good‌ ‌at‌ ‌using‌ ‌his‌ ‌power.‌ ‌Poltergeist,‌ ‌when‌ ‌‌Hector had borrowed‌ ‌some‌ ‌of‌ ‌his‌ ‌powers,‌ ‌listened to the kid ‌call ‌it‌‌
‘fast-forwarding’‌ ‌himself once.‌ ‌he ‌had‌ ‌taken‌ ‌to‌ ‌using‌ ‌the‌ ‌term‌ ‌as‌ ‌well.‌ ‌His slow could be reversed, if he tried.

But he was distracting himself.

Poltergeist leaned in, trusting the distortion to hide his body as he leaned forward. He glared at Skinny, who for his part stood stock still. He could see the naked terror in his eyes, the telltale thought of ‘I don’t want to die’ racing through his head that everyone faced at some point in their lives. Poltergeist made sure to savor it, and although he couldn’t feel it himself, he knew the distortion must have made Skinny feel as if he was being crushed, nevermind being pulled.

Then, he let him go. Skinny tumbled to the mud, curling into a ball and whimpering. For a single traitorous second, Poltergeist felt the urge to kick him while he was down.

No. Not him.

“Run,” Poltergeist murmured, the distortion in the air warping his voice into something inhuman and dark, unrecognizable as anything but a command. Then he turned towards the church, not bothering to wait and see if Skinny had actually done what he said. He adjusted his mask as he approached the large double doors of the church. Inside, he could hear the frantic clamoring of the last two inside. Sunshine and Glass.

Thunder rolled across the sky, and Poltergeist pushed the doors open with his power, reversing his ‘pull’ into a ‘push’. The wooden whine of the door as it was pushed open echoed across the hall of the church.

Then he saw the gun.

The first shot rang loud and true, the bullet speeding towards him with a promise to maim, if not kill. Poltergeist forced himself to stay still, amping up his push and slow as much as he could. The bullet’s movement was suddenly arrested once it got close, dropping to the floor with a clink about eight feet away.

Poltergeist took in the scene. Glass, of course, was the one holding a pistol, with Sunshine hiding behind him at the altar. The pews were neatly organized, save one they had moved for Glass to take cover behind, still pointing the weapon at him. The church was essentially one big room, with no other doors besides two entrances to bathrooms, and the windows were just high enough off the ground that trying to escape through them wouldn’t be easy, if at all possible.

Poltergeist took a deep breath. The light closest to him flickered, threatening to go out. Two of the pews near the door moved slightly away from him, scraping across the wooden floors.

Then he took a step forward. Then another. He began his slow walk forward.

His footsteps echoed throughout the church, his distortion amplifying the sound to a staggering degree. Two more shots were fired, both stopped midair before falling to the ground to join the first, and the light above Poltergeist burst and shrouded him in darkness.

Poltergeist kept walking, and ‘teleported’ a few feet closer. Sunshine screamed. Glass was calling him all sorts of things.

The effects of the distortion were becoming more prominent, the pews around him moving away as he got close and the lights above him going out as he walked underneath them, one by one. Another shot was fired, but Poltergeist didn’t let himself stop, or flinch, or pause. His power would protect him. His power always protected him.

Just like how it did when he first got them, surrounded by cops after a bank robbery gone wrong.

‘You weren’t supposed to kill him,’ Mathew remembered screaming at an old accomplice with a forgotten name. ‘You weren’t supposed to hurt anyone.’

Glass threw the pistol at him in slow motion, seemingly out of ammo. Poltergeist switched from ‘push’ to ‘pull’, and the gun went flying over his shoulder and clattering to the ground behind him. Sunshine and Glass, now with Poltergeist so close, finally noticed the slow delay of their movements, as if they were moving through tar. Except so much worse. Sunshine said something, perhaps a plea, but Poltergeist only had eyes for Glass.

Poltergeist leaned down, towering over Glass. The man still held a defiant glint to his eye, ready to try something else. Poltergeist wouldn’t kill him, he wouldn’t kill anyone. But he’d scare him. That, he promised.

Then, he wrapped his hands around his neck, pausing for just a moment before he squeezed.

There it was.

Terror. Raw and pure and without restraint. Glass was struggling, but with Poltergeist so close now he could barely move. Instead, Glass tried a punch, ineffectual and slow, and finally began a weak attempt to pry his hands off. If he thought about it, He could kill him here, and nobody would miss him. A pathetic old asshole who attacked people who made him mad. Nothing to offer anyone. He’d be doing the world a favor.

And it felt good.

He hadn’t noticed it before, or maybe it had gone deftly ignored but using his power made him feel alive. It was different in Santa Mosemar. Using it there felt like forcing an ugly, wretched part of him to the surface. Something alien and unwanted. Here, Poltergeist only felt the satisfaction of finally being able to let loose. He didn’t know how everyone else kept this shit to themselves, especially-

Then he was tired.

It would be so easy. It would be. But doing this would only be the beginning.

Then Mathew stood, taking his hands away and stepping back as he let his distortion fade away. Sunshine wasted no time in emerging from behind the altar, shivering and afraid as he slowly picked up an unconscious Glass and threw him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Sunshine said something to him as he inched away, perhaps an apology, thanks, or maybe an insult.

Mathew didn’t listen, only looking up when he was sure they were gone. They had left the door open, the storm outside roaring and threatening to turn the whole world to nothing. Mathew sat next to the altar as his distortion returned slowly, ebbing and flowing, almost in tune with the storm. He switched to ‘push’, idly, as it felt appropriate.

His power was a comfort now, a soft bed to fall upon. He had said some pretty stupid shit. Said something he didn’t mean. Ran Away. Got into a fight. Almost killed a guy. All in one night. Par for the course for him.

‘Good fucking job,’ Mathew thought to himself, burying his face in his arms.

If he had killed Glass, that would have been the end. He would’ve been Birdcaged, and he’d never see the sun again, all because he didn’t have any fucking self-control. Then his dad and mom would’ve been right, and he’d never be anyone except for another nobody who lived and died doing nothing. He’d never be who he wanted to be.

Whoever that was.

His power expanded, and Mathew closed his eyes. He’d go home tomorrow, and he’d apologize.

He didn’t know much time had passed before he heard the church doors close, looking up to see someone standing in the doorway, shadowed by the darkness in the room. Lightning flashed, and swore he saw a man.

“I’m done,” Mathew murmured, his power expanding once more. “I’m done.”

Chapter Text

It felt warm.

They were getting close to the town. This was it. They’d walk in and ruin more lives, more people, and she’d help. The fact that she didn’t want to didn’t matter anymore.

She had already given up. She had faced her fears.

She remembered the woods, before she got her power. The way her aunt used to take her when things were bad at home. Just so she could get away from it all. She stared out the window at the passing trees, and formed their rough shape in her hand as a mote of flame.

She wondered if she’d ever enjoy the woods again.

They’d stay in town for a few days. It was to make sure they knew exactly what to expect. Bonesaw would give them ‘masks’ to wear. Fake skin to cover up anything incriminating, at least for the ones who’d actually go in town. Jack volunteered her, and of course she nodded along. Everyone was either excited or bored. She hadn't known Jack for long, but he was excited, and some of the others were caught up in his energy. She already hated it.

She hated the people inside for not running when The Slaughterhouse was so close. There was no way they could have known, but she hated them anyway. Her fire pushed her to ignore the shock at her own thoughts.

And sometimes she fought it.

She had tried, once, back before Jack had found her. She had tried, and she had failed so miserably that she could never be a normal person again. Not even The Birdcage waited. They were going to kill her. The part of her that whispered she deserved it was buried deep, and the part of her that fought the fire always brought the guilt alongside it. She had to bury them both.

But every so often, she still tried.

And as they got closer to Santa Mosemar, it got easier.

She didn’t tell anyone. Not Shatterbird. Especially not Jack. She didn’t dare suggest they turn around and leave. Every day they inched closer to the town, and every day her shame and self-hatred was growing stronger.

But fighting the fire was easier. She’d use it, and she found that she could stop it, if she tried.

She was getting antsy. She just wanted to stop feeling, but she knew this place wouldn’t let her. Somehow she knew, this town would be different.

Then they entered the town proper, and Burnscar felt the sadness build. She hid the fact that using her power barely even helped anymore. It didn’t even feel good to use anymore. Now, it rose to the surface searing and burning, distracting and painful.

It didn’t feel warm anymore.

She couldn’t ignore the pain. Not anymore. Not here.

And she was afraid.


========================================

May 22nd, 2011

Hector heard the news the day after Sam came back.

Mathew had gotten unlucky. None of them could have predicted that a bunch of PRT officers in the middle of nowhere would have found him so quickly. Apparently, hunting some rogue member of The Fallen had brought them into his path. Running into Mathew had been a coincidence.

And yet, Russel had volunteered to discuss the terms of his imprisonment and release. Evelyn, Graf, Cody, and even Sam had volunteered to join him. Dana, for her part, had volunteered to stay and look after the town while they were gone.

Bee refused to go, only making them promise to come back with him safe.

Hector didn’t bother asking. He already knew what his mom and Russel would say. Either ‘It’s too dangerous’ or ‘you’re not ready yet’ or ‘next time.’

Always next time. He was getting tired of next time.

But he’d wait. It was the least he could do.

It was why I stood in the comicbook shop, alone. Bee was busy, Sam was gone, and Abigail, Michael, and Henry were busy ‘urban exploring.’ He didn’t exactly feel up to that, at the moment.

Then he saw her.

What stood out to him wasn’t the mess of black hair, or the way the red of her sneakers were caked in mud, or even the vibrant green of her eyes.

It was the way she stood. Shoulders hunched, eyes downcast, as if she were Atlas herself. No smile, no life, just exhaustion.

He couldn’t help it. It made him sad. Hector wasn’t good with people, a trait both he and Bee shared. Being a hero meant saving people, making them smile, being their beacon. The problem was, he hadn’t exactly practiced any of that much.

And here he was, still in Santa Mosemar. Hector, however, was wise enough to know now that you didn’t always have to risk your life to save someone. Sometimes, all you needed was a word.

As he approached her however, he realized that was easier said than done. He had apparently underestimated just how closed off she made herself to be.

But it was too late. He was here, standing not six feet away, and staring. He’d have to say something, fast, or else she’d rightfully tell him to go away.

So he said the first thing that came to his mind.

“Is that Misanthropes?” he asked, words tumbling out of his mouth in a heap. “I-I love that series. Have you read the prequels?”

Hector wanted to scream. That was the best he could come up with? Not an 'are you okay?' or 'can I help,' but rambling about a comic book?

The girl frowned, slowly closing the book turning to him. She reached up to scratch at her cheek just before stopping short and slowly pulling her hand down. Maybe some sort of bad habit? “What?”

“I just-” Hector tried again, pausing to take a breath before he continued. “I’m sorry. Sorry. I just didn’t know how to start a conversation. I came over to ask if you were okay? You just seemed...I don’t know. Like you had a lot on your mind?”

The girl stared at him, and Hector fought not to look away. The frown on her face fell, but was only replaced by a bleak neutrality. This...wasn’t what he expected. As she flexed her fingers. Hector shifted in place, and he offered her a small smile. “Uh...I guess I was just worri-”

“Don’t talk to me again.” she said suddenly, shoving past him. “Go away.”

Hector’s words died on his lips as she stalked out of the store, hurrying away once she was on the sidewalk. By the time he thought to turn around, maybe just to see where she went, she was already gone. The other occupants of the store tried and failed to hide curious glances, perhaps thinking of what just happened as a fight between friends.

Hector was just confused.

As he kneeled down to pick up the now crumpled Misanthropes volume, the clerk gave him a slow whistle. “She sure as all heck was mad at you. What’d ya do kid?”

Hector eyed the volume summary. Misanthropes; ‘Lyla Harriet wanted nothing more to run away from the world. With dangerous beasts, arcane spells, and powerful enemies, will she find a way?’

With a shrug, Hector looked at the store clerk and offered a weary smile. “I’m...not too sure to be honest.”

“Huh."

A beat of silence passed before the store clerk leaned in, a smile returning. “So...are you gonna buy that?”

Hector sighed, and after a moment of deliberation, fished his wallet from his jeans.

========================================

“Have you been practicing?”

Hector glanced up at Dana, and she gave a flat glare in return. They stood deep in the forest, the clearing and the surrounding trees providing just the right amount of privacy and open space for his ‘lesson’. He felt a little silly in his tank top and shorts, which he had always hated wearing. Meanwhile, Dana wore her own pair like a second skin, sure of herself in everything she did and thought.

He had to admit, it was a bit intimidating. He wondered if he’d ever feel comfortable with himself like she did.

“Ah...kinda?” he trailed off, rubbing his fingers together. “Russel is gone a lot, so...a-and I got college applications,, and I’m on online a lot studying capes and stuff so I can figure out how-”

“Okay,” Dana interrupted, frowning. “Stop. None of that’s an excuse. Your powers need another cape to work. You have to ask us to help you.”

Hector, with as much tact as he could muster, pushed a bit of defiance into his voice. “I know. I’m sorry. But it’s why we’re practicing now, right?”

Dana didn’t seem impressed with his reasoning, crossing her arms. Instead, she stood stock still before eight pink orbs fell into a lazy orbit around her, illuminating the area in a glowing neon light.

Then she nodded to him, her stance relaxing again. “Now; boost me or restrict me. Doesn’t matter which, just make sure you use that to do what we practiced.”

This he could do.

Hector focused, and for a moment, all that changed around him was the soft summer breeze that formed and flowed against his body.

Then he could see it. The blue-teal light of his power. Even as it resisted his pull.

He saw a glowing stream of light flow from his chest, snake-like in its shape before lazily searching the air as if alive. Then, it made a beeline to Dana, much quicker than before. Dana took a deep breath as the light flowed into her, and she flexed her fingers and gave him a curious look. “A boost, huh?”

“I’d feel bad if I messed up your powers,” Hector admitted, shrugging.

Dana only closed her eyes, her orbs growing a brighter pink as they circled around her. Dana hummed, once, before opening her eyes and giving him a nod. “Alright. You try.”

Right. Here came the weird part.

Hector reached for the new feeling of warmth in his mind, still so strange to handle even now. It resisted his control, almost painful to reach out to, before it reluctantly melded into him, permeating the entirety of his being.

Then, four faint orbs of pink light popped into existence around him, their orbits slower than the ones around Dana.

Hector held back a small cheer, and Dana watched with a smile. “Progress. You’re getting a lot faster at that. How are your combos?”

Ah. Hector frowned, scratching his head. “I mean...It’s weird. Some combinations are easier than others. I can pull on, say, Graf and Mathew’s power and use them together if I boost or shackle them, but they’re kinda...hard to use right? Together, I mean. I tried with Cody and Sam and it was an easier mix.”

It went unspoken that he tried to use Cody's power as little as he could.

Dana sat on the ground and rested her chin in her hand, nodding along as he spoke and as her orbs changed their positions so as to not hurt her. “Makes sense. Cody and Sam aren’t super in your face with their stuff, so it makes sense that their powers are good together. Still doesn’t mean you don’t have to practice with us all though.”

Hector grinned, his excitement returning full force. “Alright!”

“But since everyone is gone and Bee doesn’t like coming out of her cave, you’ll be training with me for now. Which means I’m not gonna go easy on you.”

Hector’s excited grin morphed into one of pain as he nodded, and he allowed himself a loud sigh. “Alright…”

Dana smiled, and Hector knew then and there that she was probably evil incarnate. Or something. “Good. Let’s keep going.”

========================================

May 23rd, 2011

She was there again.

The news that Russel and the others would be gone longer than they thought, at least a week and a half, brought Hector back to that same comic book shop he saw the girl at before. She was still silently reading through a volume of Misanthropes, a lightly intense look in her eyes that he was sure hadn’t been there before. He himself was a few shelves away, idly staring at some horror issue he had been curious about. Van Drake of Black Castle.

He was debating on whether he should say something to her, maybe an apology, before she turned to him suddenly with the same expression as yesterday, angry and searching.

Hector quickly turned away, silently berating himself. He wasn’t so rude or oblivious that he couldn’t tell when he wasn’t welcome. Kind words were nice and all, but not if she just wanted to be left alone.

He could take a hint, better than he could when he was younger.

With a final look at Van Drake, he pushed it back on the shelf and left the store in a hurry, heading to the outskirts. Hector figured he’d read the volume of Misanthropes he himself had a bit on the one hill he liked before heading home. His mom would need some help with the dishes and laundry, after all.

At least Santa Mosemar was nice to look at. He kept his head down and let the warm breeze meet him as he walked through the street, every so often nodding and smiling to those who passed. An excitable dog ran into his legs at some point, and convincing the owner that yes, he was alright and no, he wasn’t mad was only an example of the quiet camaraderie everyone in the town shared.

Then he reached the outskirts, and found the same quiet hill that overlooked both the town and the neighboring forest, smiling as he sat down to read.

Only to be blindsided as he realized the girl had followed him.

She trudged up the hill, and Hector took note of the intense frown she adorned before she stopped just below him, looking up and eyeing him. She stood there, silent for a moment, before her frown deepened. “You’re following me.”

Hector, at a loss for words, slowly shook his head. “I’m...well, I was just-”

“Stop. Now.”

Hector’s shoulders sagged, and he was more than a little unnerved by the edge in her voice. A kind word, this was not. He wondered just where he had messed this up.

He should have just left her alone.

“I’m sorry,” Hector hurried to say, frowning. “Really. I wasn’t trying to follow you, I swear. I didn’t know you’d be at the store today too.”

“Don’t lie to me,” she ground out, her fingers flexing again. Hector swore he felt the air around him grow warmer, almost uncomfortably.

“I’m not,” Hector tried again, his voice growing smaller. “I’m sorry. I told myself I’d leave you alone when I saw you again. I promise I will.”

Silence.

For a while, she just stared at him. Hector couldn’t find it within himself to meet her eyes and instead stared at the now forgotten copy of Misanthropes in his lap, hoping she wouldn’t get angrier. Hector almost excused himself in an attempt to escape before she spoke again, her voice coming out quieter.

“...Is that good?”

Hector blinked. Then he blinked again. He slowly lifted his head to find the girl...a bit more relaxed. Somehow. Or was he just imagining it? She was staring at the volume in his hand, a small and faint curiosity warring with the exhaustion on her face.

After a moment, he held it up, his voice coming out small. “Well...I think so. It’s...um. It’s about this girl trying to run away from being a prisoner to a king. The premise is kind of corny, but it’s...It’s good. In my opinion.”

The girl nodded, and silence reigned once again. Hector looked left, then right, then cleared his throat. “Um...do you want it? I-”

“No,” she said suddenly, her voice gaining an edge. “I don’t.”

“Okay.”

Then, she did something he didn’t expect.

She made her way up to the top of the hill, hesitating before sitting down, next to him but still with enough distance so that he couldn’t get close without her noticing. She stared at the town below, propping her knees up as she wrapped her arms around them.

“Can you read it?”

The request was closer to a demand, still a definite tone of ‘don’t fuck with me’ present. Hector didn’t miss how small her voice sounded however, barely above a whisper as she asked.

He hesitated. Then, he nodded. And he began reading.

It was awkward at first, and Hector stumbled over his words and winced every time he did it, anticipating anger or a shout or something equally as distressing. She only listened however, staring intently at the pages as he turned them. Eventually he found his stride, and by the time he finished the sun began its slow descent into the earth, the light on them a burnt orange rather than a bright yellow. Hector closed the book on the last page, and turned to her to ask her if that was enough.

Then he saw it.

Her eyes, usually so forlorn, held an unmistakable wonder in them, and a satisfied smile had somehow found itself onto her face. Whereas before she was closed off, the posture she held as he looked was relaxed, comforted.

Then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone. Seemingly remembering where she was, the girl stood and, without a parting glance or word, started back down the hill in a hurried shuffle. Hector watched her go only for a moment before stuffing the volume back into his backpack. He was drained all of a sudden, and decidedly planned to spend the rest of the day in his room playing video games when he heard her again.

“I’m Miriam.”

Hector paused, turning back to see her looking up at him, closed off and uncomfortable. He nodded, once, offered her a small smile.

“That’s a nice name. I’m Hector. It...it was nice meeting you.”

She leveled a stare at him for a bit longer before she looked away, descending the hill and leaving Hector by himself on the hilltop.

Hours later, as Hector walked home, he entered the same store and bought the next volume of Misanthropes with the last of the pocket money he planned to use for food.

=============================================

June 2nd, 2011

It became routine.

Hector would find her at the store, and he could never tell if she was waiting or not. She never bothered to greet him as he entered, and she only ever found him on the hill when he left. The distance she sat away from him, every day, grew less and less as he read to her. She smiled, only three times, and she frowned and was angry a lot more. But Hector figured she appreciated that he let her stay silent when they read. Training with Dana continued, as well as waiting for the others to return.

Slowly, he began to relax.

A week and a half later, and he felt he was getting comfortable in her presence. On a quiet day, as he read of the adventures of Lyla and escaping from a rather suave and cruel king, he even hadn't flinched when she had taken a place behind him, her head hovering just above his shoulder as she watched the pages. Eventually, they finished the volume, completing Misanthropes with Lyla finally jailing the king and moving on from the cold grip of his rule.

Hector closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. “I really like happy endings,” he admitted quietly, looking out over the town. Today they had finished early, and the sun still held its place high above the sky. “Did you like it?”

He scooted away and turned to Miriam, and she nodded as she looked back to him. “Yeah.”

With a smile, Hector continued, excitedly. “And the way she used that spell? I mean, uh, it was pretty cool. I dunno, I liked seeing her fight him off. That was interesting you know? And the...uh…”

Hector trailed off as he noticed a dark look pass across her face, and he frowned. After a few moments, he coughed and quietly put the volume in his backpack. “Are...are you okay?”

Miriam didn’t answer for a long time, so long that Hector was about to apologize for asking right before she responded, in a small and tired voice. “I...fuck. I don’t want to hurt you.”

That, he hadn’t expected. He tilted his head a bit, and rested his chin in his hand as he gave her a careful look. “Hurt me? Why would you hurt me?”

“...I’ve done it before,” she said after a moment, shrugging. “I shouldn’t have talked to you.”

“Oh,” Hector whispered. He mulled over his next words before answering, attempting comfort. “I mean...you haven’t hurt me yet, and for what it’s worth I think you’re really cool.”

“I’m not,” she replied with a tone of finality. “I’m new to this town. Being here...it’s different. I feel calmer. Grounded. Fuck, it’s...it’s almost like I’m a different person. And it’s weird. And for a while it almost made me forget who I really was.”

“What do you mean?”

Miriam didn’t answer, and Hector inwardly sighed. He wasn’t getting anywhere like this, and admittedly, seeing her sad made him sad, too. Hector chose his next words carefully, trying to find the right thing to say.

“Well...I don’t think you’ll hurt me. I’m pretty confident about that.”

Miriam eyed him, frowning. “Why?”

Hector shrugged. “You’re nice. I mean, sure we got off on a weird foot, but…I’m having a good time. And...I know what that’s like. I’ve seen it. Hurting someone you didn’t mean to.”

When she only stared at him, Hector continued in a quieter voice, but no less sure of himself. “My mom...after she lost her sister and mom, my aunt and grandma, she used to drink a lot. It got bad. Really bad. She wouldn’t hurt me or anything, but she would just sit there and stare at the wall. Like she was tired of trying. I was younger back then, so I didn’t really understand what was happening, but I tried to make her smile. I’d bring her these dumb little drawings or show her a flower I had picked her or something like that.”

Hector sighed as the memories came back, faster than before. “It didn’t work. My...my step-dad, basically my actual dad, would tell me to just ‘leave her alone for a bit’ or ‘let her rest.’ I didn’t really get why he was saying it, I was a kid you know? At some point, my step-dad told me to leave her alone and I didn’t really listen, so I went up to her room to show her a dog I had made out of sticks. Then…”

Hector swallowed, once, then finished. “She...she didn’t see me, you know? She was screaming, yelling, and I was just standing there in the doorway, not saying a word. I didn’t know what to do. So she threw a bottle and...I mean, she didn’t see me. She wasn’t even looking at me when the throw went wide. It was an accident. I know because...because as soon as it hit me, she turned and I just saw her face fall. After that she scooped me up and carried me off to bed, and I really just...clung to her. I was crying up a storm, but I still let her carry me. After that...things didn’t get better immediately. It was slow, and she had bad days. But they got better. And now we’re okay. She’s okay, and I’m happy she is.”

Miriam returned a softening expression to him, and shifted to face him directly. “That’s...fuck. I’m sorry,” she murmured.

Hector shook his head. “The point is,” he began again, more than ready to move past the topic. “Well...we do things we regret, but that doesn’t mean that’s all we are. People can change, and be better, and...I don’t know. I guess I just like that Idea. And you’re my friend, so…”

He trailed off as he saw her cycle through nearly a dozen different expressions as he finished talking. She finally settled on a quiet confusion and looked to him. “You think we’re friends?”

“Uh,” he began, nodding slowly. “Yeah? I mean I’d like to think so.”

Hope. middling, weak, but it was there in her expression. Then she seemingly pushed it down and looked up to the sky.

Then she stood. Hector didn’t try to stop her as she hurried down the hill, only offering a few parting words. “That’s naïve. Some people can’t be better.”

He winced. He didn’t expect to get through to her so easily yet, but to be shot down so quickly still hurt, just a tiny bit. “Yeah, I guess so. But I always hope. That’s...just who I am.”

Miriam hesitated, then turned to Hector and spoke quietly. “Hector. You're...you're a good person.”

Hector frowned. “Thanks. I think you are too.”

Miriam didn’t offer an answer. As he watched her walk into town and out of sight, Hector couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off.

Even so, it was probably nothing. Russel and the others were supposed to return tomorrow, just in time for his birthday. Maybe he was just nervous about that. He’d have to talk to Russel, convince him to let him help next time.

Always next time.

Later, as Hector entered the house, he found Rosa, his mom, sitting on the sofa with a bowl of discarded popcorn and watching The Shining. She turned as he opened the door, offering a warm smile. “There you are, kiddo. I was wondering where you were. You’ve been out a lot longer than usual. Do ya miss school?”

Hector gagged, dragging himself over to the fridge and pulling out a carton of milk. “Don’t even joke about that. No, I just...my schedules kinda changed?”

She frowned, pausing the movie and turning to him fully. “Is Dana making you stay longer for those ‘practices’?”

Hector shook his head, smiled, and set the carton down. “No, It’s weird but…”

He thought about the past week and a half. Of reading under a warm sky, and of opening up about something he hadn’t thought of in a long time. For her.

“...I think I made a new friend.”

There, Rosa looked excited. “What? Really? Come watch this old, boring movie with me and tell me all about it.”

Hector looked at the screen, then adopted a mock offended expression. “The Shining is not boring,” he groused. He found himself joining his mom on the couch however, beginning with the first time he met the stranger. By the time he was finished, the movie was over and his mom was asleep.

Hector smiled, fishing a blanket from a nearby closer and gently draping it over her before trudging upstairs. He went through his usual ritual of taking a shower, brushing his teeth, throwing on a robe, and finally leaving his lamp on as he dropped his backpack on the floor and climbed into bed.

Tomorrow was a new day. He’d turn eighteen, start thinking about college, and would probably have to start preparing for a move. Only a few months away. Or he could throw himself into being a hero, no matter what Russel said. That, he had to admit, sounded better. He was ready.

And maybe he’d see her again soon.

========================================

June 3rd, 2011

He woke up early.

Hector sighed and muttered to himself as he pushed himself out of bed, checking his phone. Nothing, except...well then. Thirteen new texts from Bee? He’d have to check that out after toast.

The lights were off as Hector left his room, using the early morning rays to navigate as he yawned and stumbled downstairs. The living room was empty, save for the new butcher knife his mom must have bought from the store, and the man-

Hector froze.

There was someone-

He was unable to finish his thought before the figure in the dark moved, the glint of a butterfly knife shining through the dark. "Finally awake, young man? I understand wanting to sleep in, but you were making us all quite worried."

Then, it stepped into the light.

And Hector's blood ran cold.

It wasn't like the pictures. They had seemed so distant and far away, like a bad dream fading in the light of the sun.

But Hector knew him. The beard, the widow's peak, and taunting blue eyes that threatened to pierce through him.

Jack Slash.

Hector's body froze as Jack slowly strolled around the living room, picking up the butcher's knife and examining it as if one would a painting. Every part of him urged him to scream, to run, to get away. A tiny, weak part of him told him to use his power. Maybe-

Then he saw them. Two legs behind the far couch, bloodied. Wearing his mom's shoes-

No.

No, please.

Please not her,

Jack turned to Hector before following his gaze, letting out a quiet laugh. "Oh yes. Your mother here was just beside herself waiting. For you. Now don't you worry, she's not dead; we just convinced her to quiet down in time for the beginning."

Hector didn't answer, and Jack frowned. "Nothing to say? Speak up."

"I..." Hector tried, his body threatening to collapse. Every part of him was on fire, every part of him felt twisted, weak. "Why...we didn't do anything..."

He didn't know where trying to reason with Jack came from, but Jack seemed to take it in stride with a satisfied smile. "Very true. Although it's not like we'd need a special reason. In fact, I was disappointed enough that Blacklight was out of town. It's a good thing he's coming back today isn't he? Rosie here told us all about it. Sit down."

Hector didn't move. All he needed was a few seconds, the tiny part whispered, and then he could use Jack's power against him. Maybe, maybe he could-

Jack sighed. "Sit. Or I'll force you to watch all of the interesting things I'm going to do to her. Every single bit."

Hector's body moved on autopilot as he dragged himself forward and slowly lowered himself in the chair closest to the window.

Then Jack began his approach.

Hector bit back a scream as Jack got close enough to stare out of the window. Outside, the cars moved and the sun creeped over the horizon and people walked. The day was just beginning. And in that sudden, excruciating moment, Hector wanted it to stop.

‘I'm here’, he thought, his breathing growing more unsteady. ‘Please-’

"You don't have to worry," Jack began, looking down at Hector. "If you cooperate, you'll get to live to see another burning sun. In fact, I need you two. Well, one of you. But I like to keep a backup. Someone I know even has a vested interest in keeping you alive. Isn't that nice? If you wouldn’t mind, dear friend?” He asked suddenly, looking to a space behind Hector.

Hector nearly asked who Jack was talking about before a hand clasped his shoulder. Hector turned to look.

He wished he hadn't.

A nude woman stood staring out of the window covered in black and white stripes, with long flowing hair and long nails too close to his face. Only the hand on his shoulder sat in the light, the rest of her shadowed. The yellow glow of her eyes was just bright enough for Hector to see the lazy grin she gave him, full of bloodied teeth.

The Siberian.

Hector couldn't help it. The tears ran freely now, although silently.

He was going to die.

Jack turned away, walking over to the body of Hector's mother, throwing her over his shoulder before continuing to the other side of The Siberian. Her other hand met Jack's shoulder and his mother's back. He leaned in close to Hector, and hummed. "You're lucky. You're about to see our grand entrance. Then we’ll have a talk with dear old dad.”

Hector didn't have time to question what he meant before the glass on the windows exploded.

And then, in the blink of an eye, it began.

And all he could do was watch.

Chapter Text

He still remembered.

Growing up had been a lesson. The Husk had a mother and father who were loving, so much so that even now he wondered how they were, all the way in London. The Husk had gotten its empathy from them, and its vision from its studies.

Back then, it was simple. Its life had followed the path he had prayed for, and meeting her had been the second happiest day of its life. The way she smiled, the way she laughed, and danced, and sang. Together, they had created the most important thing in the world.

Even when it triggered, she was there. A need to escape, so powerful and long lasting it was almost broken. Almost.

But she had been there. And its powers had become the key to saving the world. Tirelessly it worked, day after day to become a legend. Fame and money had never mattered. It just wanted to do something more. To save people.

And it almost had.

He remembered wings, as white as snow, and a monster with the face of a woman. Sometimes, the face he remembered was one from its childhood. Sometimes, it was the face of one of the two corpses he left behind when he had ceased to be The Husk.

When he was reborn.

The smiling man wasn't a friend. Never had been. Was never going to be. But he was a tool. And he used him just as much as he was used in return.

Because the monster had taught him that the world couldn't be saved. That it shouldn't be.

But he remembered.

He remembered growing up on that small countryside, riding horses with a father and mother. Not his. Never his.

He remembered peers, parties, laughter. He remembered traveling the world. He remembered late nights and loving hugs, first pets and old movies, vacations and trips to the zoo. He remembered dropping a corpse off at school, and telling it how much he loved it.

As Mannequin hid in the branches of a tree, watching a blue van approach and ignoring the beast below him, he took a dull comfort in the fact that the memories weren't his. They belonged to The Husk. He was the monster.

Still, every day, he remembered. And sometimes he wondered if he'd ever let himself forget.


========================================

June 4th, 2011

The New River Gorge bridge was beautiful.

She didn’t really know how to explain it. As far as construction went, the only thing truly notable about it was its size, big enough for her to wonder if she’d ever be able to accomplish anything even close to it. Other than that, the brown rusted steel and sun-bleached concrete didn’t offer much inspiration to the creative mind, and depending on who you were you’d be forgiven for thinking it was unsightly.

But years of collecting postcards as a child had been successful in instilling within Evelyn a sense of wanderlust that a perfectly pleasant suburb had never been able to take away. She remembered the sleepless nights of creating messy collages in a small, fan-cooled room, with glue and tape caught in her hair, her bed, her floor. She remembered those warm cool autumn evenings, when she’d beg her parents to take her somewhere new. When, in return, they’d push her towards her grades and school. When she was afraid she wasn’t really being listened to at all.

It was embarrassing now, but she remembered talking to her postcards, giving them personalities and telling them of her wildest dreams and her deepest fears. The New River Gorge Bridge, ‘Gorgey’ when she was younger, was the first to listen to the pleas of a lonely child.

And here she was, standing on it. Evelyn was older, no longer enraptured by the wonder and curiosity of childhood, but 'Gorgey' always brought a smile to her face.

Despite the clear intent of Grafton to ruin the moment.

“Think I’ll survive if I jump?” Graf began, peering over the bridge and down into the rushing waters below. Dawn greeted them, the sun just barely peeking over the skyline as the sky ruled above them with a purple blue glow. The hour promised little in the way of traffic, and Evelyn had been planning to take her mind off the past week of dealing with the local, still growing but not quite finished PRT for Mathew’s release. Just to watch the sunrise.

However, considering the way Grafton was chewing on a piece of raw wolf meat, Evelyn could only be worried.

“Please, let’s not test it,” she quietly pleaded. “I’m not even sure your power is enough to...to save you, if you try.”

Grafton gave her an unimpressed look, her hair uncurled for once as she chewed on the wolf meat. “I was just kidding, Ev.”

“I know. It just wasn’t very funny to me.”

Grafton sighed, and threw the wolf meat over the bridge, watching it fall before disappearing beneath the rapids. “Okay. Sorry, kid.”

Evelyn allowed herself a smile. To say she and Grafton hadn’t gotten along when they had first met had been...an understatement. Evelyn had never found the use in being a rogue element in your own life. Stability had always, always, worked for her.

Mostly.

From what she knew of Grafton though, it had been the opposite. She had been a nomad ever since her twenties. Like Mathew, but for much, much longer. Evelyn still found herself surprised that Grafton had even bothered to stay with them.

It took time. But she felt like they understood each other now. It helped that in the end, they weren’t as different as she had initially thought.

“It’s okay,” she mumbled. “I think I’d just like to enjoy the sunrise for now.”

Grafton glanced over to the van parked by the end of the bridge, with both Russel and Cody having their own private conversation and sitting on top of its roof. Evelyn glanced over as well, offering a small wave that was returned by Russel.

Peace.

“I think I’m just stressed out,” Grafton continued. “Dealing with the PRT was a fucking chore. I don’t know how they didn’t recognize me.”

Evelyn recognized the unspoken apology in Grafton’s words, and allowed herself a smile. “It’s been fifteen years since you were a villain, Graf. ‘Beast’ disappeared all those years ago in Reno. You haven’t hurt anybody since then.”

Grafton didn’t answer for a moment, then shot Evelyn a wolfish smile. “Yeah. Because they were too scared to come after me. Who can blame them? I’m the best after all.”

“Oh, I believe you.”

“I know. Why wouldn’t you?”

Evelyn rolled her eyes, turning fully to Grafton. “You know, I wish I had as much confidence as you do. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything get to you.”

Grafton shrugged. “I’m old, sweetheart. If I wanted to pretend I was a meek little flower, I’d be having my mid-life crisis about now. Plus, I did all my crying and winging when I was younger.”

The sun still burned bright, and the purple of the sky began its slow shift to a dull blue. They both looked up at a passing flock of birds, and Grafton sighed. “I let go of Alice Brown because there was no use holding onto what she was. Vapid. Spoiled. Becoming ‘The Grafton Monster’ was the best thing I ever did.”

“I know.”

“...I don’t mean to go on about it. It’s all in the past. Just...corporate heroes. Bunch of assholes.”

Evelyn nodded. Grafton rarely spoke of her past, but Evelyn knew about Grafton’s parents, and their work in the PRT. Evelyn had always heard her speak about how glad she was that she left them behind.

Evelyn knew how that felt.

Growing up in a suburb had come with its perks. And its limitations. She had never wanted for money, and knew that the opportunities she had were miles away from what other people could even reach for.

The trouble was always there. Her parents had always described themselves as ‘old-fashioned,’ as if that excused how uncomfortable they had insisted on making her whenever her childhood friend Suzanne was around.

It was only when she got to high school that she realized that her parents weren’t who she thought they were, and that them being uncomfortable around Suzanne had nothing to with who she was and everything to do with how dark her skin happened to be. Getting away from them and getting to college in a whole other state had been so simple at the time. It was still simple now.

As she stared out at a rapidly changing sky, she couldn’t deny that a part of her wished they were better people. That they could be the loving family she thought they had been before she realized who they really were. The better part of her wouldn’t forgive them. Not until they learned. If they ever did.

They didn’t keep in touch. And although for different reasons, Evelyn was sure Grafton didn’t keep up with hers, either.

They watched the sunrise together for what felt like an hour, when in reality she was sure it had only been ten more minutes, before Grafton pushed herself off the steel divider and looked back to the van. “Come on. Russ is gonna freak out if we don’t hit the road soon.”

Evelyn only nodded, and they walked back to a smiling Russel. Cody was running his hands over the braille in a book, humming as they approached. “Hey you two. Me and Russ were just talking about why he’s bald and also why his sense of fashion is so fucking weird.”

Grafton didn’t bother holding back her immediate laugh, and Russel’s eye twitched. “Actually, we were just talking about how much the two of you suck.”

“It’s true,” Grafton supplied. “But you love us for it.”

Russel ignored the snickers of both Grafton and Cody and gave Evelyn a small smile, which she returned. The back doors of the van opened, revealing a yawning Sam and a sleeping Mathew. They rubbed their eyes, peering at the rest of them with an expression between annoyed and confused. “Why are you guys being so loud? We-”

“Is there room back there? Scooch,” Grafton interrupted, pushing past Sam and immediately curling into a ball. Sam, for their part, gave Grafton a glare, who was already doing her part to begin snoring. Loudly. Sam sighed, and after a moment's deliberation, closed the door.

Cody frowned, his voice noticeably quieter than it was before. “She okay? She was annoyed, I think.”

Evelyn shook her head. “We just had a conversation. I didn’t mean for it to get out of hand, but I guess it kind of did.”

“Out of hand seems right, that was weirdly rude even for her,” Russel whispered.

“We know how Grafton is. If she wants to talk to us, she’ll talk. Making her isn’t going to get us anywhere.”

Cody nodded after a moment, before hopping off the van and onto the ground below. “I guess that’s fair. This is why you’re the doctor.”

“I’m just a psychologist.”

“Still a doctor, miss humble. I’m gonna head into the van and get some sleep,” Cody responded. He opened the doors, ignoring an annoyed Sam as he climbed into the van, shutting them behind him.

Evelyn and Russel took a moment to look at the sunrise, and Evelyn offered a mock curtsey. “After you, sir.”

Russel smiled, and bowed in return. “I thank you for this opportunity.”

They both shared a quiet laugh. This was peace.


---------------------------------------------------------------------------

“Did you talk to him?”

Russel glanced at her, and she smiled back. They had been driving for a while now, and the forest road winded and twisted endlessly in such a way that she was sure they would have gotten lost had it not been for Mathew. He knew the roads well, and they followed him and Sam as they rolled down the road on Mathew’s bike.

Cody and Grafton were both asleep in the back, and Evelyn only partially realized that it must have felt like she was cornering him, somewhat. That...was not good.

“I don’t mean to pry,” she hurried to say, relaxing once she saw his growing frown diminish. “I was just...I was just curious.”

Russel didn’t answer, and Evelyn decided to drop the subject as they entered a clearing and came across a small valley. The lake at its bottom shimmered a clear blue, and she felt herself smile at the families she saw, down below. A few even waved at their passing van, and Evelyn waved back, fully aware that they probably wouldn’t be able to see her.

“Yeah. We did.”

Ah. Evelyn turned to him, and studied his face as he kept his eyes forward. The lines on his face hadn’t been there when they first met. Evelyn didn’t feel the need to tell him that perhaps his work was getting to him. They all knew, especially now.

“I thought you were gonna ask me about Hector and Rosie or something. Didn’t expect that.”

Evelyn nodded. “Do you want to talk about that instead?”

“I don’t know. Maybe. I…”

Patience was the one thing Evelyn felt she could offer in spades, and only stared out the window as Russel trailed off. Eventually, he began speaking again, quieter.

“It’s a lot. Rosie and I...we figured there was always a chance things weren’t going to work out. Just from two different worlds, I guess. It only got worse when I got my powers, and after Hector got his…”

Evelyn hummed. “Charleston?”

“He shouldn’t have followed me. But I should have been making sure he wasn’t.”

She frowned. “We all should have.”

“I raised him.”

“I know, Russel. But we’re a family. All of us,” she tried again in a softer tone.

Charleston hadn’t been pretty. If a parahuman that could lift entire trucks was causing trouble, you’d send the PRT. Or you’d send the heroes. Russel had been the closest at the time.

Evelyn still remembered their fear when they found out Hector had followed. When they found out Backbreaker had almost killed him.

It was the first time the thought of losing each other became a constant. She wondered if that was why so many of them were willing to drop everything to make sure Mathew was okay. That he was safe.

Somehow, that feeling brought warmth. She had always known, but they were living proof that they could be relied on. She cherished it.

“Anyway,” Russel spoke, breaking her out of her thoughts. “What about your love life? Are you and Dana?...”

She rolled her eyes. “Dana and I broke up almost two years ago now, Russel.”

He shrugged. “I know, I guess I was just curious. What happened there, anyway? If you want to talk about it.”

What had happened? Evelyn shifted a bit in her seat and shrugged. “I think...we just worked better as friends. Hmmm. She’s like a cat, and I’m more of a...a well-mannered dog, I think.”

“Did you just call yourself a dog?”

“A well-mannered dog.”

“Still…”

She lightly slapped him on the shoulder, and hid a laugh as he gave an exaggerated and muted howl. “Shush. And we weren’t even talking about your love life, per say.”

“...Yeah. You’re right. I just...I’m gonna miss her. It’s practically already over, you know? Just a few more months. She’s going on dates now. And I’m just...stuck.”

Evelyn studied him. She could see the telltale loneliness in his eyes. She had felt that before as well, once upon a time.

Well then.

Evelyn sighed, and reached over to wipe a small smudge of dirt from his cheek. Russel begrudgingly allowed her, and she could only smile at the way his face twisted into a good-natured grimace. A wonderful expression, if she said so herself.

“I...I understand,” she began, returning her hands to her lap. “Although I’m sure that I haven’t felt what you’re feeling. Dana and I...well. I loved her, I think. I still do, just differently. I always worried about if she was getting herself into trouble, or getting hurt, or things like that. She’d want to be alone when I wanted to talk, and sometimes I pushed on that. I wanted to understand her, but I think I overdid it sometimes.”

Russel offered a tired smile. “You were looking out for her.”

“Sometimes. Sometimes I just...I just worried she was mad at me. It got to the point where she’d feel guilty about not talking and I’d feel guilty about talking too much, and It just...it didn’t work. But that’s okay, Russel. That’s just a part of living.”

“I know,” he responded. “And don’t sell yourself short. You went through heartbreak, Evelyn, You’re allowed to feel bad about it. My pain isn’t any more important than yours.”

She smiled. “I appreciate that, Russel.”

“And I appreciate you. This. Us. You guys...I couldn’t imagine life without you.”

A warm feeling she had trained to ignore nearly broke to the surface before she willed it away yet again. Sometimes, Russel would talk, and sometimes she’d want to keep him talking for as long as she could. He was the first person, besides Dana, to back her on their support group. However, she couldn't very well keep all of his time. Not right now.

Instead, she looked out the window. Evening would be upon them soon, and the dim ever-growing red of the sun bathed them in warm light as it continued its descent. They drove in an open field now, and Evelyn’s eyes followed a lone billboard showing a tiny girl holding a burger with a small family.

Soon, they’d be back in their beds. And she could continue the shelter, now that Mathew was okay. She hoped she would be able to talk to him later, let him know that she cared.

She frowned. She’d also have to check in with Beatrice soon. She hadn’t heard a word from her in over a week. If only-

“Mathew and I. We talked for a bit, and it didn’t go too well at first.”

Oh?

Evelyn turned back to him as he continued, staring out at the fields. “Asking him if he was okay had been the easy part. Telling him he shouldn’t have used his powers was...I don’t know. It wasn’t the right time.”

“He knows you care, Russel.”

“Does he?”

Evelyn frowned, and waited for him to finish. Russel sighed as he spoke again. “I’ve been on his case. A lot.”

“You have?”

He nodded. “I tried to reign it in a bit for Cody’s get-together, but he must have been sick of me already. I shouldn’t have even been pushing him. He’s not my kid, I just...I get worried. A lot.”

“But not about Dana? Or Cody?”

He winced. “Dana’s a professional, does it for a living. And Cody keeps his head down. Mathew...I don’t know. I don’t know how I’m supposed to feel about him going out to towns and causing trouble. I know we said we didn’t get our cape lives mixed in with our friendships, and I know he’s not hurting people, I just…”

It was a full minute before he finished his sentence. “I’m projecting. I feel like he’s a lot like how I was a decade ago. But I know that’s not fair. And I’m trying to be more fair to him.”

She smiled. “For what it’s worth, he told me he was going to be more fair to you, too.”

“Me?”

“He feels bad about antagonizing you.”

Russel looked away, shrugging. “He doesn’t have to. It’s my fault.”

She’d have to pick his brain about that. Someday soon. But now wasn’t the time.

The road stretched out in front of them, as Russel turned the murmur of the radio off as he continued. “We started talking about powers, after that. About...about how he got his. I knew the story, but that was the first time he told me all of it. The cops, the guns, everything.”

She saw him grow quiet for a moment before he finished. “Trapped. Like how I was when I overdosed. It felt like my body was floating one moment, and like a stone the next. I got lucky by getting my powers. We both did, in that moment of panic. That fear. The idea that I’d die and the world would go on without me the next day, I think he felt that too.”

Evelyn didn’t respond. The value of staying silent had been a learned thing, but in her times of getting her doctorate, she had made sure to make herself learn.

Russel rubbed at his eyes. “I don’t know. I just hugged him. He hugged me back, and...it’s the fucking powers, man. You only ever learn how to get them when you get them, and when you do...you wish you hadn’t. I want to save people, I need to. I need to be better than I am. And...fighting Leviathan, I was sure I was gonna finally make a difference. I was so sure. Then...you know Vista? Brockton Bay ward?”

She was afraid of this. “I do,” she murmured, already laying a hand on his shoulder. “Russel…”

“She was just a little girl. And I couldn’t do anything.”

The silence that followed was heavier than any other Evelyn had experienced. She only offered a hand on his shoulder, slowly massaging it as they drove. There weren’t any words she could use to ease what he felt. Not when she didn’t know the right ones to say.

It was a long while before he turned to her, and offered a small smile. “I’m sorry, I’m just going off. I’m sure you know what I mean.

After a moment, she offered a wan smile. “Yes. I know.”

That was a lie she had gotten good at telling.

The old familiar guilt she always felt when her friends talked about how they got their powers, or the way they experienced using them, returned. Familiar enough now that it was only a dull reminder rather than...what it had been before.

It was times like these that she felt like a fraud, an imposter, rather than a friend. Someone who lied to keep herself safe.

Becoming a Psychiatrist had been her dream, even when she left behind the certainty her parents money offered her. She enjoyed the fact that she was a far cheaper option that others. She enjoyed the fact that she got to help people. She even enjoyed the sleepless nights that she spent pouring over her clients, to make sure she knew everything there was to know. To be a lantern in the dark.

But she had always wanted more.

She saw the way the heroes she saw every so often changed the world around them, and the strangled feeling in her gut that told her she wanted to be just like them never went away. It wasn’t the allure of fame that captured her, or the potential money, or even the imaginings of what power she’d be able to use. Despite what she presented, Evelyn always thought of herself as exceedingly simple.

She wanted to help people.

It was naïve. The thought of going out to fight someone in a costume was almost laughable, but the idea never left her mind. At first she told herself it was just a dream. Then, she considered how she’d even get powers. Then had come the research, the days and weeks and months of research, of collecting errant newspaper clippings and saving tabs and walking into places she wouldn’t have ever considered before.

She had told them that she got her powers after she lost her old job. It wasn’t a technical lie, but it was a lie all the same.

‘The Dealer’ had been her source.

Even now, she couldn’t remember the exact steps she took. He had offered her a smile, a pleasing voice, some gentle words. All it had taken was her savings to become ‘Architect.’ She had been proud of herself for not fighting, for immediately doing her best to build bridges, restore buildings, become something.

She was still proud of what she had done. Not of who she was.

It took her a long time to figure out that getting powers wasn’t fun, and by the time she did she had already had them. It never stopped her from feeling like she was mocking her friends. Like she had somehow gotten ‘lucky’ enough to bypass the pain they must have felt.

The two of them were silent as they drew closer to the town, and Evelyn allowed herself to look out at the approaching Santa Mosemar, colored a deep red from the setting sun.

Then, she gasped.

The smoke was the first thing she noticed, slowly rising trails of black that left streaks across the red sky. She saw the lack of light as well, and even at this distance, she could tell that not a single one of them were on. A power outage? Evelyn frowned at the same time Russel did, the van slowing down and coming to a stop on top of the hill leading inside. Outside, Mathew and Sam slowed down as well, and for the first time Evelyn felt they were all thinking the same thing;

‘What the hell is going on?’

“That’s…” Russel began, slowly opening his door before stopping halfway. “Ev?”

“...Yes?”

“The town. It’s quiet.”

She felt her breath catch. Evelyn opened her door and gingerly stepped onto the ground outside, slowly looking around as she knelt. Mathew and Sam dismounted the bike, holding hands as they quietly approached.

“What the fuck?” Mathew hissed. “This...fuck. This is weird.”

“I’d have to agree,” Russel responded after a moment. “I think...Jesus, I think some of the windows are broken? I can’t really tell.”

“Yeah. Alright. These are fucking serial killer vibes.”

Evelyn placed her hands on the ground, and her power began its slow network as it fished its way through the earth below. She felt it urge her to shift the ground into strange shapes, to change the dirt to iron, to gold, to water. She ignored it and focused.

“Maybe...maybe something bad happened? Like a villain attacked?” Sam interjected quietly.

“Maybe, but Rosie or Hector would have called me, and Dana would have probably called Evelyn. Beatrice would have called any of us, but she...she hasn’t been answering. It doesn’t matter. We have to go, now.

The ground just below her was solid. Her power told her of tiny shapes moving around the dirt around them. Insects and worms, she guessed. So she went deeper.

Russel groaned, and was interrupted by a waking Grafton as she slid the door open with a yawn. “I was dozing, and Cody’s full on asleep, so good luck waking him up. What’d we stop for?”

“It’s...” Sam began. “There’s something wrong with it.”

“Wrong?”

“There,” Sam urged, pointing. “There’s...there’s someone flying. Above the town.”

It was then that Evelyn felt her eyes widen.

Underneath the earth. Dog-sized objects were buried underground. Dozens.

And they were moving.

She would have warned them too, had a distorted laugh not come from the trees surrounding them.

They all froze. The blue motes of Mathew’s distortion began to form, as well as the off-white glow of Russel’s power. Sam took a step back towards the van, more than likely to wake Cody, and Grafton glared as she reached into her pocket and pulled out a piece of bloody meat, chewing it. Her power responded, and after a moment her body slowly began to change.

And yet, nothing could have prepared them for the shapes that burst through the trees.

A mouth with mismatched and yellowed fangs greeted them. Six legs, attached to a body the color of tar, hundreds of eyes staring them down. Oversized claws threatened death, and the blood already on them promised it. She could only see it as a parody of every animal she had come to love growing up.

The figure that stood in the treeline was almost worse to look at. Nine feet tall, with a chalk white body, as if made of ceramic. She had seen the pictures online, of something vaguely humanoid, of a monster made of tinkertech. Here, he had four arms instead of two, three with fingers that moved too much to be compared to a person, and one with a long and curved blade, glinting in the retreating sunlight.

Crawler and Mannequin.

And in an instant, every nightmare she had about a man with a knife, with a smile, with blood, were realized.

Evelyn felt herself scream. She wasn’t a fighter, she wasn’t. She had never spent the time to try. Her power retreated as she stumbled back, falling to the ground and pushing herself away.

Grafton immediately shook off her sleep and leapt forward, her body changing mid-air as she met the Crawler with fangs of her own, Russel joining her soon after. Evelyn didn’t have the time to register what form Grafton took before the ground erupted.

They weren’t spiders, to say so would imply that they were somehow natural. There was nothing natural about the cherry-red skin and bleeding muscle that made up their legs, their two grasping hands, the stitched together crying faces that she hadn’t been able to stop herself from looking at in time. A sound emerged from bloody mouths, somewhere between a giggle and a scream.

Then, Sam was trying to pull her up. They were yelling something she couldn’t understand. Evelyn glanced to the van in a daze, wondering about Cody, hoping he was okay.

Only to watch as the ground below the van erupted.

More cherry-red monsters emerged from the ground, surrounding them in a half-formed circle. Three whirled back on the van, beginning the frighteningly quick process of ripping it apart. To get inside.

To get to Cody.

It was then that she decided for herself that she didn’t have a choice.

She had to fight. She had to.

Evelyn shoved her hands into the ground, and their trial began in earnest.

Chapter Text

It seemed so long ago now, but he remembered wanting to be a dancer.

He never had a particular need to be good at it. It just came naturally. The hard work, the sweat, the pain. A chance not to express himself, but to step away from his life at home. It helped that Noah Fennel was in the same class, who always offered a warm smile and conversation he wasn’t good at returning. It helped that sometimes, they’d go out for ice cream.

It helped him ignore the fact that he would have to go home to the smell of alcohol and sunken eyes. Staring, always staring, at the screen of the TV. His dad did that on good days. His dad would make him bleed on bad ones. Pain was never temporary. It always lingered, somewhere in his body. It made him feel alive, even as a withering part of him hoped and prayed for a savior. One that would never come.

So dancing became an escape. And for a time, it was enough.

Until it wasn’t.

He didn’t bother keeping track of the days anymore, but he remembered the first time he had picked up a knife and sunk it into the flesh of his leg. It was horrible, and painful, and it made him scream.

He loved it.

It was easy to keep it a secret. Long-sleeves and sweaters wrapped him in lies, lies that he told his classmates. Lies that he told the dance studio. Lies that he told Noah. He never needed to lie to his dad, just because he never asked.

The pain was better. It was just like dancing. It was his, not his dad’s or anybody else's. It made him feel more alive than anything else had. It even made him feel human, sometimes. Human enough to schedule a faraway time to hang out with Noah and his friends.

And for a time, he figured that he’d get there. That he’d be a whole person, one day.

Then his dad found out.

He didn’t remember what he was angrier about. The dancing? The wounds? It didn’t seem to matter so much when he was curled up on the floor, a tiny part of him telling him that he was going to die.

It wasn’t the pain that bothered him. It was the fact that before, he felt that it made him stronger. He didn’t feel that way as his vision clouded and began to turn black.

And then he passed out. Then he woke up.

And as he gazed around the bathroom, he knew his life was over.

Ned somehow knew that his life as Ned was over when his dad was scattered across the room, in pieces. When teeth were no longer flat, but sharp. Sharp enough to tear into someone's throat.

A part of him said, then, that he could hurt himself as much as he wanted now. And he would be stronger.

It felt good. It felt bad. He wouldn’t be able to dance with Noah after this.

But those regrets had already been fading.

Crawler laughed as he charged forward. He was stronger.

And he dared someone to hurt him, now.


========================================

The Grafton Monster remembered blood.

It had been a warm summer in nineteen eighty-three when she had gotten her powers. She remembered begging her mom not to pull her from her college Aerobics class, the one with Scott Brown. She remembered feeling ridiculous that she was still in college while all of her friends were married, or had jobs, or were happy in some other nebulous, unknowable way.

She remembered waking up in the forest, as the demon chased her. Alice remembered embracing the monster. The need to be feared, for once in her fucking life.

And as she charged towards Crawler and Mannequin, she remembered The Nine.

And she wondered if they would remember her.

But she had a decision to make.

Rattlesnake and Fox?

Slim, fast, good at precise strikes. Not good at defense. One hit and The Monster would be nearly dead, then she’d have to turn back. Then there wouldn’t be anything stopping the two from finishing the job.

Bat and Owl?

The Monster would be able to fly well. But then what? She doubted it could carry everyone off fast enough without something going wrong. And she wouldn’t let it leave them here alone. She couldn’t.

Bear and Wolf?

It would have to do. She had collected meat from the latter for just such an occasion.

A small and terrible part of herself told her that it wouldn’t be enough, even as she fell into darkness and became one with The Monster.

Changing in Santa Mosemar always hurt. But the rush always made it better.

This form, she adored the most. It offered size, her body covered with a thick black and shaggy fur that did nothing to hide the red glow of her eyes, connected to a wolf-like snout. Three powerful limbs held three powerful, steel-like claws. A fourth limb was smaller, only the width of a barrel compared to the tree-trunks her other limbs were, but it was more dextrous and sported sharper claws. Sharp and powerful enough to easily cut through stone.

Act. Act.

The collision with Crawler rocked her to her very core, and she allowed a small amount of surprise to cross her mind as she began to push him back, almost too easily. She swiped at a charging Mannequin as an afterthought, snarling as his body contorted into a ring shape, easily evading her.

Blacklight paused, gave her a fierce nod, and took off after Mannequin, his body shifting black as he became more and more dense. She didn’t blame him.

She could handle this.

Crawler laughed as she attempted to tear him apart, pushing himself into her further with a deep and ugly graveling cackle, as if to egg her on. Her claw sunk into some parts of his hide easily, while most parts resisted her full stop. It reminded her, briefly, of trying to rip kevlar in two with her bare hands. Or her single claw, in this case.

She could handle this.

And even if she couldn’t, that wasn’t a reason not to try.

But Crawler wasn’t so easily stopped. He regained his footing at once, biting into her shoulder. Pain had always been dulled and she had always been tougher when she became The Monster, yet the acid in his jaws was painful enough for her to rip her shoulder away and leave behind burning flesh. She screamed, the sound turning into a roar as it left her mouth.

Then the hunger came, impatient and vile, and she had to resist the urge to sink her jaws into his flesh and eat. To find purchase in black hide and rotted blood, to become something stronger-

“Graf!” Blacklight shouted, somewhere behind her. “Focus!”

Of course. She must have been getting too deep. The Monster inside of her smiled.

She made a point to thank Blacklight later. If they fucking survived.

Yet she couldn’t ignore how his voice was shrill and desperate. Afraid. She wanted nothing more than to turn around and help.

She pushed herself forward, telling herself that Blacklight could handle himself. That she could devour Crawler whole, and she’d be better than he ever was.

She listened.

Grafton crouched, ignoring the bits of acid still slowly eating away at her skin, and charged. Crawler stood still, seemingly ready to receive her attack full force.

Except she wasn’t attacking.

She collided with him, and pushed him back again. She made it a point to push him further and further, the dirt underneath them splitting as they struggled. In terms of strength, she only barely overpowered him, but it was enough to bring him to the edge of the forest and slam him into a tree, feeling satisfaction as it was crushed under their combined weight.

Crawler tore into her the entire time, taking chunks of flesh out of her as they moved, but never enough to stop her. She was suddenly very glad that she was so hard to hurt. To kill.

Hard. But not impossible.

She darted towards a tree as Crawler stumbled, ripping it from the ground just as he righted himself and hurling it his way.

The tree splintered into dozens of pieces as it met his hide. Crawler offered her a chuckle and pawed the ground. She did the same, glancing to the side.

And she didn’t like what she saw.

The van she had been sleeping in not even ten minutes before was now a mangled wreck of metal Architect was using to entrap and crush the cherry red spiders, two or three at a time being killed.

More and more emerged from the ground, Poltergeist doing his best to push them away while Blacklight and Sam, now Script, did their best to keep Mannequin busy. Grafton could see the frustration in Sam’s face from here. Their power wasn’t any good, not against Mannequin.

“Your claws bite deep.”

Her momentary distraction was interrupted by a pacing Crawler, mouth set into a monstrous grin as he began to circle her, his tone undeniably giddy. Even wanting. Grafton moved to keep herself in between him and the rest of the action. If he noticed, he didn’t care. The multitude of black orbs that passed for eyes were focused only on her.

She didn’t answer. Partly because it was hard to do when she was The Monster, and mostly because she wasn’t up to talking.

So instead, she charged. Hoping to push him further into the forest. Mannequin was good, and the spiders seemed troublesome, but Crawler was undeniably the heavy hitter. With him out of the picture, her family stood a chance.

They met in a clash of fang and claw, yet pushing him back was harder. He bit and clawed at her side and legs, threatening to topple her as pain began to flare again. She fought past it, an idea forming.

This wasn’t working. But why fight when she could kill?

She only wished she had taken something stronger than a wolf. And yet, more than anything, she knew now wasn’t the time for regrets.

She began to claw at his head, unable to find purchase except in a few choice spots. Namely, his eyes.

But that would have to do. With every wound she made, she pushed deeper, doing her best to not give them time to heal. Crawler tore into her body all the while, the acid in his jaws eating away at her fur, then her skin, then the muscle underneath. One leg gave out, forcing her to stumble. She turned that stumble into a roll however, pinning Crawler underneath her and continuing to dig deeper and deeper into his skull.

In the back of her mind, she could hear Crawler scream for more, his laughter loud enough to make her ears ring.

She laughed too. Tear, rip, laugh. It became unclear whose blood was whose. She felt herself get closer and closer as her body began to shut down, her vision turning blurry and her remaining teeth threatening to shatter as she bit.

The Monster sang, and it was home. If only-

A scream pierced the air.

The Monster looked lazily to the side, its vision failing.

Her blood ran cold.

It wasn’t the fact that Blacklight was no longer moving, or the fact that Cody’s arm was twisted and mangled in a way that made her feel sick.

It was the fact that they were on one of Evelyn’s platforms, speeding off and away. They raced towards the town, even as Mannequin chased after them, most of the spiders following after him and screaming.

They left her.

A twisted familiarity tore its way to her mind. Of camping with friends in college. Of being left in the woods, as a prank.

Of losing an arm to a killer, deep in the woods. Of being forced to eat meat, raw, until he was satisfied.

She had been alone then. And she was alone now.

And she was reminded of just how alone she was as Crawler’s claw pierced her chest.

She howled, pained and furious, and quickly began to back away. The spiders that had stayed skittered around her, cutting off her routes of escape and offering their tortured giggles and screams. Crawler himself only stalked forward, eerily silent as she sagged against a tree and attempted to regain control of her body, trying not to panic.

It became nearly impossible once she noticed she was shrinking.

She had no meat, and almost every other animal in the area had been scared off. There was nothing for her to do but wait.

Her body returned to her, moments later, and she sank to a sitting position beneath the canopy of the tree.

Crawler was a king, and his subjects were the twisted and mangled bodies of what she could only assume were the civilians, turned into monsters that held whispering pleas and strangled cries. With every testing step he took, he got close to crushing the cherry red monsters underneath six armored legs. Once or twice, he did.

Grafton glanced up at a red sky and a fading sun, then at the splintered wood and ruptured earth around her.

It was then she knew.

She was going to die.

A part of her couldn’t help but be afraid, but ignored it even as that same part told her to run, to hide. Moving wasn’t an option, not after taking that much damage. And she always figured it was better to go out staring death in the eyes.

It was enough.

She decided to make peace with the fact that Architect had left her behind. Thinking about it, she knew she would have told her to get the others to safety anyway. The fact that Architect had done so without her asking only meant that she saw what Grafton was trying to do. She knew that Grafton had been trying to protect them.

That was enough for her. No need for grudges or regrets.

A long life, lived how she had wanted to live it. That was all anybody could ask for.

She stared at Crawler as he towered over her, acid dripping from his jaws and painting the grass around them black. She smiled up at him, then slowly raised her remaining arm to flash him a very particular finger. If only she had one last whiskey.

She was ready.

Then Crawler spoke.

“Closer than most. That was pain. Real pain.”

She frowned.

“Would’ve gotten you too. All I needed was more time.” she muttered. In the back of her mind, she knew that killing Crawler had only been a distant hope. False Bravado was something she excelled at, however. “Get it over with.”

“Hurt me, then,” Crawler insisted. Even with how monstrous he sounded, she could see a hint of excitement creeping into his voice. “Tear me apart. Crush me. Why wait?”

She scowled. “No meat,” she answered. “No meat. I eat to grow.”

Maybe it was a bad idea telling him any of this at all. But being so close to death gave her perspective.

Was talking always so hard? Every word she spoke brought forth a pain in her chest, dull and aching.

Crawler paced, eyeing her and tilting his head in a pose that was much too similar to a dog for her liking. “Meat?”

She didn’t answer. Instead, she closed her eyes.

Then he spoke again.

“They’re ruining the fun.”

Crawler offered a rumbling growl of curiosity, and she opened her eyes again to see him looking down at the small, disgusting spiders. They giggled and wailed and seemingly waited for some kind of signal to pounce.

Then he began to kill them.

Grafton watched with a hanging jaw as Crawler crushed them, sliced them, even devouring some whole. Splintered bones and crushed meat were all that was left in time, a long dog-like tongue lapping at the mess he made. Did he even need to do that? Had he always had a tongue like that?

Her confusion grew as he turned to one of his legs and stared for a moment. She very nearly asked him what was taking him so long before he suddenly spat acid.

She couldn’t help it. A manic giggle escaped from her lips. Crawler was attacking himself. Melting himself.

A burning hunk of flesh fell to the ground as he tore into the wound and released it, letting out a keenly awful odor that Grafton had no choice but to smell. Like burning rubber and festering shit. She wanted nothing more than to cover her nose.

Then, Crawler pushed both his own hunk of flesh and the flesh of one of the spiders to her, seeming satisfied as they both rolled to a stop just beyond her feet.

She only stared at him, baffled.

“Eat.”

She felt sick.

“Not allowed to kill you,” Crawler continued, the deep rumble in his voice leaning towards disappointment. “But I can have fun with you. I can do that.”

Her mind lingered on ‘not allowed to kill,’ and as she spoke she struggled to find the right words to explain just how fucking confused she was. “I...you’re not allowed?...”

“Eat.”

There was that word again. A demand, really. She stared down at the meat from the cherry-red spider, and fought down the urge to gag.

She wasn’t stupid. The spiders all had human faces. Slicked with blood, but all different enough for her to come to the obvious conclusion.

Never again. She had promised she’d leave that part of herself behind. The thought gave her pause, and enough for Crawler to rumble a warning, impatience somehow clear in his growls.

“Now. Or I lick the flesh from your bones. Then your friends. I can be careful. You’ll still be alive. And you’ll feel every part.”

She panicked, and she wanted to scream. He wasn’t giving her a choice.

She was ready to die. But she wasn’t ready for this.

But she had to be.

With a heave, Grafton pushed herself into a kneeling position, her body begging her to stop, to rest. She ignored it.

The Monster stirred as she fell on her stomach, dragging herself along the ground with her arm and opening her mouth. She had learned a long time ago that if it was flesh of any kind, she could eat it. Holding it would only hurt her. But if she got it near her mouth or her face, she’d be fine. Relatively.

Would the same rule apply here?

She spared one last glance at Crawler as he watched her, a grin forming on his face once more. She silently promised she’d give him as much pain as he wanted she stared at the flesh in front of her. The smell was overwhelming, forcing her eyes to water and drawing gags from her throat.

She was ready. She had to be.

She sank her teeth into the flesh of the spider, and bit back a scream.

It tasted all the parts of rotting meat and inedible waste as she swallowed, and she forced down the urge to spit when the meat burned. She didn’t think as she moved her head to bite Crawlers flesh as well, realizing it to be noticeably harder to chew. But still possible.

Then, as she concentrated, her flesh began to change, and she once again became The Monster.

The form felt wrong, and it hurt even more to draw out. Her arm and legs began to form a jet black carapace even as four more legs sprouted from her sides, ripping through her body and growing larger, larger, yet larger. Mandibles grew, the makings of acid beginning to form from what felt like a million prickle teeth stuffed unevenly inside of her mouth. She kept her hair, and as it cascaded down her face she noted that its usual gray had changed to a cherry red blonde. She didn’t want to think about where the color came from.

She towered at least five feet over Crawler, and she hissed. Her voice felt too much like his own. He barked, and she recognized it as a laugh as he began to speak.

“Now-”

Grafton lurched forward, her form complete.

She hated it. And it was all she had.

Power.

They met in a crash, Grafton skittering to position herself under him and slamming him onto the ground, displacing dirt and grass as they bit and snarled and tore. Grafton wasted no time in violently chewing into Crawler’s neck, even as they both broke and bled. Maybe, if she could fight fast enough, maybe she could end it quickly.

But maybe wasn't good enough.

He laughed, and she screamed.

The form was new, inexperienced. She didn’t know how to move it.

Everything was already falling apart.

An exposed leg was suddenly caught in Crawlers jaws, wrenched away with a spray of pink-white blood. She spat acid at him in return, spurred by the way it ate through his armor. The Monster screamed at her to rip him apart. To tear. To kill.

A flash of pink, blinding, and then-

It was beautiful.

Why was she fighting? What was the point?

An orb of rose and light swirled beautifully, held aloft and illuminating the sky. Vaguely, she could feel the form of Crawler slump in a heap next to her. He must have been looking too. She relaxed, leaning against him.

She had seen this somewhere before, hadn’t she? The first time she found Santa Mosemar. She had been the monster for over a week, and there was a hunger she couldn’t quite place. The local wildlife wasn’t satisfying her anymore. She needed something smarter. A new taste, a different smell. She saw fear in the face of the hunter that tried to kill her, and it had felt delightful.

Then she saw the orb of rose.

She remembered how it saved her. That was the day she woke up, and a girl with full moon glasses was asking if she was okay. As if she needed it. It felt nice to have someone new though. Then she met the rest, and they became her family. Better than the last. Much better.

The orb was a reminder of that.

It was beautiful.

Why was she fighting? What was the point?

An orb of rose and light swirled-


-on? Grafton!”

The Grafton monster blinked twice. And turned.

A crying Sam and a bleeding Mathew were both dry-heaving, leaning on a tree.

Had they come back? Had they been hiding?

She wanted to ask. She wanted to scream at them for being so close to the danger.

And then she saw the creature Sam held in their arms, mewling and friendly.

Poppet. That meant Beatrice. But where?

Her eyes shifted back and forth, landing on Crawler. She hissed and brought one of her claws above herself, raking down into his flesh yet barely piercing. He regenerated near instantly, and she scuttled backwards on six legs, forcing her body to fight, like she had so many times before. She was ready.

In less than a second, he was healed. Better than healed, he was stronger.

And he didn’t move.

Grafton stared him down, her chest heaving as the claws at the end of her legs clicked, waiting. Watching.

Crawler still didn’t move. But he spoke

And his words gave her pause.

“...To dance. I remember that. Made me feel alive, before the pain did it better…”

It took her only a few moments to realize he was still staring at the pink orb, illuminating their surroundings softly. She glanced over to it again, a part of her unsatisfied with the fight, and realized that there was a hunger she couldn’t quite place. The local wildlife wasn’t satisfying her anymore. She needed something-

A pressure pushed against her leg. Small, but uncomfortably hot.

She looked down to see Mathew, and a...machine. It looked somewhat like a turbine, only painted green, and with a central ‘eye’ that looked up at her curiously. Two ‘arms’ attached to its main body, and it floated almost three feet off the ground. The arms emitted a pinkish light that felt like it was burning her skin. Then, she realized it was healing her, slowly, but surely.

Then she heard the machine speak. In Bee’s voice.

“You can’t look at the light,” it said. “If you do, you’ll have to stay put. It won’t let you go. I-I built it that way.”

...What?

“Bee?”

“I’m sorry,” the machine continued, quieter. “I couldn’t stop them. I was...I was working. They caught me by surprise. I’m sorry.”

By surprise. Okay. That explained some things.

It didn’t explain how Bee was talking through a machine. She made small animal fusions. But if that was true, what the hell was she looking at now? And how was it healing her?

It especially didn’t explain why Bee was claiming she ‘built’ the pink light she had seen all those years ago, when she first got to Santa Mosemar.

It didn’t make sense.

However, as Grafton looked at the still mesmerized Crawler, still mumbling and whispering to himself, she figured she could ask questions later.

“Where are you?” Grafton rumbled, eyeing Sam and Mathew. The former had gotten a hold of Poppet again, stroking it and seemingly swallowing down the mess their body threatened to make. Mathew leaned on her leg, and she stood as still as possible to avoid knocking him over as he wheezed and groaned.

The machine didn’t answer, before it clicked once, twice, and Bee’s voice came through again. “In the woods. I...I told Evelyn to run, told her to follow one of my watchdogs somewhere safe, because I had a plan. She didn’t want to leave you alone.”

That made Grafton feel better. She doubted Evelyn would abandon them anyway, but being sure lifted a previously ignored weight from her shoulders.

Then she thought about being ready to die. About being forced to eat the spider.

A younger her would have cried. She was old enough to only be tired.

“-Follow my watchdog,” the machine explained as she began listening again. A pause, and Grafton heard it emulate a nervous giggle. “Um. That’s what I call the robot.”

Grafton hissed, surprising herself, Sam, and Mathew. “You two,” she began, looking down at them. “Why didn’t you leave?”

Mathew only shook his head, and Sam spoke up. “We did. But we...I mean, we couldn’t leave you behind. We figured you’d need help,” they replied, uncertainty staining their voice.

Grafton didn’t need to ask to know that Evelyn hadn’t been happy with that, if Sam’s expression was anything to go by.

Later. Later.

She had to rest.

Grafton nodded, and turned to the robot. “Get us somewhere safe, Bee.”

“I can do that! Just-”

“And,” she cut in, with a rumble. “We will talk. Promise me.”

“...Okay.”

Grafton sagged. It would have to do.

She glanced at Crawler one last time before quietly scooping the last of the flesh he offered into a gnarled claw, limping into the forest after the hovering ‘watchdog’ with Sam and Mathew following her closely, and leaving behind a still mesmerized Crawler.

Things weren’t okay.

And she didn’t think they would ever be again.

Chapter Text

To dream.

He hid in the woods, letting his mind fly into the thing that looked much too much like Irene. She stood, watching Jack talk to the boy. Hector. She smiled as Jack busied himself with preparations, a house burning. She smiled as he directed her to find their guest of honor.

His mind wandered whenever he was forced to watch and wait. To the fame and fortune he lost, the opportunities, the dreams. All because he let himself make a mistake over the course of a year.

He tried telling his wife, in as many ways as he could, that she meant everything to him. That stress, tried and true, could break any man down. He told her that because she knew what he did, he saw the error in his ways. That he would be a better husband, a better father, and that his heart wouldn’t wander anymore.

Was it any wonder she didn’t believe him?

The divorce was a mess. She made sure to tell Irene all about what he did, and she reacted in the way he feared most. She would talk to him, only sometimes, but he saw that disappointment in her eyes. It would only morph into irritation over the months, and he saw hate there the second to last time they spoke. Working with Cauldron only ever made him realize how far he was falling in her eyes.

He became desperate. Anything, he would do anything to make her see him as a father again So he stole a vial, tested but imperfect. The chances it would hurt her were low, low enough to spur him forward. He promised her she could be a superhero, like the ones she liked so much.

That had been the worst mistake of his life, the one he’d never get to fix.

And he ran away from it. From Irene.

He told himself that one day, he’d go back for her. After his grief was quelled, he’d return to being the person he was, fix his daughter, find a way to kill Doctor Mother and the rest. Live out the rest of his days, quietly, until he saw gold.

Sometimes, he even believed himself.

William Manton wept quietly in a van, it’s smell drowning out the thoughts of what he used to be. He would have to clean away the shit and bile. Maybe he actually would.

But it was easier to let himself turn to nothing.

‘I’ll come back, Irene,’ he whispered, letting tears fall. ‘I’ll come back. I’ll fix you. And I promise I’ll be better.’


========================================

As Cody O’Hannigan woke up, he was greeted with memories.

The sounds were fresher, but if he dug deep his mind would still let him see the past, even as it still faded. The looks on his parents' faces when he told them about his failure in highschool, then in college. The smiles of a new family he had made, that quickly turned to grief as one of those smiles was forever wiped away.

Faded, but the pain was still there. so he focused on sounds he liked. The voices of his friends. When heard in the right context, they were all pleasant to listen to. In their own ways.

As Cody woke up, hearing a hushed voice and a pained whisper, there wasn’t anything particularly pleasant to latch on to.

He frowned. He licked his lips. He sighed.

Then, as he tried to sit up, he bit back a scream.

The pain that flared through his arm brought back memories of shouting. Of weeping, distorted and vile, and of a roar that chilled him to his very core. These, fortunately or unfortunately, were all drowned out by the dawning fact that he couldn’t move the damn thing. At least, not the way he wanted to.

Yet he managed to hold in most of the noise. What he didn’t manage to do, however, was stop the pained gasping that flew from his mouth, sounding dry.

That, at least, told him he was dehydrated to all shit.

Something shifted, he heard a sheet rustle, and suddenly a voice called out to him from further away than he expected.

“Cody? I-It’s Evelyn.”

He didn’t realize just how much of a relief those words would be.

He smiled. “Hey, Evie. I’m guessing this is worse than the time Mathew and I woke up drunk at hillside park, huh?”

He pressed his good hand down onto the fabric below him and hummed. Definitely a mattress. He had been sleeping somewhere that was decidedly not his own home, which was becoming more obvious to him now as time went on. He’d remember a room that held a constant, droning hum like this one. Also, it was way too cold.

So where the hell were they?

Footsteps echoed, closer and faster, until he very suddenly felt warm.

Ah. That was a hug. It made him feel better and worse all at the same time.

He smiled and hugged her back, patting her back twice before adjusting his head to rest more comfortably on her shoulder. “Hey there. The uh, the arm…”

The pressure lifted, and he heard Evelyn let out a strained laugh. “Ah! I’m sorry Cody. I was just...well, I was worried.”

“I get it,” he responded, reaching out and finding her shoulder. “I’m amazing. I’d be worried about me too.”

She scoffed, and he grinned. Levity, as always, was good.

What wasn’t good was the fact that he had no idea where they were. Hopefully somewhere safe, if the lack of panic in her voice was anything to go by. Or more accurately, the lack of immediate panic.

The question remained of where in the hell that somewhere was. Or, probably a bit more pressing, how they got here.

Truth be told, he didn’t have a clue. And he wasn’t much in the mood to deduce it himself, not with recent memories from the crash trying to worm their way into his mind.

The roars and snarls that sounded similar to Graf and nothing like her at the same time, the strained and manic giggling from dozens of unfamiliar, twisted voices.

The wrenching of metal and a piercing scream, bringing back a buried and distant memory and too painful to think about.

All of it told a story he was afraid he wouldn’t like the ending to.

Like waking up in a bed, only to realize the nightmare you had never stopped following you. A reminder that clawed and wrenched at his mind, neverending. Waiting and watching.

No thanks. He’d just ask, and hopefully that would erase some of his worry.

Cody gently pulled her towards the bed, feeling her sit down next to him. He propped himself into a better position and was careful to avoid his arm. “First things first. Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, no injuries. Shouldn’t I be asking you that?”

“And everyone else?” he pressed, pausing to listen to the shallow breathing again. “That’s?...”

Cody, admittedly, didn’t like the way neither of them answered right away. She coughed, and he felt a hand on his shoulder.

“It’s Russel. He’s sleeping. Or...I don’t know, he’s trying. He was hit by something bad. He can barely stand at the moment. Can barely do anything.”

She paused to squeeze his shoulder, and he let her. After a moment, she continued. “But that didn’t stop him from trying to put himself in harm's way. Again. He’s insisting on going out there. To fight them.

Cody nodded, taking time to digest her words before he asked who ‘they’ were. That, at least, sounded like Russel. That relief was quickly shattered when he realized that Russel had been ‘hit’ by something bad enough to leave him bedridden.

Something else to worry about, of course.

“And everyone else?”

“They’re safe. Or at least that’s what Beatrice is telling me.”

“She’s here?”

“Yes. Well, no. Not really. There’s a lot of surprises she has that we didn’t know about. But...she’s using them to help us.”

“Like?”

Evelyn sighed. “Like...drones? Mechanical ones with her voice. One led us straight to this lab underneath the copse, then left. She told us we’d be safe here.”

Cody frowned, and digested his thoughts as he listened to the dull hum of the room. “So. Right now we’re in a weird lab that apparently, only Beatrice knows about? Did you know about this?”

“I had no idea,” Evelyn answered quietly. Her voice rode on a wave of dull frustration, drowned out by obvious concern.

It sounded like she needed a distraction, too.

“Help me up? I wanna get a better idea of where everything is.”

He offered his arm, and let himself lean on Evelyn as she locked it with hers and slowly helped him to his feet. The dull ache of his body was uncomfortable, but was easily ignored in comparison to the mangled bastardization of an arm he had.

The room was smaller than he expected, much bigger than a bedroom but nowhere near as large as what he imagined a lab to be, composed of jagged rock-like walls as well as what Evelyn could only describe as a ‘hanging and twisted piece of dull pink metal too high up on the ceiling to reach’. They came across another opening in the wall, Evelyn describing them as a flight of stairs that led down into even more space.

There were also what felt like metal work tables on all four corners of the room. Each bare except for one in the north-west corner of the room, the direction gathered from a quick question to Evelyn.

Finally, they came to another mattress, and Cody knelt down next to what could only be Russel. He listened to Russel’s labored breathing for as long as he could without over-worrying, sighed, and shook his head. “He...doesn’t sound great.”

“I...he’s stable. Beatrice promised she’d find a way to help him, and her drone left so soon after that. There’s still a lot of questions I want to ask her, but…”

Silence. Then, Evelyn spoke in a quieter voice, nearly defeated.

“I don’t know what to do, Cody.”

Neither did he.

He wanted to offer words of comfort, something that would kick them both into gear to prepare for whatever they were dealing with.

Instead, his power floated to the surface, and he heard phantom sounds.

The sound of echoing sighs and pencil scribbles swirled in his mind, and suddenly he knew the exact right words, or at least the right words to start.

The right words to break her.

A sentence, half-formed and struggling, rose to the surface of his thoughts.

‘Well that’s just great,” It whispered. ‘I know who you are, Evelyn. Maybe right now isn’t a good time to bring this up, but why not? Maybe if you actually did something different, we wouldn’t be here right now. Maybe-’

Then with as much hidden fury as he could muster, He stuffed his power down.

Fuck. Fuck. wasn’t using it in town supposed to be...harder? Sort of? And now it was gasping for air, resurfacing against his friend.

Something else to worry about. Later.

Cody leaned for a tiny amount, whispering to distract himself. “Russ? You alright?”

He got a groan in response, and Cody let himself smile. Well, Russ was alive. Now onto the final question of the hour, that being what exactly they were fighting against.

Cody stood, offering his arm to Evelyn and speaking up as she took it. “I’m gonna be honest. This is hell of a lot to take in, about Beatrice. Not calling you a liar, far from it, it’s just her powers-”

“I know,” Evelyn quickly interrupted, voice tense. “Seems there’s a lot of things we just don’t know. All crashing down on us, at the worst possible time.”

He waited for her to elaborate. She didn’t, and he was left with a choice.

He could gather, somewhat, that they were attacked. But why? And why now, of all times? Was it someone he hurt? One of Dana or Russel’s enemies? They tended to get around, and maybe someone was trying something?

“...Evie? What happened?”

She didn’t answer for so long that he almost made himself ask again.

The answer she gave, after what seemed like an eternity, was so much worse than any he could think of.

“The Slaughterhouse Nine.”

He paused.

In that moment, he was suddenly aware of just how fast his heart was beating, how the slow maelstrom of panic and fear was beginning to bubble up and threatening to spillover.

“Like…”

“Jack Slash. Siberian. The...the rest.”

“Oh.”

Words escaped him, and thoughts barely formed. He didn’t know exactly what to say. More surprisingly, he didn’t know exactly what to feel.

The Nine were in town, and everything was worse now.

They promised pain. More than pain, they promised death and blood and gleeful satisfaction in ruining a life. In watching a person bend until they broke, then doing it all over again.

The Nine lived for ruining lives. And he couldn’t understand why.

It wasn’t like he was innocent. He owed debts, paid for in the indirect ruination of lives he didn’t let himself wonder about. He was directed, here or there, to twist a person’s resolve into a quiet defeat. To sap their very drive to succeed from their core, leaving them husks. A stark reminder, he felt, of what and who he was.

The Elite would wring every ounce of power they could from him, until he paid them back. But he didn’t enjoy that.

In the back of his mind, he knew he was distracting himself. The Nine were in town, ready to take everything they could.

And all he could feel was that quiet, ever growing resignation that he had grown used to. They were going to die, at least some of them. And there wasn’t much they could do about it.

Cody said the first thing that came to his mind, in a strained mutter.

“...Where the hell are my shades?”

Evelyn huffed out a laugh, and Cody felt one surfacing too. “Y-Your ’shades?”

“What? I liked them, Evie!”

What he said wasn’t particularly funny in his opinion, but her huff of a laugh turned into something full and light, and Cody felt he had no choice but to join. They stood there in the ‘lab’, laughing more and more until they were both out of breath, manic and energized.

The shadow of The Nine was looming outside their door, but Cody thought they deserved to laugh a bit more, if nothing else.

“Cody, I’ll just make you new glasses.”

“Yeah, but it just wouldn’t be the same. Named them Clementine, y’know, just because-”

He was interrupted by Eveline loudly proclaiming she was going to show him the rest of the lab, laughter in her voice. Cody only shrugged, an easy smile returning to his face.

He was sure he wouldn’t be able to smile in the hours and days to come.

As Evelyn led him to the stairs, she described a larger white room below them with more beds, dozens or piles of scrap metal and empty notebooks littering the floor. Cody tried his best to listen as she recounted what he asked for, but eventually he found himself drifting off again.

Evelyn, of course, led him to a bed and tucked him in.

“Get some rest,” she whispered. “Then...we can figure out what to do. Find the others. Find Dana, Hector, and Beatrice. Then…”

She fell to silence, and Cody gave her a smile.

“They’ll be okay, Evie.”

They both knew he couldn’t promise something like that. He liked to think it made them both feel better, though.

Somehow, he found sleep once she left. He only hoped his usual nightmares wouldn’t find him again.

========================================

He awoke to a crash.

Bleary and wide-eyed, his mind flashed back to the nightmare as he whimpered. A scream, small and tiny, before being silenced. He could reach it now, if he tried. He’d succeed this time, he would-

No.

He was safe. Or more accurately, he wasn’t there anymore. The past was the past, and he was more than glad to leave it there.

Instead, he listened.

The room was silent, save for the shallow, near distant breathing of someone else inside of it. He strained to deduce it, but was saved from doing so by a cough, and a voice.

“Uh?...”

Russel. Maybe?

“Russel?” he whispered, “Is that you? Did you hear that?”

A beat, followed by a pained groan. “It's...It’s Russel. Can’t...jesus, can’t fucking move. Everything hurts. Lights are swimming…”

He had no idea what that last part meant. Unfortunately, he didn’t get the chance to ask as another crash sounded from above, followed by a distant cry of pain.

It sounded too much like Evelyn for him to ignore.

His blood burned, and he whipped his legs over the side of the bed. He paused, sighing once.

He could only hope his power did something good.

“Russ, stay here. I’m gonna try and check that out. It’s Evelyn.”

A groan laced with concern sounded out, and Russel spoke again. “Evelyn?...I’m, I’m coming with you. I can walk, I just-”

“You can’t. You need to stay here. Rest.”

“I have to protect you guys. Fuck, I have to save you. I have to save them.”

“You’ll only be getting yourself hurt. Please, for once Russ. Give this time.”

Russel didn’t answer for a moment, and as Cody pushed himself to his feet, he heard him one last time.

“These fucking lights…”

He heard Russel’s breathing steady, and he let out a relieved breath of his own. He wasn’t sure he could handle the idea of Russel being hurt. The very idea of it gave them all pause.

No more distractions, it was now or never. No matter how much he wanted to be anywhere else.

Using Evelyn’s still barely remembered ideas of direction and layout, Cody made his way to the stairway and leaned on the wall, doing his best to ascend the stairs as quietly as possible. The crashes became less frequent as he went, before worryingly coming to a complete and utter stop. He paused only once before he forced himself up.

As he got to the lab and stepped inside, he heard the shifting and sliding of muted glass. He stopped completely when he heard what he assumed to be Evelyn’s voice closer to him now, reedy and weak.

“Evie?” he called, his own voice feeling impossibly small. He willed himself to be silent once any response he could get was overtaken by the voice of another woman with a strange english accent.

“You didn’t tell me,” it began, quietly smug. “That you had guests. He looks lost, doesn’t he?”

Unfamiliar. Dangerous, with an edge of sadistic curiosity. Muted, as if behind a wall. But apparently, she could still see him?

“Who are you,” he tried. “You-”

“Cody,” a voice interrupted. He paused in recognition, letting Evelyn speak. “It’s Shatterbird. She’s here.”

Oh.

“Oh,” he responded. Suddenly feeling very small. He clenched his hands into fists, and tried to steel his nerves. He wasn’t surprised when he failed.

“Then you’re…”

“Shatterbird. There’s a quote I can’t quite reach right now, that describes this situation perfectly. Would you like to try and guess what it is? No? Too bad.”

That was it.

He was going to die. Alone with Evelyn and Russel, with nobody else to help them. Was there peace in that kind of death? Knowing it was inevitable? He didn’t know. He didn’t want to.

Something still confused him, though. And he used all of his willpower to voice it.

“You’re...you’re not attacking us. Why?”

He heard a laugh. “Oh. I’m trying, don’t worry. But your little friend here is doing everything she can to keep her barrier up. To protect you I imagine. And someone else?”

“I-”
“Just thought of the quote,” she interrupted. “Beware; for I am fearless, and therefore powerful. And I think it’s fair to say fear is the furthest thing from my mind right now. Maybe interest? Curiosity? Don’t worry, we’re not allowed to kill you just yet. But it will be made that much sweeter when we do. When we hunt you down and flay you, from toe to scalp.”

Cody controlled his breathing, unsure as to why. His mother told him once, after his dad died, that everyone thought they were prepared for death until they opened the door and it stood there in front of them. He hadn’t given it much thought, at the time.

Now, he knew exactly what she meant. He couldn’t find the words.

But his power could.

Fuck it. Fuck it. He had her voice now. He’d never forgive himself if he did nothing.

“You,” he began, faltering for only a moment, “Need to think very hard about why you’re here.”

That was met with silence. Then, with a laugh. Equal parts amused and disbelieving, as if the fact that he spoke up again at all blindsided her. “That’s interesting. You think you have something to say?”

In a way, it blindsided him to. If he had the option, he’d hide and pray that the nine would leave. Eventually. He didn’t have that option when Russ and Evie were on the line. He just didn’t. He had to do what he did best.

So, he pushed a faltering and meek voice between his lips, and let the phantom sounds her voice gave him guide him.

A frustrated scream echoed through his mind, interlaced with whispers, crying, and shifting sands. He let the words come to him as he listened. “It's just an observation. Something of a scholar myself, I think.”

He wasn’t. Not at all. But he wasn’t going to second-guess his power now.

Silence, and then a hum. “You are, are you?”

“It’s a passion of mine, truth be told. We all need hobbies.”

That almost got a laugh out of him. Calling him a ‘scholar’ was a bit of a stretch. Still, listening to the sounds always brought the best results. Most of the time.

“It’s good to know someone in this town has taste. Well, from one Scholar to another, I think I can give you a bit of knowledge before you die.”

Evelyn whispered, quiet and exhausted. “Cody…”

“It’s fine. I’m okay.”

Evelyn sighed, and the silence returned. A moment passed before Shatterbird spoke again, and he prepared himself.

Now or never.

“I thought I was satisfied,” she began, humor creeping into her voice. “With running around and tearing apart every town and city we could get to. It was fun. But I only realized what we were missing after our plans were changed. For the better.”

“For the better?”

“What we did was crass. A good starting point, but we were never going to reach the finish line if we didn’t push ourselves to run. You visit a town, you leave an impact, but then they recover. If someone can walk away after you do your best to hurt them, then you haven’t hurt them at all.”

The sounds of muttered fear swirled around his mind like a maelstrom, coupled with the rustle of turned pages and hushed whispers. Words formed and he winced.

“You want to be remembered?”

He imagines that she’s smiling as she speaks again, clearly proud. “Who doesn’t?”

“You won’t be. Not here.”

She sighs, perhaps disappointed. “And what makes you so sure?”

The words come faster now, wrapped in mutterings and resentment. “Think about it, for just a second. If you want to be remembered, you have to have vision. You have that, of course. But you don’t have a method. Trust me, I’d know.”

“Method?”

“There,” Cody continued, swallowing before pushing his voice out again, “are capes more powerful than you. More powerful than most of the hang-arounds in your group. Most of you guys aren’t invincible, not even your leader is. What makes you think that, at some point, someone’s not going to get tired of you and just wipe you all out?”

“People have tried. They failed.”

“Sure. But they always get some of you, every time. Who’s to say you’re not next? After that, you’ll be a footnote. And you are a footnote, really. You...you strike me as someone who thinks very highly of what they do. But I’m not impressed so far.”

She didn’t answer, and he went on the attack. “I follow anything I can find on your group when I can. Want to know something I’ve noticed? Whenever people talk about, say, Jack or The Siberian or Crawler, there’s that quiet fear in their voices that’s obvious, if you listen. I don’t hear that same fear when people speak about you.”

“I think you just don’t know how to listen,” she responded almost sweetly. “You know, I’ve decided: I’m going to make your death that much slower, when I get my hands on you. You’re lucky we can’t touch you, yet. But Jack knows how to bide his time so the moment is that much sweeter.”

He wanted to throw up.

It was a fact now; Shatterbird wanted to kill him, of all people. His power would do jack and shit if he wanted to talk his way out of it. If he begged, if he pleaded, he’d have to fall back on his own words. Not an option.

Nowhere to go but down.

“Hm,” he hummed, letting his power guide him. “That’s curious.”

“What?”

“Jack knows. But I’m guessing you don’t.”

“You and I both know that’s not what I meant. You’re reaching very, very far to come to that conclusion. You’re scared, aren’t you? Trying to act tough as a last moment of defiance?”

He was. More than anything, he was terrified.

“Scared? Not at the moment, not really.”

“I find that hard to believe.”

“Believe what you want. I’d be scared of you if you gave me something to be afraid of.”

“You say you follow what we do. You should know, then, what I do to people. Your skin will be flayed just as easily as anyone else's.”

“That,” he countered, fighting as hard as he could to stop his voice from wavering, “Is something anyone could do. Hell, it looks like you’re repeating yourself, too.”

“Not like we do,” she responded, with no humor in her voice now.

“There it is again. We. Why not ‘I’? Why not you?”

“That-”

“I went over a few things,” he interrupted. “Histories I could piece together. Of all of you. It was fun, seeing how hard some of you went to bury your pasts. People like Mannequin didn’t try very hard. Jack himself? Well, I don’t really...have a clue. But you…”

He found a twisted humor in the fact that his power wanted him to pause. As if for dramatic effect.

Shatterbird didn’t interrupt.

“The Emirates. This huge mess of glass and sand in Dubai made the news a few years back. Took me a bit to connect the dots, but once I did I only had one question; what made you decide to come all the way here?”

Shatterbird didn’t interrupt.

“You dig deep. Like a maggot in desperate search of a way to keep itself alive.”

“Sure. Call it what you’d like. Doesn’t change the fact-”

“You know,” she responded. Her voice was outwardly level, but he could hear a waver or two. “You know, about my past.”

“It took me a while to find, if it’s any consolation.”

He was met with silence. The pained breathing of Evelyn and the agitated shifting of glass combined into an unnerving chorus.

Then, Shatterbird spoke with renewed vigor. So upbeat and outwardly confident that he was afraid his power hadn’t worked. It, in turn, assured him that it did. All he would need was more words.

‘How many more,’ he thought to himself, ‘until I can finally fucking pretend you don’t exist?’

“You know,” Shatterbird spoke, her voice rising in volume. “So what?”

“What do you mean?”

“Getting my powers made me stronger. Smarter. It took me some time, but I finally knew what I wanted to do. Anyone else would be broken, a shadow of their former self. I burn all the brighter.”

“You haven't convinced me.”

“Because you’re too dull to realize what a mistake it was to dig that deep.”

“Or maybe I’m getting too close to something you don’t want to think about, and this is your way of coping.”

“And what makes you think I-” a pause, then a shuddering breath. “Ah. I see what you’re trying to do to me. Manipulation and poisoned words. You think I haven’t dealt with that before?”

“I know you have. I’d be surprised if you didn’t. Doesn’t mean I’m wrong, does it?”

When she didn’t answer, Cody had to stop himself from breathing a huge sigh of relief. Instead, he continued. He was almost there.

“People remember The Nine, because most The Nine go out of their way to make sure they’re remembered. People Remember Jack Slash. The Siberian. Hell, even that new one? Cherish. They’re not going to remember someone who’s a follower, a parasite. Someone like you.”

“And you’re better? Living in some no-name town with a bunch of backwater morons?”

That was anger in her voice, real anger. He was getting closer, and staying silent wouldn’t stop his power from working on her now.

He didn’t dare let himself feel optimistic. The only thing keeping her from leaving outright was his power, good at giving his words weight and keeping someone's focus on him. And even that wouldn’t stop her for long if she really wanted to go, if she thought too long about it. It just made engaging with him seem like an easier choice. A simpler one. So he had to keep the conversation going.

And yet, nothing about this was simple. And if he fucked up, things would become a hell of a lot more complicated.

“Never said I was better. I like my life. It’s simple, it’s quiet, and sometimes that’s all you need. I don’t have the mettle to try and achieve something like what you want. Neither do you, actually, but the difference between us is that you tell yourself you do. That you’re meant for great things.”

He let himself smile, now.

“There’s nothing great about what you’re doing, and know that. Others have done it before, better than you have. So I guess I just don’t understand why a parody of a person like you is trying so hard.”

One last sentence, already forming. Then-

A twisted shriek of metal and a scream from downstairs cut through his thoughts.

Russel’s scream.

Cody gasped, and he heard Shatterbird let out a late chuckle. Russel’s voice faded, screaming and shouting the entire way. And he was stuck. He was fucking stuck.

“What,” he tried, tired panic rising as his power slipped from his grasp. “What did-”

“A friend of mine,” she hissed, eagerness slipping through obvious frustration. “Tore down the walls of your little hole. And we’ve gotten what we’ve come for. Isn’t that lovely?”

“You-”

“We,” she interrupted again, practically singing the word. “Didn’t come here to kill you. Far from it in fact. It was made very clear that his friends would be the last to die, before we tore him apart. That means you get to see another sunrise.”

He forced himself to think. Things, people, that could carve through a wall as easily as the thing downstairs had. Only a few things could do that, when it came to The Nine. None of the answers were good.

He failed. Again.

Evelyn wasn’t moving next to him, more than likely keeping up the barrier that was saving their asses. He wasn’t moving because he could never, ever, escape from who he was. A failure, through and through.

Evelyn whimpered, and he couldn’t even reach out a hand. He could only stand still.

“You call yourself a scholar, but you’re somehow dumb enough to think I’d let you get away with whatever you just did. I won’t. I don’t think I need to tell you what’s coming.”

No. He couldn’t let things end like this. Not here. He had to do something. Speak. Words. They came too slowly to matter, and the sounds Shatterbird gave were now muddled. Undefined.

He couldn’t let things end like this.

But, really, what the fuck did he think he was going to do?

“I’ll be seeing you again, maggot.”

Shatterbirds footsteps faded as she walked away from them, before they disappeared altogether. Minutes later, he heard Evelyn fall to the floor and wheeze. He stood still, unable to bring himself to do anything.

And that was the problem, wasn’t it?

Cody could try all he wanted. He was used to that. He had been trying, ever since he was a kid. And he always found a way to fuck it up. His parents had told him so right up until one of them died, and they tried their best to forget he existed.

Russel was gone. He and Evie were alone, and he had no idea where the rest of his friends were. He didn’t dare say a word.

He always failed. And he thought he was okay with that. So why did he think things were finally going to be different?

Chapter Text

She could do nothing but think.

Her memories were a jumbled pile of shit and questions. A mother, with dark hair and a raised hand. Another with blonde hair and a warm smile. Two fathers, no friends and all the friends in the world. Hatred and love, sadness and fear.

There was nothing about them that appealed to her. Even living in the moment was a nightmare. She watched as a little girl in a forest green dress stared at a picture in an isolated workshop, a drawing of a tiny girl and two taller figures with faces scribbled out. The picture was crumpled in a shaking fist, thrown against a wall and forgotten.

She couldn’t feel bad. The little girl was a monster. And she would do anything the little girl asked.

Still, the rush of blood and her fingers passing through flesh made it easy to daydream. Being in the town only made it easier. So they dreamed of a new life. Of watching a movie with a smile, their hand intertwined with someone else's. Of a walk through a park, their eyes turned to the sky. Of a dark and deep place, with no light and no sound, only sleep.

She wondered if she wanted to die. She wondered if wanting to sleep forever was the same thing.

Her daydreams were a net to keep her thoughts inside her head, and even then sometimes they didn’t work. Sometimes, when passing through bodies, she couldn’t think of anything at all. Sometimes she was just a monster too. But at least she was better than the little girl. There was guilt, at the end of it all.

The daydreams didn’t always work, but in the end it was all she had. And as the little girl began to cry, she wondered if all she needed were daydreams of her own.

Sometimes, however, the thoughts became too much.

She would think about how, in the end, the entirety of her existence was a joke. She didn’t know how, but it was. She would think about how much she hated herself, and the world around her for letting any of this happen. 

Sometimes she would beg, scream, for someone to save her. Or kill her. Both and neither. Nobody could listen to a thing with no words.

When the thoughts became too much, she would stop dreaming. Then the blood will fill her mind and her eyes and her mouth and she wouldn’t have to think anymore.

Then she’d do it all over again, because what else could she do?

Murder Rat licked her fingers, crouched in a corner and huffing. The blood would need to come back, sooner or later. 

========================================

Bee promised them safety, and Sam regretted ever doubting that she would deliver. 

The problem came in the form that ‘safety’ took.

The room she led them to was a strange cross between a shelter and a lab, a massive space filled with strange tinker-like creations and a singular giant drone that floated silently above them, all sleek metal and low buzzing. Sam watched It blink with pink and green lights from a catwalk near the ceiling, an eye-like camera attached to its front following the moves of everyone inside.

The lab itself was bathed in a warm and faint salmon light, and Sam couldn’t help but feel calm under its glow. They didn’t know how they managed to feel anything but a quiet creeping panic, but that was something they could think about after everything was sorted. Or, hopefully, something to not think about at all.

But nothing else was more eye-catching than the people. 

The room was packed with them, and Sam watched them all murmuring and whispering to themselves as they meandered around the lab. Two-hundred, maybe three-hundred people all terrified and lost. Depending on Bee. Some of them seem just as confused about that as Sam was.

But watching them was something to do. And Sam felt like it was a good way to nurture a distraction from the argument happening right next to their ear.

The argument, however, demanded to be heard.

“-All this? This is a lab, Beatrice. Full mad scientist shit. What, did String Theory owe you a favor?”

“I-”

“And don’t think I forgot about that weird pink thing you did. What was that? Why hide that from us?”

“I wasn’t hiding it.”

“You weren’t? So when were you gonna tell us you could do that?”

“I don’t know, okay?!”

Sam wasn’t good at this.

They tried to be, sometimes. The argument between Russel and Mathew wasn’t as bad as it could have been, and they figured they should be thankful for that. Defusing the situation was normal at that point, and watching the both of them tear into each other was expected. Not a surprise.

But Graf arguing with Bee? Mathew trying and failing to chime in? That was an entirely different, annoying animal.

One they’d have to get in the way of. Again.

“Guys.”

Sam was, admittedly, a bit surprised when the both of them stopped, turning and giving them a look. The anger was still there on Graf’s face, as well as the shame on Bee’s, but the silence already felt much better than the noise.

Now all that needed to be discussed was the giant, murderous elephant in the room.

“Just…” Sam started, rolling the words around in their head before pushing on. “What do we do? Seriously?”

Nobody answered right away, and Sam was almost thankful for that. The very idea of discussing such a daunting amount of bullshit, trying to put it into workable terms, was laughable.

Graf sighed, taking a deep breath before taking on their usual tone. “First things first, I guess. Bee? How is everyone else?”

Bee frowned, focusing on a strange touch screen on her arm and fiddling with it. “I...um, I don’t know. I had one of my drones lead them to...to somewhere safe. Then one of those spider things tore it apart while I was using it to look for survivors. I actually just sent another one out now, but they should be okay.”

“Fine. Alright. So that’s Cody, Russ, and Ev?”

“I-yeah. That’s everyone.”

Mathew shook his head. “Except for Hector. And Dana. And all the other people still running around in town. Probably scared out of their fucking minds, too. I know I would be. It-”

Yeah, that was enough.

“Mathew,” Sam interjected sullenly. “Can we keep the optimism going? Please?”

Mathew looked like he wanted to argue, for just a second. Then a second passed, and he suddenly looked tired. “Was just saying. We still need to find them.”

“We don’t.”

All eyes turned to Beatrice as she interjected, and Sam watched her peer over the railing with sunken eyes. Before anything else could be said, she continued. “I know where Hector and Dana are.”

“So where would that be?” Graf insisted, stepping closer. “Because we really don’t have time to be sitting on our asses if you have all the answers.”

“I have drones still looking for survivors,” Beatrice responded, her voice quiet. “It’s just...It’s taking a bit, but I’m still finding some. My drones are leading them through places the spiders or the nine aren’t. Or at least I think so-”

“You think?” Graf interrupted.

Sam, too distracted to do anything else, shot Graf a look. Graf noticed, and was quelled with a mumble.

Beatrice continued, her voice even smaller than before. “They’re being led to places the nine aren’t. Which...which means I know where they are. Right now.”

That, undeniably, was good news. Sam watched Mathew perk up, as well as Graf’s sour expression soften just a bit. Offering a smile, Sam tilted their head and nodded. “And where would that be?”

“The Gallagher history museum.”

“And the nine are there?”

“Most of them. I don’t see Siberian, or Shatterbird. But...yeah. Most of them.”

A heavy pause was, seemingly, the only response anyone could think to give.

Idly, Sam figured something like that would be the case. Memories of visiting the place with Hector and Bee weren’t too faded, and Sam figured the museum itself would always stay a reminder of simpler times once they got older. 

And now it was being used, and as angry as Sam was about that, they found themselves even angrier about the fact that the nine would worm their way into every single memory. That, in the end, they’d tear anything even remotely quiet and peaceful out by its roots. It was what they did. The museum was just another corpse to add to the pile.

A part of Sam badly wanted to voice those quiet worries. Instead, they nodded again. “Thanks, Bee.”

Graf huffed, turning away. “Yeah. Sure. The only problem is we still need to go help them, don’t we? And that’s going to be a problem. Because right now there’s four of us, and...how many are over at the museum, Beatrice?”

“Seven.”

“Seven? Aren’t there-”

“There’s a...well. There’s a weird monster they have with them. A woman, probably a new member. I heard...I heard Bonesaw calling it ‘Murder Rat’, I think.”

Mathew smirked, looking over to Sam. “Guess these assholes don’t get any cool-points, huh? If we want to talk about lazy names, that’s a real good contender.”

"Except that's not what we're talking about," Graf murmured. "We're talking about saving our friends. Find some focus, Mathew."

As expected, Graf's words didn't help. Sam watched as Mathew's expression turned sour, yet the unmistakable note of hurt they say was far more troubling. "It's a joke, Graf. I'm lightening the mood."

"I'm not laughing."

“Good for you. Maybe that’s how I’m coping. What, do you think I’m not scared? That-”

“Stop,” Graf interrupted, “that’s not what I’m saying. You know it’s not. I know you Mathew, so I know exactly how you act when things aren’t going your way. But we really, really, don’t have time for jokes, or shit like that, not when we need a fucking plan. And we especially…”

Graf trailed off, and for a moment Sam was prepared to step in again. Instead, they only tried to keep the pity out of their stare as Graf slid to the ground with their back against the wall, letting exhaustion finally seep into their bones. “And we especially don’t have time to be dicks. I’m sorry, Beatrice. And I’m sorry, Mathew.”

Mathew only scowled, while Bee attempted a smile. “I-It’s fine-”

“It’s not. I’ll find a better way to apologize to you two later. I promise. But I do mean it when I say we need a plan. Now.”

Mathew shrugged his shoulders, his voice notably flat. “We don’t have a lot of options. We can’t exactly wait for them to leave; they could be holed up in there for the rest of their extended vacation. We take the fight to them, we’ll probably die. We can’t exactly get the others to help us right now either, too much time and too much risk. So what the fuck do we do?”

Then it clicked. Sam gasped, then felt their excitement get ahead of them as they snapped their fingers. “Ah! Wait, we don’t...fuck, okay...I have a plan.”

Nobody responded, and it took Sam a moment to realize they were waiting for an explanation. “Ah, sorry. So why even fight them directly, anyway? Maybe all we need is a distraction. Someone lures them out, and someone goes in and just...well, you get the idea.”

Bee’s eyes widened, before suddenly growing downcast. “And that someone...that would be you, wouldn’t it?”

Sam didn’t miss the expressions on everyone else's faces either, all hosting a strange mixture of hope and worry. For just a moment, Sam understood exactly what they were all thinking, and in that same moment the feeling was mutual.

But what else could they do? What other option did they have?

“My power is the best choice for this,” Sam replied evenly, stepping closer and closer to Bee until they were barely an arm’s length away. “I can get them out, you know I can. Nobody’s going to see me.”

“But what if they do?” Bee shot back. “What if they get you? And what if…”

Bee took a deep breath, and it was the only sign Sam needed to step in and wrap their arms around her in a hug. They felt their shoulder grow wet with each passing second, and they couldn’t help but smile. 

“What if I never see you again?” Beatrice finished, her voice muffled through fabric. “I hate that. I hate all of this.”

“I know,” they replied, a hand finding the top of her head. They looked over to Graf and Mathew, both giving the particular scene differing levels of attention. Graf cleared her throat, quickly walking over and wrapping an arm around the two of them.

“It fucking sucks,” Graf agreed, nodding once. “But we have to fight. We don’t have a choice anymore.”

At that, Sam watched her turn a low glare to Mathew. As much as he tried to resist, only a few seconds were needed until Mathew clicked his tongue and stood up, joining in on the hug itself. Sam took as much comfort in the warmth as they could, and they gave a shaky squeeze.

The hug couldn’t last. 

Not when they needed every second they could get. Idly, Sam realized it was probably selfish that they were taking this much time at all.

Or maybe it was the one thing they needed to find some precious few seconds of bravery.

There was no way to tell, and maybe there wasn’t a need to.

Mathew was the first to step back, his expression uncharacteristically serious. “So. We go for a distraction, and Sam does their James Bond shit. Sounds like a plan to me.”

Graf stepped back too, nodding and looking at Beatrice. “Can you lead us there?”

“...Yeah. I can.”

“Then we’re ready,” Graf responded, looking over at the people below. “It’s probably a good idea to tell them to stay here.”

The scraps of the conversation continued, but Sam felt their mind wander away. How was anyone supposed to know if they were ready for anything?

How was anyone supposed to know if it was just a lie to keep the worries away?

Ready for a new chapter. Ready to leave a life behind. Ready to leave friends behind.

Ready to die.

But maybe it didn’t matter as much, all things considered. It was settled; they all had a plan and they all had the means to pull it off.

Now, all Sam could do was hope it didn’t fall apart too quickly.

========================================

The streets, twisted and shattered, reminded Sam too much of a broken body. A red sky watched them from above, staring down as they stalked through the streets. Graf, Beatrice, and Mathew were a ways away, not too close and not too far. They had to be, for the plan to work.

Sam gripped their borrowed bowie knife tighter. The irony of relying on a weapon to stay alive didn’t escape them, neither did the fact that using it made them feel sick. The need to defend themselves and their friends was clear cut, sure, but that didn’t make the knife feel any less like a bloodied weight, sans the blood.

What a joke.

“There,” Mathew whispered through the earpiece. “See em?”

Unfortunately, they did.

Sam watched the feed through the drone's camera, taking note of Jack and Bonesaw sitting on the steps leading up to the museum, joined by both Mannequin standing stock still and Cherish laying on her back near the entrance. Burnscar sitting so far away from the rest of them, her body closed off, was quickly overshadowed by the fact that Crawler had apparently escaped the light.

Another fucking problem. Another obstacle they had to ignore, because what else were they going to do? Leave?

Not now.

A little bit of luck fell through the cracks as Sam noticed that they were all mostly relaxed, all waiting for something that there was no time to puzzle out.

Yeah,” Graf whispered back. “I do. Remember the plan?

“Sure,” Mathew responded. “Just wish we could end this now.”

We can't,” Graf and Beatrice whispered back, one more harsh than the other. After a period of tense silence, Graf spoke again. “Not like how you’re thinking. We have to stick to what we have.

“I know, alright? I know. I was mostly joking anyway.”

“I’d appreciate that more if we didn’t only have one chance to do this shit. No distractions, Mathew. Please.”

Sam watched the nine, only half listening to their friends. Instead, their attention was captured by Jack and Bonesaw walking inside the museum, leaving the rest to their own devices.

-Using my ghost shit. I’m really only gonna be able to knock them off balance,” Mathew continued as Sam tuned back in.

Graf hummed, and Sam imagined she was probably nodding. “That’s fine. More than fine, actually. I’m going to be doing most of the heavy lifting. You and Bee are going to be support.”

“Sure.”

“I can do that,” Bee chimed in. “I-”

“Don’t mean to interrupt,” Sam began with a curse, skulking along the ground before finding themselves behind an overturned car. “But Jack and Bonesaw are in the museum. If you’re going to do something, you have to do it now.”

No immediate response came, and for a second Sam was worried they weren’t being heard.

That worry quickly fell away when a distant car flew through the air, aimed right towards Mannequin. It didn’t matter so much that it collided with Crawler instead, earning a monstrous laugh and panicked curses from some of the other nine. It was a distraction.

It was time. 

Sam watched as Graf, now a gigantic and snarling combination between a wolf and a bear, threw two more cars at the remaining nine. Crawler, Mannequin, and ‘Murder Rat’ barreled towards her, all with varying degrees of speed and excitement. Burnscar stayed behind, lobbing fireballs with a stony expression. Strangely enough, Cherish seemed more panicked than anything.

Sam waited for Jack and Bonesaw to make an appearance. For ten seconds, then fifteen, then a full thirty. Neither decided to come out.

No time to waste. They’d just have to keep out of sight.

They cautiously let their power expand.

A gaseous cloud the color of the night sky and visible only to Sam sprang to life around them before slowly flowing outward, expanding more and more until it agonizingly covered the distance of a city block, horizontally at least. It only went up ten feet above them, at any given time. That was the limits of their range, and as much as they practiced there wasn’t anything they could do about that.

It didn’t matter so much, because they could see.

Maybe seeing was the wrong word, and the more Sam thought about it, it was definitely the wrong word. They just became aware, vaguely, of where they were going. Their power would tell them if a wall was in the way, or if they would be seen. General layout and room contents were, of course, much harder to grasp, becoming easier to discern the closer they were to their destination.

But all they needed was a good spot. Sam focused, and their cloud told them of an empty space within the museum, prying eyes seemingly nowhere near. So with a deep breath, they mentally ‘jumped’-

-And suddenly, they were inside.

Sam failed to hold in a quiet gasp, stumbling as they tried to recapture a quickly fleeing balance. “You need to visualize, Sam,” they muttered, shaking their head. Whenever they teleported, they could be in any position they could think of. Standing, sitting, they could even be running if they put their mind to it.

It was just something that Sam, even after all this time, never got used to doing. Teleporting around would have also been preferable to walking, but their power always and would always need to recharge right after using it.

But there was almost definitely a better time to lament about the intricacies of their power. They looked around, finding themselves in a simple room and ready to find a bloodbath.

Instead, the inside seemed surprisingly dull.

The inside of the museum wasn’t filled with bloodshed and sorrow. Instead, it was only a bit messy. Some of the exhibits were missing, and a lot of the glass was smashed, but otherwise there was nothing to write home about. There was some blood here and there, but only in the form of small dots. A far cry from the pools of red they expected. 

And, most worrying of all, it was quiet.

If not for the roar of fighting outside, now distant and muffled, Sam was sure that not a sound would make itself known. Of course, that was a bad sign, one they couldn’t ignore but one they had to. A nightmare made manifest. 

All of a sudden, Sam wanted to run. To jump away and start a new life, just one more time.

Instead, they took a step forward. Then another, and another, until they were shuffling through the museum, doing their absolute best to listen. With every step, their confidence somehow remained, and their fears faded to a low drone.

Hector and Dana were more important than fear. More important than caution, even. 

And yet, as Sam made their way through, they began to wonder if caution was even warranted.

With every room they peered into, they only found more and more nothing. The fighting outside seemed to move away, to shift, until the silence was their only companion. An errant groan or creak of the museum's foundation prompted Sam to release their cloud immediately the first few times, but every time after that the cloud came out slower and slower, until Sam stopped letting it loose at all. 

They were getting nowhere. They were worried, and they were bored. It was a bad combination, but what else could they do?

Then they paused.

Bored. How the fuck could they be bored? Jack Slash and Bonesaw were somewhere inside, waiting, and they themselves somehow found the time to be nonchalant about it.

It wasn't like they didn't feel the ever-expanding creep of fear, it was more so as if it just couldn't reach them. And the quiet didn't help.

Sam took the time to gaze up at a skylight, the evening sun just barely visible against the red of the sky. As they focused inward, an almost overwhelming sense of peace and calm made itself known, just underneath the surface. Bizarrely, they wanted to smile.

They heard a shift, nearly silent.

Nearly.

Bee's salmon light flashed through their mind, and Sam took a deep breath. Then, pushing through pleasant feelings, they drew their knife and slashed wildly behind themselves.

On another day, another time, Sam would have felt pride. Happy that they knew a trap when they saw one, even as they felt shame for falling into one in the first place. Determination would flow seamlessly into blood, into rage, and they’d be able to rid the world of one more nightmare.

But their knife found empty air. Their neck opened up to a sharp pain, debilitating enough to make them stagger but not enough to make them stop. They whirled around again, and their eyes widened.

A little girl, riding atop a cherry red monstrosity, and holding an oversized needle in her hand. Her hair was long and unkempt, messy, the gold falling over the forest green of a doll-like dress. Worst of all, worryingly enough, she looked almost bored. 

Caught by Bonesaw, at the worst of times. Sam took a step back, and another one, before they felt themselves collapse. It was only moments later when they realized they couldn’t move.

They couldn’t move?

They couldn’t move.

Sam willed their arm, their leg, anything to shift as they stared up at the ceiling, blinking agonizingly slow as they heard a sigh. A number of sharp clicks sounded out, trailed by slurred giggles.

The sky-blue of a hawaiian shirt entered their line of sight. The ponytail was unexpected, as well as the longsword carried lazily over one shoulder., but there was no mistaking the smile. Jack fucking slash.

It wasn’t fair.

“You can’t move,” Bonesaw began, stepping off of the monster and out of sight, humming. “I wonder how you got in, though! But also, why? Are you friends with Blacklight?”

“I’m not sure it matters so much,” Jack mused, joining in squatting in front of them. “Your friends aren’t coming now, aren’t they?”

Sam couldn’t respond. Even if they weren’t paralyzed already, they were sure words would absolutely fail them. Jack seemed only to grow annoyed by that fact, tutting before turning to Bonesaw. “I really wish you would have made that concoction of yours a bit differently. I’m interested in hearing what they have to say.”

“Sorry. I don’t know. It was hard to make.”

“Ah. Still having that inspiration issue?”

“I am,” Bonesaw replied, a hint of frustration seeping into the natural giggle of her voice. “It was the best I could do on such short notice. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

“We all stumble on a stone in the road, sooner or later. What matters is how you respond.”

Sam, despite their own panic, didn’t miss the irony in Bonesaw not responding right away. Jack apparently didn’t either, and his own smile fell into a thin line as he stood up. “I responded,” he continued, the sword leaving his shoulder and gently resting on Sam’s neck, “with a change of pace. It’s not easy admitting that you’re running out of steam, and even when you’re having fun there’s going to be a time when you have to confront a question.”

“I know.”

“I know you know,” Jack fired back quickly. “But in the end, it’s such a useless question, isn’t it? You ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’, but the answer is right there in front of you. Because it’s fun. Because it makes sense, and because there’s a point to make.”

The sword pressed down, and Sam wanted to whimper. Maybe the fear was apparent in their eyes, because Jack smiled. “And you’re going to help me make that point, little bug. Won’t that be fun?”

Sam waited for the dark. They tried to be proud of themselves. In the end, they had gotten so far, hadn’t they? Someone else, someone smarter, would do the same thing and they’d actually get to Hector and Dana.

But walking a million miles and collapsing before the finish line only felt insulting. So Sam waited for the dark, and they did their best to feel nothing. It was the last bit of defiance they could muster.

Then, Jack raised the sword from their neck, and returned it to his shoulder. “I’m giving them to you, Bonesaw.”

“You are?”

“Of course!” Jack replied, turning to look in a direction Sam couldn’t face. “I’m just about ready to join the fun out there. And you’re in no shape to be saying hello to more new faces. No, I think you also need a return to form. It’s easier to smile, isn’t it?”

“Oh!” Bonesaw shouted, their giggle returning. “Do you think it’s going to help? Maybe I’ll have some ideas! Oh! What do you think their powers are? I mean, I dampened whatever was probably there, but maybe it’ll be something I can use?”

“I’m sure you’ll figure it all out,” Jack responded, already turning and walking away. “Just don’t get too into it. You still need to think of something to do with our friend Hector, don’t you?”

“Yeah!”

“Good. Keep that smile on, Bonesaw.”

And then, with only a few more languid and lazy steps, Jack turned a corner and was out of sight.

Sam, still paralyzed, unmoving, was left with another monster. Through the silence, Bonesaw sighed and stepped into their view, waving and giving a disturbingly wide smile.

“So, hi. I’m sorry, I’m just in a really weird mood! Started as soon as we got here. I really like this town though! And I really like that you figured out I had Joy gas in the museum. I’d ask you your name, or your powers, but...um.”

Bonesaw stopped, turning to look after where Sam had seen Jack go. Sam only waited, and with every passing second felt confusion rise steadily to the surface. Confusion turned to full bafflement when Bonesaw turned back around, her smile gone and her shoulders seemingly weighed down by all the weight of the world.

“I don’t know. It’s really hard to get excited about another body. I already have a lot of those.”

Bonesaw snapped her fingers, and Sam wanted to vomit as a number of out of sight hands grabbed them, hoisting them up until they were looking up at the ceiling. They began to move, slowly enough for Sam to look at passing glass cases, while the exhibits were too hard to see.

“There’s not a lot of people in your town, but there’s enough to keep my skills sharp. At first I tried to make them exhibits downstairs so Blacklight could appreciate them when we did a big reveal, but that doesn’t...it didn’t feel like I was doing anything new. I did that all the way back in Julian.”

Soon enough, Sam felt the things carrying them shift at a downward angle, and it didn’t take much to realize they were being carried down a flight of stairs.

“So then I tried the joy gas. It was kinda cool making it, and I tried my best to model it after how this town made me feel. But aren’t I just still being a copycat that way?”

The light from above faded, and Sam could only watch as their surroundings grew darker and darker. They figured it was probably better that way, as any ‘exhibits’ Bonesaw had created would go more than a little underappreciated.

That was really frustrating. So eventually I just said to heck with it! I took a lot of people, as fast as I could, and I just started doing what I do best. A lot of blood, bodies, and screams. It was enough to keep me going! And then I had to stop, I think to talk to Cherish, but that was enough. By the time I got back to it, I just…”

Sam heard a loud smack, and they all of a sudden stopped moving. Then, after a poignant pause, a snap of two tiny fingers signaled them to move again.

“It was so ugly. Too many eyes looking at me, all weird and sad, and I felt sick. And I tried to make it work, I really really did. But That’s the thing about art; you can’t force it. You think I would have learned by now. I did learn that. So why am I forgetting? Why is it forced at all?”

Bonesaw murmured something too quiet to hear, then spoke up again. The dark turned all encapsulating, and the only thing Sam could focus on was Bonesaw’s sullen voice and the gurgling giggles of the things that carried them.

“It got harder the more I looked at it. I added, and I added again, but there’s no nuance. No flavor. It’s just screaming meat. Just a mound of blood and eyes..”

They stopped moving again, only this time they were gently lowered to the ground, almost lovingly. The room they found themselves in was completely dark, save for a bright red beam of sunlight that passed through a cloudy skylight, Like a shining pillar in the abyss. Sam couldn’t help but stare.

Bonesaw’s footsteps echoed, and the room came to shape in Sam’s mind. Big. Were they in the basement? Were they somewhere else entirely?

“The Mound. That’s what I’m calling it now, because I can’t think of anything else. I can’t even think of what to do with you. Anytime I try I feel uninspired or sick or sad and I hate it.”

Another pinprick in their neck, slower this time. Sam’s body suddenly felt warm, as if they had been drenched in water kissed by the sun.

“I’m letting it have you. And I’m letting you move for a bit. I could just let it squash you but that doesn’t feel fair. I want to see if you can at least get away. Maybe that’ll give me some time to think.”

Bonesaw’s footsteps echoed as she walked away, and Sam immediately tried to move. Slowly, too slowly, a finger responded. Then another, until they could make a fist. By the time they could move their body, Bonesaw was gone. The dark of the room was stifling.

Sam pushed themselves up with shaking arms, gasping as they took in deep breaths of air. “Walk,” they muttered, pushing themselves to their feet. “Walk. You’re alive. Walk.

Then, in the black, it shifted.

Sam, frozen, only watched as a face emerged. Then another, and another, all attached to a hulking body that passed through that deep red. With only a glimpse, Sam saw it. Trapped in cherry red flesh, towering over them even on the other side of the room and moaning with too many voices. Speaking with distorted voices and screams, as if riding radio waves.

‘It hurts’, ‘so bright’, ‘why?’, it slurred.

Sam didn’t scream. They tried, but their voice sat dead in their throat. They tried, but all thought was washed away when they realized that the voices were familiar.

A local bookstore owner, who always wore a small smile on a rainy day. A highschool cheerleader, who Sam always overheard laughing and sharing jokes as they walked through town. The museum curator, with a story for every piece when Sam found the time to visit.

All melted into a pile of slowly drifting agony.

‘Save them,’ a voice drifted from their mind. For a moment, Sam tried their best to listen, if only for a moment. Yet as it began to scream, Sam could do nothing but take a small, terrified step backward. The dark was a shield.

As it lumbered toward them, Sam could do nothing but run. The cloud, newly crippled as it was, provided a quickly diminishing sense of safety. Sam concentrated, feeling for range.

Four meters, four fucking meters. Barely.

They would have to make do. Sam jumped through a wall to their right, into the next room. A collection of toppled chairs and a rapidly blinking light greeted them, barely illuminating a dark brown substance in the corner. Sam felt their breathing lose rhythm, the seconds needed for a recharge seeming like days.

Then, Sam gave form to a shrill scream once the wall behind them groaned, then buckled, too close to falling apart entirely as dozens of hands reached through the cracks. Sam only caught a glimpse of a grotesque, sobbing face before they dove behind a desk and rapidly let their cloud expand-

-Before finding themselves in the room above. Completely dark and hosting an awful smell and a low, unidentifiable sob.

They couldn’t let themselves stop. A few moments later, the cloud expanded, Sam jumped, and they were in the room above that one.

Further and further away they went, trying any direction they could think of to confuse it. It never seemed to help, because as fast as Sam went, they could feel the shaking of the building as somehow, beyond all reason, it seemed to know where they were.

It took entirely too long to get to the top floor, and soon enough Sam found themselves standing on a bench with unsteady feet, resisting the urge to vomit but not the urge to curl into a ball. But finally they were fucking out. They had to leave, to find Russ and Evelyn and Cody and bring them here. Bring them up to speed, then go down and fucking kill the thing together.

It was Sam’s best option. Their only option, because what the fuck could they themselves do? No, it was better to find friends. 

Sam listened keenly, the shaking of the building dying down even as the battle outside continued to rage. 

It didn’t matter. They were done. All they had to do now was-

Their blood ran cold.

Dana.

Hector. 

It suddenly became overwhelmingly clear to Sam that, no, they weren’t done. They’d still have to go looking. And Sam wouldn’t leave until they were found.

Even as the monster waited below.

Every cell in their body screamed, pleading for a retreat. There was still hope for a regroup. If they could find the time, they could make a better plan with the others. If the nine hadn’t killed Hector or Dana yet, then they wanted to keep the both of them alive for something, right?

The reasoning was there, but it was hollow and bitter. It felt like giving up, abandoning a friend in their time of need. Deep dark parts in their mind told them that they were used to that. Seeing friends die was just another Tuesday, even before Santa Mosemar.

An exaggeration, but it rang true. What were a few more bodies to add to the pile?

“It’s everything,” Sam whispered, feeling a false courage seep into their veins. “Everything.”

They stood up again, still unsteady but with the knowledge that they could die. It didn’t help. But it did give some clarity.

“This is so, so, supremely stupid,” Sam said out loud, glancing over to a stone head taller than them, incased in glass and painted blue. They figured that if it could, it would be nodding along in agreement. So, so stupid.

Sam let the cloud extend anyway, and found themselves in a room below. Then again, and again, until finally they were back in a different part of the basement. 

Only silence greeted them. It did nothing for their nerves.

Sam glanced around quickly, finding themselves in a small room filled with ornate picture frames stored on metal racks, all empty and all covered with dust. Sam held back a cough as they looked around, taking note of what was apparently the only door in and out of the room. 

They had almost died, twice, and they still had no idea where to start.

Sam approached the door, wincing as they grabbed its grime-covered handle and opening it to reveal a spacious, if mostly empty room. A set of stairs that more than likely led up to the first floor sat on the other side of the room, while four doors to their left and right seemingly led to other parts of the basement itself. Unlabeled, of course, so Sam would have to go looking.

But first, they listened.

Through the silence, and the distant clashing outside, A groan sounded out from the stairs, echoed by a number of voices all speaking in unison. Sam took the time to listen for three heavy footfalls before picking a door at random, quietly jogging to their left and opening one, slipping inside even as their fear followed close behind them.

There, a hallway cloaked in red light greeted them, and Sam felt more than a bit disturbed that the blood on the ground didn’t bother them as much as it should have. They stood still for a moment, listening once more. Nothing. Except for a soft metallic whir that stopped and started again, every few seconds.

Sam pushed themselves forward, drawing their knife once more. The blood led to a room to the right, doing away with the presumed safety of its white light battling the red of the hallway. Sam took a deep breath, pausing to look inside.

They found themselves equal parts confused and horrified.

A deep basin sat in the corner of the room, filled with red blood and pale viscera. The flesh twitched, every so often, and Sam did their best to avoid imagining why. A strange, bulky device occupied the wall to their left, several flailing medical tools attached to it by means of long, metal ‘arms’. A buzz saw connected to the machine whirred to life on its own, only to power down once again and continuing the cycle every few seconds. 

The floor’s carpet was almost completely red, and the entirety of the room was a steep contrast to the presence of a smiling doll with golden hair that sat on an otherwise barren desk, opposite from the strange machine.

And yet, with every horrible thing they saw, Sam couldn’t help but feel like they were looking at a discarded mess, rather than a slaughterhouse

From the tiny basin, to what looked like a barely functioning machine on closer inspection, to the strangeness of a doll so idly sitting by, as if observing. A deep sense of loneliness settled on the room, which Sam only felt even more as they realized that the doll was dressed almost exactly like Bonesaw.

This was too much to unpack, and even if Sam cared enough to think about why this was here, they were on a time limit with nothing to show for it.

In any case, it seemed the room was a dud. Sam resolved to check the other rooms before they made their way to the bigger room again. If they could keep this up, if they could be quiet, then maybe-

A knock sounded from the other side of the wall.

Sam froze, almost instantaneously jumping through their cloud before they forced themselves to wait. Silence reigned as they slowly made their way back into the room, their cloud seeping through the wall. On the other side, someone lay in a bed, a leg nearly ruined and chained to the wall. They raised a hand, again, to weekly knock once more.

Sam didn't dare hope. Instead, they extended their cloud as far as they could, beyond the supposed bars of what seemed like a cell, all the way around the corner from it. With a quiet huff, Sam jumped through the wall-

-And found themselves in another hallway entirely, staring blankly at a number of cells embedded into the wall, seemingly empty except for the one to their right. Sam pushed the obvious ‘why are there cells in a museum’ question from their mind and peeked around the corner.

All at once, they felt something approaching an insurmountable joy.

There, in bleak light and with a pained expression, lay Hector on a bed. He knocked on the wall, turning back to look at it, and away from Sam.

With a quiet gasp, Sam pulled themselves fully into view, trying desperately to think of something to say before settling on a quiet “Hector?”

He froze, but Sam didn’t wait for a response. With a jump, Sam was inside the cell before he could turn around. And when he did, his eyes were filled to the brim with warring emotions. He looked Sam up and down, his words seemingly failing him until he whispered their name. 

“Sam?”

Sam nodded, and the dam broke.

Sam wasn’t sure when the hug started, and they especially weren’t sure which one of them started crying first, but it didn’t seem to matter too much, in the end. Sam embraced him, one hand wrapped around his torso and the other deep in his hair, telling him it was okay as they both cried. 

They found him, safe and sound like they had promised. But they didn’t have as much time as they needed, not while the nightmare shambled through the halls.

Clearing their throat, Sam pulled back and gave Hector a watery smile, nodding once. “You’re safe. Okay? You’re safe. We have to get you out. Where’s Dana?”

“Dana?” Hector muttered, before glancing at his leg. “She’s...she’s not here. She got away, promised to come back for me. It’s...the chain. I can’t…” 

“I know,” Sam interrupted, glancing outside. “Just, your powers, can you use them still? Can you feel them?”

Hector frowned, and after a few moments he nodded. “Bonesaw did something to me, a while ago. Injected me with something, but she hasn’t done it again. They're weak, but...I can feel them. I can use them.”

Perfect. Perfect. Dana was apparently already out, and Hector was right in front of them. Now all they had to do was avoid fucking this up. 

Sam’s smile widened as they sat on the bed with him. “Okay. So. Here’s the plan. You boost me, And you take some of my powers. We both jump out outside the museum, and...Fuck, I guess we wait. Everyone else is safe, okay? We just need to be safe too.”

He nodded again, and finally returned the smile. “And we’re...we’re okay? Have you seen my mom?”

Sam, truthfully, didn’t know how to answer that. Sure, their friends were maybe fine, but what about everyone else? Sam didn’t know how to tell him that, no, they weren’t okay. That they were alive, but the same couldn’t be said about every life lost in the town so far.

It was a thought that pulled their spirits into an abyss effortlessly, and it was a thought that threatened to lead to ones that were somehow worse. A spiral, neverending.

Honesty was all they had, so Sam shook their head. “I...we’re alright, I think. But I haven’t seen your mom Hector. I’m sorry.”

“Oh.”

There was no life in that voice, no acceptance, and Sam couldn’t have that. “But we’ll find her, okay? We will. Trust me. Please?”

Hector only nodded, but didn’t say anything else.

Desperate to talk about anything else, Sam glanced around the room. “Did the nine build these...cells?”

“What?” he questioned, before his eyes widened. “Oh. No, this was...this was supposed to be an exhibit. The curator told me about it a few months ago. They were talking about building an accurate representation of an old-timey dungeon. I think?”

“Makes sense. Leave it to the nine to turn everything into a horror show,” Sam tried, attempting a joke. Hector tried to smile in response , but it never reached his eyes.

Right. There was time and place for everything.

“Hector, I need a boost,” Sam began. “Take some of my powers, alright? Do you remember how my power works?”

“I do.”

“Okay. Good, okay. Go ahead then. I’ll tap your shoulder when It’s time to move. Ready?”

Hector didn’t respond, and instead Sam felt a rush fill their entire body, the exhaustion so prevalent in their bones fleeing and being replaced with a newfound energy. As good as it felt, Sam was sure they’d never get used to it.

Sam bit back a cheer, feeling their cloud expand past four meters, to ten, and finally to fifteen. Nowhere near what they had before, but it would prove to be a lifesaver. Their surroundings became clear, and the cloud even reached past the door leading to the bigger room, mapping out-

They froze.

Beyond the door, leaning against it, was a towering wall of moving limbs. The plaster and brick around the entrance was giving way, too quietly to bring alarm, too far to be a problem. Until it was too late.

The door at the end of the hallway burst open, the walls above and beside it falling apart, and Sam squeezed Hector’s shoulder. Without a word, the both of them closed their eyes and jumped to the room above. Ready to jump again almost immediately after, even as they both stood on uncertain and shaky feet. No time to visualize, no time to rest.

No time at all. One second too many.

The ground beneath them buckled as something impacted it, before falling away entirely only a few moments later. Sam kept their eyes sealed shut, shouting through the roar of the collapse for Hector to jump again, to get away. Then, they landed.

Sam screamed as they felt their leg break,  twisting before finally giving way, but they kept their eyes closed. Even as they desperately tried to jump to safety and found they couldn’t, the cloud refusing to make its presence known, they kept their eyes shut. 

Sam knew The Mound was watching, and it was only getting closer. Hector babbled, and Sam had a decision to make. Keeping their eyes closed wasn’t going to help, not if it could already see them.

It didn’t make it any easier to pry them open. It didn’t make the scene in front of them any less terrifying. 

The monster could barely fit in the hallway, the top and sides of it being crushed by the ceiling and walls, and yet it continued to move effortlessly. Closer and closer, still moaning and shouting and whispering, sliding past and leaving a trail of pink viscera. Hector was stuck under an errant support beam, screaming. And there was light, too much to hide from, blinking and bearing down on them from too many sources.

With a start, Sam realized they couldn’t do anything. 

They couldn’t jump, they couldn’t walk, they couldn’t even help Hector get away. They could only watch as it got closer, the voices reaching an agonizing crescendo. As quickly as they held hope, now only desperation filled their mind.

They couldn’t do a fucking thing, and yet they had to. Against all odds, they had to. A plan formed in their mind, one guaranteed to fail. And it was their only option. 

Sam refused to see another corpse. The stares from before had been too much. It couldn’t happen again.

With a heave, Sam dragged themselves back into the cell. They ignored the white hot agony that soared through their leg, screaming the entire way until they were barely, just barely, out of sight.

The cloud expanded, and Sam forced themselves to wait as the Mound got closer to Hector. They ignored the pleas for help, both from Hector and the monster, and waited. As it passed by another cell, just barely, Sam jumped straight into the cell, already reaching around the corner desperately, and grabbing onto a soft mass of flesh.

They had it. Finally, they had it. With their other hand, they carelessly drew out their own large bowie knife as their body was dragged around the corner, ribs colliding with the corner of the wall. The new pain was easy to ignore as they came face to face with a mass of faces, all staring at them as the Mound paused.

With a scream, Sam brought up their knife and stabbed forward, toward one pleading face and babbling face that held the expression of a young woman. It slid to the right, finding purchase in a dangling leg instead. But it found purchase, and that was enough.

“Stop!” Sam screamed, bringing out the knife as quickly as they could and bringing it down again. “Stop! Get the fuck away from him! You can’t have him!”

But the creature surged forward.

Sam screamed again, their voice hoarse and barely hanging on, and continued to stab. They dragged their body as close as they could to the screaming pile, stabbing again and again, faster and faster. They felt hands, too many hands, grab and begin to squeeze. It didn’t matter. A distraction was all Hector would need, and he would be safe. 

A hand grabbed their neck, beginning a slow choke. 

Another grabbed their hair, pulling painfully and violently.

Another grabbed their broken leg, and the pain was nearly enough to make them pass out. Only nearly. 

Sam, through the agony, made themselves continue. They somehow found rhythm in their weapon, until it became the easiest thing in the world to slash and hack. Until it became all too simple to let go of their thoughts and their fear and their worry. 

They were the only thing standing between Hector and the voices. They were the only thing standing between themselves and the memories of a body on the concrete, covered in flies on an impossibly hot summer day. On that day, Sam made a promise.

No more corpses. No more stares. Hector wouldn’t die, and Sam wouldn’t let themselves endure the same disappointment from their new family.

All they had to do was fight, through the blood.

Their vision flashed white, then black, then white again. All they could do was continue. 

And then, after seconds or days or years or centuries, they finally felt nothing.

===================

Sam opened their eyes.

As the silence greeted them, they couldn’t find the energy to stand. Their brain felt as if it was underwater, garbled and blurry and without sense. They couldn’t find the energy to question when Graf and Dana and Mathew had found them, all surrounding them with grim expressions on beaten and bruised faces. They found it less appealing to wonder, through the haze, where Bee was.

So instead, they posed a question. “Hector? Where’s?...”

They all glanced at each other, but it was Dana who spoke up. “He’s not here.”

Sam frowned. “He’s…”

It was the wrong answer. 

Sam looked around, haze quickly turning to panic, which quickly turned to an overwhelming, crippling shame.

They failed. Dana had escaped before they even found her, and Hector was gone. Again. Maybe he was dead, maybe not, but he was gone. And so was the Mound. It was almost too much. 

Being used to failure didn’t make it any easier to deal with.

But there was a light that shined, deep within, that gave hope that they’d be able to find him again. That they would beat back the nine until they were nothing but a distant memory.

That light was gone once, after a long and heavy silence, They felt themselves begin to cry.

Another corpse to add to the pile.