Fight 15-IX

In The Rain.

Now, I wasn't a hundred percent sure. 10 million people in the city, there were definitely many, many teenage girls with pink-y blonde hair around. But she was wearing white pants & boots, like Wisp had, and her black shirt looked like thermal underwear, that you'd wear underneath a proper shirt. I do it, most of us do when it's wintertime. Steelsilk is fantastic, but it's not very warm. Plus, there was the slightest hint of shimmery lavender at her side, like that scarf she'd been wearing.

“Is that that Wisp girl?” George asked. So there was that too.

I nodded, not looking away from the screen. “Yep, looks like it.”

“Who?” Talie asked, sounding confused.

“Long story, tell you later. What was she doing there?”

“Oh, I saw her!” said Adib, excited. “She was there when Sanjay came and got me! He told me she helped him find me, but I didn't know at the time, and I thought she was with Edith, so I blocked off the corridor and ran.”

“Uh huh,” I said distractedly. “But why would she have-” my brain caught up, and I froze. “What.”

“Oh yeah, Edith was there too. She mostly ignored me and screamed a lot and hit things, though. She was already there when they brought me in.”

I spun away from the screen, thoughts of Wisp forgotten. “The Tower has her?!”

Adib took a step back, and I realized I was up in his face. “...no, she got out when I did. See, Sanjay blew up one of the circuits, but it shorted out the rest, and-”

I'd already stopped listening. I began pacing, back and forth, wringing my hands and rubbing my neck. I… didn't know how to feel about that. On one hand, it was the Tower. They could all rot in hell, as far as I was concerned, and I respected their authority about as much as I respected the average fly. But… if she was in a cell, then she wasn't out on the streets, hurting others and herself. No, wait, Adib had said she was hitting things, she'd do that until she bled. So not hurting others, at least. I… think I could live with that? It's not a happy thought, but it's kind of hard to say she doesn't deserve it. Moot point, though, because she'd escaped. And whatever she'd been planning to get back at us for, that'd probably still be happening. With an accelerated timeline, I bet. If I knew her at all, she'd take the anger from being locked up and channel it all my way, because that's what she did. She focused on a target, and it was like tunnel vision. Didn't matter what happened from there and who was responsible, any new emotions were directed at that person or problem. Add to that that she apparently thought the datapad had some clue as to Eve’s whereabouts, and I predicted she was a problem we were going to have to deal with sooner rather than later. And I really didn't want to do that.

“Flint.” A hand landed on my shoulder, stopping me in my tracks, and I looked up to see Talie, standing in front of me with a look of concern on her face. “Problem for later, yeah?”

I took a deep breath in, and let it out slowly. “Yeah. Yeah, okay. Sorry.”

“It's okay,” she said gently. “We know-”

I knocked her hand off and strode back to the TV. “I'm not made of fucking porcelain, I'm not gonna shatter.” I leant in and peered at the still-frozen image of Wisp on the screen. “Adib. You said she helped you?”

“That's what Sanjay said. He said she told him where I was.”

“Did he say if she said why she was there?” He shook his head. “Damn. That would have made this easier.”

“Flint, I seriously think you need to tell us what the deal with this girl is.” Shauna was looking at me with a mix of concern and trepidation, and a little bit of anger.

I sighed, looking at Jess and George. “I don't suppose either one of you wants to take this?” They both looked at me flatly. “Yeah, I realized as soon as I said it.” I gave the rest of the group the briefest possible rundown of Wisp’s whole situation.

“So, she's looking for the… school hijackers, the ones Adib stopped?” Talie looked pensive, but the big guy puffed out his chest slightly.

“I call them the Prowlers,” I said. “But yeah. And at the time, we didn't know there was any connection there with our thing. But now there is, because they were looking for the datapad, and she just happens to show up at the Tower at the same time as us?” I sucked in a breath through my teeth. “I think she might be working for them.”

Jess shook her head. “Why would she help Sanjay?”

“To plant a tracker on Adib, track him back to us?” Shauna asked.

George shook his head. “He's clean.”

“Hmm. Then I don't know.”

“I'll admit, it doesn't make an amazing amount of sense,” I said. “But you have to admit it's suspicious that she just happened to run into us, twice now.”

“Well, counterpoint,” Talie said. “You said you brought her here. Why would she need to bug Adib or whatever, if she could just show them herself?”

I felt my eyes widen. “Oh fucking hell, I hadn't even thought about that. I may have doomed us all.”

“I think we'll be okay. Adib, they got you yesterday evening?”

“More like early this morning.”

“Right, yeah. They wouldn't have done that if this Wisp girl could've led them straight here.”

“Why don't we just ask her?” George said, pulling out his phone. He mimed tapping on the screen. “Dear Wisp, are you working for the Tower? Thanks, the Outliers.” He made a booping noise. “And… send.”

“Ha ha, George, very funny.”

He frowned. “...did you think I was joking?” He turned the screen to us and showed us the sent message. I gaped at him for a second, then buried my face in my hands and swore a bit.

“Oh-kay!” Talie clapped her hands together. “I think this has officially fallen under the category of something to worry about later. Right now…” she’d set her phone on the table when I wasn't watching, and she tapped the screen.

“Ey yo,” said Lis’s voice on speakerphone. “Wassup.” There was the slight sound of rapid clicking in the background.

“Hey Ricochet,” Talie said, putting a slight emphasis on the name. We all got the hint. “How's our mutual friend going?”

An unfamiliar voice came onto the line. A woman, heavily tinged with one of those British-tinged subcontinent accents. “I am standing right here, thank you. You are the client, yes? Void?”

“That's me, yes. Do you almost have it?”

“I would have it already if your busybody would not stand over my shoulder and pester me.” The tapping intensified. “But yes, I have your files. I trust payment has been delivered.”

“Ricochet will handle that,” Talie said smoothly. All of us were now looking at her with what were probably pretty amusing expressions. She held up one finger and smiled. “Can you do as agreed, please?”

“I deal with criminals and you are my worst customer.” A brief pause. “There, it is done. Now, I would very much like to be paid, please.”

“Thank you, Bhaga. Ricochet, pay the lady.”

“You got it, boss lady.” Then the call clicked off.

“Mind explaining what that was?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.

“That,” she replied, “was the hacker we hired to grab the footage of the fight and release it to every major news network and cape board.” She grinned at our stunned reactions. “Cool, right?”

I leaned back, breathing out. “Holy shit. So you predicted they'd cut out the video?”

“It does make sense,” Shauna said contemplatively.

“Mm-hmm. And now everyone knows we were peaceful, and they attacked us. They'll take a hit to their credibility for sure, and it'll be a lot harder for them to come after us.”

“Except now,” George pointed out, “every supervillain in the city knows for sure we still have the datapad. They'll all be gunning for us.”

In response, Jess popped her knuckles, sharp and loud and unexpected, and said what we were all thinking.

“Bring it.”

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Fight 15-VIII

At Night They Sing.

“We have a TV?” I asked incredulously.

The black slab of plastic and glass sat on the main table, cords snaking out of the back and across the floor into a socket on the wall. It was old: there were a few inches of blank plastic around the edge of the screen, and it was ridiculously thick: almost two and a half inches deep by my reckoning. Shauna, wearing her armor without the helmet and her coke-bottle glasses back on her face, was fiddling with the remote, pointing it at the screen and hammering the buttons furiously. “Found it in one of the back rooms. It's still working, but this remote is-” the screen flickered into life suddenly, colors washing across it in staticky patterns. “There we go. Now I just need to figure out how I did that.”

“And also how to change the channel,” George interjected. He was lying draped over the arm of the couch like a freakin’ model, one arm hanging languidly over the edge. The effect was slightly ruined, though, by the half-eaten bag of chips lying against his stomach, and the orange salt stains on the fingers of his other hand.

“What, really?” Shauna replied sarcastically as she kept hammering on the remote. “Here I was, thinking I'd just play some nice, soothing static for the next little while.” She growled, then held the remote out in one hand and very deliberately pressed one finger down on a button. Nothing happened.

“Mm, I was sure that would work,” George drawled lazily. “We all know technology responds to dramatic gestures, after all.”

Shauna ignored him, repeating the motion a few more times, with increasing frustration. I sighed and walked over to them, flicking down my hood as I did. I pulled the scrunchie off my hair and flicked it at George’s face as I passed him; he caught it out of the air, his hand just appearing in place.

“I hate to make the obvious suggestion,” I said, “but have you checked the batteries?”

She rolled her eyes. “No, Flint, I didn't think to check the feckin’ batteries because I am a feckin’ idiot.”

“See,” George said, “that's what I like to see. Honesty about your only flaws.”

“George, shut up.”

“He’s saying the batteries are flat,” I said dryly.

“No, they're not,” she scoffed. “And how would you even know anyway?”

He waggles his fingers at her. “Electromagnetic fields, love.” She gagged at the sarcastic term of ‘endearment’, and I mirrored the expression. He frowned in response, but quickly moved on. “They're dead.”

She slumped, resigned, and tossed the remote up into the air. I caught it as she walked off, muttering things under her breath. I looked at George, and his carefully blank face, then pulled out one of the batteries and put it to my tongue. Nothing.

“You're an asshole, you know that?” I said to him, and he grinned, the mask breaking.

“Worth it.”

“Yeah, well,” I replied as I dropped down onto the couch, on top of his legs, “we'll see if you reconsider when Nat finds out.”

“Eh, I can take her.”

“You absolutely cannot.”

The discussion was cut off from going any further by the arrival of Adib and Ivan, through the main entrance. The former had dismissed his black forcefield armor, but still wore the brown jumpsuit, while Ivan still had his glowing vest on, helmet tucked under one arm.

“So I was on my way here,” Adib was saying, “when suddenly a woman made of flame comes out of nowhere and hits me! Out of nowhere!” He shook his head. “It's shameful.”

Ivan nodded, clearly trying to keep himself from laughing and not doing very well. “Oh, shameful.”

“Exactly!” That was Adib for you. Couldn't sense sarcasm to save his life, and almost painfully naive. Like if someone took the Kingpin, made him Middle Eastern, then swapped his brain with a puppy’s.

He noticed us, and rushed over, Ivan trailing behind, biting his knuckles. “Guys! I was just telling Ivan about how they captured me! Do you want to hear?” His face was stretched into an earnest smile, and I found myself mirroring it. I couldn't not: it was contagious.

“I think we can infer from context.” He stared at me blankly. “We get it,” I clarified.

His face sank. “Oh. I was really excited to tell you. I spent the whole time in there thinking about it so I could tell it really well.”

“Well,” I said hastily, “on the other hand, I'm sure we didn't get all of it. Why don't you tell us later?”

He perked back up. “Okay! Just let me finish telling Ivan.” He turned back to him, and the other guy quickly schooled his face back into order. “So I get hit, obviously, and-”

Ivan held up a hand. “Why don't you tell us all at once? Save the trouble.”

“Oh, okay. Sure!” He turned so he could see us all. “So it was night, and I was coming back here-”

“Later!” the three of us chorused in unison.

“Later what?” asked Shauna, walking back towards us with an entire bag of batteries in her hand.

Adib opened his mouth, but George shot upright and cut him off. “Nothing you need to worry about. Are you sure you have enough batteries? Maybe you should get some more to be safe.”

She ignored him, instead giving Adib a quick side-armed hug. “It's good to have you back, big guy. Hey, George, maybe you should follow his example and get yourself locked up. Save everyone some trouble.”

“Oh, they could never keep George,” came a voice from above us. “He'd drive everyone there to suicide within an hour or two.” We all looked up to see Talie slipping through the skylight above and beginning to float down to the ground.

“So, by that logic, you're all ghosts, then,” he shot back.

“First thing to look for,” I said, “is if other people interact with us. Sixth Sense tips.”

“Or if we show up in mirrors!” said Adib, excitedly.

“That's vampires,” Ivan told him.

“Well, it would still work for ghosts.”

“Would it?” I pondered. “You're just seeing the ghosts in your mind, right? So they might not show up in mirrors then, or your mind could fill in their reflection.”

“What if the ghosts are just on a different wavelength of light?” Shauna asked, sounding amused, as she popped open the remote and replaced the batteries. “Then they'd still show up in the mirror.”

“Oh yeah, good point.” A thought struck me. “Are there any supers who can see ghosts?”

“Why would any of us know that?” Talie asked.

“I dunno, I was just asking.” The TV flared into full color signal, bright and crisp, and we all turned our attention to it, stupid ghost conversations forgotten. Shauna flicked through the channels until she found a news station. Unfortunately, it was on ad break.

“I guess it would be too much to ask for it to just be playing,” Talie admitted, disappointed.

“Movies have lied to us!” I half-shouted, mock-indignant. It got a few giggles and chuckles from the others.

After sitting through a few minutes of awful commercials about all sorts of stupid junk, most of it pills and infomercial crap, the news came back on. Jess had just walked back in, to a wave of murmured greetings, and she took up a spot at the back of the group as the graphic finished and it cut back to the news anchor.

Our top story tonight is from New Chicago, where the case that is being called the heist of the century has taken an unexpected turn.” And, in one of the most satisfying moments of my life, it cut to the footage of all of us, standing in the lobby of the Tower. “The twenty million dollars in bearer bonds, that for the past few days has been the subject of a national high-priority search, has been handed in. A metahuman vigilante group known as the Outliers, who you may remember were suspects in the case only a few days ago, appear to have been responsible for recovering the stolen money, claiming to have recovered it from the original thieves.” They played the clip of me saying as much. “Shortly afterwards, the Watchtower Conglomerate’s young hero team, the Guardians, arrived on the scene, and, according to eyewitness accounts, instigated a conflict with the until-then peaceful vigilantes.” The others whooped and cheered at that as the footage right before the blackout played, but something caught my eye. In a flash, I snatched the remote from Shauna’s hand and hit the pause button.

“Hey!” she said, surprised. “What the hell, man?”

I ignored her as I leaned in close. Yep. There, in the back, just between the heads of two women. A flash of almost-pink hair, and a face I recognised more from shape than features.

Wisp.

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Fight 15-VII

And When They Come Home.

The sewer trek gave me some time to clear my head (and, sadly, my sinuses). By the time I'd reached the manhole with the little angle symbol that I'd scratched in next to it, the adrenaline had worn off, and I was beginning to feel a little sick. Not from the sewage. Well, a little from the sewage. Mostly, though, it was the reality of the events that had just passed.

What the fuck had we been thinking? I realized as I popped the cover off with a groan of effort. Our whole thing is based on flying under the radar. We just… blew up the sensor dish! (I don't know how radar works). Oh, man, we're so completely fucked.

It was significantly darker than it had been outside, when I hoisted myself upwards and out of the sewers. I switched off the torch on my phone (it's a sewer. They're not generally known for their accommodating and pleasant lighting) and pushed my goggles up onto my forehead, reducing the gloom a little. I was a couple of blocks, maybe five or six, from our warehouse, back in away from the lake. It was the closest manhole to us, which I'd initially been annoyed about, having a fundamental streak of laziness I'd never quite managed to exorcise. But having an entrance right near us was a security risk, and the wide open streets between here and there made it easy to spot any tails. Until now, that had always been a bit of paranoia on my part, an over-eagerness to utilise the skills my dad had taught me, possibly as some kind of… tribute. But now, I was beginning to suspect it would be a very real and present risk. Hell, if interested parties wanted to find us, they wouldnt even need to tail one of us: The Tower could easily get a super with a tracking ability to just find us. In fact, that would probably be exactly what was going to happen. Our only chance of avoiding it rested on a slim thread, the last remaining part of the plan. (Oh, you thought the plan was over? The plan was not even close to being over). If that didn't work… well, I don't think I'd do too well in prison.

As I fretted, I rounded the last corner before the warehouse.To my surprise, someone was standing outside the front entrance. From the profile, in the dark, I thought it was Ivan, but as I grew closer, I could make out a ragged ponytail, and flashes of a light blue. It was Jess, leaning against the wall with her hands cupped near her mouth and… lighting one up?

Yep. As I grew closer, there was a barely visible flare of orange in between her fingers, and she dropped her hands, one of which held a cheap disposable lighter in it.  A dark cylinder stuck out from between her lips, and as I watched, she leant her head back and let out a puff of smoke from the opposite corner of her mouth.

“I didn't know you smoked,” I said. She obviously hadn't noticed me: her head jerked forward slightly and towards me, and one hand flicked up towards her mouth before she controlled the reaction, as if she was trying to hide it. She breathed out when she saw it was just me.

“Don't exactly advertise it,” she said, slightly muddled by the cigarette. No, wait, the smell was wrong, it was a blunt. “Just helps me relax. Destress.” She'd taken off the flight cap, and her old-fashioned goggles hung from their strap around her neck. And, in fact, she did look relaxed. More than I'd ever seen her, actually. She pretty much always had this air of tenseness, like she wasn't sure where the next blow was going to come from and wanted to be ready. Seeing that lessened slightly, the lines of her face softened, was actually a little unnerving.

I crinkled my nose, but tried to play it off. “It's okay, you don't have to justify it to me. Hell, relaxing sounds pretty good to me right now.” To my surprise, she took the blunt from her mouth and offered it to me, eyebrow raised questioningly. I laughed and shook my head. “Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Square,” she said with a smirk as she retracted it and took another puff.

I watched the smoke twirl and rise into the air. “Yeah, I guess so. I'm just too boring.”

She snorted. “You're anything but.”

I looked at her sharply, caught off guard. “Was… was that a compliment. From the legendary stoic Jess Reynolds? No, it couldn't be.”

She shrugged. “You can take it that way.”

“Alright, this is downright uncanny,” I said. “That was a full, complete sentence. That was the first full, complete sentence I've heard from you, ever. You're sure you're not an imposter?”

She raised an eyebrow. “Would I tell you if I was?” It was so unexpected I actually laughed.

“I've gotta say, I'm really digging this Jess.”

“It's nice,” she said with a little shrug of agreement. “Better than being curled up in a ball like I would be right now. Can't rely on it, though. Need to be sharp.” Her face had gone a little pensive.

“What, all the time?” I asked.

She nodded, seeming to be a very long way away. “Home… isn't the greatest place to be.”

I raised my eyebrow in a 'go on’ sort of gesture, trying to hide how unprepared I was for this sudden display of openness. Have you noticed I'm bad at emotional stuff yet? Because she apparently hadn't.

“It's… there's always something,” she continued. “Always someone yelling or screaming or throwing things or whatever. If I'm not on my guard, I'm gonna get hit by something or someone.”

I looked her up and down. I'm not short (I'm not), and she was taller than me, and considerably more solid. “I… uh, I'm trying to find a way to put this sensitively, but that doesn't seem like it would be as much of a problem for you as... it might be for others?”

She shot me a glare, which was relieving in an odd way. “They're my parents.”

“Right, okay,” I said, holding up my hands defensively. “Sorry, sorry.”

She continued on like I hadn't said anything. “It's… stressful. I think it's helped with all this, though.”

I nodded at that. “Can't imagine being on your toes being a hindrance when people are trying to kill you.”

“You don't seem to need it,” she noted.

This entire conversation kept throwing me curveballs. “What?” I said, confused.

“You’re calm,” she elaborated. “No, not calm. But… I don't know. Easy?”

I opened my mouth to make a joke about me being easy, but decided against it. “Jess, that's not-”

“Like you don't have to be on your toes all the time.”

I opened my mouth, and shut it a few times. “I… don't really know how to respond to that.”

She shook her head. “Forget it. It's stupid.”

I wanted to say something. She'd opened up to me, and I should have been able to respond to that, right? That's what normal people did. “...sure, okay,” I said instead. “Are the others here yet?”

“Yeah,” she replied, expression unreadable. “Not everyone, but most. I'll be in in a minute.”

“Okay,” I said awkwardly. “I'll… see you in there, I guess.” She grunted noncommittally.

I took a few steps inside, then stopped. “Jess,” I said slowly. “I… I don't really know how to say this without being weird, so bear with me?” She didn't look at me, but I barreled on regardless. “You know, I, uh… oh god, this is cheesy. I wasn't always like this.”

“Uh huh,” she said, monotone.

“No, seriously. Ask any of the others what I was like about… a year and a half ago? Yeah. It was kind of like you, actually, but more angry. And I'm not trying to equivocate myself to you, but, you know…” I faded off, grasping for the right words. “They're just different ways of coping, I guess, me and you. And mine’s not necessarily better.”

“No?”

I scratched the back of my head awkwardly. “I don't know. I'm just saying… I don't know what I'm saying. I guess it's just that… maybe don't be so hard on yourself? You're more together than you think, and maybe the rest of us are the opposite. Uhm… maybe I'm the opposite. And…” I steeled myself, then reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Maybe you're not as alone as you think you are?”

The silence stretched out for a few seconds, and I was beginning to wonder if I'd made a mistake. Then, she laughed, low and soft. “That was really cheesy.” But she didn't make any move to remove my hand. “Thanks, Flint.”

I smiled at the back of her head a little awkwardly. “Hey, I did warn you. See you inside?”

She nodded, and gave a little two-finger salute without looking back, then turned back to continue staring out into the night sky. I left her to it, and began walking inside, just a little more pensive than before.

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Fight 15-VI

There'll Be No-One There.

The buddy system is based on a pretty simple idea. Freefall’s power is great, but it's kind of unilateral. We can't exactly designate targets or whatever: a giant wall of force isn't going to go 'oh, Jess likes that person, I guess I won't hit them, then’ (if Jess does like us, that is). But when we added up the numbers, we realized that approximately half of us had some way of resisting or protecting themselves from it. Tide can raise a barrier, Ribbon can create a shield like she did back at Ramsay Park, Vortex and Stonewall both have forcefields, and Void can just tank a hit. The buddy system, then, is pairing up those who can't take the hit from our very own human artillery with someone who can. Essentially, in quasi-military terms, it allows us to shell our own position and survive. And if you're not willing to shell your own position, you're not willing to win. And we are very willing to win.

Smoke and dust whirled across the square. The dust was from the impact, but Jess had pointed out that the square was too solid to really throw up a good-enough smokescreen with just what it produced. So Lis had pulled out a belt of smoke grenades with the pins tied together and given them to her, with instructions to pull the string just before she hit. The light obscured it, but when it had faded after a second, the square was quickly becoming blanketed in acrid black smoke.
The crowds around the edges ooh-ed, but the sound quickly became muffled as the smoke washed over them too, turning into hacking coughs. Lis had assured me that there wouldn't be any long-term negative effects of inhaling the smoke, but it wouldn't be pleasant. It also probably wouldn't leave people too well-inclined towards us, but that was unavoidable.

The wind suddenly picked up, unnaturally strong. The bank of smoke and dust began to shift, moving away from the Tower lobby, but then it changed direction as the wind did. It began moving upwards,  lifting the cloud off the confused crowd and into the air. That must've been Instance: I was seriously starting to wonder why he wasn't running everything, considering how ridiculously overpowered he seemed to be. He had to have some kind of catch, I figured. It didn't make sense otherwise.

The smoke grenades still lay in various places on the concrete, releasing streams of smoke like signal flares as the wind dragged them upwards. The Guardians stood at various places across the square, in varying conditions. Most looked like they'd been knocked down, but there was a wall of ice between Fog and the impact point, and Instance was standing with his arms outstretched, not looking worse for wear as he directed the cloud upwards.

The crater in the centre of the square wasn't as deep as the Ramsay Park one, but it was still not-insignificant. Maybe 6 feet deep, double across? Standing in the centre was, of course, Freefall. Of the rest of the Outliers there was no sign.

She gave a half-salute with two fingers, clearly mocking, then disappeared, just before a veritable storm of ice tore through the crater. Fog stalked over, screaming various foul obscenities. Her serene mask was cracked, on an angle starting just below the nose and ending right below one ear. The affected section had fallen off, and there was blood on the dark skin below. Stump intercepted her before she could reach the crater, sticking one hand out in front of her. She immediately took a swing at him, and he took the blow without flinching as it bounced off his… armor? Skin? I don't know.

What I could hear was the murmuring of the crowds as they watched the scene play out. Honestly, although things had gotten off the rails a little, this whole thing had gone better than we possibly could've hoped.

Pulling that Batman trick had probably been the hardest part of this. It had also been quite possibly the silliest. See, remember how Flatline had ridden one of Tide's waves? Yeah, it was basically like that, combined with forcefields and Ribbon’s fabric to hold everyone in place. It both looked and felt stupid as all get-out, but it worked, and we'd all managed to successfully be whisked off into one of the many side alleys off the square before the smoke began to clear. It was a memory I'd both treasure forever and never tell anyone, ever.

Thankfully, there were no people in the alleyway, so nobody had been crushed as we'd come tumbling gracelessly out the other end, into another, slightly grimier passageway. Immediately, Foresight had begun recounting what was going on back in the square while everyone gathered around.

“And… yeah,”he continued, “they’re starting to figure out that we couldn't have gone far. Comet’s yelling at the civilians to disperse.”

“It's advice we should follow,” Void said. She'd taken off her helmet, wiping some sweat off her forehead as she grinned uncontrollably. “But… hot damn, we actually did it! We pulled an au-natural Batman move!”

“Plus, you know, all that other stuff,” I said, mock-grumpily, and she laughed.

“But seriously,” she said, “split up and scram. Meet back at base once you're sure you're not being followed.” The helmet went back on, and she lifted off with a gust of wind.

“So,” Stonewall said slowly, “is no-one going to ask what happened to me?”

“Later, big guy,” Vortex said, punching his shoulder lightly with a bruised and bloodied fist. “It's good to have you back, though.”

“Oi,” I interjected. “Come on, get going.”

“So there I was,” Stonewall continued unabated, “heading down to-”

I threw my hands up in the air and stalked off. “Ridiculous,” I muttered. “Ridiculous people.”

The thing not a lot of people know about New Chicago is that as big as it is, it was supposed to be bigger. The plans and basic infrastructure already existed before 9-11: it was supposed to be the next big city, a fully-planned urban and economic metropolis. The destruction of Old Chicago put a damper on those plans, forcing them to build in a hurry to deal with all the displaced people, but certain systems had already been built according to those original ideas. And one of those systems were the sewers.

(“But Flint, didn't you not know anything about the city’s history just before?” It's not an all-or-nothing switch, genius. I know about the sewers because they're actually relevant to my life.)

The original plan had been to disappear into the pipes that ran underneath the streets as a group, but that'd been nipped in the bud when Shauna had gone online and figured out that there wasn't any access in or close enough to the square. We’d had to go with the much stupider alternate plan, which George had called the pooper scooper. But, now that we were successfully away, I could find a manhole and successfully slip away.

Heh. I'd just been through the pooper scooper, and now, seeing as I was sneaking across town in sewage tunnels, I guess you could say I was being a…

Pooper snooper.

I'm not sorry.

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Fight 15-V

The Words They Come To You.

It was like the floodgates had been opened. Everyone who could was now trying to move their little section of the fight outside. For the Outliers, it was intentional, of course, but that didn't explain Chain charging through the broken doors, or Comet blasting Void back out through the wall. I dearly hoped that was a lucky shot.

The person I was most worried about was Ricochet. Not that she'd get hurt, she could handle herself fine, but that she wouldn't remember the plan. She tended to do her own thing. Thankfully, though, she was in a fighting retreat, backing towards the exits while unloading enough ammunition to sponsor a medium-sized third-world revolution. You might think Ribbon would be similar, and I had initially, but surprisingly, she'd proven to actually be pretty good at following plans when in the field. No, the other risk was actually Tide.

I know, right?

She gets kinda… bloodlust-y. It's actually quite terrifying if you're on the wrong end of it. I personally think it's the result of years of carefully bottling in a fiery temper to appear proper, combined with Short Person Syndrome. You've never known true fear, I say, until you've seen a five-foot-nothing wisp of a girl juggle three grown men and woman between waves of concrete while screaming about how she's going to to smash their heads open on the curb in a thick Scottish burr.

Anyway, this time she'd been mostly removed from the action, so she'd mostly kept her cool. I jerked my head towards the door, and she nodded, and we began moving outwards at a hurried pace. I very much doubted that wave had really done anything but inconvenience Instance, so we needed to capitalize on that.

Outside, most of the people who'd fled the building now surrounded the edges of the square. People had no damn sense of self-preservation these days. I know I sound like an old man sitting on his front porch, and I know it's pretty rich coming from an 18-year-old, but I'm still essentially right. People probably die every day because they're too entranced with the flashy colors and bright lights of super battles to actually think about how danger they're in. Hopefully, today would not be one of those days.

The Guardians had followed us outside, evidently not willing to let this resolve peacefully. And yes, I'd be fine with that. Well, not fine, but it was one of the parts of the plan, so I'd deal. But I suppose to them, all of us locked up probably was a peaceful resolution. Pricks.

There'd been no real break in the little battles aside from ours. Ribbon and Stump were actually still fighting, Stump a lot smaller and humanoid again. It meant he couldn't really attack Ribbon that well, but it gave him more agility, made him harder to hit.

Comet and Void were really going at it now, without the constraints of the room holding them back. Searingly bright coronas of flame clashed with roaring winds and gaps of complete vacuums in the air above us, the noise a curious mix of painfully loud and startlingly quiet. Considering how handily Void had handed Valiant their own asses on a platter, Comet was putting up a surprisingly good fight. The advantage of surprise probably had something to do with that.

I think I'd proven pretty handily that I couldn't really do anything to affect Instance behind being an annoyance, so I sprinted instead towards where Vortex and Flatline were dealing with Chain and Fog.

My friends had gone on the offensive. Flatline was pushing Chain backwards, aggressively launching open-handed blows and two-finger jabs that looked like he was going for pressure points. The hero was dodging as easily as he had my blows; easier, even. But whenever he tried to return fire or capitalize on an opportunity, an opalescent forcefield flickered into existence just in front of the blow, stopping it in his tracks. I watched as his fist rebounded off one just in front of Flatline’s knee, and as he danced away from an open-palmed slap, I would swear he was moving just a little bit slower. Interesting.

Vortex was a few steps behind them, his hands flicking around and darting with a complexity I'd never seen from him before. Small shields were appearing and disappearing constantly, not only to protect Flatline, but also himself, from the veritable rain of ice Fog was throwing down. He'd occasionally manage to return fire, but more often than not, the half-forward spheres dropped to the ground unfired as he disappeared the shield to make a new one.

Their strategy was a good one: Flatline had the best chance of taking anyone instantly out of the fight if he could get close enough, so Vortex was protecting him until he could do that, just stalemating Fog in the meantime. It was basically the same idea I'd had, actually. Switching wasn't doing any good, and we still outnumbered the Guardians. It was time to really capitalize on that.

I followed Fog with my gaze as she swept overhead, trying to predict her path as sure as I could. She didn't notice me, her attention focused on bombarding the others with shards of ice. Once I was reasonably certain I had it, I altered my path to meet up with the point she’d be above in about five seconds. I dredged up the last little bits of my power, everything that was left. I'd be effectively useless for the rest of the fight, but them’s the breaks sometimes.

I didn't bother focusing on getting it precise, just smacked Fog with it in one big burst, sending her instantly downwards. Shame about the stupid serene mask she wore, because I'd have loved to see her face then.

She dropped like a stone, all her momentum combining with the force of gravity, but quickly began slowing as the green glow from underneath her dress intensified. She stopped completely about two feet off the ground, just in time for me to shoulder-charge her straight in the midsection.

She shot backwards as the air was driven out of her. Straight backwards: whatever was keeping her floating preventing her from falling. I didn't break step after the charge, and quickly caught up as she slowed. She was ready for me now, and heavy armor made of translucent white ice snapped into being around her limbs and torso, but I could see that the blow had shaken her. Plus, armor wouldn't do anything except slow her down, and come on. It's ice, and I had real armor. And, remember, very heavy boots.

I drove an elbow at her chest, the armored pad on the end splintering and cracking the ice. Fog immediately began flowing over it and turning into more ice to repair it, but I'd already followed it up with a full-force punch in the same spot, shattering it completely. A quick hook around one of her legs with my foot yanked it forward, and tilted her torso back, and I slammed my elbow down into it, my other hand on top to add force to it.

She smashed into the ground with possibly excessive force, and an involuntary yell of pain escaped from her lips. I immediately raised my leg to stomp on her knee and break her leg, but I was interrupted by a loud bellow.

“Guys!” yelled a familiar voice from over by the entrance. “I'm back!”

I looked over in shock, to see Foresight and Stonewall standing by the entrance. I stared blankly for a moment, mouth agape. That… motherfucker. He'd actually done something productive for once in his life.

“ARE YOU FUCKING KIDDING ME?!” Fog bellowed from the ground below. Oh right. I turned back to her and kicked down at her knee, but she'd already jetted away along the ground, still flat on her back. I cursed silently, but it didn't actually matter. That made as good a cue as any.

I raised a hand to my ear, activating my earpiece (and not even considering the possibility that it might not work until later). “Freefall?” I asked.

Her voice clicked onto the line. “Already on my way,” she said over the sound of the wind.

Yeah. You'd forgotten about her, hadn't you?

“Understood,” said another voice over the line. It was Void, sounding perfectly calm, and I looked up to see her tank a hit from Comet, leaving scorch marks on her costume. “Skew?” she said, not even sounding slightly perturbed. “Please remember that I’m calling the shots.”

“Right, sorry,” I said, abashed.

“It's fine,” she said cheerily. “Outliers, buddy system!”

Yeah, we had a plan called the buddy system. We may be dysfunctional, but we have occasional moments of brilliance.

There wasn't a hard and fast system, but Tide made the most sense as my buddy, so I ran back towards her. She'd had the same idea, and we met halfway. Instance was following her more slowly, obviously wary.

“Centre of the square?” she asked immediately, and I nodded. “How long?”

“Five,” said Freefall's voice over the line. Tide spun and curled a hand upwards in a grasping motion, and a meter-high oblong lump of concrete pulled itself out of the ground in between us and the centre of the square. The two of us dived behind it, just in time for everything to go white.

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Patreon!

So hey! Big(-ish) news. If you hadn't guessed by the title of this post, Outliers is on Patreon now! That's pretty neat, right? Right?

Real talk though. There is a goal on there for three updates a week, and I am 100% not expecting that to get met. Like, ever. It's just there for posterity, because in my current schedule, that's the amount of money I think I'd need to be able to justify putting aside the time to do more updates. My schedule may change, and the number will go up and down. And I've said it before and I'll say it again: the current update schedule is what I'm doing for $0 a month and no ads. I'm not going to start holding updates for ransom.

However, I do need to have some form of incentive system set up. If you head over there right now (by clicking the big button on the sidebar, or up in the menu), you'll see that the latest update is already posted over there. Now, for the last couple of months, I've been a bit free with the update times: although it says midnight, I just put it up when it's done. Now what's going to happen is I'm going to revert to putting posts up here at midnight, and when they're done over at Patreon. So supporters will get to see posts just a leeetle bit earlier, just a few hours. (to clarify, they're not all going to be as early as today's, that was just an unexpected bout of productivity). So if you pledge $5 or more, you get access to that feature. If you're pledging less than that, thank you, I appreciate your support more than you can possibly know. As such, I will begin posting bonus content on the Patreon, available to all supporters. It won't be consistent, but it'll be stuff like art, backstory, maybe even a bonus chapter here and there. I'm also considering setting up a monthly poll to decide what the bonus content is, but we'll see.

Anyway, that's pretty much it. If you enjoy Outliers, consider supporting it! Or don't, and just keep reading and voting. Or don't even do that! It's up to you.

Fight 15-IV

Too Little Too Late.

Oh, I should've done the Roadrunner noise! That would’ve been way funnier!

Dammit.

Tide and Flatline seemed to be having the most trouble, so I headed towards them, Chain close on my heels. I let his chain spool out in my hand as I approached, ‘til it was a decent swinging length. I didn't really know how to use it, but then again, I don't really think he did either.

In a cloud of translucent smoke, Instance appeared in front of me, a corresponding cloud dispersed by one of Tide's waves where he'd been standing a second ago. He pointed, and a shockwave, one of Awestruck’s, rippled out, smashing chunks out of Tide's hastily-raised shield. Without missing a beat, he clapped his hands together, and she and Flatline were both flung into the air as gravity warped in a spike that I felt a full ten meters away. A finger gun, and a perfect sphere of bright purple water materialized out of thin air in front of him, shooting towards the two of them as they hit the ground. A hasty wave of steel flung them out of the way just in time, and they rolled gracelessly across the ground. Tide slapped the ground as she did, sending another swell rushing towards Instance, and by extension, me.

The hero tapped his foot against the ground, and an identical wave shot forward, meeting halfway. Where they collided, they acted like real waves, cancelling each other out and sending smaller ripples out to the sides.

Christ, he was ridiculously good. It was actually kind of scary.

I caught Flatline's eyes as he rolled onto his feet, and gestured for him to come over to me. He nodded, turned and snapped something at Tide, and ran forward. Behind him, she touched the ground, and a straight wave rolled up behind him, picking him up and carrying him forward towards us. Instance flicked his hand, and a gust of wind came roaring in from the side, but he'd misjudged the speed, and it missed Flatline by a hair’s breath. As the wave ended and Flatline dived forward, he surrounded himself with a shimmering forcefield and stepped to the side, but he wasn't the target. I mirrored Instance’s move, and Flatline came up out of roll almost directly in front of a very surprised Chain. We nodded as we passed each other, an affirmation of the switch of targets. It was moments like this, and Tide's seamless transition into it, that really made me appreciate my team.

So, then. How was I going to handle the guy whose power list seemed to be 'all of them’?

The obvious big one was not to use my power. He had enough to throw against me without adding my tricks to it. Besides, I'd seen how irritating my power could be, and I was in no hurry to be on the opposite end of that.

So my assets. I had all my copious skill, strength and wit (hah), Tide’s ability to control the terrain, and about five feet of heavy metal chain links.

Oh, and a gun.

Snicker-snack goes the blade, slicing through the Gordian knot.

I drew and fired, centre mass, perfect form, everything on point. It didn't work, obviously, but at least I failed right.

The bullets all swerved around him, sparking as they buried themselves in the floor around him. That… that was Ricochet’s power. I couldn't explain it, but there was something intensely wrong about that.

Right. Her power didn't work well on stuff with lots of mass, or things that were moving slowly, or both. So I threw the gun at him, overhand. It was a flawless plan, except he didn't try and use her power on it. Instead, he just stepped to the side and let it fly past.

And then a wave of steel rose up from the ground and knocked him off his feet.

Tide gave me a thumbs up as he tumbled, and I nodded and grinned. The message was clear: she'd keep him off-balance while I tried to take him down.

Okay, go time. I had to figure out some way of taking him out if the fight without getting up close, because, for all I knew, he had a copy of Flatline's power stored in there somewhere. The chain should be able to help with that.

Experimentally, I whipped the chain forward at him, trying to snap it against his chest. Unfortunately, I didn't actually know how to do that, so it just sort of ineffectually flailed forward. It bounced weakly off his arm while he pushed himself upwards, and he stared confusedly at it as it flopped to the ground.

“Was that… supposed to do something?” he asked, bemused.

I shrugged. “Cut me some slack, it's my first time.”

He made a little ‘fair enough’ sort of expression, then slapped the ground with one hand. Sparks flew and the chain yanked itself out of my grasp with a little jolt, but other than that, nothing happened.

He pursed his lips. “Rubber soles?”

Oh, that was supposed to electrocute me. I glanced down at my heavy boots. “Huh. Apparently!”

“Lucky you.” He wasn't even being sarcastic. Another wave rolled towards him, from a slightly different direction, but he flipped into his feet with unprecedented agility, dodging it. It knocked the chain into the air, and I quickly snatched it back. Over Instance’s shoulder, I saw Tide, making a gesture that I guessed to mean 'big’. No prizes as to what she was talking about. I nodded my understanding, and turned my attention back to Instance.

“So how many of these powers do you even have, anyway?” I asked, taking slow steps to the side. He matched my movement, posture relaxed and unconcerned.

“Come on, man,” he said easily, “you don't really think I’m going to actually tell you that?”

“Nah,” I acknowledged, “but it couldn't hurt to try, right?”

He opened his mouth, and I almost missed the little flick he made with his hand.

Time slowed.

The colors of the room washed out to shades of grey as my vision shifted, monochrome grading surrounded by the smokey haze of potential energy. And… hmm. That was new. I could see splashes of other colors in the corners of my eyes, where the other Outliers and Guardians fought, and in the meters-high wave of steel rolling towards me and Instance (a deep, rich purple). Before, I'd only ever seen yellow, and only when I used my power. I'd never seen it from others: it didn't take a genius to figure out that the different colors must've been representative of different types of powers, whatever those types were.

The air in front of the hero was quickly gaining a blue tint, and it deepened and darkened as a large mass of a gooey substance, almost as tall as me, materialized. The silvery lines through it showed clearly that it was aimed at me, and I began readying my power to redirect it.

A particularly violent streak of color caught my eye, and I turned my head to see the tumbling, thrashing whirlwind of purple and muddied brown that was Ribbon and Stump. An idea began to gestate in my mind. If they kept on that course, spun like that, and I was reading the energy correctly, then… yep, that'd work.

It seemed to take an almost painfully long time for the blob of goo to reach the point I needed it to be at. That was new, too; the time dilation had always been more of a sensation than an actual effect the few times this had happened before. When it finally did, I whacked it with my power, engulfing it in yellow and redirecting it off to the side. It shot along its new course, the speed dragging it into a comet-like teardrop shape, and slammed- no, squished, right into Stump.

If there had been anyone but myself around to high-five, I totally would've. I'd nailed the timing, and the gunk had almost completely engulfed the hero’s form and barely touched Ribbon. His movements ceased almost immediately, the tendrils of wood thrashing futilely against the sticky substance. Ribbon withdrew her form slightly, making herself more compact, and began tearing away at the parts of him that weren't covered, making a lot more progress now that most of him couldn't move.

Instance glanced at that with an irritated expression, one that quickly morphed into shock as I charged him, swinging the chain wildly. He raised both hands as I flicked the chain at him, letting it spin through the air. It immediately halted, hovering in mid-air. Magnetism, probably. What a fancy bag of tricks he had.

He launched the chain back the way it came, but I wasn't there any more. I gave him a jaunty wave as I ran past him, then leant forward so I wouldn't be off-balance as the ground rose beneath my feet. I rode the wave as it barreled through our position, dropping once I reached the peak and sliding down the back side of it.

“Brave, brave, brave Sir Flint, brave Sir Flint ran away,” I sang, poorly. Thankfully, no-one heard it, because the deafening crash of breaking glass drowned it out. Chain had just thrown Vortex (when had those two started fighting?) straight through the giant glass doors at the entrance, sending him tumbling down the steps into the courtyard outside.

Okay then. Phase 3.

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Fight 15-III

When They Fight.

Years of training, and about a year and a half of throwing myself into dangerous situations as a hobby, were the only things that kept me from being impaled. My flinch instincts had been set off by the fire alarm, so I was already moving when a spear of ice the size of my arm materialized in front of Fog and hurtled towards where I'd been standing a second ago. I stepped fully out of the way, and would've just let it fly past, except we were surrounded by a crowd of civilians. I whipped a hand out, lashing my power around it and sending it smashing lengthways into the ground. What an idiot. That could've killed someone.

Before I could muster up any action, a compact sphere of crushed ice smashed into Fog from the side, knocking her out of the air with a startled yelp. Thank you, Ivan. His forcefields could catch projectiles and send them right back as a compacted lump. Very useful. Fog must've sent those spears at everyone, which meant she'd had them prepared beforehand. And that meant she'd had time to plan, and she still hadn't thought it through at all.

Something cold wrapped around my ankle, and my leg was jerked out from underneath me. I hit the ground, hands absorbing the impact, and looked down to see Chain’s namesake weapon encircling it. It began dragging me back towards him, moving on its own accord in his grip. The floor was smooth and slick, so I couldn't get a grip to work against it. His powers were… enhanced reflexes and touch-range telekinesis, with some kind of twist I couldn't quite remember. That was why he used the chain, because he could move the whole thing just by holding one end. Clever, probably the child of a focus group or something. It probably also gave him increased strength, because he wouldn't have to use his muscles.

Trying to push against it wasn't doing me any good, so I went with the flow instead. Going limp for a brief second, I waited for the increased pull of the chain as the resistance disappeared. As it jerked forward, I pushed myself up with the motion, flying up back onto my feet and quickly charging forward, trying to slam my knee into his chest.

Unfortunately for me, he had enhanced reflexes, and I still had the chain around my ankle. It yanked me to the side, sending me sprawling in a rather undignified fashion. He sprang forward, hand outstretched, probably trying to get a grip so he could toss me around like a ragdoll. I gritted my teeth as I readied my power. I was still recovering from our encounter with Valiant earlier, and although my physical body had been artificially brought back to peak, my power stores were still low, and I'd already used some deflecting that ice spear.

A quick foray told me that Chain himself was holding too much power for me to affect him: the bar-of-soap feeling was in full effect. I could maybe break it, but it'd take everything left in the tank, and leave me probably worse off than him. The chain, though, had significantly less. It was starting to become irritating, how much I was having to use my power like a blunt instrument rather than for its intended purpose.

The bubble of power around the steel links shattered as I hit it with a burst of unfocused energy. It felt like someone had driven a very tiny icepick into my brain just next to my left temple, and it looked like it had the same effect on him. He reeled back as the chain went limp and fell off my ankle, and I immediately spun into a leg sweep, trying to get him on the ground for a change. Even then, though, he was still faster than me, and he hopped over it nimbly.

I growled and pushed the offensive, leaping up and launching straight into a flurry of blows.

Jab, jab, fake knee drive into sideswipe, turn that into spinning high kick, go for a second one but turn it into a flick down at the upraised arm block, straight kick at the knee, capitalize on the step back to drive in for a blow to the core, another leg sweep but bail halfway through to take advantage of reduced mobility in the air to just land one fucking blow.

He dodged everything. Everything. Every single thing I threw at him connected with nothing but empty air. He wasn't even blocking anything; he actually missed opportunities to counterattack because of his strident insistence on not making contact. That was important, for some reason. I was just a little too busy to remember why.

I kept pressing the attack, because at least keeping him on the defensive was better than nothing. But he seemed to be getting faster every second, until it was barely like he was dodging me and more like he just... wasn't there any more. Angry and frustrated, I made a mistake, overbalanced, and he stepped back as the chain whipped up and-

A whirling mass of brown nearly bowled him over as it flew past, followed shortly after by an equally-whirling ball of fabric. Ribbon tore into Stump, her form barely visible in the centre of the maelstrom as she tore chunks out of the wooden hero. Stump was getting a few in himself, but Ribbon was giving better than she was getting. Or, so it seemed at first. It quickly became apparent, though, that Stump was regrowing, at unnatural speed. His form was staying a constant size despite the damage being done, but those strips of fabric he was tearing off of Ribbon weren't coming back.

There was nothing I could do about it. I'd get torn to shreds by those two. Chain was down, but getting back up, so I took a moment to scope out the rest of the room before the tunnel vision kicked back in.

Most of the crowd had fled, either because of the fire alarm or because of the fighting. Of the few that stayed, most were cowering behind benches, pillars or other obstructions, too scared to do the logical thing and leave.

Ribbon and Stump were tearing around the room, leaving a trail of gouges and scars behind them. Fog had zeroed in on Vortex, presumably because he'd hit her, dashing around and flinging ice spears at his shields, dodging the return fire. She'd tried swamping him in a cloud of fog, it seemed, but it stuck to his shield like everything else, and he'd begun using it to conceal where his projectiles were forming before firing them. In the air above us, Void and Comet duked it out, Void jerking about in that way of hers as Comet tried to anticipate her movements in order to connect. Back on the ground, Thrust skated circles around Ricochet, blasts of red energy propelling him along on the frictionless forcefields around his shins and knees. Bullets sparked off the metal floor, or just dropped out of the air as red energy stopped them cold. Likewise, the high-pressure streams he shot back at her were directed harmlessly away by invisible tunnels of warped space. Finally, Tide and Flatline were tag teaming against Instance, who was pounding them with what looked like every different offensive power in existence. Flatline was mostly hunkering down behind the barriers Tide was raising, while she did her best to block attacks and keep Instance on his toes. And…

Where was Foresight? I whipped my head around, scanning the room, but he was nowhere to be found. And then Chain was on me again, and I didn't have time to worry about it.

He was attacking now, as fast and vicious as I had been. He wasn't as fast as he had been, oddly, but he was still faster than me, and I was having to throw myself around like a goddamn contortionist to keep ahead of him. It was really tiring, and I could feel my movements beginning to slow as I heaved heavy breaths in and out. This wasn't going to work: I needed to change tactics.

The chain whipped towards me again, and this time I caught it. As I did, I hit it with another lash of power (I was running dangerously low now), and yanked. He hadn't been expecting that, and it came free of his hand. I quickly wrapped it around mine, leaving only a few links free.

And then I blew a raspberry, flipped him off and sprinted in the opposite direction.

He definitely hadn't been expecting that.

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Fight 15-II

Just Can’t Let It Go.

Ooh, Flint, you're really in it now, aren't you? The heroes are here! You're in trou-ble!

That's you. That my imitation of you right now. You're very annoying.

I put on my best award-winning smile, and tried not to let my fingers twitch. Or my eyes, for that matter. “Well, hey, look who it is! What are you guys doing here?” Don't attack the heroes, Flint, don't attack the heroes, do not. attack. the heroes.

Yet.

They made an impressive sight, the six of them, in their fancy little formation and their fancy little suits. Fog, especially, looked like she belonged at a fancy dress party more than her current situation. I guess that was supposed to be ironic, considering previous encounters had taught me she was a horrid bitch, through and through. The only ones who looked like they were dressed for anything even close to a fight were Stump, obviously, and Chain, who had dinged and scratched navy armor and a Judge Dredd-esque helmet over a Steelsilk jumpsuit. He actually would've fit right in with the Outliers, looks-wise. The thick-linked chain in his hand coiled on the ground below, snaking around and occasionally flicking back and forth, like… well, like a snake. It was interesting how you could tell he was on edge because of it, despite he himself being the picture of stoicism. They all had it, to some degree (except Instance): I could see tiny strands of grey constantly appearing and disappearing around Fog’s hands, tiny sparks of ghostly flames hovered near Comet’s skin, Stump’s body was writhing and slithering around on itself, and the forcefields around Thrust’s shins kept flickering in and out of existence.

And you know what? I was pretty happy with that. Angry and/or nervous meant they were likely to make stupid mistakes-

Not that it mattered, because if we were fighting them, things had gone horribly wrong. Rein it in, I chided myself.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” I said with fake cheer. “Wave for the cameras, guys and gals!” The crowd obligingly focused in on us, which may have been the nicest thing anyone had ever done for me.

Comet made an irate little noise. “Instance,” she snapped, and her lackey nodded, waving his hand in a lackadaisical fashion.

A wave of confused murmurs passed over the crowd, as all of their electronic devices suddenly became worth about as much as a cardboard prop. The noise quickly turned to anger, and I let myself get my hopes up, before Instance headed that off at the pass. “Don't worry, everyone,” he called out, sounding remarkably relaxed, “they'll work fine when you get home.” The murmuring died down, and I almost sighed. So much for that.

“So,” said Comet, apparently deigning to speak now that she wasn't being held accountable, “you must be Skew. We have not met yet, so I have to ask. Do I speak to you, or just directly address the hand up your rear?” She glanced over at where Void stood, arms folded.

“I'm fine having him speak for me, thanks!” she replied cheerily.

“And that would make you Comet,” I replied. Truth be told, I was a little off-balance. I hadn't expected her to come off the ropes swinging, and I definitely hadn't expected her to know about our leadership status. “Or I hope you are, because that outfit’s bad enough already without it being thematically inappropriate. Besides, I don't think you get to talk. Are these five just here to look pretty, or do they serve drinks too?”

She ignored the jabs (which was a shame, I could go for a good jab-off). “What is this?” she asked instead. “Why are you here, doing this? We assumed you were smarter than this.”

“Oh, really? That's so nice!” I said sarcastically. “Good to know you creepy fuckers have profiles on us. But I don't know what you're talking about: we're just here to return some lost property. And now that we've done that, I think we'll just be going now. Get out of your hair.” We had no intention of doing anything of the sort, of course.

Comet shook her head. “Absolutely not. That money is an incredibly sensitive matter, and you're going to tell us exactly how and why you acquired it.”

“Really?” I said, naively. “Money is a sensitive matter? But you guys have so much of it!”

She glanced at Instance, who sighed and nodded. He raised a hand and twisted it, and all the background noise suddenly vanished, replaced with a hint of rushing wind. Huh. Neat trick. I turned towards the others, who were looking with concern, and gave them a thumbs-up. Didn't want them interrupting.

“The datapad. And do not even try to play coy with me. Where is it?”

“Hey, you wanna hear something funny?” I said instead, folding my arms and relaxing my stance. Without sound, it was important to communicate that I was not being aggressive to anyone outside. We did some investigating, you know, that thing that people do instead of just throwing accusations out on national television?”

“Accusations that proved to be correct,” Stump snapped at me. His voice was hollow and echo-y, and would probably be kind of spooky. If you were five, and a scaredy-cat.

“Oh ho, the cronies speak!” I crowed. “Bet you're getting put in the time-out corner for that one later. And bzzt, incorrect. At least let me finish my story. So anyway, we did some investigating and found where that datapad actually came from in the first place. And, funnily enough, it had absolutely nothing to do with the Tower. Isn't that weird? It's especially weird because you guys are acting like it belongs to you. So, I don't think I see any reason I should tell you a damn thing.” A thought occurred to me. “It was actually the Cabal that stole it in the first place, by the way. If you feel like directing your anger towards something productive.”

Comet stared at me for a second, her face unreadable behind her helmet, then sighed. “I did not want to have to do this,” she said, pulling something out from her belt. It unfolded into a rectangle, and a screen flickered into life inside.

On the screen was Stonewall, sitting in a cell.

Ice ran through my veins, and any sense of calm I had evaporated in an instant. “Let. Him. Go. Now.

She pretended to consider it. “Hmm. Yes, I will release the criminal I have legally detained, because his fellow criminal told me to. That makes sense.”

I was in no mood for jokes. “Let me be perfectly clear. We came here in peace, and planned to leave in peace. But if you don't release him, that can change.”

Suddenly, there was a pop, and the background noise came flooding back in. Surprised, I turned to find Void approaching us. “That's enough of that, I think.”

“They have Stonewall,” I said immediately to her, ignoring the surprised reactions from the Guardians.

I could see a frown in her posture, and could tell she was about to say something-

And then the fire alarm went off, and all hell let loose. 

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