Black 3-Vignette


Looking at the Sky

2 and a half years ago, or thereabouts.

With a hefty-souding thunk, Flint Perez dropped his bag onto the kitchen table.

“Flint,” his mother chided from behind the open fridge door, “Don’t do that, you’ll ruin the countertop.”

He groaned, and grabbed the strap as he slumped onto one of the stools, dragging it off the counter and onto the floor.

“And that’s better?”

The boy grunted noncommittally, and she shut the fridge and turned to face him. Short and stocky, with frizzy hair bound back in a simple bun, Jenna Perez was darker in complexion than her son, and considerably more solidly built. She wore an expensive business suit, as always, but it was significantly more rumpled than usual, and the tie hung loose and half-done around her neck. Flint had learned to use the suit as a measure of mood; the state that it was in was usually proportional to how much shit she’d had to deal with that day, and therefore how much he could get away with. Today was a bit of a mid-point; he’d seen it better, but he’d also seen it a lot worse, and her behavior seemed fairly jovial.

“Soo,” she said as she ducked under the counter, “how was school?”

Flint slumped his head onto the counter, short dreadlocks jumping a little on the impact. “Dull, as always.” She gave him a disappointed look. “Well, what were you expecting?”

“I was hoping you’d had a sudden change of heart, and school was now the most important thing in your life.” She sighed. “But I was expecting you to at least try.”

“I try,” he protested. “Or, I’ve tried, at least. Mom, do you even remember your school years?”
“Nooo,” she said sarcastically, spreading her arms to indicate the housepartment, “I’ve forgotten every single thing I ever learned there.”

He snorted, unamused. “You know what I mean, though. Do you actually remember the school parts?”

“Yes, Flint, as surprising as it may be to you, I do. It involved studying a lot, paying attention in class, and not cavorting with boys like my classmates.”

He groaned, dropping his head. “Just when I think you can’t get any more boring.”

“I’m sorry to be such a disappointment.” She tapped her chin thoughtfully. “Speaking of cavorting, what’s this I hear about you and some girl?”

Flint shot up straight, a look of alarm crossing his face. “Aww no, Mom, please don’t tell me you’ve been listening to the rumor mill again.”

She shrugged again, noncommittally. “A lot of parents are my clients. I hear things.”

He rubbed at his forehead. “Today,” he said under his breath, “can, officially, go in the ‘shit’ pile.”

“So what’s her name?”

Mom.”

Flint.” She grinned.

“Gahhh!” He threw his arms up in the air, spinning away from her on the chair. “Fine! Geez. Her name’s Edith Ellis, and there’s nothing going on between us. We met by accident, she likes art and movies and stuff, like me, so we’ve started eating lunch together. Happy?”

She patted him on the shoulder. “Yes, actually. Was that so hard?”

“You have no idea,” he muttered.

“Well, I think it’s good that you’ve made a friend, at least.”

Flint shrugged noncommittally. “I dunno, maybe friend isn’t the best word. We just hang out sometimes.”

“Mm-hmm,” she trilled as she grabbed a beer from the fridge and took a swig. “Su-ure.”

“You do realize how immature you sound, right?”

“You do realize that I’m just doing it to annoy you?” she imitated.

“You do realize that it’s succeeding?”

“Of course,” she said. Beer in hand, she walked around the counter and sat on the chair next to him. “If I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it properly. So when can I meet her?”

“If I ask about your day, will you please stop?”

“Yes, yes I will.”

He waited for her to continue, but she just took another sip of her drink. “Fine. How was your day?”

“Awful,” she replied immediately. “You remember the Hoskins?”

“No, Mom, I don’t remember the client that you mention every day.”

“Your mouth’s going to get you in trouble someday, you know. Anyway, papa Hoskins kicked the bucket, and now the kids have hired me because every single one of them has their lawyers disputing the will, and they want me to handle the money and property”

“That… really doesn’t sound so bad,” he said, confused. “I mean, no worse than a lot of your other ones-”

“Oh, it wouldn’t be,” she interrupted him, “except for the fact that there’s ten of them.”

“Ten lawyers?”

“Ten kids.”

“Ah. Wow. I see where you’re coming from.”

“Mmm. But, on the plus side, I am getting paid an absolutely ridiculous amount of money, so that’s nice. I was thinking we could head down south over the summer break, visit Dad’s family?”

He turned and gave her a shocked look. “Really?! I mean… are you serious?”

She gave a little half-shrug, and took another sip of her drink. “I haven’t asked him yet, but frankly, we’ve been married for fifteen years at this point. I think I deserve to meet his family, and I think you deserve to meet your grandparents.”

“I, uh, don’t think Dad’s going to be very happy with that idea.”

“Well, I’ll make him happy about it.”

He made a face and a gagging noise. “Eww, mom.”

She laughed, punching him in the shoulder. “You have a dirty mind, Flint. Dirty, dirty mind. No, I’m gonna talk to him about it when he gets back.”

“When’s that gonna be?”

“End of the week at the latest.” She downed the rest of her drink. “I hope,” she added under her breath.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, staring out the windows at the setting sun. At last, she stood up and stretched. “Alright, I think I’ll go collapse. You okay for food and stuff?”

“Yeah, I think I’ll be good. Sleep tight.”

She leaned over and gave him a hug. “Love you.”

He leaned into the hug, and sighed. “Love you too.”

Sitting alone, he watched the last light of the sun slip over the horizon, the room’s illumination slowly shifting on to compensate. After it was gone completely, he reached down to his bag and pulled out a set of pencils and a book. He opened it, revealing pages full of sketches and drawings. Flipping through to the latest page, he settled it on his lap and stared at the two images. The first one was a girl, a round face and dark hair with a skunk stripe of blonde, halfway through some wild gesture, her mouth open and eyes sparkling. Some of the details were rough, and it looked like it had been drawn from memory, sometime after. Still, there was obvious care in the linework and shading, despite its rough nature. 

The second image was the same girl, standing in a dark alleyway, facing away with fists clenched. Unlike the first, it was crisp and clean, which made the figure stand out even more. On one side her body was dissolving away, solid flesh turning into disparate particles that hovered in the air. 

He stared at the drawings for what felt like far too long. Finally, he stood, tore the page out of his book and threw it in the trash, and went to get some sleep.


Black 3-V

Hit the Sack.

Everything was on fire, and it was all my fault.

I stumbled through the burning clouds of smoke and ash, coughing and choking on the acrid fumes. The heat pressed down on me from every side, flames licking at the bottoms of all the doors and appearing in glimpses and flashes through the miasma.

I lent over and hacked a deep cough out of my lungs, but the burning sensation felt strangely distant, as did the pain from where I'd placed my hand on a wall to support myself. I knew, logically, that I was excruciating pain, but it didn't seem to have registered in my brain in any significant way. What did register, though, was the hand that grasped my forearm out of nowhere.

I jerked away, but the hand held tight, and I nearly fell from the opposing forces. Its skin was blackened and burned, sloughing off in some places, almost bubbling in others. What was most disturbing, though, was the way it seemed to almost melt, appropriately enough, into the wall, scarred skin blending into charred wallpaper.

I managed to free my arm, but the effort sent me stumbling into the opposite wall. More hands grasped me, strangely cold despite their appearance, covering me in a web of appendages. I struggled fruitlessly and tried to scream, but instead of my voice, a deep, rumbling growl burst out.

"YOUR FAULT," it said as the hands closed around my face, and then they were pulling me back into the wall, and I was falling.

The corridor was gone, as were the hands. I tumbled through an empty void, the heat of the flames replaced by the chill of nothingness.  Fragments of what looked to be brick and mortar fell around me, spinning as they fell. I tried to reach out and touch them, but as soon as my fingers brushed them, they burst into flame. The flames spread through the cloud, and I was surrounded by a nimbus of flame, catching my clothes alight and burning into my flesh. This time, there was no separation from the pain, and I tried to scream again, but again the voice boomed out instead.

"YOUR FAULT."

I thumped into my bed, disoriented by the sudden lack of noise and pain. The sheets were soft and cool against my skin; my unburnt skin, which I didn’t find as odd as I probably should have.
I sat up to find myself surrounded by people. A crowd of shadowy figures facing away from me filled my bedroom, which, for some reason, had no walls. Everything was where it normally was, but the flooring faded out into nothingness, and the crowd extended out beyond my ability to see. I stood, and as soon as my feet touched the ground, every single person turned to face me, perfectly in sync. They were me, every one of them, except that they had no eyes, and their mouths were distorted into impossibly wide grins.
I reached out to touch the nearest… me, but my hand passed through it, and it dissipated into smoke. Others followed suit in a straight line behind it, filling the air and clouding my vision. When it faded, there was a clear path in front of me to my mirror. And staring back at me from the mirror was an olive-skinned face, thin and sallow, with a thick, smooth mustache.

“Hey, sport,” the face said. “Been a while.”

I woke in a cold sweat. For a second, I just stared at the ceiling, trying to hold onto the memories of the dream that I could already feel slipping away. It proved to be futile, though, and I sighed, rolling over and sitting up to face out the window.

My room was fairly small, considering the rest of the apartment. Basically just my bed, a cupboard and a dresser with the mirror on it, it made up for its size with a pretty great view. Outside, the lights of the city twinkled and shined below, casting a warm glow out over the lake and reflecting off of the skyscrapers around us.
I could see my reflection faintly in the floor-to-ceiling glass; my reflection, which seemed important for some reason. I wasn’t joking, back with Jess: I really do get mistaken for a girl a lot. I’ve got a pretty thin face and thick lips, but personally, I’ve always thought it was the eyebrows that sold it. Thin and neat, they looked like they’d been painted on. It was either that or the shoulder-length glossy-black dreadlocks, but that was a whole ‘nother can of worms.

I sighed, resting one hand against my forehead. As tired as I was, I knew there was no way I would be getting back to sleep tonight – no, this morning, I corrected myself as I caught a glimpse of the clock on the wall. I could never remember my nightmares; I just tended to wake up with lingering feelings of guilt and fire. Which, unfortunately, was more than enough to keep me awake.

Well, no point in letting the time go to waste.

I threw on a shirt over my sweatpants, and padded out the door, my sock-clad feet making slight scuffing noises on the hardwood floor. I probably didn’t need to bother being quiet, my mom sleeps like a log (she spends most of her days dealing with the worst kind of rich person), but I did it anyway, just in case. In case it wasn’t clear by this point, my family was stinking fucking rich. Our ‘house’ was three floors of an expensive apartment building in the middle of the city centre, and I do mean in the middle: with a little judicious use of my power, I could easily reach the Watchtower from my bedroom. Not that I’d want to, not unless I wanted to get carted away by one of the various hero teams that operated out of the gargantuan building. The Tower had some of the world’s only power-detecting sensors, installed all the way up the tower, which could detect power use in the surrounding ten blocks or so. It was impressive tech, theoretically, but in practice it only seemed to work properly on some powers, and very inconsistently on others.

I strolled down the stairs to the second floor of the housepartment. Bedrooms, bathrooms, offices and miscellaneous etcetera were on the top floor, kitchen, entrance and various living spaces on the middle one, and storage and the gym were on the bottom. It was to the last of these that I was headed: I still had a bunch of nervous energy, and exercise was the best way to burn some of that off.

I spun around the banister to head down and looked out the full-length window at the city stretched out below. We were fairly high up, and the urban sprawl extended into the distance, buildings decreasing in size as they got further out. As exaggeration-prone pundits are so fond of repeating, New Chicago is the superhuman crime capital of the world, and has levels of hero activity to match. As a (technical) contributor to said capital-ism, I felt like that was something of a misrepresentation. I mean, sure, NC has the highest rate of superhuman crime, but it also has one of the highest populations of a single city, and a population of paranormals to match: there’s more superpowered crime because there’re more people with superpowers. Basic common sense, which is not so common, doy hoy hoy.

I descended into the gym and waved a hand over the panel on the wall to activate the lights. Fluorescent panels built into the roof (Floor? Floof?) snapped on, bathing the wide and varied selection of exercise equipment in bright, clean white light. I hissed and held a hand in front of my eyes, and scrabbled at the panel until I managed to shift the lights to something a bit more palatable to my sleepy eyes.

I started off slow, doing some basic exercises and routines, and as I got into the more complicated stuff, I found my mind wandering. I’d been doing some form of martial arts for as long as I could remember, and while I’d never gotten officially certified, I could practically run through forms and general exercises in my sleep. 

My dad had always insisted I do martial arts, saying it’d keep me active, and my mom had grudgingly approved, because of the second part and despite the fact that I’d be actively learning how to hurt people. As might be obvious by this point, she didn’t know about my vigilante escapades. Though, despite the fact that she objected to my learning how to hurt people, she never really seemed to mind that my dad knew all the same things; hell, he’d taught me most of them. Still would be teaching me, in fact, if he was still around. But since he wasn’t-

I redoubled my energy, pounding the bag I was currently working on with a flurry of blows, trying to distance myself from that train of thought. Dammit, I’d gotten up to leave that behind, not to dunk my head back into the same mire of despair. Instead, I tried thinking about the group, but that just got me stressing about the giant pile of cash that was going to get us all killed-

I thought sunrise might help.

It really, really didn’t.


Black 3-IV

Push Your Luck.

I walked with Shauna as she strode back through the corridors that led into the main room, Jess trailing behind us. The light from the pad in her hand created a small sphere of illumination in the darkness, picking out a heavy cloud of dust in the air, thick enough that I hesitated for a second before walking through it. By our best estimates, this place had been abandoned for a good twenty or so years, like most of the ones around it. Intended as office/warehouse hybrids, most of them hadn't even been gutted when the work upped and left, and as such, there were still desks, chairs and tables left in about half of the rooms. We'd mostly left them be to give an illusion of emptiness, but if you looked carefully towards the back of the complex, you might be able to spot a few places where the dust wasn't quite as heavy as others.

"It's probably the weirdest thing I've seen," Shauna was saying, waving the pad to emphasize the point. "Look at this."

She handed it to me, and I held it up so Jess could peer over my shoulder. Lines of letters and numbers streamed down the screen, a seemingly-endless waterfall of text that looked like it continued back into the screen forever. The script looked old and blocky, and glowed with an eerie green light.

"What is this, your screensaver?" I asked. "How do I get rid of it?"

She sighed. "That's the UI. It's encrypted; apparently someone was a fan of the Matrix."

"The math thing?"

"No, the movie." She saw our blank stares. "Really? From the eighties, we're all in a simulation, superpowers are glitches in the system?"

I shrugged. "Never heard of it." Jess grunted in assent.

She rolled her eyes and snatched the pad back. "This was a pretty distinct visual from the movie. Seems like they wanted to be stylized with their security."

"So how does it work, then?"

"I have no idea, which is kind of the point. Whoever made this, they wanted to make sure that the only way to even access the files is to be in the know."

"And a password wasn't enough?"

"Apparently not." We passed into the main room, the circle of light up ahead. "If I had to guess, it's probably a defense against mental powers and such. They probably didn't want something that could be read or stolen, so it's a skill, rather than a code or pattern."

"Huh. That seems pretty paranoid, don'tya think?"

She smiled grimly as we passed the table, where George was piling the money back into the bag. He looked up, mouth opened as if to ask something, but Jess peeled off to talk to him as I waved him down with a mouthed "later".

"That's just the thing, Flint. If they're going to go to all this effort, what the bloody hell is on this thing?"

Privately, I'd been thinking along the same lines. "It's probably just corporate secrets or something, Shauna."

"Yes," she said slowly, like she was talking to a child, "and what are the two biggest corporations that have vested interest in securing their secrets?

"Oh." The Watchtower Conglomerate and Blacklight Services would both have very good reasons to want their secrets to stay protected. And considering the massive pile of money, and the fact that it had been stolen by supervillains... Yeah, there was a good chance that we were holding into the classified secrets of one of two of the most powerful superpowered organisations in the country (slash the world, maybe, sort of). "Well, dammit all to hell. Did you at least manage to get a backup of it?"

"You... really don't have much idea how computers work, do you?" she asked as we reached the desk with the computer on it.

“I’m going to choose to take that as a compliment,” I said loftily.

“Believe me, it’s not.” She placed the pad on the connector wired into the main body thing and the desktop up. The monitor flickered on for a second, displaying the default background that we’d settled on after people kept changing it, before being replaced by the same streaming lines of code as on the pad. “Even if I could somehow get past the encryption this thing’s packing, I can’t even connect it to another device without this happening.” She sounded almost… admiring as she said it.

I leant over the shoulder of the chair and picked the pad off the connector. The screen flickered back to normal, before reverting when I placed it down again. “Wow. I’m guessing this is impressive.”

“Very,” she nodded. “I don’t even know how you’d start going about making it do that.” She paused. “Then again, I’m a high school student who only knows about computers because her mother runs a repair shop, so what do I know?”

I stared at the screen, trying to follow a sequence the code for a second. “Eh,” I replied distractedly. “You figured out that we’re probably screwed, so you did fine in my books.” My eyes were starting to water, with no success, so I looked away and back towards the table. “Come on, we need to establish a few things.”

We strode back to the light, pad safely in Shauna’s hand. Jess and George had mostly finished, and were putting the last few bills back in the bag. “Now, I’m not saying I don’t trust you guys,” I said, “but if you took any, please put them back. It could literally be the difference between life and death.”

Jess grumbled for a second before pulling a few crumpled bills out of her pocket and putting them in the bag. George just raised his eyebrow at me, which I ignored.

“Alright,” I said, clapping my hands together. “I’m going to tell the others when they get back, and Sanjay, and Shauna can tell Nat, but I felt I might as well say this to you guys while we’re here. As of right now, we are in stand-down. No costumes, no powers, no more meetings. Until we figure out exactly what is going on, we’re all going back to pretending to be normal. I’m pretty sure we’ve stumbled into something way above our pay-grade, and some not-so-nice people are probably going to be looking for that bag pretty soon. Shauna,” I said, turning to address her, “I’m going to need you to set up some kind of secure messaging system. Is that possible?”

She frowned, pursing her lips. “I can’t create one from scratch, if that’s what you’re asking, but I can probably hack something together.”

“Right. Get on that, then. You two,” I said to Jess and George, “don’t get any special tasks, I’m afraid. Just go home, and try to pretend like you’re not technically-illegal vigilantes, if you could.” They nodded, George with a smirk, Jess’ face considerably flatter. “Good. Go, then, and get some sleep.”

“What will you do?” George asked.

“Me?” I plunked myself down on one of the chairs. “I’m going to wait for the others to get back with the safe, then I’m going to go home and sleep like a baby.”


Black 3-III


Hanging About.

Jess was on the roof, of course, because she couldn’t just sulk in a corner like a normal person.

I stuck my head out the doorway into the street, and immediately regretted it. The wind had picked up again, and a freezing gale assaulted me as soon as I exposed myself. I’d changed out of my costume, and was currently decked out in a thick winter parka, but I was starting to think I should have also grabbed gloves, a hat, and possibly a fire. Or, even better, my common sense, which was telling me to just go inside where it was warm.

As usual for this time of year, a thin patina of frost covered the world, gleaming strongly in the moonlight. If it had been daytime, I’d probably have wanted sunglasses, but as it was, it was still annoying. More annoying, though, was the fact that it was completely undisturbed. I’d been hoping to follow her footprints, but the complete lack of any had nixed that plan in the bud. I wondered how else I could… Oh.

“Jess?” I called out, feeling a little stupid for not thinking of it sooner. “You there?”

“Up here,” came the reply, sounding slightly muffled.

So when I said she was sitting on the roof, that was a little bit of a lie. She was actually sitting on an inset windowsill about three-quarters of the way up the building, but that doesn’t make such a snappy line. She was dangling her feet off the edge, lanky brown hair blowing over her face in the wind.

“Hey,” I said casually, standing in the middle of the road. I had to raise my voice to be heard over the wind.

“Hey.” She didn’t look at me when she spoke, staring off into the distance instead.

“Can we talk?"

She shrugged, still not making eye contact. "Sure. Coming down now."

I took a step back, judging angles and footholds. Jess had obviously just teleported up, but if I put my foot there, pushed off that outcropping and if I could make that jump... "No need," I said slowly. "I'll come to you."

I sprinted towards the wall, doing my best to avoid any patches of ice. My mobility was a little limited by the heavy winter gear, but without it, I wouldn't have even broken a sweat: it just made it harder, not impossible.

Using my built-up momentum, I planted one foot on the wall and pushed myself up into the air towards a thin ledge, ignoring the pain in my ribs. I really, really shouldn't have been doing stuff like that with an unknown injury less than a few hours old, but what's life without a little risk? I grabbed the cold ledge with both hands, then tucked one foot into a small hole in the brickwork and used it to push myself up towards some exposed pipes. From there, I swung over to an outcropping support pillar, digging my fingers into the gaps between the old bricks. Hauling myself up for a meter or two, I moved back over onto the ledge of a boarded-up window with a short hop, leaving me almost directly below Jess. Only one slight problem; the design of the windowsills angled smoothly down from their edge to blend into the wall, and to get a grip, I'd have to jump almost directly out and try and grab the ledge. I looked down at the ground, suddenly noticing how far down it was. I could do a few tricks, but I wasn't a real parkourist (parkourer?), and I don't know if I'd have risked that one, even if it was warm and dry and I was feeling particularly cocky (and in fairness, that's most days). But the beautiful thing about is superpowers is that they let you cheat.

I faced the wall, dredged up the last remains of my cold well of power, and jumped out, backwards. My arc carried me upwards to the edge of the sill, and I grabbed that momentum and shifted it, turning upwards-and-outwards into upwards-and-inwards, a v-shape that sailed me smoothly onto the ledge, right next to a startled Jess.

I landed with a thump, balancing on my knees and supporting myself against the window. This sill wasn't much longer than the one I'd jumped from, but it was big enough for me to turn around and sit without knocking Jess off, which I did. I dangled my legs next to hers, and grinned at her shocked expression.

"...what," she said at last.

"Parkour," I replied happily.

She stared at me for a second, face blank, then nodded appreciatively. "Cool."

We sat in silence for a minute. She'd chosen a good spot, I had to admit; the alcove sheltered us from the worst of the wind, and a small amount of warm air leaked through from inside. I leaned back against the window, slowly letting myself relax. Digging around in my jacket, I found the painkillers, dug them out and dry-swallowed two.

Jess was looking at me curiously. "For the power fatigue," I explained, tucking them back away.

"The what?"

Now it was my turn to look surprised. "Power fatigue. You know, when you overuse it, and it feels like someone's worked you over with a baseball bat and there's a tiny drummer doing a solo inside your head?"

She shook her head. "Nope."

"Huh. Lucky you, then."

"I've only had mine for 5 months. Might be why."

I shrugged. "Mebbe. But Adib and Nat don't seem to get it either, so maybe it's just one of those things, you know?"

She grunted. In the distance, a car honked. I opened my mouth, but the last remnants of my social skills punched an undead hand out of the grave where I'd buried them and told me not to, so I didn't.

My hair had come out of its knot while I was climbing, falling over my face. I pulled the scrunchie from where it still clung futilely to a few of my dreads and re-secured them.

Jess snorted at that. "Stupid look."

"What, this?" I asked, gesturing to my dreads. "They're cool! Black guys with dreads are cool!"

"Nah. It's girly."

"Hey," I protested weakly. "Some chicks like dudes that are prettier than they are." She wasn't wrong, though; though let's just say I got mistaken for a girl a lot when I was younger. "The hair probably doesn't help, does it?"

"Nope. Thought you were a girl first time we met."

I laughed. "Really? Even in costume?"

"Yep."

"Ouch."

We lapsed into silence again.

"Stupid," she said after a few minutes.

I looked at her. "What, my hair? We already did that bit."

She waved me down. "Not you. Her."

"Oh, right. Yeah," I agreed, "Nat has a bit of an impulse control issue. She's not stupid, exactly, but she doesn't tend to think things through."

She raised a thick eyebrow. "Seems dangerous."

I shrugged. "Shauna and Talie usually rein her in. I guess the latter being away leads to stuff like this." And take the plunge, Flint... "As well as stuff like earlier."

Jess surprised me, then. After the way she'd been earlier, I'd expected her to lash out or close off. But instead, her shoulders slumped, and she stared desolately up and out into the distance. "I know," she said softly.

I frowned, thrown off balance by the unexpected response. I'd been preparing to have to go on the offensive, but that didn't seem like such a good idea anymore, not with her already beating herself up over it.

"Jess," I said slowly. "What do you think would've happened if I'd taken that team? If I'd taken you and Tide and Stonewall, and you'd gone with the apartment lot?"

"You'd have won," she said, a little glum. "I'd screw up."

I made a buzzing sound. "Wrong. Think it through. We'd already have lost the element of surprise to the forcefield guy like you guys did, but we wouldn't have had enough straight-up offensive ability to keep them pinned. Shauna would've been our best AoE, and they would've just steamrollered over us and escaped, and then we would've had to chase them, and then the heroes would've gotten involved while we were at half-strength and then the whole thing would've deteriorated like a loaf of bread in a washing machine. You didn't screw up, you just got handed a situation pre-screwed. We thought, or rather, Talie thought, that you'd be going up against Crusade and Schism, not the new guys and Strongarm. And you know what?" I gestured back inside. "We're all still fine. The Cabal went down, and they'll stay that way for at least a little while. That's what really matters in the end."

"That ends justify means," she said snidely, but she wasn't slumping so much now, and her demeanor seemed a little better.

"If you're going to twist my words," I said haughtily, "please try and do it while sounding a little less like Rorschach." She snorted. "Seriously, though. Despite what I said earlier, you did fine. If anyone's to blame, it's Talie for pulling her disappearing act two days before we ran this strike and leaving us to compensate for not having her."

"Where'd she go?"

I sighed, giving a little shake of my head. "We don't know. She just ups and vanishes for weeks at a time, and then comes back acting like she never left. It's really annoying."

"Sounds like it. So normal for you guys, then." She actually grinned, and I responded in kind.

"First, ouch. Second, ouch. Third, yeah, seems that way." I glanced across the road, up at the rooftop where I'd met her what felt like a long time ago. "She makes up for it, though. I'd like to think we all do."

I shook my head, banishing the brief wave of melancholy. “Anyway! What are we doing out here, complaining about old problems, when we’ve got a fucking massive one waiting for us inside?” She gave me a flat look. “Just trying to lighten the mood, geez.”

“Flint!” a voice called out, surprising me. I searched around for the source for a second, before remembering to look down. Shauna was sticking her head out the doorway. “Get your feckin’ ass down here. You’re need to see this.”

“Well, I guess that’s our cue,” I said to Jess. I paused, then looked around. “So, uh, how exactly do weaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”

Just in case you’re wondering, that’s the sound of Jess grabbing my arm and pulling me off the ledge.

We hit the ground in an impact that felt like landing on a feather pillow, rather than, you know, concrete. The rolling wave of force forced Shauna back a step, but compared to some of the ones Jess has pulled before, that was basically nothing.

“Please give me some warning next time,” I said angrily, yanking my arm out of her grasp.

“Sure,” she said, smirking. “Next time I’ll know it works.”