Zach kissed me on the forehead once I got out of the bathroom, which was nice. I stood on my toes to give him a kiss back. Now that I’d started to get over the awkwardness of someone touching me, it was becoming a pleasant novelty. Though I suspected it would be a long time coming before I comprehended why he or anyone else wanted to. It helped that I brought a change of clothes into the bathroom with me, this time.
He sucked on my lip before drawing away. “Don’t tempt me again, we don’t have enough time.”
Tempt? How? “What do you mean again?” What the hell? “Don’t you ever get tired? … Oh.” I’ll take stupid questions for one hundred.
“Exactly.” He chuckled to himself, then sighed. “Full recovery means full recovery. From everything. Except boredom, seems like there’s no cure for boredom. It’s even more annoying than it sounds. What is it about powers that even the awesome stuff finds a way to suck?”
I ask myself that more often than I care to admit. “I doubt we’ll ever get an answer to that question. Let’s worry about the things we can change, right?” It was canned advice I’d heard more than once, but Doctor Cantu insisted it was good advice, and I should set about with small goals rather than attempting to tackle questions that many of the greatest scientists and philosophers of human history all failed to answer.
“Yeah, like ‘how do we keep this city from falling over, catching fire, and sinking into the swamp’.” Zach gave me one more peck on the lips before stepping off. “That’s one way to stave off boredom. And libido.”
I looked down- not there!- and sighed. “You’re incorrigible.” I took a moment to tap into my power. “Gold Regalia, Eufron.”
“Incorrigible isn’t even in my vocabulary.” Zach was holding open the door by the time the armor finished forming. “I’m not being cute, it’s a serious problem. I’m lucky to know what ‘vocabulary’ means.”
“You’re an idiot.” I got the feeling Zach would never stop acting like a goof, so the best thing to do was smile and enjoy it. Which was convenient, since that’s what I wanted to do anyway. “Let’s go.” I walked past him while he held the door for me, then made the steep descent into the main area. Followed by the trip to the balcony section.
“Dammit,” Zach muttered, having spotted Cassandra only moments before I did. The blue-skinned blonde was standing at the edge of the balcony, watching us make our way over to the stairs. “Of course she’d be the one to show up early.”
I wondered what thoughts must be going on behind her inscrutable, statuesque face. I couldn’t help but feel like I’d betrayed her. I knew better, but knowing and feeling are two very different creatures. “What do you want to do?”
“Lots of things. None of which are a good idea,” Zach said. “Instead, I guess we have to go up there and make small talk until the others arrive.” Now he took the lead, going up the stairs first.
I felt awkward, shameful even, following him to what had become the unofficial meeting place for our unofficial hero team. Life was so much simpler when I avoided people as much as possible. I looked at Zach, going ahead as if to protect me from whatever Cassandra might do. But I have to admit I’ve had more fun in the last couple days than the last ten years before it.
Zach avoided so much as looking at Cassie on his way past, though she couldn’t take her eyes off him. Only after he passed did she lay her attentions on me. “Umm, do you mind if we talk for a minute?” She glanced at Zach. “Alone, please?”
“Anything you want to say, you can say to both of us.”
“No, it’s fine.” I waved off Zach’s attempt at chivalry. I appreciated his protective streak more than I wanted to admit, but it wasn’t necessary. “Just give us a minute, okay?”
“Lady version of the bro code, huh?” Zach walked away from us, toward the far side of the balcony. “Sis code? Nah, that sounds like a grocery store…”
Cassandra waited for Zach to get out of earshot. “I came early because I wanted to talk to you about, well…” She smiled, while I studied her features. It appeared all the damage inflicted on her during her fight with Revenant had healed, displaying only perfect features crafted in blue ice. “Looks like it happened a little sooner than I expected.”
Am I supposed to say something? Apologize? Tell her it’s none of her business? Is she trying to scare me off? Her body language didn’t seem threatening, but that meant little when it came to Imbued and how we functioned. Cassandra’s power included boosted perception and intelligence, so I couldn’t rule out an attempt at manipulation rather than overt hostility.
“I was going to say to go ahead and do whatever you wanted to do. Make a big speech about how you shouldn’t worry about me, or something along those lines.” Cassandra said while I was busy figuring how to respond. “I would have used my power to work out the perfect way to say it. But it turns out none of that’s necessary. So… now I want you to know there’s no hard feelings. I had my chance. I was the one who ruined it, and neither of you owe me a thing.”
Her speech would have been an effective guilt trip, had she said it before Zach and I got together. Even after, it almost made me rethink the relationship, and did give me reason to be suspicious of Cassandra’s motives. After all, if she didn’t want me to worry, she could have said nothing. I still would have worried because it’s biologically impossible for me to not, but I could have been spared some of the second-guessing.
“That’s a relief.” Lying to a Truthsayer was never a good idea, but I wanted out of the conversation with as little drama as possible. If Cassandra was in any way sincere about there being no hard feelings, she’d let it go there. If not, then I’d know the truth. “Thank you.”
“I should thank you,” she said. “For putting Revenant in his place. I despise people like him.”
I killed him. “It was me he was after from the beginning… I was only defending myself.”
“Oh.” She stopped smiling. “Well, thanks anyway.”
I should have stepped up sooner. Fought Kitten the way I fought Revenant. If I had, Cassie wouldn’t be like this in the first place. How do I apologize for that? What possible action is there that can redeem me for failing her and Zach and all of that monster’s other victims?
“Has the moratorium on Y chromosomes been lifted?” Zach broke the painful silence. “Or am I still banished to the land of testosterone? An exile from estrogen, if you will.”
Yes, please! I took the opportunity to retreat from Cassandra, as well as from the thoughts plaguing me. Zach’s stupid jokes were as good an excuse as any I could imagine. “Since all you seem to do when you’re alone is come up with stuff like that? I think it’s better if you stay with me from now on.”
Zach smiled. “Well, it’s not the only thing I do when I’m alone.”
Why would you say that? “I rest my case.”
We didn’t have too much longer to wait before Laura and Daryl came in together, I assumed Glen was with them. Laura all but jogged her way up the stairs, while Daryl walked behind.
“Hey!” Laura turned the corner, smiling like I imagined she was when she learned about her money. “Did ya miss me?”
What? I was taken aback by the enthusiasm coming off the normally smug and bitingly sarcastic woman.
“Oh, right,” Zach muttered. “I forgot to mention… it turns out, healers have side effects. I’d say this one makes you act high, but Laura does not act like this when she’s stoned.”
“Aww, what’s wrong, little brother?” Laura tilted her head while smiling like a child trying to convince an adult of how cute she was. It would have looked weird on any adult, but with Laura it was disturbing. “You always said if I stopped acting like such a bitch, people might mistake me for human.”
“As if I needed any more proof that ‘be careful what you wish for’ should have been the eleventh commandment. And also the first five commandments. Maybe replace seven and eight as well. Better yet, let’s just replace the entire old testament with that one line. The new testament would just say ‘I told you so’.”
“How about if we focus on mission planning,” Glen said. “The side effects are… less pronounced… when she has something to focus on. The healer said it would wear off in a day or two.”
“Mission planning it is.” On the one hand, watching Laura act cheerful was a distraction from my own worries, as well as a way to get everyone else to stop prying into my relationship. On the other hand, Laura’s injuries were in part because of me, so her current behavior was as well. “What news do we have?”
“Daryl! Hurry up, slow-poke.” Laura grabbed poor Daryl’s arm and dragged him into the room with us. “We need your brains! The rest of us are zombies!”
“How about if I start first, sweetheart?” Laura’s coat shifted under the invisible pressure of Glen’s power. He couldn’t exert enough force on such a small area to overcome human strength, but Laura let him guide her over to one of the chairs. “To start with, Revenant gave us a parting gift, besides the money. While we were licking our wounds.”
Laura laughed and shouted. “Is that what kids are calling it these days?” I blushed, while everyone else pretended not to hear her.
After a pause, Daryl continued. “Revenant was busy demolishing our gang problem one building at a time.”
“What?” Zach said. “Seriously? What did he do?”
“Twelve safehouses smashed,” Daryl said. He looked out over the balcony while he spoke. “Five were Lightbringer, the rest were smaller groups. Thirty arrests, one burning crack house, and… well… a forced prostitution den with multiple homicides.”
What? “So Revenant was lying about that no killing rule?” Somehow it disappointed me to learn the man who put so much effort into showing he had an honor code turned out to be just as bad as the other gangs of the city.
“He doesn’t.” Daryl leaned back in his chair, taking a slow breath as he did. “Or if he does, he’s never been caught. He broke the pimps’ legs, then released the girls. Looks like some of them wanted their own justice.”
“Oh.” I relaxed, then felt ashamed for relaxing. Was it so different if he killed them, or the girls they raped did? In the end, people were still murdered while they had no chance to defend themselves.
Zach put his hand on my shoulder. “So… it’s over, just like that? The gangs are gone?”
“You wish.” Daryl kept his eyes forward. “Revenant hurt them bad, but… he only got one Imbued with a warrant. Most of the rest go free. Due process, privacy, self-defense, tainted crime scenes. It won’t take a genius lawyer to get them off scot-free.”
“But I bet this’ll make them think twice,” Zach said. “Being on the receiving end of an ass kicking like Revenant can dish out was almost enough to make me retire. They’ve gotta be running for the hills, right?”
“Or the bosses fear they’re losing their empires, and act even more crazy to keep their men in line. Do not underestimate the human tendency to double down in the face of failure. Especially the ones who go to a cell or a grave when it all comes crashing down.”
“Way to bring down the mood.” Laura decided this was her valuable contribution to the group. “We still got ourselves a super psychic! If those fuckers are gonna do something big and flashy, it’s gotta be out in public, right? So we can predict it and go in and kick them in their fucking teeth! Who’s with me!?”
“Me!” Cassandra declared. I didn’t want to begin to speculate on why she was so ready to join in Laura’s newfound exuberance. “Revenant started the job, we can finish it!”
Zach moved forward just a step, putting him a little in front of me. “You know I’m in. That jackass beat my record, and I want it back.”
Laura may have been high on a healing effect, but she had a point. I couldn’t stop thinking about the forced prostitution Revenant busted. We were fighting against rapists and murderers, people who were every bit as evil as Kitten was, if perhaps less dangerous. I failed to stop her, and it caused untold suffering. I didn’t think I could live with myself if I did nothing a second time.
“Me, too.” I moved up next to Zach again. “I’ll… try to be a little more proactive, too. More creative with my power.” The question was more how to be proactive with summons that could and would kill of their own volition. Unless they have no volition! “I do have some more equipment-based summons I think we could use. Weapons and armor, to make you stronger.”
Zach looked over his shoulder at me, smiling. “That sounds great! You got any swords in there?”
“The Fragarach. But it’s not the sort of weapon I want anyone using.” That summon was almost as bad as Phoenix and Ymir in terms of collateral damage. My other weapon summons were of similar levels of destructiveness.
“That’s cool.” Zach wrapped his arm around mine, then gripped my hand to offer support.
He doesn’t know what Fragarach is capable of, he doesn’t need to, he trusts me to make the decision on my own. “But Talaria grants superhuman speed, and Tarnhelm does invisibility. There’s also Pridwen, but it’s pure defense and your powers got that covered.”
“I’d call dibs on Talaria,” Zach said. “But… I think my power synergizes better with Tarnhelm, at least on patrol. Imagine how many more people I could bust if they don’t even know I’m there.” He winked at me.
Muwth! Of course Tarnhelm would boost their power synergy. “It costs a lot of strength to power equipment summons.” I looked over at Cassandra. “Especially the further away I am from them. So you two can only use their effects for short periods of time, and only when I’m not using other summons.”
I wasn’t sure how that weakness might apply to the Muwth/Respawn interaction, but I knew trying to guess was an endless source of migraines. I could only assume my power might at least help a little bit.
“We’ll be careful.” Cassie smiled, a little late for it to come across as natural. “Now, how about we get to work on that battle plan? I’ve got an idea or two for that invisibility power, myself.”