Tonight was that special, dry arctic hell that made breathing hurt and hairs freeze inside the nose. I gave myself less than a minute before my power went off, and at most two each time after that.
I looked up at the stars and clear night’s sky. As clear as it ever got in the city, at any rate; I’m sure the view out in the country, free of the city lights and air pollution, was a scene worthy of poetry, but all we got was indistinct blurs. I exhaled up into the sky, watching my own breath vanish into the night.
“So, how are you holding up?”
“I told y-” wait. I turned around to face Daryl. “Oh, sorry, I was expecting G.L. to drag me back in.” The whole time Flux had been out on a mission, they were walking on eggshells around me. Which was strange since my sister’s strategy to all things was a lot like mine: kick the door open and walk right in, fuck the consequences.
Daryl smiled, and I think he shrugged, but his thick winter coat made it impossible to be certain. Despite him being a few years older than me, he had the sort of features that made him look younger. For a brief moment, I was reminded of Ferne, who also had somewhat darker features and a childlike face, which proved to me that it was possible for my mood to get worse.
“He was going to, but I volunteered to talk to you instead.”
Dammit. “Great, I’m everyone’s charity case, now.” Except The Bastard. I clenched my hands; despite having respawned several times, I still felt the tingle in my knuckles from when I tore into him. It was by far my happiest memory of the last couple weeks. “Could I be any more pathetic?”
Daryl’s smile vanished. I was caught off-guard when in the blink of an eye he’d grabbed my jacket collar and shoved me back into a tree. Despite the speed, I didn’t feel the impact against the tree. Now that we were in contact, I could sense he still wore his armor under the coat.
“Nobody who survives what we’ve been through is pathetic! Don’t you dare think otherwise, not even for a second. That’s how she wins!” More than the words, what got to me was the twisted snarl of emotions on his face. Anger warred with determination while tears formed in his eyes.
He let go of my jacket, then turned away from me to look at the street. “If- that’s how her games work. The physical shit’s bad enough, but the psychological… it was part of her power. With just a glance, she knew how to destroy anything she looked at. Not just kills, killing’s easy. She destroys.”
Jesus Christ. I thought back to when Beth explained how powers were reflections of who we are at our deepest level. What sort of monster gets a power like that? I decided to ask a safer question. “What makes you think that’s how her power works?”
He turned enough to look over his shoulder at me. “Because the alternative is too horrific to contemplate.”
“Well, when you put it like that.”
We stood there in silence long enough that I began to wonder how Daryl was standing in this weather without freezing, then I remembered he was wearing powered armor. I, however, had a different way to beat the cold, and the awkward silence was broken by a sudden perspective shift and a swirl of green and yellow light. The one small benefit to my identity being public was that I didn’t have to scramble for hiding on the chance someone saw me.
Now that I was refreshed, I felt ready to mention the elephant in the room. “She’s not dead, you know.”
Dammit. I had hoped he was going to tell me it was just paranoia and all the hell I’d been through, but Daryl had to deal Kitten a lot longer than I had. If he believed she survived, then I trusted his judgment. “How?”
“Well, aside her combat instinct powers?” He brought his hand up as if to touch his chest, but stopped himself. “Your sword went missing after the fight. Your old power was better than you thought; it transformed the metal into something so durable it borders on the impossible. Whereas Crucible has trouble melting ordinary steel. The weapon could not have been destroyed.”
“Which means someone took it.” I looked down. Neither of us were conscious for the aftermath of the battle, so there was always a chance. “I guess we can hope one of the villains, or Guardian, picked it up as a trophy?”
“Can’t rule it out,” Daryl sounded about as hopeful as I felt. “Regardless, I’ve set some bots to search for keywords in the news fitting Kitten’s pattern. Problem is, she never had much of a pattern, other than targeting the strongest Imbued in the region while working her way north. So it’s a pretty wide net, I get a dozen false hits per day.”
I didn’t know what was worse; that we didn’t know where, or even if, Kitten was out there. Or that there were so many horrible crimes going on every day. “Well, if you do find her, think you can build a bomb for me? One that reduces everything in range to dust. I just have to touch it, and use myself as bait.” Again.
This seemed to be what gave him permission to ask the real bomb of a question. “Would you like to talk about… what she did to you?”
Unbidden, my memories of last night’s spar with The Bastard flashed through my head. Despite it being cold as fuck then, too, he had us out in the field practicing our drills. Most of it involved me trying to run a course while he threw knives. For some reason, nobody ever called the cops on us. I guess the usual ‘snitches get stitches’ line had been drilled into their heads so much that they kept their heads down no matter what the situation was.
It was during the close quarters combat part that things came to a boil. He dropped low, shanked me in the knee, then did a sweep with his knife that left me with a total of four duplicates, all of which were taken out so fast that I got to see my own looks of surprise and pain quadrupled.
The Bastard spit in the face of one of the half-dissolved copies. “Dammit, kid, if yer gonna waste my time, tell me first. I’m missing out on a documentary on Apache helicopters for this. At least run yer mouth a little, it’s the only thing that makes you more fun than your fuckup father.”
The worst thing was, he was right. “Let’s just say I have a lot of shit to think about.”
“Think?” He tossed his knife in the air, then caught it by the blade. He repeated the motion as he spoke. “This is combat, son. You ain’t suppose ta think! Your options are fight, or die, not sit around with yer thumb up yer ass.”
I watched the knife, waiting for the moment he thought I was off-guard, so I could dodge the damned thing. “Dying and fighting aren’t mutually exclusive options where I’m concerned.”
“Yeah, but you-” with a flick of his wrist, I caught a knife with my face “-ain’t any good at either of them.” He stood there for a moment while my copy broke down enough for the knife to drop to the ground. “Now, if I was gonna guess, I’d say it has something to do with that molten parking lot on Christmas.”
I stood a little taller. “Lucky guess.” As much as I wanted to deny it, I didn’t see much point. Still, I wasn’t about to give away more information than necessary.
The Bastard opened his mouth in a toothless grin. “Los Fieles and Lightbringer lost members, Guardian lost an arm, even if he got it grown back later, and rumor has it Anima was involved. All to take down one psychopath with more power than a single human being has any right to. How’s that for a lucky guess?”
So much for giving away information, but it does mean he blew a secret, and knowing him it was intentional. “Sounds to me like I attracted the attention of some important people, and you work for them, that’s what it sounds like. Sloppy to give it away like that, though. Aren’t you afraid I’ll tell you to fuck off?”
“Hmph,” he walked over to where his knife was laying in in the snow, then picked it up. He began to wipe the muddy snow off on his pants while he spoke. “My first, and only, loyalty is to these United States. If you’re so stupid you couldn’t figure that out, then teaching you’s useless to begin with. Now, let’s cut through the crap and how’s about you tell me why you went from being able to fight alongside Anima to getting carved up like a turkey by an old man?”
“Kitten was obsessed with me.” If he knew all the other stuff, he’d have no trouble finding out that much. “Like, Fatal Attraction shit. She wanted me… and… I used that to distract her long enough for everyone else to get in place. I was bait.” I fought down my urge to cry.
“And now you’re feeling guilty?” The Bastard kept those cold, vulture-like eyes locked on me. “Son, you ain’t the first agent who got his noodle wet in the enemy before offing her.”
What. “That’s-” I couldn’t find words.
“Oh, don’t give me that liberal sexism bullshit, it’s as good for the goose as it is for the gander. More, even. There are women who’ve won wars on their backs. You do what you gotta do, that’s what war means.”
I was trembling, so hard that I was waiting for my power to kick in. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.”
“Or you’ll do what? Are you one of those sensitive types who thinks just because you got your rocks off together, that makes you soul mates?” His tone carried nothing but contempt. “Just go find yourself a whore, you’ll feel-”
“I said shut up!” I charged forward; if he wouldn’t stop talking unless I made him, then I was going to make him.
The first slash of his knife was a graze, clipping my fingers, which was all it took to trip off my power. I wasn’t ready for that one, so he got the next slice in across my cheek before I realized what was going on. I didn’t bother falling back this time, which got a third slice in. This time, I did what I should have done the first time in every fight I’d ever had with him, and teleported the knife out of his hands.
I have to admit, he knew his shit, and even unarmed he got a punch in that busted my nose, then broke my arm with a grapple, and then my knee with a kick. All part of the plan, which left him pinned between half a dozen decaying copies and blinded by the green glow of my power. For the first time, I got a real hit in, a punch to the cheek bone that sent him tumbling to the ground.
I jumped on him and delivered a left and right, each hard enough that it caused me to respawn, which kept him trapped by copies. I brought up my fist again, ready to come down with all my force, and hesitated at the last moment at the bruised, bloodied face below me.
Holy shit, what did I– My thoughts were interrupted by a knife straight into my balls. Even after I copied over, I still felt like I needed to throw up.
The Bastard started to laugh, far too boisterous for someone got his face beat in.
“About god damn time you grew a pair! Even if you couldn’t keep it up. Hold on to that feeling, channel it, make it a weapon.” He sat up, then began the slow work of climbing to his feet. “Ooh, gonna feel that in the mornin’. Well, Zach, good to meet you. The name’s Jim. The people who’ve bruised their knuckles on my face get to call me Jimmy.”
Is he for real? “Go burn in hell, Jimmy.” I turned and walked away.
It was an hour or so later that I decided I couldn’t be trusted in school any more; Anima’s summons and The Bastard were acceptable targets, but there was too much risk some asshole would start a fight, and I’d finish it.
I was shocked out of my daydream when my power saved me from freezing. It took a moment to remember Daryl asked me if I wanted to talk about what Kitten did.
“Tried that, didn’t work out.” I knew Daryl wouldn’t goad me into beating the shit out of him, or at least I didn’t think he would, but I didn’t want to talk about it. Not now, not ever.
“Well, in case you change your mind, you know we’re here for you, right?”
I didn’t bother to pretend to be cheerful. “Yeah, I know.” I started to realize how hypocritical I’d been this whole time. “And that goes both ways. Let me know if you ever need to vent. I don’t want to speak for the others, but I’m sure they feel the same.”
“Thanks, man,” Daryl did manage to smile. “I think I’ll turn down the offer, but it’s nice to know it’s out there, y’know?”
“Better than anyone else could.” I started walking. “We’d better get back in the house before they assume you got your tongue stuck to my flag pole.”
He chuckled. “You’re an asshole, in case you weren’t aware.”
“I suspected, but it’s good to have an expert opinion.” I stopped to punch in the number to Laura’s apartment, but it opened before I started. Laura stood there in the doorway, with White Lady behind her. I assumed GL was there, too, but he wasn’t visible.
Laura smiled at me. “Oh, good, you didn’t get your tongue stuck to his flagpole.”
“Too late, he made that joke already,” Daryl said.
“Then he owes me five bucks for copyright infringement, ’cause that one’s mine.” Laura stepped back to let us inside, and waited for the door to close before continuing. Her eyes glanced over at Daryl for just a moment before going back to mine. “So, uh, we got a precog alert. And I bet you a million dollars you’ll never guess the target.”